Ellen Altfest is a realist painter, New York born and bred. Her disarmingly scrupulous paintings, whether of plants or male nudes, stand out for their technical achievement, yes, but also for the artist’s ability to render precision with a strong accent; an Altfest is distinctly an Altfest. Her work has been exhibited in numerous solo shows, including at White Cube in London (2007) and the Bellwether Gallery in New York (2002 and 2005), as well as in major exhibitions, such as the Saatchi Collection curated show “USA Today” at the Royal Academy in London (2006). In 2006, she curated the show “Men” at I-Beam in New York, which featured ten works by female artists depicting men.
Altfest earned a BFA in Painting and a BA in English from Cornell University and an MFA in Painting from Yale University. She studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2002, was awarded a studio at the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation in 2004-2005, a residency at Yaddo in 2006, and a residency at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, in 2010.
The artist and critic David Humphrey (read his DoY interview here!) writes, “Ellen Altfest asks us to slow down, to crawl, to feel our way across the variegated surfaces of her depicted objects until we experience them as materialized hallucinations. The dense skin of her paintings invites us to travel into nether-spaces of bewildering complexity where we become lost in a thoroughly mapped world right in front of our eyes.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
There wasn’t something particular I wanted to be, but I was always doing art. I think I had representational inclinations early on. My mom slept on a pink satin pillowcase, and when I was five I made a drawing of it and somehow it looked shiny. I was so proud of it.
Can you recall a specific moment when you realized you wanted to pursue a life of art?
There was this moment in my last semester of high school where I went through the list of regular occupations, and I thought: “Well, I’m not going to be a doctor, I’m not going to be a lawyer…” Art was the only thing at which I really stood out. So it was a process of elimination initially, the direct intention didn’t come until my senior year of college. Looking back, I did every step: I was an art major in high school, I was an art major in college… but then I was also doing summer internships in creative fields to see if I could find something more normal to do, where I could support myself.
What kind of internships?
My first internship was in high school, at P.S. 1., assisting in the office. The mother of one of the curators there lived next door. In college I assisted a designer of children’s clothing and worked in the office at the Henry Street Settlement. None of these jobs really stuck.
Since you were doing these internships to try out more “jobby” jobs, did you have an awareness in college that being an artist would be pursuing a risky/impractical career?
That’s the thing, there was no “career.” If you went to the career office at Cornell, the woman there was, like, “Well, I guess you could be an artist: flip hamburgers and paint on the weekends.” They steered us towards “related fields.” I just had no role model for how to do it. It was confusing to me, like what is the next step? There just wasn’t any job that I could apply for and “be” an artist. I knew I liked painting, but I didn’t know what I could do with it when I was done with school.
My biggest supporter was my high school art teacher, Aaron Kurzen. He had been an assistant for De Chirico, he studied with Hans Hofmann and was all about Matisse, who had been Hoffman’s teacher. It’s funny because I think a lot of the time the kind of teachers you have will help determine what kind of artist you’re going to become. I had a really traditional training: I spent a year drawing plaster casts and then began drawing from the figure at fifteen. That enabled me to be a realist. Aaron told me, “Here is what you’re going to do: you go to a liberal arts school for your undergraduate, and then you go to Yale for graduate school.”
And that’s what you did! He mapped it out.
I know! I think he felt that I needed to train my mind first, to do other things in addition to painting. I did go to Yale, but I knew nothing about other graduate schools or where to apply. I had no idea where my work, painting-wise, would fit. I think people who went to art school for undergrad have a leg up since they know more what’s going on. I was a little out of the loop at Cornell. Yale ended up being a happy coincidence.
In college I did a school year abroad and met the teachers who helped me believe that I could really be an artist.
Tell me about that.
I went abroad to Florence for my senior year. I had seen A Room with a View and completely fell for the romance of the city. The program I went to had these two women teachers who had moved to Tuscany from South Africa. They taught us figure painting and art from 1940 to the present, had us read theory and put the intention forward that we should connect our work to contemporary art as representational painters. They fostered a strong connection between the artists as a group. At one point during one of the critiques, they said, “Ellen, you are an artist.” And it was like the Wizard of Oz moment: I have a heart! I am an artist!
They told us to treat painting as a job, to go in every morning, that the most important thing was to get a studio. I thought: “I can do this.”
What did you do after you graduated college?
I took two years between college and going to graduate school. I spent that time working, telling myself, “I am an art professional.” I moved back to New York, where I grew up.
