Read by Jonathan Davis
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The contemporary art market is an international juggernaut, throwing off multimillion-dollar deals as wealthy buyers move from fair to fair, auction to auction, party to glittering party. But none of it would happen without the dealers-the tastemakers who back emerging artists and steer them to success, often to see them picked off by a rival.
Dealers operate within a private world of handshake agreements, negotiating for the highest commissions. Michael Shnayerson, a longtime contributing editor to Vanity Fair, writes the first ever definitive history of their activities. He has spoken to all of today’s so-called mega dealers — Larry Gagosian, David Zwirner, Arne and Marc Glimcher, and Iwan Wirth — along with dozens of other dealers — from Irving Blum to Gavin Brown — who worked with the greatest artists of their times: Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and more.
This kaleidoscopic history begins in the mid-1940s in genteel poverty with a scattering of galleries in midtown Manhattan, takes us through the ramshackle 1950s studios of Coenties Slip, the hipster locations in SoHo and Chelsea, London’s Bond Street, and across the terraces of Art Basel until today. Now, dealers and auctioneers are seeking the first billion-dollar painting. It hasn’t happened yet, but they are confident they can push the price there soon.
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Contemporary art is a hard subject to get your arms around these days. Artists rise and sometimes fall in a few years; some do work that is clearly gorgeous, others make off-putting, head-scratching, shocking, or even viscerally appalling work. There are many books, magazines, journals, and blogs that debate the relative merits of contemporary artists and the lasting value of their work. That is not the purpose of this book: I have happily yielded that task to the curators and critics.
In the pages that follow, I have looked, instead, for the story of how the market for contemporary art evolved from rather modest and uncertain beginnings in the 1940s to become a wildly unpredictable financial roller coaster in the present, with global reach, capable of making and moving vast fortunes, and with the lightest regulatory touch of any financial market in the world. Perhaps inevitably such an environment has attracted a vivid cast of characters, some with aristocratic fortunes behind them, others utterly self-made. It mixes European hauteur with American moxie. It’s a space where women have had, if not quite an absolutely equal footing to the men, then a crucial role in the lives and careers of some artists—and have been innovators and trailblazers to a degree unseen in any other comparable business environment. Perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s presence at the creation of the contemporary art story ensured it would never be an all-boys-club story.
My hope is that readers will enjoy the book not only for the glimpses of some of the most memorable works of the last half-century but for the stories of the men and women who toiled over them, sponsored them, talked them up, and in some cases even bid them up. John Kasmin, a leading dealer for decades, once sized up his role with a bit of cheek. “All artists do is produce the work, the dealer has to create its allure,” he declared. And then added, “Rather a silly remark, but it’s not completely untrue.”
Indeed it’s not.
MIRACLE ON 57TH STREET
IN THE SPRING OF 1947, two of the New York art world’s most elegant women met to decide the fate of painter Jackson Pollock.1 Peggy Guggenheim, rich and mercurial, had opened her West 57th Street gallery after fleeing Europe with her artist husband, Max Ernst, via Lisbon in July 1941.2 Now with her divorce from Ernst finalized, she was closing her Art of This Century gallery and returning to Europe.3 The gallery had drawn lots of attention, and Guggenheim liked that. But she had grown bored sitting in the small gallery rooms day after day. She longed to return to Venice, and with the postwar peace secured, she could. One of her few remaining tangles was the delicate matter of Pollock’s gallery fate.
