Best known for “Tanqueray Olive,” a first-edition lithograph printed in 1998, Thomas Arena embraces his commercial art roots to create graphic, conceptual and iconic images. Most recently, world-renowned chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller selected Arena to create a commissioned piece to help promote their culinary arts foundation, Bocuse d’Or. Arena’s work now hangs in the grand, northern wing of the historic Villard Mansion on Madison Avenue at 51st Street. His solo show–sponsored by Tanqueray and The New York Palace–is on exhibit until the end of July and presents a rare opportunity to delight in his distinctive artwork. In this exclusive Q&A, The Palace gains insight into his inspiration, commercial art background and what it’s like to showcase art in the elegant landmark building.
What inspired the transition from advertising to art? In your mind, how are the two interrelated?
I missed working with my hands as I did when a student at The School of Visual Arts here in NYC. And I realized a couple areas of my training were merging—the painting side and the conceptual side. I had a fine art teacher, John Foote, whose work is in the National Portrait Gallery and a commercial arts mentor, Tony Palladino, whose work is in the permanent collection of MoMa. You would think they couldn’t be more different. But both encouraged paying attention to “less is more” even though John taught portraiture and Tony taught conceptual graphic design. I think about what I learned from both of them equally.
Your exhibit is sponsored by Tanqueray and The New York Palace. How does your creative vision fit with these two brands and what makes them each unique?
I’m attracted to subjects that have a staying power. Fortunately, the subjects of my works are still relevant. It’s hard to believe, but I created the Tanqueray image almost two decades ago and it was the first limited edition print I made. Even after I sold out the lithograph edition, I couldn’t afford to go to press on the serigraph variations until a few years ago. And I never had a chance to show them together. So when Tanqueray said they would sponsor a show, I thought it was a perfect opportunity. The Villard Mansion couldn’t be a better spot. The ceilings are 15’ high and the natural light is terrific. And it’s on Madison Avenue, which couldn’t be more fitting location considering I started my career there as an advertising art director. In fact, I used to eat my lunch across the street on the steps of St. Patrick’s.
How have you been inspired by the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein?
I wouldn’t say I’ve been inspired by them. In fact, I didn’t really care too much about Warhol’s work when I was younger. But later I appreciated the simplicity of his approach and the breadth of his work. Lichtenstein I could relate to as a fellow teacher as well as his care and precision. Both of them were interested in creating graphic works that used or highlighted commercial printing techniques and effects. Over time I learned more about them and that they had started out their art careers doing commercial work, too. So it’s not so much an inspiration as it is an affirmation.
You were selected by world-renowned chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller to create artwork for Bocuse d’Or USA. How do you know when a piece is finished?
When it matches what I had envisioned. I’ll carry an image in my head for a while before I begin to make it real. It’s much easier to refine the image when just thinking about it. And makes for a much smoother process when I’m making it for real. If I picture different variations, and like them, I try to execute those, too. This is a trait of the pop arts—Warhol did it, Lichtenstein and Rosenquist, too, all made uniques of the same image. Coincidentally, Rosenquist did the previous Bocuse d’Or USA piece. Maybe I’ll get a chance to ask him how he knows when he’s done.
Having worked on a series of very different projects, how has your work developed over the years?
It’s much more colorful now. There was a time when I was intimidated by color. Now I’m intrigued by how color against color can help me draw. For example, which color comes forward and which goes back in space? It’s this sort of play that allows me to do drawings that appear so simple. They’re actually pretty complex in terms of color. They have to be just right. Especially when you’re about to print the last of eighteen colors! The first seventeen better be right.
Warhol has sparked the visual art movement known as pop art. Has pop art become a timeless art form?
Pop art is often so dependent on the subject. So you’d think the subject would need to be timeless. But there’s the element of beauty, too. Beauty is timeless. Warhol’s work is still beautiful. Lichtenstein’s work is still beautiful. Haring’s, Rosenquist’s, all of the great pop artist’s works share this trait. So I think their work has just as much a chance of standing the test of time as any of the great master’s. And I’d say it’s probably true of any art form.