‘It Was Like Relationship Bootcamp’: Artists Julie Curtiss and Clinton King on Going Broke to Chase Love, and the Struggles Before Success
In Artnet News's Portraits of Love series, young creative couples offer insights into their partnerships.
How do two young artists, struggling to carve out a place in the increasingly competitive art world, make love last? For painters Julie Curtiss and Clinton King, their 15-year relationship is built on the bedrock of their shared creative drive and passion for art.
Curtiss, 37, born in France, is a newly minted art world A-lister, her market exploding overnight in 2019 when a trio of her figurative canvases—which recall the work of the Chicago Imagists—sold for a combined $1.1 million over the course of just 24 hours at Phillips New York. She then signed with London’s White Cube gallery.
King, 43, an abstract painter who hails from Ohio, may not be far behind her. Curtiss’s first breakthrough came three years ago with a booth at New York’s SPRING/BREAK Art Show. At this year’s edition of the fair, opening next week, Brigitte Mulholland—who has represented Curtiss at Anton Kern Gallery in New York since 2018—is curating a solo booth featuring King. Curtiss will also be there, as a curator with a booth featuring her friend Margaux Valengin.
Ahead of the busy install at the DIY fair, Artnet News sat down with the two for our “Portraits of Love” series. In their art-filled Brooklyn apartment, King and Curtiss were candid about how they survived moving together to a foreign country; their years of long-distance love; and their day-to-day existence in New York City as two emerging artists trying to make a living.
How did you two meet and what were your first impressions of each other?
Julie: We’ve known each other since 2005. I went to the Art Institute of Chicago as a foreign exchange student for six months. Clint was friends with my roommate.
Clinton: I was in love with her immediately. I was like “Wow, who’s that woman?” Or, who’s that girl, because she was so young!
Julie: He was like, grinning and staring at me. We were at a mutual friend’s birthday party at a karaoke bar. I asked my roommate, “Who’s that guy?” She was like, “Oh that’s Clinton, he’s so flirty.”
Clinton: My friends dared me to go talk to her, and we got along quite well.
Julie: We went straight to the art discussion, the deep stuff.
So what was your first date?
Clinton: I invited her to a show. But I used to be a performance artist, so I was in a costume.
Julie: There were all these performers and I was looking at their feet, trying to figure out which one was Clinton. I guessed wrong! You were the one in the death cloak.
Clinton: I was the drummer. I bought a museum replica 16th-century monk robe. It had this giant black hood. It was a holocaust cloak, like in The Princess Bride! I pulled off the cloak and she was like “Oh, it’s you!”
Julie: At the afterparty we talked, just you and I, for the entire evening. Then you were like, “Let me give you my phone number.” It was back when you still had little address books.
Clinton: Before smartphones!
Julie: He handed it back to me and there were little hearts drawn everywhere around his name.
So you fell in love, but Julie was going back to France, right?
Clinton: I followed her there two times. Used up all my money.
Julie: He went for vacation. He was really broke.
Did any of those early dates revolve around art?
Julie: One time, we took Adderall and went to the Louvre, and we went on a six-hour rampage. It was like we couldn’t stop.
Clinton: That was awesome. We went to [see] the Byzantine art, and the Egyptian, and the Greek. We were really focused on everything.
So after Clinton visited France, you wanted to go somewhere you could be together.
Julie: After I graduated with my Beaux-Arts certificate, we decided to go to Japan. I was free to go anywhere, and I had always wanted to go to Japan.
Clinton: I had already been there but I wanted to go back.
Julie: And it was easier with papers for both of us.
Clinton: We got to Tokyo with no plan. I was there for a few months before her.
And you hadn’t spent much time together at that point…
Julie: We almost split up after a year in Japan. It was very challenging. We didn’t know each other, and we were in a country where we didn’t know the language, didn’t know many people, didn’t know what we were going to do with our lives. A lot of challenges.
Clinton: It was like relationship bootcamp. And it was a deeply introspective period of time for both us.
Julie: It was rough. We weren’t our best selves.
Did you have a studio while you were there?
