Portrait of a Budding Art Macher : Mike Weiss Lands a Small Schnabel

Mike Weiss, a would-be impresario of the art world, has seen the giant lofts of SoHo and he wants in. But as he puts together his first show, he hasn’t exactly made the best impression on some members of the New York art establishment.

“I think he has lousy manners,” said Holly Solomon, the 65-year-old art dealer who, decades ago, was one of the first to open a gallery in SoHo. “He’s just one of the kids who’s hustling, like every other kid who’s hustling. He behaved very badly with my staff. Quite badly. He was rude, crude, demanding. He’s a cheap little bully. And what the hell is this show? What the hell is this thing? And then he uses a lot of names that don’t even know him? I went to see Julian Schnabel, and he said, ‘Who the hell is he?’ I mean, no one ever heard of this guy before.”

Ms. Solomon sighed. The art world, she reflected, isn’t what it used to be. “You know, he doesn’t come from a good family,” she whispered.

Meaning …?

“He’s a nobody.”

Mike Weiss might be a nobody, but he’s not going to let that stop him. Just a few months ago, he was working as a waiter and making his own works of art. Now he has quit waiting tables, quit trying to be an artist himself, and, at 29, he has decided to make the leap. He’s becoming a curator simply by acting like one. He’s got a new company, partners, 2,800 square feet of raw SoHo office space and all kinds of notions about the Internet and the mingling of the generations and the need to discard the old ways of promoting and selling art.

So he has put together this exhibition, called A Room With a View . (“I like clichés,” he said.) It is scheduled to include 120 new works by 120 artists, among them some of the big names–Julian Schnabel, Ross Bleckner, Donald Baechler, Kenny Scharf, George Condo, Amy Sillman–as well as dozens of young artists who have yet to break out.

Following Mr. Weiss’ instructions, all the artists participating in the show have produced works measuring 11 inches by 11 inches. Miniature works of art may be esthetically pleasing, but if you were, say, an up-and-coming curator who wants to make a lot of connections, you might especially prize them because they give you a way to cram dozens of artists into a tiny room. The show’s exhibition space, if you can call it that, is a 200-square-foot section of a friend’s apartment on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Prince Street. If everything goes according to plan, it will be up and running May 9.

On a recent morning, Mr. Weiss was walking down Broadway in SoHo, dressed in a shiny gray Dolce & Gabbana suit, cream-colored shirt and Prada shoes, with no tie. He was out picking up the last of the little paintings. It was 10 days before the opening and he had 110 of the 120. He was comparing himself to boxing impresario Don King. “I’m the Don King of the art world. I can’t get enough of Don King. People look at him and they say, ‘What the hell can this guy do?’ They see his hair, he’s not 6 feet tall, good-looking, blue-eyed. They underestimate him, and they underestimate me.”

Mr. Weiss isn’t 6 feet tall, either. More like 5 feet 6. Raised in Roslyn, L.I., son of a women’s undergarment merchant and “a Jewish housewife who carries around a Shih Tzu,” he left Long Island for the Rhode Island School of Design. He hated it. With his Billy Joel tapes and his red Lincoln Mercury XR4TI, he didn’t fit in with the glamorous misfits who made up the student body. He dropped out after a year and a half, returned to Long Island, attended Long Island University, then moved to the big city and got a master’s at the School of Visual Arts (title of his thesis: “I Want to Be Different Like Everyone Else”). As an artist, his big thing was manufacturing letters–light boxes about 18 inches tall–and using them to spell out his name. He also made awnings that said “Mike Weiss.” He did all right, considering. He got his name out there. He made connections.

“I had a studio appointment once with Mary Boone, ” he said, referring to the gallery owner. “She was six hours late. I didn’t have a phone. I understand, of course, she’s very busy. But I had to stay there all day, without a phone, waiting. Basically, I want to get to the position where I don’t have to treat artists the way I was treated in the past.”

To get to where he is now, Mr. Weiss had to make, as one artist’s representative put it, “a pest of himself.” He has had to badger the establishment. He sent begging faxes to Julian Schnabel, who finally caved, with one condition: that his piece be the highest-priced in the show.

“He said, ‘What’s the most expensive piece in the show?’ I said, ‘$10,000, Ross Bleckner.’ He said, ‘Mine’s $14,000.’”

They haggled over the consignment fee. Mr. Weiss has been insisting on a 50-50 split with everyone in the show. But Mr. Schnabel wanted $10,000 out of the $14,000. Mr. Weiss said, Fine, take all $14,000.

“I wanted him to know that in the end it’s not about money, it’s about the show,” he said. “Anyway, when I sell the piece, he’ll probably just give me the $4,000.” (Mr. Schnabel didn’t return a call for comment.)

‘I Was Extremely Insulted’

Mr. Weiss wanted to get off the street to explain his side of the Holly Solomon story. Stepping into the SoHo Dean & Deluca, he described the time he went into the grande dame ‘s gallery with his girlfriend, Molly Jong-Fast, the 20-year-old daughter of Erica Jong. Apparently, Ms. Solomon implied that Mr. Weiss might not be in Ms. Jong-Fast’s social league: “We walked in, and Molly introduces me to Holly, and Holly says to me, ‘Aren’t you glad you’re with Molly Jong-Fast?’ I’m, like, the curator who’s putting her artist into one of the biggest shows in New York, and she says, aren’t you glad to be with Molly Jong-Fast?… I was extremely insulted. It was embarrassing to me.”

Later, through his girlfriend, Mr. Weiss heard that Ms. Solomon was wondering aloud whether his family background was up to snuff. “Like coming from a good family means anything in the art world!” Mr. Weiss said. “Like it shows that I could do something. It’s ridiculous, this snobbery in the art world.”

