An artist’s first sale can be a career-defining moment: One’s effort, toil, and aspirations suddenly transform into validation (and, of course, a bit of cash). It’s a rite of passage that nearly every artist goes through; even the most famous, blue-chip artists started somewhere.
For the lucky few, a sale comes right off the bat. Others take a more meandering route to that virgin transaction—a group show, then a studio visit, even critical or institutional recognition, and then, finally, a sale. Sometimes, the first customer turns out to be an important patron, and the first sale an early step on a long journey together. What can we learn from hearing about the first time someone ever paid an artist for a work of art? We asked 10 artists to share the stories behind when their creative practice finally met the art market.
Devin Troy Strother, Oh That Nigga Be Collecting Shit, 2009. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Heller Gallery.
Devin Troy Strother’s first “sale” of art happened in high school, when he bartered a drawing he made for weed. But his first formal gallery transaction wouldn’t occur until he was 23, just a few months after completing his undergraduate education at Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design in 2009.
While Strother made extra cash as a teaching assistant for a printmaking class, he also posted his own work online, drawing the attention of Richard Heller Gallery in Santa Monica. The dealer got in touch, and Strother brought over a handful of paintings. Heller took three or four paintings and sold two of them for $2,000 to $3,000 each, “right out of the gate, to a really good collection,” said Strother. “I dropped them off Friday, and he had a check for me the next Tuesday. I honestly don’t remember exactly how I felt, but I know I had to have been stoked about it.”
Titled My Nigga and I Be Building Shit and Oh That Nigga Be Collecting Shit respectively (both 2009), these mixed-media-on-paper works were some of the first in Strother’s oeuvre to incorporate comically absurd and lengthy nomenclature, which would become a signature part of the artist’s practice. Recent works such as My momma made me get up to go to work today. I hate working for Alex Israel and I never knew jail was so sparkly said jerome to tyler. same same (both 2017) have sold for $1,800 to $50,000 through Marlborough Contemporary and Richard Heller Gallery.
Seth Price, Untitled, 2004. Courtesy of the artist and Reena Spaulings.
Though he had already shown his video “Painting” Sites (2000–01) at the 2002 Whitney Biennial—and had already written Dispersion (2002–present), a text-based artwork that would later become an important art historical essay—the Israeli-born American artist Seth Price only sold his first artwork at the end of 2004, nearly eight years after receiving his undergraduate degree from Brown University. Price was on the precipice of turning 31, and was enjoying his first solo exhibition at the newly launched Lower East Side gallery Reena Spaulings Fine Art.
Untitled (2004), one of the works in that debut exhibition, was a multimedia sculpture consisting of a photograph of a marbleized surface affixed to safety glass and propped up on two stacks of CDs, each containing a jihadist beheading video. Despite it being one of the priciest—and most challenging—works in the exhibition, Untitled sold for somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000. (Where feasible, Artsy has attempted to confirm exact sales figures; this was not always possible.)
“None of us had expected a sale,” Price told Artsy. “I hadn’t made a sculpture before that show, and before that year, I hadn’t exhibited much of anything, anywhere, so no one had heard of me, and Reena Spaulings itself was new. The sale felt like winning the lottery, like maybe it wouldn’t happen again. I was just really happy.”
Though he maintains the anonymity of the buyer (opting to mention that they had likely been tipped off about his work by Carol Greene, founder of Greene Naftali Gallery and a “big help” to Reena Spaulings at the time), Price said his first patron wasn’t the type to purchase a piece and flip it at the nearest available opportunity.
“After the sale, the gallery called and said, ‘This guy’s a dream collector,’” recalled Price. “At the time I agreed he was a nice guy, but with more experience, I can confirm that he is, in fact, a dream collector. He lived with my work in his apartment, and still has it years later.” Price, whose work has since sold for as high as $785,000, said the collector also lent Untitled (2004) to “Social Synthetic,” the artist’s first-ever survey exhibition held at the Stedelijk Museum last year.
General Idea, Evidence of Body Binding, 1971. Courtesy of Esther Schipper.
The Toronto- and Berlin-based artist AA Bronson’s first sale happened with a little help from his friends. In 1969, together with artists Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, Bronson started General Idea, an art collective in Toronto that would gain notoriety and acclaim for provocative conceptual works incorporating and subverting the language of the popular media of the time. (One notable example being “AIDS”—a series of paintings and an accompanying poster campaign promoting AIDS activism, riffing off of Robert Indiana’s classic LOVE iconography.)
