What strikes us about Lucien Smith’s career, the art world Wunderkind - as the New York Times described him in 2014 - is the fulgurance of it. In 2011, at the age of 22, he graduated from the Cooper Union School of Art. Two years later, one of his works from his graduate show sold for $389,000, making auction history. At the age of 25, he had already been listed twice in the Forbes list of 30 under 30 and has already made millions from his art. But attention can be perverse and with it comes its load of criticism.
Lucien addressed the pressure in a TEDxTALK at Columbia University where he discussed his role as a painter, accepting failure and the extreme pressure he felt from having this opportunity in the spotlight. But today, as we discuss with the artist, this chaotic time seems like a lifetime ago. We meet Lucien in Montauk, at the easternmost point of Long Island. It is in the midst of nature that the artist has set his new home, to create and reconnect, to escape the city and thereby its attention and expectations. He tells us about his stance on the contemporary world, the simple life in the countryside and how he feels like a real artist now.
Semaine: Why do you do what you do?
Lucien: That is quite a jump into it [he laughs]. Let’s see...well it wasn’t like a childhood dream of mine to be an artist. It came down to the fact that there was no other real opportunity exposing itself to me at a time where I was deciding what I was going to do with my life and it just seemed like the most suitable, most approachable and most positive situation.
Semaine: What did you want to do when you were a kid?
Lucien: Like most kids, I wanted to be an athlete. I wanted to be a basketball player or a hockey player, football. I was really into track and field and into other sports. I was pretty good at it too but at a certain point my body physically was not developing as fast as other kids my age and slowly it became more and more clear to me that this dream of mine was a ‘hoop dream’.
Semaine: Were you always interested by art?
Lucien: I was definitely always creative. I was always painting, always drawing. I always knew I had an interest in it. My parents made me exercise that. I went to the museum as a kid, and did a little bit of art history but I didn’t know about contemporary art nor about what was a contemporary artist. I didn’t know you made a career of art. I thought you’d always see it in museums. And that was that. It was around my last two years of high school that I started researching and understanding more.
Semaine: Where you a good student?
Lucien: I was never a good student. I didn’t care and my interests were not aligned with education unfortunately. I didn’t have the insight or I was arrogant about it. I wish it wasn’t the case. I didn’t do much reading. I was more interested in other stuff and I didn’t see a connection with my education. I kind of pulled it together during my last years of high school and I got into Cooper Union which was an amazing opportunity. Going to art school, as prestigious as it is, and being free. And then I applied myself. My goals were suddenly aligned with the program there. I bounced in and out from immersing myself with the community. It was a good experience. I learned a lot.
Semaine: Have you always gone from one body of art to the other?
Lucien: It’s funny when people refer to my body of work. I don’t think people realize how young I actually am. That body of work is only four years of work. Literally. Which is nothing in the scale of an artist trajectory. I was 19, 20 years old, collectors and people around me, and myself included, were taking what I was doing very seriously. And I am happy for that opportunity but at the same time I am very aware of how premature my role is right now as an artist. I think that it’s healthy that I have had so much growth, change and learned so many lessons at that age. The only way I see to address your question is by saying it’s obvious that I am still experimenting and trying to find some identity within my art.
Semaine: What strikes is the fulgurance of your career. What do you think about it?
Lucien: It’s tough. It had its moments, but it’s definitely something that I would not recommend or would not wish on any other person. That speed of success at that age. If you are not equipped for it, it can be a devastating experience. I had no choice. I was desperate to do something and to find something. I was very confident in what I was doing at the time. I approached it with that energy and that demeanor. At that age no one can be so certain about what they want. I dealt with it. It helped me to accomplish the things I wanted to accomplish. There was a lot of good experiences and a lot of bad experiences. I am learning from this opportunity still today and trying to understand what I can do with that.
Semaine: Why do you think it happened?
Lucien: I think it was timing and circumstances. I was emerging - I hate the term emerging artist. I have been an emerging artist forever now. I am not emerging from anything. I have been a person, I am not being born right now [he laughs] - I was starting to become relevant at a time when the generation of artists before me were beginning to become these kind of “too big to fail” situations. Everyone was really eager to be involved with the next ‘big’ thing. I think that’s what people saw me as… I am very grateful and I believe those people were right to believe in my work. I don’t know if I was, or even am ready now to address this attention though.
Semaine: When was the pivotal moment?
Lucien: Around the time I gave that lecture was really the pivotal moment for me. That was a turning point from where I started to reverse the momentum that I had put into making art and really trying to understand. I was really confused. I spent the time until now still trying to battle with this idea of circumstances, expectations and failure and trying to find where I sit with all that. I am happy I had that time. I was able to take control and take control of what I wanted to do as an artist. Those ideas are still very relevant for me: as far as failure and seeing the good into not accomplishing one’s goal, seeing the opportunity in there to still create something.
Semaine: You said “It takes a strange thing to want to be an artist”? How would you know define it now? Is it still strange?
Lucien: The more obvious perspective, is that art is going through an evolution where it is now sort of mainstream and commercial. The idea of the starving artists is disappearing. It’s cool to make art. Like it was cool to play guitar: In the 90’s with Kurt Cobain every kid wanted to play the guitar in a grunge band, I feel it’s the same thing. If you address that and step aside from that and you just look at the second idea which is the idea of creating something and why you want to create something in a commercial art world. This idea of attention, this idea of something being cherished, and its value or its worth and wanting this approval or disapproval. It’s definitely a strange thing.
Semaine: Do you need that recognition from the art world?
