Farm to Gallery: Peter Nadin’s Comeback
Published: June 29, 2011
“A carrot is not a work of art. I’m not proposing that anyone think of a carrot as a work of art. But what I am saying is that a carrot and the art I make here are both results of the same process.”
Gabrielle Plucknette for The New York Times
Victor Schrager; Justine Kurland for The New York Times
The artist Peter Nadin was laying out this distinction to me one morning in late April as we stood inside a humid greenhouse in upstate New York, looking down at a bunch of brilliant green carrot tops amid a forest of kale, sorrel, chard and rhubarb sheltering through a late winter that hung on spitefully into spring. I had taken the opportunity to solicit his art-historical views of root vegetables because, the longer I walked around the land in this neglected corner of the northern Catskills where Nadin has been farming and painting for more than two decades, the harder it became for me to understand exactly which part he considers farming and which making art.
The greenhouse we entered, with motorized roof louvers and thermally heated flooring, sat right next to his studio on a big swell of pasture. A swath of land was carpeted in dark red clover, planted there last year by his wife, Anne Kennedy, as a feasting ground for the honeybees he raises. Inside the studio sat a propane burner and a big aluminum pot filled with grayish-brown beeswax — much of it extruded by those same bees. He melts this and uses it to create a translucent “skin” on the terra-cotta figures he has been making, which look vaguely, and a bit terrifyingly, like the drawings of schismatics, cloven from chin to crotch, described by Dante in the “Inferno.”
Clumps of wool gathered from his small herd of Kashmir goats were stuck on large, anarchic, abstract paintings arrayed on the walls. And here the bees had been put to further use; Nadin daubs the paintings with propolis, the dark gluelike substance bees make to seal their hives. The bees themselves are also allowed to work on the surfaces of some of the paintings, leaving behind crusty patches when they congregate on the honey and wax that Nadin applies to the linen canvas.
Another corner of the studio is consumed by a walk-in cooling chamber with a half-dozen mold-covered hams curing inside, ones he makes from the Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot pigs he has been raising for almost a decade. And just across the way that morning, one of those hams, which he had allowed to dry out and shrivel for several years until it looked like a deformed football or a petrified human heart, was tied up and dangling over a crude raft he built from the remains of a tree felled by lightning near his farmhouse.
Within a few weeks, most of these strangely affecting, vaguely talismanic pieces — which look at first glance as if they could have been made by a Papuan tribesman working with an Appalachian folk artist and some latter-day Brook Farm communards — would be put on a truck for a two-and-a-half-hour trip south to Manhattan. There, in an exhibition that opened this week, they form Nadin’s unlikely debut at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in the far West Village, the brash gallery known for gleefully profane art-world darlings like Rob Pruitt and Urs Fischer, whose work could hardly be more unlike Nadin’s. Stranger still is that this will be the first time Nadin, who turned 57 earlier this year, has shown art commercially since he walked away, almost 20 years ago, from what was arguably the height of a prominent career and gradually dropped off the art-world radar.
“I have no idea, really, what people are going to make of it,” he told me when I first met him, adding that he planned to supplement the paintings and sculpture with a country store’s produce and pork products from his pigs, to serve at the opening and sell during the run of the show. “I hope they like it,” Nadin said of his work. “If they don’t, they can always leave with some eggs.”
But when Nadin talks about his worries, they almost never concern his art. They are the more frequent and unremitting worries of rural agriculture. To a visitor just up from the city, the calamities he describes can sound like riffs on Aesop or the Bible, except that they all really happen on a small mountain farm: a fox steals in and slaughters some of the chickens; a bear plunders the beehives to get its paws on the honey; caterpillars descend in a nightmarish plague, stripping the trees bare and covering everything in furry, smelly, larval goo. A few weeks before I arrived for my first visit, a fire swept through the farrowing house, and a sow and her newborn piglet barely escaped with their lives. The piglet, named Little Pete by one of Nadin’s local helpers, had to be taken into the farmhouse and bottle-fed for two weeks. “It was awful,” Nadin says. Little Pete’s stay in the house had consequences beyond the smell and the cleanup. “I was going to castrate him last week — which is what I should have done. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
The particular crisis today was of a similar order, though a little more comical. The farm had somehow ended up with too many roosters, said Nadin, who was making the feeding rounds in a pair of muddied blue Key coveralls, his horn-rimmed glasses fogging over in the lingering chill. The roosters were causing havoc, competitively mounting his Japanese Black Tailed White and miniature Sebright hens, crowing like a demon chorus before sunup. Up to that point, he had never killed any of his chickens except to put old or injured ones out of their misery, but he had decided to start looking for a good, flat tree stump.
