Having survived the excess and voyeurism of New York’s last pre-Internet graduating class, Dan Colen continues to make work commenting the commercialism in the art world. In the last decade, in search of a way to engage with what’s happening in the universe, he created Sky High Farm—a communal place beyond cynicism, proposing a new relationship to food justice.
WORDS: LUCAS MASCATELLO
The first time I talk to Dan Colen, it's late June and phase one of the quarantine in New York is coming to an end. Right now, the city is coming apart: protests are in full swing, fireworks explode in the sky, people are shitfaced in the street—and yet, though it’s strange to admit, the city feels magical. Not magical in the sense that everything is good, but more that things have become unrecognizable, fuzzy and pear shaped. For some, it's exciting to see things destabilize and wonder what will come of it, but for many more, the ugly realities being exposed are familiar pains, worsened by a failing economy and global pandemic. Now more than ever, New York looks like two cities: in one, wealthy people now begin their victory lap, parading through reopened shops and outdoor cafes; in the other entire families go hungry, fall ill from COVID, and hope to survive unemployment. As we witness the world change, we are each forced to reevaluate our relationship with our surroundings, and this practice of calling what’s familiar into question reveals spaces where anything is possible. These are the kinds of spaces that have helped define Dan Colen’s career.
Dan is good at setting the stage. His work creates potent scenarios and loads them with objects that suggest narratives. In a room full of bottles at the Brandt Foundation, a drunk Scooby Doo sits alone, surrounded by tiny cigarettes and studded paintings. At his house in the Hudson Valley, Dan is surrounded by plants, vegetables, and livestock. His is a life lived between realities—one running his nonprofit Sky High Farm, and another as a blue chip artist at the center of the commercial art world. When we speak over the phone, Dan is sweet, eager to hear about what life is like in the city. He tells me about his studio and his farm. I ask him if being this busy makes it difficult to think about the future, but he tells me the opposite, that the farm offers him a path forward. He tells me “the more connected I get to the farm, the more free I feel,” and that “farming changes your relationship to the future.” In that future, Dan says we'll need small farms like his in order to create stable and equitable sources of food. In many ways, his work at Sky High is about calling attention to this exact issue.
Even so, Sky High is really more like an art project than a commercial farm, and much like the work Dan makes, it was something he pursued almost blindly. “I really didn't know about farming,” he says. “I didn't know about its inextricable relationship to the environment. I didn't know about food justice or food insecurity and their inextricable relationship to the enviorment. [The farm] was an idea.” He tells me this is the longest he's ever been there at once, and that now, more than ever, it makes sense to him why he bought the property in the first place nearly a decade ago. “Early on, I didn't want to talk about the farm publicly. I began to understand the relationship between the farming and the food justice, between social justice and environmental responsibility. At the same time I was exeriencing new types of fulfilment and inspiration through both the benevolent nature of the farm and self-care.” Now in the COVID era, Sky High is running headfirst into a society whose needs are growing exponentially, and Dan’s once-abstract desire to find a way to give back has become vivid and immediate. He speaks with purpose now, but says that not long ago, he struggled to talk about the farm. “People would hear I have a farm and I'd say, ‘Yeah, I have a farm.’ They’d say, ‘Wow, that's so cool! Where can we get your stuff?’ And I'd be like, ’Well, you can't really get my stuff. In those early stages I wasn’t ready yet to be share or explain the farms work.’”
The reason you can’t buy food directly from Sky High is because everything they grow is for donation. Even the merchandise they began selling in 2019 (including honey, salts, jarred tomatoes, and clothing made in collaboration with Dover Street Market among other brands) is a vehicle for charity, the proceeds going entirely to support Sky High and its partners. Working with organizations like the Food Bank for New York City, The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, Project Eats, Longtable Harvest, and The Red Hook Central School District, the farm has been entirely financed by Dan. Perhaps due in part to his generosity, Dan’s now managed to influence people around him to follow in kind. In his coming collaboration with Dover Street Market, everything sold will be 100% non-profit from nose to tail, the entire production chain working together for a single cause. This is all to say that Sky High is not a business, and more than a farmer, Dan is like a patron. (When he’s not working in his studio on the property, he helps by pulling weeds, because, as he admits, “that’s all I really can do.”) For this reason, it took a while for things at Sky High to really get going. Dan started by buying animals. “I bought two donkeys. I don't even know why I wanted a donkey. I just didn't know anything. I thought, ‘I'll get a donkey. He can kind of be the mayor of the property.’ Then I bought a bunch of cows, I bought some goats, but nothing was doing anything or had any purpose. When I looked at what I had done after a few months, I realized that I had built a petting zoo, not a farm.”
