Dispensing with Formalities

A white-haired man in a finely tailored suit is breezing through the lobby of the Chambers Hotel with three black-garbed hotel employees, including the general manager, at his heels. He glides past Subodh Gupta’s stainless steel sculpture that evokes Animal, the wild-man drummer Muppet. He cruises by the bull’s head suspended in a formaldehyde-filled tank, a work by British bad-boy artist Damien Hirst, without blinking. What stops him is a throwback from the days before smoking bans. “There’s a cigarette machine in here?” he asks.

The machine at the Chambers is a true antique, but there are no Pall Malls for sale. As Minnesota’s first Art-o-mat—one of about ninety such contraptions in the country—it has been retrofitted to dispense original artworks for five dollars—not much more than a pack of cigarettes.

The man who founded Art-o-mat ten years ago, Clark Whittington, is in town to officially introduce the machine and to present a slide show about Artists in Cellophane, the collective of more than four hundred artists who create cigarette-pack-size artworks for the machines.

The crowd of three dozen is made up of mostly curious onlookers, but Whittington is a rock star to a few. There’s a middle-aged woman from Minneapolis who enthuses about her collection of more than thirty Art-o-mat artworks, and Laura Gentry, a pastor, “laugh therapist,” and resident Artist-in-Cellophane member, who drove four hours from McGregor, Iowa, to meet the self-titled Art-o-mat National Bureau Chief.

Whittington, forty-one, is playful and approachable—he’s an artist, but also a dude, with a military-short haircut, hipster glasses, and grease-monkey shirt with embroidered patches above each pocket that say “Lucky” and “Clark.” Fresh from the Van Halen reunion show with David Lee Roth in Greensboro, NC, he’s proudly sporting a gold VH necklace.

Art-o-mat was launched in 1997 as a one-time installation, but Whittington now cultivates the project full-time. The range of offerings is impressive, from the crafty (handmade beaded earrings, or the tiny ceramic eggplants that Gentry makes) to the political (“Bad Boy Pincushions” that feature the smirking faces of Bush, Cheney, and other politicians).

Whittington says he was influenced by Fluxus, the ’60s art movement described by one founder, George Maciunas, as “a fusion of Spike Jones, vaudeville, gags, children’s games, and Duchamp.” Fluxus was a kind of slapstick movement that snubbed the idea of gallery art, juried shows, and exclusivity in art—Dada without the nihilism.

Jennifer Phelps, the curator who oversees the Chambers’s cutting-edge art collection, agrees, calling it “Fluxus for the twenty-first century.” She especially likes the arcade-like aspect to Art-o-mat: insert token, make your choice, and pull the rusty lever. That carefree act creates a bond between artist and buyer, even at the five-dollar level, and the artists play that up. Christian Andrew, who makes tiny modern houses from paper, will catalog the sold artworks as “[owner name] residence” on his website. Gentry posts photos of people with her cheeky ceramic aubergines in her online “Eggplant Owners Gallery.”

Fluxus, wrote one critic, “happens when one feels that life and art must be taken so seriously, that it becomes impossible to take life or art seriously.” In that respect, Art-o-mat’s sense of democracy—and its price point—may be right on cue. Christie’s, the famous auction house, set an all-time record for single-week art sales this June: a jaw-dropping $485 million. No one better embodies the mania of the current art boom than Hirst, notorious for displaying various animals in formaldehyde; this year he created a platinum cast of a human skull, covered in 8,601 diamonds, which reportedly sold for $100 million. He titled it For the Love of God.

At the same time, some 25,000 pieces of art are selling each year via Art-o-mats located in community centers, cafés, and even supermarkets. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most successful machines are at places like the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

On this night, at Ralph Burnet’s $30 million art temple masquerading as a hotel, a swarm of people has gathered around the Art-o-mat. A student who wandered down from the nearby Art Institutes International happily snaps onto his backpack an R-rated key chain, featuring an artsy photo of a nude woman. Another agonizes over whether to choose a Styrogami, a miniature Styrofoam sculpture by J. Jules Vitali, or a Bar Code Tattoo by Omaha artist Scott Blake.

A U of M freshman is interviewing Whittington for a research paper, while Phelps gingerly opens a ceramic ArtBar, a sort of anagram game. (If the pieces spell A-R-T-B-A-R you win one of the artist’s larger works.) “Darn it!” she says, when she doesn’t win.

Whittington, standing off to the side, is documenting the night with his camera. He laughs when Gentry hands him a tiny eggplant stamped with the words “Gimmicky Bastard.” “Yeah,” he says. “That’s about right.”