Whenever he is asked about his first studio, the American artist Mark Bradford says that it was at his mother’s salon in Leimert Park, Los Angeles. For years he was a hair stylist there, folding end papers onto hair and imagining how they would look folded onto canvas. “These pieces of translucent paper that he used to perm Black women’s hair become the building blocks of his exquisite early abstractions, celebrating beauty rooted in the Black beauty salon and its role within his life and community,” says Veronica Roberts, the curator of Day Jobs, a group exhibition opening this month at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin.
We really overlook how much seemingly mundane routines can spark important creative directions and discoveriesVeronica Roberts, curator
The exhibition—which includes Bradford’s work alongside that of 37 other US-based artists from the post-war period onwards—aims to demonstrate that studios and day jobs are not the polar opposites we might believe. What artists do to make a living can also fuel their creative practice. “Ideas for creativity come from so many places,” Roberts says, rallying against the myth that artists must shut themselves away in their studios. “We really overlook how much seemingly mundane routines and lived experiences matter and can spark important creative directions and discoveries.”
Sol LeWitt, who Roberts met early in her career and who partially inspired the exhibition, told her that working in public-facing roles with other artists at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the 1960s was a better education than art school. He would often chat with Dan Flavin, then the resident elevator operator, or Robert Mangold, who was both a security guard and a librarian. Clocking in elsewhere in Manhattan, Barbara Kruger claims that the greatest influence on her graphic collages combining text and image was her work as an editorial graphic designer for various magazines.
From lawyers to dishwashers
The CVs of the artists on show in Day Jobs include positions such as intensive care unit nurse, lawyer, water meter reader, dishwasher, home security system installer and nanny, among many other posts. The exhibition will intentionally showcase a range of geographic locations within the US, and limit its reach to the post-war period to allow for more balanced gender representation, since women were increasingly part of the workforce after the Second World War. “But the most important criteria really was that the day job have a significant, direct and tangible impact on an artist’s practice,” Roberts says. “Having an interesting day job was not enough.”
Figuring out artists’ employment history was not easy though, since such information is generally not advertised on personal portfolios or gallery webpages. (The illustrious CV on Jeffrey Gibson’s personal website does not note, for instance, that he once arranged floor displays at Ikea.) Over the past five years, Roberts has contacted more than 50 curators, gallerists and artists to ask for leads.
These queries led her to artists such as Sara Bennett, who photographs women that have served extended sentences in prison. These telling portraits were made possible through her day job as a public defender, which helped her gain her subjects’ trust. Another suggestion led to the Venezuela-born conceptual artist Violette Bule, who creates multimedia works based on her experience in the service industry, such as the photograph Dream America (2015) and the sculpture Homage to Johnny (2015). The latter is a tribute to a past co-worker at a downtown Manhattan bakery who was paid $5 an hour to sort and polish silverware and take out the trash. The sculpture is constructed from thousands of forks, knives and spoons that are magnetically attached to a metal doorway, temporarily secure but also in a precariously vulnerable state where they could be extracted at any given moment.
The exhibition will divide the nearly 100 works on view according to industry sector, differentiating itself from survey shows that are usually categorised according to chronology, medium or theme. These sectors include the service industry, industrial design, media and advertising, fashion and design, care work, finance technology and law, the art world, and a section devoted entirely to MoMA (where Howardena Pindell also worked).
“The influence of these jobs manifests itself in varied ways—sometimes through materials, other times methods or subject matter, and in numerous other ways,” Roberts says. “Influences are immediately legible in some works and more subtle in others. Our hope is to create entry points but also unexpected discoveries.”
• Day Jobs, Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, 19 February-23 July