Josh Sperling finds international acclaim blurring the line between two-and three-dimensional creations
The years between Josh Sperling’s graduation in 2006 from SUNY Potsdam and his meteoric rise to prominence in the international art world didn’t lack challenges—and they summon echoes of classic artistic journeys through time: Criticism, frustrations, exhibitions that don’t bring in a dollar, then the incredibly lucky break. And a great deal of toil—or joyful and immersive creation if, like Sperling, one is lucky enough to experience the journey that way.
A key difference? The Oneonta native has found some enduring measure of that fluky entity called success.
“The most crucial thing is just to make art,” said Sperling, speaking from his studio fashioned inside a barn in Ithaca, N.Y., where he employs 10 people to handle the more routine aspects of his creative processes. “Some people think too much about everything else. At every point in my life before Potsdam and since I always made art, regardless of how many hours I was working at a job or how little money I had.”
Sperling’s signature works are sculptural paintings, drawn first on a computer screen without the distraction of color. These forms are then cut into thin layers of plywood with a CNC machine, layered together like lines on a topographic map, painstakingly stretched with canvas and finally organized into entire abstract worlds in three dimensions. Once painted, these creations vibrate; elements bounce and harmonize. Vast monochromatic pieces, squiggles and interlocking designs launch a sensory journey of color, motion and even the illusion of sound.
His exhibition “What A Relief” is on display at the Savannah College of Art and Design through July 3, featuring his shaped canvases inspired by 1960s and ‘70s minimalism. His work will appear in the contemporary art gallery Perrotin Paris in Spring 2023, following a Spring 2022 exhibition that took up the three floors of Perrotin New York. Art critics talk about his inventive use of paint and sculpture media to blur the line between two dimensions and three, and the pure appeal of his use of color.
“I think there is just straight up good art that the majority of people will like,” Sperling reflected. “There is also good art that takes into account the history of art. That’s important to me. I am constantly buying books and educating myself on the history of art, so I know what not to do—like copying someone from the past, inadvertently. It takes educating yourself on the history, and then personal trial and error to figure out where you fit into that history.”
"My advice is not to feel rushed to become successful or even make good art. It takes a lot of practice and time to figure out what it means for yourself and develop your own style."
The artist’s trajectory
Sperling grew up in a family of third-generation furniture makers and graduated from SUNY Potsdam with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in sculpture and ceramics. He was drawn north by affordable tuition, outdoor recreation and the spacious studios he visited on a tour of the College. A ski instructor at Whiteface Mountain the entire time he was enrolled, Sperling hiked the Adirondacks, found a community of enduring friends in Potsdam and clarified his artistic bearings.
“I spent the first three years experimenting to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “In my last year, I did a sculptural thesis and made a very large-scale geometric sculpture. That was the first step in the direction I was going to take.”
Upon graduation, Sperling moved to Ithaca to pursue art professionally. His worn fingers shaped a great deal of wood; he toiled and learned the lessons of repeated attempts made in solitude, put his art first while working a full-time job and drew deep nourishment from the creative process. He placed his art on display at skate shops, coffee spots, and typical Upstate New York venues, but no one bought anything. He received a lot of feedback but not much else—and the lack of success left him both raw and more determined to succeed.
“I made art and stockpiled it,” he said. “I was frustrated by my first shows and didn’t want to expose myself to anyone’s opinions for a while, so I just went at it alone.”
Realizing he needed to refocus if his career was going to go anywhere, Sperling looked to graduate school, but the programs were too expensive. Luckily his friend, artist Sam Friedman, was working for the internationally renowned artist Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS in New York City, and Sperling asked if he could help out. Shortly after, Sperling moved to the city for five years of mentorship and intense learning that would prove pivotal to his success.
“KAWS’ work influenced me color-wise, but the bigger influence was that he demystified the art world and showed me how to basically run art like a business,” Sperling recalled. “He was instrumental in my having the confidence and know-how to be successful in art as a business.”
Sperling’s second lucky break came in 2016 with the offer of a joint show with Friedman at the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York City. Within the year, he was offered another show in Hudson N.Y., which brought attention from the Belgian gallery Sorry We’re Closed. There, his work caught the eye of Emmanuel Perrotin, whose galleries are located in New York City, Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Ever since, Sperling has been too busy to spend much time looking back.
“That’s not a typical artist trajectory,” he admitted. “I was pretty lucky.”
"People perceive a lot of pressure to sell and be successful, but sometimes it’s best to ignore that and just enjoy the art for the making of it."
Trial and error
Sperling’s work has grown beyond himself. His employees handle much of the production work, painstakingly stretching canvas along seemingly impossible curves and painting with processes Sperling has developed. With research and development as his primary focus, Sperling still draws out each piece of art and picks every color while he contemplates ways to push the artistic envelope. He describes the deep joy he feels at being able to create, enter into and occupy a world of his own making, filled with the symmetries of his own choosing.
The art is an infinite process, with goals so broad that dead-ends can be skirted and trial and error can uncover attention-grabbing magic. It is also tiring work.
“I’m at a point where I worked hard enough in the last five years that I’m burnt out and need to give myself time and space to go back to the drawing board and think of something new to maintain the interest and attention span of the audience,” Sperling said.
As part of this introspection, he plans to transition his focus to furniture making—not the sturdy stuff carved by his ancestor, but art-centric, high-end pieces using a lot of the shapes he has already developed.
“It’s something I just want to do, but it will also support the studio and employees while giving me time to explore new directions,” he said. “The nice thing about furniture is you can come up with one idea and make 20 to 50 pieces. It’s a way to be creative but not have so much pressure to come up with the next product idea so quickly.”
If Sperling were talking to a group of art students from his alma mater and was asked for key advice, he’d stress endurance. He would also try to articulate the creative joy that arrives from persistent engagement with art. He doesn’t believe that most successful artists are naturally gifted. They work hard to get where they are, and because he has worked very hard to get where he is, Sperling finds that truth quite comforting.
“My advice is not to feel rushed to become successful or even make good art. It takes a lot of practice and time to figure out what it means for yourself and develop your own style,” Sperling concluded. “It’s OK to find comfort in doing art for yourself sometimes, and not feel the pressure of showing publicly at first. People perceive a lot of pressure to sell and be successful, but sometimes it’s best to ignore that and just enjoy the art for the making of it.
“If you can do that, you’re more likely to achieve the success you want.”
Article by Bret Yager, imagery courtesy of Perrotin