In Conversation: Nikki Maloof
Nikki Maloof has been on our radar since 2014, around the time when her work was starting to hold court in the downtown NYC group exhibition scene — at Salon 94, Nicelle Beauchene, Jack Hanley, and the much-loved, since shuttered, artist-run galleries Louis B. James and 247365. In 2015, we worked with Maloof to release Forlorn Monkey, our first edition collaboration with the artist. Seven years later, we’ve grown up and so has Maloof, whose 2017 move from New York to Western Massachusetts catalyzed a painterly evolution showcased in her exhibitions that followed, including solo presentations at Nino Mier Gallery, Sorry We're Closed, and most recently, Perrotin.
Following the release of our collaboration based on work featured in Maloof's Perrotin solo, we caught up with the artist to talk about painting, parenthood, and process.
XA: You're back in the studio [after a quick trip to New York celebrating the opening of You Are a Serpent Who’ll Return to the Ocean, Danielle Orchard’s solo exhibition at Perrotin]!
XA: How was New York?
NM: It was great. It was really fun, very tiring. I'm out of my New York shape. I feel like now I need to recover after those trips!
XA: When did you move out of the city?
NM: I left about six years ago, which has flown by. Actually, this’ll be my sixth year here [in Western Massachusetts]. And I lived there for six years. So, that's interesting. [New York] defined a very formative time in my life because I moved there right when I finished grad school. I was 25 when I arrived. I feel like that's when you start to really figure yourself out. New York is very precious to me. I grew up in a not-very-big but big-ish city, plopped in the middle of cornfields.
XA: I'm curious about the overall trajectory of your work thus far. Our first collaboration represented such a different phase in your career. I’d love to hear more about when the paintings began to shift indoors but also when the outdoor perimeter began to expand.
NM: When I think back on that early work, the work that was kind of the spark [to everything since], what I was trying to figure out was: how can I make a painting about the experience of being alive without having to paint only figures? When I graduated [with an MFA from Yale] in 2011, I was painting mostly figures. I couldn’t figure out how to paint a person in a way I was excited about, I felt limited by the human form, and I got to a point where I wasn't enjoying it anymore. I was frustrated and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I kind of paused what I was doing and tried to think about something that just sounded deeply pleasurable to paint — like, stop with the overthinking, start over with the basics: what would be great to paint? I mean, what sounds fun to paint? And I think I made this one random painting of a monkey. And it was this kind of weird moment where I felt, oh maybe there is something here, maybe I should follow this…
Recently, I was thinking about this podcast called Song Exploder, where musicians share a song and discuss how it came to be. Every time I listen to it, I feel impressed thinking about how seemingly separate art forms are essentially similar. You start with maybe a little… a small, little idea. For musicians, maybe it’s just one sound or one lyric or one chord or a couple chords together. You take that first element and follow where it leads. I feel like that about my practice, like I’m taking all these little bits and creating a song, practicing it, and finally performing it as a big painting.
XA: I love that comparison. I think it’s very true the impulse that binds artists together — across diverse media — is this innate ability to notice a perhaps otherwise unnoticed moment and the desire to synthesize or transmute that feeling, to communicate its sensation. It often doesn’t feel like a choice. To be an artist, you need to — on some level — live in this world of feeling but you’re also tasked with creating boundaries to protect that emotionality — and in an entirely new way once you’re a professional working artist. There’s a profound vulnerability to exhibiting, even just talking about your work. How do you structure boundaries in your life and has it changed since there’s been more eyes on it?
NM: Yeah, that stuff is a challenge. I think, actually, being away from the city has helped me deal with it a lot because I feel a bit like I’m in my own world here. I think an important tool for any artist is the ability to shut the world out and just be on your own… like, the studio is a bunker or something and you have to treat it like that. For me, even as a young child, I think I was really good at going into my bunker. I liked being alone. It’s a skill that’s served me positively as my career has changed. There's definitely moments of vulnerability, no matter what. When I first started showing, every time was like, can I do this again? Do I have any more ideas? You know, it always feels like there might be a finite amount and one day I’ll just run out. Typical anxiety. I think… you just have to come with your own special formula for moving past it.
