I came here in 1970 and started working for Klaus Kertess at the Bykert Gallery as a secretary. It was a gallery that was artist-driven rather than collector-driven. I had originally studied to be an art historian. But though the classes that you take in school are exciting, the application in the job environment is boring. My art-history degree basically enabled me to dust slides at the Guggenheim, which was a far cry from how I had pictured myself. So that’s when I studied to be an artist, but I never want to make any claims that I was anything even barely approaching mediocre. I would never have shown my work. Also, I think that to be an artist, you need to spend a long amount of time by yourself, which I don’t like to do.
You know Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler’s statement, that it’s great artists who make dealers great? He was referring to Picasso. You saw this happen with Jasper Johns and Leo Castelli. With Klaus, it was Brice Marden. For me, it was Julian Schnabel and David Salle and maybe Jean-Michel Basquiat. In the nineties, dealers put a totally opposite spin on that. They show artists who are already famous, like Brice or Jasper, in order to make themselves famous and attract people who ordinarily wouldn’t come in because of your name or eye.
For me, the most exhilarating thing has always been working with artists. You love it when you see an artist grow over a period of years. They take the work to another level, and it’s exhilarating to see artists challenge their own history. Because with great artists, their biggest competition oftentimes becomes their own history. It’s so unfair. They have no place to go but down.
The seventies were actually very similar to the nineties. I think that then, there was a backlash against the kind of glamour and flamboyance of the Kennedy era, of the Scull sale, of the Factory, of what people saw as high life, lots of drugs, lots of parties and money being strewn around. When in fact it was $15,000 at the time for a Rauschenberg or $20,000 for a Johns, which seems absurd by today’s standards.
Bykert closed in November ’76. I still had an ambivalence about whether I was going to take the plunge into dealing. I even tried getting a job at another gallery – Robert Miller. I offered him my services, and he offered to pay me $30,000 a year, which was very little money then and even less now. The problem was, he was happy to take me, but he didn’t want to show these terrible artists I was involved with. Two years later, he tried to take Julian away from the gallery – and David subsequent to that. So I guess he did me a favor.
I had been raised in an atmosphere that was very anti-image. But what I found was that the young abstract painters of the time were making work that was derivative, whereas these young figurative artists like Julian and David and Ross Bleckner were really making exciting work. So I had to work against my prejudice, and I ended up with these figurative artists. I was looking for something totally different. But they were the real thing. I met Ross looking at slides when I was at Bykert in ’72 or ’73. In fact, in the whole history of my life in New York, he’s the only artist I ever met from looking at slides.
Ross told Julian that this young woman who had sold some paintings out of his studio was going to open an art gallery. I met Julian at the restaurant where he worked. Julian was very convinced he was the real thing. I wanted a while to think about it. I got about four hours. I got home and Julian was on the phone. The subtext of the conversation was, I’d better show him because he’s the next best thing to Rembrandt and if I didn’t, he was going to show with Holly Solomon. Which was probably the thing that drove me the most. I said fine. What do you say at a time like that?
I collected a group of nine investors who put in very little money in exchange for buying art at cost. I moved into 420 West Broadway, and we started construction. Leo Castelli was on the second floor. And Ileana Sonnabend. I was on the main floor. And it was my idea that if I left my door open, the people that were waiting for the elevator might come in. The first show was a group show with Schnabel and Richard Artschwager, and some others. The response? Nothing. Publicly, I tried to be very confident. Privately, I was scared to death.
I took on Jean-Michel, and then Julian made a fairly sudden exit to Pace. He was a rising star and the most visible artist in the gallery. Obviously I was very upset; your heart is always broken worst the first time it happens. But I certainly think it’s been great for Julian, and I think it was great for our whole generation. Because in some way, it did the same thing as my showing Julian in collaboration with Leo in April 1981: It sanctioned a whole generation of artists. And then Brice Marden coming to me the next year made an even bigger stir, because here was a very established artist coming to this downtown gallery.
Unfortunately, people talk about the eighties in disparaging terms, like it’s the first time anyone ever discovered greed. But really, the eighties were a period of growth, energy, discovery, invention. Art made some very interesting strides during that period of time. There are a number of artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, and Cindy Sherman who were doing more intellectually driven work than market-driven work.
And it’s unfortunate that the whole decade got tarnished because of a small period of time when buying art became like buying lottery tickets. But in fact, for the 8,000 works of art that we sold, only maybe a dozen collectors ended up selling in a very conspicuous way. There were hundreds of people who kept the art. I think the important thing to consider is that it wasn’t the artist who became rich in the eighties; it was the collector.
After the stock-market crash, people who’d put their money in the market turned to collectibles. For the art world, the last quarter of 1989 was like the crash, and ’90 to ’92 was very frightening because things kept dropping, dropping, dropping. By the end of 1992, there started to be a feeling that things were stabilizing. And by ’94, it was clear that the worst was over. Now it’s almost like a stealth eighties. It’s like in Germany, they buy a Mercedes and take the little insignia off so you don’t know how much they spent for their car. That’s the nineties. And to me it’s just so fake. The fact is, there’s a lot of money around, and a lot of people are buying art. The one thing that’s different is, they won’t buy just anything. Which I think is very healthy.
Interviewed by Phoebe Hoban