Talking with Brad Kahlhamer, Contributor to the Wythe Hotel’s Permanent Collections

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Originally from Arizona, Brad Kahlhamer is known for his vibrant, frenetic paintings incorporating influences like his native American roots and 80s punk culture, as well as sculptures and installations. His work has been shown at museums and galleries across the US and beyond, and his Supercatcher installation will be featured at the new SF MoMA which just reopened. He lives in Manhattan and maintains a studio in Bushwick.
How many of your sketchbooks are in the Wythe Hotel?
They acquired one book so there’s probably about 20 sketches, 22, 24 spread to spread, and they hung selected spreads in the penthouse, which is kind of cool because the idea is sort of to record Brooklyn’s creative class.
And you had just been working on that book for a period of time. It wasn’t commissioned, was it?
No, I don’t really do commissioned work. I’m represented by Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea and I pretty much do what I do and the gallery takes it. I do museum shows. I think Kimia met me through Deitch Projects, I think she worked there for a while and I believe we met around then, and you know, I’ve seen her around. I didn’t realize she was at the Wythe. But when she came out here, she was interested in the sketchbooks specifically because I was drawing local Brooklyn. I had this idea that it was gonna be like Weimar Germany or something—you know, artists always project these crazy ideas. So it’s really an update of the old flâneur tradition, you know the French flâneur, walking around observing.

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Do you draw upon those when you’re thinking about your paintings?
Not specifically. I’m sort of reworking the portrait as an idea of contemporary native art colliding with whether it’s ‘80s Bowery punk culture or contemporary Bushwick. The sketchbooks are more just notes really, but probably coming into this next year, I will be conceptualizing paintings and sketchbooks, so maybe I can work it out. But it’s just one of the things, like I used to play a lot of guitar, so it’s just like that, just nervous creative energy. But now through venues like Kimia’s project and Instagram where I’m posting selected things fairly regularly that all comes out of—this is probably the 26th or 27th book—and at some point I could probably see a show.
How long have you been here in Brooklyn?
This studio will be five years in August. Right now it’s not cheap, but it’s a good base. Before that, actually I had a great studio on Wythe, about eight blocks up from the hotel. When I was there, that was just a storage facility. I did a number of great paintings. I’ve been on and off in Brooklyn. Now I seem to be more entrenched here, but I still live in Manhattan.

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What was it like then being over there?
It was great. I mean Williamsburg was in one of its earlier phases and you still had a lot of vintage clothing stores, the music venues were still alive then, big studios, more artists, the parties were great. Jeffrey had a warehouse about three, four blocks away so he hosted events at Deitch Projects. PS1 was less formalized. It was really fun. The waterfront was undeveloped. There were no bike lanes, no bike helmets. Zebulon was across the street, so that was a great venue to hang out at. It seemed more local.
So tell me about your path. Did you study art history, studio art?
Well, I’ve always been super curious and always a direct, impulsive person. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona in the desert, so I had a lot of freedom for wanderings or yonderings as I sometimes call them, and just instilled this kind of do it over and do it again kind of practice, so if I do one painting or one sketch, I just have to do dozens, like the sketchbook. And I’ve always been sketching. But I was born and raised in Tucson Arizona, then went to Wisconsin at 14. Typical kid life. Went to Oshkosh University, BFA, never went beyond that. I was in a band, so we’d go out on the road.
I moved to New York City in ‘82 and then I got a job at Topps Chewing Gum, working with Art Spiegelman. And through him got interested in their purpose and sense of mission. At that time New York was crazy interesting, punk. Then through the 90s, I started working with Jeffrey Deitch in ‘97, ‘98 and that was the first bigger stage in the art world. And now I’m with Jack Shainman. And I just got named the new Diebenkorn fellow for 2016, so I’ll be teaching out at the San Francisco Art Institute. I’m doing a residency at the Headlands in Marin County, which is super cool. It’s an old army barracks. It’s quite a well-known art residency.

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What was it like when you first moved here?
It was rugged. I mean, the Lower East Side was amazing. Huge rooftop parties. Pre-AIDS. It was ‘82. Madonna. My band played at Danceteria, which was a crazy experience. Ed Maxey, who’s Robert Mapplethorp’s brother, took me to one of the original balls, the kind of Paris is Burning thing up in Harlem—that was crazy. Just a lot of energy. At that time, we were all probably outsiders in our towns and cities outside of New York and we came here, all sort of crazy creative types amassing on the Lower East Side, and now you don’t really have that.
Well, now it’s here, right?
Well it’s here, but you know, I think because of the internet more people are staying outside of New York City. It’s gotten very expensive. At that time, you could come here and make something with not tons of money, so you had probably a wider variety of creative class coming in. It was great. I mean, it was CBGB. Everybody was in black leather. Everybody was dancing at the club over on Avenue A.
Check out Brad’s website and follow him on Instagram @bradkahlhamer.
Photos by Maggie Shannon.

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