Julie: We practiced at home. The people we were renting the apartment from were an old couple who ran an artist residency, the Youkobo Art Space.
Clinton: I just found them by chance, and they gave us shows and everything!
Julie: They were so sweet, and they created this art community. We went back recently for a two-month residency for their 30th anniversary. It’s the longest running art residency in Asia.
So after Japan, you had a period where you were long-distance.
Julie: I went back to France. My mother was very sick and I had to be with her.
Clinton: I stayed in Japan for a year, alone.
Julie: We were long-distance for three years.
Clinton: Skype, phone. We met in Vietnam, in France, she came back to Japan to visit once. And then I went back to the US and she would visit there.
Julie: When we started in Japan, we weren’t really ready. During the long-distance years, we grew. It was hard, but it was actually good, too. You stuck around for me.
Clinton: When her mother died, it brought us together.
How did you find your way to New York?
Clinton: I realized one day in Japan that if I stayed, I was going to stay there forever. I had a show in Hong Kong, and they were looking for Sol LeWitt draftsmen there for a the big retrospective at MASS MoCA. I applied and that was my ticket out of Japan. I went straight to MASS MoCA, with just a few days in my hometown. Julie came to North Adams for a month or two.
Julie: Then we decided to go New York.
Clinton: I moved first. I lived in this tiny closet off Fort Hamilton Parkway. It was terrible. I didn’t even have a bed or blanket. I was working for an art-handling company and I was using shipping blankets as bedding.
Julie: You didn’t have enough money to eat. You were eating bananas.
Clinton: And beer and oatmeal.
Do you think having a partner who was also an artist helped you persevere despite those financial struggles?
Clinton: I was so driven. I knew it could happen. Being on the trucks as an art handler, I could see it. I thought, “If you just go with this, I think it’s possible.” And I went to France and I told Julie, “I think if we went to New York, we could do this.” And she came to New York and it was really difficult. But eventually you get into one or two shows, and you meet people….Someone told me, that’s how you do it: You meet people and you make good work.
Julie: New York, I think, is one of the rare places [where] that can happen. I think it’s way harder in Paris. In Tokyo, I don’t see that happening.
Clinton: Chicago wasn’t working. I’m from Columbus and I went as far as I could there. I showed at the Columbus Museum of Art in my early twenties. Where do you go from there? When I came to New York, I said, “If it’s going to happen at all, this is where it happens.”
Are there any cons of having a fellow artist as a partner?
Clinton: [Deciding] whose time is more valuable. Artists are very self-centered by nature; they have to go in the studio and do their thing. We had to start regimenting: “When do we meet?”
Julie: It’s true. Time is tough. A practice can encroach on time together. But since we’re professionals, that got sorted out quickly.
Clinton: It’s competitive.
Julie: Yeah, but it doesn’t need to be! At first it seemed maybe it was a very terrible decision to both be artists. We were both broke. Trying to compete out there was really tough, but I think as we’re growing older, we realize we have so much in common. It outweighs the financial thing. And now financially, it’s getting more comfortable.
What drew you both to art?
Clinton: I’ve always done it, since I was a little kid—it’s really the only thing I can do very well. Art is all I’ve ever done.
Julie: Same thing here. I’m an only child, so I had a lot of time to kill by myself. I was in dance class and music class, so art was the only moment of freedom and self-expression I could get. It was already a practice when I was, I would say, 14. I wanted to be an illustrator before I went to school.
Clinton: I wanted to be Van Gogh.
Julie: Then when I went to prep school, I realized, “Fuck illustration. I don’t want to illustrate, I want to do my own stuff.” It was a very revealing moment. Clint and I, we don’t come from artistic backgrounds. My parents brought me to museums, and my dad is very artistic, but we didn’t have any models of people making a living out of art.
And when did you get married?
Julie: September 13, 2011. It was two years of working on the papers to get married. And then my mother died right after I got to New York.
Clinton: That was terrible. Because Julie was waiting for the green card, she couldn’t even go back for the funeral. But the wedding was beautiful.
