October 28, 1957 |
James Siena (born October 28, 1957) is an American contemporary artist based in New York City. His art is typically created through a series of self-imposed constraints also sometimes referred to as visual algorithms —rules Siena decides on before sitting down to work. In most of his work he establishes a basic unit and action and repeats it indefinitely. Siena commented that, "at a certain point I wanted to make drawings and works that act as machines. The way they act as machines is you have to find your way into them and find your way out of them. As you undo the making of them they come to life."
Early Years and Influences
James Siena was born in Oceanside, California in 1957 but lived and grew up in Washington D.C. until the age of 12, when his family moved to California in 1969. He moved to New York in 1975 to attend Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He received his Bachelors of Fine Art (BFA) in 1979 from Cornell.
Asked to name the teacher who most influenced him, Siena quickly cites Mary Croston, an after-school art instructor who taught him as a teenager. Croston treated her young students as “real” artists, says Siena, introducing them to such tools as charcoal and graphite and coaching them in figure drawing. “She just taught the basics; that was very influential,” he says of those classes in the “art hut” behind Croston’s house in Stanford, California. Siena also remembers being “very moved” by the late Peter Kahn, who taught the history of techniques at Cornell. According to Siena, “He was a marvelous Renaissance man” who taught his students such skills as determining whether paper is archival quality and making ink out of toast crumbs and saliva.
When Siena opted to move to New York rather than attend graduate school after finishing his B.F.A. at Cornell University, he found plenty of mentors in the local art community. He was impressed by the “very independent, visionary spirit” of Alan Saret, who took him to the scrap yard and taught him about working with metal. Chuck Close helped him understand “very obvious stuff” like how to approach a relationship with a gallery (Close likened it to a “conversation”) and how to maximize earnings from day jobs to spend more time painting. Before being able to become an artist full-time Siena supported himself as a frame maker.
Prior to becoming an established and recognized visual artist, James Siena was known for his performance art, which included singing and rapping with his now ex-wife Iris Rose and Chazz Dean. Most notably he appeared on Cinemax's TV series "Dangerous Film Club" during the 1987 season of the show.
Rise to Notoriety
Siena started making abstract paintings with an aesthetic that sought inspiration from Artificial Intelligence (AI). For years he has been investigating the imaginary space of programmers' source and patterns through paint. At first glance the images could be labeled as decorative puzzles or labyrinths but there is a logic base for each painting. Siena's first major solo show was held at the Brooklyn, NY gallery, Pierogi 2000 in 1996. His first solo museum exhibition took place in 2003 at the San Francisco Art Institute Gallery. Since then he's had numerous solo shows including at Gorney Bravin + Lee in New York, Daniel Weinberg Gallery in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and The Pace Gallery in New York.
His work has been featured in over 50 group exhibitions, including most notably the Whitney Museum of American Art's 2004 Whitney Biennial. Siena has had work either reviewed or published in the following publications: Art in America, The New York Times, The New Yorker, ARTnews, The Art Newspaper, The Village Voice, New York Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Art on Paper.
In Patricia Phillips, chair of the Department of Art, Cornell University; letter of Siena's nomination for the 2009-10 Eissner Artist of the Year Award, she wrote:
"James Siena is one of the most inventive, independent, focused and prolific artists working today. … Thirty years after he received his B.F.A. from Cornell, Siena has emerged as one of the art world's internationally respected leaders. … [He] balances the traditions of 20th–21st century abstraction with a maverick sensibility to craft salient, if speculative, insights on the contemporary world, and the intricate workings of human perception."
Becoming more rare among notable artists, Siena uses no assistants in the creation of his paintings and drawings.
James Siena has been represented by The Pace Gallery since 2004.