As a young artist in New York, Dan became famous for his paintings and projects like “Nest,” a series of impromptu installations made with his friend Dash Snow, in which the two camped out in motels doing drugs and shredding phone books. These alternate spaces were documented in photographs taken by Dash and lead to an installation staged at Deitch Projects in 2007. The cult of personality around Dan and his friends was a defining moment for the art world: as the last pre-Internet graduating class, their lives, and the fragments of them present in one another’s work, were the perfect offering to satisfy a voyeuristic audience readying its appetite for social media. Here was a raw youth culture populated by beautiful, complicated, tortured people—a fantasyland where anything could happen, one that collectors were eager to own a piece of and critics were eager to dismiss. In the war over Dan’s identity, it feels like his work often loses center stage, drowned out by critiques of his status, context, and the values cast upon him.
Despite efforts to thwart his success making paintings from “trash or flowers or whatever,” Dan’s been frustrated by his collectors’ inability to recognize these tactics. His desire to go against, or at least comment on, the commercialism in the art world has made little impact on his perceived marketability and value. He describes making “a bunch of work which was always meant to fade away,” which instead thrived. He tells me about a bubblegum painting that sold for something like a million dollars in the secondary market and says, “For that stuff to be co-opted into this narrative of me as a market artist always was weird, because it was really the opposite. In a way, it hasn't bitten me in my ass because people bought the narrative, but they also bought these works that were going to disintegrate. They're not prepared for that—which is ridiculous, because it’s no secret.” In reality, many of people’s assumptions about Dan’s work are based on auction prices and anomalous valuations—tremendous prices that make it easy to assume his career is stable and accounted for. The perception is that Dan is rich, that his studio runs like a machine, and that the farm is a cherry on top of it all. The truth is that he’s juggling all of these volatile endeavors at once, and that even if he shows at Gagosian, making art is never a stable business. “Being an artist is really, really, really hard. And trying to make it last for twenty, thirty, forty years is next to impossible.”
If you’re looking for it, there's a divisive quality that connects Dan’s work with his peers—a kind of voyeurism and angst that unmistakably cues youth culture. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Dan as a mere provocateur. His early photorealist paintings of candles are labor-intensive and classically beautiful, more about fantasy than nihilism, even if they contain curse words and are sold for unbelievable prices in the secondary market. His street scenes and miracle paintings are oversized fantasies of what life can look like: aspirational images articulated through the common vernacular of cartoons. Dan taps into iconography and idioms that trigger familiar cues in order to open uncanny spaces. Sometimes these works are climactic, his apparatuses like the tapping shoes, the spinning bottle, and the flying hat each performing their own miracles. Other times, they are deliberately barren—a lifeless reproduction of a woman with dirty feet, trash, fallen motorcycles.
As is the case with his art, Dan isn’t looking to be deliberately naive. He explains hiring a farm manager and how he's transformed the property to make it function over the past decade. As Dan grew more invested psychologically and financially, his interest in the space went beyond making it run. In Dan’s eyes, the farm is a way to engage with what’s happening in the universe, to connect with the moment he's a part of. “The farm is feeding underserved communities of people, but then there's all of these different relationships you could explore between what's happening in these urban and rural communities and what's happening underneath the soil with the worms, what role the sun plays in all this, how water and carbon monoxide shape our lives, and urban architecture, and city planning is effect all this. There's all this kind of stuff to start thinking about.” His relationship with the estate is open-ended, one of the many elements of his life daisy-chained together, creating a way forward. This freedom has made Sky High a kind of communal epicenter, a place where artists, interns, and collaborators are each able to experience Dan's fantasy and help make it real.