My teachers held a summer program in Italy right after graduation and we went to the Venice Biennale, and there we saw Sean Landers’ work. Maybe we’d been in Italy too long at that point, but his work spoke to us, the writing was all in English, and he was cute. Then his book came out, Sic, which was a handwritten book about his life in the East Village. So my friends from the Italy program and I got an apartment in the East Village. We figured that was where the art was happening. We kind of modeled ourselves after Landers’ book. We ended up actually meeting him, which was funny.
What was meeting him like?
I was really naïve, and through his book I thought we were going to be best friends. I felt like I knew him. From what he had written he seemed like he had some issues, like he didn’t quite know how to paint, and I thought, “I can help him with that.” When we met with him I was a little disappointed—that he knew what he was doing and we probably weren’t going to be friends after all.
How did you find a way to meet him?
It was really embarrassing for me, actually. My friend found his number and called him up and said, “It’s a blonde and a redhead, we’d like to meet you…” She suggested we meet at his favorite cafe, which was a few blocks away from where we lived, so I thought, “OK.” But it was fun. I think it was novel for him to meet some young fans, and he was a celebrity in our minds so it was pretty exciting for us.
What kind of jobs did you have to support yourself during that time in New York?
I knew that the key to everything was having a job that allowed me time in the studio. I wanted to find a job that paid enough for me to work part time. I ended up getting a job at this crazy hand-painted pottery store on Madison Avenue. They had live chickens in a cage and elaborate ornamentation on every square inch of the store. I remember Mary Tyler Moore came in and complained about the chickens, that it was inhumane to have them in a cage. I was a great salesperson. We were on commission and I was just selling up a storm. We made $8 an hour and 2% commission, and it added up. It was hard to leave that store with anything for less than $100, and sometimes people would come in and order tiles for their entire bathrooms for thousands of dollars. I worked there three days a week and made a fair amount of money.
How long did you work at the pottery store?
I worked there for two years before I went to graduate school. It was mind numbing mostly, standing there for hours on end, especially when there were no customers. I was always being reprimanded by management because my clothes weren’t pressed enough and I was terrible at keeping the orders straight. But I was so good at selling that they couldn’t fire me. By the time grad school came around, I was very ready to go.
Did you get a studio?
I was temporarily in this studio on 14th Street. It wasn’t a private space, it had three walls but was open, and the guy who rented it lived there. I remember the guy would sleep really late because his bedroom was off the studio. I’d come in and hear him snoring. He didn’t like that I was there so often, because no one else used the space that much, so he was looking for a way to kick me out. Once, I borrowed somebody’s dolly to move something without asking, and he made a big thing of it, like I had committed a crime. He used that as an excuse to kick me out of the studio.
After that I got a tiny, tiny studio on Lafayette Street in SoHo.
Where were you living at the time?
I lived on St. Mark’s Place between 1st and A. I had two roommates.
How did you feel during that time?
I felt really sad that I had left college. I looked back like, “I used to have a community.” I felt like everyone knew each other in this city [New York]. You’d walk by a bar and there would be people in there laughing, and I’d think: “I don’t know anyone.” I would look in the Village Voice and go to art events alone. When I went to see shows I would look at the artists’ resumes, and I saw that they all went to graduate school. I was like, “I don’t want to go to graduate school, I am already a professional artist going to my studio…” But then I kept seeing that all the artists who were on a professional level had gone to graduate school so there probably was something to it.
How do you look back on that time now?
It’s a blur. I feel like I didn’t become myself until graduate school. College seemed like so much fun, Italy had been intense and then there was this time when I wasn’t sure exactly what I was doing. I had friends from school and we’d go out to eat, but I didn’t know about any parties or fun young people things to do. Then I went to grad school, and there I found people who I connected with. So, it was like this kind of limbo period.
Throughout all this, what were your parents’ attitudes to your pursuit of art?
My mom believed in my artistic abilities from a young age. She likes to say, “Every mom thinks their child’s artwork is good, but mine really was!”. My father took a more analytic approach, I think he wanted to make sure I wasn’t just messing around. He called up Aaron, my high school teacher, and asked if I really was better than the other kids in my class. When Aaron said “yes” he was satisfied. They’ve been really supportive.
What was your grad school experience like?
I was confused in grad school about the work that I was making. I was trying to figure out what my voice was. I knew I had something of my own to say, but I didn’t know what it was. Every time I started a painting in my studio, someone would come in and be like, “Did you think of the color blue?” and then the next person would come in and be like, “I think this should be green,” and someone else would say, “Why isn’t this crisper?” So I never really got into the process. Looking back, making a full body of work every three months seems crazy.