General Idea’s first sale, however, was a slightly less polemical work. Evidence of Body Binding (1971) consisted of 15 small light boxes stacked to resemble a ziggurat sprawled out on the floor of Galerie B in Montreal. “The images on the light boxes were closeups of parts of my body, bound in what appeared to be wire, but was actually elastic,” Bronson told Artsy. “They were sold to the National Gallery of Canada, the most important collecting institution in Canada, in 1972.”
The piece sold for $3,000 CAD (roughly $19,000 CAD or $15,000 USD today). “We were, of course, very excited to have our work in such a major institution so early in our time together,” said Bronson. “At the same time, we took it in stride, as our due. We were too young to appreciate how exceptional the circumstances were.”
Though General Idea disbanded in 1994 (the year both Partz and Zontal passed away due to AIDS-related causes), works made by the collective still sell in the secondary art market for upwards of $300,000 today.
Tony Matelli, Couple, 1995. Courtesy of the artist.
Today, Tony Matelli is best known for Sleepwalker (2014), a controversial sculpture of an underwear-clad sleepwalking man installed on the High Line in 2016, but he has been selling work for over two decades. Matelli’s first sale occurred in 1996, when the artist was 25 years old and almost a year out of the graduate program at the Cranbook Academy of Art. Though his first solo exhibition at the now-defunct Brooklyn-based gallery Basilico Fine Arts wouldn’t come until 1997, Matelli was invited to display some of his work in the gallery’s back room the previous year, in the run-up to his solo show.
One of the works he opted to present was Couple (1995), an epoxy and fiberglass sculpture of two starving brown figures—a shocking choice of subject matter for a white artist—which Matelli had crafted in the last few months of graduate school. “It was one of the first figures I ever sculpted, and it was also my first time working with all of the associated processes: sculpting, mold-making, casting with fiberglass, and so on,” Matelli said. After all that work, “it was tackled by a small child and badly damaged” after being in the gallery for just a day or two, he recalled. The work had to be remade, but after being reinstalled, Couple soon sold for a figure between $4,000 and $5,000.
Matelli said he felt both “incredibly validated and empowered to have a stranger believe in the work enough to be compelled to own it, and it felt like a remarkable bonus to get paid for something I had already made.” Today, the artist is represented by Marlborough Contemporary; his works typically sell for figures between $20,000 and $200,000.
Louisa Gagliardi, Jo, 2015. Courtesy of the artist.
Young Swiss artist Louisa Gagliardi did not study art per se, obtaining instead a BA in graphic design from the Ecole Cantonale d’Art de Lausanne in 2012, but her design work had been oriented toward illustration from the beginning. After graduation, she received design commissions from the likes of fashion label Kenzo and Mousse Magazine, experiences that helped her develop techniques while paying the bills.
In 2015, Gagliardi took her ability to illustrate and redirected it toward painting, producing her first works in the summer of that year. Things moved fast: By September of the same year, she had her first exhibition, “Madrugada,” a two-person show with Fay Nicolson at New York’s Tomorrow Gallery (today incarnated as Downs & Ross after a merger).
At the end of that exhibition’s one-month run, no sales of Gagliardi’s work had been made, though one of the paintings on view would prove to be a commercial success a bit further down the road. Two months later, Tomorrow Gallery took the ink-and-nail-polish-on-vinyl Jo (2015), a large painting of a ruddy complexioned figure grasping its own face, to London’s Sunday Art Fair, which focuses on young and emerging artists and galleries. It sold for $5,500, an impressive amount for an artist who had only just begun painting seriously a few months prior.
Though she was validated by the sale to some degree, Gagliardi also felt somewhat uncomfortable with the situation, fearing that it might transform her art practice into an inherently commercial activity, not unlike the graphic design work she had done before. “The reason I started painting is that I wanted to do something that would free me of the people-pleasing, monetary aspect of the graphic design work,” she told Artsy. “With this first sale, I really had to fight this old mindset, and not mentally turn the collector or gallerist into a client.”
Helen Johnson, The Centre for the study of adhocracy: Producing singularities in a more and more standardised world (detail), 2005-2006. Courtesy of the artist.
