Producing Great Work

Simon de Pury discusses the joys and obstacles of his role as coach, cheerleader, friend and guide.


As a person that is totally and equally obsessed by art and music, I was always bored to tears by any art related TV coverage! On the other hand, 'old' MTV, Jools Holland, YouTube and TV live music coverage always gave me plenty of ways to follow up on my musical urges on the box. So when I heard that Bravo was planing an art related reality TV competition I was thrilled.

I first met the contestants amongst the nearly 1200 artists that applied in the casting calls in Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and New York. It was great to see them again at the filming of the first episode. What struck me most was how thrilled all of the contestants were to be part of this adventure and the positive energy they exuded as a group.

The key like with any portrait is to convey much more than a good likeness. You want to capture the essence of the sitter's personality and possibly also show it's 'hidden' parts. Present the whole thing in as artistic a language as possible. Besides being aesthetically intriguing, you want the portrait to convey emotion.

When walking around I was instantly struck by the portrait Abdi did of his competitor Ryan. First of all, it could have been an amazing album cover for the next Oasis album (if they were still together), as Ryan looked so much like Liam Gallagher!

Abdi's use of wild 'fauve' colors was striking and the size of the portrait gave it massive wall power. I was equally impressed by the resourcefulness of Miles. The way he installed a tent and organized himself to do the screen printing was truly impressive. I was sad to see that Amanda was already asked to leave the show. I remembered her fondly from the casting and very much liked the fact that she had an architectural background. Besides which she has warm, positive energy.


As a mentor you are like a coach, a cheerleader, friend and guide all at the same time. You want every contestant to be optimally prepared and be at their best when they face the judges.

Overall most of the artists were too literal in their approach to making a portrait, however most of the artists were technically very skillful. Mastering a technique in itself does not yet necessarily make you produce a great work of art.

Normally artists create their work in total isolation in their studio. It is only once they exhibit their work that they are faced with a public reaction. The artists in Work of Art were all sharing the same studio and being filmed nearly around the clock. I was impressed how they were prepared to help each other despite the competitive nature of the show. Miles, while being the second youngest artist, was particularly generous with his advice. A number of the contestants would automatically seek his help.

There is a widely spread misconception that art is elitist and only there for the happy few insiders. This is the case despite the fact that there are as many people visiting museums that go to rock concerts or sport events. The show will hopefully familiarize a wider public with what it is to make or judge a work of art. Based on the first episode, Bravo clearly succeeded doing this in an entertaining and fun way.

There is as much diversity in the judging panel as there is amongst the contestants. China Chow is stylish, sexy, fun and has art in her DNA. She is the ultimate host for the show. After reading Jerry Saltz for years in New York Magazine it was great to finally meet him at the New York casting of the artists. I instantly liked him and find him sharp and witty in conveying his opinion to the artists. Bill Powers is a mega cool guy. It is for that reason that I had asked him together with his gorgeous wife Cynthia Rowley to grace the cover of one of Phillips de Pury's auction catalogs. Last but definitely not least, Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn besides being a friend is one of the professionals for whom I have the greatest admiration in the art world. It was interesting to see that the other judges were all looking up to her and quite often taking their cue from her. Since in my own professional life it is all about editing, judging and choosing it was possibly my only frustration as a mentor not being able to also do so in the show.

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The Drama's Done

Jerry gives his thoughts on the final three exhibits.

“Then all collapsed,” goes the last passage of Moby-Dick, “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Work of Art ended last night, although without sublime terror. Its end brought three good shows by three good artists, any one of whom could have won, all three of whom could have real careers (ditto the recent losers Lola and Michelle; Sucklord, get thee to Mordor). The three finalists, plus with my overall feelings about the program this season, tell me that a sea change took place on our show this season, in public and private. Last year, waves of hatred predicted the collapse of the art world and the destruction of art by television; this year unfurled in its own spreading shroud. A bit like art itself: sometimes capturing attention, mostly gliding slowly by.

