Psychiatrist Keith Ablow is turning prescription writing into an art
From a home base in Newburyport, the MD, serial entrepreneur, and Fox News regular is embarking on his next big project.
IN 2007, NEWBURYPORT forensic psychiatrist-turned-TV personality Keith Ablow’s eponymous syndicated talk show was ending after a long year of disappointing ratings. But he had an idea that could get him back on TV.
He called up Roger Ailes, then chairman and CEO of Fox News, and asked for a meeting. “There’s a psychological side to a lot of the news,” he recalls telling Ailes, and an audience hunger for the truth about why people do the things they do. As it happened, Ablow knew just the guy to speak to that.
Ailes, who’d built Fox News into a powerhouse of conservative-leaning programs and outsize personalities, didn’t need much convincing. It didn’t matter that the canceled The Dr. Keith Ablow Show had been far more earnest than the typical Fox News fare — less a place to comment on the ways in which liberals were destroying America than to help guests work on their marriages and other everyday problems. Ablow had been dubbed “the young Dr. Phil,” although he’d told The New York Post he objected to the comparison: Phil McGraw, he said, was about “following rules” on a path toward happiness, whereas he was more interested in understanding where and how people went astray in the first place.
But it wasn’t hard to imagine Ablow fitting in at Fox. For one thing, he’d proved he could talk his way through most anything. He’d landed Dr. Keith after just 35 minutes in a room with Warner Bros. execs, even though at the time his only real TV renown was as a sometime guest on shows like Oprah and Tyra Banks. He’d also proved himself to be a guy who didn’t care about, maybe even sort of liked, getting people riled up, as he’d done with his 2005 bestseller, Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson, in which he controversially diagnosed the convicted murderer as a sociopath without having met him. (As a bonus, it would eventually become clear that Ablow, like Ailes, hated Barack Obama.) His first segment as part of Fox’s “Medical A-Team” was later that year.
Ablow, 55 and a father of two, is a chronic doer and a master of reinvention. Watching him on Fox, a platform he has used to deride Hillary Clinton as a “shameless liar,” propose a cure for transgenderism, and advocate for letting men veto women’s abortions, it’s understandably easy to forget he was once a Democrat. As recently as 2004, he threw a fund-raiser for presidential candidate John Kerry (in 2015, he threw one for Ben Carson, whom he first met as a med student at Johns Hopkins). He’s overflowing with ideas, which has led to multiple careers, many of them simultaneous.
He has written 15 books — one coauthored with Glenn Beck and six of them fiction — and a TV pilot that sold to CBS.
He has conceived or backed a laundry list of companies, including Neuragain, which treats severe depression with infusions of the sedative ketamine; Seat Pets, stuffed animals that attach to kids’ seat belts; Causemo, a fund-raising platform; Lightning Launch, which helps budding inventors develop, license, and sell their products; and the Cat Lick Stick, a cat brush featuring eight silicone cat tongues inspired by his late cat, Veronica. (“I thought to myself one day, you know, she’s licked me like 10,000 times,” he says, “and somewhere in her psyche she’s probably thinking What a jerk, he never licks me back.”)
Last year, he opened Hiatus 1, “the world’s smallest retreat center,” providing housing and one-on-one therapy in a building behind his Newburyport office. In May, he’ll introduce Blue Water Wellness to downtown Newburyport, offering “restorative and performance-oriented menu items” like elective IV nutraceutical infusions, massage, and a saltwater flotation tank.
Perhaps inevitably, he has also contemplated a career in politics and in 2013 briefly considered running for the Massachusetts Senate.
So when, sometime last year, Ablow decided to try his hand at launching a career as a fine artist, there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t make it happen. He has always appreciated art, and especially art he could connect with. (Though that hasn’t dissuaded him from striking deals: He’d once convinced artist George Rodrigue to discount one of his famous Blue Dog paintings by 80 percent in exchange for a promise to name-check a Blue Dog in one of his books.)
The real question was: What took him so long?
IN PERSON, ABLOW IS oppositional without being confrontational, and he’ll listen to your side before politely, but efficiently, deconstructing it. This, I imagine, makes him effective as a psychiatrist. It also makes him effective as a conservative, though his manner is so reasonable that it’s easy to wonder if he really holds the most extreme of these beliefs to be true or if he’s most interested in the intellectual sport of debate.
From behind a large walnut desk in his Newburyport office, where he continues to run a busy private practice (he also sees patients in New York), Ablow insists that while he’s likely grown more conservative in the decade since he’s been on Fox, his views aren’t exclusively conservative. “I’m not trying to put forward any party line,” he says. “I’m just looking for the unexpected psychological music playing in the background of many different things.”
Still, by describing himself as a “health educator” — as well as “one of the most famous psychiatrists in the world” on the Hiatus 1 website — he manages to give right-wing platforms a medical justification, and spin, in a way that many pundits can’t. In Ablow’s medical view, for instance, Donald Trump isn’t a liar, even when he’s caught lying. Rather, he’s “addicted to telling his version of the truth.” In Ablow’s medical view, Chaz Bono is not really a man.
The idea for Ablow’s art project came about, in part, as he thought about the paper prescription pads that were becoming obsolete. New York, the first state to require all prescriptions be filled electronically, had gotten rid of them in March 2016, and more Massachusetts doctors had begun e-prescribing in earnest. The pad, a place to convey Ablow’s “prescriptions” for things other than medicine, would be his medium.
Ablow believes that the digitizing of life is leading to disconnection. He also thinks his colleagues tend to over-prescribe and undertalk. It’s not that he’s against drug treatments for mental health; he prescribes them, “so I don’t have a head of steam against them,” he says. But “psychiatrists in too many numbers are breaking their days into 15-minute visits and just writing prescriptions. They don’t know their patients, they don’t want to know their patients, and I think that’s a loss.”
