Will Cotton is a painter living and working in New York City whose work has been exhibited far and wide in the United States and Europe. He earned his B.F.A. from Cooper Union in 1987 and has studied at the New York Academy of Art and the Beaux Arts in France. Cotton is represented by the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, but also has representation in Aspen, CO, Los Angeles, CA, Paris, France, and Cologne, Germany. He was awarded the Princess Grace Foundation award for contemporary art in Monaco in 2004.
Cotton’s paintings are defined by saccharine excess. Landscapes entirely made of candy, ice-cream, and cakes are populated with equally sweet nude pinups redolent of desire. But above all, Cotton’s work is technically striking. In Modern Painters, Shana Nys Dambrot writes that the “craftsmanship and strategic armature of his compositions reveal a deeply academic bent that has less in common with the girl-and-candy Pop art of Mel Ramos and James Rosenquist, and more with the articulation of the surrogate caress found in Ingres, and the unabashedly joyous colour of Sargent.”
Cotton is trim. This is somewhat surprising as he actually bakes, and eats!, the elaborate sets his landscapes are based on. In November 2009, Cotton organized a pop-up French bakery in New York, where visitors could sample the baked goods referenced in his art, all of which he made on site.
Besides pastries, paintings, and his own slight self, Cotton’s loft is home to an eighteen year-old white cat as fluffy as the cotton candy he is famous for.
When did you become interested in art?
I liked drawing robots as a child. And I drew a lot of airplanes. It was a way of processing things I was learning about. My father was trained as an aeronautical engineer and always had airplanes– he was designing airplanes. Some of the earliest drawing I remember doing were of mechanical things.
Did you have exactness down already then?
Very much so. And the sense of drawing having a relationship to physical objects, even being a plan for a physical object. Which has really become a part of my process now. I’ll make maquettes [models], and before I make the maquette there is always a quick drawing stage when I think through how I am going to make it. If I build a little gingerbread castle, there is some engineering involved and there is a preliminary sketch. And, most importantly, once the model is done I do some really exact drawings of the actual object.
Can you recall a moment when you knew you wanted to pursue art professionally?
When I was a freshman in high school I went to see an Edward Hopper show at the Whitney Museum. I loved the paintings. That Christmas I asked for an Edward Hopper book and watercolors. Then I started copying the Hopper paintings and doing other paintings in the style of Hopper. A friend of my grandmother saw one of the paintings and offered to buy it. I sold it for 25 dollars. My job at the time was mowing lawns for 4 dollars a lawn, so this was major! I think of that as a turning point. Because it wouldn’t have occurred to me that drawing and painting could actually be a viable career option, something you could make money on, if that hadn’t happened.
After high school you went straight to art school.
I went to Cooper Union in New York. After a couple of years there, I felt that even though it was a solid art theory based education, there was a lot more hands on learning that I wanted to do. I had this fantasy that it would be at the Beaux-Arts in France where I would get it. I knew I really wanted to learn to paint the figure and landscape. So I arranged through Cooper to go study at the Beaux-Arts for a year.
The actual experience at the Beaux-Arts was a bit disappointing, because all they wanted to do was be like New York. But when I was in France, I met someone who was teaching at the New York Academy, which was literally around the corner from Cooper Union at that time—on Lafayette Street. They were teaching the kind of academic drawing and painting that I imagined they would be teaching at the Beaux-Arts. So, I had to go back to New York, to exactly where I had been, and take classes at the academy in the evenings after I was done with classes at Cooper during the day.
You seem to have had a very clear sense of what you wanted.
I did. There were images I wanted to make and the imagery demanded certain things of me. There is a certain kind of artist who goes into the studio and emotes, or feels, and makes things happen that way. Not me. I always felt like there was an image I wanted to make, a narrative I want to tell, and in order to tell that story completely and succinctly, I had to have certain skills at my disposal. I had to go out and get them. I still do, honestly. I do a lot of life drawing just to keep my hand active.
What did your family think about you pursuing art professionally?
