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The Color-Blind Artist Teaching Others to See the World with New Eyes

Art should inspire you to think differently, and Daniel Arsham’s imaginative work does just that.


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Daniel Arsham’s studio, like his art, is a study in contrasts: From the outside, it is a dingy warehouse in a Queens, New York, neighborhood populated mostly by trucks, but inside it is intensely organized and stylized. It might pass for the office of a design firm or a creative agency in SoHo, if not for the bizarre, Willy Wonka–esque curios at every turn: A series of stone basketballs. A bust of the singer Usher, which Arsham made for an album cover. A DeLorean, the Back to the Future car, in the process of being dismantled so it can be cast in plaster. As we speak, a team of assistants chisel at cement sculptures of ’80s boom boxes, weathering them just so.

This confusion of old and new is Arsham’s signature. His best-known sculptures take highly recognizable forms, like a boxing glove or a Casio keyboard, and turn them into crumbling artifacts, like something you might see in the antiquities section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—or like relics of a future war. In making them, he strips them of color, perhaps a reflection of his own color blindness.

“When you’re able to provide people with reimagination of their everyday, it can be a transformation for them,” Arsham says. Slight and soft-spoken, he favors black outfits with black baseball caps, which make him look younger than 37, and wire-frame glasses, which make him look older than 37. (He is 37.) You get the sense that his studio’s meticulousness is reflected in all aspects of his life.

In 2007, Arsham cofounded an architecture firm, Snarkitecture, that became known for subversive, out-of-this-world designs, such as a private airplane wrapped entirely in a blue gradient (covering all the windows, even the pilot’s), so that it would disappear against the sky. The firm has also designed boutiques for hip clothing lines like COS, Odin, and Kith, and won awards for its contributions to the stadium of the Miami Marlins. Arsham points across his studio to the desks dedicated to Snarkitecture. “The only difference between the two, in terms of the way I think about them, is that all the objects on this side of the room don’t have any specific purpose,” he says. Which is one way to define art.

Throughout his career, Arsham’s art has been about separating objects from their function— basketballs that don’t bounce, electric keyboards that don’t play—to allow for independent appraisal of the forms around us. He credits YoungArts, a major developer of talent in Miami, his hometown, for helping him find that voice. Now he and a collaborator, the choreographer Jonah Bokaer, have themselves become YoungArts mentors. They frequently return to Miami to teach classes to elementary school children that merge sculpture with dance. (Arsham used to work for Merce Cunningham.) In his classes, Arsham says, the students build sculptures from whatever they have, including cell phones, shoes, and pencils.

“I have two young children, and they often think about objects in such an amazing way,” Arsham says. “It’s difficult to remember how to do that.” This is the kind of thinking he tries to encourage both in his art and in his role as an educator. Arsham tends to keep away from the standard patter about how arts education increases lateral creativity and instead points to how practical such classes can be. He recently visited Cornell’s technology education center in New York City and was shocked by the extent to which it was similar to art school: no classes, a focus on collaboration, and even “crits,” that dreaded art school scenario in which a whole class discusses each student’s work.

Just as keenly as Arsham finds art in the practical, he finds the practical in art. “A lot of people may not know, in the shows they watch on their Netflix binges, how many of the people who work on those shows went to art school, in one form or another, and have an arts degree,” he says. “Everything you hold and touch has been carefully designed.”

This is the goal of all of his work: to make you think more about the phone in your hand and the ground on which you walk, to make you see the world with fresh eyes. Another definition of art.

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