Bret Slater: Paint, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll
He wanted to be a rock star. And a rock star he became, but it happened in an art gallery, not behind a mic. The big question for him is: Now what?
Bret Slater might not have become one of the most successful, sought-after young artists in Texas if he hadn’t gotten suspended from college during his sophomore year. It was December 2006, and Slater was the lead singer in a punk band, just occupying a spot in the art department at the State University of New York at Purchase. He got caught drinking on campus. He lost his fall semester credits and had to spend that winter at his mom’s house in Westchester County.
“I was 19 and grounded, and I couldn’t believe I was standing for it,” Slater says, still bristling at something that happened more than six years ago.
Here was a kid who’d been playing dingy clubs on the Lower East Side since high school, and now he was in college but stuck at home with his mom. A rock star has an image to uphold, right?
Rather than rebel, though, Slater picked up his brushes and got to work. The result: the painting that made him want to be a painter, as he puts it. He got a job at Borders, where he voraciously consumed art books that he stole from the store. He dated a girl who worked in the magazine department, and she stole art magazines for him. One of those publications was called New American Paintings.
“I decided I needed to be in New American Paintings,” he says.
Slater eventually graduated from college, and during his first semester at a master’s program at SMU, he entered his work into a juried competition run by New American Paintings and won a profile in the magazine. That’s how Chicago art dealer Thomas Robertello learned about him. A show at Robertello’s gallery right after Slater finished his MFA led to a mention in Modern Painters magazine, which in 2011 named Slater’s Chicago exhibition one of the 100 best shows of the fall. And so it went. The Modern Painters story ignited dealer and collector interest. Within a year of earning his MFA, Slater was represented by galleries in Chicago, Dallas, and Brussels, and his dealers struggled to keep his work in stock as his relatively affordable canvases, at $5,000 and under, were snapped up by everyone from Dallas socialites to Swedish supermodels.
When I asked one Dallas-based artist why he thought Slater had emerged as a darling of the art world, his answer was simple: “The colors, the size, and his youth.” The size of Slater’s paintings might seem a curious quality to attribute his success to, but an advantage of small work was made clear during my first visit to his studio in the American Beauty Mill Lofts, just south of downtown.
I was one of about a dozen people invited to a small party welcoming Slater’s new Belgian dealer, Elaine Levy, to town. We rode a cramped, rattling elevator up to the third floor of the former fl our mill, and when the elevator doors opened, the smell of marijuana greeted us. In Slater’s studio loft, a few younger artists, a middle-aged artist couple, and a socially prominent collector couple were sitting around a coffee table that featured a large bong as its centerpiece. What was striking about the scene was the ease with which different generations and social classes flirted. Slater made his way around the room, greeted the new arrivals excitedly, then spun to continue a conversation, bobbing his head like a pepper shaker. Slater’s sincere kindness is infectious, and the relaxed vibe of the room seemed to spring from the affability of the awkward host. Levy, the dealer, had come with a duffel bag to collect Slater’s work, a cheap and easy way to whisk the paintings back to Europe. Slater’s small paintings fit easily.
Despite his high cheek bones and deepset eyes, Slater still looks boyish at 25. He has been told he looks like Herschel Grynszpan, the Polish-Jewish refugee whose assassination of a Nazi diplomat was used as a pretext for the bloody Kristallnacht. And while Slater no longer identifies with Judaism, he did recite Hebrew at his bar mitzvah. When one of his paintings seemed to resemble the shape of a Hebrew character, he named it Big Dick Herschel.
Tattoos cover his arms. The tail of a large breasted mermaid slinks around the image of a painting. Levy’s name is in ink, as well as his mom’s. When his Dallas dealer, Marty Walker, scolded him for posting to Facebook a tacky image of a red-dotted list of works from a sold-out show, Slater promised he would tattoo “mom” on his body for her. His enthusiastic commitment is reciprocated by those around him. Levy herself bears a tattoo of one of Slater’s paintings on her ribs.