They were very supportive, if not thoroughly informative. My parents weren’t the kind of parents who ever said to me, “What are you going to do for a living?” And I was honestly naïve enough that it didn’t really dawn on me that there was any likelihood that I wouldn’t be a functioning artist. I thought, “I’ll go to art school and then I’ll be an artist.” Looking back, it’s incredible because the chances are pretty small of that happening, honestly. And Cooper Union is amazing because if you get in, it’s free. There is no tuition. You just have to find room and board money.
How did you find that room and board money?
I got a scholarship for 1,000 dollars per semester, which was substantial then. I also borrowed some money. The other thing I did was work as an illustrator for a small magazine that one of my aunts ran. I also started selling some paintings while I was still in art school.
How did you find buyers for your paintings?
All kinds of different ways! [Laughs] I showed anywhere anyone would hang a painting. I’d see bars that had art up and ask to hang mine there. Or sometimes someone was curating a wall in a bar and would ask me for some work. I was still going back and forth to Upstate New York, to New Paltz where I grew up, and I did a couple of shows in barns there. I would just borrow someone’s big, empty barn, hang up a lot of my paintings, and invite everyone I knew to come and buy them. I was pricing them at about 150-650 dollars each. Which struck me as just fine and gave me enough money to live on. I sold pretty well.
Would you recommend that path— creating your own gallery space and exhibiting on your own?
The best thing it did for me was get me accustomed to a system of making a bunch of work with a show date in mind as a deadline. Then I had to finish the paintings. In art school, I could never finish a painting, ever. There was no deadline, and I never thought anything was done, like I could always make it better. It would be like that still today if I hadn’t gotten used to this kind of rhythm of knowing a painting has a concept, a beginning, a middle, and an end— and then it’s done. God knows, I could look at this [he gestures to a large canvas of a finished painting picturing the pop star Katy Perry on a pink cotton candy cloud—the cover for her new album “Teenage Dream”— which Perry had "unveiled" in Cotton's studio the day before], and still say there are things I could do to it. You know? You just have to decide that it’s finished. So I think going through that process, making up my own shows, got me accustomed to that situation. And it gave me rent money.
What it won’t do for an artist is develop the kind of art world relationships that you ultimately need to really make it in any serious way.
And how did you develop those relationships?
It was the mid 90’s. My wife at the time and I were living in a loft space and we realized that we had to meet people. We realized the art world thing is about knowing people. I thought: “There is no way this is going to happen unless I meet the New York art world.” We made a very conscious effort to do that in two ways. One was just going to all the openings. That’s not the easiest way to meet people, but at least it inserts you into the scene and lets you know what art is happening out there. That is huge.
The second thing we did is we started to have loft parties. If you have a loft party in the art world and there is alcohol and you invite 50 people, by the end of the night there are 300 people in your loft. The upside is that you meet a lot of people. And that is actually how I met most of the people I know, still to this day. That’s also how I got hooked up with Mary Boone [his dealer in New York]. At one of those parties, someone brought Damian Loeb [the artist], and he saw my work, and he introduced me to Mary Boone, who he had just started working with.
So, being social, deliberately, definitely did a lot for me.
It’s really about finding your peers. So you have people to have a dialogue with. So that you can move up together. You can start curating each others’ shows and getting each other into shows, telling other curators and dealers about each other. And whatever press/publicity machinery there is, people like a story about a group of artists more than one about an individual.
You began to organize open figure drawing sessions here in your studio a while back. Was that connected to your desire to be a part of an artistic community?
Yes. At the time, things were beginning to happen for me but I felt like I had to get good at figure drawing again, because I hadn’t been doing it for a little while and I was starting to put the figure back in my painting. I thought if I made it a party, I would make myself do it, because then I wouldn’t be able to just cancel it or whatever. I decided to make it almost totally open because it would be a good way to meet people who are interested in similar things. And it was. In the end, its undoing was that it got too big. The spirit of openness that was really good in the beginning made it overwhelming in the end [A feature in The New York Times no doubt aggravated that]. Now I do it on a very small scale and less regularly.
What other jobs did you have to support yourself before you could live solely on your art?
