JONATHAN MEADER has printed a second Unicorn. The first one, which he silk-screened in 1972, reclines in silver moonlight upon a figured rug beneath a blue-leafed tree. It seems a pensive beast. The second just completed, stands erect in triump before a blazzing sky. Those who know the workings of the Washington art market understand its stance of victory and pride.
The Unicorns of Meadre are - if one counts dollars - among this city's most successful works of art.
Meticulously printed subtly colored, well packaged and promoted they are no longer cheap. When Unicorn One was new, and Meader was still poor, the artist sold his prints to anyone who wanted them for $50 apeice. The asking price today, if one comes up for sale is $1,500. That's a 30-fold appreciation in only five years.
The price of Unicorn Two is ascendant. Before the inks were dry reach new Unicorn displays 47 colors, beforethe prints were seen (or signed or numbered).Meader had sold 50 of an edition of 100. The price just a few days ago was $150. It has already risen to $400.
Meader, 34, is among the most successful artists working in this city. He is not rich - far from it - but he no longer scuffles. He has bought a rundown rowhouse, which he is restoring. He holds no outside job. In 1975, his best year so far, he earned, after expenses, almost $40,000. Those who know the art world here shake their heads in awe at such figures. They know that Jonathan Meader is among the very few artists in this city who makes a reasonable living from the sale of his art.
Washington regards itself as an art center. It prides itself on its great collectors (Paul Mellon, Duncan Phillips) and on its steady stream of international exhibits. Priceless pictures hang in its museums, and the muse who hovers over painters of "importance" has been here once or twice. The local Yellow Pages lists more than 100 galleries and dealers. (One dealer, Harry Lunn, whose specially is photographs, has grossed as much as $1 million a year).
And the art scene here supports - if that is the right word - more than 1,00o artists. Many are highly gifted. Some are famous. Almost all are poor.
The average suburban household in, say, Fairfax County, has a disposable income according to a survey by Sales and Marketing Management of more than $25,000 a year. That's an average, after taxes. The average "successful" Washington artist would consider himself fortunate to earn a third as much.
When one considers their expenses - studio space, storage, materials, transportation - it is difficult to find artists in this city who earn as much as $10,000 a year from the sale of their art.
I am not speaking here of the two or three exceptions, the older stars, Gene Davis, say, whose pictures cost as much as $20,000, nor of the younger artists, the kids just out of art school, still struggling to earn a first or second show.
Instead I am referring to local artists in their 30s who, by local standards, have already "made it". They may show in fine museums, their works may be admired by critics and collectors, they may have earned a bit of fame - but I know of none, save Meader, who have cleared as much from selling art as $18,000 a year.
Some survive by teaching, some do commercial art work, some take outside jobs. They all are art professionals, and their lives aren't unrewarding. They are paid in freedom, perhaps in prestige. All enjoy the glimpses of the beautiful, the feeling of accomplishment, the social mobility and psychic independence that are the artist's perks. But perks won't pay the rent.
It is a lousy way to earn a living. It is a job without security, health insurance, pension. Galleries often take 50 per cent commissions. Studios space is costly, and so are brushed, paints and canvas. Some craftsmen, photographers, commercial artists and designers earn a decent living. And artists who have teaching jobs consider themselves lucky. Works of art are luxurious with small intrinsie value. Were it not forteaching, part-time jobs or gifts, the majority of those who live from making art would almost always be on the verge of going broke.
Earlier this year, on the Rivera, a work by Ed McGowin won the "Oscar de la Peinture," a special prize awarded to an artist under 45 by the government of France. McGowin teaches at the Corcoran School of Art in order to survive. "I tremble," says the artist, "when I think of my expenses. I'll tell you a story. I worked more than a year on the three-dimensional tableaux included in my one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery Art. I bought an airplane for one piece, I built a full-sized wooden cabin for another. When the show was sent to Texas, I couldn't afford to ship it, so I packed it carefully, rented a truck and drove it there myself. When the show came down, I told the curator I couldn't ship it home. I didn't have the cash. She called a scrap dealer. He hauled my work, the plane, the cabin, the bed and other things, from the art museum directly to the junkyard. Later I received a check for $18. I cashed it. I didn't have the presence of mind to save it."
"We needed the money," said Claudia De Monte, McGowin's wife, hereself an artist. (She teaches at the University of Maryland.) "I earned $400 last year from my art," she said, "and I spent $2,800 making it."
Rockne Krebs is recognized as one of Washington's finest artists. Krebs has often worked at the scales of the city with sunbeams and with lasers. He has a national reputation (in part because he's on the road as much as 300 days a year.) He has received some large commissions (the Omni International in Atlanta paid him $20,000 for his installation, but that job took three years). Krebs is a success, but his expenses are so high, his sales are so rare, he has never cleared more than $16,000 a year. "I never really think about how poor I am," he says. "I think I'm on the brink of making some big bucks, but until the last two years I often found myself absolutely broke. I used to show at the Jefferson Place Gallery, I wanted to show so badly I was tickled at the chance to do the work, even if it earned me less than $2 an hour." Because Kerbs works with light and machinery he rents, many of his larger works no longer exist. When he pulls the plug, they're gone. "Of the 38 major pieces I've made in the last 10 years, two still exist. Perhaps I ought tostart making still-lifes of flowers." Kreb does not teach. But he has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Stern family of Washington, the Cassandra and Guggenheim Foundations. "They've allowed me to survive."
At the same time international exhibition inthe south of France in which McGowin won his Oscar. Washington's Rebecca Davenport earned third prize for painting. (No other American artists had ever been among the winners at that annual art fair.) Davenport notes that a 10-yard roll of inexpensive canvas costs $43,70, that the same amount of linen sells for $96 that the oil paints she uses might cost $4 a tube. "I also pay for stretchers, But the big expense is time. I might work for four months, eight hours a day, on a single painting and if I do not sell it, what have I to show fof the effort and the time?" Her pictures do sell well, and her prices now are climbing, but she has never cleared as much as $10,000 a year.
