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In Conversation with Nikki Maloof: Exploring Art and Inspiration

Nikki 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 released Forlorn Monkey, our first edition with the artist. Seven years later, we’ve grown up and so has Nikki, whose move from New York to Western Massachusetts catalyzed a painterly evolution showcased in the exhibitions of her work that followed, including solo presentations at Nino Mier Gallery, Sorry We're Closed, and most recently, Perrotin.

Following the release of our 2023 collaboration based on artworks featured in her Perrotin solo, we caught up with Nikki to talk about painting, parenthood, and process.


Exhibition A: 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].

Nikki Maloof: Yes. 

XA: How was New York? 

NM: It was great. 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. [New York] defined a very formative time in my life because I moved there right when I finished grad school. 25 when I arrived. I feel like that's when you start to really figure yourself out. New York is very precious to me.

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 paused and tried to think about something that just sounded deeply pleasurable to paint — like stop with the overthinking, start with the basics: what would be great to paint? I mean, what sounds fun to paint? Then I made this one random painting of a monkey and it was this moment like, oh... Maybe there's something here, maybe I should follow this… 

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'm impressed by how seemingly separate art forms are essentially similar. You start with a small, little idea. For musicians, maybe it’s just one sound, lyric, or chord. You take that first element and follow where it leads. I feel that way about my practice, like I’m taking all these 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 is the 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 the world of feeling but you’re also tasked with creating boundaries to protect that in an entirely new way once you’re a professional working artist. How do you structure boundaries in your life and has it changed since there’s been more eyes on your work?

NM: Yeah, that stuff is a challenge. Actually, I think being away from [New York] has helped me a lot because I feel 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. Even as a young child, I liked being alone. I was really good at going into my bunker. That'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, there might be a finite amount and one day I’ll run out. Typical anxiety. I think you just have to come up 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.

Everybody's different. For example, Dani [Orchard] has a whole different system for herself. That's why I really like [Song Exploder] because it's like, everyone is trying to get to the same thing but everyone has a unique approach, which can be really freeing, because, well, there isn’t a right or a wrong way so maybe I’ll just try it different. Maybe I’ll just trust myself to go here now, you know?

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: Do you have any advice for young painters based on how you managed your own uncertainties?

NM: I was just talking to someone about this. It's incredible how different everything is now compared to when I was in undergrad. It doesn’t feel like that long ago but technically it is sort of long ago! I finished in 2008. Still being in the Midwest at that point, it's like... what shall we do now? I don’t know if this is still the case but back then there were a lot of art books coming out, like [Phaidon’s Vitamin P] was really big. People would 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. In a way, it felt very straightforward, like, I’m going to apply to all these graduate schools based on these books I checked out from the library. But 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 of going to grad school was to have a viable reason to get out of the Midwest. Looking back, using [graduate school] as that type of stepping stone feels a bit questionable. Does it make sense to go into debt for art? I don’t know. There’s just 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 really 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. 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 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, cross-pollination is so important. And I think you're right — the answer is often in the work itself, 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 hard time to be an artist because there’s so much available to consume. As an artist, I think you really have to protect yourself from that.

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?

NM: Americano. 

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 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 [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 NoteExhibition A has a forthcoming collaboration with Shilling and collaborated with Ledford in 2022 to release Subtle As A Brick Through A Window). 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: I’d love to read that. 

NM: I think somebody has got to make that book now. 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. It would be so interesting to hear about the perspective of parents whose children went onto become these really interesting artists. I remember reading [Ian Parker's 2021 profile on Nicole Eisenman in The New Yorker] which recounted interactions between Eisenman and her mother [Kay Eisenman]. It was just so interesting to read about these small moments that ended up being big parts of forming her artistry in some capacity. Actually, it was amazing. I was blown away by some of the stuff they shared about her childhood. 

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... 

I need some type of audible experience but it’s different for each stage of the painting. 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 they help focus my mind. Podcasts can help too. 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. In the earlier stages, when I’m trying to form ideas, I can only listen to music because the podcast would get in the way. 

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’ll just get a flip phone again

NM: Exactly. Me too. 

XA: But then I’ll remember about things like GPS...

NM: They have got us so whipped. It's crazy. 

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's the hardest part of making a solo?

NM: The peak moment of anxiety is in the beginning, right 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 thisI don’t know if I can do it. It’s going into the unknown.

XA: Yeah.

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 Notethis painting was later transformed into a hand-finished print series that can be viewed here). 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 gave me a huge boost of energy, like I can do thisI 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.

With the Skunk Hour exhibition, I made developments in my practice. It was a really fun show to make. I’ll probably always like the work because I didn’t have a bad time making it. Even if I look back and think, oh, 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.

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. 

XA: 1-800...

NM: Exactly. 1-800-STUDIO-TALKS. I paint and talk all the time. 

XA: I love that 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. It's great to be friends with painters and artists that you like, because it's really fun to trade. Trades are a majority of my art collection. 

XA: I always envy painters for getting to do trades! Such a win-win.

NM: Yes, 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 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'll just hang the print because I think it looks so great!

XA: 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 access an image and experience living with it. It makes me really happy because I don’t get to live with most of my paintings either! It’s nice to have another form of retention. I’m excited about that. I think it’s also important to provide options for different types of collectors because… 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 stuck with me. It’s wonderful to live with images. Especially if that image is high-quality, like the ones Exhibition A makes, because then 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. 

Nikki MaloofSkunk Hour
Edition of 55 + 5APs + 4PPs, 2023
Archival pigment print on Hahnemuhle museum etching paper
22.00 x 34.00 in / 55.88 x 86.36 cm
Signed and numbered by the artist on front
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Nikki Maloof, Apple Tree
Hand-finished series of 20 + 2 APs + 2 PPs, 2023
Colored pencil and archival pigment on Hahnemuhle museum etching paper
30.00 x 23.40 in / 76.20 x 59.44 cm
Signed and numbered by the artist on front
Collect Now