Despite already having a smattering of solo exhibitions under her belt, Melbourne-based artist Helen Johnson’s first major sale didn’t happen until her first institutional group exhibition in 2006, when she was 26 years old and four years out of undergrad. Johnson’s contributions for the show “New06” at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art were a series of large-scale acrylic paintings on paper, directly adhered to the wall and framed within a larger wall painting.
During the two-month run of the exhibition, Johnson was contacted by a Sydney-based collector about purchasing works, including The Centre for the study of adhocracy: Producing singularities in a more and more standardised world (the bedroom) (2005). “I was quite taken by surprise at this, as I was unsure if I’d be able to get the works off the wall intact, and had been expecting that they would be destroyed in the de-installation process,” said Johnson. Lacking gallery representation at that moment in her career and not knowing what a reasonable price for the piece was, the artist asked the curator of “New06,” who suggested charging $5,000.
Though $5,000 “seemed like an absurd amount of money” to Johnson, the buyer agreed. Despite Johnson’s fears, the paintings were de-installed from the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art without any difficulties, and the buyer flew Johnson to his house in Sydney to help install them. “It was such a dominant presence within the space it inhabited that I was embarrassed,” she said. “But he was really happy with it.”
In the 12 years since her first sale, Johnson’s career has gained significant traction. She is now represented by a trifecta of galleries: L.A.’s Château Shatto, London’s Pilar Corrias Gallery, and Fitzroy’s Sutton Gallery. Her travelling solo exhibition “Warm Ties”recently concluded its run at Artspace Sydney after having its initial run at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in early 2017.
Technically speaking, Brooklyn-based artist Dave Hardy sold his first work at an art fair. But it wasn’t at “the Art Basel kind of fair,” he qualified, “but the kind where you put up a stand and sell to passersby.” The fair in question was on Congress Street in Portland, Maine, and Hardy, who was still in high school at the time, was accompanied by his parents, who made a living selling their art at similar events.
Known today for monumental sculptures incorporating glass, foam, and other common materials, Hardy worked in a more casual and diminutive manner at this early stage of his career. The first work he sold at the Portland street fair was an etching of sandpipers on the beach entitled Low Tide, purchased by a fairgoer for $30. Although his recollection of his first collector is hazy, Hardy clearly remembers how he felt after the sale.
“It was very exciting,” Hardy said. “I thought that I had figured out my future and I went ahead and bought some cassettes with the money.” Though he would go on to sell more etchings at similar outdoor art fairs through his undergraduate stint at Brown University, a post-collegiate move to California would mark a period of “maybe 20 years where I didn’t sell anything again,” during which he supported himself through a variety of different means. Hardy built sets and props for movies and architectural models for architecture firms, and even worked as a cabinet maker at one point, all while continuing his art practice on the side, creating sculptures that would be shown in artist-run spaces that weren’t focused on sales.
His situation changed after attending the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 2004. During his stay, Hardy befriended a community of students that included the video artist Abbey Williams (who would later become his wife), as well as Siebren Versteeg. These new bonds with the Skowhegan community would prove vital for Hardy’s trajectory in New York, where the artist had been residing since 2001. Versteeg, along with 12 other artists, founded Regina Rex Gallery in 2010, which would go on to make the first sale of Hardy’s sculptures in decades, and represented him, as well. Though Regina Rex shuttered this past March, Hardy is still represented by Skibum MacArthur in Los Angeles and Galerie Christophe Gaillard in Paris.
Jon Kessler, Man on the Go, 1983. Courtesy of the artist and Artists Space.
In 1983, three years out of his undergraduate program, Jon Kessler was working as a house painter and living in an abandoned factory in Williamsburg without heat or a toilet. But that year marked the beginning of his career as an exhibiting artist, with two shows at White Columns, as well as a solo show at Artists Space, when the gallery was still on Hudson Street in Tribeca.
For the Artists Space show, Kessler exhibited five wall-mounted works, each with a similar form: a metal frame hung with motors, lights, and objects that would cast shadows onto a sheet of German stained glass positioned in front of the work. These pieces marked the beginning of Kessler’s engagement with kinetic sculpture, a medium that would later become his trademark (his 2017 work Evolution, which was featured in that year’s Whitney Biennial, incorporated motorized monitors surrounding snorkeling mannequins).
