Hiding Out in Montauk with Lucien Smith

The Artist Discusses Burning Out on City Life and the Creative Potential of the Countryside

Interview: Thom Bettridge
Photography: Angelo Baque

The work of the artist Lucien Smith is epic in its scale and existential in its implications. Having garnered millions of dollars in art sales before the age of 25, the painter eventually became known as much for his record-breaking auction numbers and legendary parties as for his artwork. Smith now spends the majority of his time at his home in Montauk, a seaside town on the furthest-most edge of the Hamptons. He cites the change as being instrumental to his creativity, saying, “For the first time, I feel like a real artist.”

Angelo Baque visited Smith at his home in Montauk, photographing him in looks by Maison Margiela, Lanvin, Rick Owens, and Dolce & Gabbana. He spoke with Thom Bettridge about the why the digital age might be the perfect time for country living.

Thom Bettridge: We normally think of cities as the place where modernity happens. But, as a young contemporary artist, you’ve gravitated towards spending your time in the countryside. Why is that?

Lucien Smith: I mainly began coming out to Montauk because I was sick of the city. When I was younger and going to college, New York City was a good place for me to meet other artists and get inspired. But at a certain point it became really counterproductive. I realized that everyone in the city is trying to be famous or something. And I was subscribing to this idea of what a New York City artist was that was really pretentious and unhealthy. After the first four years of me showing, it became evident to me. I’m not interested in being a New York art star. I’m not interested in being a Dash Snow or a Dan Colen. It all kind of just came to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore.

What’s your routine like now?

I spend a lot of time sleeping. A lot of time surfing. I’ve been starting to get into fishing, which is something I’m really interested in doing. I don’t really work on painting here as much as I used to when I first moved here, because I’ve opened a studio in L.A. where I can work on a larger scale. It’s a really simple lifestyle.

Your recent work focuses a lot on landscape. In what ways does nature inspire your work?

It connects to my exodus of moving out here, which also has a lot to do with an existential crisis about trying to figure out why I even make art. If nothing matters, then what’s the point of making anything? To satisfy some art market? Or is it because I take pleasure in making paintings? I’ve been trying to understand what the point is. Lately, I’ve just understood that if my time here is limited, I should enjoy my experience, enjoy nature, and enjoy people. Which is why I’ve spent most of my time going on trips and photographing and developing interests that bleed into what I’m painting. 

Lucien Smith. Land formation, 2016. 

I mean, it resonates with this old school, 19th-century idea of how we understand painters. As guys sitting out in fields with canvases.

Yeah, but I don’t necessarily consider myself an impressionist or plein air painter. I wrote an essay that I published called “The Accidental Tourist,” which is kind of about the evolution of this process. With the Internet and phones today, there’s this thing about escapism. We’re constantly looking at images to try to teleport ourselves from whatever situation we currently are in. But back in the 19th century, they didn’t have that. The reproduction of images wasn’t as accessible as it is now. So they actually had to travel to the countryside to find these picturesque settings. But most of the images that I paint from today are from photographs.

So you’re in the countryside and painting other countrysides from your phone.

Also publications, magazines, and books. Scanning these images. I live here, but I’m not necessarily going out to the bluff painting that view. I’m maybe painting views of things, places that I wish I could travel to but I can’t, and then also places that have a more conceptual significance. So some of the last paintings that I made were of volcano eruptions. It wasn’t necessarily about me wanting to go to these places. It was about the idea of a volcano, and the creation of land, and its relevance to landscape.

The volcano as the birth of landscape
.

That show was all about creation. I was just thinking about earth and how land masses are formed. But also thinking of it as a metaphor for the birth of humanity or civilization. 

You mentioned this idea that we can all now teleport with our phones. Do you feel like being a person who lives in the city, or being an artist who exhibits shows in person, is less crucial now? Is being physically close to what you are engaging with something obsolete?

Yes and no. I really believe in the idea that if you want to view an artwork, you need to see it in real life to get any sort of real experience beside just acknowledging what it looks like and what it’s about. So in that case, it’s important to me. There’s also such a heavy market as far as the art world is concerned with generating sales and drawing attention to an artist. So the city is important to dealers, gallerists, and most artists.

So do you feel like you’re giving something up by not being around?

Generating sales is not really the most important thing for me. Especially living out here, the money that I spend day to day is significantly less than it was in the city. I don’t have a humongous overhead on my studio and my apartment. I don’t have assistants. I don’t need to be making art sales to keep my studio or my business alive. And without that pressure it really creates a freedom for me. For the first time, I feel like a real artist.

Lucien Smith. Monkey in Cage, 2015.

Lucien Smith. God is Dead, 2015.

And what does that feel like?

It’s liberating, man. It’s something that I want to share with other artists. I want to teach that to a younger generation eventually. I want to open up my studio to be able to do open critiques with other artists out there and really try to set a model. Because the model that was set for me when I was younger, it wasn’t a healthy model. It was about sucking up to collectors and trying to sell for the highest prices. That stuff isn’t real. That’s not art. For the last four years, I’ve been trying to create this nonprofit called STP. It’s about spreading awareness about health and how to make a creative environment. I want to provide a place for people outside of school and people who haven’t gone to school to be able to talk about and share their work before it goes out into the world. So they can get critique and positive feedback from their peers.

What does STP stand for?

Serving the People. Like the oil company STP Motors. During the hippie protests, they would make these banners that said STP, and they would use that logo to say “Serving the People” or “Stop the Pigs.” This idea of using a corporate logo and flipping that imagery into something positive really interested me. I’m hoping that one day this project can become my primary activity, and have art be something that I do for pleasure.  

Interview: Thom Bettridge
Photography: Angelo Baque