Tag Archives: business of art

Elaine de Kooning Story

First, let me say that this story is Elaine de Kooning’s story and not mine. I had heard it while printmaking and acting as quality control for a series of lithographs by some of the leading members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. I was just a baby, newly minted from the Rhode Island School of Design, and, as I recall, we (my then-boyfriend William Olsen, another lithographer/painter—David Lantow, and I) were working on a Trestle Editions project that was projected to be the last for Willem de Kooning.

This was my first New York Art World gig, and it was a tremendous learning experience in a number of ways. Working full time at the neighboring press, just through the french doors on the 4th floor at 75 Varick Street, I pulled serigraphs for artists such as Barbara Kruger, James Rosenquist, and others. I was called in, as needed, for quality control on the de Kooning project, so stories about ‘Bill and Elaine’ were swirling in the sticky, SoHo August air. The New York Art World was abuzz, in the throws of leveraging the tragic, Art World-induced drug overdose of Jean Michele Basquiat into products of more iconization and commodification.

One day, at Fanelli’s, the art-bar that had managed to stay open even during prohibition, I brought up the idea of ‘client worthiness,’ and William began telling a story about Elaine De Kooning recently having been on the receiving end of this mentality. Sitting in the cafe in my black frock and paint-and-ink-splattered jeans, I perched my head on the palm of my hand and leaned forward, my elbow resting on the cool, black-and-white-checker-covered table top, listening closely to the latest sweet inside-Art World story.

Elaine had gone shopping for a leather bag and found herself at one of the big upscale stores where she shopped frequently enough to have an account. That day, she was looking over large hand bags that suited her. As an artist, disinterested in impressing anyone with a dress-as-wealth sort of conspicuous agenda, she caught the nervous eye of the sales person who thought she should be watched as a potential thief/otherwise unworthy member of the human rat-race/who’s to say, exactly.

The clerk became even a little more nervous as Elaine actually approached the register with a gorgeous bag and asked to charge the $5,000 item to her account. She gave the clerk her account number, name and address. The sales clerk looked up her information then looked Mrs. De Kooning up and down with a slightly curled lip of disdain and incredulity. He asked Elaine for her drivers license (for a possible police report, maybe?) She indicated that such requests had never been protocol before.

This man could simply not believe that Elaine de Kooning, based on her appearance (read: importance), could be anyone capable (read: worthy) of buying this limited edition bag.

While Elaine tried to explain, first calmly, then with humor, next with increasing annoyance, and finally with out-right indignation, the manager came out from the back room, horrified to discover the iconic artist arguing with the ignorant sales clerk.

The manager tripped over himself apologizing to Elaine, while intermittently glaring sideways at the clerk, as if to say, If you don’t know what you are doing, please get someone who does!  “This is Elaine de Kooning,” he repeated, emphasizing the ‘E’ in Elaine and and ‘oo’ in de Kooning as he spoke.

William finished his story and looked up from his beer. The sounds of sculptors and painters milling about, discussing meaning-making and materials, ideas and individuality, bouncing of the hard walls and tile floors of the venerable art-bar came into focus. We all shook our heads and ordered one more round before heading to Brooklyn.

Art Business As Usual?

I was recently out of town when I walked into a ‘reputable gallery,’ thinking if I found a small ‘gem’ I might buy it. Yes, as an artist, I like other work as well as my own and will trade with an artist or, on occasion, buy another artist’s work. As I walked into the beautiful space, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the owner placing her hand on the forearm of her assistant as the assistant stood to grab the artist’s cheatsheet, the owner stopping her in mid-reach and clearly indicating that I should not be approached, shown, and/or told any information about the artist. I walked around the gallery perusing the art, taking my time. Had I found something I’d have considered owning that day, based on what I witnessed of the gallerist, I would not have made the purchase.

On my way out, I walked over and asked, “Excuse me, do you know what time it is?”  As the dealer looked at her watch, I said, “Oh, never mind. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t the roaring 80s anymore. For a moment there, the way you chose to ignore me or perhaps anyone you surmised wouldn’t buy or shouldn’t have the art, I thought I was in a time warp.” Despite the fact that I am likely a little younger than she is, I gave her a gentle, almost grandmotherly smile, as if to say, “really, honey—this is how you conduct your business?” She was speechless. I walked out.

I wasn’t at all surprised to hear the following month that the gallery had closed. For a brief moment, before leaving the gallery that day, I thought about telling this dealer my “Elaine de Kooning story,” which could have have been helpful to her, but I’m afraid I just didn’t fit her profile of someone worth listening to, let alone speaking to. I do not mean to suggest that building a mystique about an artist or a gallery is wrong, obviously.  The question is how to do it–with good or ‘bad magic,’ to quote the character Queegueg from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

This case was very sad really, as the artists she carried had obviously been neglected for quite some time. So, the moral of the story is—for artists—act as a potential buyer at a gallery with whom you are considering having a working relationship as an artist. Witness all of it, or as much of it as you can. Pay attention to the way and respect with which the dealer handles the artwork, as well as she how handles (or neglects to handle) potential buyers. Talk to other artists about how they are treated. Gallerists, I love you and what you do for artists. You can be such brilliant storyteller-sales people, elucidators and promoters of artist’s work. You are very important to many of us. However, if you don’t know my “Elaine de Kooning story,” you should. Eh, but what do I know? Who the hell do I think I am, anyway?

(If you want to know my ‘Elaine de Kooning’ story, send an inquiry—I’ll post it.)

Update: Several readers expressed interest in hearing the Elaine de Kooning story. I have posted it here.

Clemens Weiss – Discusses the business of Art at the Red Line

Clemens Weiss, who has been in Denver for the past two months  as a visiting artist, spoke a few nights ago to a small group mostly composed of local artists-in-residence in a related program at RedLine . I showed up early and chatted with him for a few minutes before he went to look at one of the artists-in-residence work before his talk.  Weiss, who shows at Ronald Feldman in New York,  is an approachable, intelligent artist and of course, business person.  He did not reiterate the ‘how to’ ‘s  of many books on the market about the business of art.  Rather, he spoke of his own journey, in Germany, his country of origin, and his adopted home of New York, where he became well established.  He spoke about being creative as an artist regarding the business of art as well as being creative in the studio.  Positioning oneself deftly, socially, and in terms of  business is key, but he also cautioned, “what is good for the artist is not always good for the art”.  He spoke of an irony that he has witnessed of artists having achieved some success who are disadvantaged by the relief of financial restrictions.   After, finally having acquired a large budget with which to do work on a project, an artist no longer has the restrictions which often inspire “the mother of invention” and here-to-for untried methods of creating and problem solving .  Weiss exuded confidence and indicated concern for a multiplicity of interesting ideas.  He spoke of a theater piece he did which he approached as “Bringing an exhibition to life” versus thinking in terms of theater per se.   Being on the cutting edge was clearly important to Weiss.  When he spoke he wended his way around the general topic, telling personal anecdotes as opposed to abiding by talking points.  Most importantly, Clemens pointed out that being creative in the business of art is as important for one’s career as it is in the making of art in the studio.

I enjoyed the evening and thanked Clemens for sharing his experience.  I’m looking forward to hearing and seeing more of what’s in store at  The Red Line in Denver.