Lecturer and Teacher
- Washington University in St. Louis; St. Louis, Missouri (2012)
- School of Visual Arts; New York City, New York (2010, 2003)
- Pratt Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute; New York City, New York (2010)
- Cornell University; Ithaca, New York (2010)
- Museum of Modern Art; New York City, New York(2009)
- Virginia Commonwealth University; Richmond, Virginia (2009, 2002, 1999)
- Cooper Union School of Art; New York City, New York (2009)
- Cleveland Institute of Art; Cleveland, Ohio (2004, 2013)
- San Francisco Art Institute; San Francisco, California (2003)
- Skidmore College; Saratoga Springs, New York (2000)
Siena also completed several artist-in-residency program, most notably at the Yaddo artist community (located in Saratoga Springs, New York) in 2004, and was elected a Member of the Board at Yaddo in 2008. He completed a residence in October 2012 as the Arthur L. and Sheila Prensky Island Press Visiting Artist at Washington University in St. Louis.
“I don’t make marks. I make moves.”
“When I make a painting, I respond to a set of parameters, like a visual algorithm. These structuring devices are subject to the fallibility of my hand, and my mind’s ability to complete the work as planned.”
“I think my paintings are for unlocking thought, in some way. But I think they’re also about giving satisfaction – looking at something that is satisfying, and yet unusual."
James Siena has received several awards during his tenure as a professional visual artist. Some notable awards are listed below:
- 2009-2010 Eissner Artist of the Year Award, Cornell University
- 2000 Award in Art, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
- 1999 Lewis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award
- 1996 Visiting Artist State University of New York at Albany
- 1995 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Painting
- 1994 Fellowship in Painting, New York Foundation for the Arts
- 1979 Charles Goodwin Sands Medal, Cornell University
- 1977 Edward Durrell Stone Award, Cornell University
James Siena is known for having a wide variety of prints and lithographs made available of his work from some of the most recognized art presses; including Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), Tamarind Institute, Harlan & Weaver and Pace Prints. In particular, Harlan & Weaver have published several individual prints and two portfolios of nine prints with Siena. The close proximity of their studios has helped to foster an enduring working relationship. Prints by James Siena have been featured in five New Print Shows by the International Print Center New York (IPCNY) since 2000.
Siena was invited to ULAE by Larissa Goldston in the summer of 2003. Although he had been making prints for years, he came to ULAE specifically to explore stone lithography.
A complete list of printmakers that Siena has issued prints under can be found in the External Links section of this article.
James Siena has contributed illustrations or accompanying prints for several books. The first, a collection of poems by Geoffrey Young, first published in 1996, "Pockets of Wheat" contains camera reduction images of James Siena's intricate 60" X 40" black-and-white ink drawings, including the cover illustration. In 2003, Siena also contributed artwork to another book of poems by Geoffrey Young, entitled "Lights Out", published by the small press, The Figures.
Printed in 2005 was a limited edition of 200 copies of "Spring" (an excerpt from a larger work entitled, "The Weather") by Kenneth Goldsmith. Siena contributed five 2-color wood engravings with each book. Each book is signed by the author, Kenneth Goldsmith and Siena. Edition was published by Didymous Press, a moniker used by INC, inc. for their self-published works.
Another book project, published in 2009 by Granary Books, is a limited edition of 50 copies titled, "Oaths? Questions?" in partnership with Marjorie Welish. This book of poetry by Welish is really a collaboration with Siena's artwork and the words, printed on transparent pages plays off of the artwork. James Siena commented about the book:
"To summarize an Artist’s Book in a statement raises questions as to its very utility. But there were needs to be met in my first collaboration with Marjorie Welish, and they can be verbalized. So: no summary, just a run-down of issues and urges. Among them was the urgent desire to make something quite unlike a print, painting, or drawing. To make a Book in all its Bookness, sequential, teleological, inevitable. As well as strange, of course. To tell the story of a making of something, to undo it, page by page. So this book takes us apart and puts us back together again, none the worse for wear, but certainly not the same as before. And the words offer hints to the truth (oaths) and doubts about them as well (questions). Their very transparency evidences the debt they owe to the wordless visual." - James Siena
The art gallery BravinLee has also issued two series of hand-knotted wool rugs based on James Siena designs. The rugs are similar to artworks in that they are made in limited numbered quantities along with artists proofs and each is signed by the artist. The two designs are entitled Global Key, 2009 (Edition of 15 + 2 APs) and Nine Constant Windows, Second Version, 2009 (Edition of 18 + 2 APs).
