How Joseph Cornell, Barbara Kruger, and 8 Other Artists Subsidized Their Art

Rob Sharp
Aug 14, 2015 2:38PM

Joseph Cornell’s life combined the extraordinary and the mundane. On the one hand, he had a searing imagination and aptitude for assemblage-making, collecting, experimental filmmaking, and autodidacticism. On the other, there was his intense domestic life, overbearing mother, and creativity burdened by a career as a salesman—all his spare time breathlessly grasped. After being drawn to art in the early 1930s, Cornell worked on it mostly at night, compiling dossiers on his favorite topics, everything from ballerinas to butterflies. He didn’t resign from his job until 1940.

Installation view of Joseph Cornell, “Wanderlust,” courtesy of the Royal Academy of Arts.

Now, as a sky-high rental market beleaguers London’s creative community in what is already one of the world’s most expensive cities, it is perhaps pertinent that such a perennial moonlighter is attracting praise. “Wanderlust,”an exhibition of Cornell’s work currently showing at London’s Royal Academy, is winning positive reviews across the board. Many artists, needless to say, struggle to pay the bills. But who are the best known—those who have transcended their day jobs and achieved renown? Here are just a few.


After his discharge from the U.S. Army in May 1953, Johns headed to New York. As curator Carolyn Lanchner relays in her 2009 book Jasper Johns, it was time, according to the painter, “to stop becoming and to be an artist.” He destroyed all his previous pieces and held down jobs in the city to fund his progress, shifting as a night clerk at Marboro, a bookstore near Carnegie Hall. Teaming up with fellow artist Robert Rauschenberg, he also designed department store window displays for Tiffany & Co. In 1954, he was hit by one of the most famous inspiration dreams in art history, and Flag (1954-55) was born.

Perhaps most remarkable about celebrated Chicago street photographer Maier—who captured over 100,000 images from the 1950s to the ’90s, often lugging a large Rolleiflex from sidewalk to sidewalk seeking out social themes—are the practical difficulties she overcame in making her art. Expensive materials and lab time were funded by her endeavors as a children’s attendant and au pair. As such, her quest to record the socially marginalized is all the more impressive.

Cycle, 2011
Gagosian Gallery

“As a kid I worked steel mills,” says Serra in a 1979 interview with academic Annette Michelson. “I worked when I was 17, 18, 19, and 24, 25.” The artist adds, “I really wanted to demythologize for myself an ideal that I had about the working class.” The influence of this learning experience on the sculptor’s work is obvious, perhaps more so than that of the furniture removal business, Low-Rate Movers, that he ran in the 1960s while living in a loft on Greenwich Street, New York. At one point Philip Glass worked as his assistant. “It was an extraordinary time, idealistic, communal, generous,” Serra said in a 2008 interview with The Guardian.

Thomas was born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1971, enjoying exposure to art through after-school programs but also harboring the ambition of becoming a lawyer. She moved to Portland, Oregon, when she was 18 and won a job at a law firm, then moved on to bussing tables as a waitress. At the same time she came under the wing of artist Patrick Abbey and made her first pictures after attending an art therapy workshop. Her inaugural show was at a local coffeehouse; she has since exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and Lehmann Maupin, among others.

Ozymandias, 1990
Gagosian Gallery
Nuns running fast, 2012
Gagosian Gallery

In the 1970s Schnabel took on a host of different jobs in order to make rent. “The job I liked the least was driving a cab in New York,” he said in a 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal. He also worked as a cook at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, making “soup, cheeseburgers, and once a week an artist’s dinner—ris de veau or something like that,” he said. In Anthony Haden-Guest’s 1996 book True Colours, the writer describes cooking as Schnabel’s “nonpainterly forte.” Schnabel also worked in a restaurant alongside photographer Sherrie Levine and painter David Salle.

Untitled (He entered shop after shop), 2008
Mary Boone Gallery

In the late 1960s Kruger began her career designing small adverts for women’s magazine Mademoiselle at Condé Nast, but was promoted to chief designer within 12 months. In critic Kate Linker’s 1990 book Love for Sale: The Words and Pictures of Barbara Kruger, Kruger describes her experience as a graphic designer as “the biggest influence on my work,” noting that it “became, with a few adjustments, my ‘work’ as an artist.” She later grafted part-time as a picture editor, and taught at institutions including the University of California, Berkeley. Linker describes how Kruger’s “sharp eye for scanning and selecting images” has helped inform her practice.

British artist Leckey is one of many who have exercised their expertise in the classroom alongside the studio. He is currently a Reader in the Department of Art at Goldsmiths, University of London. Fellow British sages, taken from a long list, include Patrick Brill (a.k.a. Bob and Roberta Smith), an Associate Professor at the Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University, and painter Phoebe Unwin, who teaches at the Slade School of Fine Art.

Gagosian Gallery

One of Whiteread’s early champions was fellow sculptor Alison Wilding, who had taught Whiteread at both the Slade School of Fine Art and what was then Brighton Polytechnic. Whiteread returned the favor by becoming her assistant for a year after graduating. The two artists have been known to explore similar themes, including the relationship between solid and space, inside and outside. Apart from the many historical examples, other contemporary artists to have started out as assistants include conceptual artist Darren Bader and painter Rachel Howard, who helped sculptor Urs Fischer and Damien Hirst respectively.

Market favorite Koons was employed as a commodities broker on Wall Street in the early 1980s. He was so adept a trader that one employer, what was then Smith Barney, promoted him twice. Prior to this, he found work in the less mercantile role of assistant to Chicago painter Ed Paschke. “I think Ed paid me a dollar an hour and I was thrilled—I would have done it for absolutely nothing,” said Koons in a eulogy to Ed and Nancy Paschke at the School of Art Institute of Chicago in 2005. Paschke was instrumental in influencing Koons’s subsequent choices of palette and style.

Rob Sharp

Joseph Cornell: Wanderlust” is on view at the Royal Academy, Jul. 4–Sep. 27, 2015.

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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019