Immediately out of school, I was doing decently selling paintings to get by. But here’s the thing, I learned to live on very little money. That was a big part of it. I honestly feel bad for artists today, because to live in New York at all is just so expensive! What it seems to mean is living with a lot of roommates. Back in my time, I was paying 400 dollars a month for an apartment. It was doable. I could sell a painting or two and make my rent— even at 200 dollars a painting.
I also worked at an art gallery. That paid a little and it gave me a chance to see how the system works. I saw how artists make work, bring it in, how the pricing structure happens, what a dealer’s cut is…I got a real view of the whole system, which I think was helpful.
Then I felt like I needed more space. And real estate was getting more expensive. So, I started to develop contracting skills. I moved into an empty commercial loft space, literally empty— no bathroom, no kitchen— on Broadway between Broome and Grande. It’s hard to imagine now, but it was still not a good area then, in the earl 90’s. I literally got a book on renovating. It had a chapter on electric, a chapter on plumbing, a chapter on carpentry etc. I learned from the book.
I built out the place that I rented. And I built an extra room into the space to rent out to someone to cover my own rent. Then I had all these new skills, and I had many friends who were sort of trying to do the same thing but who were incapable or unwilling to develop those skills, so I started charging money to help them renovate their places too. At which point, I was kind of a contractor. I knew some architects, and I started making bids for jobs. My bids were so much lower than any actual professional contractor that I would pretty much get any job I bid on. I never got good at making a lot of money doing that. After the fact, I learned that jobs that anyone else was bidding 30,000 or 50,000 dollars on I was bidding 5,0000 or 6,000 on! I was probably losing money on some of them.
I also realized that everyone was looking for studio space, and many of them were more capable than I was to pay for it. So, I got a partner and we rented two floors of a building by 14th Street. We split it up into eight studios. We each took one and rented out the rest to subsidize our own space. But then we ended up renting out our own studios there as well because we made so much money renting out the space. I survived from about 1996-2002 on the profits from that business which started out as just a way to get studio space.
And you were still able to do your art while you did all these contracting jobs?
The good thing about contracting for artists is that it is a 2 or 3 week job and then you’re back in the studio for a while full time until the next one. I think the hardest thing for artists is a 9-5 job, because then you’re exhausted at the end of the day and you’ve only got evenings and weekends to do your work. I can’t imagine doing that.
Any other crazy jobs you’ve had?
I did some mural painting too, in the mid to late 1990’s. I was paid 200-300 dollars a day, which felt like good money. I did it with a friend. Some were in private residences. We painted at least three major murals. One was in Atlantic City. Another was in a restaurant on the Upper East Side, an Italian place. The mural was of an old-time New York street scene. The restaurant is closed now. Apparently, they painted over the mural.
I bet they would be kicking themselves if they knew!
[Laughs] I’m sure none of them know that I’ve had an art career since then.
What are your work habits like now?
It’s really regular. I am up at 7.30 and do whatever email and junk on the computer that I need to do until about 9. Then I work in the studio from 9-6. Monday-Friday.
So, you basically created a 9-5 for yourself.
I did! But it’s all art. On Saturdays, I go to see other people’s shows. And in the evenings I go to evening art functions. There is so much that goes on in the 6-9 or 6-midnight range that involves that important social aspect.
And what about way back when, what were your work habits like then?
It was so insane! I was doing a lot of nightlife, so I was accustomed to being up pretty much all night. I had decided that it was the only time of day when I had absolute peace, nothing else would be disturbing me from midnight-5 a.m. Oddly, the contracting jobs I was doing at the time were also at that time because they were often in commercial spaces that wanted to be open during the day. I was also drinking a lot at the time. Being crazy.
When did you sleep?
Um…during the day sometime. Just not a whole lot. Not sleeping— it’s an amazing thing that young people can do that I just can’t do anymore.
Tell me about the pop-up bakery you ran during three weekends in November 2009.
