interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by ANNABEL MEHRAN
American artist DAN COLEN’S spectacular rise to success has happened in less than a dozen years after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design. Recently — instead of a lavish lifestyle in Manhattan — he bought a big farm in Upstate New York, turning barns into wood and metal shops to make his art, but also branching out to help the community around him by raising and donating livestock and produce. I had to see for myself how it was possible to combine an art lab with a real farm, only an hour and a half from New York City.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You have a new studio in Ancramdale, New York, on the border of Columbia and Dutchess County. How did you find this place?
DAN COLEN — Growing up, I had a close friend who had a country house in Catskill. When I was a little kid, that’s what I knew of vacation and going to the country. I spent a summer out there when I was making my first show for Rivington Arms. I was 21 or whatever and I wasn’t making any progress in the city. Coming upstate helped me concentrate. And so I did that again right before the Gagosian show in 2010.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That was a big show for you. What kind of work were you making?
DAN COLEN — I had an idea to make paintings with flowers, so I started picking them out of the field at my friend’s place. I brought my whole studio up there and we spent a week. I made all this work and it was like a revelation. I was making things I could not have made in the city; there’s just not enough space.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s so distracting in New York?
DAN COLEN — Well, you’re just in the grind. You’re in the social world, with all the parties and the dinners. But I enjoy that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re part of the scene.
DAN COLEN — I’m part of it and I love it. But the bigger problem that I started having was just that it’s limited. The things I could see I knew them so well. I took the same walk every day. I just needed a complete mental switch and this gave it to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And so it started with your first show for Rivington Arms, and since then you’ve found solace in the countryside?
DAN COLEN — I got this place in 2010. I don’t like to oversimplify, but it coincided with when I got sober in 2009. When I was getting high, I would get more and more internally focused. I was obsessed with my own brain mechanism, what was happening inside of my mind, which is much more fantasy oriented. When I got sober, it allowed me to — it sounds so corny — but it allowed me to smell the flowers. I became much more externally focused.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You were able to see the whole forest, so to speak.
DAN COLEN — And also I was able to see and be open to other people. I was just so self-obsessed before. It even allowed me to experience the city in a better way when I came back.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you have a dark moment in the city?
DAN COLEN — It wasn’t dark. I just understood that there was space and I wanted access to it. It was the simple things about the experience, waking up and walking out of the house with a cup of coffee, having privacy. I was just talking to somebody the other night about natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, how special that is. And they were saying New York City is kind of the same thing, but it’s on a human level. Your experience of wonder is in all the people. There’s a magic to that: all these different people from different places with different qualities. But it’s overwhelming. Buying this land was about having a back-to-basics experience, just getting in touch with the simplicity of life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you only doing paintings now?
DAN COLEN — I’ve been making sculptures for a long time now, too. I used to make them in other peoples’ studios, with fabricators and carpenters and different kinds of people who help me with 3-D imaging. My sculptures weren’t fulfilling me in the same way that my paintings were, although I understood that they could. I was just missing the process. When the paintings get good, it’s not because I fulfilled my original vision. They get good because in trying to get to what I wanted to do, I arrive at a surprise or an accident and then I take it in a different direction. All of a sudden the work transcends my original conception and it becomes art, which is bigger than me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So your surprise is the result?
DAN COLEN — I’m surprised by a moment in the process. I’ve been thinking about this forever, but when I stopped getting high I thought about it a lot more. Art is not a manmade thing. I think it’s more
like nature. We can be a part of it. I can be a conduit for it, but I don’t actually make it. It’s bigger than I am. And that’s where its power comes from.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It comes from a higher place.
DAN COLEN — A higher place, and an unconscious place. And so I can be a part of the process, but if I’m a dictator about it, I’m never going to make inspired work. I’m never going to transcend. I do think art is bigger than human.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you think you’re just a transmitter?
DAN COLEN — Yeah, exactly. I have to be there to notice when the art happens. When the magic happens. Because it doesn’t always happen at the end. But it never should be my exact vision.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It doesn’t necessarily happen at the end?
DAN COLEN — No. So with the sculpture, I’d have an idea and I’d tell somebody to make it, and we’d produce these kind of mediocre things — or sometimes even really good and interesting things, because
I’d have a good thought, or the material was interesting — but nothing that ever transcended the original idea. And so I knew I needed to start making sculpture in my shop.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In your own way.
DAN COLEN — In my own studio, so I could be part of the process from the idea through its realization. You want to react to the materials you’re choosing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And to the other people working on them.
DAN COLEN — Exactly. How I deal with my assistants is very collaborative. I want everybody to be open and sensitive to this artistic process. So I need to be there and have that kind of relationship with them.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because it wasn’t your people before, right, you were just hiring people to do it?
DAN COLEN — Exactly. It wasn’t the people who know the subtler kind of things that I’m looking for. Another reason to move out here was because I wanted a sculpture studio. When I started looking, I only knew the area from my friend’s place, which is near the Catskills. I started looking over there, but I had a romantic vision of what I wanted — a lot of property, an old barn and an old house. Not everybody’s selling those three things together. Also, there are different styles of houses up here. You’ll have some from the ’70s, and some more modern ones, but I really wanted an old farmhouse. So you go from neighborhood to neighborhood, 15 miles at a time, and somebody says, “Did you go over there?” Slowly you find what you wanted. This is 50 miles from where I started, but it’s not too far from the city. At first I was looking closer to Manhattan, but it felt too suburban. So I kept on pushing without going too far. Since I drive to the city once or twice every week, I want it to be enjoyable. Sometimes I drive three times a week back and forth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So this is perfect. I used to know you when you had no money, and now that you’re a successful artist, this is the first big purchase you make, right? You didn’t need a fancy car or a bigger TV.