“It’s time to cull the flock!” he announced loudly, turning his glare on one particularly lean, rust-colored malefactor who had just set upon an unsuspecting hen. “Look at him getting busy, boy just look at him. He’s for the pot soon, that one. He just doesn’t know it yet.”
Nadin, who grew up near Liverpool and still has traces of a lilting Northern English accent, made this pronouncement while grinning. But the issue of death on the farm — by natural causes or accident but particularly by his hand, the work of turning his animals into food that he and others will eat — is something that absorbs Nadin profoundly. And it circles directly back to the extraordinary obsession he has been nurturing on his land for almost 20 years now of trying to reinvent himself as an artist by being a farmer.
“If you eat ham from one of my pigs or honey from my bees, then you’re ingesting the landscape here itself — it’s not an objectification of it,” he explained, in one of many such formulations that I heard over a couple of months of visits to the farm. “It’s the thing itself. And what I’m trying to do with the paintings and with everything I have been making here is not to represent the landscape but to make things that embody it, to paint the underlying experience of consciousness.” He compares the pieces to relics in a world that might not be as post-religious as our rational minds would have us believe.
Viewed from the deeply urban art-historical perspective of the 21st century, post-Warhol, mid-Koons, such a quasi-mystical agrarian quest can be difficult to take at face value. It’s hard not to wonder sometimes whether Nadin and Gavin Brown, who has made his name running a riotously nose-thumbing kind of gallery, aren’t up to some elaborate conceptual ruse, or whether they might just be kidding around. But one 21st-century quality that Nadin, a briskly friendly, relentlessly industrious man, seems to lack entirely is a sense of irony.
“The pigs, for their part, might not agree that it’s such a good thing to have happen, I suppose,” Nadin said of his holistic art-food-landscape vision for the exhibition. “But it seems to me like a pretty noble end, all in all.” He looked out into the hazy green rolling up into the Catskills and added: “I wouldn’t mind being eaten, you know? Meet your end in the forest somewhere and the coyotes and other animals eat your body? In fact, I think it would be quite a dignified way to go.”
If you mention the name Peter Nadin in New York art circles, there is often a flicker of recognition, a memory of lively, idiosyncratic paintings that never settled into a recognizable style or fit comfortably enough into the Neo-Expressionism of the 1980s for him to be included among its practitioners. A few people talk fondly of the alternative gallery that Nadin and a fellow artist, Christopher D’Arcangelo, began in 1978, two years after Nadin moved to New York from England. They opened the gallery in Nadin’s loft at 84 West Broadway, where they invited friends like the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren and the painter Sean Scully to make pieces that more or less piled up over time, each new piece responding to what was already there. None of the work was for sale. (“Not the best model,” Nadin concedes.) First they showed the empty gallery as a work itself; then Buren installed his signature stripes inside and this was the show; then Scully went to work making one large painting, some of it over Buren’s stripes. A piece by Jane Reynolds involved simply cutting a peephole into Scully’s painting, allowing visitors to see through to a space behind the painting where Nadin slept and ate.
Nadin, who wrote and published poetry and sometimes incorporated it into his paintings, also collaborated with Jenny Holzer, pairing his images with her words in a series of memorable installations and artists’ books. And the two of them tried out the short-lived idea of working as a conceptual collective, joining Peter Fend, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Robin Winters and a prefame Richard Prince to form the white-shoe-sounding Offices of Fend, Fitzgibbon, Holzer, Nadin, Prince & Winters. The group rented an office on lower Broadway and offered, according to its business card, “practical esthetic services adaptable to client situation,” which Nadin recalls as a mostly serious attempt to redirect the impulse to make useless art objects into some kind of socially helpful work for hire. But the collaborative fell apart fairly quickly as a result of disagreements.