Betty Parsons, the other woman, came from a once-wealthy New York family that had divided its time among Manhattan, Newport, Palm Beach, and Paris.4 Her parents had been wiped out in the Depression, along with her ex-husband and his alimony. She had opened her own gallery in September 1946, half a block from Guggenheim’s at 15 East 57th Street. Part of the $5,500 to finance it had come from a cadre of her former classmates from Miss Chapin’s School who called themselves the Katinkas: blue-blood Parsons admirers whose husbands had managed to hang on to their money.5
With one exception—Pollock—Guggenheim’s artists would simply move down 57th Street to the new Betty Parsons Gallery.6 That was what they wanted, and Guggenheim was hardly about to dissuade them. “They chose me,” Parsons later declared. “The artists wanted to be in my gallery. Barney [Barnett Newman] came to me and said, ‘We want to be in your gallery.’ And I said, ‘Well, that would be fine.’”7 They would join artists already signed with Parsons—Ad Reinhardt, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still—all leading lights of the new postwar art that would come to be called Abstract Expressionism.
Pollock was a Guggenheim artist, too, but he took careful handling. He was so poor that he’d had to work as a handyman to make ends meet—so poor that on one occasion, he had had to shoplift his art supplies.8 That changed when Guggenheim signed a contract with Pollock in 1943. She subsidized him at $150 a month, a stipend later raised to $300. This wasn’t charity: after she had doubled the stipend, Guggenheim repaid herself from the sales of Pollock’s paintings, leaving him just one painting of his choice each year to keep or sell as he liked. New York’s Museum of Modern Art had bought a Pollock, The She-Wolf, for $600; other museums and private collectors had begun to buy his work too. Still, a number of Pollock paintings remained unsold.
Parsons had mixed feelings about taking on Pollock. She could ill afford to pay the stipend, and Pollock, despite his uptick in sales, remained a dubious prospect. He was a wild man too. Parsons had seen him drunk at downtown parties, boastful and belligerent. And yet he intrigued her. “There was a vitality, an enormous physical presence,” she mused later. Pollock’s emotions welled up at alarming speed. “He made you feel sad; even when he was happy he made you feel like crying.… You never quite knew whether he was going to kiss your hand or throw something at you.”9 Reluctantly, Parsons agreed to take him on and to pay Guggenheim a commission on her Pollock works if they sold. She drew the line at paying the stipend.
Guggenheim agreed. She may have had no choice: Parsons, according to critic Dore Ashton, was the only dealer in New York courageous enough to take Pollock.10
Guggenheim said she would keep paying the stipend if Parsons gave Pollock a one-man show in the near future.11 Before she left for her canal-side villa in Venice, Guggenheim gave away 18 of her Pollocks—gifts she would come to regret.12
Sometime after the deal was struck, Parsons drove out with artist Barnett Newman, her closest male friend, to the East End of Long Island to stay the night with Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner.13 Krasner’s own abstract paintings hung along with her husband’s in the small farmhouse the Pollocks had bought in the Springs as a refuge from New York, though pride of place, Parsons noticed, went to the Pollock paintings. As for Newman, he was still an almost indifferent artist. Not until the next year would he break through with a painting titled Onement, I: flat fields of color bisected by a vertical stripe he called a “zip.”14
That afternoon, the four talked of Pollock’s new work. He had just started spreading his canvases on the floor of his studio out back and pouring loops of paint across them, some from his brushes, others from cans, as if conducting music that only he could hear. Parsons was enthusiastic; she knew better than to give artists advice. Pollock would have his first show, they agreed, the next January. “I give them walls,” Parsons liked to say of her artists. “They do the rest.”15
After dinner, the Pollocks and their guests sat on the floor like children, drawing with Japanese pens.16 Pollock pressed down so hard that he broke one pen after another. Still, his first drawings were delicate. Then he turned angry, and the drawings grew harsh. He hadn’t yet stopped drinking for what would be a two-year period of sobriety. But if he was drinking hard that night, Parsons made no later mention of it. The next morning, he was fine, as if the black mood had never enveloped him.
Parson’s first show with Pollock was a commercial disappointment. The paintings, in his new “drip” style, baffled the crowd. Despite prices as low as $150, only one of the 17 sold—Lee Krasner had arranged for Bill Davis, a former lover of Guggenheim’s, to buy it.17 Under the terms of Guggenheim’s contract with Parsons, the proceeds went to Guggenheim.
