Artist Marcel Dzama talks about how Moroccan mint tea and ‘dagger brushes’ fuel his wild and whimsical drawings

Marcel Dzama has established himself as a New York City fixture, literally. Last year, he was commissioned by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) to transform the surreal, dreamlike worlds he normally paints or draws into a mosaic now permanently installed at the Bedford L subway station. in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The pieces, collectively titled Nothing less than everything comes together (2021), inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” have taken travelers by storm with their lush colors and striking depictions of dancing mimes and a laughing moon. The Canadian-born, Brooklyn-based artist has since returned to the studio, and Artnet decided to pay him a visit to see what he’s dreaming up next.

What are the most essential items in your studio and why?

There are two. One is a brush Raymond Pettibon introduced me to called a dagger brush: it holds a lot of paint but it drips well up to a point, so he doesn’t have to constantly dip the brush to get fresh paint on the paper. It’s the only brush I like to use these days. The other is a brand of pencil called Blackwing that has a very soft lead. You don’t have to press as hard and it leaves a nice dark mark. They are very well designed and the black eraser on the end works quite well.

Is there a photo you can send of your work in progress?

What is the study task in your agenda tomorrow that you look forward to the most?

I’m working on some big drawings as part of a series based on some kind of tropical paradise, so I can travel in my mind. Since I haven’t traveled since the start of the pandemic, I feel like art has been a good escape from the reality we’re in, so I’m really looking forward to that task. I am trying to be more positive and optimistic in my new job, as we are living in very dark times, but darkness finds its way into my work most of the time.

What kind of environment do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music or podcasts, or do you prefer silence? Why?

When I’m drawing, I love listening to music. I usually have an album on repeat that has the same feel as the work in some way, so the atmosphere of the drawing comes out naturally.

I listen to a lot of Bunk Johnson, Nina Simone, Monk, Lead Belly, Bowie, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Earl Hooker, CAN, PiL, anything Motown or Rough Trade.

When I paint, I can multitask, so audiobooks are perfect. I enjoy anything considered classic, but my favorites are the two Jameses: Joyce and Baldwin.

What trait do you admire most in a work of art? What trait do you despise the most?

What I admire most in a work of art is the sincerity or that the artist was possessed by the work or had fun with it. You can usually see if it was important to them or at least they enjoyed doing it. I’m not sure if I despise any kind of art, but I’m a bit skeptical of anything that uses cutting-edge technology for technology’s sake, but not always.

What snacks could your studio not function without?

I enjoy a Moroccan-style mint tea…and I always have microwave popcorn ready in case my son joins me. We both eat at least one bag each. There is also a restaurant near my studio called Bedouin Tents Middle Eastern food, so anything on their menu makes a perfect snack or meal.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now?

The only social network I look at is Instagram, but Duro Olowu is always brilliant! Some of my favorites that come to mind are Roberta Smith, Jack Hanley, Jerry Saltz, Thelma Golden, Marilyn Minter, Karon Davis, Rosa Loy, Katherine Bradford, Kim Gordon, Kara Walker, Suzan Frecon, Young Sun Han, Cindy Sherman , Raymond Pettibon, Rashid Johnson and the hilarious Amy Sedaris.

Marcel Dzama in his study.

Marcel Dzama in studio. Courtesy of David Zwirner.

When you feel stuck in the study, what do you do to get unstuck?

I’ve never really been stuck. I am usually overwhelmed with too many ideas. But if I’m not feeling so inspired, I look at an artist’s book that I admire and that usually brings my focus back.

What is the last exhibition you saw that impressed you?

Hilma af Klint’s “Tree of Knowledge” at David Zwirner’s Uptown gallery was the last show I saw before Omicron took over New York. It was very inspiring.

There was a Francis Picabia show at MoMA in 2016. I still think about him every other day. It was so complete, so many of my favorite pieces of art in one place. I wish I could walk through it again.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would it include right now?

Anxiously and desperately hoping…

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