What strikes you first about Slater’s monochromatic paintings are the colors—vibrant neons, earth tones. He heaps on the oil paint so that it drifts off the edge of his canvases, which are sometimes stretched so that they have rounded corners. His paintings are abstract, but they bring to mind action figures or psychedelic rock posters or the masks of Mexican wrestlers. They possess something of the personality of Philip Guston’s late figurative work. Slater’s titles often reference lyrics of his favorite songs. His Used to Give a Fuck, Now I Give a Fuck Less (2010) is a line from the Jay-Z song “Success.”
“It hangs on a wall, and you’d like to talk to it,” reads a review of Slater’s work by Michael Corris, an artist and chair of SMU’s art department. “You look at it, and it looks back at you. It is good company; an amulet that natters.”
The people who collect Slater’s paintings talk about their strange presence, the paintings’ personalities. Deedie Rose, a benefactor of the Dallas Museum of Art who has been collecting Slater’s work in depth, says she is attracted to the sculptural quality of Slater’s canvases and their “weirdness.” Collector and art consultant Cindy Schwartz says the paintings are “approachable,” and they don’t make you “feel stupid.”
But Slater’s paintings are not unintelligent, and their creator is deftly aware of what he is doing with the work. “He kind of gives you the impression that everything is there, that it’s transparent,” Corris says. “And it is, and it isn’t. I think he’s terribly self-conscious. He is constantly adapting to the smallest and most nuanced changes in the environment.”
That nuance appeals not only to collectors looking for pretty things for their walls, but also to museums. “My next goal used to be to be part of a major museum collection, but now that is happening with the DMA,” Slater says without hint of a boast.
His only fear now seems to be that his rock star persona might undermine him. Local press coverage has emphasized his persona over his art, and he was named Rising Art Star by the fashion industry trade group Fashion Group International.
“Is it me?” he asks toward the end of a long conversation in his studio one night. “Is it because they are seeing that I am not some overdressed, trying-to-battle-you-intellectually prick?”
The young artist’s personality and talent certainly driven Slater’s career. But success in any field—let alone the fickle world of contemporary art—is rarely a product of talent and personality alone. Luck, too, plays a role.
In the summer of 2006, the painter Otis Jones returned to Dallas from a trip to New Mexico. It was hot and humid, and smog hung in the air. Jones was 60 years old, and he began to have trouble breathing. A few days later, a friend told him he didn’t look well, but the artist brushed it off. When symptoms persisted, though, he decided to see a doctor. He didn’t have health insurance, so Jones packed a bag with some personal items, a package of crackers, and a jar of peanut butter, preparing for the long wait in the ER at Parkland Hospital.
Before he could leave his studio, Jones collapsed. Lying on the floor, he managed to call his girlfriend. The streets that surround his studio tangle around abandoned factories and warehouses, and they are poorly marked. Jones was afraid the ambulance wouldn’t find him. “Call 9-1-1,” he gasped.
In the ambulance, his heart rate dropped. At the hospital, the paramedics cut his clothes off and intubated him, but his body became so rigid that the medics had to lean on his chest to force the air out of his lungs. They performed a tracheotomy and, just before his life slipped away, induced a coma.
Telling his story six years later in his comfortable studio loft in South Side on Lamar, Jones wears an oxygen tube strung over his ears and under his nose, part of the daily chore of living with a chronic lung disease. He is surprisingly matter-of-fact about what happened during his three-week coma. While his limp body lay on a bed in the intensive care unit at Parkland, his drugged mind wandered through a vivid fantasy world. Jones rode an elevator as it rattled up through the floors of a skyscraper. At each floor, when the doors opened, he would step off into a faraway land.
“At all the different floors, you were in another country,” he says. “You are in Sweden. You’re in Stockholm. And another floor, you’re in France.”
For days, Jones traveled the world in his dreams, sometimes going to places he had visited in his youth, other times tooling around cities he had never seen before. There were other dreams, too, including a sequence in which Jones turned an abandoned, sand-filled trailer sitting in the middle of a desert into a kitschy memorabilia museum dedicated to
“I figured people would stop and give me a couple of bucks, and I’d be able to paint,” he says of his oneiric logic.