Still, in those packed rooms, dense with cigarette smoke, stood pretty much the entire New York art world circa 1948: a few dozen serious but impecunious artists, who lived in cold-water, walk-up studios downtown; perhaps eight dealers, mostly with galleries on 57th Street; and a few collectors, led by the Museum of Modern Art’s first director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., and one of the most influential people in American modern art, the pioneering MoMA curator Dorothy Miller. They commented on the art, but also on the new gallery look that Parsons had established. Her bright white walls and waxed wood floors were a sharp rebuke to the cozy feel of galleries past, with their plush carpeting, elegant couches, and walls of boiserie. It was a stark new look for a new kind of art.
For the artists soon to be known as the New York School, a phrase coined by artist and critic Robert Motherwell, the way forward, it seemed clear, was Abstract Expressionism.18 It was bold and new, a breathtaking turn away from everything being done in Europe. But what was Abstract Expressionism? That was hard to say, because no two artists had the same approach. Some six decades later, Irving Sandler, an Ab Ex critic and historian and one of the last survivors of that tumultuous time in American art, would note in his art-filled Greenwich Village apartment that the Ab Exers were more agreed on what they didn’t want to do than what they did. “What organized them was a negative attitude. Not cubism. Not surrealism. Not geometric abstraction. They didn’t feel these ‘isms’ spoke to them. Their moment was World War II. They were looking for a much more tragic attitude—an attitude that brought into focus their postwar malaise.”
Every ism was a reaction to the one that preceded it: Surrealism was the one that Ab Exers moved away from, in part because it was Europe based. In the Surrealist Manifesto of 1924, André Breton and his followers declared that art’s mission was to unlock the unconscious, and in so doing challenged the deliberate absurdity of the ism that had come before, Dadaism. The Surrealists—Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, René Magritte—had tried séance-like “automatic” writing and art, then turned to dream-like scenes in a search for ultimate meaning. The war put an end to all that. There were no absolute truths, no comforting myths. Artists were left to confront life’s harsh realities on their own, as individuals.
The Ab Exers painted from the gut, trusting their instincts. Those who expressed themselves with vigorous brushwork became known as the action painters, a label applied by the critic Harold Rosenberg. Among them were Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Franz Kline, and Pollock.19 Those who laid down more peaceable fields of color became the color field painters: Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, as designated by Rosenberg’s critical counterpart, Clement Greenberg.20 The color field painters were a more meditative group—individuals against the world, as the action painters were, but in pursuit of the sublime.
There were few women in the New York School, as both branches of Ab Ex came to be called. One was Helen Frankenthaler, Motherwell’s wife, a color field pioneer who used a “soak stain” technique influenced by Jackson Pollock. She spread her canvases on the floor and covered them with turpentine-thinned watery washes, creating translucent abstractions. Joan Mitchell was an action painter, her large, abstract landscapes often freighted with symbols of death and depression. Grace Hartigan, a second-generation Abstract Expressionist, made gestural, intensely colored paintings often inspired by popular culture.21 Lee Krasner was also an Ab Exer, though she would struggle for years to escape her husband’s shadow and establish her own legacy. Beyond these few, the field for Ab Ex women artists grew thin: even in the rule-breaking realm of Abstract Expressionist art, men dominated.
Neither Guggenheim nor Parsons might have exhibited any of these burgeoning talents if the city’s most prestigious dealer had wanted to step in. Pierre Matisse, youngest child of the painter Henri Matisse, was down the street at 41 East 57th. Matisse had the clout and connections to take on any Abstract Expressionist he liked. As it happened, he liked none of them. To a connoisseur of his generation, good art meant European art. It was left to a handful of small dealers to show and promote the art that was about to take over the world. One of them was Charles Egan, a blustery Philadelphian who had no formal art training but was a popular character among the artists who gathered at the downtown Waldorf Cafeteria. They encouraged Egan to start his own 57th Street gallery.
