Spencer Sweeney: “That is what fascinates me about New York City”

Spencer Sweeney, curator of the exhibition "New York by Night".

Born in 1973, Spencer Sweeney is New York Downtown’s cultural magnate. As an artist, he defies categories, even if most of his practice revolves around painting, which often beams with colors through mystical pop themes. He is also a musician, a former club owner, and a DJ. For the past 20 years, he has been the catalyst, the galvanizer, and the activator of one of the most creative communities of New York City.

In March 2018, HdM Gallery Beijing presented New York by Night, Spencer Sweeney’s artistic journey through the streets of the New York from the late 90’s until today. On the occasion of the opening of this exhibition, Doors interviews this uniquely charismatic artist.

DoorZine: The exhibition that you curated at HdM Gallery is entitled “New York by night”. You live in New York, as well as all the artists – who are all your friends – participating in the show. Where does this fascination for New York City come from?

Spencer Sweeney: To me, the most stimulating and exciting part of New York City is how many different cultures coexist in close proximity at the same time. What you are able to take in is all those different communities at once. Like in the Lower East Side where I lived for most of my time in New York: you walk down the street and you have Chinatown right next to the Latin community and the African American community and they’re all taking up the same space. For me, it’s very stimulating to see all of this happening at once and all of the cultures going off right next to each other.

That is what fascinates me about New York City.

Spencer Sweeney, ”New York by Night“, 2018. Avec l’autorisation de l’artiste.

DoorZine: You are an artist, but also a musician, and you used to run a club (Santos Party House on Lafayette St). What is the link between these different activities?

One thing that I find very important about the artistic community in NYC is the sense of community and structure. My time with producing the nightclub had to do with creating an environment for the creative community to coexist, to converse and to create. It was kind of like setting up a room for that to happen and being able to apply different ideas for how that might happen in an interesting and colorful way.

Enabling that had to do with cultural preservation anyway. There are things going on in NYC that are so important to art and music and you see them slipping away because of the commercialization spreading in the city. It was kind of a fight to preserve these activities and these ideas. That was the idea for the nightclub.

Music is just something that I intuitively engaged with since I was a young child. I found myself collaborating and playing my own music in bands and such. It was always going on at the same time as what I am and as my practice with visual arts. I can’t really separate the two.

One thing feeds the other: conversations about music are the catalyst of these relationships that I build with artists in NYC.

DoorZine: All the artists shown in “New York by night” are your friends, and the exhibition seems like a rendering of your own personal culture and community.

Yes, these are all my friends, close relationships of mine. Some much older than the others, some much newer. The framework that I decided to explore for this show is like a journal entry, a chronicle of my personal experience from the time when I arrived in NYC until now. There is an autobiographical element to it, it is like a diary or journal in a way. I thought maybe through doing that, we could create a representation of some of the artistic community that exists in NYC and bring it to a place like Beijing. Because people are curious about this community.


Spencer Sweeney, “Untitled", 2009-2010. Courtesy of the artist.


Spencer Sweeney, “Untitled”. Courtesy of the artist.

“Lady Dior” series designed by Spencer Sweeney, ©Mark Peckmezian

DoorZine: So why come show this in Beijing at HdM Gallery?

I was approached by Hadrien de Montferrand (founder of HdM Gallery). He was speaking to somebody who I’ve worked with in Paris and he wanted to make a show curated of New York artists. He spoke to his friend and came to New York and we met. He asked me to curate a show in Beijing consisting of New York artists. I thought it would be an interesting thing culturally. A few different ideas arose, and I ended up with an expansive approach rather than a reductive one. It sort of grew with more and more artists, we started with the idea of 4 artists and ended up with 17!

DoorZine: You want to present this community to the Chinese public. Do you have a particular message for this public?

There is not so much of a message. People may leave with an idea of what the feel is. It’s basically just an attempt to represent the creative community in New York through my personal experience. Of course it is very limited because it’s just one person’s experience but I thought that it could provide a good framework to try and give a sense of what’s going on in New York.

“There’s a certain amount of pain that is involved in any creative process.”

Spencer Sweeney

Brian Degraw, “Untitled”.


Cy Gavin, "Study of A Lion", 2018.


Right: Pieter Schoolwerth, “Off the Grid#6” ; Left: Pieter Schoolwerth, “Privacy Settings#7”


Gerasimos Floratos, "Untitled".


Danny McDonald, "Flight of Fancy".

DoorZine: Chinese websites talk very much about your collaboration with Dior. You’ve done the design for their bags. Can you tell us more about this experience?

Dior came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on a design. To me, it sounded really interesting to apply some of my works to prints, merge different processes together and see what comes back and then rework. And it was interesting! 

DoorZine: Your portraits are very happy and colorful, and at the same time seem to depict people who are suffering.

I believe that this is very common with many different types of creative activities – even if you are writing comedy, that’s something that is supposed to make people laugh and enjoy ideas in a joyous, humorous way. There’s a lot of grueling work and inevitably suffering going into the process of creating. There’s a certain amount of pain that is involved in any creative process. And whether at the end you are painting a picture that is light-hearted and humorous or it’s more of a dark experience, either way there is a due amount of suffering that goes into creating anything.

Spencer Sweeney, “Untitled”, 2019-2010. Courtesy of the artist.
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