But he had to cool down. It was time to go to Ms. Solomon’s Houston Street gallery to pick up a painting for the Room With a View show. He left Dean & Deluca, whipped out his cell phone and dialed Ms. Jong-Fast. “Hey, gorgeous,” he said. He asked her if she remembered the names of the people who worked for Ms. Solomon–but she couldn’t help him out.

He trekked over to Houston Street, went inside the gallery. Ms. Solomon herself was not there. The guy minding the store–whose name Mr. Weiss ultimately had to cop to not remembering–said she had been hit by a bicycle messenger and had spent the previous night in the emergency room.

“Maybe I should send her some flowers,” Mr. Weiss said, as the man packed an 11-by-11-inch painting in bubble wrap.

Outside, Mr. Weiss slipped the picture in his Patagonia messenger bag, and pulled out a sheet of paper with his schedule on it. Every morning, Kent Helms, his partner in their new company, Mahk Ltd., prints up an itinerary, then presents it to Mr. Weiss over breakfast at the New Era Cafe. Mr. Helms, it seems, is the muscle behind Mr. Weiss’ big talk. While Mr. Helms–who works as a consultant to the National Tobacco Company–puts together a business plan and raises capital, the tenacious Mr. Weiss charges all over town.

At the heart of the day’s schedule was lunch at Aqua Grill on Spring Street with Ms. Jong-Fast, who had driven down from her parents’ country home in Connecticut, where she’s putting the finishing touches on a novel, titled Girl , to be published by Villard Books. He arrived at the restaurant first and went to a table. Fifteen minutes later, Ms. Jong-Fast made her entrance. She had red hair and pale eyebrows, and she wore black.

They ordered–soft-shell crab sandwich for him, lobster for her. Over the meal, he told his war stories–haggling with Julian Schnabel, talking tough to Cecily Brown. Twice, Ms. Jong-Fast kicked him under the table, trying to keep him from saying something imprudent.

“Everyone thinks I’m burning bridges,” he said. “No one’s burning bridges … I just want people to know that I’m there.”

The Ralph Kramden Idea

Fulton Street, 2 P.M. He approached the studio of Jacqueline Humphries, an abstract painter with a serious reputation who, for whatever reason, had agreed to do an 11-by-11 painting for Mr. Weiss. Ms. Humphries answered the door to her spacious loft in torn, paint-splattered black jeans and a white thermal top. The radio was on. Mr. Weiss went in and gave her work the once-over. “Is anything in here finished?” he asked. She didn’t really give him an answer. She just watched him look at her work. She seemed partly bemused, partly annoyed. Mr. Weiss then explained to her that he was putting together another exhibition, called Road Show , based on the idea of the road. He wanted Ms. Humphries to be part of it. He thought her paintings were suggestive of cars rushing by on the highway. He added that he had secured the cover for a future issue of NYArts magazine. He wanted her to be part of that, too. “I had this idea to dress up in a 50′s bus driver’s uniform, like Ralph Kramden, with the hat and everything … I’ll be driving the bus–not a real bus, obviously, a virtual bus–and the artists in the show will be in rows of four riding behind me on benches.”

Ms. Humphries narrowed her eyes. “Did you go to art school?” she said wearily. “You sound like you went to art school.”

He launched into a spiel about what a privilege it is for the younger artists–he corrected himself and said “less established” artists–to be in a show with established painters such as herself. Ms. Humphries looked at him with glassy eyes. “I don’t know exactly what you’re proposing,” she said finally.

In the cab on the way to his next appointment, Mr. Weiss went over his performance with Ms. Humphries: “She doesn’t know who I am. I mean, I just walked right in and offered her a spot in a show. It’s like Don King. Nobody knows what the fuck he says when he talks. But it works.”

Over to Broome Street, to the loft of George Condo, a 1980′s fixture and Allen Ginsberg pal who’s the subject of a documentary called Condo Painting , set to show at the next Cannes Film Festival. Mr. Condo greeted Mr. Weiss at the door with an impish grin, exposing red-wine-stained teeth. An open bottle and half-filled glass was on the table. The artist led the budding impresario into his vast work space and pointed to a little painting on the floor.

Mr. Weiss took a look and laughed immediately, then turned to embrace Mr. Condo. The painting was indeed a funny piece of work–a toothy, cartoonish face, with a red clown’s nose. It wasn’t dry yet, so Mr. Condo cast about for a box to put it in, while Mr. Weiss launched into his rap about the Road Show and the Ralph Kramden idea. Mr. Condo nodded and smiled.

Afterward, on quiet Broome Street, Mr. Weiss was charged. “George Condo just stepped up!” he said.

It was time to stop by his own apartment to drop off the art. His place was a tiny studio on Sullivan Street, with a mattress on the floor. Small drawings and paintings occupied the walls–”thank-you things,” he called them.

Mr. Weiss went over to the answering machine and pressed play. “Hi, it’s Cecily,” a voice said. It was Cecily Brown, a hotshot British painter now represented by Larry Gagosian. She explained that she would not be able to deliver a painting for the show. “I hope I didn’t screw anything up,” she said. “I’m sure I didn’t, because you have another 300 people, anyway.”

“That’s so insulting!” Mr. Weiss said.

The message was many days old, but it still bugged him. He listened to it one more time, then declared that in his art show, in place of the painting Ms. Brown had promised, he would hang the answering machine on the wall above her name and encourage people to listen to the big-time artist making her flimsy excuse.

“She let me down,” Mr. Weiss said. “What she’s doing is not only making me lose credibility, but it’ll look bad for her …”

Epilogue

A few days later, there was another message on his answering machine–this one from Will Cotton, a friend of Ms. Brown’s who also has a piece in the show. Ms. Brown would get a painting to him after all, in time for the opening on May 9. “But he told me not to leave her any more messages,” said Mr. Weiss.