Reed Seifer is an artist who wears many hats and wears them all well. He is one of the pioneers of the new American DIY movement and was able to carve out a successful niche of selling his art online without the help of a gallery before anyone thought it was possible. If you live in New York, then you’ve most likely encountered Reed’s work – since he’s the artist behind the slogan optimism that was written on well over a million metro cards. Over the course of an hour, Reed and I had a discussion over the phone that really made me view life in a whole new way. However, I don’t want to ruin the story, so you’ll just have to read on to find out why.
Daniel Rolnik: You were the only artist at Art Platform with a booth, how did that happen?
Reed Seifer: I have a special status with them, since in addition to being a fine artist I’m also the art director for the fair. So, part of my agreement and compensation with their organization is that I receive a booth at the fair. In New York I’m also an art director for The Armory Show, which is a much bigger event where I have a booth as well.
DR: Is that why your site has separate links for contemporary art and art direction?
RS: Conceptually there is a lot of overlap, but I try to maintain them as separate identities.
DR: When did you start using the dollar bills as art?
RS: I’ve always been interested in different currencies, so in 2003 I created these pieces where I used a hot foil stamp to put New York Is A Lot Of Work on dollar bills, which I sold on my website. A little while later when I was asked to have a booth at The Armory Show a close friend suggested that I showcase the dollar bills again, since they had been a success online. So, I made a beautiful installation in my booth where all the bills were hanging on clotheslines and I sold about 700 of them over the course of four days.
DR: How much was each bill?
RS: They were $25 each – so I made a small fortune. I think it was a valuable lesson too, because I learnt that some of the art I made in the past is still valid and relevant today – it just has to find the right market.
DR: Are you going to continue the dollar bills at the next Armory Show?
RS: I think I’m going to start a new project where I make my own currency, because people seem so attracted to the idea of money.
DR: Why were you giving away dollar bills at Art Platform?
RS: I like to make art that subverts the system. Every other booth at the fair was charging for their artwork and so I wanted to do the opposite of what they were doing as a conceptual exercise…It was interesting because some people actually threw money back on the floor instead of taking it.
DR: Did you get paid for doing the Optimism design on the New York City Metro Cards?
RS: I didn’t get paid for that project, but I got over a million dollars worth of publicity. Normally when artists work within the MTA they’re given a flat fee, but I proposed my Optimism campaign to them. The project was pretty out there for the normal work they curate. We were in the midst of the great recession and Believe it or not, they were concerned it would have an incredibly negative backlash, but after they came out the optimism Metro Cards were primarily well received and I was even reviewed by Roberta Smith and had the cover story of the metro section in the NY Times.
DR: So it was a fair trade?
RS: Definitely, I have no regrets about it, but that doesn’t mean that I think artists should work for free – which is a terrible situation that’s very common now. People think they can take advantage of others who love what they do and I’m not down with that at all. I think that if you do what you love, you should expect to be compensated. I also think I especially have to be careful about giving my own work away for free because it can be dangerous psycho-spiritually to always give and not get back
DR: Did you have your graphic design company before you were doing fine art?
RS: I was always doing art, but when I moved to New York when I was 21, graphic design seemed to be the route I took to support myself.
DR: Why was your booth at Art Platform named A Place To Hold Your Thoughts In?
RS: A lot of times when you see an exhibit, it will have a longwinded statement attached to it, which I’m just so opposed to. So I just wanted to keep my show open to interpretation. I believe art should be accessible to anyone, whether it is the president of Yale’s art department who can find intellectual value in it or the assistant checkout girl at the supermarket who just loves the way it looks.
DR: Do you think galleries are pricing work too high and there’s going to be a crash?
RS: I will sometimes see pieces in galleries and think you’ve got to be kidding me, but that provokes a whole question of how we determine the value of art. From doing the art fairs I’ve gotten an inside look at how some of the collectors behave – since I’ve noticed that a few of them will buy expensive and relevant art to boost their social status, regardless of whether they like it or not. Yet, the art world is still a cleaner one than others. I mean I used to do graphic design work for the pharmaceutical industry, which I don’t feel is clean at all.
Books Designed by Reed Seifer [Basquiat + Warhol designed with John Cheim]
DR: What type of stuff were you designing for the pharmaceutical companies?
RS: Oh gosh in the early 1990’s I designed ads for Pfizer and financial reports for Bear Stearns. I’m not saying that they are necessarily bad companies, but I have very serious questions about what they do. I especially wonder about the pharmaceutical companies and how they might never release cures for certain diseases because of how much money they make from selling the preventative pills and treatments. Or, even, that they invent diseases in order to market treatments.
DR: When did you stop working for companies you didn’t believe in?
RS: I stopped doing work for them after 9/11. I was in my office and saw the crash happen from my window. It looked like the end of the world and I thought for sure that I was going to die. But, the whole catastrophe reminded me that I have to make the most of what I have here on this planet, so I said fuck it, this isn’t my dream, my dream is to create art and do design work for companies I believe in. I had no money when I quit and just scrimped and scraped until it worked out. I believe there is such a thing as right timing.
DR: Have you ever gotten one of the dollar bills back while you were around town?
RS: No, but when I was making the dollars that said New York is a Lot of Work on them, I gave one of the misprints to a local coffee show and when I came back a few weeks later they had it displayed on their tip jar. I told them that I was the artist who did it and they gave me a cappuccino on the house.
DR: Is it difficult to stop people from copying your Optimism buttons?
RS: The more optimism the better! After all, wouldn’t it be pessimistic to be upset about it.
WHAT: The Armory Show - Reed Seifer will have a booth
WHEN: March 8th-11th, 2012
WHERE: Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, New York City, NY
DETAIL: Ticket Prices Range from $60-$10