Willem de Kooning, a Waldorf regular, was 44 in April 1948 when Egan gave him his first show—a series of black-and-white paintings that led Irving Sandler to call him “the most influential artist of his generation.” The Dutch-born De Kooning had grown up working-class in Rotterdam and, unlike most American artists, had formally apprenticed at a commercial decorating firm, immersing himself in Art Nouveau. He had arrived in New York as a stowaway in 1926 and supported himself by doing commercial art through the twenties. During the Depression, he had worked as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) artist, but a growing passion for his own art relegated him to penury by the late 1930s.
It was on the verge of World War II that De Kooning’s circle expanded with the arrival of kindred spirits from the chaos of Europe: Marcel Duchamp, Marc Chagall, and André Breton, among others. De Kooning’s work through the early 1940s produced often gloomy, figurative portraits, but these eventually began to give way to more tumultuous compositions.
From his loft on West 22nd Street, De Kooning and his vivacious wife, Elaine, entertained the artists they had come to know—artists who admired De Kooning’s intense struggle with his work. Yet the artist who drew the most attention was Pollock, the big, burly Wyoming native whose figurative work was also on the verge of something new. By the midforties, Pollock was the name on everyone’s lips. De Kooning had only a modest string of group shows to call his career. As Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan note in their magisterial De Kooning: An American Master, those included an autumn salon at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery in October 1945. “Compared to Pollock’s success d’estime, however, de Kooning’s inclusion in these group shows was insignificant,” they write. “By mid-decade, already forty years old, de Kooning had sold only one painting to a collector outside his downtown circle of friends and admirers.”22
The show at Charlie Egan’s gallery in 1948 made de Kooning an artist to be reckoned with, but the ten paintings priced between $300 and $2,000 failed to sell.23 Egan was, perhaps, partly to blame. He was a heavy drinker and a bit sloppy in his private life: that fall of 1948 he had a passionate affair with Elaine de Kooning while still representing her husband. Even in the love-and-let-love downtown circles, that was a bit much.24
BETTY PARSONS NEVER DID BECOME DE Kooning’s dealer; Sidney Janis went on to win that prize. But at a pivotal moment in the late forties and early fifties, Parsons became almost everyone else’s—the dealer to a murderers’ row of Ab Exers who transformed contemporary art.
For Parsons, a passion for radical art came early. At 13, she accompanied her parents to the seminal International Exhibition of Modern Art, which became known as the Armory Show of 1913, on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets. It was the first time she had ever seen Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Here were early Cubist paintings by Picasso and Braque, Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), and so much more. Parsons was fascinated. She emerged determined to be an artist. More than 30 years after her death in 1982, galleries and curators are still debating whether her art was top-notch. As a dealer, however, she was destined to be one of the greats—perhaps the greatest of the early-to-mid 1950s.
Parsons’s parents divorced in the late 1910s, and she along with her two sisters was sent to live with her well-off paternal grandfather, John Friederich “the General” Pierson.25 Parsons attended Miss Chapin’s School, but dressed like a tomboy and showed no feminine graces. The General railed at her, suspecting what Betty may already have known: that she was a lesbian.
Marriage to a well-born suitor ten years her senior made Parsons respectable, but not for long. Schuyler Livingston Parsons “was in the Social Register… and was a playboy, and a homosexual.”26 The couple barely survived their passage to Europe, as her groom insisted on bossing her around and Parsons furiously rebelled. By 1923, she had filed for divorce in Paris, where she took up residence, supported by her ex-husband’s alimony payments. Her life in art had begun.
