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Cash, Credit or Painting? How, and Why, Artists Exchange Work

By Megan O’Grady

Portraits of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, from 1964. The two exchanged works early on in their friendship.
Francis Bacon, “Three Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud,” 1964, [CR 64-01], oil on canvas, © The Estate of Francis Bacon, all rights reserved/DACS, London/ARS N.Y. 2019
Portraits of Lucian Freud by Francis Bacon, from 1964. The two exchanged works early on in their friendship.

In 1966, Bob Dylan visited Andy Warhol’s Factory studio in Midtown Manhattan and sat — saturnine, gnostic, impossibly young — for a Screen Test, one of the short film portraits Warhol started making in 1964 of a number of celebrities, including Dennis Hopper and Edie Sedgwick. Star-struck by his subject, Warhol offered Dylan a painting: a 1963 silk-screened portrait of Elvis Presley, of whom Dylan once said, “Hearing him for the first time was like busting out of jail.” (The portrait, ironically, is taken from a publicity still of Elvis from the Western film “Flaming Star,” in which he looks very sheriff-like.) Dylan accepted the painting — but was then faced with the problem of manoeuvring the nearly seven-foot-long canvas into his station wagon. Finally, he tied it to the roof with the help of his friend, the filmmaker Barbara Rubin. Later, when the artist asked Dylan about the painting, the musician admitted that he’d given it to his manager. “But if you gave me another one, Andy, I wouldn’t make that mistake again,” Dylan reportedly said. Only later did Warhol find out that Dylan had traded the canvas for a sofa. The painting now hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The last so-called “Ferus Type” Elvis to appear at auction — Warhol made 23 of them in total — was sold at Christie’s for $53 million in May. On the fate of the sofa, the record is silent.

There has long existed an informal system of exchange between creative people, a reciprocity born of mutual admiration, camaraderie or rivalry — and sometimes, a potently ambivalent mix of all three. Pablo Picasso traded work with his great frenemy Henri Matisse; Paul Gauguin with Vincent van Gogh. Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, devoted friends, gave each other small paintings for birthdays and Christmas. Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, combative yet close for 25 years, exchanged portraits they’d made of each other before they finally had an irreparable falling out. Swapping work, even for the fondest of pals, can be tricky: There’s ego involved, and the fear of rejection, not to mention logistical concerns of transport and storage; with the middleman eliminated, the rules tend to be fluid, sometimes unnervingly so, given the vertiginous stakes of the commercial art market. Who’s to say whose work will be worth more in a dozen years? Works of art, as Gertrude Stein famously said, are always either priceless or worthless.

But at a time in which the art world has become more corporate and cutthroat, with art commanding ever-higher prices and people engaging in ever-more dubious ethics to obtain the product, the long history of trading has remained stable — and proof, above all else, that artists, by and large, are the best collectors. They are the last people to think of art as a commodity and the first to select the work they want to surround themselves with for reasons of sensibility or sentiment; a trade offers a crucial back channel to ownership that all the money in the world can hardly grant. The fact that such trades remain common among young artists feels increasingly like an anticapitalist gesture in the art world, an empowering transaction that takes place outside of the usual business despite the fact that the usual business — agents, galleries, ultrawealthy collectors — have only become more powerful since Warhol’s time. To be asked for a trade from a more established artist offers a flattering validation: Is it not the ultimate compliment to be respected by a fellow practitioner, a contemporary engaged in the same spiritual battles, rather than a moneyed collector or convention-bound critic?

Both images courtesy of the artistsLeft: Rashid Johnson’s “Love in Outer Space” (2013). Right: Matthew Day Jackson’s “Me, Dead at 35” (2009). The artists have been trading works like these with each other for years.
Left: Rashid Johnson’s “Love in Outer Space” (2013). Right: Matthew Day Jackson’s “Me, Dead at 35” (2009). The artists have been trading works like these with each other for years.

