Seven Questions for Work of Art Judge Bill Powers

Bill Powers purchased his first work of art—a Terry Richardson photo of “ToeJam the Clown”—in 1998, shortly after taking the editorial helm of Blackbook. Since then, he’s built an art collection that includes works by Richard Prince, Elizabeth Peyton, Dana Schutz, and Irving Penn; opened New York’s Half Gallery with partners Andy Spade and James Frey; and co-founded Exhibition A, the online art hub that offers affordable editions by some of the big names on Powers’ own walls. Tonight he is back on Bravo to dispense more good-natured yet constructive criticism on the cable network’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. So which of the new contestants should we keep an eye out for? “We’ve got Michelle, who has worked for Marilyn Minter and had also been an assistant to Josephine Meckseper. It’s interesting to see someone with that background,” he says. “Or Kathryn, who went to Yale grad school for photography, versus a toymaker, The Sucklord. I think it really is a nice spectrum.” We chatted with Powers about the reaction to Work of Art, the judging process, and what’s in store for the new season (KAWS!).

1. How would you characterize the reaction—particularly that of the art world—to the first season of Work of Art?
I understand people’s skepticism. I mean, it is reality TV, right? Personally, I was really flattered at how many contemporary artists I admire watched the first season, whether it’s Cecily Brown or Rob Pruitt or Jeff Koons or Rachel Feinstein. That meant a lot to me that those people would watch and get into it. People said that the show reminded them a lot of grad school and that a lot of the personalities and the work that was produced was reminiscient of that. There’s always somebody getting naked. There’s always somebody tackling social issues. And there’s a photographer, who’s probably better suited to commercial photography, making fine art pictures.

2. Are there certain aspects of season two that you think will surprise people?
I was always surprised by the range of materials employed, and what somebody can make in four or five hours is pretty impressive. And I would ask viewers to remember that it’s a lot of pressure to say, “OK, here’s the theme of the show this week, now make something and we’re going to show it tomorrow as if we’re picking people for the next Venice Biennale.” I feel like people at home or on blogs sometimes can be looking at this work as if someone had a year in their studio to make it. They have five or six hours sometimes to make what you’re seeing. I know that’s part of being a part of a competition series, but to see something that you like and that someone made in a few hours? Most working artists today spend weeks if not months putting together a piece. I think that people are, if I can borrow a term from Jerry [Saltz], “demonstrating radical vulnerability” by their participation on the show.

3. The first season featured a great line-up of guest judges, such as Andres Serrano and Michele Oka Doner. Who can we expect to see this season?
Adam McEwen is going to be on a challenge. He was fantastic to have on the show. Also, KAWS. Mary Ellen Mark is the guest judge on the first episode. I think she just shot Tony Bennett for The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve always loved her Ward 81 or Falkland Road. I think it’s a nice mix to have some photographers, painters, more conceptual artists. To have KAWS on there, who has also dabbled in the toy world, I thought was interesting, juxtaposed with the The Sucklord as an artist competing on the show.

4. What is the most difficult thing about judging the works created for the challenges?
I think it’s easy to give a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down on a piece, but to explain why something is boring can be a challenge. I mean, if somebody puts a thumbtack on a wall and calls it art, what do you say about why it is or isn’t art? And I think that there’s such a reliance today on interpretation that the whole kind of deconstructionist mindset, the Duchampian notion of what art can be, has made found object pieces a lot more challenging to critique.

5. When you are evaluating the work produced for the challenges, are you considering it in the context of the artist’s oeuvre—the other works that you’ve seen thus far, his or her portfolio—or are you thinking only about the challenge at hand and that particular piece?
I did not see a lot of people’s portfolios the first day we started, so for me, it’s looking at it with as fresh an eye as the viewer at home would.

6. As a judge, you have the opportunity to speak with the artists about the work that they’ve created for the challenges. How much does that factor in to your decision?
I think it’s more that people can save themselves with a good backstory. Personally, I think there is a real bias against toys or action figures in the art world, and so, with someone like The Sucklord, that’s interesting to test what those parameters and prejudices are.

7. Do you watch any other reality TV shows, besides Work of Art?
I guess Prohibition on PBS doesn’t count. Well, when my wife [Cynthia Rowley] has been on Project Runway, I watched. I don’t know if I actively do watch any reality competition series. Probably the closest I get to reality TV is 60 Minutes.