Mason Saltarrelli: The Gallery Artist Making Direct-to-Consumer Art
The abstract painter is making accessible art for emotionally turbulent times.
By Samuel Hine
November 2, 2020
The artist at work in his Williamsburg, Brooklyn, studio.
From GQ’s November 2020 issue, The Big Pivot explores how nimble businesspeople in companies large and small—from an Austin, TX drive-in to an abstract painter to an Atlanta bookseller dedicated to Black literature—created communities and gave us hope in the middle of the pandemic. See all the stories here.
When New York’s lockdown forced 41-year-old artist Mason Saltarrelli to set up his easel at home, he began painting a series of abstract hairdos. By early May he had completed 15 of them, all displaying the deceptive simplicity and economy of color that have made the former Julian Schnabel assistant a star among New York’s emerging abstractionists. Then the canvases piled up and he ran out of space in his apartment. So he ordered some sketchbooks and turned his attention to a series of strange and enigmatic colored-pencil drawings, a project he calls Paper Fables. “It was a way to stay busy,” he says, “but not be producing so much stuff around me.” Every couple weekends, he posts new work on the Instagram account @paper_fables, where he sells them via DM for $333 each.
Saltarrelli has built his career within the gallery system, elevating his profile most recently with an exhibition of collaborative paintings with Danish wunderkind Farshad Farzankia at Turn Gallery in New York. His paintings sell for many thousands of dollars. But he discovered a newfound freedom in the direct-to-consumer model. His art was able to reach people for whom the gallery world is inaccessible, bypassing the elitism and exclusiveness and creating a more accessible path. “Over the years I’ve had people contact me through email or Instagram to ask if they could buy something, and I would just refer them to the galleries I work with. But a lot of the people that reach out don’t necessarily have the funds to buy something through the gallery,” Saltarrelli says, noting that a nurse in New Jersey recently bought two of his drawings.
The bloated state of the art system has long been a concern for Saltarrelli. “I’ve thought for a long time there are too many galleries. I’ve been saying that for years.” Pair that with the unprecedented access machine of social media, and contemporary art starts looking like a mess. “It felt like there was a point before this when you couldn’t even see what was good or bad anymore, you just saw what got attention,” Saltarrelli says. “And that’s depressing when it comes to art.”
Courtesy of Mason Saltarrelli
Courtesy of Mason Saltarrelli
Those concerns were only exacerbated during the pandemic, a time that highlighted the critical role art can play in our lives. “People are lost in stresses and anxieties. I don’t want to add to it. I would rather give someone a break,” Saltarrelli says. And his drawings, rendered in eye-catching, ’Gram-friendly colors, invite thoughtful meditation. “Just like my paintings, the drawings are just open-ended enough that somebody can create their own narrative off of it,” Saltarrelli says. “And that’s what I love about abstract art—that it becomes a springboard for the person who is looking at the work to explore themselves and their own thoughts and go somewhere else. I respect good figuration, but to me I don’t want to have control over what the person is going to feel from the work. I let them experience themselves through the work.”
Paper Fables has created a new kind of connection between Saltarrelli and his audience during the pandemic, but it’s also created a new kind of relationship between himself and his work. “Sometimes when you’re dealing with the gallery side and sale side of things, you can kind of forget why you cared about making work in the first place. When you’re younger and you’re making work and not able to sell it, you’re really facing why it is you are making it, and then it’s really easy to get distracted once you’re working with a gallery. Your thoughts become: how do I sustain this? This is a way of forgetting all of that and just being very loose about what my practice is and why I got into it in the first place, which was just to explore.”