DAN COLEN — Yeah. This was it. It was about making art. It was about continuing to make art. And it’s always been about that. To be honest, I had no clue that I made any money after I did. Somebody else had it. I wasn’t paying attention to it. One day I woke up and realized: Oh, I can grow. But it’s mostly about the work. Coming out here was important for that. I don’t want to get bourgeois, or fall into any traps. I think this was the safest thing to do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You bought your farm instead of a townhouse in the West Village.
DAN COLEN — Yeah, I definitely wanted to start here and keep it country. This is how I enriched my life the most. I didn’t buy a real farm. What happened was I bought the house and there were a couple of animals on the property. There was a goat and a couple of sheep. This local farmer kept his cows on the property. When I bought the land, I thought that to have property was old school. And I started realizing that to have property was actually a luxury and kind of bourgeois because nothing was happening. It was just sitting there. It was just a thing that I had, like: ‘Look at my land, do you see it!?’ It was as good as any other object, a prized possession. It was nothing. And so I started feeling that it was purely luxurious, which is not what I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be this thing that enriched my life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You didn’t plan this project out?
DAN COLEN — No, I had no clue. It was a reaction. I want to make my land do something. I want to interact with it and I want it to give back to me. I look at all the properties around here and in the Hamptons… I want mine to be beautiful, but I also want it to be functional.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And real.
DAN COLEN — Yeah, something you can have a relationship to. And so I decided to make a farm. I wanted animals and I wanted to grow vegetables. The main animals we’re going to raise are sheep, cows, chickens and pigs. In terms of vegetables, we grow cabbage, kale, beans, tomatoes and squash. And there are apple and peach orchards.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you do with what you grow?
DAN COLEN — Originally, I got so much satisfaction out of interacting with animals and the land, but that grew into this nonprofit I set up to donate all of the food to local, regional, and state food banks. Some of it will go to people in New York City, the Bronx and other disadvantaged communities that don’t have access to fresh produce and meat and really end up only with Doritos. There’s a lot of need for it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — They sell this fresh food for low prices?
DAN COLEN — No, it’s all totally free and that’s the unique thing about this program. There are other places that sell the food at a low cost. But basically, a big problem in these communities is that they often don’t know how to cook the food; they grew up without fresh food, so it’s just not part of their culture. Even if it’s cheap they’re going to prefer to buy something else that they know. But if you’re giving
it away free, then it’s a way to at least start an education. It gets the
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the production process?
DAN COLEN — It’s like a closed circuit. The cows eat the grass, they shit onto it, and that makes the grass grow. Then they eat it and the process repeats. There’s no grain, it’s all pasture-fed. The pork is organic, too. It’s all self-sustaining. A big problem is that most of the land in America is used for growing grain to feed animals, which is the least efficient thing. If you tend your property, you can make the land really healthy, but if you don’t then it won’t be and you’ll need to use a separate piece of land, which ends up being really wasteful.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there one team working on both your art and the farm?
DAN COLEN — They’re different teams. I get to feel a part of the farm, but at the same time I can’t make the farm unless I make the art, so I do have to concentrate on the work, which is why I hired separate people. But it makes for a great community out here in the middle of nowhere. If I just had these two people making art for me out here, their lives would be kind of dull. But there are other young people who work on the farm. We cook and we all sit down together, and it’s important to have some sort of energy up here.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Bard College is not far away. Will you have interns coming from there?
DAN COLEN — I’ve been making art in this building for only like four or five months now. And the farm really started this year. I really enjoy working with students, so I’d eventually like to be able to visit.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So after renovating the barn into a studio, you filled the house with your friends’ work?
DAN COLEN — Right. That’s another amazing thing. I’ve been collecting all this art from my friends for years, and it’s always been in boxes. To have a house and to be able to live with the art is amazing. I get so much fulfillment out of that: to walk around my house and see all these things of mine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — This is really a life project.
DAN COLEN — It is. Our goal is in five years to be producing a certain amount of food. For example, in two or three years it would be great to be able to produce for 30 or 40 families, let’s say. But in five or 10 years, maybe it would be 100 families or something like that, including me and my employees. It’s an amazing thing to sit at a table with the farmers and eat the food that’s from the property.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does it taste better?
DAN COLEN — I don’t want to make it sound deeper than it is, but yeah, you enjoy it more. The bacon tastes better than any bacon I’ve ever had. Literally. But yeah, it also feels better.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How does this impact your travel schedule?
DAN COLEN — The farm is like a security system for me. I’ve always been obsessed with my work, as you are with yours. That’s all that matters to me. But the more I make of it, you know, my work is about my life, but also it’s about the human experience. It’s about everything that we’re surrounded by. I want it to be about as much as possible, and I want to be able to tap into as much as possible. The more we work, the less we see. We just become self-obsessed and although we’re supposed to be doing better, and we’re having more success, the work isn’t always necessarily getting better. And even if it is, sometimes what’s inside our minds isn’t getting better.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You can get trapped.
DAN COLEN — People get trapped in their work, and that’s it.
So for the first time ever, I’ve traveled to another studio. I’m working in LA right now, and I’m able to do that because I have a great staff here. I’m really close with my farmers and with the people who help me make sculpture. This is the laboratory. We have a woodshop and a metal shop. We can do anything, but once we get to a certain point, that’s when I take it to another place and start experimenting on the next step. I travel to those places to really fine tune it. So I’ve traveled more than ever since I got this place. I go to Washington State to a foundry and there’s this place in Los Angeles that I’m working with.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It is sort of a utopian dream to be able to be totally independent. You have a place. You are able to eat your own food, to produce your own art. You’re totally free.
DAN COLEN — It sounds so crazy, but that’s what’s happening here!
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