When we got to Yale, we were aware of John Currin and Lucy Yuskavage, but they had gone there ten years before us. What happened after that was unclear. I had this sense that artists rise together, that that was how it happened somehow. It wouldn’t be that one person came out and was successful, it would be a group who rose together who went to school together. So I remember thinking, “I hope this is a good time, I hope this is a good class!” I knew there had to be some serendipity there.
As soon as grad school ended my work changed completely. I got a full ride to the Vermont Studio Center and started working outside. I felt so free working at my own pace and happy to get out of my studio. I followed my inclination which was to learn how to make landscape paintings and didn’t worry about what they meant or how they’d be received.
It took five years between graduating from Yale and having your first show. What did you do during those years?
I moved back to New York. I had a boyfriend who had a skill and I realized that was the key. He was a video editor and he could make $35 an hour video editing. And I was, like, “I need a skill.” So I started taking classes in Photoshop and Quark Express and all that, although I never became fully proficient. I got a part-time job doing text corrections to textbooks. It didn’t demand major computer abilities, but it paid more because I had that skill.
It was funny because during those years it seemed that there wasn’t a market for young artists like the one that developed during the boom. And the other Yale students and I didn’t have any connections outside of each other. But I had this sense that my work wasn’t ready and I didn’t want to have a show until it was.
Did you rent a studio?
I rented a series of very small studios. The first was in the meatpacking disrict and faced a brick wall. I shared it with Jill Magid, who I’d met through the Italy program. Matthew Barney’s studio was directly below ours and he used very toxic materials. Then I shared a studio in Williamsburg with Karen Heagle for several years.
How did you feel about living in New York City this time around?
Excitement. I was totally thrilled to be in the art world. I remember an established artist saying to me, “I am so sick of the art world.” And thinking, “I want so much to be a part of the art world! Like, what is the art world?” I was happy going to every opening. Meeting new people, other artists, was so exciting for me.
Why was it different from your previous experience in New York?
I was just more clued in. I heard about things more through people I had met in grad school and in Vermont. And I had this boyfriend I’d go around with. I was just loving it. I was really happy.
Did you feel that group ascension starting to happen?
Yes, we really supported each other. I ended up going to a seven month residency at the Fine Art Work Center. During that time Becky Smith, who I had gone to grad school with, opened Bellwether Gallery in Greenpoint. She wanted to create a place to show artists from school. I had just returned with all of this work and at the last minute Becky put it into a three person show.
Do you remember what it felt like to see your work being consumed by other people, hanging in a gallery?
The first time I saw my work in a gallery was at a group show in Soho. I could definitely see more clearly what the flaws were. I think when you’re in your studio you can be in your own mind, and everything makes sense, but when you take it out into the cold light of day it looks different.
Tell me about your feelings prior to your first solo show, also at Bellwether.
Right before that first show, I was at Skowhegan. I had applied seven times and I finally got in. The show got moved up to September and that made me feel like working as hard as I could. Skowhegan was an amazing experience, so it was like I had this momentum from that summer that carried over to that first show.
I also knew that my friends were supporting my work and it felt good. Like a first step.
Do you recall selling your first painting?
I remember that I had work in a group show right before my Bellwether show, and this collector who collects young artists wanted to buy a piece of mine. But I found out that he was going to put it into storage because he had too much and couldn’t fit it into his apartment. At the time that was so horrible to me that I didn’t sell it to him. I took it home and worked more on it, which was actually better.
When did you reach a point when you were able to just paint and not have other jobs?
The last time I had a day job was in 2004. That was another job on Madison Avenue selling Scandinavian glassware. I wasn’t so good at selling anymore though, I had lost my ability. After my second show at Bellwether, I made enough money to live off for a while. I definitely felt really validated when I could do that.
Tell me about your work habits. Have they changed over time?
I think I’m steadily working more. There was a time between grad school and my first show when I was painting from photographs, and then I could come in any time I wanted and it would get later and later, painful procrastination. But when I started working from natural light, it set a schedule that I had to follow and helped create a structure for me. Now I get to my studio at 7.30 in the morning to get every moment of daylight in. I have a show coming up so I’m working seven days a week. But I’m only working from 7.30-4.15. Which is actually kind of nice, because when it gets dark I’m done. But as the summer comes the days will get longer.
