Artful Dodger

A year ago, architect Bill Tonnesen launched a career in modern art. His 12-month goal: to create 100 significant pieces, and to land a one-man show in a notable gallery. He chronicled his experience in the self-published Tonnesen: 12 Months to Fame and Fortune in the Art World. The book pictures many of his mixed-media assemblages (a frame filled with teacups, another jammed with hundreds of Bic pens) and is full of revelations ("As I surveyed the art world, there seemed to be a lot of paintings. Crazy abstract stuff that looked relatively easy to do.").

We met at Postino, a wine bar that, like Tonnesen, used to be something else -- in this case, a post office. Our conversation was punctuated by minute-long pauses, during which he considered my questions, and a cell phone call from his wife. I left less enlightened about whether Tonnesen is an artist or a talented fraud than entertained by his astonishing take on the art world.

New Times: So you were serious about becoming a famous artist in a year. That seems incredibly naive.

Bill Tonnesen: When I began trying to understand the contemporary art world, I was unbelievably naive. The more I studied, the more embarrassed I was at how little I really knew. On the flip side, I'm very confident. The public may perceive me as an emerging artist, but I do not. My work as a landscape architect and 20 years in architectural design have given me the tools and discipline and confidence I needed, and I feel even more confident about my future as an artist now.

NT: There's that old line that you always hear about modern art: "Hey, my kid could do that!" Your career as an artist strikes me as a big riff on that whole notion.

Tonnesen: That's a subject I love to talk about: understanding art. The notion that one painting deserves a more important place in the history of art. It's very convenient for uninformed people to think that their opinion is the equal of someone like [deceased MOMA curator] Robert Storr's. What makes contemporary art so unique that suddenly everybody is an expert? Why can some idiot walk in off the street and think his opinion about a painting has any value?

NT: Well, you're very open about the fact that you don't have a great depth of knowledge of the art business or the history of contemporary art.

Tonnesen: When I speak about art on any level, you are hearing a person who has studied intensely for one year, period. I started out trying to understand the broad history of contemporary art. Now, I'm focusing on specific individuals. I want to understand artists who are on my A-list. What combination of circumstances came together that made them the most collectible living contemporary artists in the world?

NT: I wanted to ask you about that. You actually made an A-list of artists in your book. What is that based on?

Tonnesen: Primarily on auction results.

NT: So for you, it's all about the money artists make, and not what their work is expressing or how it moves you.

Tonnesen: Well, money is a measure of collectibility. So are references in textbooks, a presence in museums, and mentions in publications like Art News, which essentially make the art world. But the common currency is money. It's the most concise way of determining an artist's popularity.

NT: That's a pretty arrogant position to take, to create a list that values artists based on how much money they make.

Tonnesen: The list is the least controversial aspect of what I've done. Essentially, it's unchallenged, partly because if you survey the horizon of thousands upon thousands of artists, people like Jasper Johns and Gerhardt Richter are the ones who rise up, and it's relatively . . . I can't think of the word.

NT: You seem torn between saying that the art world is full of shit and wanting to be part of it.

Tonnesen: My goal is to point out that the art industry is a market, like any other. I am a libertarian, laissez faire capitalist. I believe in markets. What I'm interested in doing is studying how the art market works and competing there, but not at a regional level. I have worked now for one year in this regional environment, and now I'm ready to compete on a larger stage.

NT: The short version is that you became a visual artist, and you're not interested in struggling or starving or spending 20 years in one town. And you're ready to go national.

Tonnesen: No. Not correct. You cannot achieve anything that's worth a darn without a tremendous struggle.

NT: Where is your tremendous struggle?

Tonnesen: The struggle was in becoming a known artist quickly. I am not young enough to start a new career and go through a 20-year learning curve. I used my maturity and my design skills and business know-how to quickly bring together a career in the art world.

NT: Have you been welcomed into the art world?

Tonnesen: I've had a strong mixed reaction -- some of it very, very negative.

NT: Like, "Get out of here; you don't qualify"?

Tonnesen: I was speaking in Tucson, and the audience was 100 percent artists and art industry professionals. Halfway through my remarks, a woman who had been staring at me with the most insulted body language stood up and said, "I think you're boring, and you disrespect legitimate artists." And she walked out.

NT: So what are you? An illegitimate artist?

Tonnesen: Thank you. One of the things I'd like to be able to accomplish is to tell people what an enriched art experience I'm having by doing a little bit of research into what I'm seeing.

NT: Sounds like an artist's statement. But you hate artists' statements.

Tonnesen: The artist's statement is typically a pathetic document. They're written by people who imagine they have something to say. I never remember any of them, even moments after I read them. And when is the last time you read a funny artist's statement?

NT: Well, I thought it was pretty funny when you wrote in your book about seeing people at galleries who "weren't rich-looking."

Tonnesen: Oh! No no no no! I was talking about two different armory shows I went to in New York. At one, people were dressed sloppily, so it was easy to distinguish between the artists and the collector-type people. That's something specific to the high-end world of modern art, where dead artists play a big role, where the galleries are all carpeted, and the price of the work is very, very high, and the gallery people are dressed in a jacket and tie. I felt out of place in that rarefied air.

NT: Amazing. Okay. What's the difference between art and architecture?

Tonnesen: Art is easier. No life safety issues, no constantly focusing on costs, no municipal tampering, no design review boards. And you don't have to go through endless meetings with people who are trying to influence your design.

NT: What, besides fame, is the purpose of your work?

Tonnesen: This is work that I'm good at. The skills that I bring to the table are strong enough to be on a world stage. But if I do not address dirty words like marketing, money, promotion, representation, I'll never have that opportunity.

NT: You keep coming back to money. Is that the compelling, driving force behind your work?

Tonnesen: People have accused me of being motivated by greed. I can tell you that it's essentially the opposite, because I never want to sell any of my work. I went to the gallery and proposed a plan in which all the work I had done would remain mine, and clients would look at it and say, "Yes, I'll have one of those," and I would make a piece similar to that one. Because I didn't want to give up my stuff. I am not making work to suit the tastes of my audience; I'm doing work that I believe in personally. I then got a dose of reality from the gallery director, who said, "It's hard enough to sell artwork off the wall, we're not going to tell people they can't have it." Even now, giving up one of my pieces leaves me with mixed feelings.

NT: I still can't tell: Are you an artist, an anti-artist or a snooty wanna-be?

Tonnesen: I've never even thought about whether I am an artist or whether people think of me as one. It's such an easy term to throw around. Because I don't think people really have much insight into what is art and what is not art.