James Siena also runs a small project gallery called: Sometimes (Works of Art) located on Canal Street. When asked when and why he decided to open an art gallery, Siena responded, "It was in the fall of 2009, as the art world was at its nadir; galleries were closing, artists weren't selling, pessimism abounded. I decided the time was ripe for and artist-driven response to all this, and to make something happen outside the gallery system. Shows would be longer; there would be music or performances at the openings; events during the run of the show would be encouraged (readings, music, discussion), and the artist, if possible, would sit the gallery on the one day per week it would be open. That way, viewers would meet the person who made the work, thus encouraging a new kind of interaction."
Artists whose work has been shown at the gallery include, David Brody, Tim Maul, Aura Rosenberg, Dan Schmidt, Peter Scott, and Fred Valentine. As Time Out New York magazine comments, "This tiny, artist-run space has no website but showcases venerable artists established on the New York scene. One example of the proprietor's collection of antique typewriters is on view at all times in the gallery."
In 1989 Siena partnered with Conrad Cummings in writing Photo Op, a 60min long contemporary opera. Siena wrote the words (libretto) and Cummings the music. In 2012, UrbanArias, a local Washington DC-based company that specializes in small-scale, contemporary, and experimental operas staged a production of Photo Op. UrbanArias’ producer/conductor Robert Wood notes that, although Siena and Cummings wrote Photo Op in 1989, “the immediacy of this opera 20 years later is uncanny.” That’s because it’s so clichéd. Maybe we should blame the politicians more than the librettist; they are, after all, the ones who keep getting caught in their zippers.
Works in Museums & Institutions
Works by James Siena are part of the permanent collection of the following museums/institutions:
- Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Me.
- Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Me.
- Daum Museum of Contemporary Art, Sedalia, Mo.
- Des Moines Art Center
- Hammer Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles
- Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
- McNay Art Museum, San Antonio
- Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
- Miami Art Museum
- Milwaukee Art Museum
- Minneapolis Institute of Arts
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
- Museum of Modern Art, New York
- Philip Morris Collection, New York
- Progressive Corporation, Cleveland
- San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
- Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln, Neb.
- Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.
- Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
- Yale University Art Gallery; New Haven, Conn.
Works by James Siena have been sold by all the major auction houses including Christie's, Sothebys, Bonhams, Phillips de Pury & Company and Freeman's Auctioneers & Appraisers. Siena's most expensive work sold to date at auction was an enamel on aluminum painting entitled, "Blue Line Rectangle" (1994). It had a pre-auction estimate of $20,000-$30,000 and sold for $40,000 on November 9, 2011 at Christie's.
James Siena is married to artist Katia Santibañez. They were featured jointly in the Ferrin Gallery's group show, COUPLES from 2010. Siena splits his time between homes in western Massachusetts (the Berkshires) and New York City and maintains a studio on Canal Street.
Siena is also known for his affinity towards, knowledge and collection of vintage typewriters and has commented that he owns over 100 typewriters and enjoys the sometimes novel approaches earlier manufacturers took in solving problems or creating enhancements to their typewriters.
Sofer, Ken. “Atelier Conversations.” Art News (Summer 1987).
Arning, Bill. “Art Reviews: James Siena-Pierogi 2000” (exhibition review). Time Out New York, 28 November–5 December 1996: 47, illustrated.
“The Motivations of Young Redefined Abstraction.” Tema Celeste Arte Contemporanea 58 (Autumn 1996): 54, illustrated.
Paparoni, Demetrio, ed. “L’astrazione ridefinita.” Tema Celeste Arte Contemporanea, (Autumn 1996).
