Leading psychiatrist and New York Times bestselling author Dr. Keith Ablow has spent his career specializing in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental illness and depression. But these days he has found a unique way to spread his personal prescriptions for helping people find the panacea to what ails them simply in the art of living, no medication needed.
Ablow recently entered the world of fine art, creating handwritten prescriptions printed on archival paper affixed to aluminum that often use irony to underscore larger issues of excess in modern culture.
It was back in 2016 when New York state law began requiring all prescriptions to be filled electronically that Ablow started giving a new purpose to paper prescription pads, turning them into art that intends to “make people think or move them to action.” In the process, it has given a whole new definition to the term artspeak.
“As a psychiatrist, I know my profession is a powerful lens that can bring the truth about individual lives into focus and help people see that truth for themselves,” Ablow reflects in his artist’s statement online. “I believe the same lens I use to treat patients can be trained on our culture, in a search for insights that will move human beings toward bold thought and action.
“I reject the notion that psychiatry is only a listening profession. I think psychiatry and psychiatrists have a lot to say, given all we have been privileged to hear. If only, I have thought in lighthearted moments, a psychiatrist like me could write prescriptions that would prompt people not only to take medicine, but to reflect deeply—the way patients will sit back in my office and wrestle with questions I have asked—then perhaps many could be coaxed a bit closer to living with passion and purpose.”
Called “Project Prescription,” his art also reflects Ablow’s belief that the digitizing of life is leading to disconnection. His enlarged works highlight America’s obsession with prescriptions and the tendency of psychiatrists to overprescribe and under-talk in the digital age.
Ablow is not against drug treatments for mental health problems, and he does prescribe them when they’re appropriate. But he feels that too many psychiatrists don’t know their patients and don’t want to know them because they only spend 15 minutes with them and then give them a prescription.
As a result, Ablow wrote his first Rx—60mg of Prozac, taken by mouth every morning. Then he crossed out the Prozac and, underneath, wrote his remedy: “Swallow the whole truth about yourself every a.m.” He made the prescription out to “You.” In the “refill” box was an infinity symbol.
Five more one-of-a-kind prescriptions soon followed, their purpose being to make people see the truth. Ablow enjoyed being able to say what he wanted to express in a few words.
Turning the scripts into actual art, however, proved to be neither easy nor inexpensive. At the suggestion of a friend who creates art installations for museums, Ablow had them enlarged to 2 feet by 3 feet using archival paper and mounted on aluminum composite, all of which had to be sourced and assembled.
Then he had to find someone to re-create detail that was lost in enlarging the prescription and remove the “do not fill” watermark, a safety measure meant to invalidate photocopied prescriptions. Last, Ablow had to find yet a different person to build mounts for hanging the finished work on the wall.
As for the asking price, Ablow was advised to set it at $25,000 each—high enough to allow him to be seen as a serious artist and to cover his production costs, but low enough to be realistic and not seem as if the project was an attempt to trade on his name. The consultant he used also advised him to request that potential buyers with extensive collections include his work in their official listings.
Through word of mouth and personal connections, all but one of Ablow’s original six works have sold. Ironically, it is his most political work, a prescription to “support gun control,” that has not moved. Still, Ablow finished 12 more pieces last year.
Of the original pieces:
- The Prozac piece sold to Douglas Meijer, the Michigan-based cochairman of the Meijer supermarket chain, who has spoken publicly of his battle with depression.
- New York PR honcho Ronn Torossian bought one that counsels you to say what you mean (in non-polite language) to hang in his Park Avenue offices.
- Connecticut hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, now No. 36 on theForbes billionaire list, the rumored inspiration for the Showtime series Billions and an enthusiastic art collector, and his wife purchased two of Ablow’s works.
Ablow’s three-week-long exhibit, Psycho-delic, at the Vivian Horan gallery on New York’s Upper East Side concluded on October 10.
One thing is for certain. Ablow’s art is art for your sake.