Sunday, September 25, 2011

Dealers I Have Known, Part One Of an Occasional Series

Because I was so unstinting in my condemnation of art dealers, I have decided to trot out a few stories that exemplify the breed's most salient characteristics.  For my first account, I've chosen an experience that might stand in for many another.  On the surface, it is quite ordinary: I saw an opportunity to be connected with a reputable dealer, took a fairly long trip in a rented automobile and met with this dealer, who agreed to represent me.  The devil is, however, in the nuances.  Things seemed to go all right, but they would have repercussions, which I'll get to in the second part of the story. 

I do not claim to remember what happened word for word.  Mine is a prejudicial reconstruction - "prejudicial" because it reflects the nature of the experience rather than its particulars.  The dialogue is accurate insofar as it suggests a personal point of view; the exact words cannot, over such a glacial period, be recalled.  Aside from myself, I've chosen not to divulge the names of the other people.  One has since passed on.  The other has become moderately successful as a Hollywood bit-player.  As far as I know, he doesn't do caricatures anymore. 

Let me point out that I'm fully aware that the dealer in my story doesn't resemble the dealer-archetypes in my jeremiad.  He is, for one, a man.  For another, he is a fairly cordial person.  In the interest of fairness, I wanted to start out with him.  Over time, there will be others.  

In 1988, a painter-friend who had been slugging it out in the art world since the early 60's and had made as enviable a name for himself as any figure-painter at the time could, recommended me to a successful dealer who was based in theWashington area - Bethesda, Maryland to be exact.  He said that this dealer had a good reputation and had been successful in placing work of whose saleability he, the painter, had despaired.  He added that this dealer was not entirely conscientious in the way of mathematics; some of his sales were recorded and passed on; others were not.  He sent me on my way with the observation that this dealer should be watched.  I assured him that I'd be up to the task and made an appointment.  My timing was perfect.  This dealer just happened to be in New York City, where I was living at the time, and could, as it turned out, see me.  I gussied up my apartment a little bit and waited.   I was foolishly sanguine, but couldn't help myself.  One always is at such times.  When bitter urges start, whatever is prompting them has already happened.  We are always at our best in the before, though we tend to live more in the after. 

The usual pleasantries occurred.  Did you get here all right?   If you'll remember, I grew up in Brooklyn.  Brooklyn's just a little knottier than Manhattan.  I guess it's like riding a bike.  How's that?  You never forget.  No, I guess you don't.  Care for anything to drink?  No, I stopped doing that some time ago.  Very wise.  As I'm not.  And so on.
My apartment was small, though if you were in the bedroom, you could look straight across the river to New Jersey - a view I had painted fairly often.  It was a the sort of majestic view for which apartment-dwellers always yearn.  It compensates them somewhat for having to live in a claustrophobic bedroom which is always too generously named.  And have a kitchen which has room enough for one cook and an idler - provided that idler stand outside the door. It was almost as far Uptown as I had ever lived.  People often wondered if Manhattan existed there at all.  I was fond of telling such people that the island broke off into two sections outside of my apartment building.  In spite of the abundance of maps and geography courses, some of them believed me. 
This dealer didn't care for my most recent work, which was dismaying.  Most artists are forward-looking people for whom past accomplishments recede fairly quickly.  They concentrate - and rightfully so - on the present.  I was no exception.  I thought my most recent work my best.  Being something of a pragmatist, however, I switched allegiances.  I told this dealer that I had slides of older work that might appeal to him. 

"None of it is here?" he asked.

"No, it's not."

"Well, then, show me these slides."

I complied with the eagerness of the reprieved and congratulated myself as a card-sharp would after a particularly dazzling sleight-of-hand.  I was the seducer who had managed to breach age-old defenses - a seducer who had progressed from dinner-table to trundle-bed.  I denied myself the smug feeling a good guesser always has and listened.

"These are so much better than the others!"

I refrained from acknowlegding the compliment, though I did not repudiate it by action or word.

He chose a bunch of  these paintings and directed me to get them at my earliest convenience. 

"I know I can sell these things.  Sure you don't have more?"

I admitted that I had a few, but no slides.  (Slides were the best image production technology available at the time.)

"Bring those too!" he said, and left in a happy mood.

Unfortunately, the work he considered vastly inferior to my most recent efforts was 1,400 miles away, in a city that was better known for its musicians than its artists.  I checked in with the man who had initiated this process and he said, amidst all of my reservations: "Go."

Some of you might know of this artist, but in the interest of minimum disclosure, I'm not going to mention his name.  I admire him to this day.  He is a good fellow and a great painter.  Few living people are mensches.  To become a mensch, most people's rough edges have to be forgotten, allowed to fade in the sun, given all of the perquisites death allows.  He was a mensch then and is a mensch today.  He doesn't need the slack periods and dreamy intervals that allow us to re-think the transgressions of otherwise good people.  He never committed any.  This painter/fellow never let the mensch in him deteriorate.  If anything, he is a greater mensch now than ever.  Let us celebrate such people; they are sui generis.  They show us the way.

This dealer was considered shrewd.  He had survived the vagaries of a market that had enshrined pictures "that looked like something" to pictures that looked like somebody had come in, pissed all over the floor, and managed to hit the canvas enough for a vaguely yellowish cast to be discerned. He was considered a champion of realism at a time when realism was not de rigueur.  He even put hard-pressed painters on stipends - or said he did.  He wasn't in New York - an unorthodox choice for a man who had grown up in Brooklyn.  Whatever the case, he thrived and had square footage to back that up.  Unfortunately, that square footage was chock-full - as I discovered when I and an actor-caricatcurist friend pulled into the place on the evening of my appointment.  We were late by just a few minutes.  Not bad for people who knew nothing about Bethesda, Maryland and were surprised, when we approached the city limits, that it was there at all. 

