By Carol Vogel – March 14, 2014
LONDON — Before a standing-room crowd at Christie’s here last month, the bidding opened on an abstract painting filled with black scratching, “Burrito” scrawled across the top in bright yellow. The auctioneer announced that there were already 17 telephone and absentee buyers vying for the canvas, made three years ago by Oscar Murillo, who just turned 28.
While Mr. Murillo is little known outside clubby contemporary art circles, and he has his share of skeptics, his fans have called him “the 21st-century Basquiat.” That night, after fierce competition, “Untitled (burrito)” sold for $322,870, more than six times its high $49,000 estimate. Only two years ago, Mr. Murillo, who was born in Colombia, was waking up at 5 a.m. to clean office buildings to cover his expenses at the Royal College of Art in London. Now, he is represented by David Zwirner, one of the world’s most prestigious galleries, and when a choice canvas comes up at auction or through private sale, it can fetch more than $400,000.
The story of how a young artist like Mr. Murillo soared from struggling student to art star — courted by blue-chip dealers, inundated by curators requesting a work for a museum exhibition or biennial — reflects the way investing in contemporary art has become a gamble, like stocks and real estate. Collecting works by rising artists like Lucien Smith, Jacob Kassay, Sterling Ruby or Mr. Murillo is a competitive sport among a growing number of collectors betting on future stars.
On a recent stop in New York, Mr. Murillo sat in an office in one of David Zwirner’s Chelsea galleries, talking over plans for his first show there, an ambitious combination of performance and installation opening on April 24. Wearing scruffy jeans, a T-shirt and a black baseball cap, this usually laid-back artist bristled when asked what it was like to be so in demand, knowing how fickle the art world is. “I don’t like to think about it,” he replied, staring soberly at a cup of tea.
For Mr. Murillo, celebrity cuts both ways. He reluctantly conceded that the attention is flattering and something that hundreds of young artists could only dream of. But he knows that being thrust in the spotlight at such a young age is risky.
“This is a market hungry for the players of the future,” Allan Schwartzman, a Manhattan art adviser, said. “But almost any artist who gets that much attention so early on in his career is destined for failure. The glare is simply too bright for them to evolve.”
Like his parents, who work as cleaners and moved to London from La Paila, a tiny town in Colombia, when Mr. Murillo was 10, he is a tireless worker, and his quiet charm and relentless ambition helped fuel his popularity. Even when he was a student, collectors and friends were so convinced of his future success that they would occasionally pay $2,000 for a painting. Living in East London, which has a vibrant arts scene, he often worked as an installer for the neighborhood’s small galleries and met players like Rodolphe von Hofmannsthal years before that dealer joined David Zwirner.
But Mr. Murillo’s rapid rise in the United States dates to March 2012, when Donald and Mera Rubell, seasoned Miami collectors, saw a suite of paintings Mr. Murillo created for the London dealer Stuart Shave, which were shown at the Independent Art Fair in New York, a popular event for talent spotting. “By the time we got there, everything was sold out,” Ms. Rubell recalled in a telephone interview. “We were so blown away by the work, I told Stuart we wanted to meet him even though there was nothing left to buy.”
The Rubells, who bought artists like Richard Prince, Maurizio Cattelan, Mike Kelley, Keith Haring and Basquiat early in their careers, met Mr. Murillo in a studio at Hunter College, where he had a residency. “We arrived at 9 a.m., and he looked disheveled, exhausted, like a homeless person,” Ms. Rubell recalled. “He’d stayed up 36 hours straight and had made seven or eight paintings, so he had something to show us. They blew us away. We ended up spending four hours talking to him.”
Not only did the couple buy all the work, but they invited Mr. Murillo to their home and their Contemporary Arts Foundation in Miami. He stayed for six weeks and created a series of large-scale canvases.
“The last time I saw that kind of energy was Keith Haring or Jean-Michel” Basquiat, Ms. Rubell said. “It was so intense. I don’t even think he was on drugs.” (Mr. Murillo assured a reporter that he was “lucid and sober.”)
“The way he works with paint is incredible,” Ms. Rubell went on. “Every painting is really beautiful.”
In December 2012, the Rubells showed the paintings at their foundation, timed to Art Basel Miami Beach, the must-see contemporary art fair that draws collectors, curators and museum directors from around the world.
Ms. Rubell isn’t surprised by the success that followed. “Everyone copies everyone else,” she said. “It’s in the air.” Mr. Murillo’s canvases also reflect what is fashionable in contemporary art: They are abstract, often incorporate a word in the composition and have a lively color palette.
“Seeing his work at the Rubells gave collectors confidence,” said Benjamin Godsill, a former curator at the New Museum in New York who is now a contemporary art expert at Phillips, the auction house.
“People now recognize his paintings,” Mr. Godsill added. “They’ve become a status symbol.”