My process has a lot to do with that. I’ll tell younger artists I know that you have to create a system to forget everything and just be present. There’s choices you can make regarding your process in order to create that presence. I guess what I’m saying is [the system you create] can be as much about getting away from your negative thoughts as it is about applying paint a certain way. All those decisions amount to something. Maybe it’s not something you can necessarily learn in art school, like, you actually have to devise strategies that allow you to get [past the anxiety and into the flow].
And everybody's different. For example, Dani [Orchard] is completely different from me. She has a whole different system for herself. That's why I really like [Song Exploder]. Cause it's like, everyone’s trying to get to the same thing but everyone has a different approach, which can be really freeing, because, well, there isn’t a right or a wrong way, maybe I’ll just try it different. Maybe I’ll just trust myself to go here now, you know?
XA: Which is perhaps more challenging once you’re in the public sphere and there’s many agendas at play…
NM: It's a dark world for sure. It can definitely suck like the creativity right out of you and make you feel quite sad.
XA: You’re right though — success comes from setting yourself up for success. Secondary to becoming more attuned to intuition, it also helps to exist in a creative community of like minded folks. Early in the pandemic, it felt impossible for me to ignore certain judgments about the art world as an industry marketplace dominated by non-artists. But there's no ‘art world’ without artists! Artists are the engine. And now I'm back to feeling so inspired by contemporary art for housing such diversity of disciplines, and just so amazed by the act of creation itself, like you were saying — when a song emerges from a silent room or the blank canvas becoming an experience. I’m endlessly impressed by artists being the type of people who are like, you know what, I’m just going to do this thing. And then they just do it over and over, learning through failure, but building the practice, growing the body of work, beginning their legacy, and so on.
NM: Yeah, definitely.
XA: Was painting always what you wanted to do?
NM: Yeah, it was. I was definitely always drawing. As a kid that was really the only thing I was good at. So it wasn’t that surprising for anyone in my family that [visual art] might be the path I’d pursue. Not that anyone really knew what I was going to do with it, but I do think they were just like, OK, Nikki is doing that thing she does.
XA: You mentioned having this ambiguous notion of what a career path was going to look like. Do you have any advice for young painters based on how you managed your own uncertainty?
NM: I was just talking to someone about this. It's incredible how different everything is now compared to when we were in undergrad. It doesn’t feel like that long ago but technically it is sort of long ago! I finished undergrad in 2008. At that point, being in the Midwest, it's like, well, what shall we do now? I don’t know if this is still the case but there were a lot of art books coming out, like [Phaidon’s Vitamin P] was really big back then. You’d take the book, open to the back page, read the list of artists, and it would say where each of them went to graduate school. So, I was like, I’m going to apply to all these graduate schools based on these books I checked out from the library. In a way, it felt very straightforward. Whereas today, there’s so many options presented to young artists via the internet.
XA: It can be overwhelming.
NM: I also feel like the effectualness for us going to graduate school was to have a viable reason to get out of the Midwest. Now, looking back, using grad school as that stepping stone feels a bit questionable. Does it make sense to go into debt for art? I don’t know. There’s more questions now, whereas I felt like there weren’t many options for me when I was younger.
XA: It’s like painting in the sense that you just follow yourself, one foot in front of the other, heading towards something calling you.
NM: Yeah. Another thing I’ve learned as a person who’s been doing it for a while is there are so many different paths, which can be challenging to explain to younger artists who are like, what should we do? Well, there’s not one way, you know? My way works for me but it’s definitely not the only way. You have to find the system that works for you.
I think if there's one thing that's functioned as a rock for me, career wise, has been the artistic community I ended up falling into. The connections you make along the way power you through. So I think, if anything, finding a community that inspires you is probably the most important thing, whether that happens through graduate school or other methods. Because you do need to be around other artists to grow, I think. And not even just visual artists. Some of the biggest influences I’ve had in my life have been through art that wasn’t even visual. For example, learning about poetry can catch you off guard and change you in a way you weren’t expecting.
XA: Totally, I think cross-pollination is so important. And I think you're right — the answer is often in the work itself and going back to what you mentioned earlier, tuning into your intuition, which can be challenging no matter what but especially as the world becomes increasingly chaotic.
NM: Yeah, information is always being thrown at you. In a way, it’s a really hard time to be an artist because there’s so much available to consume. As an artist, you really have to protect yourself from that, I think.
XA: For sure. Speaking of, what's the first thing you do in the morning?
NM: Drink coffee. Immediately.
XA: How do you like your coffee?
XA: One and done?
