This Artist Spent 800 Hours Painting Tom Brady’s Face

Bernard Solco, the first artist to bring QR codes and bar codes to the medium, now thinks the internet is killing art

bernard solco mobile
Courtesy of Bernard Solco

What were you doing at the age of 11?

You were probably getting ready for school, figuring out puberty and begging your parents for money. When Bernard Solco, a modern-day artistic icon, was 11 years old he sold a series of 12 paintings of monkeys to a family friend for the equivalent of $21,361.32 in today’s money. Since then, the self-taught artist, now 56, has immortalized New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and politician Rudy Giuliani in his artwork.

But Solco may be most revered for being the first artist to take QR codes and bar codes from innocuous labeling on Kellogg’s cereal boxes to glossy pieces of high art worth tens of thousands of dollars each, displayed in New York City’s Soho galleries. He accomplished this in his “American Product Series” (1996) and “Symbology’ series (2000) because he once saw the beauty in technology, but now, he mostly sees tech as a negative thing in the art world.

ONE37pm spoke with Solco about how Instagram is hurting art galleries, the humility his portraits inspired out of powerful people and how the art world ran before the internet changed everything.

tom brady signs bernard solco
Tom Brady signs Bernard Solco‘s painting. / Courtesy of Bernard Solco

Pre-internet word of mouth

Before a click of a button could put anything you want in front of the faces of millions of strangers, Solco built his name on first-gen social media: word of mouth. His first art exhibit, the “American Product Series” in 1996, showcased large bar codes from such household products as Ritz Crackers and Chips Ahoy cookies.

It took six months and $20,000 of his own money to put together the show, and he didn’t sell a single painting for two weeks. Then one day a kid walked in and offered to buy his Marlboro bar code painting before leaving to retrieve the cash for the purchase. Just as the show finished that night, zero paintings were sold and Solco’s hopes waned, a limousine arrived. What happened next sounds like something straight out of a movie.

“He comes out of the limousine and these two gentlemen came out in front of him, he put his ring out and they kissed his ring. He comes in and says, ‘Bernard, pardon me for being tardy. These are my colleagues from Christie’s London, they’re also going to buy some paintings.’ Then he hands me an envelope with a business card and it had the royal seal of London on it, and it said, ‘Le comte Alexis de Limburg Stirum.’”

bernard solco american series
The American Product Series from 1996. / Courtesy of Bernard Solco

Alexis de Limburg Stirum is a count in European royalty. Off of that man spreading the word to his friends, Solco made $22,000 on his first sales to Limburg Stirum and his colleagues—$36,017.31 in today’s money—and a chain reaction occurred. Next, Beverly Hills, 90210 co-creator Aaron Spelling bought a painting, the Kellogg’s bar code, for the equivalent of $13,097.20 in today’s dollars. After all of his work was sold, Solco made $140,000 ($229,201.04 today) and was the talk of the art world—talk that would put him in the room with more powerful people.

The power in portraits

The art dealer who gave Solco his first solo show was friends with political faces such as then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. After being amazed by Solco’s painting of Marilyn Monroe, the art dealer asked if he would paint Giuliani, and the connections kept coming after that.

He’s since done beautiful portraits of actress Brooke Shields, Kissinger and Brady. For Brady, Solco spent eight weeks and more than 800 painstaking hours committing the six-time Super Bowl champion to the canvas. The power Solco’s paintings had on these powerful figures reveals a level of humanity their larger-than-life status may have precluded others from seeing.

tom brady in article
The completed Tom Brady painting. / Courtesy of Bernard Solco

“When Rudy Giuliani saw his portrait, he kind of looked at it kind of stunned. Then he said to me, ‘Do I really look that good? Do I really look like that?’” Solco said. “He loved it so much that right after he put his arm around me, he told one of his bodyguards, ‘Get that thing wrapped in plastic and in the back of my limousine immediately.’ We were on a sailboat on the South Street Seaport and it looked like it was going to rain, and he said, ‘Get it under plastic and in my car immediately I don’t want a drop to get on it.’ That’s how much he loved it.”

All of this worldwide acclaim, riches and legacy started from an 11-year-old boy painting monkeys with his bare hands.

bernard rudy art
Rudy Giuliani with his painting. / Courtesy of Bernard Solco

Is the internet killing the art star?

In May 2017, New York City art gallery CRG Gallery closed after 25 years. The gallery’s cofounder Glenn McMillan blamed Instagram for developing a mentality that devalues deep appreciation of art beyond a heart symbol and a comment.

“People are not coming to galleries,” McMillan told The New York Times in 2017. “It’s been a simultaneous perfect storm of the convenience and plethora of the art fairs and the Instagram mentality of seeing something and immediately having a yes or no response to something. It’s not the world we signed up for.”

CRG Gallery isn’t an isolated incident. Fine-art celebrity Mark Moore closed his gallery in 2017 after being open for 33 years. London’s historic Wilkinson Gallery closed after nearly two decades. Just last year, nationally acclaimed artist Reggie Baylor closed his art studio in Milwaukee’s Third Ward because he struggled to find buyers for his work and saw six months to complete another project to not be cost-effective. His solution? Digitize his works and sell them on everything from shirt pins to home furniture for as low as $15.

Now you can go on the internet, and everybody’s an artist. They have all these apps where you could push one button and you’re an artist.

- Bernard Solco

Solco is still selling his paintings for more than $10,000, but a sense of existential worry seems to coat all of his criticisms of the internet’s negative effect on the art world.

“Way before there was color TV around, I was making art and selling it, so to have some machine come along, and some gadget come along, that depreciates what I’ve given my whole life to, it hurts me. It hurt me financially because people aren’t as quick to drop thousands of dollars down to buy a painting anymore.”

Look at it this way: Printing technology has become so good that the average person can get pristine replications of Solco’s work for the cost of an all-in-one laser printer. Add in the fact that people are starting to do “Instagram curated art exhibitions,” and it’ll be hard to see a future for the art world that resembles anything like Solco’s past.  

“For young up-and-coming artists, there really aren’t a lot of venues anymore, so that’s why they turn to these Instagram pages and they become internet celebrities, so to speak,” he said. “Now you can go on the internet, and everybody’s an artist. They have all these apps where you could push one button and you’re an artist.”

Even with his future seemingly being cannibalized by technology, Solco is still accepting commissions to paint portraits and encrypted bar codes. For a price, your wedding invitation can be a work of interactive art hidden in a bar code. Solco isn’t giving up on the dream of  the11-year-old with the monkey paintings anytime soon.

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