The letter from the Robert Miller Gallery to the president of the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation came without warning. Dated March 18 and addressed to attorney Michael Ward Stout, who is the Mapplethorpe estate’s executor and the foundation’s president, the letter is signed by Mr. Miller’s wife, Sarah (Betsy) Wittenborn Miller, who is the gallery’s chief executive. Mrs. Miller opened by noting, “The period of the past few years at Robert Miller Gallery has been one of change and transition, as you have witnessed, not only in staff, but also in the general program of artists that have been shown and represented.”
Mrs. Miller went on to observe that the gallery had sold the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989, for more than 20 years, in what she termed “one of the most productive and constant relationships in the history of modern art dealing.”
That out of the way, Mrs. Miller’s tone changed: “However, it has become increasingly clear to me that the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Inc. and you, particularly, might prefer to be served by another gallery.
“Therefore it is in the best interest of all parties, I have decided, to return all unsold inventory to the foundation before we begin our move to the new location,” Mrs. Miller wrote. (In June, the gallery is moving from its second-floor space in the Fuller Building at East 57th Street and Madison Avenue to 526 West 26th Street in Chelsea.) Before signing off, Mrs. Miller said that she would instruct her photography department to “begin this process immediately.”
Not even a month later, the Mapplethorpe Foundation had collected all of its works from the Miller gallery. “It was professional, cordial,” said Marisa Cardinale, a consultant to the Mapplethorpe estate who was involved in retrieving the work. “It was all very clean.”
But then, on April 28, just 40 days after Mrs. Miller had announced that the Miller gallery was ending its two-decade relationship with the foundation, the gallery unveiled an exhibition, titled Sex , of some of Mr. Mapplethorpe’s most controversial and sexual work, without benefit of a catalogue or curatorial input from the foundation.
“We were completely unaware, unprepared and uninformed that they were planning on installing an exhibition of Robert’s work,” said Ms. Cardinale. The foundation members said they were similarly caught unawares.
A press release issued by the gallery said the exhibition was mounted “to pay homage to Robert Mapplethorpe” and as “a farewell to our 57th Street location.” But those involved with the foundation ascribe more political and spiteful motives to the exhibition. The Mapplethorpe camp suspects that the Miller gallery was attempting to pre-empt a show, featuring many of the same photos, which was to take place this fall at the Cheim & Read gallery; its co-owners, John Cheim and Howard Read, happened to have worked at the Miller gallery until they left in the summer of 1996, purportedly after a dispute with Mr. and Mrs. Miller. That exhibit was planned to coincide with the publication of an Arena Press book of the aforementioned photos titled, simply, Pictures .
The foundation’s Mr. Stout told The Transom that he had informed the Miller gallery that Mr. Cheim had an interest in doing a show of Mapplethorpe’s more sexual pictures, and that the foundation’s board had an interest in publishing the material.
Now, according to Mr. Read, the exhibit, which he said he and Mr. Cheim had been discussing with the Mapplethorpe Foundation for at least six months, “is something that we have to entirely reconsider.” Added Mr. Read: “I just find the whole thing very unusual and hard to comprehend.” (Mr. Read declined, however, to explain why he and Mr. Cheim left the Miller gallery, although a 1996 New York Times article, citing people close to the gallery, reported that “things began to unravel after Mr. Miller’s wife, Betsy, became chief executive of the gallery and active in its day-to-day affairs.”
There is another theory circulating in the art world, which also involves Mr. Stout. The Miller gallery has lost a number of artists from its stable, including William Eggleston (who is now represented by Cheim & Reid), Pat Steir and Louise Bourgeois, who is still embroiled in litigation with the gallery. In each of these cases, Mr. Stout has served as an attorney or of counsel to the artists, and there is some speculation that the Millers blame him for the defections. Mr. Stout said only: “These artists made their own decisions. I don’t advise artists as to which galleries they should be affiliated.”
Nevertheless, the Sex show has resulted in some angry Mapplethorpe Foundation members. “To take these important and difficult works and simply present them to promote a personal political agenda,” said Mr. Stout, “without contextualizing them in terms of the time and circumstances when they were created and without any accompanying catalogue or text is at the same level of self-promotion that Jesse Helms exhibited when he tore pictures from a book and circulated unauthorized reproductions to members of Congress.”
The foundation’s creative director, Dimitri Levas, who is also a board member, termed the Miller gallery’s actions “disturbing and childish, even,” adding, “I’ve never known a gallery to drop an artist and then launch a major show of his work. We had a long history and without so much as a ‘Thanks for the memories’, they said goodbye. Obviously, there’s some sort of politicking going on.”
Reached at her home, Mrs. Miller told The Transom to contact her at the gallery later in the day. She then did not take The Transom’s calls. She said that Mr. Miller was not available. Instead, a gallery employee Joshua Holdeman faxed this statement: “The Robert Miller Gallery has had a long association with and appreciation for the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. Over the past few years, the Robert Miller Gallery had repeatedly expressed a desire to the Foundation to do a show of the S&M pictures. The gallery presented this exhibition to reflect its admiration of and respect for Robert Mapplethorpe’s work.… The decision of the gallery to no longer work with the Foundation in no way reflects a lack of esteem for the work of Robert Mapplethorpe.”
Ms. Cardinale said she and Mr. Stout learned of the Sex exhibition on April 30, while they were having drinks with a group of international art dealers. When some of the dealers told them the Miller gallery was having a Mapplethorpe exhibition, “We thought they were kidding,” said Ms. Cardinale.
