#nofilter: Get To Know William Quigley
Though his art speaks for itself, William Quigley is a man of many words. We were lucky enough to get an unfiltered stream of them recently when we chatted with him exclusively about his early days, celebrity subjects, VIP collectors, his upcoming show at the MBH, and more. Get to know the artist below!
Let’s start from the beginning. Many people have their first show at a local restaurant or other small public venue…yours was at the Henry S. McNeil Gallery with none other than Andy Warhol. How and when did you first become interested in art and how did your early career journey lead to this incomparable opportunity?
I studied art for 4 years at Philadelphia College of Art and one year in Rome. From the time I was a sophomore in college I knew I wanted to paint after drawing cartoons my whole life.
When I first got out of school in 1985 the first thing I did was try to get a gallery in Philadelphia. I was rejected at Robert Taub gallery, who instead asked me to photograph a show, like paparazzi, the night I was rejected…so I walked around the corner on Locust Street in Philadelphia and walked into a gallery that was hanging an Andy Warhol show. I walked right past the desk and into a back room where Hank McNeil, Sandra Lerner and John Weinmann were having lunch (Chinese food). I asked them to look at my slides. Hank’s face just dropped and he asked how old I was. He took my slides reluctantly, with a spoon in the other hand. They were all kind of chuckling as I ranted about abstract expressionism and Philip Guston. I told them Warhol wasn’t really a painter. They said they would call me if they were interested. So I left my slides with them.
The next day my grandmother told me Billy, Hank McNeil called and wants to see your work. At the time I was at the Black Banana, a nightclub in Philadelphia, but I had to drive an hour to get to the studio. Everyone knew the Black Banana…it was the best club in Philadelphia. Owned by Garrick Melmac who was buying my paintings at the time. We climbed the endless flights of steps to the top floor where my studio was. I was painting very abstractly and really into Anselm Kiefer, Pollock, and de Kooning. Hank and John Weinmann were in the space, and offered me a show that next day – June 12th, 1985 with Andy Warhol. I would show in the back room. Hank then offered to buy a painting. It was about 3 feet by 4 feet horizontally. It was still wet. I told him I wanted $3,000. He asked why. I told him because I saw an Anselm Kiefer for $5,000. He replied take a zero off and I’ll buy it.
He bought it. Hank was the heir to McNeil laboratories which created Tylenol. He was Philadelphia’s top collector and maybe one of the wealthiest guys in Philadelphia. And probably still is. Hank and I had some great days together…he introduced me to Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Dennis Oppenheim, Alice Aycock, and Basquiat, among others. Every time we met with these people he told me to keep my mouth shut and just learn. So I kept my mouth shut for a long time. Now that I’m older, I can’t keep quiet.
Do you feel like that first show has somehow set the tone for the rest of your career?
Absolutely! Andy Warhol was probably the best promoter of his art I ever met. I didn’t even like his work at the time. My next show was with Julian Schnabel, Cindy Sherman, Basquiat, Pat Steir, and Richard T. Walker. That same year I was accepted to graduate school, Columbia University. I chose Columbia because it was in New York City. I was shocked to get in. It slowed down my career, going to school, but I think in the long run it was the best move. Columbia beat me up. They wouldn’t acknowledge people like Basquiat or Haring or any of the artists that were doing work in downtown New York. I was going to nightclubs and showing work at places like Area, Palladium, the Cat Club, Limelight, then Nell’s – showing, performing, dancing in nightclubs and not telling anybody in school what I was doing. When they found out the other students were very very critical of my work. I never told them I even showed with Warhol while I was in school. Sales and work at the gallery slowed down because I was in school. So I was no longer showing with Hank. It was the last show I did with him. So yes, that very first show impacted the rest of my career forever. And it kind of brings me to tears thinking that actually existed. Hank McNeil is a brilliant visionary collector. I was very very fortunate to meet him so young in my life. I’ll never forgetting Andy or Jean Michel or Haring and the impact that time had on me or my work.
You’ve lived and worked all over the world…is there a location that you find most inspiring to your work? And/or a place that you feel most fulfilled on a personal level?
