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

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?”

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