At its best, a trade between artists is a mutual affirmation of artistic identity, a way of reifying the nonmaterial, often subconscious transmission of ideas. The stories such trades tell, then, can illuminate the subtle, mysterious contours of inspiration and self-definition. But as with all things involving complex psychodynamics, this isn’t always so straightforward in practice. Picasso and Matisse’s creative one-upmanship resulted in some of Modernism’s great stylistic breakthroughs — it is unlikely Picasso would have painted his landmark “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” or found his way to Cubism, without the older artist’s influence — and prompted a trade in 1907, a time at which both artists were exploring new modes of painting inspired to a great degree by African statuary and masks. But when each invited the other to choose a canvas from their respective studios, Matisse chose Picasso’s still life “Pitcher, Bowl and Lemon” (1907) while Picasso chose a small portrait of Matisse’s beloved 13-year-old daughter, Marguerite — on the face of it, a strikingly personal piece for Picasso to have selected. It has been said that Picasso encouraged friends to use it as a dart board, but for the rest of his life, the painting occupied a place in his home, an ambiguous touchstone.

Art history is indeed rife with tales of swaps gone terribly awry, most infamously when Édouard Manet took a knife to the painting his old friend Edgar Degas had made for him in the 1860s — a portrait of Manet and his wife, Suzanne, that perhaps all too accurately conveyed a sense of marital ennui. (Degas subsequently returned Manet’s gift of a still life of plums.) In 1980, when David Salle and Julian Schnabel arranged to trade paintings, Salle gave Schnabel a diptych, which Schnabel took home and customized, reversing the panels and painting a sullen portrait of Salle on top — and then presented it back to Salle as the fulfilment of his side of the deal. “I’ve done something that will join us together in art history!” Schnabel reportedly said.

It’s likely that humans have been giving each other creative work in some fashion or another since ancient times — my clay pot for your buffalo figurine — but perhaps Western art’s earliest documented trades took place during the Renaissance, around 1515, when Raphael gave Albrecht Dürer a drawing in red chalk, “Studies for Three Standing Men,” that currently hangs in Vienna’s Albertina Museum; it bears an inscription by Dürer that proudly explains its provenance. Dürer’s gift to Raphael, a self-portrait in gouache on silk canvas, has been lost, and the full extent of their friendship isn’t known, but Dürer, who had a habit of seeking out famous Italian painters he admired, was the likely initiator. The exchange was hailed by German Romantics as key evidence of a longstanding dialogue between German and Italian artists, but it also seems revealing of a certain kind of personality: that of an artist extrovert, someone who has an eye on his or her fellow practitioners, who nurtures their own creative instinct by surrounding themselves with the work of others. (A contemporary analogue might be Sol LeWitt, who before dying in 2007, proposed many trades, even with artists he didn’t know personally, and maintained a large — and notably nonhierarchical — art collection.)

Some trades are, of course, baldly transactional. Many artists have paid restaurant tabs with canvases, like Picasso did in 1905 with “Au Lapin Agile,” named for the cabaret and bar he frequented. (It sold in 1989 for $40 million, enough to keep all of us in absinthe for a lifetime.) Salvador Dalí, who had a habit of paying bills of all kinds with personal checks — he’d doodle on them, knowing it was unlikely they’d ever be cashed — gave his dermatologist several works in gratitude for treatment. The dipsomaniacal German artist Martin Kippenberger traded art for food and drink on a grand scale, lining Berlin’s Paris Bar with canvases before he died of alcohol-related liver cancer at 44. (Trading one’s liver for one’s art is something of a pattern across all creative endeavours.) The installation-art pioneer Edward Kienholz took this line of thinking of art as product to its logical conclusion in 1969, at Los Angeles’s Eugenia Butler Gallery, in what came to be known as the “Barter Show,” for which he stamped rectangles of watercoloured paper with amounts of money or objects — “a fur coat,” “10 screwdrivers,” “$109” — they could be traded for, highlighting the often arbitrary-seeming valuation of art.

