In the Studio: Vincent Xeus
Vincent Xeus recently expanded his studio from Napa Valley, California, to downtown Manhattan, and his new location has placed him right in the heart of the arts, culture, and financial capital of the world. Situated just a few blocks from the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street, the site of Vincent’s Manhattan studio quite literally symbolizes the motivation that brought him here, and what he hopes to learn from the high level of achievement and economic success this environment breeds. After graduating at the top of his class from University of California Berkeley with a degree in architecture and a minor in business, Vincent spent a number of years applying architecture design to real-estate development. In 2010 he decided to devote more time to fine art, a talent he had been honing since his childhood education with Russian-trained Chinese artists. Napa Valley became home for him and his wife Stella—who is also a Berkeley graduate and who works by Vincent’s side as a business partner and advisor—and they both became active in the Napa Valley art community while falling in love with the natural beauty of the Golden State.
But over the last five or so years, Vincent noticed that the very beauty he loved was becoming a barrier to his artistic growth. He craved an environment that would not only challenge him artistically but would also place him in a society where he could learn more about the financial dynamics of the art world. “I credit Stella with finally giving me the push I needed to move forward into something new,” Vincent shared. “She said we were getting too comfortable in California. At my age, I should be working through challenges and struggles every day and going to bed knowing I conquered something new.” So now, a year later, that is exactly what Vincent is doing. The artist applied to the business school at Columbia University and, after being accepted in unprecedented fashion, is now halfway through his M.B.A. degree. Even more impressive than learning that he is getting his M.B.A. at Columbia was finding out that he plans to use that degree to help close the divide between creative production and financial support in the arts.
Vincent and Stella were in the middle of a whirlwind week when we scheduled our studio visit—Stella just returned from Shanghai the night before, the week prior Vincent was participating in a conference in Philadelphia, and this week they were getting fourteen large-scale paintings ready to ship to Vincent’s solo exhibition in Napa Valley—but they enthusiastically penciled me in, and warmly welcomed me into their new apartment and studio on a sunny April day. This Q+A picks up after our initial catch up and moves through the rest of the engaging conversation, during which Vincent and Stella shared a wealth of insightful observations about both art and business.
AM: I think it’s wonderful that you are getting your M.B.A at Columbia and are planning to use that knowledge to not only strengthen your own art business but to also find solutions to the financial struggles artists face. What motivated you to pursue further education in business?
VX: I have been thinking about going back for an M.B.A. for many years. It started when I was working as an architect. I envisioned changing how the society would experience space and structure. A lot of what I learned from the business of architecture is applicable to the business of fine art, but there is still so much to learn. I chose business school because I want to have a deeper understanding of people on a broader and more fundamental level. I want to understand what makes someone at the top of his or her industry financially successful and valued in society, and how that approach and thinking can be applied to the art world. I’m interested in bridging the gap between art creation and impact, and the key, I believe, is finance. I knew that business school would give me not only the knowledge I need to help find a solution but also access to a network of people who are experienced in and passionate about that field. Perhaps it’s an uncommon approach, I don’t know of other artists who have done this. But I think it’s a great opportunity for me to take an in-depth look and analysis of how this world is functioning now and will function in the future, without judgment.
AM: What has studying some of these economic models taught you so far, and how are you applying that learning to your thoughts on the art world?
VX: I’ve been thinking for a long time about the art economy at the top of the contemporary-art pyramid and wondering why that type of art is able to dominate so many financial resources and so much public space, while a lot of artists who spend considerable time developing their craft are unable to achieve that same impact. Although finance and resources are key, I’ve also learned that those who are succeeding in every major industry in our economy—finance, law, education, architecture, design, etc.—are providing solutions to some need or problem in society. In other words, their contribution goes beyond themselves and is moving society forward. So many artists take on the mantle of being different from everyone else in society, and use it to exempt themselves from the responsibilities others have to take on. But art needs to provide the same type of external value in order to be seen as viable.
AM: Do you think one of the reasons top-tier contemporary artwork has been able to generate so much demand, monetary return, and institutional support is because it’s providing external value to society?
