The Millennial Art Star Julie Curtiss’s Paintings Now Sell for Half a Million Dollars. It’s Kind of Freaking Her Out
Prices for works by the young artist are up 10,000 percent in just two years. But some see a bubble that could burst.
On a Wednesday in the middle of May, the artist Julie Curtiss was at her studio in a converted Bushwick warehouse live-streaming the afternoon contemporary art sale at Phillips. Slated at lot 16 was a one-by-one-foot painting that Curtiss had made about three years earlier, estimated to sell for between $6,000 and $8,000. Princess (2016) is typical of her output: a painting of a woman’s head, seen from behind, her hairdo done up in side cinnamon buns. It was the first Curtiss picture to be auctioned anywhere, and the young artist watched the stream with some trepidation.
When the bidding on her worked opened, paddle-wielders in the room and buyers on their phones quickly pushed the price past the high estimate, higher and higher, until it hammered at an astounding $85,000 ($106,250 with fees)—a 7,770 percent increase over the $1,350 paid by the collector who first bought it from an artist-run project space just two years ago.
In the span of minutes, Julie Curtiss became an art star, and she was giddy and also a bit horrified.
“I was thinking, it’s scary, and I’m not making a buck on this,” she told me in her studio earlier this month.
She was sitting on a stool, dressed in painting clothes and a coat. She chose her words carefully but they came out fast, tinted by a French accent chipped barely away by a decade in New York. A playlist was streaming on a laptop: Yo La Tengo, Ariel Pink. Nearby, sitting on a couch or floating through the studio, was Brigitte Mulholland, a director at Anton Kern Gallery, which represents Curtiss.
“When you see those works that are recycled so fast, and you look at how much a piece generated versus the amount of money I made on it, it’s almost funny,” Curtiss went on. “It’s tragicomic.”
“I’m a Bit Worried”
Such immediate validation from the art market means that an artist is doing something right. Most never get close. There are people who want a Julie Curtiss, even if they just want to sell one to someone else who wants a Julie Curtiss. Some say she’s the prototypical young artist blowing up in a vicious art market. Curtiss’s naysayers—and she has a few—predict that the auction result was a flash in the pan, and that the feverish speculation will die down before the next cycle.
But who’s to say? Since the sale of Princess at Phillips, which sources said went to a Middle Eastern buyer, several more works have sold for prices in the mid-six figures. In November, Curtiss’s Pas Du Trois (2018) sold at Christie’s for $423,000, nearly quadruple the record-breaking figure from a few months earlier. It was one of three Curtiss paintings to top $200,000 over the course of 24 hours. Together, they had been sold on the primary market for a combined price of around $10,000. But in a single day, they generated nearly $1.1 million in secondary-market sales, an increase in value of over 10,000 percent.
Earlier this month, while giving her first interview since the records started toppling, she sat in her studio, fresh off a long spell in Japan, showing me two as-yet-unfinished paintings, as well as playful new mini-sculptures that mimic sushi and ramen.
She was chipper, but also a bit embattled. Some high-end dealers and critics have derided her work in background conversations with me as derivative of the Chicago Imagists and the “Hairy Who” crew. Others have negatively associated her work with the perceived Pop-street tackiness of KAWS, an artist for whom she worked as an assistant for a large chunk of this decade. Others point out that Curtiss has yet to be collected by a major institution, and that the bubble for her market could burst any day now.
Curtiss—speaking defiantly while surrounded by her new work—dismisses all that. She knows who she is, even if she can’t quite grapple with the fact that she’s the art world’s new must-have market darling.
“I’m very lucky and I’m aware of it, because there was nothing before, and I know how that is,” she said. “But I’m also a bit worried. I don’t want to be a flash in the pan. I want to have a sustainable career. I don’t want this to be this big inflation—and then a collapse.”
Working at the KAWS Factory
Julie Curtiss was born in France in 1982, and is of French and Vietnamese descent. After growing up in Paris, she studied at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and then at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste in Dresden. She then made her way to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she first encountered Imagists such as Jim Nutt, Ray Yoshida, and Roger Brown. But it’s Christina Ramberg, more than anyone else, whose aesthetic most resembles Curtiss’s—a comparison she acknowledges, though she said she developed her own style before ever coming into contact with the elder artist’s work.
“I was doing works that were so similar to Ray Yoshida and Christina Ramberg, and when I saw her work I was so shocked,” she said. “For artists, it’s hard because sometimes you do something on your own and you see someone who’s doing it 10 times better than you, and their work is always there. So I was like, what’s the fucking point?”
While studying in Chicago, Curtiss met her husband, the artist Clinton King. After graduating, they went to Japan for a year, where she came under the influence of comics and Manga, which led her to a more graphic style. The couple later moved to New York, and for a fraught year, Curtiss worked as a studio hand for Jeff Koons. “It wasn’t exactly conducive for an art career,” she said. She quit after she turned 30.
