Oscar Murillo Perfectly Encapsulates the Current State of the Contemporary Art World
The 28-year-old Colombian-born artist Oscar Murillo has had a very good couple of years and has paid for it with a very bad couple of months. Until April, when he installed an elaborate chocolate factory inside one of blue-chip David Zwirner’s big-box spaces in Chelsea, he’d never had a solo show in New York. And yet astronomical sales of his scribbly, urgent, and defiantly un-precious paintings—which he makes using a broomstick and sometimes stitches together from multiple canvases, often feature “dirt” among their listed materials, and are tagged with large enigmatic words (YOGA, CHORIZO, MILK)—had made him perhaps the most talked-about young artist in the world.
Back in September, a Murillo that had been bought for $7,000 in 2011 was auctioned for $401,000 at Phillips; in February, a three-year-old painting, with BURRITO written on it, sold for $322,000 at Christie’s, and the prices of stacks of his other works had soared, too, appreciating by as much as 3,000 percent in just two years. It may seem crass to describe the arrival of a new painter by tracing the trajectory of his sales (not to mention none of that resale loot went to the artist but to those who had bought his work when it was cheap). And yet his story is impossible to tell otherwise; even the critical backlash is driven less by skepticism about his paintings (which many haven’t had the opportunity to see in person) than by a general anxiety about what fast money is doing to the art world and to those non-financiers who used to curate and adjudicate it. As the art adviser Allan Schwartzman predicted about Murillo earlier this year, “Almost any artist who gets that much attention so early on in his career is destined for failure.”
When I meet him just before the Zwirner opening, Murillo has a polite, boyish evasiveness, as if the rest of us, amusingly to him, aren’t quite as real as what is going on in the cartoon world inside his head. “I’d always thought that art was a no-go zone,” he says to me over lunch, across Tenth Avenue from the sprawling Zwirner complex, talking about his immigrant adolescence in London, where he considered becoming an animator before finding fine art. “And not because anybody prohibited me—my parents said, ‘Do whatever you want’—but because I thought, What do artists do? How do they make their money?”
Murillo works carefully over his words as he speaks them and often dresses like he’s hanging out in a skate shop, in T-shirts and saggy pants, maybe a backpack. Watching him set up the show at Zwirner, clambering on a cherry picker to adjust a projector like a kid climbing a tree, or adjusting the volume on the salsa he likes to keep going, you get the sense of how much of his life is a checklist of things to attend to, including talking to you. He’s energetic and bright-faced (the freckles help), sullen in flashes (his eyes slide off, disengaging), and, appealingly, just on the threshold of naïve. He has served so neatly as a screen for the projections of others’ ambitions and crusades that it’s not yet very clear how calculating he is and how much a genuine cipher.
Art collectors, who can get swept up in whatever is the thrillingly agreed-upon latest thing, have come to understand Murillo as a new Basquiat, however reductive that might seem. Until recently, he even shared a hairstyle with the late artist. (“Or at least the movie version of Basquiat,” notes Mera Rubell, one-half of the collector couple who are Murillo’s most energetic proselytizers.) Like Basquiat, Murillo is black, ambitious, and engaged with both art history and graffiti, and among the other things Murillo seems possibly to have cribbed from him is just how dangerous to be as an artist. It’s an especially complicated question now, given that the art market can function as the plutocracy’s method of prophylactic self-criticism. Murillo’s work is taken to attack privilege, and capitalism, and globalism, but is happily hung in the homes of those who make up the international art-shopping class and who seem to see in Murillo the flash of something new and great, yes, but, just as important, something intoxicatingly authentic, even a little bit hostile to them. And they are right: The amiable, ingratiating Murillo’s great artistic hope is to make the facts of his own biography an affront to the sensibilities of his collectors. His work is both aggressive and decorative, and his entire persona seems to hang in the balance.
And people like him, as I do. Two years ago this past spring, when Cecilia Alemani, who curates the High Line and the original art projects at New York’s Frieze art fair, met him, Murillo was a foreign-exchange student at Hunter College and was “working superfast” on an installation of paintings for a booth at the Independent Art Fair, she told me, sounding like a number of other acquaintances whom I spoke to about him: “His energy was great. He appeared rebellious but was incredibly kind and soft-spoken.”
But there is now shuffling concern that collectors are declaring him significant, possibly even writing him into art history, before the curators and critics who have always made it their job to decide get a chance. “It’s quite a new phenomenon for the market to have this kind of influence,” says Cesar Garcia, a Los Angeles curator who showed Murillo earlier this year at his space, the Mistake Room. Another was more pointed: “He went from an art fair to an auction house without basically having shows anywhere.” Murillo might have been the most pointed; he called his show at Garcia’s gallery “Oscar Murillo: Distribution Center.” In the last year, he’s had solo shows at a string of unimpeachable spaces—the South London Gallery, Isabella Bortolozzi in Berlin, Zwirner, Marian Goodman in Paris—and been promised a place in a painting survey at MoMA.