"I see you've made it," the dealer said after we caught our collective breath.

"Yes, I think we have," I replied.  My friend the caricatcurist - who would eventually steal the evening from me - said he'd never been to Maryland, but forgave himself. 

"Haven't been to Vegas either," he said, possibly as a way to encompass the entire United States as being off-limits.  He was bi-coastal.  He flew over, drove around, or pointedly ignored anyplace that lacked the aesthetics of congestion or cocaine.

"Want anything?  I've got some weak coffee," said the dealer.

"No, thanks," said my friend, who rarely passed up any stimulant, whether it was illegal or not.

"Wait a minute," he said.  "I saw a coffee shop around the corner.  Wanna go there?  I gotta get my daily fix.  If I go without caffeine, I forget my mother's name." 
"I don't need coffee to do that," said the dealer.

"We all have our blind spots," said my friend.

"Age, in my case," said the dealer.

"An astrologer tells me every year that I'm going to die on, or near, July 4th.  She's my only source of longevity.  When she goes, I'm right behind her."

"Wish I could be you," said the dealer without any attempt at meaning.

"No, you don't," said I, with surprising emphasis.

"We could go there," said the dealer, ignoring me.  And off we went.

Within a few minutes, my friend had done a fine little drawing of the older man - which managed to both lampoon and flatter.
"This is very good," said the dealer, smiling at himself.
"Please," said my friend, "take it."
"Yes, please."
"You know, I could use somebody like you," said the dealer, drinking himself in.
"I'm not a fine artist the way he is.  I just draw funny pictures.  Or try to."
He gave me a polite little shrug.  I shrugged back, not as politely.
Then the dealer asked me what I thought of the drawing.
"It catches your likeness very well."
The dealer took his drawing and held it up to the light as if it were a small section of a cathedral window and would become translucent.  When it didn't, he wasn't disappointed in the least.  He just kept trying to look through it. 
"Would you have enough work for a show?" he asked, addressing my friend.
"Maybe.  But. . .you don't want my stuff.  You're an emporium of fine art.  You represent the best and brightest.  Your loyalty is to paint and canvas."
"Yes, it is," acknowledged the dealer, who was well-satisfied with the characterization, "but a person has to branch out.  We should talk about this.  We really should."
When we got back to the gallery, I said I would go get my paintings.
"Yes, you do that," said the dealer as if anticipating something mildly distasteful, but putting a good face on it.
When I finished unloading, it was time for the dealer to assess my work.  He'd remembered much of it from the slides I'd shown him, but there were newish paintings he'd not seen.  He was approving, but not ecstatic. 
"Is this all you've got?"
"It was all I was able to bring."
His face clouded over, but he decided to be good-hearted and said: "Well, let's do a price-list.  It's getting late and you gentlemen aren't home yet."
Said my friend: "Is one ever?"
"Oh!" exclaimed the dealer a few beats afterward.  "That's very good.  Is one ever!"
"No, one never is," I said, and rummaged around a back room for a sheet of paper.
I was somewhat shocked by the monetary value the dealer had put on my work.  It seemed inappropriately small, even for a painter who hadn't popped up in that part of the country and couldn't make money on his reputation.  I felt, however, that I should be making a little more on my work.  Something - perhaps the inflection of my painter-friend's voice when he said this dealer must be watched - told me that I should make a list of paintings and prices, so I asked whether I could use the typewriter in the back-room where I had found pen and paper and proceeded to do so.  I was fully confident that my friend would entertain the dealer in my absence.
By the time I was done, they were having a rollicking little time of it.  I ahemmed as only pissed-off people can and they lifted their heads.  It took the dealer some seconds to remember the crowning ritual at hand.  After a small psychic battle, he did and motioned me to come over. 
"Looks like that's everything," he said, about to put the list aside.
"Could I make a copy for myself?"
"What's that?"
"A copy.  I'd like to have a copy for myself."
"Oh," said the dealer, the image of a British officer who is about to say "This is highly irregular", but decided to oblige me.  He had a small copier back in that same office.
I had left the cream of my earlier work with a man who didn't much impress me in a space that couldn't do anything but. 
I should talk about that for a moment.
This dealer had told me, during our conversation in my apartment, that he wasn't a "stand-around" sort of guy.  If he wanted an artist, he came after him.  I mentioned some people he, the dealer, might have pursued in the past and he had a story about each and every one of them.  Some relationships began well, but ended disastrously.  Some, because of the curmudgeonly distance certain artists apparently liked putting between their studios and the outside world, never began at all.  Others led to lasting and profitable relationships - whether to him alone or to the both of them he didn't say. 
The detritus of such single-minded pursuit lined the walls, was formed into wobbly units, and fanned out into miniature golf-course patterns that allowed art-lovers to zigzag between them.  No drunken man or woman would have been able to execute all the hairpin turns and sudden shifts of weight that, I learned, were necessary to hold one's position amidst such a wealth of effort.  Had not this man built shelves?  Or were all of these painitings left over?  I flipped through them and was excited, then appalled, to run into familiar names and signature images.  Some of the paintings, having been pressed against other paintings for so long, were slightly scratched.  Others were protected by jostle-proof frames.  Still others occupied a kind of intermediate stage; danger hovered over them, but had not yet struck. 
Studying this domino-style arrangement, I knew what was going to happen to my work.  Some days hence, an assistant would be given the task of slotting it into these painting-villages.  Most of it was framed, but I feared for the pieces that weren't.  Coward that I was, I said nothing as my friend and I left the gallery - one of the few lighted storefronts left in Downtown Bethesda, Maryland.
"How 'bout that?" he said.  "I may have a show here."
I did not succumb to the urge to say "Whooppee!"  I already knew it was a mixed blessing. 

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