In February, London auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips all included Mr. Murillo’s work. While experts at the auction houses will not name names, several said that although serious collectors are buying the pieces, many buyers and sellers also are speculators, or “flippers,” hoping for a tidy profit. Compared with a prime painting by Basquiat, which could cost upward of $40 million at auction, a few hundred thousand dollars for a painting by Mr. Murillo seems cheap.
But for all the praise that surrounds him, some people dismiss his work as trendy and derivative of artists like Julian Schnabel and, naturally, Basquiat. After “Oscar Murillo: Distribution Center,” his first show in Los Angeles, which opened in January in the Mistake Room, David Pagel, writing in The Los Angeles Times, called some paintings in the installation “anemic,” saying that “each large piece is less compelling than a single square inch of anything Jean-Michel Basquiat ever touched.” He added that the exhibition “defines our times, a kind of gilded age on steroids, when the past gets repackaged as farce.”
Considering his naysayers, Mr. Murillo said, “If I were looking from the other side, I would be skeptical, too.”
“I came to this by simply working,” he stressed. “It’s the market, and that has nothing to do with me. I’m just trying to keep things normal. I’ve had to live below my means for so long that I’m keeping it that way.”
Soft-spoken and shy, he works alone, without assistants, in a scrappy one-room studio in East London, where canvases, oil paints and debris cover the floors, and irons and sticks are strewn everywhere. He uses old sewing machines to stitch together squares of canvas, which he then flattens with an iron, often painting their surfaces with a stick rather than a brush. His collages and installations can integrate recycled materials like candy wrappers and labels from food cans, often from La Paila. Recently, his paintings have grown darker and richer, their surfaces black but subtly layered with his signature scrawls and scrapes.
While painting is what he is best known for in the United States, in Europe his practice includes videos, installations and performances. He has turned an art gallery into a yoga studio with people using his paintings as mats; two years ago, he staged the “The Cleaners’ Late Summer Party With Comme des Garçons” at the Serpentine Gallery in London, where the art world mingled with his Colombian friends and relatives with raffles, dance competitions and karaoke. “The idea was democratizing a high-end fashion brand,” Mr. Murillo said, explaining that he had used proceeds from creating an ad campaign for Comme des Garçons to provide prizes for the party.
For his first one-man show in London, which took place last fall at the nonprofit South London Gallery, Mr. Murillo transformed its main space into an artist’s studio with canvases shown alongside drawings and sculptures. Upstairs was a video he made in La Paila in one take while riding a bicycle, he said. It follows Ramon, a town resident, wandering the streets trying to sell lottery tickets. Visitors could buy their own lottery tickets, too; each was a signed, beautifully silk-screened ticket with the buyer’s name written on it by a calligrapher, costing 2,500 pounds (about $4,150), with proceeds going back to the gallery, Mr. Murillo said.
When his family moved to London, settling in the East End, he spoke no English and described the adjustment as “an astonishing cultural displacement.”
“Life was very lonely,” he recalled.
Perhaps because of a childhood spent assimilating into a foreign culture, Mr. Murillo is keenly interested in arts education. He is collaborating with schools around the world in a project that involves covering students’ desks with canvases and asking children to draw on them, their creations eventually becoming part of a larger work. “The children have the freedom to do what they want,” he said. “My aim is to create a cross-cultural dialogue.”
For his forthcoming show at David Zwirner — a comment on immigration titled “Oscar Murillo: A Mercantile Novel” — he hopes to import 13 factory workers from Colombina, a candy company where four generations of his family, including his mother, have worked. The visitors would stay in two rented houses in Queens and commute by subway to the gallery to make chocolate, producing it on the same kind of assembly-line machine used back home. (Mr. Zwirner has agreed to buy the gleaming stainless-steel contraption from a German manufacturer.) But the workers need visas. “This goes beyond the art world,” Mr. Murillo said. “If they don’t get visas, then it changes.” His Plan B: “The whole thing freezes and it becomes an apocalyptic moment,” with the chocolate-making machine displayed as sculpture.
This notion of displacement is something Mr. Murillo grapples with every day. “I don’t feel as though I’m part of any artist community,” he said. “I have a wife and a 4-year-old daughter. I’m very close to my parents and my sister.”
Asked whether he is afraid that, like so many artists before him, his star will fall as quickly as it has risen, he answered, “I’m just working and trying to tune out the rest.”
Mr. von Hofmannsthal, now associate director of David Zwirner in London, spends his days managing Mr. Murillo’s career. Aware of the potential damage a harsh spotlight can inflict on a young artist, he acknowledged that it’s “a really hard situation.”
“It’s easy to say he’s got it right now, but what about tomorrow?” Mr. von Hofmannsthal said. “We’re trying to keep prices down, to protect his work.” Perhaps most important, Mr. von Hofmannsthal wants to “just let an artist be an artist.”