Allen Appel, the painter, photographer and collage maker, has been active in the art world here for the past 10 years. "I had my wildest successes in 1973 and 1974 - not from the commercial illustration that I did on commission for The Washington Post's Potomac magazine. I'd get about $150 a picture. The first year of my wild success I made $6,000, the second year I earned $9,000. I thought I was doing great. The other time I realized how poor I was when my wife sued me for alimony. They did a financial sheet on me and asked me how much I spent each year on clothing. I figured it out. I'd bought a pair of workshoes at a surplus shop, some underwear and socks. I told them the truth. They didn't believe me."
Allan Bridge, a gifted color painter, an imginative sculptor, earns his living as a carpenter. Despite the beauty of his paintings he has never earned enough to buy his food or pay his rent from the sales of his art. "For most artists in this city it's a marginal existence. We work for the right not to have to work. We do art because we can't not do art. The freedom to make art is a significant freedom. I'd hate to be a bank teller. A lot of art is concerned with defeating mortality. Whoelse, except the artists, can leave monuments to themselves? But you cannot eat romance. We have no money, no security, no stability. We're often disappointed. We feel victimized by the market Art isn't fun, it's work. In American Success terms, most of us are failures. Jonathan Meader is a notable exception. And what is most notable about him is that he's done it by himself. He doesn't fit into a slot in the Official Art Machine, and the Esatblishment, in fact, doesn't take him all that seriously. But he is a master of his craft, he understand his marke, he works all the time. And he sells his art."
Meader understands pricing marketing the operation of galleries the techniques of silkscreen printing, promotion, presentation, the art world and the world of art that lies outside the art world. For 10 years he's been learning. He's had many teachers, and he's paid many dues.
Many in the world smiled at young Jonathan when in 1967 he began to show them the drawings he had made. With his shoulder-length blond hair, his jeans and leather jacket, he seemed something of a hippie, notable, perhaps, for his intensity, his questioning, and his painstaking technique. His images have always tended toward the magical - toward transparent doors in solid walls, animals with human thoughts, deserts, gardens, spacescapes, moons and men with wings. Tough abstract art, in those days, ruled the '60s art scene, but Meader drew his visions with another audience in mind.
"In 1969," says Meader. "I took four of my drawings - the flying man, the rhino gazing at the stars - and had offset posters made. Then I toured the head shops, selling them the posters. They were supposed to retail for $5 apiece. I'd get $2 or $3. It was nickel-and-dime stuff. Everybody told me how to 'improve' my work. The shops were always going bankrupt. Then in November, 1969, I discovered Lou Stovall's Workshop and through Lou, silkscreen printing. The process intimidated me. I was living, literally in a closet. The offsets looked well, cheap. I figured I should learn how to make my prints myself. Lou gave me some studio space. I got a small grant from Phil Stern, and bought some inks and paper. Then I went to work."
When he published "Inside," his first portfolio of silkscreens, the six prints is contained were packaged in a handmade cardboard box. Meader, who hates blemishes, fingerprints, stray specks of dust, does most of his own framing. His pictures, even framed are sold vaccum-wrapped in plastic.
"Presentation," he explains "is extraordinary important." His presentation was at once sleek and highly personal. With every poster sold, be it a $2 poster or a $50 print. Meader gave the buyer something of himself. He hung out with his customers. He told them of his images, his friends, techniques, experiences and dreams. Buying art is nicest if one knows and likes the artist. Thought he signed his silkscreens "Ascian," which he would explaain, means "he who casts no shadow," his shadow graced his work. Collectors saw their Meaders as Meader souvenirs.
And with every show and every sale he would build hisaaudience. He gave of his time to scores of local artists, he helped them frame their pictures, he showed his friends their work, and as he shared, he learned. He was always asking questions, of dealers and museum folk of critics and collectors. He worked with local galleries, organizing shows, until he had learned well the subtle art of dealing.
"You must never," he insists, "let prices go too high." Today one can buy Meaders for $2 or $1,500. His first Unicorn was printed in an edition of 81, but since then it has been seen in countless reproductions. He's done record covers, buttons, greetings cards and posters. "Reproduction of my work have spread all over the owrld," he says. "I've talked to people who have seen them in airports and in galleries and in Katmandu. They dontbring me much money. But there is no way I can calculate how much the publicity is worth."
Unlike Rebecca Davenport, who may work for weeks on passages of single paintings. Meader makes multiples. Unlike Krebs or McGowin, whose works often require special sites and lighting and complex installations, Meader offers smaller pictures, frequently already framed, that fit into a bedroom, that look nice on the wall.
Unlike Bridge or Appel, who, when they get lucky, do one stow at a time, Meader avoids exhibitions and, instead, supplies some 20 different dealers. Unlike many screenprints, Meader's have a high finish. At a glance one sees that they've been made with extraordinary care. "There are two major reasons for my success," he says. "My images are marketable." And I make them in quantity."
"How does an artist 'make it'? He gets a teaching job," says Appel. But American universities are now grinding out art teachers for whom no jobs are available. "The best thing for a younger artist would be to work as an apprentice," says Rockne Krebs. "I'd love to have apprentices. I know that I could help them. But there is no way I can hire them I just don't have the cash. So instead they wait on tables."
"Artists don't make didly. For every Rauschenberg or Warhol, there are 1,000 who won't make it," says Bridge, Meader is an exception. He did not go to art school, he is not a pet of the Establishment, he need not hold odd jobs. He makes a living from his art.