This year’s Work of Art was less sideshow, more grad school. I suspect that it made for less entertaining TV, though the artists were better and, unlike last year’s, had a sense of how it would go. Each found ways of making personal work in the midst of one of the most impersonal situations any will ever face. As for me: I tried to be clearer in my criticism, weighed fifteen pounds more than last season, marveled as Bill Powers blossomed into an excellent judge, crushed on China Chow, gasped at Simon de Pury’s charisma. I stood in front of a dozen cute stylists. I saw my bald head powdered with makeup. I wore white Spanx that broke my dark heart. It’s a hard … it’s a hard … Wait. Sorry.

About the finalists: Just as last year’s winner, Abdi, should have been given a grant to a good grad school (with the win going instead to the true artist, Peregrine Honig), the excellent artists Lola and Michelle didn’t make it. Sara, who did make the final three, surprised me. After starting off making nice watercolors, she lapsed into cliché and confusion. Although her personality feels oddly absent (both in the flesh and in her work), she got in touch with her inner performance artist, the sculptor within, and excelled with materials. I’m told that Sara is in grad school now, and it should give her a chance to develop her talents. She didn’t win on this night, when much of her show dealt with secret lives and mutant creatures. Once she escapes generic symbolism (like the hypodermic needles she stuck in an old mattress) and ersatz surrealism (origami birds flying from a cage), her work, I imagine, will stand up in the real art world. Congratulations, Sara.

Young’s work rattles with repressed emotion and cerebral acuity. Sharp as a tack about art, the most articulate contestant ever on this show, he became adept at merging the social, the personal, and the material. His show dealt with life, loss, longing, the death of his father, and the cancer of his mother — a lot to take on at once. Thus, it lost emotional momentum. I fancy that Young’s losing a TV game show about art might make his eventual art career easier (though the $100,000 might’ve helped, too). He should move to New York, find a dive in Bushwick, have his New York nervous breakdown, and join a promising next wave of talented people.

Kymia took the prize based on her drawing skills. The surfaces of her drawings didn’t come across on TV, but they were covered in pebble-like flecks, pooled paint, sedimentary minerals, and other original marking techniques. Replete with circumspect touch and fine line and nicely scaled, they had physical presence and psychic gravitas. I was most taken with her rendition of a ship, a sort of psychic raft from the underworld drifting on Melville’s rolling ocean. The shadow of two legs on the sails was hokey, but I wasn’t bothered by this lapse into bathos. Her outing showed an artist following her vision to wherever it led her.

Which is what this show was for me. It already feels far away. My wife has still never watched a minute of Work of Art, though she loves that I did it. So do I. I’m not sure why this is, and would love artists to tell me if there’s an equivalent in their process, but for me Work of Art was all about the before and the after. The show itself was never the thing. It was about getting out of my office; learning how TV is made; being around artists trying as hard as they could; being a part of a mass of people, cameras, lights, and sound equipment functioning as an organism; confronting my fear of celebrities when the show’s executive producer, Sarah Jessica Parker, was a guest judge; being ogled by stylist girls while standing in my underpants. I loved making the show, trying to bring art to a wide audience, writing about it, and the tens of thousands of conversations it generated via my recaps, Facebook posts, tweets, and random street-corner conversations. I dug the shock of someone saying to me in my building’s elevator, “Hey! You’re that mean art-critic judge on TV.” All this experience enriched me, my life, my work, and my stomach.

But the televised show itself? I missed watching four episodes this year — twice I forgot it was on, and twice I had the wrong time. That’s how curious all this has been for me. Right now I feel at peace with my TV god; I’ve gotten everything I wanted. Now it is done. As I am a confessed inner hysteric, allow me a final act of exaggeration, as I end this strange, strange voyage into art criticism on television with the epilogue of Moby-Dick: “The drama's done ... one did survive the wreck ... I was he whom the Fates ordained ... I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks ... glided by ... I was picked up at last ... another orphan ... I alone am escaped to tell thee.”

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