In 2011, her husband was thumbing through job listings when he spotted a gig at the studio of Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS. At the time, Donnelly was gaining serious momentum, having been picked up by the continent-conquering Perrotin Gallery two years earlier, and was in the process of rolling out his large-scale “Companion” series.
“I sent my visuals, and Brian picked it because he felt a connection and interest,” she said. “He saw something in the work, so that’s where we first connected.”
Working for KAWS wasn’t the cog-in-the-machine joint that was the Jeff Koons factory, but it did require precision. While they look machine-pressed, all KAWS paintings are hand-made, and Curtiss was required to recreate by hand his crisp interpretations of brightly colored cartoon characters.
“His work is really anal, it was so hard to make,” she said. “But he really made me a more skilled and better painter. And the flat backgrounds, the shadows—I never did shadows in my work before working with him.”
Donnelly also provided Curtiss with her first big exposure when he put some of her works on Instagram, bringing her work to his millions of followers.
“There’s a lot of KAWS collectors who have followed my work because Brian promoted my work via Instagram,” she said. “Some of Brian’s supporters were also early supporters of mine.”
By 2015, Curtiss developed the style that would define her. There were Dali-esque tropes (lobsters, crocodiles) described with the Midwestern visual clarity of the Imagists, with a hint of Manga and a KAWS-ian blend of Pop and street art. But she was hardly an overnight success.
“For someone like me who had zero for 15 years, not selling a work, doing shows but not many at all, I know what it’s like,” she said. “So when it started to pick up, I started getting offers from Instagram, but I said, ‘I’m going to wait until I have a gallery show.’”
Spots in group shows led to a solo booth curated by Hein Koh at the 2017 edition of SPRING/BREAK, the curator-driven satellite fair that runs alongside Armory Week in New York. And while she didn’t have gallery representation yet, outfits were circling. That year, Sultana in Paris and Various Small Fires in Los Angeles included her in group shows, as did the London powerhouse White Cube.
It was around then that Mulholland, the Anton Kern director, started talking up Julie’s work to her boss. “I just remember being in Basel in 2017, and I called you,” Mulholland said to Curtiss during my visit to her studio. “And I said, ‘Don’t sell anything.’ I was like, ‘We gotta talk.’ The people who are talking about you—I knew something was going to happen here.”
That same year, she bought a work by Curtiss out of her first New York solo show at 106 Green. “I said, I can’t be an idiot here,” Mulholland told me. “I’m never going to have this opportunity again.”
Before long, Mulholland convinced Kern to visit Curtiss’s Bushwick studio. “Pretty much right away, I thought she was special,” Kern said. “She clearly has one foot in art history and yet is pushing the envelope of what can be done in painting and sculpture.” (Curtiss remembers his first visit to her studio differently. “Anton was like, ‘I don’t know, I don’t know,’” she recalled.)
In 2018, Mulholland included Curtiss in a group show titled “10” at Anton Kern, after which Kern went to visit her again at her studio and formally invited her to join the gallery’s stable. She accepted, and had her first solo show, “Wildfire,” with the gallery this past April.
Up, Up, and Away
It was around that time that the secondary market started to take notice.
“I first saw her work at SPRING/BREAK, and I loved it,” said Rebekah Bowling, the head of the day sale at Phillips. “I lived across the street from The Hole, and she was in the ‘Post Analogue Painting’ group show, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, are any of these still available?’ And they literally laughed at me. That’s when I knew how deep the demand was.”
Later, Bowling would become involved in the Curtiss market on the selling side. Before Curtiss’s first solo show opened at Anton Kern, the collector who owned Princess consigned the work to Phillips, and Bowling slotted it into the afternoon sale, historically a showcase for young artists fresh to auction.
There was every reason to accept the consignment, but sources tell me the provenance was a bit tangled.
The catalogue inaccurately lists the consignor as the work’s original purchaser. In fact, it was first bought by an early Curtiss supporter from an itinerant space call Field Projects, a gallery where 80 percent of exhibitions come by way of open submissions. After purchasing it for $1,350, that supporter sold it to a collector in Miami for $8,000—and then that collector flipped it for a price in the range of $20,000. That final buyer consigned the work to Phillips, even though Anton Kern Gallery offered to connect them to a private collector.
Despite these backstage machinations, the prices Princess traded for, in hindsight, all seem astonishingly low.
“The first time we bring an artist to auction, I want the estimate to be at the primary, and the primary at that time was $8,000,” Bowling said, explaining how she priced the work. “That’s where I was. I was adamant about pricing it there.”
When Curtiss’s show opened at Anton Kern in April, it sold out quickly, which fed speculation about the Phillips sale. How high would Princess go?
After it hammered at $85,000, I asked Kern if he had seen such high prices coming.
“I’m not a taste-maker,” Kern said. “No, I didn’t expect all of this.”
