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Making it in New York - what the young artist faces

By Theodore F. Wolff / November 4, 1981

New York

Few, if any, artists starve these days. Even so, a professional commitment to art is still neither simple nor easy. Of the hundreds or even thousands of youngsters stampeding into New York every year to become artists, a dozen at most will establish modest reputations - among their peers. Two or three will possibly become known to a few curators, critics, collectors, and dealers.

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And one, after a few years, may actually have a successful exhibition in a major gallery.

All of them will work very hard, will do all they can to become more knowledgeable about art, to become better artists, to make valuable contacts, to stimulate interest in their work. At the same time, they will have to work at generally low-paying, menial jobs to survive. Yet the sad fact is that it is extremely unlikely that even one of them will make it into the ''big time,'' or, if he or she does, make it ''big'' enough to be remembered 10 or 15 years after first arriving in New York.

It's that tough.

On the other hand, it's by no means hopeless. Although the highest levels of success may be difficult to achieve, there are any number of career possibilities open to those willing to go through the highly competitive rigors of ''making it'' in America's art center, New York. I would recommend that anyone eager to try it in New York do so.

I would also recommend caution. To begin with, the New York art world is already saturated with talent, and simply doesn't need any more paintings, sculptures, prints - or whatever. Any newcomer hoping for gallery space will have to try to push aside dozens of other artists with one foot already ''in the door.'' And he will himself, then, a year or so later, have to fend off the next batch of youngsters descending upon New York for fame and fortune.

Even if our young artist comes to New York with enough money to rent one of the uptown ''vanity'' galleries for two to four weeks (for a fee that can run into several thousand dollars), very little will be accomplished. Critics and curators tend to ignore these galleries.

Such critical and collector avoidance is generally also the fate of art shown in artist-run cooperative galleries, for the good reason that most of that art is second-rate. Sooner or later, anyone coming to New York to try to make a go as an artist is confronted by a major decision: He must decide which is more important, his art or success.

If it's success, he must learn ruthlessly to hustle both himself and his art. If it's art, he must face the fact that his chances of significant professional success are extremely slight. By the latter I mean acknowledgment by the important tastemaking elements of the art world that he truly exists as an artist and not merely that he sells a great deal, or has exhibited frequently.

I know this must sound too harsh and arbitrary. Surely an artist can remain perfectly true to his art and still try for success. I agree. My point is not that he cannot (or should not) focus on both, only that he should decide which takes precedence.

If he is desperate for success above all, he will adapt his art into whatever shape is required to win approval. If, however, his creative ideals come first, he will do his best to see that nothing deters him from fulfilling them, and his art, as a result, will probably evolve in a consistent manner from early gropings to final creative maturity.

The two goals can be widely divergent. There is a world of difference between Mondrian, for instance, who forged ahead following only his intuitions and the logic of his intellect, and Andy Warhol, whose very identity is defined by modern concepts of publicity and success.