Soon after coming up with the idea to make art from prescriptions, Ablow found himself in a meeting with Connecticut hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, No. 31 on the Forbes billionaire list, the rumored inspiration for the Showtime series Billions, and an enthusiastic art collector with works that include Picasso’s Le Reve and de Kooning’s Woman III. At the time, Cohen was looking for an in-house psychiatrist for his firm. Ablow wasn’t sure he was a fit — “someone like me might make people not trade as well because you might be thinking about your marriage and whether it’s what you really want or whether you really wanted to be a trader at all,” he says. But the meeting wasn’t unfruitful. Hanging in Cohen’s office was a basketball hoop with crystal netting, a work by David Hammons. Ablow asked him about it. “Steve said, ‘Yeah, it reminds me that sometimes when you score you can score big,’ ” recalls Ablow. “And I said, ‘You know, I’ve had this idea for an art project myself. . . . ’ ” Cohen was enthusiastic about the idea and even offered to refer Ablow to an art consultant he knew. “Sometimes you need someone to offer that last bit of encouragement,” says Ablow. “And that was the last bit of encouragement.”
He went home and wrote his first Rx: 60mg of Prozac, taken by mouth every morning. Then he crossed out the Prozac and wrote, underneath, the 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.
Ablow soon made five more, each with missives intended to “make people think or move them to action,” he says. One has “Facebook” partly crossed out, to instead read “Face the truth today”; another prescribes “Selfless” in place of “Selfie.” An Rx issued to “Women” commands them to “Be fearlessly female twice a week.”
Ablow liked being able to say in a few words what he really meant. The process of turning the scripts into actual art was not as easy as he had hoped, though, and more expensive, too. A friend who creates art installations for museums suggested he blow them up to 2 feet by 3 feet and mount them on die-bond aluminum using archival paper, all of which had to be sourced and assembled. 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. He needed yet a different guy to build mounts for hanging the finished work on the wall. He won’t say how much it costs to produce one but points out that “of course, art isn’t necessarily about the cost of creating it.” Every work is one-of-a-kind.
As for the asking price, Cohen’s consultant advised Ablow to set it at $25,000 each — high enough for him to be seen as a serious artist and cover his production costs, but low enough to be realistic and not seem as if the project were an attempt to trade on his name. The consultant also advised him to request potential buyers with extensive collections include his work in their official listings. “He said, ‘Listen, if you’re going to do this, you have to do it for real,’ ” recalls Ablow. “ ‘It has to be about the art. Because you don’t want to end up as someone’s high-priced Hallmark item. You want to be listed in their collection. You want this to be real.’ ”
Once he had the first six pieces from “Project Prescription” in hand, Ablow says he rang up the Cohens to ask if they were interested in buying the first in the series. Cohen’s wife, Alex, chose “Selfie” and extended an invitation to bring the piece to their house in Connecticut and join them for dinner. Ablow agreed, but, naturally, he had one request: He wanted the billionaire couple to include his piece among their official collection. “I said, ‘Look, you know, I got to be right along with the other people like, you know, Jeff Koons and Picasso,’ ” he recalls. The Cohens now own two.
ALL BUT ONE OF ABLOW’S original six works of art have sold, all through word of mouth and personal connections, and he’s just finished 12 more. 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 the freak you mean (in less polite language) to hang in his Park Avenue offices. “I enjoy collecting art with meaning,” says Torossian, whose office also displays works by Christian Marclay, Vik Muniz, and Mel Bochner. “This piece spoke to me in a very real way. I think in today’s overmedicated world, too often the answer to questions isn’t as hard as we make it out to be. Keith’s art plays a central role in understanding storytelling and capturing the essence of a message.” Recently, Traci Lynn Johnson special-ordered one for her husband, ex-NFL star Tiki Barber, though Ablow’s publicist says the sale fell through.
The only one of the original collection that has not sold is, in fact, Ablow’s most political. Made out to “U.S.A,” it’s a prescription to “support gun control.” Gun gets crossed out; in its place, “crime” (the takeaway: Crime needs controlling). “Because I’m, like, a big gun rights person,” says Ablow, who’s a regular at Original Bob’s Shooting Range in Salisbury. “I like that I don’t have to pretend that it’s not my responsibility to know how to use arms.” (Also, he’s gotten death threats as a result of some of the things he’s said on Fox.) He figures he might donate that piece to the NRA.
A few months ago, Ablow started cold-calling galleries in Manhattan and Boston to see if he could talk anyone into acquiring one of the new pieces. He eventually found himself making a pitch to Vivian Horan, an Upper East Side dealer with an impressive list of works by artists including Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, and Andy Warhol. Horan agreed to give Ablow a meeting and eventually accepted a piece: “Adderall,” with a line slashed through it. In its place: “Let your mind wander.”
Horan, who specializes mostly in the resale market, says she gets quite a few calls from artists looking to sell their own work but that she usually doesn’t act on them. But she found Ablow “very charming and good fun to be with and smart,” she says. “And I thought the work was unique — I’ve never seen someone make art out of a prescription — and a very good reminder of how dangerous these drugs can be.” She had only a vague sense of his TV persona. “I don’t think that we share the same politics at all,” she says. “But I don’t bring politics into the gallery. I’ve never seen him on TV. I don’t watch Fox. But I’m sure he’s very intelligent and very persuasive.”
Horan did, however, have one suggestion for him. “Right now, the work is very literal,” she says. “I thought maybe he could take it out of that context a bit and add a bit of color. We’ll see if he likes that idea or not,” she says, quickly adding: “He’s the artist, not me.”