Meanwhile, in the hospital, some of Jones’ friends visited and talked to him. All Jones remembers are faint murmurs seeping intohis hallucinations. But one day, he found his daughter Zoe standing with him in the elevator.
“Dad, I need to talk to you,” she said. “The doctors say you are in deep shit, and you are not going to make it. But I think you can. If you choose to try it, it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. I will be here every day for you. So you won’t be by yourself. But if you don’t want to go through that, I totally understand. I just need a sign from you.”
Then Jones wasn’t on the elevator anymore. He was on a playground swing.
“I felt that at that point, when you swing back, if I just took a deep breath and let go, it would be peaceful,” Jones remembers. “And that, to me, was death. It was very close. You could choose. And I could have chosen.”
Bret Slater says the first time he ever saw Otis Jones’ work was the very first day he arrived in Dallas for graduate school. It was actually a few weeks after he arrived, but Slater tells the story his way to emphasize the effect Jones’ paintings had on him.
“I saw Otis’ work, and it was like a totally mind-blowing moment that made me reconsider everything,” Slater says. “What I tell everyone is that that happened the first day I got to Dallas. Basically, in my memory, I blur everything together. I guess, in my mind, I was thinking about it like this destiny.”
Seeing Jones’ work was like seeing his own ideas about painting advanced 60 years, Slater says. He was seeing his own work in the future. “I wasn’t pissed,” Slater says. “I wasn’t like, ‘Dammit, he got there first,’ or anything. I was like, ‘This is the best painting I’ve ever seen.’ ” Jones’ paintings are deceivingly simple, largely monochromic but with geometric additions—a small square or circle or line— that play with symmetry, creating a delicate tension between the works’ crude textures and formal appearance. The surfaces are sometimes worked-over or sanded to achieve a faded, delicate, almost ephemeral effect, and the canvases are stretched over thick stretcher bars, which lend the pieces a hulking presence on the wall.When Slater saw the work at Holly Johnson Gallery, he found a catalog at the front desk and flipped to a photo of the artist. Then he went right up to Jones and told him how moved he was by his paintings. Jones didn’t pay much attention, but Slater kept popping up around town.
“He kind of tagged on me a couple of times at openings. Like, ‘Hey, I’m Bret Slater. Remember we met? And I love your work, and blah, blah, blah,’ ” Jones says. “And I just thought, ‘Oh, well, that’s nice.’ But sometimes it’s, like, too much, you know? I didn’t know who he was or anything.”
Slater found his way into Jones’ life at a curious time. After three weeks in a coma, Jones spent an additional three months at Parkland relearning how to walk and write. When he finally returned to his studio, he could paint, but his energy wasn’t what it used to be. Jones had never worked with an artist assistant before. He couldn’t afford one, and he was protective of his artistic process. But now here was this eager young graduate student going around town telling everyone that Jones was his favorite painter. Jones inquired with a friend who taught at SMU about offering Slater an intern assistantship. Then he took the younger painter out to breakfast at La Duni.
“He was so hyper, and he’s bouncing around. You know, typical Bret, just so full of energy,” Jones says. “But very respectful and very generous and very sincere. And the sincerity came across. I didn’t feel like he was just some kid jacking around. So we just connected, and I said, well, let’s give it a try.”
Before Bret Slater saw his first Otis Jones paintings, he wasn’t making the kind of oddly shaped, candy-colored delicacies that collectors clamor for these days. Slater was painting directly on cardboard, old seat cushions, tape, and other found materials. He was looking at artists like Jim Lee, and when he got to SMU, this process continued.
“It was my reaction to different critiques from different professors,” Slater says. “I also didn’t know what my paintings were about.”
Since he began working for Jones, though, Slater’s approach to and attitude about his work have changed dramatically.
“I started to go over to Otis’ studio,” he says. “I’d be there eight to 10 hours a day. We weren’t working the whole time. Really, we were talking, dialoguing.”
