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Marks Nabs Johns

How gallerist Matthew Marks bagged the flag man and became the new Leo Castelli.

In the middle of April, Matthew Marks, the world’s most precocious art dealer, trekked to the American interior to honor a triumvirate of premier clients—Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, and the sculptor Robert Gober—at Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center. The museum was dedicating rooms to each of them in its new wing. Only Kelly and Gober were in attendance for the weekend-long rounds of dinners and ceremonies. Nevertheless, Jasper Johns, still tucked away in his northwestern-Connecticut home, loomed over the proceedings in a typically outsize way. That’s because Marks is poised to preside over one of the biggest events of the spring art season: On May 7, he will host Johns’s first exhibit of new work in New York since his 1996 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, showing some 40 new paintings.

Landing Johns is a monumental achievement for Marks, who is a boyish-looking 42 years old. True, his eponymous gallery represents an enviable list of talent—Brice Marden, Andreas Gursky, Nan Goldin, Katharina Fritsch, Roni Horn, and Terry Winters—and he has held exhibits of work by Willem de Kooning, Lucian Freud, and Cy Twombly. But a Johns show is an event of the sort rarely seen in today’s art world. Johns is America’s—some would say the world’s—preeminent living painter, not to mention the most highly priced. One Johns canvas, False Start, netted $17 million in 1988, which is believed to be the record price for a work by an artist alive today.

Since 1957, Johns had sold his work through Leo Castelli, the famous Upper East Side gallerist who, with Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, Donald Judd, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, Dan Flavin, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris, and Cy Twombly on his roster, became a cultural icon in his own right.

“Jasper’s relationship with Castelli is very impressive,” Marks says. “He was with him for 40 years. It’s inconceivable to me that anybody could be that loyal. When I was growing up, that was my model of the great gallery. I remember as a teenager going up there to see Jasper’s new work, discussing it with my friends.” When Castelli died in 1999, every other prestige gallerist was eager for a shot at debuting Johns’s remarkable new works, what Johns calls his “catenary series.”

Some curators and collectors venture that in Marks, Johns may have seen a glimmer of the old Castelli. Johns himself didn’t want to compare the two: “Leo was a great friend for a long period of time,” he says. “It was a history of growth for both of us.”

But Johns, after going nearly a decade without a major new exhibition, might well be thinking that a Marks show could augur more growth. Had Johns decided to show with, say, Knoedler, it would have been akin to being embalmed. Pace, for its part, is too corporate and sanitized in its sensibility for an artist like Johns. And Larry Gagosian, despite his sharklike business instincts, has struggled to bring longevity or vibrancy to the work of already established artists who came to him well into their careers (David Salle and Francesco Clemente come to mind). Johns doesn’t need Marks; he could have gotten somebody to start a new gallery just to show his work. But, as his paintings attest, Johns is a meticulous man of deliberate calculation, and it’s unlikely he made the move to Matthew Marks haphazardly.

Johns, who is 74 years old, completed the catenary series between 1997 and 2003, by which point he and Marks were well into their courtship. “I basically wrote him a letter one day, probably seven or eight years ago, and asked if I could come to his studio sometime,” Marks recalls. When Johns agreed, Marks went up to Connecticut to find the studio “filled with these amazing paintings. I could tell at some point that this was the beginning of a series. Two finished paintings and another one that was almost finished. That’s a lot of paintings to see in Jasper’s studio.”

The new works play with catenary shapes—the curve formed when a cable is hung between two points, as on the sides of suspension bridges—to produce a spare, layered image. An untitled painting, and the only white picture in the series, has a very active surface, with a large catenary draped from wood strips at the canvas’s far edges. Others reference his personal history and earlier works: an image of his grandparents, handkerchiefs, harlequin patterns, and a dragon-printed “Chinaman” costume from his childhood.

Marks kept asking if he could exhibit Johns’s work. “I said it so many times that I gave up. I mean, you don’t want to be a pill.” Eventually, Johns agreed to show some of the works in a small traveling museum exhibit brokered by Marks. The show went to San Francisco, Dallas, and New Haven. “He was very generous with me,” Marks says. “And then, after Leo Castelli died, he began letting me sell the pictures.”

Marks quickly sold the catenary paintings for between $2 million and $4 million per work, depending on the work’s size. (Save for a lone picture that the artist is keeping for himself, all the pieces in the pending exhibit have been sold.)

In January 2004, when Marks brought some curators from the Art Institute of Chicago down to St. Maarten, where Johns spends his winters, to sell one to them, Johns declared that the canvas was the last one in the series. “At that point, he said he was willing to show them,” Marks says.

“Matthew seemed to think it was a pity that they were being sold without the public having the opportunity to see them,” Johns says. The works were either being shipped straight to collectors or coming into the gallery briefly and being shipped off. This appeal to artistic vanity is typical of how Marks conceives of his work as a gallerist: He is conspicuously slavish in his devotion to his artists.

“Artists have strange and specific needs that have to be fortified,” Johns says. “They like to think that they are the center of attention. And Matthew”—he laughs to signal what an understatement this is— “I think Matthew is capable of making artists feel that.”