NM: I usually have one or two before I leave. I try to not have more. I mean, sometimes I’ll continue when I get to the studio, but more than two cups can backfire. You’ll think you’re gonna be all productive but then you’re like, I’ll quickly read this! Oh, I’m gonna just do this really quick. Wait, hold on, I’ll go over there… It’s like, no, just enjoy a reasonable amount of coffee instead. But sometimes, I don’t know. Sometimes you just need more!
XA: Considering you’re an artist who demonstrated promise at such a young age, have your early memories of engaging with creativity changed since having children of your own? Do you actively think about ways to foster their creativity?
NM: I definitely think my parents saw my interest and responded by providing me with materials and signing me up for classes and things like that. They helped me a lot even by just giving me confidence. I think their example is what I use as guidance for how to foster my kids' creativity. I’ve noticed [my children] have their own versions of self-expression and I try to give them tools to explore those impulses for sure. The jury is out whether they will take to visual arts ultimately. They are still pretty young to know.
XA: Last weekend I stopped by [Jeffrey Deitch's Los Angeles location for a book-signing Alake Shilling was doing in conjunction with her solo exhibition A Bug’s Life] before going to M+B for Katelyn Ledford’s opening (Editor’s Note: Exhibition A has a forthcoming 2023 collaboration with Shilling and collaborated with Ledford in 2022 to release her hand-finished series, Subtle As A Brick Through A Window, as part of Sasa Bogojev’s Edition 01 of our Curator Series). Alake’s mom was at Deitch, Katelyn’s parents were at M+B, and I ended up talking to them for a while. Speaking with the people who have been there since day one felt like the most intimate insight into an artist’s practice.
NM: I think that would be such an interesting book idea, like “Interviews with Artist’s Parents.”
XA: Oh yeah, that's great! I’d love to read that. Because that’s definitely like a totally different experience — nurturing creativity. I would love to read that.
NM: Yeah, for sure. I think somebody has got to make that book now that you say it. Until I had kids, I didn’t quite grasp that there had been a set of people that were so invested in me. Maybe I took it for granted. But now that I’ve had kids, I’m like, wow, [my parents] really were invested! And so I think it would be interesting to hear about the perspective of parents whose children went on to grow into becoming these really interesting artists. I remember one time reading [Ian Parker's 2021 profile on Nicole Eisenman in The New Yorker], which included dialogue between Eisenman and her mother [Kay Eisenman]. It was just so interesting to read about these small moments that were a big part of forming the artist in some capacity. Actually, it was amazing. I was blown away by some of the stuff they shared about her childhood. Very interesting, all of it.
XA: I don't want to take up too much more of your time.
NM: I could definitely keep talking with you for a while.
XA: Any studio rituals?
NM: I don’t really have that many rituals, it sort of changes every time. I definitely always start the week talking to Dani on the phone. She’s my Monday call… and Tuesday… and Wednesday... When I'm about to start a big painting, I like to have a good audio book queued up because there’s something about the way it helps focus my mind. Podcasts can help too. They’re a balance of entertainment and function. I know some people who could never listen to a podcast or audiobook while painting because it’d interrupt their thought process. But by the time I’ve actually gotten to the big paintings, I need something to keep my mind focused on one aspect. But in the earlier stages, when I’m actually trying to form ideas, I can only listen to music because the podcast would get in the way. So I need some sort of audible experience but it’s different for each stage of the painting.
I don’t think I have any other rituals. I wish I did. I mean, unless you count avoiding work to scroll on your phone for a couple minutes. The phone is a big problem for me. My dream is to have a landline to the studio but it’s so impractical to do that. I’m stuck with my stupid phone. They’re distracting, they’re terrible.
XA: I know. Me too. Many times over the last few years, I’ve wanted to be like, I’m just going to get a flip phone again.
NM: Exactly. Me too.
XA: But then I’ll remember about things like GPS, and well, how will I know where I’m going…?!
NM: They have got us so whipped. It's crazy.
XA: It's so true. That's a whole conversation unto itself. When I’m struggling with device related distractions, I remind myself there's entire industries of people engineering those results.
NM: I know. I hate giving them the satisfaction of winning, but they do win a lot. Yeah. It's hard.
XA: Dani posted a few photos of you from last week, going around to museums when you were in New York. You were wearing this pair of blue shoes that were just… the best. Can you give us some sartorial insight?
