Paintings sold for cheap in non-art venues is usually something artists leave off an exhibition history. For Max Schumann, it’s the foundation of a lifelong practice. Since moving to New York 20 years ago, Schumann has installed a steady series of shows all over the downtown area, ranging in quotidian function from supermarkets to nightclubs to a theater lobby; and selling his artworks, small, figurative acrylic paintings on cardboard, at affordable prices.
This politically inclusive approach is clearly indebted to Schuman’s background: his father, Peter Schumann, founded Bread and Puppet Theater, a Vermont-based group who since the 1960’s have created community-oriented, radically dissident cultural activities. Schumann has given himself the task of staying true to artist-activist roots while moving into the professionalized context of the art world: Recently, Schumann has exhibited with New York gallery Taxter and Spengemann, where his paintings have sold with arbitrary prices of $10 to $5,000. Schumann continued to show at venues like Lower East Side bar Max Fish, where last Thursday he opened “Manufacturing Desire,” a collaborative show with Dale Wittig. (INSTALLATION PHOTO BY ASHER PENN)
ASHER PENN: How many Max Fish shows have you done thus far?
MAX SCHUMANN: This collaboration that I do with Dale Wittig has been happening every year-and-a-half for the past ten years. I’ve been in an assortment of different group shows here at the bar, starting with the first show they had. Before they got a liquor license, the bar had an opening exhibition called “the Atomic Show” that included John Ahearn, Tom Otterness, Rebecca Howland, Kiki Smith, Justin Lada, Walter Robinson, James Romberger, and Greg Woolard, among others… That was 20 years ago. This November is Max Fish’s 20th anniversary! I participated in that first show, which included Dale, in a group we called The Cheap Art Collective. There were four or five of us. We did a wild installation in the back pool room.
PENN: How do you define Cheap Art? It’s a term that can be traced back to Bread and Puppet, right?
SCHUMANN: Cheap Art is a loose-knit movement that for the most part traces back to Bread and Puppet. They started doing cheap art in the early 1980’s and since there’s been various different offshoots of people pegging on the name “Cheap Art,” Bread and Puppet went around with a traveling gallery in a schoolbus, showing and selling paintings mostly done by Peter Schumann for 50 cents or $2. They would park in different towns and just sell the stuff. I think that was around 1980. But in 1975 Adrian Piper wrote an essay called “Cheap Art Utopia” for Art Rite #14, which was an issue devoted to artist books. That was put out a year before Printed Matter was established. Adrian Piper had also written an essay in 1974 for The Fox journal that was called something like “Towards an Affordable Pricing For Art.” She was very interested in the idea of artists being fairly compensated for their art works but looked to impose a logical system of wage labor. Whereas the art market totally inflates things and gives art value completely outside of their social use value, Adrian Piper was coming from a Marxist approach, exploring what would a system be like where artists were actually paid a wage, where artworks were based on a fair wage labor amount for an artist. So to me, the concept of cheap art can’t be attributed to one person. The “Cheap Art” term is nice because the word “cheap” plays on the concepts of use value and how value is constructed and it also kind of denotes a “bad quality”; affordable but something that is also maybe low or crass.
PENN: How did you yourself come to making “Cheap Art?”
SCHUMANN: I was contributing things to different Bread and Puppet Cheap Art efforts. In the mid-’80s Bread and Puppet was doing Christmas Cheap Art shows at the Judson Church gallery. It was where Claes Oldenburg and Red Grooms, among others, had done exhibits in the early ’60s, a small little storefront walk-down gallery on Thompson Street. They gave it to Bread and Puppet to make Cheap Art in, so me and Dale (who was working with Bread and Puppet), as well as my siblings and other friends who were interested in political art and art activism, started contributing to the Cheap Art Store. Eventually we started our own branch. We liked the concept of cheap art but thought at the time that Bread and Puppet was doing it in a way that was too reductive.
PENN: How did your version of Cheap Art differ from Bread and Puppet’s?
SCHUMANN: They had a more essentialist vision. We had an interest in a political art practice taking place in a consumer culture dominated by commerce and advertising. We were inspired by artists groups like Group Material and Collaborative Projects. So we said we’re going to use this term for our own strategies of political activist art making, and it will be independent of Bread and Puppet.
PENN: How’d that go?
SCHUMANN: We started a New York Cheap Art Collective and we did different shows. We’d show at ABC NO RIO and did a lot of postering campaigns, wheat-pasting Xeroxes on the street. We started curating a set of windows up on 8th Avenue in Hells Kitchen called “10 on 8,” where we invited different artist activist groups to do installations in the windows. We also created some different artists publications and books collaboratively and participated in a bunch of different group shows, some in New York, mostly in non-art spaces and were invited to places outside of New York as well. Our group kind of split, a bunch of them moved to San Francisco and started the Cheap Art Store in a storefront on Divisadero Street for about three or four years in the early ’90s.
PENN: Where does the imagery for your paintings come from?
SCHUMANN: Most of the work I do is based on imagery from the mass media. I take those things that are mass distributed and I play off of them or work off of them and render them in hand.
PENN: Do you get those images from a specific source? Do you return to specific subjects?
SCHUMANN: A lot of different mass media sources (TV, film, print, digital), and subjects too, from the news, advertising, movies, tv shows. I’m usually either working from print media or other reproductions, like snapshots I take off the tv. I think last Max Fish show that I did, I went out and took photographs of all the new residential developments in the lower east side, right around Max Fish, and did a bunch of paintings of these new luxury high rise buidings going up. Those weren’t based on mass media, but it’s related.
PENN: You write the prices of the paintings directly on your paintings. How did that “signature” come about?
SCHUMANN: Dale and I started doing that about the same time. I remember the first time, when I met Dale, he was pretty much homeless couch hopping, but also sleeping on the street. He did these miniature paintings on playing cards and always had a deck or two in his pocket. He would sell them for $10 a pop or trade them. One time he needed a pair of shoes, so he painted a dollar sign with a pair of sneakers next to it. After that,we started painting the prices directly onto the pieces. Of course, it’s a play on the signature being the mark of authenticity, and how that is bound to the status of art as a commodity and a fetish. One of the things also in our early cheap art practices were we didn’t sign our works. We kept them anonymous because we wanted to refuse the system of authorship and authenticity that the art market requires.
PENN: You’ve done two solo shows at Taxter and Spengemann so far. What’s it like showing in a commercial gallery, after so many years of exhibiting in other venues?
SCHUMANN: It’s an interesting experience. I’ve been actively showing in public venues since I was 16. I’ve been making, showing and selling art for most of my life. And it’s only in the last several years that I have shown in a commercial gallery. It’s a different kind of experience, a different context that I’m still trying to make some sense of. I’ll continue making art and showing it and selling it and getting it out there. This is just another venue opportunity that needs to be taken into consideration.
“Manufacturing Desire” is currently on view through October 31. Max Fish is located at 178 Ludlow Street, New York.