NEW YORK — The contemporary art world has had more than its share of young talent, but it’s tough to recall an artist who has generated as much early-career recognition as Andres Valencia.
In the last year, he has gone from a relative unknown to a bona fide art phenomenon. His surrealist-style paintings were acquired by deep-pocketed collectors like Tommy Mottola and Jessica Goldman Srebnick during Art Basel Miami Beach. In June, he had a solo exhibition at the Chase Contemporary gallery in SoHo, where all 35 works were sold, the gallery said, fetching $50,000 to $125,000.
One of his paintings went for $159,000 (with fees) at a Phillips de Pury auction in Hong Kong, and another hit $230,000 at a charity gala in Capri, Italy.
“I’m glad I can make people happy with my art, and they can hang it in their homes,” he said on a recent Monday at the Chase gallery. He was standing before one of his works, “The Professor,” a large, cubistlike painting of a man rendered in acrylic and oil that stands 4 1/2 feet high — as tall as the artist himself. “This one I did when I was younger, when I was 8,” he added shyly.
It should be noted that Andres Valencia, who has been called an “art prodigy” and “little Picasso,” is only 10.
With the gallery closed, he was joined by his mother, Elsa Valencia, 48, a jewelry designer when she is not chaperoning her son to art shows, and the gallery’s owner, Bernie Chase. Andres, dressed like a preppy schoolboy in a white Ralph Lauren polo shirt, bluejeans and a crisp pair of Nike Jordans, gave a tour of his show.
“Clowns are just classic,” he said, introducing a piece called “Max the Clown.” Another, “The Godfather,” was commissioned by a Florida family and depicts Mafia henchmen.
Like a precocious student unaware of his own maturity, he name-checked some of his inspirations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Condo, Pokémon, Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Click N’ Play army action figures.
“I’ve been in the art business for 20 years,” Chase said, hovering proudly on the sidelines. “I’ve worked with guys like Peter Beard and Kenny Scharf. Andres has the potential to be that big — or bigger.”
Andres may be basking in adulation, but he is also a fifth-grader with math homework. “My son is an artist, but he is a kid first,” his mother said. “He is a child, not a celebrity.”
That is not to say that she and her husband, Lupe Valencia, 50, a lawyer and athlete manager for Cuban professional boxer Frank Sánchez, haven’t had a heavy hand in their son becoming an overnight sensation.
They briefly enlisted the services of Nadine Johnson, a veteran publicist in New York, and now work with Sam Morris, a theater and arts publicist. Articles oohing and aahing over the baby-faced artist have appeared in The Miami Herald, The New York Post, Forbes and The Times of London. ABC’s “World News Tonight” did a segment on him.
Their son’s high earnings are an opportunity to teach him “how to give back,” his mother said. A portion of proceeds from their son’s sales, which the Valencias said “so far is over $300,000,” have been donated to AIDS charity group amfAR and children’s charity Box of Hope.
His art career began at 4, when his parents noticed that he spent hours in their San Diego dining room, sketching a painting by graffiti artist Retna, one of his father’s former clients.
“I would bring paper and sit there and always try to copy it, but it took years to get it right,” Andres said, fidgeting in his seat.
His artistic confidence grew quickly. He sold watercolors to family friends for $20. Among them was Chase, who offered to pay $100 whenever he would visit the Valencias in San Diego. Andres proved to be equally adept as a salesman and raised his price to $5,000. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll pay $5,000 for that one,’” Chase said, laughing. “I took him out to my car to write a check, and Elsa comes running out after me screaming, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’”
Chase bought enough paintings to persuade the Valencias to let their son “share his talents with the world,” he said. He contacted Nick Korniloff, director of Art Miami, a fair that takes place alongside Art Basel, to debut the young artist.
Korniloff said he was initially “very skeptical when I heard Bernie say he wanted me to work with this 10-year-old child.” But he also thought there would be pent-up demand for “something joyful” after the pandemic. “The story of a talented 10-year-old painter felt gratifying,” he added.
Still, Korniloff said he was wary of putting “my reputation on the line” for a middle schooler, so he didn’t mention Andres’ age in any of the fair’s promotional materials. But during VIP walk-throughs, he would coyly ask collectors, “What if I told you that those works were done by a 10-year-old boy, and some of that work was done when he was only 8?”
News of the child painter spread fast. Celebrities like Sofia Vergara and Channing Tatum bought pieces. Reporters sought verification that the artworks were done by someone so young. Korniloff invited Valencia to paint live alongside Bradley Theodore, a popular street artist several decades older than him. The spectacle drew more media interest.
His following continues to grow. Earlier this month, the BTS singer known as V shared one of Andres’ works, a cubist-style portrait of a man, to his 50 million Instagram followers.
Underage artists are rare but not unique in the art world. Several years ago, collectors paid $250 to $1,500 for expressionist doodles by 2-year-old art star Lola June. Some young art stars, like Alexandra Nechita, who at 12 was labeled “a Mozart with a paintbrush” on talk shows and earned millions in sales, continue to make work.
Child stardom has been less kind to others. Marla Olmstead sold her abstract paintings for thousands of dollars when she was just 4 years old, but, years later, a “60 Minutes” segment and an investigative documentary questioned if her father guided her brush.
Owners of other contemporary art galleries caution that the speculative frenzy surrounding Andres may not last. “Too many people think of new artists as a kind of asset class that is protected from a lot of the inflation,” said Alexander Shulan, owner of the Lomex, a downtown Manhattan gallery that focuses on emerging artists. “But any young artist’s life is going to change dramatically over time, so it’s pretty ridiculous for anyone to assume that an investment will have longevity for a 24-year-old painter, let alone an artist so much younger — an actual child, in this case.”
Back at the gallery, Andres grabbed a notepad in front of him and doodled a portrait. “If you see a kid doing sketches on paper with a marker, a lot of people think that those drawings should not be put in a gallery,” he said, putting down his pen. “Sometimes older people just don’t get it.”