On the day I arrive at his farm, Dan shows me flowers, photographs of himself cross-eyed in clown makeup, a cartoon plywood box made from oil clay, a live donkey, an outhouse, a goldfish fish that cannot float, and a David Hammonds print. He tries to explain what's happening in his life—living upstate during the quarantine, understanding food justice, staging a play for the first time, making paintings to finance it all. When I show up, he's standing in the field in front of the house, waving. Inside, we sit at his large Sottsass-print Formica table and he prepares a salad. I watch as he takes great care in arranging its components. In his kitchen, the food is all neatly organized, ready to be assembled on the plate. While we eat, Dan tells me about his new performance. He says the clown from the photo is the main character, and he explains how he is using the farm as a stage for the work.
Dan’s play is based on Jerry Lewis’ unfinished film, The Day the Clown Cried. Made in 1972, it stars the comedic actor as a clown caught in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s a tragedy Dan’s been fixated on. He tells me the basic idea: there are props he's fabricated (an outhouse and a coffin), a costume (a pair of shoes, the front of an Oxford glued onto a Jack Purcell and painted yellow), and a motif (dead bodies piling up), but the details remain blurry. The work is about transformation, and the farm is the heart of the performance. In the play, Dan’s outhouse is a kind of portal that moves characters from place to place, through life and death, birth and rebirth. There's a similar element of mystery in everything he does—chaos, optimism, sometimes destruction. As he explains the drama, I can tell he's put a lot of thought into it, but still it sounds like controlled chaos, like there are just enough fixed elements to contain something wild. This is kind of how it goes talking to Dan: he has a lot of ideas, and he makes a lot of work, narratives piling up around him. There's the story about him as a troubled young druggie artist, the one about him as a blue-chip painter, the one about him as a farmer—and now, the one of him as the clown.
The farm inspires; it is a place for Dan to connect with the world both through food and through his work. Like everything he does, the farm was created in good faith, in the belief that by combining elements, something beyond his understanding would take place. As the food seeks justice, literacy, and context, the work eschews it, is anticlimactic, enigmatic, and personal. In the art world, Dan is a king of comedy, a prankster, a magician, someone working to upset expectations and delight audiences. Much like Jerry Lewis, he's an entertainer, known for humor in public but drawn to darkness in private. This is his tie to one New York—a city of wealth and access, an audience in the leisure class waiting to be entertained. At the same time, he is a kind of Willy Wonka character, a gentleman farmer or a madman, someone living off-site, tucked away in secret, working in his studio and on the land. Dan is realistic about how his career can support the work that Sky High does, and like Wonka, he is wary of the wrong parties getting involved, protective of his project and its integrity, allergic to the Veruca Salts of the world.
Ephemera, artifact, and aftermath run throughout Dan’s life, each project and undertaking its own conjuring of possibilities and an invitation for something new to unfold. Even his own body has been cast through this lens, as a lifeless sculpture lying on the floor like an unused instrument, waiting for someone to play with it. Throughout, there remains a sense of magic—but now, as a man in his forties, cultivating food for communities in need, Dan is engaged in a very different kind of optimism. His methods remain the same—throwing himself in headfirst, operating full-scale out the gate—but here, his venture into the unknown is different. While his artistic pursuits are responsible for creating artifacts and producing moments that form a career, the farm is designed to take on a life of its own; one is built and the other grows. In our emails, we talked about this idea, and how artists can build to set the stage for growth. Sky High Farm creates dialogues between Dan and people like Linda Goode Bryant from Project Eats and artist Paul Pfeiffer, building connections and opening new doors that disappear in the art world. “The farm has a bigger breadth than so many things,” he says. “Art proposes to function on that scale, but you see so many rips and tears in the system that supports it—in studios, galleries and museums.” For the people who visit Sky High as well, the fantasy goes beyond the art world. The farm is a place where it’s possible to propose a new kind of relationship to food and food justice; in its pursuit of possibility, it is a place beyond cynicism. As Dan suggests, “It opens a dialogue about what art can be—and in that, the farm becomes more than a farm.”