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What Marcel Dzama Can’t Live Without

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Jason Schmidt

If you’re like us, you’ve probably wondered what famous people add to their carts. Not the JAR brooch and Louis XV chair but the hair spray and the electric toothbrush. We asked artist Marcel Dzama, who will be presenting new work at the Performa Biennial in November, about the angled brushes he discovered while painting with Raymond Pettibon, the mini cassette player he uses to record songs with his son, and the jewelry brand he buys when he needs a gift for his wife.

I first found out about these pencils when I was visiting Frank Lloyd Wright’s Arizona home. He had a sort of commune there, and I saw that he had vintage Blackwing pencils on his desk. A few years later, the reissues came out, and because I had seen the original ones on his desk, I thought I might as well try them. The matte soft graphite ones were perfect for what I was doing at the time. You barely press down and the graphite still comes out perfectly dark. The erasers are beautifully designed too. I don’t use them; I have these Art Gum erasers that I use instead, but I still really appreciate the design.

They almost look like laboratory jars or bitters for drinking. They’re just like inks, but they act like watercolors, so you can mix them together and work that way. The Juniper Green is one of my favorites. It’s actually a really bright blue and it just feels optimistic. Then there’s Vermilion Red, which looks like you’re looking at a poppy petal. I’m forgetting the name of the yellow one that I love. Tiger Yellow? I don’t know if you’re supposed to do this or not, but I actually like to mix these with Daler Rowney pearlescent inks. I’ll mix a drop or two of pearlescent gold with Tiger Yellow, and the little bits of the gold get spread out and bleed into the other colors. It’s just the tiniest amount of sparkle that gives the drawing a bit of energy, like a little zest of something.

These came about in a fun way. I was doing collaborative drawings with Raymond Pettibon, and we were painting on the wall. Not directly on the wall, but the paper was on the wall and we were using gravity to let it flow. But I kept finding that my brushes were pouring the paint down and dripping all over. He was using this Dagger brush, and it was so perfect. It just had the tiniest little drips. The brush is designed to hold a lot of paint, but it’ll come out perfectly, not too much at a time when you touch just the tip of it to the paper, so you don’t have to constantly dip.

This is a book I go to all the time, and I discover new things every time, so it’s kind of endless inspiration. Duro has a really good sense of putting things together that you wouldn’t think would go together, and it helps me figure out those things in my work as well. The book came from a show he put together in Chicago that I think happened during the pandemic. I just saw it online, but I knew the book would probably be good, so I ordered it. That made me feel like I was attached to some sort of art world again instead of being so isolated.

I found all my cassettes from when I was a teenager in the ’90s. And I’ve been going back and listening to old Prince cassette tapes and a lot of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, but mainly I was listening to this band called Palace Brothers. I had a lot of mixtapes too. My wife made me some when we were just starting to go out, and even my uncle made one, and it’s like a perfect little nostalgia thing. So now I’ve been making cassette recordings with my son. We play guitar and harmonica. Well, he plays harmonica, I play guitar, and then he sings. And we use this to record because it degrades the sound a little bit. If you just record with an iPhone, it’s super-clear, but if you record it on the cassette tape, it feels like it’s an old recording. This boom box looks exactly like my first cassette tape recorder that had a radio attached to it. But it has a little bit extra, like Bluetooth, and it has a USB plug-in thing. I don’t know how to use that, but it’s there. You could probably record that way too. I never tried it. I have one in my home and one in my studio. They’re not that loud, just loud enough for listening to music when I’m painting.

This was a gift from a friend for Christmas, and we have been spoiled with olive oil from then on. I became an olive oil snob, and I don’t think I was that way until I had this oil. I’d have a kind of nice olive oil and be like, Yeah, it’s slightly better, I guess. But this one feels like it’s a lot better. After tasting it I just felt like, Oh, now I understand. I usually save it for nicer salads and things like that. Or if we make homemade bread or something. We don’t use it as a cooking oil.

I was always searching for one of these blue jackets because of Bill Cunningham and the ones he used to wear when I’d see him riding around in New York in the late ’90s. I like that it’s secondhand, so it’s repurposed and not causing any more environmental damage. And they’re very affordable. The designer will add these little touches that you wouldn’t really notice unless you were really paying attention. You know, a button of a different color or knitting around one of the pockets. Sometimes there are larger patches and other things; I don’t have one of those jackets, though. Mine is simpler.

These slippers were a Christmas gift that my wife or maybe my son picked out. It was probably my wife, but I think he got the credit for them as a gift. They remind me of something my grandfather would have brought with him from Ukraine. They have a real homemade, old-world style, and they actually keep my feet warm in the winter. I wish I would’ve had them when I lived in Winnipeg, Canada. They almost look like they could be made out of the same industrial felted wool Joseph Beuys used to make his felt suits. I forget I’m wearing them sometimes when I go outside. So it’s nice that they have a waterproof sole. I had the leather ones, and they got worn out much faster. They are so comfortable that I have even forgotten I’m wearing them and made it all the way to the studio not realizing I didn’t switch into shoes.

I had Quarry make a custom necklace for my wife as a 20th-anniversary gift last year. I got my son’s baby teeth made into a gold necklace. My wife took a ceramics class with the designer, Ninh Wysocan, and that’s how they met. She knew of her jewelry before the class, though; maybe she heard about it from a friend at the gallery. Anyway, Wysocan has this very artistic, sculptural style that my wife really likes. So now it’s my go-to.

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What Marcel Dzama Can’t Live Without