I read in an interview that you work in seven-hour increments with five minute breaks every hour and that it takes seven months for you to finish a painting. Sounds like a pretty painstaking process. Do you enjoy doing the actual painting?
That’s a very complicated question. Obviously, I want to say I love every minute of it. But it is really hard work, especially retaining the level of focus I need to make the paintings. There is a lot of pressure, not just external pressure, a pressure to get things done from myself and then a release when I do. Every painting is a problem that I just don’t know how to solve. Like, right now I am working on a painting of a backlit model and I really don’t know how to do it. I’ve started doing watercolors and those don’t take as long to make; so if one doesn’t work out, it’s okay. I feel like pretty much the entire time I am working on those I am enjoying myself.
Can you recall any early triumphs?
One is the first painting I made that I felt finally hit on what I was after. It was in 2001. I made this painting of a log on the forest floor and it just made sense to me. That was a really good feeling.
I curated a show called “All American” at Bellwether in Greenpoint, which had many amazing artists in it. I liked going to their studios and having them explain their work to me and seeing points of intersection with our projects. It was a fun experience. It got some of the gallery’s first reviews and I was proud of that.
What about a low point?
Probably grad school, I wanted to have my work be contemporary in some way but wasn’t sure how to make that happen. I had people into my studio who were like “why are you making this now?” That was hard because I knew I just wasn’t there yet with my work.
I’m rather surprised and annoyed at people’s reactions to the fact that you paint male nudes. Everyone seems to harp on the fact that you’ve painted a penis, objectified men or whatever, when female nudes have been featured in painting for centuries! What’s your response to the response?
In a way, it was entertaining for me. People see things that remind them of your work and they send them to you. So I used to get lots of stuff about plants, and then people started sending me tons of material on men’s genitalia. Before, people always thought my work was all about technique while I was trying to say that it was also about subject matter. It was a challenge for me to paint something that is totally recognizable and make it my own. If people want to joke about the penis painting, that’s fine with me.
Do you have any advice for young artists?
I really think the most important thing is making the best work you can. It’s also important to have a dialogue with what is going on, which doesn’t mean making something that looks like what is going on right now; just by being aware of what is going on so your work can respond to it.
Make sure you put time first. Of course it is hard to have enough time when you have to support yourself, but be aware of the time every commitment takes. It’s also really important to balance social stuff, like going to openings, which is necessary and interesting, with time in the studio. It’s so easy to completely lock yourself away or, conversely, to go out all the time. The most important thing is to develop the work and build a strong foundation over time.
In an interview, the photographer Tim Davis told me that he would advise young artists “not to get published.” He meant, don’t rush to get your work out there because it may not be ready yet. It takes a while to come into your own and have your work reach the appropriate level. It sounds like you might agree with that sentiment.
I agree with Tim. Knowing when the work is ready is so important. Everyone will get a chance to have their work seen if they want it. But it is better to resist the urge for immediate validation and to start off in a good place. If you push yourself out there, pulling on everyone’s shirt sleeves, and they come to your show and the work isn’t there yet, then it will be harder to get them to come back.
I also think that it is important to be able to say “no.” There can be a lot of pressure. The dealer says, “Can you do a show in three months?” and the artist says, “Yes,” instead of “No, I need a year to make this show,” or whatever. Similarly, an artist might want to change his or her work but succumb to pressure to keep it the same to meet some commercial demand. That doesn’t always work out in the long run. Even if it’s just for a benefit auction, only put your best work out there and stay true to yourself.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist and White Cube:
Green Gourd, 2007, Oil on canvas, 12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm), © the artist, Photo: Bill Orcutt, New York, Courtesy White Cube
Gourds, 2006-07, Oil on canvas, 19 x 38 in. (48.3 x 96.5 cm), © the artist, Courtesy White Cube
Two Plants, 2004, Oil on linen, 28 x 14 in. (71.2 x 35.5 cm), © the artist, Courtesy White Cube
Green Plant, 2005, © the artist, Courtesy White Cube
Two Logs, 2005, © the artist, Courtesy White Cube
The Tumbleweed, © the artist, Courtesy White Cube
The Butt, 2007, Oil on canvas, 13 x 13 in. (33 x 33 cm), © the artist, Photo: Bill Orcutt, New York, Courtesy White Cube
Penis, 2006, Oil on canvas, 11 x 12 in (27.8 x 30.4 cm) © the artist, Photo: Cary Whittier, Courtesy White Cube