These works piqued the interest of Horace and Holly Solomon (the latter of whom passed in 2002), a prominent collector-and-dealer couple and founders of the now-defunct Holly Solomon Gallery. The couple came to the opening and purchased two of the wall works for $4,500 each, which were the only works in Kessler’s show that sold. “It was an amazing thing for me. I never thought you could actually make money doing exactly what you loved,” said Kessler.
Unfortunately for Kessler, his euphoria was doomed to be short-lived: “The day after the opening, Artists Space called to say that two of the sculptures had fallen off the wall and shattered into countless pieces. Of course they were the two pieces bought by the Solomons,” he said. “After that, I learned everything there was to learn about wall fasteners.”
Unable to fully recreate the broken pieces—the German stained glass he had utilized was irreplaceable—Kessler missed out on the sale. Luckily for the artist, the Solomons were not discouraged by the accident and proceeded to purchase one of the three remaining sculptures. It was the show’s only sale. Today, Kessler’s practice has become more sprawling and installation-oriented, though it still incorporates kinetic elements. His works now sell for as much as $400,000.
Jesse Mockrin, Abracadabra, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
While Los Angeles-based artist Jesse Mockrin was working towards her MFA at the University of California, San Diego, in the early 2010s, lauded painter and gallerist Laura Owens visited her studio. Though this encounter yielded no immediate consequences, it planted the seed for a future studio visit by Owens in 2013, two years after Mockrin had completed her studies. Owens, along with artist Peter Harkawik, were on the hunt for work to include in “Made in Space,” a group exhibition at Night Gallery that the two were co-curating.
During the second studio visit, Owens and Harkawik spotted Abracadabra (2013), an oil-on-linen painting of a waifish figure in a blue blouse. Painted methodically over six months and marking a stylistic departure from Mockrin’s other works, the 23-by-34-inch painting was chosen for the group exhibition.
The show proved to be pivotal in Mockrin’s career. Davida Nemeroff, the owner of Night Gallery, told Mockrin that Marcia Goldenfeld Maiten, a client of her gallery, was very interested in the piece, but wanted to know more about the artist and see more of her work. Maiten visited Mockrin’s studio and decided to buy Abracadabra for $3,000 a few days later. Since then, Maiten has been a dedicated supporter of Mockrin’s work, and has bought a painting from each of her subsequent solo exhibitions.
To commemorate this formative moment, Mockrin treated the check from Maiten as a good-luck charm. “After depositing it, I hung on to it. I still have it in a box on my fridge filled with miscellanea like family holiday cards and notes from my son’s preschool,” she said.
Now working at a much larger scale, Mockrin continues to work with Night Gallery, as well as with Nathalie Karg Gallery in New York. Her paintings typically range between $30,000 and $50,000.
Amy Yao, Untitled, 2005-2006. Courtesy of the artist.
Though she hadn’t felt compelled to paint since her undergraduate years at the ArtCenter College of Design, Amy Yao’s first sale was of a one-off canvas she made while completing her MFA in sculpture at Yale when she was 28.
The work, Untitled (2005–06), was an experimental piece that she had no intention of selling: “I was thinking about formal experiments at the time, looking for conceptual ideas to push boundaries a bit,” said Yao. “I had this idea to paint on the back of the canvas instead of the front, as I hadn’t seen other artists doing that. Being in the sculpture department, I was trying to think of canvas as a sort of physical material, to think about the actual object-ness of the painting.”
The unorthodox painting, propped up in her studio, caught the eye of a fellow artist in her program who became interested in buying it. Though students in her MFA program would trade works amongst each other, outright purchases were rarer. “I really wasn’t expecting that. He offered me an amount he could afford, $350, which was very inexpensive, but mind you, I had no experience selling any work before,” Yao said. “It was kind of nice to know that someone liked the work enough to want to buy it, especially a painting that I found to be pretty cool as well.”
In line with the MFA degree she had been pursuing, Yao’s practice has since re-oriented itself towards sculpture. Her work was included in the 2010 edition of MoMA PS1’s “Greater New York” exhibition, and has also been showcased in a slew of solo shows, including “Weeds of Indifference” at 47 Canal and “Bay of Smokes” at Various Small Fires (both galleries now represent the artist).