They were not. Although no artist’s name was attached to Sex , the exhibit consists solely of some of Mapplethorpe’s most controversial and sexually explicit work. Among the largely homoerotic S&M-themed shots are photos of Mapplethorpe with a whip inserted in his anus, and photos aptly titled “Fist Fuck/Double” and “Bloody Cock.” Although the Sex show was not widely publicized, the press release sent out by the gallery said the selection of photos “is comprised of approximately 30 works from private collections and included the X Portfolio, which was personally published by Robert Miller and exhibited in 1979.”
The following day, Ms. Cardinale, Mr. Stout and another attorney from his firm visited the gallery, with a camera, to document what they saw. Ms. Cardinale said, to her recollection, Mrs. Miller was not around, but an associate, Olivier Renaud-Clement, would not come out to see them. Mr. Renaud-Clement did not return calls.
Mr. Stout said the foundation has “some questions about the provenance of four pictures” that are included in the Miller gallery’s exhibition. They were part of a 1984 litigation brought by the estate against the now deceased art dealer Sam Hardison.
In another fax, Mr. Holdeman responded: “This is the first time we have heard this allegation. We think it is significant that this allegation has been raised with the media rather than with the gallery directly,” which, Mr. Holdeman added, “casts serious doubt on its accuracy.”
“I think that the important thing here is that you have to make a decision as an art dealer all the time as to whether you are selling objects or presenting objects in the world that is thoughtful and responsible,” said Ms. Cardinale. “If you’re selling objects, it doesn’t matter if you have the artist’s consent. But when you are presenting a solo exhibition with a banner across 57th Street, and you’re presenting the work as a statement by the artist, that should be done in a respectful way. Not as a garage sale of what you happen to own of a particular artist.”
A photographer for the New York Daily News named Richard Corkery stood at the bottom of a carpeted staircase at the Chelsea Piers on May 6, waiting to be led upstairs to a studio, where he and the nine photographers waiting with him would be photographing Julio Iglesias, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun. Mr. Iglesias was in town to sing at the urging of Mr. de la Renta, who was being honored at $500-a-plate benefit for New Yorkers for Children, an organization for foster children. The Latin sex symbol was already upstairs; the Mayor and the others had yet to arrive.
Mr. Corkery was explaining the intricate drill for photographing Mr. Iglesias. “He doesn’t like be photographed from the left side,” he said. “I did it once and he came up and grabbed my stomach and said, “Oh, you get so fat.”
R. Couri Hay, the publicist for the benefit, brought the photographers to the top of the stairs. Mr. Iglesias was standing alone in an unbuttoned double-breasted black suit, black vest and black tie. He had a baked-potato tan. He was studying his set list for that evening’s performance.
Mr. Iglesias smiled and made a beeline for Mr. Corkery, who momentarily covered his stomach. Mr. Iglesias, a former soccer goalie who seems to have retained some grab-assy tendencies, reached instead for Mr. Corkery’s fleshy cheeks, pinched and shook vigorously. “Aaah, you know where to shoot. You know how I make beautiful photo.”
Mr. Hay was shouting at the photographers. “The right. The right ! Julio likes to be shot only from the right !”
Greg Koestler, who shoots for party photo guru Patrick McMullan, asked to take a shot before the Mayor showed. “For free?” Mr. Iglesias said. “For free? Everything for free!” Mr. Iglesias choreographed the shot: himself in profile, leaning on the staircase banister, thoughtfully studying his set list. Then he pointed at a chair. Mr. Koestler looked at it quizzically.
“Up! Up in the chair!” said the singer, who also demands that he be shot from 20 degrees above–a request many celebrities make, since fat necks don’t show up when shooting down.
Word came that the Mayor had arrived. The photographers scrambled to find chairs on which to stand. “Up high! Up high !” Mr. Hay was shouting. “Mr. Iglesias likes to be photographed from up high.”
The Mayor and his entourage rushed up the stairs, did 15 seconds of small talk, then Mr. Giuliani, Mr. de la Renta, and Mr. Ertegun all beamed into the flashing cameras. Mr. Iglesias was the only one in three-quarter profile, looking off to the left.
“Julio! Julio ! Look this way! Julio,” the photographers shouted.
Mr. Iglesias didn’t move his head. “I am looking at the Mayor,” he said.
The Transom Also Hears …
The morning after his book party, Kurt Andersen was on the phone. “It was fun, with a kind of slightly surreal cast,” Mr. Andersen said of the group that had gathered at Da Silvano on May 10. Tall talk-show hosts Conan O’Brien and Charlie Rose were there; so were former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, Time magazine managing editor Walter Isaacson and Miramax Films co-chairman Harvey Weinstein.
To use a passage from Mr. Andersen’s novel, Turn of The Century , the gathering “was intimate and impersonal, real and stylized,” with the odor of the guests’ “eaus and gels and unguents blending and simmering” with the aroma of a sweaty-looking tray of hors d’oeuvres.
“Happily, the only famous people [who attended] I actually knew,” Mr. Andersen said, contrasting his party with those events toploaded with celebrities who know not why they are attending. The latter type of soiree, Mr. Andersen said, “would have made me feel like even more of a fraud.”
“Do you feel like a fraud?” The Transom asked.
“I don’t feel like a fraud at all,” Mr. Andersen, who is 44, replied. “I’m being self-deprecating.”
Mr. Andersen said “it’s not a great worry of mine” that he will be the target of hostilities left over from his Spy days. “I think that there are enough decent people at the gates, to most of the important places, anyway, that any private agendas will be mooted,” he said. “As far as I know, Donald Trump doesn’t run any book reviews. Plus, Graydon [Carter, now editor of Vanity Fair ] did all the mean stuff in Spy . I think we know that, right?”
Follow Frank DiGiacomo via RSS.