Daniel Arsham
Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli

Daniel Arsham: “It can take years to get there”

Short Profile

Name: Daniel Arsham
DOB: 8 September 1980
Place of birth: Cleveland, Ohio, United States
Occupation: Artist

Daniel Arsham's new exhibition celebrating 20 years of collaboration with Galerie Perrotin opens at Perrotin Paris September 2 – October 7 2023, and at Perrotin New York September 6 – October 21 2023.

Mr. Arsham, few contemporary artists have collaborated with as many notable names as you have. How do you go about choosing who you want to work with?

A lot of it's just based on a kinship in the working world, for example, I worked with the dancer Jonah Bokaer for many years and with the choreographer Merce Cunningham right up until he died in 2009. But sometimes you also get a feeling with different collaborators that you’re building something larger that you wouldn't have found on your own. When I worked with Pokémon, it was a hugely creative endeavor and it allowed me to bring my work into their universe, become part of that story, and engage audiences that were not necessarily familiar with my world. That’s true of the dance world as well. With brands like Adidas and Dior, I find it exciting to bring art to a place where people don’t necessarily expect to see it, they’re not expecting to be engaged in that way.

How does your art change when you’re working completely on your own?

Well, within the studio now, the only thing that I continue to work on just by myself is drawing and painting. And part of the beautiful thing for me about that, especially with drawing, is that it I am now so comfortable with it that I can get ideas out very quickly. It keeps a different sort of timescale of work in the studio because I can make a drawing in 15 minutes, but a sculpture might take six months to complete. I’m a bit neurotic about completion of things, so this allows for that kind of satisfaction of finding the end of projects in a rolling basis. It's like unwrapping gifts at your birthday every couple of weeks!

“A lot of my work comes about through accidents or failure: finding something that didn’t work, and then thinking about it in a new way. That’s the how the creative process works.”

You’ve been drawing and painting since your earliest days as an artist, right?

Oh yeah, I have a lot of drawings that are in notebooks that I've kept since I was in high school and college. And I still visit them because they are a never-ending resource for the creation of new ideas. They contain ideas that were not possible in that moment, either because I didn't have the space to show them, or because I didn't have the financial resources to cast a giant bronze piece, or because I didn’t have the technical ability for certain things. So a lot of my work often comes about through accidents or failure, probably 50 percent of my new ideas come from finding something that didn't work, and then sort of working around that and thinking about it in a new way. That's kind of the how the creative process works in the studio for me. It can take years to get there.

How often do you get to pick up those old ideas and make them work these days?

(Laughs) Pretty frequently, actually! It's surprising because I don't always know the origin of a specific idea. I may be working with an idea from 20 years ago, and not recreating it, but rather there was something in the material proposition or scale that I'm coming back to now and realizing it in a different way.

Do the ideas from your old notebooks already contain the themes of history and time and archaeology that are so present in your current work?

It’s difficult to draw a totally straight line like that, but there are some ideas around the dislocation in time, like, even the earliest paintings that I showed 20 years ago, they depict these kind of bucolic landscapes that contain architectural structures, but no people. The tonality of the paintings was usually a single color, blue or green… You can't really place what timeframe the paintings depict, they could depict something in the future, the past, or the present. And I think my sculptures today similarly dislocates audiences in time, you know, you can’t quite place where the sculpture is in time, or where an audience is in relation to it. I've been working for the last 15 years on a larger series of work, which is a fictional archaeology of the present, contemporary objects that have degraded and decomposed, so they look like they could be found 10,000 years in the future. There’s that time confusion in it.

What is your process like for crafting your sculptures? I’ve seen some images of you actually building some of them by hand, but you also sketch your ideas and sent them out to be cast.

Yeah, it depends. Probably 90 percent of the sculptural work that I produce is actually made in my studio, in Queens, New York. But a lot of the components of that work require skills or facilities that I don't have there. So for instance, I'm using materials like volcanic ash, crystal, and bronze; that work is made in a foundry. I'll create the original positive of what I want to make and send that to the foundry, and then they will create the waxes and actually do the pour. But we’ve also used 3D printing for some of our products for work, which has allowed me to develop things that would be nearly impossible to do by hand.

How come?

Because of how the molds are made. It’s a bit technical, but basically, I'm 3D printing components so that once they're cast, they're going to interlock perfectly, versus trying to sculpt out by hand. I started using 3D printing probably four or five years ago to build small components within the work, but sculpture has been an important part of my work for years. And even my earlier sculptures, I built myself, or with assistance in my own studio in New York.

You came up in the art scene in Miami, and found your first success there with your exhibition space The House. What made you leave that behind and move to New York?

I was back and forth for a while. I studied at the Cooper Union in New York, but then I was finding living in New York expensive, paying rent for a home and a studio, so I went back to Miami. But I knew in order to build my career and just be in a place where thinking around art was more international, I kind of had to be back in the city, so I moved back to New York. That was about 2004. The following year, I was in a big exhibition at MoMA PS1 called Greater New York, which is like a survey of what's happening in art in the five boroughs. That was a pivotal moment as well. The gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin was there — we’d worked together in Miami a bit, and around that time is when he offered to take me on, to represent me. So I had my first solo exhibition at his gallery in 2005.

And now you’ve been working together for 20 years.

Yeah, I think part of his skill as a dealer and a gallerist is really his friendship with the artists, but also his sort of understanding of their potential. He would say, “I didn't pick you because of the work you were making in that moment. I wanted to represent you because I saw that you could build a larger universe within your work.” He was looking 20 years in the future, and trying to understand what the larger vision could be. And now here we are, we’ve been working together for so long that we’re exhibiting shows at Galerie Perrotin Paris and New York that celebrates our 20 years of collaboration.

How has it been for you to select the work for a show like this?

Typically, for past exhibitions, I've worked towards a theme or an overarching universe. But this one really includes all of the interest and things that I've been making; there's paintings, all the types and forms of sculpture, there's even a Porsche that I've been working on with my mechanic for the last four or five months: we disassembled the entire car restored or replaced every single part. And the reassembly of that car is going to happen over the course of six weeks inside the exhibition. But there is also a whole series of drawings and sketches on hotel stationary that I haven't really shown in any other exhibitions because I’ve always thought of them more as part of the creative process, not the final product.

Is it a bit nostalgic for you to look back on your work like this?

Yeah, sure, I mean, especially the hotel stationary drawings, those contain subject matter that I'm so familiar with but when I would draw them and write down the year they were made, I would pick a random date. So that could might be a thousand years in the future, or it could be like 1973. So the funny thing is that I don't actually know when all the drawings were made. I guess in some ways, they're kind of floating in time, too.