Ebony, David. “David Ebony’s Top Ten: James Siena at Christinerose” (exhibition review). artnet.com, 29 December 1997: illustrated.
Pall, Ellen. “The Neo-Dealers.” New York Times Magazine, 1 September 1997.
Smith, Roberta. “James Siena at Cristinerose Gallery” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 17 December 1997: E40, illustrated.
Amy, Michael. “James Siena at Cristinerose Gallery” (exhibition review). Art in America (November 1999): 130, illustrated.
Smith, Roberta. “The Risk of Existence at Phyllis Kind Gallery” (exhibition review). The New York Times; 4 December 1998.
Adams, Brooks. “The Risk of Existence-Phyllis Kind Gallery” (exhibition review). Artforum (February 1999): 93, illustrated.
Grabner, Michelle. “Test Family.” New Art Examiner (October 1999).
Johnson, Ken. “Trippy World at Baron/Boisante” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 22 October 1999.
Kaneda, Shirley. “James Siena: In the Absence of Perfection.” Bomb 67 (Spring 1999): 98–100, illustrated.
Smith, Roberta. “Rage for Art (Pierogi Reborn) at Pierogi 2000” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 19 February 1999.
Cotter, Holland. “With a Nervy Sense of Today.” The New York Times, 25 February 2000: E39.
Cotter, Holland. “New York Contemporary, Defined 150 Ways” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 6 March 2000: E1, E5.
“Galleries-Chelsea: James Siena.” New Yorker; 17 April 2000: 20.
Johnson, Ken. “Reviews: 'Invitational Exhibition-American Academy of Arts and Letters'” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 31 March 2000: E35.
Newhall, Edith. “On View: New York's New Art.” New York Magazine, 28 February 2000: 76.
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Siegel, Katy. “Review: Greater New York, P.S.1” (exhibition review). Artforum (May 2000): 174, illustrated.
“Working Proof: James Siena.” Art on Paper (July–August 2004): 55.
Cohen, David. “Thank Heaven for Little Pictures.” artcritical.com, 11 November 2001: illustrated.
“Goings on About Town/Galleries-Chelsea: James Siena at Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). New Yorker, 29 October 2001: 18.
MacAdam, Alfred. “Reviews: James Siena at Gorney Bravin + Lee, NY” (exhibition review). Art News (December 2001): 140.
Johnson, Ken. “West Side: The Armory Show on the Piers Just Keeps Growing.” The New York Times, 23 February 2001: E33, discussed.
Johnson, Ken. “Art in Review: James Siena at Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 26 October 2001: E35.
Johnson, Ken. “Art Guide: Galleries: Chelsea.” The New York Times, 2 November 2001: E37, illustrated.
Kalm, James. “Repetition in Discourse at the Painting Center” (exhibition review). NYArts (November 2001): 77, illustrated.
“Working Proof: James Siena, Nine Prints (1999–2001).” Art on Paper, (September–October 2001): 75, illustrated.
Atkins, Robert. “10 Artists to Watch: Making Connections.” Art News (March 2002): 97, illustrated.
de Vegh, Suzanne. “James Siena, Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). Brooklyn Rail. (January–February 2002): 30, illustrated.
Frankel, David. “Reviews: James Siena at Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). Artforum (January 2002): 138–139, illustrated.
Koplos, Janet. “James Siena at Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). Art in America (May 2002): 146–147, illustrated.
Utter, Douglas Max. “Reviews: Accumulations” (exhibition review). New Art Examiner [undated]: 76.
Baker, Kenneth. “Siena Entwines Abstract Threads.” San Francisco Chronicle, 1 February 2003.
Cohen, David. “Arts & Letters: Review” (exhibition review). New York Sun, 26 June 2003: 15, illustrated.
Dannatt, Adrian. “Contemporary Commercial Galleries.” Art Newspaper (July–August 2003): 138, illustrated.
Fyfe, Joe. “Strange Loops.” Art on Paper (January–February 2003): 44–49, illustrated.
Naves, Mario. “Systematic Spaghetti.” New York Observer, 30 June 2003, p. 26.
