A mark is just a decision, a touch that can go in so many different directions. . . . There’s so much that you’re not seeing, so many decisions. That’s where the art happens. . . . The viewer doesn’t ever get to witness it, but they have to know that it was there and there has to be a space for the imagination.
Moving between diverse styles and subjects, Dan Colen investigates the conceptual stakes of materiality and mark making. Interested in how the physical properties of mediums dictate their specific forms and symbolic resonances, Colen oscillates in his work between rigorous artisanal technique and the aesthetics of chance. Alongside his works in oil on canvas, he has often employed unconventional materials such as chewing gum, flowers, and trash, relinquishing control of his work’s final appearance to their unpredictable surfaces. He also produces time-based and three-dimensional works, including animatronic sculptures and performances. With imagery adapted from popular culture, he explodes the boundaries between fine art and subculture, interrogating the dynamic between images and the materials from which they are composed.
Born in Leonia, New Jersey, Colen received a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001. In his earliest works, Colen labored over precise oil renderings of banal interiors—a sloppy apartment bathroom, an adolescent bedroom, a camping tent—into which he introduced the presence of the supernatural—the Blue Fairy, Jesus Christ, twinkling cherubs, his deceased grandfather. A subsequent series, the Candle paintings (2003–10), drew inspiration from the Disney film Pinocchio (1940). In these works, Colen honed in on the moment in which artistic materials suddenly become alive and autonomous from their maker: the space of the canvas embodies Geppetto’s worktable—where Pinocchio becomes “real”—and a message appears in the smoke left by a just-extinguished candle flame. He has described the series as “an attempt at conversing with god or the infinite.”
From 2006 Colen explored the idea of finding beauty in the accidental in a series of abstract “paintings” made from chewing gum. Experimenting with different treatments, he became fascinated by how the medium insisted upon certain forms: “It’s about tapping into a material’s power and figuring out what it wants to do,” he explained in 2014. The Gum paintings (2006–16) marked the beginning of his engagement with nontraditional mediums in the space of painting, which would include confetti and steel studs as well as flowers and trash. In other series, Colen used conventional mediums and techniques to emulate “low” or abject materials: In his graffiti-inspired Board Paintings (2003–17), for example, he painstakingly replicated haphazard spatters of aerosol paint using enamel paint, while in his Birdshit paintings (2006–08/2015–16), he manipulated oil paint to emulate the droppings of pigeons.
By 2010, Colen had begun to return to figurative subject matter in his paintings, beginning with the Miracle series (2010–18). As in the Candle paintings, he based these works on Disney stills—in this case, from the mythic Fantasia (1940)—as a means to tap into the animation giant’s stronghold on our collective imagination. Echoing the magical subject matter, Colen’s bursts of powder, puddles of liquid, and raking pulls and pushes examine the intrinsic properties and potential revelations of oil paint itself. Colen’s Desert paintings (2015–19) further the exploration, commenting upon the artifice of paint and the boundary between materiality and mirage with lush re-creations of the trompe l’oeil tunnels used by Wile E. Coyote to trap the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes cartoon series. His HELP paintings (2019–20) reveal an interest in the medium’s semiotic—rather than material—capacity. Featuring the message in a bottle as a leitmotif, with imagery adapted from Disney’s The Rescuers (1977), this series takes the act of communication as its subject, exploring questions around how meaning is transmitted through painting, and to whom.
Colen continually probes concepts in the history of modern art such as “high” and “low,” artistic agency, and medium specificity. In recent years a variety of projects with a social-equity focus have become increasingly central to his artistic practice. He founded Sky High Farm in 2011, a Hudson Valley nonprofit committed to increasing food security in New York’s underserved communities by providing donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2017 Colen collaborated with RxArt on the installation Moments like this . . . for St. Mary’s Healthcare System for Children in Queens, New York, a facility that serves a community of two thousand living with acute special needs and medical conditions.
Dan Colen: Sky High Farm
In this video, Dan Colen speaks about his inspiration in founding Sky High Farm as a way to address food insecurity and improve access to fresh, nutritious food for underserved communities in New York. Established in 2011, the 40-acre farm raises pasture-based livestock and grows organic fruit and vegetables exclusively for donation.
The Bigger Picture
Sky High Farm × Project EATS
Dan Colen and Linda Goode Bryant are both artists who have founded nonprofits devoted to food justice. Here they speak about art, food, and life, including how they arrived at farming and the urgency of their projects’ missions during the current health crisis.
A Single Moment: Dan Colen and Francesco Bonami
Dan Colen joins Francesco Bonami in a conversation about absence and nostalgia, decadence and decay, progress and failure—and about help, the theme of his most recent body of paintings.
Dan Colen with Hans Ulrich Obrist
Against the backdrop of his survey exhibition Sweet Liberty, Dan Colen speaks about his work with Hans Ulrich Obrist, starting with his earliest interest in art and continuing up to the recent Desert paintings (2015–19).
Dan Colen: Carry On Cowboy
Gagosian Quarterly presents Dan Colen’s Carry On Cowboy. This performance first took place during the exhibition Dan Colen: High Noon at Gagosian, Beverly Hills.
Dan Colen: At Least They Died Together
Gagosian Quarterly presents Dan Colen’s At Least They Died Together. This performance first took place during the exhibition Dan Colen: High Noon at Gagosian, Beverly Hills.
Gagosian Quarterly Talks
Dan Colen, Dimitri Chamblas, and Douglas Fogle
Douglas Fogle moderates a conversation between Dan Colen and Dimitri Chamblas following the premiere of Colen’s two performance pieces At Least They Died Together and Carry On Cowboy.