But these days, exchanges of work between contemporaries tend to be less purely motivated by acquisition and arise more naturally from feelings of collegiality. After being introduced by the curator Thelma Golden in the early ’90s, Lorna Simpson and Glenn Ligon became fast friends and began exchanging gifts of their work: For Simpson’s daughter’s first birthday, Ligon presented her with a small oil-stick-and-coal-dust painting that quoted Zora Neale Hurston, the author after whom Simpson’s daughter is named. “I remember the very day that I became coloured,” it reads. “Glenn is unbelievably generous,” says Simpson, “and things that we’ve done for one another over the course of time mark the milestones. It hasn’t been so much ‘Oh! Let’s do a trade.’ It’s more, ‘I’d really like for you to have this.’”

Left: Courtesy of Thelma Golden. Right: (Back of painting) Glenn Ligon, “Untitled,” 1999, courtesy of Zora Simpson CasebereLeft: Glenn Ligon with Lorna Simpson’s daughter, Zora, and a 1999 version of his painting “Untitled (I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored).” Right: the back of the canvas, with his dedication to her.
Left: Glenn Ligon with Lorna Simpson’s daughter, Zora, and a 1999 version of his painting “Untitled (I Remember the Very Day That I Became Colored).” Right: the back of the canvas, with his dedication to her.

As a writer, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of envy. No matter how good we are, David Adjaye, the star architect who has helped design studios for Simpson, Chris Ofili and others, is unlikely to propose a plan for our next office in exchange for an incisive 1,500-word think piece. The very materiality of visual art — its implicit singularity and primacy — is what creates the desire to possess it; living with a work, it is possible to inhabit, with an intimacy that can be surprising, the mind space of another artist. “There is something about owning an art object that enables a different kind of access,” the sculptor and installation artist Jessica Stockholder tells me, referring to the Bernard Frize painting, “Suite à Onze No. 2,” she’s had in her living room for the last 10 years: a mesmerizing white canvas with a single line coiling in and around itself and changing hues at regular intervals, creating an illusion of depth. “He proposed a trade, and it was really flattering because I’d never met him, and his work was so different than mine.” (Both Stockholder and the French painter show at Galerie Nächst St. Stephan in Vienna; Frize currently has a show at Perrotin gallery in New York.) Frize chose a large sculpture of Stockholder’s: an assemblage of yellow cushions, blue tarps and red measuring cups. In this case, it was the trade that ignited a friendship, rather than the other way around: They’ve been close ever since.

This kind of ongoing conversation, an ambition-stoking, view-enlarging exchange of ideas about art’s potential, is, surely, the dream — one that puts the lie to the romantic stereotype of the solitary artist, alone against the world. “It’s kind of like having a ski buddy,” says Matthew Day Jackson of his friendship with the artist Rashid Johnson. “You’re there going skiing together to make sure the other is safe, but at the same time, if they’re doing something cool, it’s like, ‘Whoa, look at that, that’s beautiful.’” Both artists have embraced a kind of post-medium sensibility — they use esoteric materials, like black soap in Johnson’s case, or prosthetic limbs for Jackson. They began trading work when they were both represented by the Nicole Klagsbrun gallery in New York about 10 years ago. Since then, they’ve exchanged work of increasing seriousness, establishing parameters such as size or medium in advance. Recently, both artists were exploring fire and wood, resulting in large-format flat works; Johnson traded “Safe Travels” — an oblong of wood branded with circles — for a piece titled “August 6, 1945,” depicting the city of Hamburg. The latter, a spectacular 8-by-10-foot-long work of burned wood and lead, currently hangs in the entryway to the Manhattan home Johnson shares with his wife, the artist Sheree Hovsepian, and their young son.

“Everyone who comes over to my house will ask, ‘Did you make this?’” says Johnson. “And I always have to shamefully admit that I didn’t. It’s a really healthy jealousy that I have of an object. I live with it, and I love it. I probably borrow from it; it’s about abstraction and place and reimagined histories. It’s a great work, and I’m really proud to have it in my home.” Trading with artists he respects, according to Johnson, “is born of a real aspiration to live with their objects and to keep my own thinking in a place where I feel like I’m investigating the art of my time.” Art-making is always some form of faith, a private foray into parts unknown; reaching a hand out, then, feels like not only an investment in another artist’s work but in the larger human struggle to innovate, to find new ways of expressing beauty, meaning and what we call originality. To this, Johnson adds, “If you want to be an artist, you have to really love art, you know?”