Saltz, Jerry. “Out of Line: Draw Me? An Artist Confounds His Dogged Copier.” Village Voice, 2–8 July 2003: 56, illustrated.
Shinn, Dorothy. “New York artist paints by the numbers.” Akron Beacon Journal, 15 April 2003: E9.
Yablonsky, Linda. “Reviews: James Siena-Gorney Bravin + Lee” (exhibition review). Art News (October 2003): 126, illustrated.
Zevitas, Steven, ed. New American Paintings (March 2003): 134–137.
Cohen, David. “Art and Letters: Gallery-Going.” New York Sun, 5 February 2004.
“’Endless Love’ Exhibits Artworks That Required Time and Effort” (exhibition review). Antiques and the Arts Weekly, 2 January 2004.
“Endless Love” (exhibition review). New Yorker, 2 February 2004.
Kimmelman, Michael. “Touching All Bases at the Biennial” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 12 March 2004: E27, E38.
Kramer, Hilton. “This Endless Love Isn’t Really Romantic-It’s Reactionary” (exhibition review). New York Observer, 2 February 2004.
Pagel, David. “They’re Fun and They’re Smart” (exhibition review). Los Angeles Times, 2 July 2004: E23.
“The Art World-What’s New: The Whitney Biennial” (exhibition review). The New Yorker, 22 March 2004: 100–101.
Smith, Roberta. “Emerging Talent, and Plenty of It.” The New York Times, 12 March 2004: E27, E32, illustrated.
Smith, Roberta. “Art In Review: ‘Endless Love’” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 6 February 2004.
Westerbeke, Julia. “Labor of love.” Time Out New York, January 29–February 5, 2004: 69, illustrated.
“The Year in Prints: The First Annual New Print Review.” Art on Paper 9 (November/December 2004): 59, illustrated.
Belcove, Julie L. “Rule Breaker: Artist James Siena Has His Own Ingeniously Complicated, Utterly Mesmerizing Way of Painting.” W Magazine (December 2005): 208–212, illustrated.
Bonetti, David. “Prints and Paintings Provide Strong Gallery Shows” (exhibition review). St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 24 April 2005, Arts & Entertainment: F4, illustrated.
Bonetti, David. “James Siena: Ten Years of Printmaking at William Shearburn Gallery” (exhibition review). Art on Paper (September–October 2005): 73–74, illustrated.
Brady, Sallie. “Young, Focused and Fearless.” Art and Antiques 28 (October 2005): 77, illustrated,
Cohen, David. “Arts & Letters-Gallery Going: When the Rule Ruled” (exhibition review). New York Sun, 3 March 2005: 19+.
Cohen, David. “Arts & Letters - Gallery Going: James Siena” (exhibition review). New York Sun, 17 November 2005: 12.
Cooper, Andrew. “The Transcendent Imperative.” Tricycle (Winter 2005): 73–74, 77, illustrated.
Cotter, Holland. “Art in Review: ‘Logical Conclusions’” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 18 March 2005: E42.
Harris, Jane. “The ruling class: Seeking the poetic potential of neutral signs” (exhibition review). Village Voice, 16–22 March 2005, Voice Choices: 8.
MacAdam. Barbara A. “Reviews: New York-Logical Conclusions, PaceWildenstein” (exhibition review). Art News 104 (June 2005): 119.
Morgan, Robert C. “Reviews: Logical Conclusions, PaceWildenstein, New York” (exhibition review). tema celeste 110 (July–August 2005): 69.
Naves, Mario. “Maddening Consistency Hampers Siena’s Intricately Pretty Pictures” (exhibition review). New York Observer, 5 December 2005: 18, illustrated.
Ribas, João. “New and Features-The AI Interview: James Siena.” artinfo.com, 27 December 2005: illustrated.
Siena, James. “James Siena In Conversation with Chris Martin.” Interview by Chris Martin. Brooklyn Rail (November 2005):16–17.