Work in Progress
We visit the artist’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his new series of Desert paintings while he prepares for an upcoming exhibition in Beverly Hills. Text by Ben Eastham.
The Bigger Picture
Free Arts NYC
Meredith Mendelsohn discusses the impact of Free Arts NYC and its mission to foster creativity in children and teens, on the occasion of its twenty-year anniversary.
Dan Colen and Ali Subotnick
Dan Colen speaks with Ali Subotnick on the occasion of his exhibition, Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty, at the Newport Street Gallery in London.
The Bigger Picture
Derek Blasberg speaks with Diane Brown, president and founder of RxArt, and with contributing artists Dan Colen, Urs Fischer, and Jeff Koons about the transformative power of visual art.
Dan Colen: The Bowery School
In this video from the Louisiana Channel, Dan Colen sits down to talk about friends like Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow, and how his art developed to a place of celebration.
Sky High Farm
Dan Colen founded Sky High Farm in 2011 as a way to address food insecurity and improve access to fresh, nutritious food for underserved communities in New York. Located in Columbia County, New York, the 40-acre farm raises pasture-based livestock and grows organic fruit and vegetables exclusively for donation. Recently recognized as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the organization is raising funds to help expand its reach in the next decade. Donations will be used to increase production, scale up distribution, support other regional farms, and create educational opportunities. To donate, visit charity.gofundme.com.
Sky High Farm, Columbia County, New York
Regenerative Farming and Food Justice
Dan Colen and Jon Gray
Thursday, August 20, 2020, 8pm EDT
Join Dan Colen, artist and founder of Sky High Farm, and Jon Gray, cofounder of Ghetto Gastro, for a conversation on regenerative farming and food justice. Moderated by Patagonia environmental coordinator Rebecca Goodstein, the pair will discuss the intersections between regenerative organic agriculture farming, food justice, art, and the COVID-19 pandemic. To watch the live conversation, register at patagonia.com.
Sky High Farm, Columbia County, New York
Food Justice and Security
Dan Colen, Linda Goode Bryant, and Qiana Mickie in Conversation with Sonia Chopra
Thursday, August 6, 2020, 5pm EDT
Join Gagosian and 92nd Street Y for a conversation on contemporary food justice and community food security. The presentation will feature three speakers working in the field: Dan Colen, artist and founder of Sky High Farm, a nonprofit working to improve access to nutritious food for New Yorkers in underserved communities; gallerist and filmmaker Linda Goode Bryant, founder of Project EATS, an urban farming initiative aimed at sustainable food production in low income communities in New York City; and Qiana Mickie, special projects consultant for Just Food, a pioneer in food justice and an advocate for sustainable agriculture with an emphasis on community-driven solutions to inequities in our food system. The discussion will be moderated by writer Sonia Chopra, executive editor of Bon Appétit, and co-executive producer of No Passport Required on PBS. To attend the event, purchase tickets at 92y.org. A portion of ticket sales will be donated to Just Food, Project EATS, and Sky High Farm.
Vegetables from Sky High Farm being prepared for distribution in New York
Matt Black × Gana Art
November 1, 2019–January 5, 2020
Gana Art Center and Gana Art Hannam, Seoul
In collaboration with filmmaker Matt Black, this exhibition is centered around his short film series titled Reflections, which features conversations with contemporary artists. Through his interviews, Black paints a picture of the rapidly changing contemporary art scene, revealing the stories behind the artworks. Following the film’s theme, Gana Art has curated this exhibition to feature works by these artists, which include Dan Colen, Rachel Feinstein, Jeff Koons, Harmony Korine, Sterling Ruby, Taryn Simon, and Blair Thurman, among others.
Installation view, Reflections: Matt Black × Gana Art, Gana Art Center and Gana Art Hannam, Seoul, November 1, 2019–January 5, 2020. Artwork © Sterling Ruby
Works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection
May 24–September 15, 2018
Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo
This exhibition of works from the Astrup Fearnley Collection will bring together a corpus of Dan Colen’s paintings (made from oil, chewing gum, confetti, flowers, and lemon juice) as well as sculpture, photographs, and film. Embodiments of moments that have taken on aesthetic form, the works present fragmented stories told in the first person about the artist and his immediate environment. They are dialogues with society and commentaries on art history that often reference political issues, mixing high and low cultural values.
Dan Colen, No Way Jose, 2008–09 © Dan Colen. Photo: Christopher Burke
October 4, 2017–January 28, 2018
Newport Street Gallery, London
This exhibition is Dan Colen’s first major solo exhibition in London and spans more than fifteen years of his art making. The show features new works, including large-scale installations, alongside significant early pieces.
Installation view, Dan Colen: Sweet Liberty, Newport Street Gallery, London, October 4, 2017–January 28, 2018. Artwork © Dan Colen. Photo by Prudence Cumings Associates Ltd © Victor Marta Ltd.
Dan Colen in
Ryan McGinley: The Kids Were Alright
February 11–August 20, 2017
Museum of Contemporary Art Denver
Featured in this survey of Ryan McGinley’s early work is Dan Colen’s Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future) (2004–06/2016). This massive sculpture––the artist’s first––is also a monumental painting. Spanning almost ten feet, the freestanding work is comprised of hundreds of small oil paintings on paper or foam, each a 1:1 trompe l’oeil representation of a corresponding photograph, newspaper clipping, or object that hung in an identical position on Dash Snow’s apartment wall in the early 2000s. The apartment was a gathering place for friends and artists, among them Colen’s childhood friend Ryan McGinley.
Dan Colen, Secrets and Cymbals, Smoke and Scissors (My Friend Dash’s Wall in the Future), 2004–06/2016