In the last six months, prices for Curtiss’s primary market have inched up. In July, a new painting, Breeders (2019), was for sale through the Brooklyn gallery Clearing for $24,000. In December, Kern sold Outlook (2019) at a similar price point to a collector at Art Basel Miami Beach.
But prices on the secondary market shot up to another stratosphere.
A collector paid $262,086 for Hotel (2018) at Christie’s London in October. In November, Second Thought (2017) sold at Phillips New York for $250,000. The next day, there were two sales in a single night: Party Down (2016) sold at Phillips for $400,000, and Pas De Trois (2018) sold at Christie’s for $423,000.
It doesn’t help that in the past year, Curtiss’s work has become a favorite on the flipping set.
Kathy Grayson, who bought Party Down at SPRING/BREAK for $3,000, sold the work to a fixer who then found a Miami buyer to purchase it for $165,000. Then that buyer consigned it to Phillips, where it sold for $400,000.
Pas de Trois had already changed hands from the person who bought it from Various Small Fires in early 2018. That original buyer sold it to the Los Angeles dealer Niels Kantor, who consigned it to Christie’s in 2019. Estimated at $100,000 to $150,000, the work sold for $423,000.
By the end of 2019, small paintings were being offered for $250,000—more than double what Curtiss’s auction record was just a few months earlier.
Mulholland said that, when people went through her to resell, she gave Curtiss a cut, but that she actively tried to avoid having to deal with these issues in the first place.
“When the Various Small Fires show came up, I came to them and I was like, ‘These need to go to iron-clad homes,'” Mulholland said. “I suspected there would be something coming to auction in 2019. We’re trying to protect against flipping as much as possible.”
“It’s figuration, it’s incredible, excellent work, it’s on trend, and it’s hard to get—and that hunger creates a frenzy,” she said later. “But that frenzy is dangerous. And you don’t want that frenzy to affect the way that work is perceived.”
But many remain skeptical—and even hostile. I had sources tell me they were boycotting even seeing the show at Anton Kern. It’s been said that Jim Nutt, a Chicago legend, is not a fan.
“People scoff at it,” Mulholland admitted. “She and I get trolled on one of those accounts, @itstimetostopnow,” Mulholland went on, referring to the semi-anonymous call-out Instagram. “I fought back, and then he deleted my comments and blocked me.”
She then named a few prominent male dealers, names not to be printed, who have “shit-talked Julie repeatedly, to my face. And I’m like, ‘Fuck you guys, you’re wrong,’” she said.
The next step, then, is to pursue legitimacy through inclusion in museum collections. “We’re always working on getting the work into institutions, and in today’s landscape that’s particularly important,” Kern said.
“There’s nothing wrong with being a market artist, but it is scary for old-school collectors,” Mulholland said. “At a certain point, if you don’t have institutional support, the quote-unquote ‘real collectors’ are not going to buy it, because then it’s something else—it’s not the thing that you know lasts.”
“And she is the thing that lasts,” Mulholland said.
“Are You Going to Survive This?”
At one point in our conversation, Curtiss brought up the fact that many reporters, myself included, have been writing about her primarily because of auction results.
“All I see in terms of press is just about the auction prices, and it’s a little frustrating,” she said. “And all the articles are like, ‘Are you going to survive this?’ Talk about the art then, if you’re concerned about it.”
I said that I wanted to write about her practice. It was a privilege to come to the studio and to see her sketchbook. Curtiss took me through the process of how she layers the canvases over the course of months. She works on multiple paintings at once, recoloring them and applying new dimensions of mania, heightening the surreal qualities to achieve pure eyeball shock, shading in black and gray for depth that betrays how space works.
But the reality is, the works are selling for a lot of money, many times the price even the most successful artist can ever hope for. (Christina Ramberg’s auction record is still just $45,000.) That is a big part of Curtiss’s story at the moment.
“It’s flattering, but I want a collector to collect my work because they like it, and they want to live with it,” she said. “But when there’s so much speculation, people stop seeing the artwork for what it is, they just see the dollar signs. I’m not making a product, I’m not hiring 50 people, I’m painting the paintings myself. Every work is special.”
More work is coming. Curtiss is planning on making the largest works she has ever attempted. She’s having a solo booth at FIAC in October with Anton Kern Gallery. And there are also rumors that a certain gallery that used to represent her mentor is potentially interested in signing her for European and Asian representation, alongside Kern. A source initially wouldn’t tell me which gallery that was, but I guessed it. It wasn’t hard. Julie was included in a show at Perrotin—the ex-gallery of KAWS—in Seoul in April.
And gradually, she’s being placed in the same context as the Chicago Imagists—not as an homage or a reference, but as a Julie Curtiss.
“The highbrow collectors see you in that context,” Mulholland said in the studio, looking at Curtiss. “You’re in an art collection where you’re hanging next to a Roger Brown.”
“That’s so amazing,” Curtiss said, looking at her dealer.
“That’s where you should be,” Mulholland said.
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