David Apatoff – Interview

I recently had the wonderful chance to interview David Apatoff, who we recently featured a fascinating segment on for his introduction to Sterling Hundley’s book Blue Collar / White Collar. However, I think I have to start all over as these questions were clearly much too easy for him to tackle.
Again, please be sure to check out his blog, which is much better ran and much more informative than this one will ever be. I won’t be mad if  you make the switch.


1) Though you are a lawyer who represents international technology clients, you are better known as the guru of Illustration. These careers seem entirely dissimilar – I imagine law must be a fairly time consuming practice, so how have you been able to nourish your interest in art history and current applications into the successful endeavor it is for you today? I mean, you have had quite a few prestigious honors (including curating major exhibitions and writing the go-to blog for illustration art everywhere) that many people studying the career still are striving for. 

Nobody thinks of me as “the guru of illustration” except perhaps my wife on Valentine’s day.

In school I was torn between art and law. All the artists I knew recommended I become a lawyer, while all the lawyers I knew recommended I become an artist. (Hardly an endorsement for either career.) I chose a career in law because I liked the rigorous thinking and I wanted to learn about the tools that a concerned citizen would need to play an active role. Also, I wanted to eat on a regular basis.

Sure, the practice of law is demanding but who would dare claim that as an excuse for not pursuing the things you love? For 95% of art’s history, artists had to devote most of their lives to catching food, finding shelter and staying warm in the winter. They worked without medicine, eyeglasses, reference materials or Photoshop. They had to create their own pigments from scratch. Yet, they managed to produce great art. Modern society has taken care of all that for us, which makes our work easier than that of prior generations.

My real unexpected windfall was that making a living as a lawyer enabled me to speak with complete freedom and clarity about art. I don’t need to worry about the politics, diplomacy or economics of the art world; I am free from the compromises, the marketing, the professional rivalries and jealousies. The opportunity to relate to art with complete honesty and integrity– that’s a gift from the gods. I try to be worthy of it. If you love doing something, it’s not work.


2) What have been some of the trials in curating and encouraging artists in this day and age where the market is saturated with fantastically talented artists?

Art has never been a single profession. When it is the best of times for some kinds of artists, it can be the worst of times for others– even “fantastically talented” ones. There isn’t much fairness in the system. I have written a lot about brilliant artists who labored in obscurity, and untalented hacks who found fame and fortune.

If an artist’s goal is just to find an audience (which used to count as an honorable ambition for artists) then they have already hit the jackpot, because the internet and self-publishing make it easier today to cast the net for an audience than at any other time in history. It’s a great era to be an artist.

If their goal is to make a decent living as an artist, well that’s a little tougher. And it should be. Lots of honorable professions had to re-invent themselves with the death of the old platforms, such as magazines and newspapers. Artists are not exempt from that process.

Finally, if their goal is to become an artist-celebrity, such as Jeff Koons or Tracey Emin, my reaction is “shame on you.” There is a special circle in Dante’s inferno for artist celebrities, right alongside the tasteless investment bankers who buy their crappy work for all the wrong reasons.


3) In Noah Bradley’s recent article, he encourages students to not attend art school. With the number of art school graduates being highly disproportionate to the number of jobs available, I can understand his weariness to subject students to the tribulations and tuition necessary for such a choice. Though I agree that there are plenty of online and self-teaching routes, I do firmly believe that a higher level art education impacts an artist’s development profoundly (although my wallet may disagree….!) Do you have any thoughts?

Mathematically, Bradley makes a very persuasive case. But I think a lot depends on the type of art that interests you.

World has evolved since the Famous Artists School school provided art lessons through the mail for young people without access to a quality art school. Today there are a lot of great opportunities for interactive training through the internet. For example, Schoolism offers you a chance to get personalized attention from a gifted artist like Tom Fluharty (http://www.schoolism.com/school.php?id=6). Or The Art Department (http://www.theartdepartmentschool.com/faculty) gives you direct contact with major talents such as Sterling Hundley, Chris Payne and Mark English. It’s difficult to think of a traditional, full time art school that could compete with that kind of talent pool.