VX: Yes. They are undoubtedly creating value, it’s just a different type of value than what traditional or representational artists are creating. The art of Jeff Koons, for instance, is about making people happy, helping them remember their childhood. People may criticize that, but think about how hard it must have been when he first started producing these pieces, when no one knew who he was, to create value around it and make people care. Creating a new standard of beauty takes tremendous talent and dedication. Stella and I went to the Armory show recently, and we realized that some of the work that at first glance may seem cheesy or kitsch is actually very carefully designed and well executed when examined up-close. These artists care about their craft and you can feel their genuine effort and belief in what they do.
AM: I agree with you that the work of a contemporary artist such as Jeff Koons, for instance, provides the value of happiness or whimsy or what have you. But is he really creating $58.4 million worth of happiness through the artwork itself? I’m not sure. I think a good portion of the credit for that high value belongs to the dealers and marketing/manufacturing systems built around these artists decades ago, by people with the means and global impact to do so. And because that created value has matured over decades, like any investment, the artwork now has cachet. It has become a commodity that those with extraordinary wealth and stature seek as a status symbol.
VX: Yes, exactly, it’s a branding and business strategy designed to raise value and generate return. This class of art then becomes an instrument and takes on an additional role, which is to help create a new asset class in the financial world. And that has great value and implications for the economy. Artists who get emotional about what happens in that realm have to understand that what these “blue-chip contemporary” artists are doing is not comparable to the practices of many traditional painters. It’s no longer just about aesthetic value or beauty or skill or any of the other criteria traditional artists use to define their work. It’s operating on an entirely different system and playing by different rules. These artists look for answers and solutions to create impact in ways that can’t be done elsewhere in the society. To judge their choice is to judge one’s own choice.
AM: Can you give an example of a time when you used a successful marketing or business strategy to increase awareness or sales of your own work?
Stella Xeus: Vincent’s 2015 solo show at Gallery 1261 in Denver was one of the most commercially successful shows the gallery has ever had. The exhibition of more than thirty-five pieces was almost entirely sold out on the opening night. In addition to the body of work itself being spectacular and innovative, I believe another reason for the exhibition’s success was the business strategy that Vincent put in place a year prior to the show, and how the Gallery 1261 team worked together to effectively implement the plan. We wanted to create impact, beyond just beautiful artworks. We wanted to give our audience experiences of connectivity. We flew out to Colorado a few times before the show to meet with the staff, and arranged for the team to visit our Napa studio during Vincent’s painting process. Vincent shared his vision and high standards with the team, and there was a clear consistency from the creation of the works in the studio to the way they were being presented and talked about at the gallery showrooms. Vincent often says that holding the highest standards for quality and creating beauty is the bottom line, and his approach to both the creation and presentation of this show exemplified that.
VX: I really believe that an artist needs to lead his or her own practice. You can’t just leave it all to the gallerists who have their hands full with other artists and responsibilities. If you take the initiative, and surround yourself with skilled, capable people who can implement your vision, you can work together to make it happen. Standards are a huge part of the success equation. Everything has to be the highest quality you can possibly envision. The only thing in artists’ control is their creation, and you have to push until you can’t push any farther, and then you push more. Translating those standards of excellence in a clear, manageable way to the teams you are working with is also extremely important.
AM: Going back to the idea of artists needing to provide external value to society, what would you say to the artist whose motivation is simply to create something of beauty as a contribution to society or his or her community?
VX: That can be beautiful, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The beauty of the finished piece and the enjoyment in the process should then be the reward. Where this gets problematic is when artists expect that the painting they created for their own enjoyment should automatically demand monetary return or resources from the society. Also, I think a pure focus on technique puts a lot of artists in a struggling position. It’s not that they chose the wrong training or technique or style, they just never went past it. Instead of letting that notion of, “I can paint this really well and realistically and others can’t,” I think the greater purpose and question is to ask, “What is needed for change? And how can I help create it?” Every other industry focuses on solving problems and making changes for a better future. They’re asking, “What can I provide? What does society need?” They’re looking externally. Artists have a tendency to say, “I can do this, look at how skilled I am, look at how beautiful this is. The world should love it the way I do.”
AM: Was there ever a time in your own life, perhaps when you were younger, where you were focused on technique or the love of being able to create or recreate something beautiful?
