Everyone started out somewhere — including your favorite art stars. Some of the biggest names in the visual arts came from surprisingly humble beginnings, and we've picked out 30 of the most telling examples of artists who had less-than-glamorous jobs while pursuing their craft. Sometimes, this exercise actually yields serious insight into the styles they became known for, sometimes not. In every case, though, it gives a window into the life behind the work.
WHO: Mark Rothko
WHAT: delivery boy, newspaper seller
The future AbEx master’s father died just months after moving his family from Russia to Portland, Oregon, forcing the 10-year-old Rothko to deliver groceries and sell newspapers to help support his family. Years later, after moving to New York, he held an assortment of odd jobs before teaching painting and sculpture at the Center Academy — an experience that would stay with him throughout his career and shape his artistic practice.
WHO: Willem de Kooning
WHAT: display designer
Before emigrating to the U.S. from Holland, de Kooning worked his way through art school at the Rotterdam Academy with an apprenticeship in commercial art. Once in New York, his experience came in handy while he worked on designing department store displays during the 1930s. Only after completing a mural for the 1939 World’s Fair did he abandon commercial art all together to pursue his own work.
WHO: Yves Klein
WHAT: judo author, master
Not only was Klein a dedicated Judoka, he wrote a book on the topic, “Les Fondements du Judo,” while studying at the most prestigious Judo center in Tokyo. After returning to Paris, he opened his own judo school, hanging monochromes on the walls and eventually reaching the highest level possible for a Judoka in Europe.
WHO: Claes Oldenburg
WHAT: failed reporter
After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Yale in 1950, the Stockholm-born Pop sculptor began working as an apprentice reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. Nothing he wrote was ever printed. “I was assigned to cover stories that were considered unimportant but which I found fascinating,” Oldenburg told the L.A. Times in 1995. “I once covered the death of a man who'd spent his life collecting nuts and bolts — every drawer and receptacle in his apartment was full of nuts and bolts.”
WHO: Ed Ruscha
WHAT: advertising creative, secret Artforum designer
In 1960, fresh out of the Chouinard Art Institute (now CalArts), Ruscha began working as a full-time layout artist for the Los Angeles-based Carson-Roberts Advertising Agency, though after taking a hiatus to travel around Europe and visit New York, he quit the following year to devote himself to painting. Supporting himself with his art proved difficult, though, and Ruscha paid the bills by doing layout work for Artforum under the sly pseudonym “Eddie Russia” from October 1965 — a year after the magazine published the first major review of his work — until the summer of 1969.
WHO: Ed Kienholz
WHAT: jack of many, many trades
Kienholz, the self-taught installation artist known for his gritty psychosexual assemblages of exurban detritus, had a colorful resume before he became entrenched in Los Angeles’s budding avant-garde scene in the 1950s (he went on to co-found the Ferus Gallery with Walter Hopps and Bob Alexander). His job titles included orderly in a psychiatric hospital, manager of a dance band, used car salesman, caterer, decorator, and vacuum cleaner salesman.
WHO: James Turrell
WHAT: heroic pilot, struggling rancher
When Turrell was just 16 years old, the light and space artist got his pilot's license. A Quaker and conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, he also flew Tibetan monks out of Tibet after the Chinese invasion. Once back in the States, he spent months flying around the southwestern desert before deciding on Roden Crater in Arizona's Painted Desert as the site for his monumental land art piece and observatory. In order to purchase and maintain the land surrounding the crater, Turrell also had to take up cattle ranching. “I don’t know if it’s harder to make a living as an artist or a rancher,” Turrell said to the Smithsonian in 2003.
WHO: Wayne Thiebaud
WHAT: Disney animation drone, hot dog vendor
Perhaps it will not come as a surprise to learn that Wayne Thiebaud, painter of dreamy cakes, got his start drawing “in between” frames for Disney’s Pinocchio or that he put in his time working in food service. Even his later works maintained a cartoon-like element, while his early subject matter was clearly inspired by the ice cream and hot dogs he served at the Long Beach cafe, Mile High.
WHO: Dan Flavin
WHAT: Guggenheim mailroom clerk, MoMA elevator man
Before his fluorescent light works made it into the collections of establishments like MoMA and the Guggenheim, Flavin paid his dues working on the less glamorous side of these museums. He was a mailroom clerk at the Gugg, a guard at the American Museum of Natural History, and a guard and elevator operator at MoMA throughout the late '50s and early '60s.