I would say every where I worked or wherever I worked I was so excited to actually work and be in that location that it almost didn’t matter. I guess my greatest or happiest or most impactful studio was being in Tribeca and Soho in 1999 until present, after coming back from LA after 10 years. I love painting East Hampton. And never thought I would move out here. I showed with de Kooning in the late 80s and studied Pollock religiously in school. I had a brief time with Lee Krasner while at Philadelphia College of Art. And so many people talked about the Hamptons and the light and how amazing it is out here. Meeting the Schenck family, Rodney Herlin, I feel very fortunate, and getting the studio in East Hampton has been some of the most successful and Stressless but productive time in my whole career.
Maybe it’s age, but I think the paintings are finally becoming a little bit focused. It’s amazing the community out here with a lot of great artists and tremendous talent all over the place. It’s very very inspirational. Everywhere I’ve been I’ve tried to carry certain energy with me that’s positive. And out here it’s a lot easier to focus by having less people and distractions around all the time. It kind of reminds me of when I first moved to New York the energy. Where the passion is there, but there’s not so many car horns going off in the background or sirens screaming all the time.
Your work is owned by prominent collectors the world over and has been shown in some of the finest museums, galleries and institutions…has there been a standout moment or collector or acquisition? Perhaps the most rewarding/humbling?
I’ve had so many great people buy my work, again it brings me to tears just thinking about how lucky I’ve been. I guess it all starts with my mother who continually has advised me for lack of a better word to remain humble. She’s done so much in her life and accomplished so much in her life, by just having 4 kids and kind of raising them on her own. That has been all the inspiration I really needed. However there’ve been some great people who stepped forward and bought a lot of my work. Some collectors, the more serious ones own as many as 45 paintings like Carl and Dr. Ken Tokita in California. Keith Stoltz in Delaware has about 20. Giel Millner my landlord in New York and his wife Diane own about 30 some pieces. Marc Chiat, my closest friend probably kept me alive for years in LA . I don’t know how how many paintings he has. But I wish I was able to buy his work because I think he’s one of the greatest artists I’ve ever met. His work is far beyond most of the work I see in galleries and he continues inspiring me every week with his genius and brilliance and kindness and generosity. Phil Marber, who was involved in post 9/11 initiatives pretty seriously, owns probably near 30 pieces. People like this have been angels. My new collectors John and Joanna Boynton, and long time friend Jeff Bandman have become my business managing team. I think John bought 15 pieces or something like this since 2012. Jeff my long-time great friend, who’s actually brilliant, started buying my work about 10 years ago. It was kind of nice because him and I are so close we do everything together. He actually brought me out here to the Hamptons. His family’s been here for nearly 50 years I think. His mom and dad are wonderful and taught me a lot about what’s going on out here and its history.
Recently thanks to a good friend Brian Sullivan from Boston, and his close friend Senter Johnson, a new friend Alex Zweig, purchased some of my best new work. Actually purchased all my best new work from 2013 and 14. Some of these paintings I thought no one would ever buy as they’re very large. I was so thrilled, probably one of the best days of my life when Alex bought about 10 pieces maybe 12 pieces in one day for the highest price I’d ever sold anything for. Crazy thing I still haven’t met Alex. And the paintings are still sitting in my studio. I could have sold a few of them a few times, but would never of course. My love for Alex and what he did runs pretty deep. Hank McNeil I think has 50 drawings from when I was in college and a few paintings from the 80s.
Shaquille O’Neal, Jeffrey Kwatinetz, Kevin Spacey, Dana Brunetti and his friend Michael Whetstone bought quite a bit in the 90s. I guess I get very excited about who’s buying the work. And I always feel like they’re good friends even if they might not be. Deep down I’m so thankful for the support that I get very very excited over each individual. It’s probably why I talk so much.
I can go on and on…I’ve been very very fortunate when it comes to people buying the work. Can’t say I haven’t worked for it though. I sold a lot of paintings just to get by and pay the rent and eat and buy more supplies. I always just pray it can continue.
Speaking of notoriety…from politicians, to athletes, to musicians you’ve painted a LOT of famous people. Who was the most like what you expected them to be and who was the least like what you expected?