“I think we were supposed to hand out aesthetic advice, but I was never sure,” Prince told me by e-mail, adding: “I thought we were supposed to play music. But we never played.” Prince later organized an exhibition of Nadin’s paintings at his Spiritual America gallery, the semilegendary storefront that he ran briefly on Rivington Street, where he also showed the work of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons and Louise Lawler. Prince said that he was drawn to Nadin back then both because he was a poet and because of a certain evanescent quality about him: “He had that . . . ‘I’m not a real doctor, but I play one on TV.’ I liked that about him.”
But Nadin’s outward self-possession belied a mounting turmoil during those years. His gallery partner and close friend, D’Arcangelo, committed suicide at 24, only eight months into their exhibition experiment, which Nadin then closed down. Nadin began to withdraw from the art world, and by 1982, he was making fairly straightforward still-life paintings. He recounts how a dealer he knew saw some of these and, embarrassed for him, said: “No, you don’t understand. In Paris there are people who still really paint like this.” Nadin told her, “What you don’t understand is I really paint like this.”
The still lifes morphed into a series in which Nadin began to paint giant bananas looming outside a house in a landscape, in a gauzy, impastoed style that recalled late Monet. Looked at through the lens of today’s painting revival, driven by artists romping through styles from Surrealism to neoclassicism, the paintings seem almost sophisticated in their slapstick simplicity. But what the bananas signified was, unfortunately, all too literal. “It’s when I went down the drain,” he said. “I was starting to have a nervous breakdown.” He barely went out for months, slept most of the day and had trouble taking care of himself. “I should have been in the hospital, but I didn’t have a penny.” He continued to make banana-centric drawings and wrote poetry that was later published in a small collection, “Still Life,” some of it so frank and unhinged he has difficulty talking about it now. “Who will speak to me today? Who will call and want to play?” begins one.
The breakdown caused Nadin to begin seeing the world in a fundamentally different way. It estranged him even further from the kind of appropriation work being done by friends like Prince and Lawler who came to be gathered under the Pictures Generation rubric — the wave of artists who took the image-saturated, heavily mediated culture as their starting point and Warhol as their guiding light.
“I felt none of it was close enough to the truth — can one say truth?” Nadin says. “I don’t mean to say that about other artists’ work, but it wasn’t close enough to the truth for me.” His own image bank felt as if it had been shattered, he said. “It was like there was no filter anymore, no mediation — all experience was just right there, confronting me. I had been making what I thought of as conceptual work at that point, but afterward, it was over. There was no going back.”
Little by little, Nadin recovered and started painting again, convinced that painting was the best means of representing human consciousness. Over a period of years, he made several bodies of work (none as strange as the banana paintings), struggling to find the right visual language to get him closer to his experience. Even as he cast about, his career thrived. He showed at the highly regarded Brooke Alexander Gallery, and his work sold briskly (the Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired a painting for its permanent collection), and he was getting admiring reviews. Had he continued to show, chances are he might be as well known today as many of his friends and contemporaries. But in 1992, he became, for all intents and purposes, a farmer, sitting out an era in which the art world, from the template established in the frenzied 1980s, transformed itself into a fundamentally different place, a behemoth increasingly driven by the demands of commerce and popular culture. The few times Nadin’s work has surfaced anywhere in the last few years, it has been far from that world, in places like Cuba — where he went not as an artist but as a United States delegate to a beekeepers’ conference and fell in with a group of Cuban artists and curators — and a desolate New Orleans neighborhood where he showed pieces at the behest of a nonprofit art program.
“It was one of those things where you really don’t feel like you have a choice,” he told me about walking away. “I wasn’t judging or condemning the art world. Of all of life’s evils, making art and selling it is hardly one of the more pernicious things, even the way it was in the ’80s. I just had to leave for myself. I wanted to be able to hold certain thoughts and ideas in my mind over long periods of time, and I couldn’t do that the way I was working.”
