Artistic Licence: Artists before they became Artists

3 mins
Share via

Every collector has their own motivation for investing in art. The preservation of value, the genre, the subject matter, the potential for value gain, filling a space perfectly but beneath all of those reasons there is one commonality, the connection with the artist. It is the artist we look to for an explanation and the inspiration behind their work and for that we often need to dig a little deeper than their catalogue.

In this article we look at the careers of seven artists. Some, in the case of Andy Warhol for instance, have had a relatively smooth career arc from early opportunities to full-time artist but others found themselves doing the polar opposite before their creativity could support them consistently.

Andy Warhol – Graphic Designer

Arguably Andy Warhol had the smoothest transition from supporting act to main event. When he moved to New York in 1949 aged 21, his design portfolio caught the attention of fashion magazine editors. In the post-war period, the advertising industry wanted to break away from tradition, seeking a style that was more experimental. Warhol’s approach answered that brief, and a steady stream of commercial work came his way. He illustrated shoes for Harper’s Bazaar and Glamour magazines and was in demand designing window displays for New York’s iconic departments stores. A visionary approach to the power of brand, popular and celebrity culture saw him earn $53,000 by 1959, almost half-a-million dollars in today’s money. He never looked back. Last year his portrait of Marilyn Monroe became the most expensive piece of artwork by an American artist ever sold at auction, selling for a record-breaking $195 million.

Richard Serra – Furniture Removal

Sculptor Richard Serra went above and beyond during the Sixties when he needed to self-fund his minimalist artwork. He started a furniture removals business in New York named “Low-Rate Movers” – giving off a strong ‘Man with a Van’ feel. Not only did his efforts sustain him, but he also employed his art friends who were in a similar position. Artist and composer Philip Glass was one, who worked both as his assistant, helping him install shows, and as part of the removal business, moving people’s ephemera up and down apartment stairs. When you consider the ‘muscular’ nature of his work, the sheer heft of his large-scale abstract steel sculptures makes his early “career” choice less surprising.  

Jeff Koons – Commodities Broker

After graduating from college Jeff Koons moved to New York, a common theme throughout this article, and worked at the membership desk of the Museum of Modern Art before becoming a commodities broker on Wall Street in the early 1980s. That work helped to finance his art endeavours until 1985 when his show Equilibrium captured the imagination - “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank”, a Spalding basketball floating in the centre of a glass tank described by Koons as 'the penultimate state of being', neither death nor life, but a suspended state of rest. From that moment his career was not at rest and his finance days were behind him.  

After the basketball came a child’s inflatable toy, followed by a shiny stainless-steel rabbit ‘balloon’ sculpture the very next year; it sold at Christie’s in 2019 for $91.1 million, breaking the record at auction for a work by a living artist.

Mark Rothko – School Teacher

Mark Rothko’s determination to have a career in art was clear to him as soon as he arrived in New York. After enrolling in classes at Parsons School of Design, he exhibited work for the first time in 1928 with a group of other young artists. He saw some commercial success but not enough to live without additional income, and in 1929 he began giving classes in painting and clay sculpture at the Center Academy of the Brooklyn Jewish Center. He enjoyed the work and continued as a teacher for another 22 years. One of his works, from 1961, Orange, Red, Yellow, sold for $86.9 million in 2015 at Christie’s. The seller had taken out a loan in 1967 to purchase it and held on to the piece for over four decades.  

Keith Haring – Busboy

Before Keith Haring’s Pop artwork became the embodiment of street culture in the 1980’s – providing a commentary on politics and society which still has resonance today – he worked as a busboy in Danceteria, a multi-floor and legendary nightclub in New York. Coincidently, and just to prove that it is not just visual artists that need to earn a living before they make it, Madonna was employed as a ‘coat-check girl’ at the same club in the early 1980s. That connection continued – Madonna announced that the final American date of her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour would be a benefit concert for Haring's memory.  

Haring tapped into the energy of New York, his friendships, and turned art ‘on its head’; his populist approach and style was ultimately rooted in his determination to spread an activist’s message.  

George W Bush & Winston Churchill – Politicians  

Our final two ‘artists’ are outliers but still, in their way, prove the rule. Here artistic prowess later in life follows a lifetime in a different field – they could paint because their careers supported their desire.  

Their focus on art proved to be restorative, in the case of Churchill, and almost rehabilitative for former President George W Bush.  

Winston Churchill was first introduced to painting during a family holiday in 1915, when his political career had cratered. Thereafter, through good times and bad, and throughout the second world war he continued this hobby, painting over 500 pictures of subjects around his country home Chartwell and the landscapes and buildings of Morocco. He sold some works but gave away many away more. Churchill gave an Impressionist-style painting of a sunlit Marrakesh with the Atlas Mountains in the background to President Roosevelt in 1943, as a birthday gift, after a World War II strategy meeting in Casablanca.

That work, “Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” (1943) was sold by the actress Angelina Jolie in 2021 for $11.5 million, a record for an artwork by Churchill.

As for Bush, he began painting as a post-presidency pastime. Creating a set of paintings in the evenings as a way to commemorate some of the veterans he has met since leaving office in 2009. He describes himself as a “simple painter”. In 2021 he unveiled 43 new portraits of inspiring immigrants.

Seven artists, all achieving their métier with the assistance of an alternative career. Often their early, essential work shaping their artistic direction and providing the DNA for their future catalogue. Food on the table to art on the wall.  

Sign Up