It’s a very hard question to answer because I don’t really have too many expectations. I would say I never, or least expected Andy Dick to be so down to earth and giving. He is known publicly for his antics, but down deep he is a generous, funny, outgoing person and a phenomenally caring father from my perspective. He also kicked his habit which is very hard to do and admirable.
I basically get excited saying hi to the local police or pizza guys. I try to act like myself with everyone, and maybe spend too much time listening to others, but hey we all need an ear once in a while. I’ve met a lot of great friends because of the way I stroll around during the day looking for conversation.
Even though I’ve met quite a few “public” figures and sold to a lot of people over time, the real friends are the ones I never “expected” to be so kind and long lasting.
I would say President Clinton and President Bush, and I’d have to put my mother up there, grateful to have the relationship I have with my mother. She gives me advice on everything, who to paint, how to deal with life, etc.
Is there anyone currently on your wish list to paint that you haven’t gotten to yet?
I was asked to paint David Bowie by a friend of his about a year before he passed on. I didn’t know he was sick. I painted Iman in 1988 and sold it that year. I’ve met David with Iman a few times, showed her photos of the piece. Because of that painting, he was looking at my work but never purchased anything or asked me to repaint her. I know I can still always paint him, but I think about the impact his music had on my work. Many many nights I painted listening to his brilliance.
Thanks to your clothing line, Skrapper, a lot more people are able to access your “wearable art” that might not be able to purchase your paintings. While the concept of utilizing tee shirts as a canvas for cultural and political statements is nothing new, you’ve managed to make it all your own…what inspired you to start the line?
Venanzio Ciampa, a former boxer and owner of the Promotion Factory asked me to do a boxer painting in 1999. One commission led to a series of boxers and that went on for about 10 years. When I made the first series I was working with Pete Francis and the band Dispatch from 1999-2005. Pete and Jeremy Miller, who helped Dispatch with shirts, the websites merchandise etc. saw the boxers and suggested that we create a line of t-shirts and start a company together. Skrapper kind of promoted my work and Pete’s music at first, then it started to take on a life of its own.
Our most successful year was when I partnered in 2009 with Katie and Stephanie Theofilos, my neighbors in Soho. They are extremely talented artists, Katie, a photographer, and Steph, a filmmaker, who had an amazing sense of design, were able to somehow execute what was in my head. I owe them and their family a great deal for helping put Skrapper on the map. The inspiration was based on the concept of having an independent source of information that was integrated into fashion. An open line of cultural communication that could be mass produced and an accessible format to make comments independently on the art and fashion world.
In the 80s when I first moved to NYC, fashion and art were intermixed because they went pretty much hand in hand. Creativity was expressed in the nightclubs on a daily basis through a variety of personalities and unexpected costuming by an eclectic group of “IT” people. I loved that about NY. Tuesday night was Saturday night for real Downtown New Yorkers. Much like my work, I want Skrapper to reflect that rawness, freshness and fun.
I also have to thank my new partner Dean Schuss, who I met in 2009, who makes the best shirts I have produced at his company Kilroy Creations. Without Dean there would be no shirts made. He also now makes the MBH shirts!
You’re also quite involved with charity work. Are there any causes or organizations you’d like to bring special attention to here for our readers?
Again, I wish I could do more. When I think of charity I think of homeless kids, the elderly with no health care, education, and soldiers. I strongly support and try to talk about Soldier Ride and the Wounded Warrior Project. I would like to do more for starving kids in urban cities who have dreams not only to eat, but to do something positive with their lives. And of course anyone who is older should have the attention and respect they earned to have proper health care and love. People who work in any of these industries are saints, and we should treat them as such.
We’re thrilled that you’re showing your new work at the MBH this summer and also curating a special group exhibition of east end and Brooklyn-based artists? How did you go about selecting the talent and works for the curated bit?