WHO: Sol LeWitt
WHAT: graphic designer for Seventeen, MoMA receptionist
The Connecticut-born artist joined the army at age 21 and served in Korea and Japan during the Korean War. After returning home in 1953, he moved to New York, where he worked as an illustrator for teen mag Seventeen. Two years later, LeWitt did a stint as a graphic designer for the architect I.M. Pei and later served as a night receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art. (While there, he met critic Lucy Lippard and artists Dan Flavin, Robert Mangold, and Robert Ryman.)
WHO: Philip Glass & Steve Reich
WHAT: men with van
Before they were known as two of the most prominent minimalist composers, Glass and Reich eked out a living for themselves by starting a furniture transportation service called Chelsea Light Moving. “We always ended up with smelly couches on the Lower East Side,” Reich said years later. Glass would later become a plumber, assisted by a young Kathryn Bigelow.
WHO: Carolee Schneemann
WHAT: walk-on actor in pornos, dog dryer, Sunday school teacher
Though she would go on to become canonized for her provocative body of work dealing with gender and sexuality, Scheemann worked a variety of odd part-time jobs to make ends meet. “I was an artist model, a dog dryer in a pet shop, I was in porno films on Saturdays for fifty dollars — but you only had to stand there in a black dress — and then I taught Sunday school on Sunday.” If you’re curious about her adult film career, she clarified to Bad at Sports: “The sexiest thing I was ever told to do was suck a guy’s toe, and he had covered it so heavily in aftershave.”
WHO: Judy Chicago
WHAT: corresponding secretary for the NAACP
The feminist artist became active in campus politics while attending UCLA in the late 1950s, designing posters for the university's NAACP chapter. Eventually, she became the local chapter’s corresponding secretary. The FBI, which had investigated Chicago's father for Communist sympathies, took notice: It began a file on her around this time.
WHO: Barbara Kruger
WHAT: designer for Mademoiselle
After Kruger finished studying design with Diane Arbus at Parson’s School of Design, she embarked on a career in publishing. She honed her skills as a designer for Conde Nast’s Mademoiselle, eventually moving up as a graphic designer, art director, and picture editor at House and Garden and Aperture.
WHO: Raymond Pettibon
WHAT: high school math teacher
Though you'd never know it from his typo and expletive-riddled Twitter feed, Pettibon started out as a high school teacher. The California artist taught mathematics in the Los Angeles public school system for a brief stint after graduating college in 1977, returning to school for his BFA later that year.
WHO: Jeff Koons
WHAT: commodities trader, “Senior Representative of MoMA”
Soon after moving to New York in 1977, 21-year-old Koons took a job at the membership desk at the Museum of Modern Art. Before long, he was selling memberships so swiftly that boardmember Blanchette Rockefeller created a new title for him: Senior Representative of MoMA. Three years later, he began working as a commodities broker at Smith Barney. Once a master of the market, always a master of the market.
WHO: Julian Schnabel
WHAT: short-order cook
While studying at New York’s Whitney Independent Study Program in the 1970s, Schnabel worked as a short-order cook and dishwasher. Perhaps the experience in the kitchen helped inspire his famous broken plate paintings — though it doesn't sound like he'd want to go back: “every day I don't have to cook in a restaurant, I have a big smile on my face,” he told the Guardian in 2003.
WHO: Glenn Ligon
WHAT: legal proofreader
Ligon, best known for paintings and neons featuring repeated phrases pulled from literature and art history, always had an eye for words. After graduating with an art degree from Wesleyan University in 1982, he worked as a proofreader for a law firm. The constant onslaught of text reportedly contributed to his decision to shift away from Abstract Expressionist-style painting and toward text-based work.
WHO: Shirin Neshat
WHAT: helped run Storefront for Art and Architecture
Upon arriving in New York from Iran — via Berkeley where she received a BA — Neshat spent a full decade working at Storefront for Art and Architecture. Though she did not make work during her Storefront time, the experience was influential to her artistic practice. In an interview with Bomb in 2000, she said that Storefront was her “true education” and that the exposure there led her to “think about [her]self as an artist.”