I really wanted to incorporate the experiential element of what I do in the studio, and bring it to the public. On any given day in the studio, I do a lot of baking to build my maquettes, which are all made of cakes and things. The studio will often be full of the smell of baking. It is a real olfactory experience. The other thing going on, of course, is tasting. I actually eat a lot of the stuff as I build. So, when I am making these things I feel completely immersed in this world. And I feel like that is part of the art in some way. I wanted to bring that out to the art viewer. I did a pop-up bakery so that people could smell and taste and also look at the sculptures and paintings all in the same place.
There was a line out the door before we even opened in the morning. I was not prepared for the onslaught. It got quite a bit of press. We had to limit how much each person could buy! It was crazy. I was making 600 Parisian macaroons a day, 30 cakes, all these tarts…I’ve gotten really good at baking now after all these years of building my models.
You should go into the bakery business.
Well, I had a lot of serious offers at the time. But I decided not to. The baker’s life is hard!
Why do you work with pop culture references in your art?
The paintings from art history that I looked at growing up are full of various iconographies— religious, Judeo-Christian iconographies. The question I always asked myself was: what is my iconography? If I have a pantheon of archetypes, who are those archetypes? That is what brought me initially to working with images of the Nesquik Bunny and things like that. Those were images of what is lusty, of desire. That is what I grew up on watching Saturday morning television; that is what resonated with me.
Your paintings comment on pop culture, but by making the Katy Perry music video for “California Gurls” you created something that is actually a part of pop culture.
Exactly. It is fascinating. I’ve always looked at pop culture references and very consciously made references to those in the paintings. And now this video is a legitimate piece of pop culture. You could say “cotton candy cloud” to the general public and they might, possibly, know what you are talking about now. That feels amazing. Over 21 million people have seen that video on YouTube [many millions more by now]. There is no way that 21 million people have seen my art in any art context. It is just so different in terms of scale that I don’t even know what it means yet.
I think it’s great that the makers of the video didn’t just copy my work, since people— advertising , music videos etc— copy artists all the time, but got in touch with me and asked me to be a part of it. It was the same thing with the album cover. Katy Perry could’ve used the concept and taken a photo. She didn’t do that. She came here and posed for a painting.
It’s not like any pop star could come to me and I’d paint their album cover. With Katy, it evolved very organically. She emailed me asking if she could buy a painting. I knew who she was, and I had actually torn out pictures of her that I put in the scrap book I keep for references because of the way she looks— she really looks like she belongs in one of my paintings. So I wrote back asking if she would ever consider posing for me. She said yes and wondered how I felt about that painting being the album cover, and then it evolved from there.
Do you think about how your work will be received?
There was a time when I thought I should try to guess what people would want to buy. But after a few really failed attempts at that, I abandoned the idea and came to understand that the only chance I had of making something someone else would want is to make something that I would want.
Can you recall any early hurdles?
Just finding time to work…and surviving. There were definitely moments when I went into relatively serious debt. During one period I had a lot of maxed out credit cards. But that probably got me through a couple of years.
Any early triumphs?
I remember a lot of little triumphs, and most of them had to do with technical issues. I always felt a divide between the image I knew I wanted to make in my mind and what was coming out on the paper or canvas. That is by far the biggest frustration, even to this day. Because of that, the technical triumphs have felt huge. Just a month ago I discovered a new canvas preparation that felt like a breakthrough!
Do you have any advice to young artists?
Find your peers. It takes time. And it takes effort. It is not necessarily going to be the people you went to art school with. It is an ongoing process. It is so important for me to have the core group of artists I feel comfortable having in my studio and going to theirs. Because the commercial side of the art world really fluctuates, there are going to be good years and bad years for the rest of my life. But what can be constant is this ongoing dialogue with my peers. I can feel as though I made a great painting and there are people who are going to care about that, even though I may not be in fashion that year. That is the most important thing.
Interview by Astri von Arbin Ahlander
Images courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery. 1.)”Consuming Folly” 2009-2010, 72 x 96″, 2.)Pastoral, 72″ x 84″, oil on linen, 2009, 3.)Ribbon Candy Portrait, 36″ x 32″, oil on linen, 2008, 4.)”Taffy Forest” 2007, Oil on linen, 72 x 80″, 5.)”Cotton Candy Sky (Mona)” 2006, Oil on linen, 72 x 84″,