He paused and smiled. “I didn’t say to myself back then, ‘I’m going to hold my breath for 20 years.’ But that’s what happened, and doing it has been very fruitful.”
Gavin Brown, the gallery owner who is ushering Nadin back into the art world, got to know him in the 1980s, when Brown was paying the bills as an art handler and Nadin hired him to help paint his apartment. By the time Brown became a dealer in 1994, Nadin had already retreated from the art world, but he would stop by the gallery from time to time to say hello. Brown says he always saw Nadin’s decision as heroic. And when Nadin asked him to lunch several months ago and told him, “I’m ready to do this again,” Brown said that he didn’t have to think about it for long. He went to the farm to see Nadin’s work and returned with another of his artists, Rirkrit Tiravanija, who has become celebrated for shows in which he turns galleries and museums into social spaces, feeding visitors and sometimes allowing them to stay over. Brown and Tiravanija shared parts of a freshly butchered Nadin pig.
For Brown, Tiravanija and Nadin are both members of a growing “subtribe” of artists deeply interested in directly lived experience, a group that includes established practitioners like Tino Sehgal (whose work is often just about talking and listening) and a whole raft of young artists working joyously in a nebulous middle ground between food-making and art-making, drawing inspiration from 1960s and ’70s free spirits like the Fluxus movement and Gordon Matta-Clark, whose SoHo restaurant, Food, was a mess hall as performance art.
“I think we’re indulging in a kind of collective madness that has a lot to do with how mediated our experience is right now,” Brown told me later. “It’s a kind of amnesia we live in, about our connection to the earth, to other living things and to death. And in that sense, Peter’s work didn’t just seem interesting to me, it seemed crucial.” He added, in a portentous tone: “If people walk into the gallery and think he’s anything less than serious about this, then they’re really doomed.”
I started making trips to Nadin’s farm in April, just after the last frosts. Watching a small, diverse farm over a couple of months beginning in early spring is like watching the machinations of a Chekhov play. The cast included 160 mostly wooded acres; a few dozen chickens and a handful of ducks with the run of the farmyard; six Kashmir goats, plus an extra goat named Ham who preferred to commune with the humans; tens of thousands of bees, including a hive that swarmed away one morning in a thick black cloud to form another hive and raise a new queen; eight pigs, including the newcomer Little Pete, and Abe, a three-year-old, 400-pound registered Tamworth boar who came, like the rest of the pigs Nadin and his wife have bought, from High Meadows Farm in nearby Delhi, N.Y., which is certified, like the Nadin farm, by the rigorous Animal Welfare Approved program.
Three of the sows were pregnant, and not long after the last of my visits, the pig population swelled by 18, before dropping back to 16 when two piglets died. A big gelded boar, known only as Abe’s Pal, was scheduled to go to the slaughterhouse — Nadin planned to make parts of him into rillettes and pâté to sell during the run of the show — but the pig seemed to sense that the small trailer backed up to his fenced yard meant nothing good for him and couldn’t be lured inside.
“Isn’t he a good-looking fellow?” Nadin said, clapping him on the back and raising clouds of dust. “Pigs are very complicated little buggers. He knows something’s up. He knows that trailer is for him and wants no part of it.”
Nadin and Kennedy bought the farmhouse and five acres near Cornwallville, N.Y., in 1989, when Kennedy was pregnant with their daughter, Anna Page, and over the years they have added other parcels of land to return the farm to the size it was when it was first carved out of the wilderness in 1790. Thin gravestones on the property attest that this was never an easy place from which to wrest a living. Horace, Elizabeth and Almira Strong, the children of one of the farm’s original families, all died within days of one another in 1827, the oldest not yet 5. A handwritten pamphlet Nadin found in the Durham Center Museum in nearby East Durham showed that Selah Strong, their grandfather, was excommunicated from the church after congregants charged him with “habitually making an immoderate use of ardent spirits and with threatening to kill himself.”
