Fed Up With Speculators, Artist Lucien Smith Quit His Galleries. Now He’s Been Rewarded With His First Solo Museum Show

Lucien Smith, subject to rampant market speculation, quit his galleries in 2015. Now, he's having a solo show at the Parrish Museum.

Lucien Smith. Photo: Paul Bruinooge/Patrick McMullan

In 2013, just two years out of art school, the artist Lucien Smith had already become a cautionary tale. That year, his painting Hobbes, The Rain Man, and My Friend Barney / Under the Sycamore Tree set a stratospheric auction record at Phillips New York, when it sold for $389,000. Smith saw two more years of rampant speculation before his auction prices fell, just as quickly as they rose.

In 2019, the average sale price for Smith’s work at auction was just $22,992, according to the Artnet Price Database.

After a string of bad experiences with primary-market dealers, too, Smith decided to strike it out on his own in 2015. Now, he is having his first solo museum exhibition, which he sees as proof that artists can successfully represent themselves.

“I’ve worked with some of the best galleries and I’ve worked with younger galleries and they were never able to secure a museum show for me,” Smith tells Artnet News. “So I just took it into my own hands.”

The Parrish Museum in Long Island is showing the final 10 works from Smith’s series of “Rain Paintings,” which he made in the summer of 2013, when he was offered the use of a house in the Hamptons. Installed in the museum’s 1,000-square-foot special exhibitions gallery, the tightly hung works create a dazzling immersive environment that resembles the inimitable combination of soft East End light and ocean spray, which have been sources of inspiration for generations of painters in the Hamptons.

Lucien Smith, Installation view of “Southampton Suite” (2013) at the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York. Photo: Gary Mamay.

The “Southampton Suite,” as the works have been collectively called, mark the crescendo of the artist’s larger body of “Rain Paintings,” for which he used a technique of showering paint onto unprimed canvases with an industrial fire extinguisher.

Smith says the genesis of the exhibition has been “the best experience I’ve had as an artist so far.”

A year and a half ago, Smith pulled the suite of paintings out of storage and installed them in a warehouse in Queens to show a select group of industry contacts. Among the guests was Parrish chief curator Alicia Longwell, who he had met in 2012 through a collector who had gifted one of the artist’s paintings to the museum.

“When I walked into the room where the paintings were on view it was so close in proportion to this gallery of ours, I thought, this would be really extraordinary to show,” Longwell told Artnet News. The Parrish “is very interested in artists who have been here on the East End,” she added, “and the paintings were made a stone’s throw from the museum.”

Though museum exhibitions typically take several years to plan and execute, the opportunity to show Smith’s paintings came much sooner than expected. The Parrish had actually scheduled a major loan exhibition for August, but was forced to scrap the plans when the lockdown took effect. “So I thought maybe Lucien would like to bring the paintings here for this moment, and it just worked,” Longwell said. “It was perfect timing all around.” She added that restrictions limiting Americans’ travel abroad has meant that “everybody in christendom is out here on the East End.”

Lucien Smith, LSMI 5 – Blue and Yellow (2013).

Now Smith hopes that the exhibition will not only revitalize his own career, but serve as an inspiration to other artists who may want to represent themselves. “What I would love to achieve from this is to give artists a little more power,” he says. “A lot of artists think they need to put their careers in the hands of curators and dealers and gallerists to be taken seriously. But I don’t necessarily think that is the case all of the time.”

Andrea Glimcher, an art advisor who specializes in counseling artists, including Pat Steir and Will Ryman, told Artnet News that while self-representation can work, it still only comes by having connections to the same networks of collectors, curators, and other contacts that galleries often provide.

“There absolutely are people who’ve done it and have the capacity to do it, but I believe that it’s very rare and very hard,” Glimcher said. “Even if artists may make their own decisions, nobody can get there on their own.”

“Even the most independent of artists still have a support network,” she added. “Whether that network is more invisible or more obvious, it’s still there.”

Smith acknowledges that going solo has has been “a tough road,” but feels like it ultimately has paid off: “For me this was like my own little hurrah.”

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