Making it in New York - what the young artist faces

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.

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.

The alternative to not establishing career priorities right from the start is a possible lifetime of confused gropings and directional shifts - both creative and professional. A young artist approaching New York should see himself much as though he were a general confronting an opposing army. In such a situation it pays to know precisely who and what one is, where one is going, and the price one is willing to pay for victory or success. It sounds simple, but I would hazard an educated guess that barely one out of 100 youngsters coming to New York has that clear an idea of what he is doing - or why he is doing it. As a result, at the end of five years or so, the vast majority will have left art for something else, or will have returned home.

There will also be a considerable number who will remain as satellites of the ''greats.'' For these, life will consist of the fact that they can call Robert Rauschenberg ''Bob,'' that at one time they stretched Larry Poons's canvases, that they once had dinner with Roy Lichtenstein, or that Jasper Johns calls them by their first name.Although they will continue to work at their art, it will gradually become less and less their own and become a common denominator of whatever their current heroes are up to. Before they know it, they will have become a part of that nebulous and somewhat sad art subculture whose members attend all the important openings, are seen at all the ''in'' parties, cannot finish a sentence without ''dropping'' at least one important name, and who yet look somewhat lost. Even the act of trying to interest galleries in his work can be a devastating experience for the youngster fresh out of art school, where he was considered something of a whiz - and obviously in line for great things. Things have improved a bit. Galleries are, by and large, willing once again to at least look at the artist's slides, photographs, and resumes. But the chances of ending up with a scheduled show are practically nil. The best he can realistically hope for is that a few of his pieces will be kept on consignment. If our young artist has very positive ideas as to what constitutes art (and what young artist doesn't?), he will probably only be interested in those galleries that reflect his own point of view. If he is extreme, the idea of exhibiting in any other gallery - and thus contaminating his work forever through association with ''unclean'' art - will most likely fill him with horror. The only problem is that the galleries he most respects are almost certainly already overstocked with established names. So what is he to do?One solution lies with the various younger dealers whose galleries are not yet major ones, but whose open attitude, knowledge, integrity, and taste argue strongly that someday they will be. One of these is Takis Efstathiou, whose Ericson Gallery on East 74th Street has dealt primarily with younger and more innovative artists for a little over three years. Although small, the Ericson stands out as one of the very few places north of SoHo and 57th Street where one can see the newer and more starkly painterly images emerging at this time. The Ericson Gallery's current exhibition features Edith Newhall, one of the most talented and promising of its artists, and one of the ever-increasing number of young women artists whose work , I suspect, will soon have a considerable impact upon the art of the 1980s. This show, her second at this gallery (and in New York), consists of extremely handsome paintings whose formal severity derives from a reductive process that reminds one vaguely of Hartley and Avery. And yet these works are totally her own, with subtle allusions conjuring up memories of nautical themes and events. Her color is luminous, with a particularly lovely pink dominating throughout, and with blacks that are as rich and full as any color. It's a lovely show. But it isn't only Edith Newhall's paintings that I like. I also admire her attitude toward her career and toward the art world in general: clearsighted, idealistic, yet intensely practical. She gives me a strong sense of confidence in her future as an artist. At the Ericson Gallery through Nov. 28.

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