At 24, Parsons had a trim, boyish figure and enough verve to ring up the city’s artists and writers and introduce herself. Soon her circle included artists Alexander Calder and Man Ray, socialite-artist Gerald Murphy and his much-admired wife Sara, and author Hart Crane. She also befriended several of Paris’s best-known lesbians: Janet Flanner of the New Yorker, bookstore owner Sylvia Beach, and the redoubtable Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
The Depression, when it came, seemed very far away, until Parsons’s alimony payments stopped arriving. The General died having disinherited her—another bitter blow. Desperate, she sailed home with her dog to New York in July 1933, then headed west to Los Angeles, where close friends insisted she stay with them as long as she wished. Her friends from Miss Chapin’s School paid her bills and encouraged her to paint portraits and teach art.27
Parsons’s sexual ambiguity fascinated the LA circle in which she now found herself. There were drunken parties with humorist Robert Benchley, actress Tallulah Bankhead, and savage wit Dorothy Parker. For Parsons, a most intriguing new friend was Greta Garbo, generally assumed—though never admitted—to be gay. Decades later, when asked if the bond had been sexual, Parsons turned coy. “She was very beautiful and I was very taken with her, but of course she was very busy and I was very busy.”28
After two years in LA giving painting lessons to her bibulous friends, Parsons sold her engagement ring to finance her return to New York, her first-class train passage paid for by American modernist painter Stuart Davis, who even proposed.29 (She declined.) With no other recourse, she worked up the nerve to show her paintings to a small midtown dealer, Alan Gruskin.30 To her astonishment, he gave her a show.
Friends flooded the gallery, and works sold to prominent New Yorkers, including members of the Algonquin Round Table. Gruskin suggested Parsons stay on to sell art for commission at his Midtown Galleries—she came with a clientele. For Parsons, now in her midthirties, it was her first real job, and one that made her feel she had found her calling at last.
The job was short-lived, but Parsons moved on to another gallery, in the basement of the Wakefield Bookshop on East 55th Street. There she developed her own roster of artists, including Saul Steinberg, Hedda Sterne, and Joseph Cornell.31 Her next stop was the East 57th Street space of Mortimer Brandt, an English dealer. When Brandt went back to England in late September 1946, that space became the Betty Parsons Gallery.32
BY JACKSON POLLOCK’S SECOND SHOW AT the Parsons Gallery in early 1949, anticipation had grown, in part because Peggy Guggenheim had pulled strings to get six Pollock paintings shown at the Venice Biennale, the most prestigious and one of the oldest European art exhibitions, established in 1895.33 This time, at Parsons’s gallery, nine out of 30 Pollock paintings sold.
In little more than a year, from roughly 1947 through 1949, nearly every one of Parsons’s top artists found his own style and became a vital figure of the period. Mark Rothko did his first “multiform” paintings, with their soft rectangular blocks of color, almost vibrating against monochrome backgrounds. Clyfford Still created jagged fields of contrasting colors, using palette knives to layer a thick impasto on his images. Barnett Newman made his first “zip” paintings. As for Pollock, his third show at Parsons Gallery, in November 1949, put him on an entirely new level, with most of his 27 paintings sold. Packed in among the admirers was De Kooning, who noted the wealthy prospective buyers in the crowd and famously said, “These are the big shots. Jackson has broken the ice.”34 Parsons, delighted, called Rothko, Still, Newman, and Pollock her “four horsemen.”
The four horsemen were happy with the shows Parsons gave them, along with the growing critical respect. But why keep prices so low?35 Even as Parsons encouraged her artists to paint bigger pictures—one of her key contributions—she balked at charging more than $1,000 a piece. And why, her artists grumbled, did their dealer keep taking on more and more artists? None were as good as the artists who had made her name.
Decades after her death, Parsons would be praised for taking on women artists and gay artists, quietly using her influence to help kindred souls.36 But her efforts were not appreciated at the time. One by one, the horsemen importuned her, to no effect. Finally, at a group dinner in early 1951, they warned her they would leave if Parsons didn’t throw out the second-raters and focus solely on them. Newman, her closest companion, pleaded with her to take advantage of their growing success. “We will make you the most important dealer in the world,” he declared. Parsons, indignant, refused to throw out the rest of her roster.37
And so Parsons’s top artists did leave, one by one. Newman and Still chose to work the next years on their own in semi-seclusion.38 Both Pollock and Rothko went with Sidney Janis, the dealer emerging as the businessman of 57th Street; Pollock left Parsons in 1952 and Rothko in 1954. They didn’t have far to go. Not long before, Janis had sublet part of the floor Parsons had rented at 15 East 57th Street. All they had to do was walk down the hall, to Parsons’s lifelong fury and hurt.