VX: Yes, I was first drawn to art for the same reasons other artists likely are: the love of mastering techniques and the ability to create something beautiful. I still am every day. But aesthetics is only one dimension of art. As you grow as a person you realize the beauty has to go beyond that. All the artists we admire in art history were revolutionary in their time and moved us forward. To have that kind of impact, it goes beyond just being a great painter, it’s about putting forth some sort of lasting contribution. You have to do work that is relevant to today’s life. Artists should go beyond creating art that’s visually intriguing. We must ask ourselves, “What true value is our art providing in moving society forward?”
AM: What do you think the ultimate goal of art and an artist should then be, and how are you applying this in your own art?
VX: I believe that the ultimate goal of art, regardless of the medium, is to create disruptive change and help society move forward for the better. The definition of growth and transformation is change. This is how the world moves from this linear dimension from yesterday to today to tomorrow. Change can simply mean doing things better than you did them yesterday, learning something new, coming at your art from a different angle. Look at the way we dress or what we eat or what we see around us compared to 200 years ago. Everything is moving forward. And art should be too. That doesn’t mean classical beauty isn’t still appreciated or that a traditional approach is passé. It’s just the way of thinking that occasionally accompanies that needs to move forward. There’s a tendency for classical artists to say if it doesn’t look like what I’m doing, it has no value, even though they haven’t actually looked into the process of the artist. But it does have value. If you stand in front of a Rothko, for instance, you can’t help but feel compelled by the artist’s visual ambition and his desire to innovate. I’d also argue that the technical challenge in that approach is as critical as it is in classical painting. As far as my own artwork, I’m always trying to see or accomplish what I couldn’t before. I try to think about the world, the issues that shape the society, and how my art can be used to bring new perspectives.
AM: I see that this way of thinking applies not only to the content of your work but also your style. I’m looking around your studio and seeing a wide range of styles and subject matter. Is your style always changing and evolving?
VX: For me, style or “technique” is what you learn and then let go of. Whenever I master a technique, I break it down, and then I move on. You use the process to grow and develop discipline. But technique, in the end, doesn’t matter. It’s about what you have become as a person. To find a voice, to address an issue, to find an area to contribute. My style is dictated by the subject. Whatever the piece is calling for in order to make an impact, to help people see what they otherwise wouldn’t have seen and to tell the story, that is what I will use. It could be just a few simple strokes if that was able to capture the person’s soul.
SX: We are very fortunate that this is actually the aspect of Vincent’s art that his loyal collectors and followers love the most. Those who appreciate his work expect him to change and evolve. They anticipate it and look forward to it in the same way that we do. And once they see it, they embrace it. I think this is one of Vincent’s greatest strengths as an artist. His Flemish-style paintings have been so popular. The galleries wanted more. Vincent wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t keep repeating something just because “it worked.” He wanted to move onto something new and find the next challenge.
AM: In your recent Napa Valley series, many different stories are being told through a variety of lenses. What inspired the series and this new way of looking at surroundings you had known for close to 20 years?
VX: Living in Napa Valley for so long, we saw that it truly is an unbelievably beautiful place, and we understood what has drawn people here for centuries. But I don’t feel I really looked at it and truly appreciated it until I left and had some time to reflect on the life and history there. People rarely see beneath the surface of Napa Valley, the history of how this place came to be and the workers and laborers who make it what it is. Napa had an early history of a lot of Chinese, Irish, and Italian immigrants and recently Spanish who came to this land to look for a better life and future for their families. Napa Valley really is the land of sweat and tears. Most people just think of wineries when they think of the Valley, but it is actually one of the most grounded and genuine places I have ever been. Because the main industry there is agriculture people are so connected to the earth, and the product results from the workers’ struggles. I spent time getting to know the laborers and their process. They get up at 2 a.m. and work all day. The more struggle the grapes experience, the more beautiful the wine is. This series of paintings pays homage to the workers who have labored so intensely to make this beautiful valley possible.
AM: Can you explain what and who is featured in the abstract landscapes and portraits, respectively?