Lucien: I consider myself an antisocial sort of entity. At the same time though a part of me craves this approval, whether it’s for some self-righteousness or evaluation for me to feel like I am doing something but in the most recent months I have been trying to understand why I create. When I was saying that I think I meant it’s weird to be someone who is looking for the approval of others. It can almost come from oneself. Right now, I am trying to understand why I paint. I need to be a bit selfish about it. What happens to my paintings after I make them or after I sell them isn’t a concern of mine anymore.
I first and foremost paint because like everyone else on this planet I need to survive and that’s my means of survival and the second is that it brings me pleasure. The act of painting allows for my existence. Keeps me here. Keeps me wanting to be alive and doing something.
Semaine: You said in an interview that you feel like a “real Artist” now.
Lucien: Your art is only as good as your understanding of yourself and your true self. In my early twenties I was dealing with an identity issue I think. I didn’t really know who I was therefore it was impossible for me to make art from a genuine place. My disingenuous place was my identity at the time so it made sense for me. I don’t discredit that work because it was who I was at the time–this sort of person not understanding who they were. I try to grasp that idea and try to understand who I am really and not this person I created or pretended to be. The experience of art is becoming more natural one to me and more therapeutic.
Semaine: What relationship do you have with the world of contemporary art now?
Lucien: There was some animosity at first. I had a lot of pent up anger. I felt really outcasted. I felt betrayed in a way. But it seems a bit irrelevant to me. The healthier way for me to go about it is to be concerned with the things I have power over. Certain things I have no effect on them. It doesn’t concern me. I am not concerned with being in textbooks, being in museums or being historical. It’s a contrived way of looking at things. I am not God, I can’t control any of that. The only thing I can do is enjoy what I am doing and do it for the reasons I’m doing it, which are more internal. Anything that happens in that commercial art world is not in my control.
Semaine: Is this what motivated your move to Montauk?
Lucien: Yes, that’s the antisocial side of it. This idea of isolation. It was very necessary for me these past few years to get some space and understand. Have the time to reflect and look at what I am doing without the influence of the big city or the people around me. It’s been a major help. Also being able carve my own life and what I want. This environment has been super healthy for me.
Semaine: How is it to live here?
Lucien: It’s amazing. It’s quiet. It’s like home. I always wanted to live in this nomadic way. I always wanted to be traveling and this stability has allowed me to do that. I work in LA and it’s a bit stressful to be bouncing around but anywhere I go in the world I have this craving to go back to Montauk, the place of peace that I found.
Semaine: What’s your daily life like?
Lucien: It’s simple. Surfing, eating, sleeping, thinking, the real basics.
Semaine: How do you work now? Has it changed since you were working in cities?
Lucien: It’s changed a lot in a ways. Right now I am really reflecting on that period of time: right when I left school. Trying to think a lot about those ideas. I think I owe a responsibility to them and to finish them, to see them through. And then there is this side of me with all this talk of identity. With the work coming from one’s true self and my opportunity in Montauk and trying to incorporate those things around me into my work. It’s an interesting time. It’s turning a new leaf. Those ideas were lingering there as a younger artist and are surfacing in my work now.
Semaine: Do you have a schedule when you paint?
Lucien: Not at all. I try to remove this business type of regiment. I couldn’t nor wanted the expectation to sustain a production schedule because it was taking all the energy from me. I am way more relaxed about it now and trying to allow these things to happen naturally. It causes so much anxiety with deadlines.
Semaine: Can you tell us more about the Montauk Project . That’s the name of the tower you are exploring in this video right?
Lucien: The place you see in the movie is in Camp Hero. It’s a military property that is now a state owned property that supposedly hosted those scientific experiments. Stranger Things was about that place. It’s a cultural phenomenon there. It’s funny because there is a real localism in Montauk. I feel bad about exposing and showing this tower to people. I had this rare opportunity to witness a culture that doesn’t really like to expose itself. It’s about off season lifestyle or culture that exists in Eastern Long Island and how rare it is. And in a way really American. It is one of the real American strongholds. Even geographically it is situated at the tip of Long Island.
Semaine: We heard you are also working on an artist collaboration project in LA?
Lucien: In school you have this institutional critic. This opportunity to sit around your peers and discuss art work and matters that are going on without being judged and launched in this commercial art world. And you won’t have it later. I thought that was unnecessary and that everybody should be able to have that opportunity. It’s a continuation of that conversation.
Semaine: There a series of paintings you have done with the initials STP. What does STP mean?
Lucien: That’s the group. It comes from the Civil Rights movement: from STP motors. They used that logo on banner and cross it out. It meant Serve The People or Stop The Police. Using that Corporate energy and using it for a more leftist for a liberal point of view. That’s what we were thinking: using that Corporate energy from the art world and use it and benefit the people.
Semaine: How important is this idea of transmission to other artists for you?
Lucien: You just have to be careful. In all honesty, my intentions as an artist are self righteous and selfish in a way. But I am open and there is a philanthropic side to it. I think that because of this opportunity I had, the positive and negative overload of attention, I feel some responsibility to allow other artists, and help them avoid those kind of situations.
His story is touching because it is as much a reflection on the world we live in as well as the work of an artist in within that paradigm. His success story is symptomatic of an art world that feeds from the laws of the star system. In his Montauk retreat, Lucien is continuing to paint, to think, to create but at his own rhythm, undisturbed by the expectation of the art market. He seems to have grown in depth and in maturity. There is a French saying that says: “Pour vivre heureux, Vivons cachés” - to live happy, live hidden. There is no doubt that this saying resonates in Lucien. Semaine is excited to enter his ‘new’ world.
By Marie Winckler for Semaine.