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Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 2006: inside front and back cover, illustrated.
Glueck, Grace. “The Enduring Allure of Scratching on Metal [The Museum of Modern Art: The Compulsive Line]” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 9 March 2006: E7, discussed.
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Kino, Carol. “Op, Op and Away” (PaceWildenstein exhibition review). Town & Country (January 2006): 90, illustrated.
McQuaid, Cate. “The Draw of These Abstracts? Changing Plot Lines” (Mario Diacono Gallery exhibition review). The Boston Globe, 9 November 2006: 8C.
Schmerler, Sarah. “The Compulsive Line: Etching 1900 to Now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York” (exhibition review). Art on Paper 10 (July/August 2006): 66–67.
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Smith. Roberta. “Art in Review: James Siena” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 6 January 2006: E34, illustrated.
Smith. Roberta. “Galleries: Chelsea – James Siena: New Paintings and Gouaches” (exhibition review). The New York Times, 20 January 2006: E30.
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Schmerier, Sarah. “The Exhibitionists.” Time Out New York, 22–28 February 2007: 23, illustrated.
Cohen, David. “Gallery-Going: Abstraction & Adventure––From elaborate construction to raunchy figuration, artists blur the lines” (PaceWildenstein exhibition preview). The New York Sun, 19 March 2008: Spring in the City: S3.
Cohen, David. “Gallery Going: Following, and Breaking, His Own Rules” (PaceWildenstein exhibition review). New York Sun, 3 April 2008: Arts & Letters: 22, illustrated.
Beckman, Rachel. “‘Herb and Dorothy’: You Can’t Spell Heart Without Art.” Washington Post, 19 June 2008: C5.
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Richard, Frances. “Tactical Antagonisms.” Art on Paper 14, no. 2 (November/December 2009): 23–26, illustrated.
Asfour, Nana. “Art: Reviews—Morphological Mutiny: Steve DiBenedetto, Alexander Ross and James Siena” (exhibition review). Time Out New York, 14–20 January 2010: 42.
Boehl, Sabine. “Abstraction—The Space of the Image and the Image’s Space in the 21st Century.” RES Art World/World Art, no. 5 (March 2010): 21, illustrated; 22, 24, discussed.
Smith, Roberta. “To the Warp and Weft, Add Vision and Craft.” The New York Times, 26 January 2010: C1+, illustrated.
Finch, Charlie. “Noble or Nibble? Last Train to Dullsville” (The Pace Gallery exhibition review). artnet.com, 22 April 2011.
“Galleries—Chelsea: James Siena” (The Pace Gallery exhibition review). The New Yorker, 11 April 2011: 10.
Ochmanek, Annie. “Reviews: James Siena, Pace Gallery” (exhibition review). Artforum 49, no. 10 (Summer 2011): 402–403, illustrated.
Yau, John. “Art Seen: James Siena, Pace Gallery” (exhibition review). Brooklyn Rail (April 2011): 56, illustrated.
Printmakers and Print Programs who have collaborated with James Siena on prints include:
- Center for Contemporary Printmaking (2009 Mystery Artist)
- Dieu Donné Papermill
- Flying Horse Editions (University of Central Florida)
- Harlan & Weaver
- Island Press (Washington University in St. Louis)
- Lincoln Center Vera List Art Project (2006)
- Lower East Side Printshop
- Neptune Fine Art/Brand X Projects
- Pace Prints
- Polígrafa Obra Gráfica
- Tamarind Institute (University of New Mexico)
- Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE)
To view images and details of most of the prints made by the artist to date, visit Troy's James Siena Prints Catalog.
- "Hobbs, Robert. "James Siena: 1991-2001". Gorney Bravin + Lee, New York; Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles. 2001:8.
- "Hobbs, Robert. "James Siena: 1991-2001". Gorney Bravin + Lee, New York; Daniel Weinberg Gallery, Los Angeles. 2001:8.
- "Courier". University Art Museum, University at Albany, 2010:9-11.