VX: The first abstract painting of the vineyard is one of the beautiful vistas for which the Valley is known. Rather than painting this realistically and showing every detail, I wanted to tell this story differently and intuitively: I wanted people to feel it. And abstraction has the ability to convey that feeling. The diptych shows an iconic view in the valley of Atlas Peak and has inspired generations of people to settle there and change the landscape for what they envision for the future. I imagined how many people have viewed this and thought of the hopeful horizon it represents. I wanted to capture that feeling, that energy. Abstraction is a way of stripping away all of the information and boiling things down to the core elements—design, color, shapes—that transfer the emotion and sense of place.
Today there’s a growing popularity in the idea that the world would be better being divided. We may come from different backgrounds, and we might look very different from one another, but deep down we are the same. People share the same journey to seek meaning of life. This portrait Generation is the vineyard manager who has worked in Napa his whole life. He has evolved to become this extremely knowledgeable person whose life’s work is the productivity and wellbeing of the vineyard. You can see in his expression that the vineyard is his baby. This faceless man here in Harvest is one of countless vineyard workers who have immigrated to this area and work so hard to provide for their families. That expression on his face is beautiful to me. It’s frozen in time, and 100 years later whoever owns this painting will ask, “Who is this man?” He’s one of the many faceless men who have worked these fields over many years to create the beauty that generations continue to enjoy.
AM: I see a repeated pattern of excellence, work ethic, and success in the way you approach your art and life, whether it was graduating at the top of your class as an undergraduate, creating sold-out exhibitions, getting accepted into Columbia’s MBA program, having the means to live in the financial district of Manhattan, etc. To what do you attribute your success, and specifically for our artist-readers, what final advice would you give related to what you’ve learned about maintaining a successful art career?
VX: I attribute it to the standards and education I was exposed to and taught in both my childhood in China and my adulthood in America that have followed me and inform everything I do. I developed my personality and aspirations because of the ancient history of China, but my world view and education came from this great land of America. So this unique identity—what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve listened to—all goes into my art and life. I’ve explored and explored, and I’ve always tried to break down boundaries. It’s this desire to expand my own limits and make people see beyond the false pre-existing beliefs about what belongs where that fuels my art. Also, it’s about a strong work ethic and discipline that I learned early in my life. I have worked incredibly hard to ace math and science exams, innovate and succeed as an architect, advance as a painter, get into business school, etc. Dedication and hard work are important to me.
My advice to other artists would be three things: One, you have to do great work. Really, really unbelievably beautiful and great work that reaches other people, not that is just about your own emotions. If you’re trapped in painful episode, take initiative and look for a way to solve problems. Pain is a natural part of life, suffering, on the other hand, is a choice. In the end, people want joy. If the art is all about your sorrow, or conversely solely about what gives you pleasure, there is only so far that can go. If you want people to support you, you can’t just make a case for your emotions or pleasures. Find ways to provide positive contributions to people and society. You do so by first perfecting your craft and making extremely high-quality paintings. Second, have a vision and plan. How do you see yourself as an artist five or ten years down the road? Make concrete steps and try to get there systematically with conviction and confidence. Look for help. Choose carefully who you work with and who is representing you/your art. Surround yourself with great, talented, and positive people who believe in your vision and are willing to be there to grow with you. Third, be good to people, especially people who genuinely believe in you and who support you and your art. There’s this myth of the crazy artist, and a belief that this makes you seem more valuable. But in real life, it’s not true. You can’t be a crazy artist who doesn’t care about people, has a bad attitude, wastes relationships. You have to take all of this on with responsibility and respect. It’s hard work, and it’s not just hard work in front of the easel. What it all boils down to is work hard, be less self-centered, constantly raise your standards, and be good to people. These principles apply to every industry. There’s no secret or mystery.
SX: I can honestly say that Vincent lives this advice he is giving. He works harder than any person I know and never gives up. He is genuinely interested in other people. His collectors and the people he works with are important to him, and the relationships grow naturally. He appreciates and wants to get to know the people who collect his paintings and support his career, and he translates his high standards to the teams that he works with respect and patience. As far as Vincent’s work, there is this affinity for tradition because of how he grew up, but he isn’t looking back. He is looking to the future and thinking forward. He wants to find solutions and contribute, and his work catrries relevance for today while giving us an outlook for tomorrow.
All photography this article courtesy Allison Malafronte.