Julie: It was pretty artistic. We had no money. We got married at New York’s City Hall, and then we did a small, spiritual ceremony in France, in Burgundy, where my parents have a small country house. We invited our closest friends and family. Maybe 40, 50 people. We found an old monastery that was close by. Our Japanese friends flew in and played sitar for the ceremony, and my mother’s best friend married us.
Clinton: We kind of invented a ritual.
Julie: And then it was a dance party, and we had a magician. But the cost of doing everything ourselves was that we were so exhausted we didn’t even have energy to party! The good part was the honeymoon. We did a stopover in Iceland, four or five days. I still dream of it.
Clinton: There was nobody there! Just some sheep. Rainbows everywhere. We went into a lava cave deep under the ground, and were the only people there.
Julie: We saw a melting glacier. There were these blocks of ice in purple and blue colors floating on the lake. We stayed there in silence with the sea lions. It felt really special. It was like our playground.
And now what are your daily lives as artists like?
Julie: I work almost every day of the week right now. There’s no routine, just working all the time in the studio.
Clinton: I work for a private art dealer on the Upper East Side, part-time. At night I go to the studio, and on the weekends. Mondays I have off. Our studios are in a building just two blocks away.
Julie: We’ve been doing our own thing lately.
Clinton: But one thing that unifies us is Reverberation Radio. We listen to it all the time when we’re making art.
Julie: It’s a mix of surf rock and international pop and everything. They constantly come up with really great playlists.
Clinton: The music constantly changing in the background keeps us kind of flexible in the studio. You don’t get bogged down into one mood.
How involved do you get in each other’s practices?
Clinton: We’re pretty engaged. We’ve always worked together on things. We’ve even done some collaborative projects.
Julie: I’ve been using Clinton a lot when I can’t make up my mind about stuff. I send him images. It’s usually about a very specific question: “There’s a problem with this. What is it?” I don’t know if I’m as useful as he is for me. [With] abstraction, you kind of have to make your way through it.
Clinton: I ask her, “Does this feel done?” And she asks me, “Does this look done?”
Julie: And then you ask me and I tell you something and you don’t follow it anyway!
Clinton: But more often than not we help each other out.
Julie: There was a whole period of time where your opinion was too important to me and I wasn’t asking for your input as much. I just needed to really focus on myself and make the mistakes I was going to make and figure it out myself. It confused me, but once I became stronger and I knew what I really wanted, I could invite you again and not care as much.
Where do you differ, as artists?
Clinton: Her sense of color is different than mine. I think it’s because she’s European. That’s a theory we have.
Julie: I have weird colors! But we are almost opposites.
Clinton: I produce a lot of work over a short period of time. It’s very explosive, and then I rest. And she’s consistently there.
Julie: I’m slow. I’m more like a marathon runner. You’re a sprinter.
Clinton: Her focus and work ethic, it makes me want to go the studio and work harder.
What are some things that you’ve seen lately that have inspired you?
Clinton: When we were in Japan, we liked the Ukiyo-e prints at the Ota Memorial Museum in Tokyo. Both of our influences kind of met in these prints. The complexity of them, the level of detail, was similar to mine, but the use of line was similar to Julie’s art.
Julie: They have the most extensive collection of prints in Japan. It was amazing. But since we got back in December we’ve been absolutely busy and not going to shows together.
Julie: I didn’t see those. I really liked Félix Vallotton at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The prints were really fun and surprising. The simplicity and effectiveness of them, especially after Japan—it was really cool.
What kind of art do you live with at home?
Julie: Esther Ruiz. Really eclectic stuff.
Clinton: And this is a Sol LeWitt wall drawing [on the living room wall]. One of the chief draftsman who was friends with Sol helped me designed it.
Julie: We have to paint over if we move out. It’s strictly for ourselves.
What would you be your dream work to own?
Julie: We’ve talked about what an important piece that was for us.
Clinton: I worked with Christian on The Clock at Paula Cooper Gallery [in New York]. We set it up and I got to talk with him about how he did it. It was really amazing.
Julie: We watched hours and hours! But if we can go crazy, I’d like to have really old stuff.
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