The most significant revelation Slater had while working with Jones was that he didn’t need the found materials to make his work valid. “It is just more about painting being a spirituality,” Slater says. “It is about creating the most personal, one-to-one space that is possible, to have this experience with an object. At the time I still felt that I needed something ‘found.’ Otis helped me realize that at the end of the day, it is arbitrary, especially when we are long dead and gone.”
Slater has done more than absorb Jones’ attitude about the process of painting. Elements of Jones’ pieces have begun to show up in Slater’s.
Jones says, “I’ve had a couple people go, ‘You’ve got circles in your paintings. He’s working for you, and it looks like he’s kind of picking up some things from you.’ And I say, ‘Well, what would you expect?’ ”
Jones insists that Slater is doing exactly what every young painter should do, absorbing the good ideas that surround him and incorporating them into his work. Still, there are times when the line between incorporation and appropriation blurs. When Slater became Jones’ assistant, the older artist just had him stretching canvases. Now he trusts Slater to work directly with the surfaces of his paintings, sanding them.
“He called me one night and said he was at Home Depot, and he wanted to know where to find good sandpaper,” Jones says. “And I said, ‘You just bought an orbital sander like I use, didn’t you?’ He laughed and said yes. I teasingly said, ‘You want to be like me so bad.’ ”
Jones hates the word “mentor,” and what has developed between him and the young artist is more complex than that. “I love Bret,” he says. “I love Bret’s work, and I love Bret. I love him like a son or a brother or an equal. It is not mere mentor-mentoree. He has mentored me as much, just being around that kind of energy and intensity. It’s been refreshing for me.”
Jones also acts as Slater’s chief critic. “I don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he says when asked about all the affection that has been heaped upon his young friend. Jones then cracks a joke about how dealers reach into their travel bags to pull out another Slater painting for giddy collectors. “Oh, and it’s wonderful!” Jones says sarcastically. “You just reach in the bag and pull out gem after gem. I tease him about being over there making cupcakes, and it kind of pisses him off.”
Jones believes Slater has real talent, that he could sustain a meaningful practice over a lifetime. But Jones worries about how all the attention might affect Slater. “I’m protective of Bret,” Jones says. “I don’t want Bret to get to where he takes himself too seriously. I mean, he would kill me for saying this, but the work is a little over-hyped locally. I think it has to do with Bret’s personality. I think it has to do with he’s young, he’s brash, and he’s hip. You know?”
To put it another way, Slater projects the image of a rock star, and there are too many stories in rock and roll of promising young talent flaming out.
“That’s a danger for a young artist, for any of us,” Jones says. “Because if you start believing the shit that they’re writing, all of a sudden you think you’re just the greatest, and it will never end. And then, when things kind of slow down, it can screw people up.”
OTIS JONES HAS BEEN A RESPECTED FIXTURE in the North Texas art scene for more than 30 years, but no year in his career was quite like 1982. That year his paintings were included in a group exhibition at Rosa Esman Gallery in New York. The gallerist found Jones’ work via Marcia Tucker, the founding director of New York’s New Museum, who had chosen Jones’ pieces as a juror of the New Orleans Triennial in 1980. It wasn’t so much the group show that was the big deal; it was the review that followed, written by New York Times critic John Russell.
“It was only three or four lines maybe,” Jones says. “But to my eyes, it was the most remarkable thing: ‘A young Texan named Otis Jones …’ ”
In those days, it was difficult to find the New York Times in Dallas, and the paper that was sold in Texas didn’t carry the reviews of New York galleries. But the day the review appeared in the paper, Jones’ friends from New York began calling.
“And they were going, ‘Oh, man. You’ve got it made,’ ” he says.
Jones’ friends weren’t the only people calling. Pretty soon Jones was being courted by a handful of New York galleries that were interested in representing him. They wanted to see more of it, and so he asked a friend if he could borrow her Lower East Side studio and use it as a temporary showroom.
