A Long Strange Trip: An Intimate Conversation With Actor, Artist and Now Curator Leo Fitzpatrick

photograph by Curtis Buchanan

A little over three years ago, I moved to New York to attend a graduate journalism program at NYU. Though I had wanted to get here forever, the very essence of being here didn’t hit me until I was record shopping at Kim’s Video and Music (RIP) in the East Village when I saw artist, actor, and now, curator Leo Fitzpatrick flipping through the bins. Fitzpatrick, to me, was something of a city landmark for young weirdoes that like fucked up art. As a bored suburban teenager I would look at photographer Patrick O’Dell’s Epicly Later’d blog where photos of Leo with his uber cool friends—from actress Chloe Sevigny to pro skaters like Jason Dill—and I saw a world and a lifestyle that I knew I wanted a part in. Fitzpatrick and his mega-famous artist buddies like the late Dash Snow and Dan Colen were my New York heroes, much like Lydia Lunch and Basquiat were to a previous generation. It wasn’t just about the work; it was the whole wasted freedom of that particular moment in downtown New York's history.

It’s been a long strange trip for Fitzpatrick since he was discovered skateboarding in Washington Square Park at age 14 by Larry Clark to star in the director’s seminal ‘90s troublemaker film Kids. Though he has remained involved in acting on and off ever since (he’s most likely appeared in at least one of your favorite shows: The Wire, Carnivale, Banshee, and a hilarious turn in this past season of Broad City as a misdemeanor prone trust fund man child), art has more or less been his primary passion since he bought his first Chris Johanson piece at age 17. He gained some notoriety for his austere and slightly brutal painting style as well as for his documented friendships with some of the early ‘00s’ most famous wild child artists like the aforementioned Snow and Colen, Nate Lowman, and Ryan McGinley.

But Fitzpatrick may have found his true calling as a curator. What sets him apart is his unbridled passion for the art that he likes. What he doesn’t like is the financial motivations that sometimes overshadow what art is supposed to be. This notion allowed Fitzpatrick to conceptualize the Home Alone and Home Alone 2 galleries with Lowman. The driving force behind the Home Alone concept was that none of the art that Fitzpatrick and Lowman showed was actually for sale. This freedom allowed them to re-imagine the gallery as a hangout. A place where ideas could flow freely and art could be displayed in interesting and surprising ways. Home Alone housed shows by artists like Adam McEwen, Larry Clark, Klara Liden, and others. The problem, of course, became money. With nothing to sell, Fitzpatrick and Lowman were losing money every month Home Alone was alive. And with Lowman’s busy schedule, Fitzpatrick shouldered much of the logistical burden behind the concept. “It’s tricky to hold up a gallery when you’re working with a friend,” says Fitzpatrick. “When we broke up Home Alone, it was mutual, but you can start to resent your partner at some point.”

But thanks to Marlborough Chelsea director Pascal Spengemann and owner Max Levai, the spirit of Home Alone lives on in the Viewing Room, a space set up in the Marlborough Chelsea location where Fitzpatrick has complete creative control and is again not worried about the constraints of selling. “Financially, [Home Alone] kicked our asses,” he says, “With Marlborough, I have support. It’s all the best parts of Home Alone, but with more stability.” In just a few months, the Viewing Room has hosted a show by 80-year old Los Angeles-based artist George Herms, and is currently holding an exhibition by iconic New York photographer Richard Kerns. “It’s his photos from the ‘80s” says Fitzpatrick. “I don’t know what he would call them, but I call them “streetscapes.” They’re all never-before-seen photos.”

After I profiled Fitzpatrick for my Forbes column last winter, he and I became friendly. I’m not going to lie: I look up to the guy. He is a singular example of someone who was able to carve out a place for himself in the art world without any formal training but a whole lot of sheer passion, hard work, and interesting ideas about the industry. We chatted in the Viewing Room about transitioning the Home Alone concept to a commercial gallery.