Well, first off…I’m so thrilled, appreciative, and more than complimented to be asked to do this show. Larry and Jodi, are dear friends, although we just kind of met 5 years ago at Mike’s Seafood in Amagansett. Mike should be a match maker and sell fish on the side lol. I love Walt and Yanni. Walt’s a genius. Yanni I’m getting to know, but the trio and supporting team, including Nic, have done an incredible transition into quite a place. The Montauk Beach House is a sort of paradise and so comforting, I think the whole community love’s it.
Looking at the space and deciding on the artists was pretty easy. All are friends I’ve gotten to know through their work. I thought of Charlie Ly, Sal Termini and Marc Chiat right away. Charlie and Sal are locals who have been out here basically their whole lives. I think their perception of the East End and the “Hamptons” is reflected in their work. It’s only a matter of time before people see how brilliant both artists are, and in different ways. Chiat, I painted with in LA and have known for 28 years. He was away so couldn’t commit right away. So I chose Sam Keller, who is someone I consider so so smart and whose work is so good that eventually he will be a name to be reckoned with in the near future. There are so many good artists working on interesting things. Choosing these 3 this time was pretty easy.
I really wanted to also show Marc Chiat, he may be one of the best artists not showing in the art world, doing work that would be on the level of Rauschenburg or Johns. His film company Red Dog Films, was one of the most successful and smartest companies in LA during the 90s. He has 30 years of amazing work in his LA studio, that keeps getting better each year.
As for your own work, you’ll be unveiling a new take on your famed Skrapper Boxer Series, this time pointing the brush towards the early pioneers of the UFC. What can you reveal to us about these new works in anticipation of the July 14th opening reception?
As you see I like to talk, but on the new paintings…I don’t know much. I just hope the paintings are good. It’s the first time I’m painting boxers since around 2008, give or take a few commissions. I’m trying to instill a strong sense of spontaneity and freedom in abstraction with an overlaying theme of figurative icons like Jack Johnson, Mike Tyson, Ali, McGregor, Anderson Silva.
I wanted to try to make a comment on the agitated transition and change of focus in the sport and the public’s interest. In these paintings, I’m making a comparison between the changing of the guards not only in the sport but in how contemporary art is created and perceived.
I’m thinking of Elsworth Kelly, Kippenberger and Edward Manet all at the same time I’m thinking about Chuck Liddell and trying to read about his history and success. I just think with the expansion and investment into UFA MMA fighting and the public getting more and more hungry for the sport it’s about to explode, if it has not already.
The fact that McGregor is fighting Mayweather kind of proves my point. When I first started painting boxers in 1999 I was trying to educate myself about the sport and the original “Scrappers” who battled in pubs, back room bars first, then rose to heights of stadiums and Madison Square Garden. I come from a humble town in Pennsylvania. The only way most people earned a living was by working hard. When I came to NY I wanted to only paint. In order to do that I had to sell my work for as much as I could get. Skrapper’s motto is “Be prepared emotionally, intellectually and physically to get in the ring. And If it doesn’t excite you, Why Bother?” The Ring is a metaphor for any situation in life that requires commitment. Painting to me became a commitment a long time ago. I knew with artists like Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Goya, Picasso, Hockney, Guston, de Kooning, Hopper, so so many, you get the point, I would have to work. Painting to me is solving a problem.
Last but not least, you’re also giving our infamous MBH MOAI a Quigley makeover. What was your approach to revamping this mystical symbol?
I was overwhelmingly humbled, When Larry and Walt asked me to do this. I literally looked up in the sky and said a nice little prayer. Larry had told me so much about the history of the Ronjo Hotel and the statue. He is an amazing person that is so interesting and knows so much and cares about history. And Walt seems to be able to dissect all of Larry’s intellectual concepts and present them creatively into such sophistication and grace, all while being an incredibly innovative designer. I try to take that approach with my art, especially with the historical relevance so I decided to start studying the MOAI history, mixed with the chronological story of the Ronjo hotel owners Irv and Flo Stuart and what was the function, purpose and reason for the MOAI/Tiki. That is what I hope to reveal upon completion of the piece.
I think also it’s a great gateway to allow other artists to paint on it in the future and further expand on an already growing artistic community out here that is now getting national, maybe even global attention. Seems like Dispatch all over again to me.