4) Many illustrators, who we both share as favorites, have crossed that fuzzy line from Illustration to Fine Art – I’ve often heard Illustration being compared to “training wheels” for Fine Art, as so many Illustrators go to Fine Art but very few go from Fine Art to Illustration. As someone who has a degree in both, I find it highly offensive to demean one by saying it is under another. After all, the two are so incredibly similar in technique, but only differ in goal. What are your opinions on artists, both in Illustration and other non-Fine Art careers such as animation and street art, “making the jump” to gallery work? 


The illustrator Robert Fawcett started out as a successful gallery painter, but he was so appalled by the conniving sales tactics and the manipulation that he quit Fine art to become an illustrator. He said he wanted to earn his living doing “honest commercial work.”

I know that the lure of “Fine art” calls to many illustrators, and I have spoken in detail with several talented illustrators who are actively involved in the transition you describe.

Personally, I think the view of illustration as “training wheels” for Fine Art is obsolete. Illustration and Fine art have both changed a great deal since that romantic notion first took hold, and the notion remains today largely because of stubborn biases about social status. Artists have been too slow to recognize that illustrators can play more of a conceptual role than they did in the 1950s. They employ a wider range of media, with better quality reproduction, they can have more freedom of expression with real editorial content, and less censorship than they once did.

Much current Fine art on the other hand, has disintegrated into a puerile, self-indulgent mess. The field has been sickened by an abundance of money and a paucity of taste or standards. If you follow the developments at Miami Basel or the promotional literature from Sotheby’s, the aroma of decadence is inescapable. It is still possible to accomplish great things in Fine art, but you have to resist a lot of temptation and steel yourself for a lot of heartbreak.


5) As a follow-up question, Illustration is defined as art made for someone else through commission and/or freelance, and Fine Art is normally personal pieces then sold after completion, Fine Art tends to be more intimate. However, I believe it is a misconception that illustrations are purely for someone else. Though they are someone else’s ideas or writings, it is the artist who must see the piece through to fruition spending countless hours perfecting an idea- I think it is ignorant to assume an illustrator is simply a machine with a paint brush in his hand churning out works. So, I guess my question is, can Illustration be personal without becoming Fine Art? Not taking into account style or signature, can an illustrator effectively portray an outsider’s idea while still using his/her art as a sort of personal introspection?


I would question your definition. After all, Rembrandt and Michelangelo illustrated the Bible with “art made for someone else through commission,” and came up with work a heck of a lot more intimate than Julian Schnabel or Jenny Holzer or Donald Judd or Barbara Kruger or Sol LeWitt or Clyfford Still or Ed Ruscha or a thousand other well know “Fine artists.”

I think the best, most accomplished illustrators today are hired for their “personal introspection.” Their distinctive personalities and interesting minds are at least as important as their technical skill when it comes to getting a job. There is also a whole breed of combined artist / writers creating comic strips and graphic novels (such as Pulitzer prize winning “Maus”), and large numbers of artists whose images rise above the mediocre text they are illustrating. So it is not just a case of illustrators portraying an outsider’s work.






6) I am breaking my own 5 question rule here, but it is not so often I get such an intellectual like yourself to interview. But, as we began as an artist’s inspiration blog, I would love to hear your top 5 artists of all time so our readers can be motivated by those who have motivate you through the years! 


I have about 100 artists in my “top 5.” Many of them are anonymous, such as the Cro Magnon artist who painted the wooly mammoth on the wall of a cave at Pech Merle in the Pyrenees, or an ancient Egyptian artist who painted tomb of Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings. But if your readers want the names of more current artists who I personally think are worthy of more attention, I would say John Cuneo who does brilliant, psychologically trenchant work; Phil Hale, whose powerful oil paintings are beautifully designed, and straddle the boundary between fine art and illustration; I love the character design work of Carter Goodrich and Peter de Seve; Ralph Eggleston who was art director for the animated film Wall-E for Pixar. Shifting gears, I am inspired by some of the great land works, such as Walter DeMaria’s “Lightning Field” or Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty.” I am crazy about the intellectual playfulness of Saul Steinberg and Jean Dubuffet. But most of all, I am a fan of great drawing. I love the drawings of Noel Sickles, Ronald Searle, Robert Fawcett, Tom Fluharty, Bernie Fuchs





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