Adam Lehrer: How did this collaboration with Marlborough Gallery come about?

Leo Fitzpatrick: I wanted to have a body of work that was different. I enjoy discovering. I’m excited to try new things [with art] in an unconventional setting. In this space, I don’t have to worry about selling art. When you free it up like that, it’s exciting for everybody.

AL: Does making art for a gallery space feel as interesting as working in a more guerilla-type setting?

LF: There are benefits to both. I just needed the help. A lot of people remember Home Alone as something bigger than it actually was. But running a gallery is a lot of work. I don’t have the energy to start anything on my own anymore. We closed it at a good time. And I don’t think I could have gotten a job at a gallery before Home Alone.

AL: Do you see more artists trying to move outside of the conventional frame of showing art?

LF: I think people are moving towards finding ways to show art outside of the conventional gallery. Maybe your friend owns a pizzeria—put your art on the walls, and call that a gallery. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

AL: Getting work out there is more detrimental than ever, with the living costs associated with this city.

LF: The problem is finding space. Artists are living in the same spaces that they work in. It limits the kind of work they can produce. Like, a painting is much easier to make than a sculpture because it takes up less space. But I also like the challenge.

AL: Because with challenge, one is automatically forced to think differently in his/her execution?

LF: A lot of my outlook comes from skateboarding. One person might just see some stairs, but a skater sees a lot of options. How do I manipulate this to work for me? That’s how I view the art world. I can’t compete with somebody who has a lot of money or more education than me, so I have to invent a new way to do what I want to do. I’ve probably made some naïve mistakes, but that’s what you have to do.

AL: Chelsea shows have been the same forever. This is a new concept in an established space. Do you think, if it’s successful, it could be pioneering?

LF: It’s an unusual concept, so I don’t know if it will catch on. But I think it’s a great idea. I would support other galleries that wanted to try it. I never understood why the art world was so territorial. Aren’t we all trying to do the same thing? When you start talking about money, that’s when the competition comes in.

AL: How do you see yourself fighting that territorial aspect of the art world?

LF: When I came into the art world, I was a young kid. I was really intimidated by the Chelsea galleries. They were cold to me. I want to create a space for the kids who are curious. Why would you turn someone like that away? I tried to make Home Alone more of a hangout than a gallery. If one kid comes for a free beer, but gets really excited about making art or starting his or her own gallery—I think that’s really cool.

AL: Is it keeping the culture alive in some sense?

LF: Oh, yeah. You have to encourage kids to do their own thing. They can’t just sit around making the kinds of things that are going to be shown in Chelsea. Start your own movement. And kids need a place to talk about their ideas. Art is [about] growing up with your peers.

"Kids are unpolished. They’ll stay out until 4 in the morning and talk to each other and try to take over the art world. I love that kind of thing. Kids fucking up the system—to me, that’s great."

AL: What are the challenges you see for young artists?

LF: With the Internet, everything is so transparent. It must be hard for younger kids not to compare themselves to their friends. If they see their friend selling something for $20,000 and they’re only selling theirs for 10, I don’t think that’s healthy. They won’t be able to concentrate on making the work.

AL: What is your relationship to money?

LF: I have a very funny relationship to money now, especially money in the art world. I understand that it needs to exist, but it’s hard for the art world to thrive. I probably can’t afford the art that’s being shown in the gallery, but I get to hang out with it for a month. For me, the exposure is more important than the money. I just want to start a conversation.

AL: Is the role of curator fulfilling creatively in the same way making art is?

LF: Maybe more so. I get more out of supporting other artists than I do supporting myself. I’m not very ambitious. I don’t really consider myself an artist; it’s just something I do. If I get asked to do an art show, that’s cool. But if I confirm that I’ll be showing an artist that I’ve been trying to get for months, that’s like, “fuck yeah!”

AL: What has been your favorite part of curating?