“It was a walk-up on Walker Street, south of Canal,” he says. “And it didn’t have an intercom or a buzz-in. So they had to call you to tell you they were down there. And you had to look out the window and see the black limo.”
The dealers liked Jones’ work, but there were concerns. The big one was shipping. Jones lived in Dallas, and getting the work to New York on a regular basis would be expensive. He and his wife considered moving to the city, but with nothing definite in place, they waited to see if any galleries bit. None did.
“You had all the ingredients there to make a cake,” Jones says. “But it just didn’t make a cake.”
Jones sank into depression and stopped painting altogether. He had become obsessed with making it, and when his chance came and went, he was lost. Then his wife got pregnant. “I thought I had to become an upstanding citizen, to make money,” he says. “I was very worried. I was not pro-parenthood, particularly. My wife wanted it, and I thought she deserved it. So I said, ‘Okay, we’ll do it.’ ”
He considered enrolling in law school at SMU, but just a few weeks before their daughter Zoe was born, Jones had another crisis. “I’d gotten all my priorities screwed up working on success,” he says. “Working in the studio became about that and not about fun. I became very disillusioned. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a fucking lawyer.’ I decided that the best thing I could do for my daughter was to show her who I was. And in order to do that, I had to get up off my ass, pull myself out of the depression, and try to find some joy in making work and being an artist.”
Jones never again found the kind of attention he enjoyed during that brief window in 1982. Instead, he soldiered on. His painting style hasn’t changed much, but his paintings bear the evidence of his dedication to the work, a deepening of sensitivity and sophistication. He sells work through galleries in Dallas, Fort Worth, and Santa Fe, some years barely scraping together enough to make a living.
“In some ways, the fact that I’m still doing this at this age means some sort of success, just in terms of longevity,” he says. “Not in terms of being well-known and well-thought-of or any of those things. But it sometimes amazes me that I’ve been able to do what it is I want to do for so long.”
As with his flirtation with fame in the 1980s, Jones’ medical crisis nearly ended his career. Without the help of his young studio assistant, he couldn’t conjure the mental and physical energy required to produce artwork.
“Being around Bret, I’ve gotten in touch with some of my youth,” he says. “He’s made me challenge myself and look at my own work and ask myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ Just focus a little harder. And it’s funny because it’s all backwards. I’m at a time where I hardly have any energy.”
Jones won’t live long if he doesn’t get a new lung. His name sits near the top of a list for transplants. He can’t leave Dallas. His phone could ring at any moment, and when it does, Jones will rush out the door to the hospital for the surgery that will extend his life—though there is also always the possibility that the surgery could end it.
While he waits for that call, his energetic young friend scurries about, sanding canvases, emptying the trash, doing his part to keep things going.
Right now the biggest decision in Bret Slater’s career is managing his price point. Because he is such a young artist, his paintings have been relatively inexpensive, which has helped fuel demand. But now there is pressure to raise prices. Robertello, the Chicago gallerist, says he has been impressed with the young artist’s savvy throughout the process.
“Bret is really good at managing his own career,” Robertello says. “He keeps really good communications with all three galleries. We meet to pace his price structure, and Bret leads all of that. I’ve never met anyone who is more ready for it. He is very comfortable being at the center of attention.”
He might venture into larger-format work, and there has been talk of moving back to New York. But for now, Dallas has suited Slater. He’s singing for a band called Drain You. He keeps his day job at the Dallas Museum of Art, working just down the hall from where museum administrators met to formally acquire his painting in October. Another acquisition is expected soon from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
But for Slater, making art is no longer just about getting acquired by a big-name museum, scoring a significant commission, or getting profiled by an art magazine.
“I always said I wanted to be a rock star,” Slater says, taking a drag from a cigarette and reaching for an ashtray, revealing his newest tattoo, a cartoonish reproduction of an Otis Jones painting on his forearm. “Something about my nature, maybe that has been the goal subconsciously. I think of it as six years of contemplating and brooding about how I can make it happen. But now it is not just how can I make my name big, but how can I do something of real substance?”