THAT SIDNEY JANIS WAS BETTER AT business than Betty Parsons was universally agreed. After all, he was already rich from inventing the two-pocket shirt. Janis adored art and artists, too, but he wasn’t above making a profit from his passions.
Like Parsons, Janis was exposed to art at an early age—in his case, at Buffalo’s Albright Art Gallery, which later became one of the country’s best small museums. After a naval service tour, he worked for his brother Martin, who owned a chain of shoe stores. The job was dreary, but sales trips took the brothers to New York. At a downtown party, Sidney met his future wife, Harriet, whose garment-trade family soon moved him from shoes to shirts.39 An entrepreneurial streak led him to design the two-pocket men’s dress shirt. Demand was huge, especially in the steamy South, where men liked to doff their jackets but keep their pens and eyeglasses handy. Soon, Janis was rich enough to indulge his passion.
The Janises took their first art-buying trips to Paris in the late twenties. Picasso was their favorite, so much so that in 1932 they waited hours in line at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris to see Picasso’s first retrospective. To their great disappointment, the artist failed to show.
The next day the Janises saw a crowd in front of a gallery, gathered around a garrulous little figure. “It’s Picasso,” Janis whispered to his wife. They were close enough for Picasso to see Janis mouthing his name. “What are you two Americans doing in Paris?” the artist asked.
Janis said that he and his wife had hoped to see him at his opening. Picasso gave them a look. “How long are you here for?”
“Just one more day,” Janis said.
Picasso hesitated. “Well, if you’re free now, come to my studio.”
Upstairs, Picasso invited the young couple to peruse the painting-jammed studio and went off to work. Janis found a small picture he and Harriet liked, of a two-faced seated figure. Surely, they could afford that.
“A nice one,” Picasso agreed. “I could give it to you for five thousand dollars.”
Janis was shocked. “I’m afraid we can’t afford that,” he whispered.
The artist was in a good mood. He clearly liked Harriet, and Sidney, a dapper dresser, was wearing a tie that intrigued him. “How much can you afford?”
Janis named a lower figure, and Picasso agreed. Then, he carefully signed the picture. “I have to put it over the stove to dry,” he explained. “Come back tonight with the money, and it will be ready.”
A few hours later, the Janises returned, their pockets stuffed with French francs. Picasso opened the door and welcomed them in with a boyish grin. In the interim, he had put on a beautiful tie of his own. He touched it now, and held it out to compare it to Sidney’s. A sign of solidarity, or one-upmanship? Janis wasn’t quite sure, but the francs were proffered, and the young Americans went off with their tiny Picasso, set on spending the rest of their lives in art.40
BY THE TIME JANIS OPENED HIS gallery in September 1948 at the age of 52—the gallery to which both Pollock and De Kooning would come in time—he had left the shirt business and spent nearly a decade studying and writing about contemporary art. The space he sublet from Parsons—the other half of the whole fifth floor of 15 East 57th Street—had been occupied by another dealer, Samuel Kootz, a genial Virginian who, like Janis, had supported himself for years in the textile business.
Kootz was a fascinating character. In public letters and books during the Depression and World War II, before he had a gallery, he had urged American artists to distance themselves from Europe and forge their own bold new forms of expression. In 1942, he organized a show of 179 contemporary American paintings in Macy’s department store, as sensible a place to sell art as any. The store noted that, “in line with Macy’s established policy, the prices are rock-bottom as possible.… Ranging from $24.97 to $249.”41
- On Sale
- May 21, 2019
- Hachette Audio