WHO: Carrie Mae Weems
WHAT: union organizer
Weems has explored issues of race, gender, politics, and identity in her widely revered black-and-white portraits of African-American life, but her interests in such subjects likely began when she worked as an organizer for what her website describes only as a "Marxist organization" for nearly a decade.
WHO: Matthew Barney
WHAT: J. Crew model
Though you can’t always tell from the supernatural costumes he sports in his epic “CREMASTER Cycle,” Bjork’s husband is — how do you say? — quite a looker. The summer before enrolling at Yale, Barney answered an ad for a modeling job that paid $250, which led him to get picked up by an agency, and helped him pay his way through college for the next five years. “When I was modeling, I found it interesting,” Barney told the New York Times in 1999, “that you could step outside yourself and let yourself be used as a coat hanger or puppet, especially in the performance sense: to let your body be a tool, to leave the body in the work and not really to occupy your body when you are performing.”
WHO: Olafur Eliasson
WHAT: model, breakdancer
As a teenager growing up in Copenhagen, Olafur Eliasson modeled for a Scandinavian youth magazine and studied breakdancing. The artist, who now specializes in large-scale, environmental-themed installations, had a knack for dance: He won Scandinavia’s breakdancing championship two years in a row. “In 1984, I was completely convinced it was art,” Eliasson told the magazine 032c of his cutting-edge moves. “Today, I doubt that.”
WHO: Cai Guo-Qiang
WHAT: kung fu actor
Before he began exploring the properties of gunpowder and staging his signature “explosion events” at museums around the world, Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang had roles in two kung fu movies: “The Spring and Fall of a Small Town” and “Real Kung Fu of Shaolin.” Maybe it was all that martial arts training and synchronized sword-waving in his teens and twenties that gave him his dramatic flare.
WHO: Ai Weiwei
WHAT: blackjack guru
While studying at New York’s Parsons School in the 1980s, the artist spent most of his weekends in Atlantic City, where he cultivated a reputation as a formidable blackjack player. The impression he left on the Jersey gambling community was lasting: During Ai’s 2011 detention by the Chinese government, the website blackjackchamp.com ran a story with the magnificent headline, “Arrested Chinese Blackjack Guru Ai WeiWei Also an Artist and Activist,” complete with testimony about his character from someone named “Snake Eyes.”
WHO: Maurizio Cattelan
WHAT: furniture designer
Cattelan first began turning heads in the 1980s, but not for outrageous sculptures like his work depicting Pope John Paul II fallen and crushed by a meteor — those would come later. Rather, it was for his work as a furniture designer. And though his humorous and irreverent artworks would earn him a reputation as one of the art world’s most notorious and poetic pranksters, his latest collaboration with the DESTE Foundation — on a photography project inspired by Italian “Radical Design” furniture of 1968 — sees the artist returning to his roots.
WHO: Wade Guyton
WHAT: St. Mark’s Bookshop clerk, Dia:Chelsea guard
When the now-famous digital painter Guyton first got to New York in 1995, he applied to the Whitney’s Independent Study Program, but was turned down. He took at job at the St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village, then started working as a security guard at the Dia Art Foundation in Chelsea. “I didn’t even know what Dia was when I moved to New York,” Guyton told Interview magazine last year. “I stood around all day guarding art... until the end, when I worked my way up to Dan Graham’s café on the roof.”
WHO: Cory Arcangel
WHAT: lacrosse goalie
In his teens, the future new media art posterboy earned a scholarship as a lacrosse goalie to Buffalo’s prestigious Nichols School, where he was the team’s star player. He eventually abandoned his lacrosse stick for a guitar, and upon graduating from his hometown prep school went on to study classical guitar at Oberlin — though he quickly switched majors to the technology of music.
WHO: Sterling Ruby
WHAT: construction worker, skateboarder
He may be known for in-your-face works like “The Masturbators” (2009), but Ruby is reported to have had a career in construction before attending art school. Less surprising perhaps is that Ruby was also a professional skateboarder and performed in a few punk bands recording tracks with legendary producer Steve Albini.
WHO: Hilary Harkness
WHAT: professional violinist
These days, Harkness is celebrated for her paintings depicting complex fantasy tableaux occupied solely by women, but she worked as a professional violinist in the Midwest before taking up the brush for a living. In fact, ahead of college, she studied under legendary violinist David Updegraff.
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