chutz grew up in Livonia, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Dean, her father, taught social studies and doubled as a guidance counsellor at Dana’s high school, in Livonia; her mother, Georgia, was a middle-school art teacher in nearby Plymouth. Georgia had studied art at Michigan State. She painted expressionistic landscapes, and there were always plenty of art materials in the house to play with. Schutz, an only child, was naturally curious, independent, fearless, and popular with other kids. “I was happy, I think,” she said. “I thought at the time that my parents were very overbearing and protective, but they weren’t—a lot of the time, I was just out, away, walking miles to the pet store to buy some little animal to hide in the house.” As her father explained, “There was a back part to the closet in her room, another closet, and we discovered after the fact that she hid a rabbit there and showed it to her friends when they came over.” Her mother said, “Dana was never very tidy as a kid. I kind of gave up—shut the door on it.”
When Schutz was fifteen, she decided she was going to be an artist. Her mother let her have the entire basement and showed her how to stretch a canvas, and Dana took it from there. “It was like turning a switch,” her mother recalled. “She would be down in the basement for hours and hours, sometimes through the night. There was no direction from me. She had a very nurturing and encouraging art teacher at the high school, who one day opened up a storeroom for her to paint in, and said, ‘This is going to be Danaland.’ “
At the Cleveland Institute of Art, which Schutz attended from 1995 to 2000, her love of painting never wavered. The contemporary artists she admired most were Cecily Brown Swimsuits & Cover Ups, Laura Owens, John Currin, and Nicole Eisenman—painterly painters, who were in short supply at the time. She also looked closely at Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and other American painters who emerged in the nineteen-eighties; at the contemporary German artists Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen; and at a galaxy of earlier masters, from Pontormo, Goya, Manet, and Picasso to Diego Rivera, whose twenty-seven-part mural in the Detroit Institute of Arts, with its vivid evocations of Ford’s River Rouge factory and its mighty workers, had enthralled her as a child. “I still like paintings of people doing things,” she told me.
She entered the graduate art program at Columbia in 2000 Sun Protection Swimwear, and during her first year there she had an artistic crisis, the kind that afflicts gifted art students who can’t decide what their work should be about. “I was so lost, I couldn’t make any paintings at all,” she recalled. Earlier, partly as a joke, she had made a number of oil paintings of imaginary partners for her unattached friends. The paintings were fairly small, with a lot of strong colors laid down in thick layers. Klaus Biesenbach, a curator at P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s contemporary branch in Queens, put one of these portraits in a group show in October, 2001. Biesenbach, who is now MoMA’s chief curator-at-large, told me that Schutz’s paintings had struck him as being “different from anything I had seen recently—not exactly beautiful, but very true. I said at the time, here is an artist who bridges the cartoonist and the social realist, but she does it in a very American way that really captures the human condition.”
The terrorist attacks on September 11th made Schutz’s anxieties about what to paint seem trivial. She did the sneeze paintings that fall, in her second year. “I needed to make some decisions and not be stuck,” she remembered. “I told myself I would just make sneezes, and see what happened.” Zach Feuer, an art student at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts who had started a tiny New York gallery as his senior project, put her first sneeze painting and a few other early works Shapewear, along with minimalist still-lifes by a young artist named Holly Coulis, in a two-person show, in January, 2002. “Sneeze” was bought by Erik Parker, an artist whose eccentric abstractions Schutz admired. “I thought that was so cool,” she said. “It felt like a breakthrough. I had a sense of clarity and purpose, even if it was just an invented one.”
Feuer gave her a solo show in November, a few months after she graduated. Called “Frank from Observation,” it presented several views of the last man on Earth—clearly not from observation, although the eyes and mouth were based on those of people she knew. The show sold out. “I was amazed that people came who were not my friends,” Schutz recalled. “That was shocking and exciting, and it made life after school less difficult. I’d thought maybe I’d be a tour guide, because that was my job at Columbia, even though I have a terrible speaking voice and no one could hear me. I was really lucky, because now I had enough money to rent a studio.” Interest in her work spread rapidly after that—she was in the Venice Biennale in 2003 and the second Greater New York show, in 2005.
On November 9th, the morning after the election, Schutz said, “I didn’t sleep at all. I stopped watching, but I couldn’t sleep.” We were in the studio Swimming, and she looked exhausted. She and Johnson were about to close on a two-story building they were buying in nearby Sunset Park, where they would both have ample studio space. It was the biggest financial commitment they’d ever made, and now she wondered if it was a mistake. Her fortieth birthday was the next day—they planned to celebrate with a dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant, in Carroll Gardens. She had just found out that she was pregnant again, but I didn’t learn this until a week later.