LF: Hanging an art show is more satisfying to me than anything. I always tell the artists to not worry about the art they give me. My job is to make it seamless. They get to make whatever they want to make, and I figure it out. And I’ve loved experimenting with how the show is going to look. You want the art to get exposure, but you don’t want it to be too conventional.

AL: Is showing artists that you feel are under-appreciated important to you at all?

LF: That’s not always the case. I’ve done shows with artists who have had a lot of exposure. But I prefer otherwise. George Herms is an 80–year-old from California. He’s a dying breed. He’s a photographer, a sculptor, and a painter. His whole life embodies art. I want this show to set the tone for the rest of the gallery.

AL: Are there other curators that inspire you?

LF: Not really, no. But I do follow a lot of little galleries. I like to support the underdogs. These little galleries are the underdogs, and they’re doing really cool stuff. If I was to compare myself to contemporaries, I would compare myself to these tiny, scrappy galleries that are just trying to get by. I’m not trying to compete with a big gallery.

AL: But if that did prove to be the evolution of it, would you be opposed to it?

LF: As long as you keep your heart in the right place. But I don’t think about competing with the art world. I have ambition, but that doesn’t mean making money. It means putting on great shows that leave people scratching their heads. I also want to prove people wrong. To the people who say, “You can’t do that,” I say, “Let me try.”

AL: Have you had to attune your business savvy to deal with those challenges, or are you letting Pascal and Matt take care of that?

LF: No, I do everything. If you’re a smaller gallery, people might be more eager to help you out than if you’re a more established Chelsea gallery. So we’ve gotten a lot of support. But I deal with a lot of rejections.

AL: For all of your lack of pretentiousness and mellow attitude towards what you do, the name Leo Fitzpatrick is one that is known in the New York art world. Are people starting to recognize you for your connection to the art world as much as your acting career?

LF: Kids have come up to me on the street. At first, I thought they were going to talk to me about my acting, but then they said, “We really like Home Alone.” To me, that was the best feeling in the world. I think of acting and the art world as two different careers. And if you’re not going to sell your art, a kid stopping you on the street to say they like your work keeps you going.

AL: How do you go into choosing work for the gallery?

LF: The work has to excite me first. Everything I show gives me a gut reaction. There aren’t any politics to it. It’s not the artist who is hot at the moment. I’d rather show people who aren’t in the limelight, and give them the exposure. I’ll do more research, dig in the trenches, and try to find artists who were forgotten or who don’t get the respect they deserve. Hopefully, the rest of the audience will find it interesting, too.

AL: What you do makes people realize that it is possible not to come from a certain world or scene, and still be able to do what you want to do.

LF: For sure. I think we need to give these guys a little heat. If you can’t compete on their level, and you still attempt to create (whether it be art or a gallery or whatever), that shows that you have a lot of drive and hunger. From the beginning, you’re setting yourself up for failure, but you say, “Fuck, I’m going to do it anyway.” That’s awesome.

AL: You once said to me that the art world needs a grimy side. Do you think griminess can exist in this Chelsea system?

LF: Grimy can mean so many things. I think it’s the youth that will provide the “griminess.” Kids are unpolished. They’ll stay out until 4 in the morning and talk to each other and try to take over the art world. I love that kind of thing. Kids fucking up the system—to me, that’s great. It’s probably a good idea to get on those kids’ sides.

AL: How should they go about that?

LF: A kid just reached out to me from London and said—“Hey, I want to do a Home Alone in London.” You don’t need my permission. You can even use the title Home Alone. I don’t own it. It’s just an idea. You can sell art out of the back of your car and call it a gallery. Just fucking do it, man.

You can catch Leo Fitzpatrick's current curated show, Viewing Room: Richard Kern, at Marlborough Chelsea until December 23, 2015. You can follow Leo on Instagram: @lousyleo. text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Follow Autre on Instagram to stay up to date: @AUTREMAGAZINE

Leo Fitzpatrick and Richard Kern by Adam Lehrer