“I am not a star,” artist Oscar Murillo said as he signed autographs at the opening of his first solo gallery show in New York last week.
His career trajectory proves otherwise. Hordes of people showed up on the windy evening of April 24 to see the 28-year-old Murillo’s work. In September, one of his abstract paintings sold for $401,000 at Phillips auction house in New York; the seller purchased it for about $7,000 in 2011. The same month, the artist joined the David Zwirner gallery, which represents postwar masters Donald Judd and Dan Flavin.
Following such swift success, Murillo’s debut at Zwirner doesn’t include what he’s best known for: abstract paintings. The Colombian-born artist instead has transformed a cavernous gallery into an operating candy factory, replicating the one in his hometown of La Paila, where several generations of his family, including his parents, had worked. The 13 workers from his native country will produce about 7,000 chocolate-covered marshmallows each day.
“It’s like putting a buffer up by not offering any portably scaled paintings,” said Kenny Schachter, a London-based dealer, curator and collector. “Normally he does these kinds of installations with paintings and sculpture.”
The buzz generated by Murillo, who was cleaning offices to put himself through art school less than three years ago, has been intense. His auction prices are ahead of his contemporaries, artists born in the 1980s, with some surging as much as 5,600 percent in two years as a result of frenzied art flipping. Since last May, 36 of Murillo’s works generated $6.3 million in sales at auction, the highest total for his peer group, according to a price database published by Artnet Worldwide Corp.
“He’s become the poster boy for this whole epidemic of short-term trading in the art market,” Schachter said. “I am sure he doesn’t want the whole dialog to be dictated by his auction results.”
Five Murillo paintings, estimated to sell collectively for as much as $500,000, will be offered during postwar and contemporary auctions in New York next month, three at Christie’s International Plc and two at Phillips.
Elements of South American culture -- food, music, language -- populate Murillo’s art, including performance, film, installation, publishing, painting and sculpture.
The candy factory idea “isn’t so much about any kind of factory but the relationship this factory had with my family over time,” Murillo said during an April 23 press preview.
Colombina, the food company that operates the factory, is the largest employer in La Paila, where Murillo lived until he was 10 and moved with his family to the U.K. Several of the workers in the show, titled “A Mercantile Novel,” are Murillo’s childhood friends, the London-based artist said.
“I immediately knew it was an important project,” David Zwirner said as he drank beer at the opening in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. “I gave Oscar carte blanche.”
Murillo’s shows draw on his life experiences, said Kim Donica, a gallery spokeswoman. In the New York show, “it was conscious not to include paintings, but this was a show that didn’t need paintings and was not an intentional reaction to the auction market,” she said in an e-mail.
Near the gallery’s entrance, four flat screens mounted on a wall show footage of a candy-making conveyor belt and changing scenes of workers exploring Manhattan. One wall displays an enlarged photo of his mother napping at work. Another wall is painted blue and features a framed life-sized employment certificate belonging to his father.
A stack of metal crates in the center of the room is filled with the chocolate coated marshmallows called Chocmelos. Murillo designed the silver wrapping stamped with a yellow smiley face. Visitors can take the candy for free through the show’s run through June 14.
The crates filled with Chocmelos are for sale at $50,000.
On the opening night, top New York collectors were spotted grabbing and pocketing Chocmelos.
“People could not be stopped,” Doreen Remen, a co-founder of Art Production Fund, a New York-based nonprofit that commissions public art projects, said the day after the opening. “There was chocolate everywhere. Of course you lunged for it.”
Lenore Schorr, an early collector of Murillo’s work, said she came to the opening to lend her support.
“It doesn’t look like he needs much support,” she said as she glanced around the packed room.
Schorr and her husband, Herbert, are collectors of Jean-Michel Basquiat, to whom Murillo has been compared. On May 1, 22 works on paper and two paintings by Basquiat from their collection will go on view at Acquavella Galleries on New York’s Upper East Side.
“It wasn’t so much of a spectator’s sport then,” Schorr said about art openings in the 1980s. “We didn’t have the flipping-in-six-months kind of situation.”