NM: Oh, you want to know what my shoes are? They’re Simon Miller, they’re called Bubble Clogs. They make them in all different colors. I want to say they’re a four inch platform, maybe higher. Insanely comfortable, though. Highly recommended.
XA: They’re gorgeous.
NM: I love a platform. Everybody should wear platforms, short or tall. They're fun. They make you feel powerful. Get yourself a pair, treat yourself!
XA: You recently had a solo exhibition, Skunk Hour, at Perrotin in New York. What was that experience like? With your exhibition history, have you noticed a pattern of when show-related anxieties seem to peak?
NM: The peak moment of anxiety is in the beginning, when I’m about to start making a body of work. It’s that same sense of, I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I don’t know if I can do it. It’s going into the unknown.
NM: Sometimes what can happen is the first painting you make will start you off on the wrong foot or something. And then it’s like you have to regain your confidence. But with [Skunk Hour], I got my confidence a lot earlier than I usually do. That made the entire experience of the show really exciting. I made the Apple Tree painting early on (Editor’s Note: this painting was later transformed into a hand-finished print series for Exhibition A). Sometimes I won’t want a painting to end because it’s just so much fun to make. Those don’t come around all that often, so to have one of those in the early stages of making a show, it gave me a huge boost of energy, like, I can do this. You know, I can make the show. I think I can figure this out. That really set the tone for me. Other times I’ve been like, I can’t do this. I can’t regain my confidence. And then I basically drag myself through it trying to get there. It’s always sort of a gamble. It feels like every show has its own energy or something.
With the Skunk Hour exhibition, I made developments in my practice. I figured out new strategies of creating deeper space in the paintings, which is something I’ve wanted to do. And I was really excited about including more landscape. Those little things made it exciting. It was a really fun show to make and I’ll probably always like the work because I didn’t have a bad time making it. I’ve definitely had shows where I felt like every painting was not quite what I wanted it to be. So, I really felt happy with [Skunk Hour]. Even if, you know, in like a year, I look back and think, oh, well, there are things I would’ve liked to do differently, I feel like at the same time, when I think about the show now, it feels true to the kind of artist that I’d like to be. I mean, I don’t think anything I make is ever exactly the way I want it to be. But it felt like getting closer to something I’ve been trying to get to. So that’s nice.
XA: Absolutely. Sorry, I just noticed we’ve gone past an hour. I’m really enjoying our conversation!
NM: Oh my god, don't be sorry at all.
XA: I’ll end up having studio visits that are like six hours long. I’ll usually listen for as long as someone will talk.
NM: Yeah. I want a landline. For anyone who wants to talk. I love that.
NM: Exactly. 1-800-STUDIO-TALKS. I paint and talk all the time.
XA: I love that idea so much. As someone who paints interiors, I’m wondering what your home is like in terms of art.
NM: My house is definitely not as crazy as the houses that I paint! It's mostly art from people I'm friends with, because I can't actually afford art. But it's great to be friends with painters and artists that you like, because it's really fun to trade with them. So that's a majority of my art collection.
XA: I always envy painters for getting to do trades! Such a win-win.
NM: Yes, it is. And it's fun. I like artists’ houses too. It's fun to see how artists decorate because everybody has a different kind of vibe that somehow connects with their art, I think. I actually might frame one of the prints [from the Apple Tree hand-finished series] for one of my kid’s bedrooms, because I really liked that painting and I’m sad I won’t have it. So I was like, I should just hang the print because I think it looks so great!
XA: That’s perfect! I love thinking about the art historical lineage of multiples and how much online editions have changed the public’s access to contemporary art. What are your thoughts on editions generally?
NM: I think it’s awesome to be able to have more than just one collector have access to an image, to get to live with an image. It makes me really happy because, I mean, I don’t get to live with most of my paintings either! So it’s nice to have this other form of retention. I’m excited about that. I think it’s also important to provide options for different types of collectors because not everybody can have… I mean, the Skunk Hour painting is gigantic! You know, I think it’s interesting. My mom actually did collect art here and there but we also had a number of prints and those images have stuck with me. It’s wonderful to live with images. Especially if that image is high-quality, like the ones [Exhibition A] makes, because it feels true to the actual painting too.
XA: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time, Nikki. It’s been so wonderful speaking with you!
NM: It was a great conversation. I feel like we could have talked all day.