On the studio’s back wall—the working wall—”Expulsion” glowed like a furnace. It wasn’t finished, but the two figures now stood out dramatically against a blue background—many shades of blue Bikinis. To their left was a large white shape, which she said was a cloud; parts of it were tinged with gray, but one section was a pure, dazzling white, as though the sun were hitting it. A giant insect loomed in the foreground, a kind of dragonfly with translucent wings, delicately rendered. Petzel wanted to show the picture at the Art Basel fair in Miami Beach, which was opening in two weeks. “I thought the woman’s body would go a lot quicker than it did,” she said. “Yesterday, I started to like it. You have an idea of what you want a painting to be, and then it goes another way and you have to accept that. This painting had a kind of sadness to it, even before the election, but now I guess there’s fear and anger.”
Four days later, when I visited again, “Expulsion” was still unfinished. The two entwined figures had a more physical presence, but there were no facial features. Schutz was still thinking about shame and Donald Trump. “I don’t think he has that connection to other people, that social, contagious thing,” she said. “Have you noticed that he never yawns when other people yawn? But what happens if a leader has no shame? Countries have shame—in our country, it’s always been there, connected to killing the Indians, and to slavery.”
When I went back again a few days later, the studio floor was littered with discarded paintbrushes, dozens of them, some still oozing paint—I got bright orange on one of my shoes. “I always go for a new brush when I start a new color,” she said. “I like the floor when it gets this way—it feels like a river or something.” She had managed to get a one-day extension of the deadline, and she’d been working all night. The faces were nearly there. The man’s was twisted upward and back, toward the sky; the woman was looking down. She had a helmet of straight black hair, and her features, in profile, seemed weighted by despair. A long white sash streamed out behind her in the wind.
Early success can derail young artists. The sudden demand for their work puts pressure on them to produce similar work, instead of stretching their talent and exploring new directions; and speculative buying, for quick resale, brings prices that may not hold up. With Schutz, the danger signals came almost immediately. Feuer told me that soon after her 2002 solo show he sold a painting called “The Breeders” to a New York collector for eight thousand dollars, and within a year the collector had sold it to Larry Gagosian for half a million—none of which went to the artist. “That was a kind of wake-up call,” Feuer said. (“I overpaid,” Gagosian told me recently. “But you couldn’t get a work of hers otherwise.”) From then on, Feuer tried to restrict sales of her work to people who promised, if they weren’t going to keep it, to let him sell it for them, or give it to a museum—the surest way to solidify a reputation, and to ward off the stigma of being a “market artist.” Feuer had some success with this tactic, but it was hard to enforce. Charles Saatchi, the British super-collector, had bought two of Schutz’s early paintings from Feuer; when Feuer refused to sell him any others, Saatchi bought more than a dozen from other collectors, at hugely inflated prices—a million dollars for one, I’d been told. Eventually, he sold nearly all of them, not always at a profit. The hyper-inflated prices didn’t last, but her reputation kept growing.
Schutz tried to ignore her booming market, but in 2004 she started having panic attacks. Once, she passed out on the stairway at a gallery, and another time at an opening. That was in 2005, the year her self-eater paintings appeared in a show at Feuer called “Panic.” Some of them were pretty brutal—in “Face Eater,” a person has managed to ingest his (or her) whole face—but her subjects go about their gory meals with bland indifference. Although Schutz tends to dodge interpretations of her work, she has said that the self-eaters probably have to do with the artistic process, which cannibalizes experience and regurgitates it as art. Maybe so, but it’s interesting that Schutz, who is so self-effacing in her personal life, would choose self-effacement as a subject. Her fears and worries and contradictions get channelled into the work, and she works virtually all the time. The panic attacks eventually stopped. “Dana has a lot of self-doubt,” Ryan Johnson told me, “but not when she’s painting.”
As Schutz’s subject matter grew wilder, her technique became more assured. In “How We Would Give Birth” (2007), a woman in a hospital bed gazes intently at an old-fashioned landscape painting on the wall while a bloody fetus emerges from her vagina. (This was seven years before Arlo was born; she did a second birth painting, post-Arlo, that was less disturbing and more complex.) “Swimming, Smoking, Crying” (2009) depicts a young woman doing all those things at once, improbably and indelibly. In “Building the Boat While Sailing” (2012), two dozen people are hard at work (people doing things!) on what looks like another metaphor for the creative process. It also channels Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.”
Schutz’s work was appearing regularly, but for several years she was not happy with it. In 2005, a painting of hers called “Coma,” of an unconscious man in a dream world of abstract color, was in a group exhibition at Greene Naftali Gallery, in Chelsea, along with works by Amy Sillman, Jacqueline Humphries, Laura Owens, and other contemporaries. “It was a great show—I was glad to be in it—but I felt that my painting was like a brick, a stuffy little brick,” she said. “Now I like it a lot, but at the time the other paintings in the show felt more expansive—there was air and gesture and fluidity in them. I didn’t know how to do that, but I wanted to try.” She thinned down her medium—until then, she had been using a lot of oil paint, building it up in impastos so thick they were almost sculptural. The new work looked more spontaneous, like drawing.