In 1999, fresh out of RISD with a painting degree, Joshua Abelow moved to New York City. He spent much of his time assisting one of his idols, the painter Ross Bleckner. He also painted voraciously, got laid a lot and often acted totally manic, diligently documenting the details of that first post-graduate year in a series of journals. At 36, still in New York and working as an artist, Abelow has published his journals in a chapbook called Painter’s Journal. From his hometown of Frederick, Maryland, where he occasionally retreats to paint, Abelow spoke to us over the phone about what he’s learned in the time since his inaugural year in the city.
Though you write frequently about your college life in Providence, you rarely reference your education. Were any moments in the classroom important to you? One of the things I liked about RISD is that it’s extremely, incredibly self-directed. Basically painting class meant you would go to a studio room and then they’d set up a still life and everyone would just start painting. And then the teacher would walk around the room and tell stories, or not. One of the reasons I wanted to move to New York and work for Ross was because I wanted to have more hands-on experience from an artist who is actually exhibiting in New York and doing all of these things that everyone at school is basically just talking about. I remember in the beginning Ross was basically like, Don’t be a painter, give it up, it’s not gonna happen, so forget about it, get into something else. And it just made me want to prove him wrong. Eventually, I’d say a few years into it, his attitude really changed. He would come into my studio and say he liked what I was doing, and now he bought a painting of mine recently, so it’s really come full circle.
What’s changed since you were 22 and what hasn’t? Well the main thing that hasn’t changed is the dedication to art-making. [In] the book I’m talking about how depressed I am and how much I hate my work, and fortunately I don’t really feel like that anymore. I actually like a lot of my work now, so that’s nice. Also, I have a certain amount of visibility now as an artist, whereas at the time, I was completely invisible and I was also an emotional mess. I don’t know if to some extent any of that ever fully goes away. But I think as you get older, you learn how to control it, or you get a handle on yourself. I see all the people in the book as characters. And I can sympathize with the character, but I would say I feel a lot of distance from him as well.
What surprised you about yourself? I was surprised that my thinking about art hasn’t really changed. [In current work] I want to make paintings that sort of mock the idea of
the artistic genius, and I was really surprised that I was saying stuff like that at 22.
I wonder then how innate that was in you, that it’s not something you could have learned. Well I think I have an innate sort of skepticism. I grew up in rural Maryland, I didn’t really have any art education until I got to RISD. And when I was growing up, I always felt like I’m sort of burdened with this, like, I’m an artist, I have a disease or something. It was difficult because I knew that I didn’t want to go in any other direction and it was all about art. But then at the same time it’s like, How do you make a living as an artist? I think the percentage of artists who make a living off their work is less than one percent, so I felt like I was entering into this world of weakness. I think a lot of my peers didn’t see it that way. Even when I was at RISD in the mid-’90s, I felt like a lot of my peers were very career-oriented and I didn’t really relate to that, because I didn’t really think about art-making as a career. thought about art-making as a necessity. And I still feel like that.
Did rereading the journals make you feel like you’d transitioned from being an assistant into being an artist? I’m young, but I’m not that young, especially in art terms. In the art world I feel like a lot of artists who are even at the point that I’m at are much younger than me, like in their mid-20s. So I’m a late bloomer. I’m glad that stuff is happening, and I’m happy that it’s happening now as opposed to being in my mid-20s.
Above image: Self-Portrait (Dancing Man), 2012, oil on burlap, 24 x 18 inches