Marcus Brutus is a New York painter whose deeply moving, color-rich canvases of Black men and women in crowded scenes or set against quiet backdrops have captured the attention of the art world. As he works on a new series for his first show in Paris, our editor-at-large Christopher Bollencalled him to discuss making a mess, thinking like a fashion designer, and what in the hell it even means to be “self-taught.”
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN: Hi, Marcus, how’s it going?
MARCUS BRUTUS: I’m doing well. I’m in my studio in Greenpoint.
BOLLEN: Is that a live/work situation or are you the kind of artist who needs to live far away from the work?
BRUTUS: I live in Long Island City. There’s so much I get to think about in going from my apartment to the studio and back again—it’s definitely a bonus. It lets me hit stop and pause on a work that I’m struggling with. I used to work from home, and it was a bit tormenting because you could never walk away. On the other hand, if you have an idea at 1 a.m., you can work on it.
BOLLEN: Be honest with me. How often do you have a great idea at 1 a.m.?
BRUTUS: Normally, if I have bad ideas at reasonable hours, 1 a.m. is when the best ones come.
BOLLEN: I used to be able to write at night. As I get older, my best work comes earlier and earlier in the day. How does it work for you with painting?
BRUTUS: I’m really stuck in the 9 to 5 approach to life. I’m super productive from 8 a.m. to right before noon, and then things slow down and hit cruise control until I just flatline at the end of the day.
BOLLEN: You’re working on a new series of paintings for a show in Europe in January, right?
BRUTUS: Yeah, at Stems Gallery in Paris. So, my parents are both Haitian immigrants. My whole life I’ve had this connection to France—both good and bad—because I went to French school growing up in Maryland. It was an immersion program.
BOLLEN: Is the new series based on that ambivalent feeling of France?
BRUTUS: Well, the groups of works I create are always inspired by a piece of literature. It could just be a fragment. There’s a book I’ve been reading called A Place in the Sun [Haiti, Haitians, and the Remaking of Quebec], about the experience of Haitian exiles living in Canada and their relationship towards their Haitian and Canadian identities. And then it’s really these crafted images I put together from found imagery. I just combine everything.
BOLLEN: Do you always paint from photographs?
BRUTUS: Mostly, but it’s more of a collage. Before I started painting, I worked for many years on Photoshop, so I’m used to creating digital collages.
BOLLEN: I love your rich sense of color. When you’re making paintings, do you fall into a pattern where it’s hard to stop using the color green? I mean, is there a certain palette that you’re always finding yourself drawn to and have to stop yourself from using over and over?
BRUTUS: Yeah, because I love color and color combination so much. I view it almost in the same way that a fashion designer might from season to season when they explore different color combinations. I stick with certain colors so much that I get annoyed from using them by the end of it. But yeah, color is just as important as the subject or the narrative within the work. Right now, I’m really into maroon and burgundy. Maybe that’s because fall is on the horizon.
BOLLEN: You’ve been showing for a few years, and yet you’re often described as “self-taught.” I feel like that used to mean something, but I don’t quite know what “self-taught” even means anymore for artists. What do you think?
BRUTUS: I think the further you go, it becomes less relevant. But, I do think it works as an advantage in some spaces. I explore and create without the shackles of the information I was taught. Of course, that can also be a disadvantage because when I’m lost, the only thing I’m able to fall back on is my own references or the information I can get my hands on.
BOLLEN: Who is an artist you admire?
BRUTUS: Luc Tuymans. I really like listening to him speak about painting. I don’t necessarily fashion my work in terms of his, but I follow him closely.
BOLLEN: How neat is your studio?
BRUTUS: I’m pretty messy. Every time I grab a bit of paint from the jars and apply it to the canvas, I use white paper towels to clean the palette knife. Then I roll them up and toss them as I go. There are also tiny bits of tape all over because that’s what I use to create borders and straight lines.
BOLLEN: I’m always jealous of visual artists because they can listen to music and podcasts when they work. I even know some artists who like to talk on the phone while they’re painting. I could never do that while writing.
BRUTUS: There’s one friend I can talk to on the phone while I paint. But no one can call me when I’m painting. I’m always listening to podcasts or documentaries or random YouTube videos that will pop up. I never listen to music, because that’s an experience where it’s like, “Oh, I don’t like this song, I want to change it.”
BOLLEN: Thanks, Marcus. I hope you’re planning to go to Paris for your show. There’s an amazing art scene there right now.
BRUTUS: Yeah, unless something crazy happens, I’ll definitely be there—Christopher Bollen