There used to be a certain backroom mystery as to what artworks exactly were for sale and to whom, but Murillo is young enough to have known only the new, more transparent click-to-buy era, when collectors sometimes shop by JPEG and art advisers plug things via Instagram, and both engage in the practice known as “flipping” (early buyers buy cheap, sometimes in bulk, reselling for a profit). The art-world hustle doesn’t seem to bother Murillo; being comfortable around money and money-talk is one sign of his “outsider”-ness. Some artists don’t like the shopping-cart vibe of art fairs, but Murillo is known for going. (There he was on my Instagram feed last month, caught by @theartreporter in front of a Gerhard Richter at Art Basel.) “Three years ago, he was at every fair, wandering around with his little backpack,” says a member of the traveling art tribe who admires Murillo’s pluck. “Telling collectors, ‘Hey, how are you, man? Come over, I’ll cook for you!’ All these rich white collectors were following him around: ‘Oscar! Oscar! Oscar!’ ”
One of those collectors who fell hard for him is the art adviser Stefan Simchowitz, who has bought 34 Murillo works for himself since 2011 (for as little as $1,500) and a similar number for clients (who include the actor Orlando Bloom and New York Giants owner Steve Tisch). He has become known as a sort of art-flipper bogeyman—despite never, he insists to me and on Facebook, having flipped a Murillo in his own collection (work he’s gotten for others, however …). He believes Murillo’s selling a painting to a wealthy collector is like a graffiti artist “tagging a home.” Rich people “are clueless and should be educated and not just be parasitic socialites. And I think that is what Oscar’s art does,” Simchowitz says. “In this expensive, fancy home arrives this ‘trophy’ that is actually more a Trojan horse.” Or, as Murillo put it in a recent edition of the very glossy L’Officiel Art (which features a photo of his uncle Carlos sunk in bubbles in the bathtub of a 1930s Beverly Hills villa, owned by a collector, that they were staying in during the Mistake Room show): “Any opportunity of artistic achievement comes with an opportunity to infiltrate a social class.”
Murillo was born, and spent the first ten years of his life, in La Paila, a small town in the Cauca Valley of Colombia, where sugarcane has been harvested since it was brought by the Spanish in the 16th century. Enslaved Africans were imported to work the plantations, and to this day their descendants, now a mix of hues, still live there, many employed in the confectionery industry. For almost a century, the local company Colombina has been owned by the Caicedo family, sugar barons whose complexion trends lighter than those of their workers and who control everything from the farms to the sprawling candy factory to the local fútbol leagues.
As a child, Murillo says, “I obviously knew who the owners were. But on my radar, they were so distant. They run the region.” That Murillo enlisted the company to help him stage his New York debut—Colombina’s dashing silver-haired executive César Caicedo did it for “the cachet,” Murillo thinks—is a delicious class-crashing achievement. “My grandfather passed away—if he was alive now, he’d be astonished,” Murillo says. “The closest he got to that family was in the ’60s; they did a lot of lobbying, so they would take the train from the village to Cali,” the regional capital, “and my grandfather would hand out Colombina chewing gum. To see this almost-equal-terms relationship, my grandfather wouldn’t believe.”
Murillo’s show at Zwirner, “A Mercantile Novel,” opened April 24 and came down in mid-June, eight weeks that enclosed a neat allegory about the art world’s limited patience for the undeferential. “Here’s a gallery which is, according to experts or whatever, one of the most successful in the world,” says Murillo, and it let him do something few others would have: not show any paintings. Instead, he set up a satellite single-machine Colombina chocolate factory. An assembly line of 13 workers produced about 5,000 Chocmelo candies a day—chocolate on the outside, white marshmallow within.
The factory conceit is not new in art; neither is even the idea of making chocolates in galleries (both Dieter Roth and Paul McCarthy had done so, and the art world ate it up.) But Murillo’s version was more evasive and personal, almost to the point of not being discernible. He had the workers video-record their time here, as if to say they were the ones watching New York, not the other way around. They were put up in Crown Heights, given English lessons two days a week, and ate every Friday with the largely female coterie of flawlessly cosmopolitan gallery employees. One of those staffers who spoke Spanish translated for me with a few of the chocolatiers while they hand-sealed custom-designed foil bags full of Chocmelos. None had ever been to the U.S. before; most had never left Colombia. They had first heard that Murillo had made it big as an artist when a Colombian newspaper reported Leonardo DiCaprio had bought one of his paintings. They were surprised that New Yorkers ate so much salad, and all planned to come back.