Nadin has had an easier time of it as a farmer, though he says it has always been a struggle to keep the operation going. But he teaches at Cooper Union, and Kennedy is a successful entrepreneur: she helped found the agency Art + Commerce in New York in the early 1980s to represent art photographers. (Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz have been among its members.) And so the couple have not had to run the farm to support itself, or them, though their plan from the beginning was that it would eventually be self-sustaining. They keep the numbers of animals small, following a philosophy they call contribution farming, in which the livestock and plantings are chosen to complement each other and to not overtax the land. As the farm has grown, Nadin and Kennedy have started to sell more of what they make; they run a buying club for things like mushrooms, honey and pork products and also sell these through the New Amsterdam Market in Lower Manhattan. They provide eggs to a restaurant around the corner from their house in the West Village. And April Bloomfield, the pork auteur of the celebrated Spotted Pig and the Breslin, has bought a couple of their hogs, the equivalent of a papal blessing in the pig-farming world.
Nadin has not exactly been in Salinger-esque seclusion since leaving the art world. For the last decade, he has been a presence at Cooper Union, where his class focuses on new biological theories of consciousness and how they relate to artistic practice. But much of his time and energy are poured into the farm. His first interest was beekeeping, and the incidental marks of honey and wax that Nadin made on the sides of the hives while working with the bees were what led him to a breakthrough with his painting in the late ’90s. By that point, he said he felt as if he had forgotten enough about his old painting life to begin to see something “magnificent about these marks.”
“I realized that the first marks used in art-making were the universal ones made from the movement of the hand and body and that they had to be common to all human cultures,” he told the critic and curator Richard Milazzo in an interview in 2006. “In effect, they constituted the originating DNA of art.”
The body of work for the show is as seasonal and locavore as anything grown on the farm. It includes his terra-cotta sculptures arrayed on and around 50 columns of rough-cut local hemlock, which will rise like a forest inside the gallery, adjoining a room with a “pond” formed from three tons of honey bought from a neighboring county. The paintings were made over several years, only between mid-September and mid-November, because those were months when he was able to harvest black walnuts and boil them down into paint and when the most honey and wax were available. He painted outside, stretching long sheets of linen, some dyed with indigo and cochineal (two nonlocal materials he imported from Mexico), on the ground. He used the honey and wax and walnut paint as pigment, moving a frame along the strip of linen to figure out which portions he wanted to keep, “like an organic movie,” he says. He labored for years at losing conscious control over his creations. “I don’t want to say this because it sounds arrogant, but the one talent I know I have is to be able to be aware of when that happens, when I get there, when it’s right,” he says.
It’s a desire with a long pedigree in modern and postmodern art, from Dada to the Beats to Cy Twombly, who as a young artist practiced drawing in the dark. Nadin’s paintings can look like Twombly’s splashier work or like spare Jackson Pollocks, but he says he has no particular interest in abstraction or even in making work about natural processes, like Andy Goldsworthy, a fellow British artist. There’s a Robert Smithson photograph hanging in the farmhouse, but Nadin says he does not think his work has much affinity with earthworks or with the land artists of the ’60s and ’70s either. He sees his farm simply as an ideal place to watch life in its essentials and to try a thing-in-itself way of conveying this — which he considers a new kind of realism. If he draws inspiration from anywhere, he says, it is from the unorthodox antidualism of Blake and from Shitao, a charismatic 17th-century Buddhist painter-philosopher who wrote about an ecstatic union of artist and nature. “But I’m not being nostalgic, I’m not interested in looking back,” he said. “That would be a profound misunderstanding. I see this as a way to go forward.”
Of course, people have been trying to find a way to move painting forward, in a historical sense, at least since the end of Abstract Expressionism. I asked Nadin whether he had ever considered that what he was trying to do, to paint consciousness itself, might be an impossibility, or just ungraspable by anyone but him, because it is, after all, his consciousness. “Well, that’s the interesting point, isn’t it?” he said, laughing. “It very well may be the case.” But you get the distinct sense that, whatever the art world thinks of Nadin’s work and of his return from the long sojourn in the wilderness, it will ultimately make little difference to him and to what he is trying to do with the help of his pigs and chickens and goats and bees.
“Making the work is just part of what I do here,” he said one day in his studio, looking out at the red clover, thrumming with life. “And when this is over, I’m still going to be a farmer.”