‘White’ Painter Debunks Prices on Witness Stand

Those who have always suspected that the contemporary-art market is one gigantic postmodern con should take a look at one

Those who have always suspected that the contemporary-art market is one gigantic postmodern con should take a look at one lawsuit that has unfolded in Civil Court of the City of New York.

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Ostensibly, it’s a lawsuit about an art deal gone awry. According to court papers, in 1996 two principals of a London gallery, Roberto Shorto and Simon Lee, endeavored to buy two early paintings by the New York–based minimalist artist David Ryman. When the middleman dealer who had orchestrated the deal, Robert Bellman, abruptly disappeared mid-transaction, Mr. Shorto’s and Mr. Lee’s gallery included Mr. Ryman among the defendants.

But an interesting and unusual case-Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee sought to have Mr. Ryman found liable for the alleged transgressions of the dealer he’d appointed-grew more fascinating in May when Mr. Ryman ended up on the stand.

Under the withering cross-examination of the plaintiff’s attorney, Richard Golub-a lawyer known for eviscerating his opponents in the courtroom-Mr. Ryman admitted something rather surprising in his testimony: He thinks that the prices being paid on the open market for his work-which can be in the millions-are too high.

First, Mr. Golub asked the artist why he put his trust in Mr. Bellman, the dealer who disappeared. “You didn’t lift a finger to find out whether or not Mr. Bellman was a responsible individual or an irresponsible individual in the business world?” Mr. Golub asked the artist.

“No,” replied Mr. Ryman, according to the transcript, which was obtained by The Transom.

“Is the reason that you didn’t do it, sir, because it didn’t occur to you-is that the reason?” Mr. Golub asked.

“Yes,” replied Mr. Ryman.

“Or you didn’t care?”

“Didn’t occur to me,” the artist said. “I trusted him …. I thought he was an art lover.”

Then, during the course of his questioning, Mr. Golub noted that one of Mr. Ryman’s paintings was about to go on the block at a major auction house with a sales estimate of $2 million to $2.5 million. Mr. Ryman seemed to bristle at this.

“I don’t have anything to do with the price,” the artist said. “The prices are too high, I think, but I-you know.”

“Did you ever complain to anybody to bring the prices down?” Mr. Golub asked.

“I wouldn’t pay that for it myself,” Mr. Ryman said.

“Did you ever refuse getting a check from a gallery before?” Mr. Golub continued. “Did you ever send a check back because you said they were paying you too much?”

“No,” answered Mr. Ryman.

“I didn’t think so,” Mr. Golub replied.

Mr. Ryman had made one of the strangest admissions in recent memory. At any given time, some curmudgeon is always railing against the world of contemporary art, claiming that his kids could do a better job than the guys cutting cows in half and throwing white paint on blank canvases-and here was Mr. Ryman admitting, under oath, that his paintings sold for too much money.

Reached by The Transom, the artist reiterated the comments he made in court, but said they applied to more than just his own work. “I don’t have anything to do with the prices. The art markets set the price and the galleries set the price,” Mr. Ryman said. “If that’s what the prices are, that’s what they are, even though I feel they are too much.” He added: “I’m not talking just about my work. I think the prices are too high all around in terms of contemporary art in general.”

It was just one of a number of strange twists in a lawsuit that was initially filed in State Supreme Court in lower Manhattan in February of 1998, then was later moved to State Civil Court. According to court papers, Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee-who are directors of 11 Duke Street, a gallery in St. James, London-attended an exhibition of Mr. Ryman’s works at the Genesta gallery, which was owned by Mr. Bellman. Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee didn’t buy anything.

But in an affidavit filed with court papers, Mr. Lee stated that Mr. Bellman allegedly told the two men that he had “a ‘special relationship’ with and was a longtime friend” of Mr. Ryman and would ascertain whether he could offer other works by the artist for sale.

Mr. Ryman, 72, hails from Nashville but moved here in the 50’s to study jazz under the musician Lenny Tristano. In order to support himself, he got a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art. Shortly before beginning work at this bastion of creativity, Mr. Ryman took up painting himself, and he made his reputation by working almost exclusively with white paint that he applied to canvas, metal or other media. His work has been exhibited at MoMA, and several of his paintings are part of the Guggenheim museum’s permanent collection. He is also represented by the prestigious Pace-Wildenstein Gallery.

But Pace-Wildenstein would not have any involvement in this transaction.

In November 1996, Mr. Bellman arranged a meeting among Mr. Shorto, Mr. Lee and Mr. Ryman at the artist’s Greenwich Street studio. At the meeting, court papers indicate that Mr. Ryman had hung two small eight-by-eight-inch early works from the 60’s, Untitled and Untitled Red , on the wall of his studio.

Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee informed Mr. Ryman that they were interested in purchasing both of them. An initial price of $90,000 for each painting was allegedly discussed, but when the two dealers attempted to negotiate, Mr. Ryman “would not engage in such discussions” and referred them to Mr. Bellman “for all matters concerning the purchase price … acknowledging that defendant Bellman was his authorized agent for the transaction.”

The papers allege that Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee eventually offered Mr. Bellman $150,000 for both paintings as a pair, and that in February 1997 Mr. Bellman told them that Mr. Ryman had accepted the deal. Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee were supposed to pay the purchase price in three equal installments of $50,000. The first painting would be delivered to the men after the first two payments, the second painting after they paid the balance.

The first two payments were made to Mr. Bellman, and he delivered Untitled Red to them.

But after Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee made the final payment to Mr. Bellman, the dealer seemed to disappear.

His Genesta gallery was closed. Even a private-investigation firm hired by Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee couldn’t locate Mr. Bellman.

Mr. Lee contacted Mr. Ryman. Mr. Ryman replied that he had the second painting in his possession, but that he wasn’t about to turn it over. According to Mr. Lee’s affidavit, Mr. Ryman also said that the check that Mr. Bellman had given him for Untitled Red had bounced.

Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee hired Mr. Golub to sue Mr. Ryman and the elusive Mr. Bellman. In one cause of action, the plaintiffs wanted Mr. Ryman to turn over the second painting. In another, they wanted the return of the $75,000 they had paid for it.

In February 2001, the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court ruled, however, that Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee could only sue for money damages and not for the painting itself.

Mr. Ryman had some fancy lawyers representing him: Les Fagen, a partner of the white-shoe firm Paul, Weiss Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and Donn Zaretsky of John Silberman Associates, a firm founded by a former Paul, Weiss partner.

In Mr. Ryman’s defense, Richard Gray, a respected veteran art dealer, submitted an affidavit in Mr. Ryman’s defense, noting that “anyone familiar with the customs and practices of the art business will understand that, when they reach an agreement with the gallery to buy the artist’s work, they have made an agreement with the gallery, not with the artist ‘through’ the gallery.”

Earlier this spring, the case went to trial, and on May 2, Mr. Ryman was cross-examined by Mr. Golub. The attorney steered the artist back toward this admission in relation to the initial price of $90,000 apiece that had been discussed for Untitled and Untitled Red when Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee visited the artist in the fall of ’96.

“What would you put on it?” Mr. Golub asked, meaning a value for each of the two paintings.

“Few hundred dollars,” Mr. Ryman said.

“Why didn’t you sell it for a few hundred dollars?” Mr. Golub asked.

“Then they turn around and sell it for $90,000,” Mr. Ryman replied.

Later, Mr. Ryman said: “I mean, I think the prices are too high, but there is nothing I could do about that.”

“You would never make a public announcement, would you?” Mr. Golub asked him. “Would you give an interview to The New York Times to say, ‘My work is selling for a million bucks, but I think they’re only worth a couple of hundred bucks?'”

“I don’t like to discuss prices at all,” Mr. Ryman answered, “because … it dilutes the experience of painting.”

It remains to be seen whether Mr. Ryman’s courtroom comments will ultimately dilute the value of his work. At the end of May, Justice Debra Samuels found in favor of Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee for a total of $75,000, plus $31,678.77 in interest.

Though Mr. Ryman’s attorney, Mr. Zaretsky, was unavailable for comment, his partner, John Silberman, interpreted the Appellate Court’s decision that Mr. Shorto and Mr. Lee could sue for monetary relief but not the second painting as a victory for their client. “Mr. Shorto, Mr. Lee and 11 Duke Street Gallery were unsuccessful in their attempt to gain possession of an early painting from Mr. Ryman,” Mr. Silberman said. “For Mr. Ryman, this was the most important thing, leaving him free of any claims against his work.” Mr. Silberman added that Mr. Ryman had decided not to appeal.

By phone from Los Angeles, Mr. Golub replied: “I’m sure that makes Mr. Ryman feel better.”

In terms of the outcome of his case, Mr. Ryman said: “It was not justice. I never did anything wrong. If you buy something from Macy’s and Macy’s does something wrong, then you would go to Macy’s to get your money back. You wouldn’t go to the manufacturer. That’s what happened here, essentially.”

The story would ordinarily end there. But on Monday, Aug. 5, Mr. Golub’s partner, Nehemiah Glanc, went back to Civil Court in regard to a motion that Mr. Golub had filed-this time against his client, Mr. Shorto, over the little matter of his bill. According to the motion, although Mr. Golub’s office had already recovered the judgment amount from the defendant and forwarded it, Mr. Shorto still owed him $25,000 in legal fees. Mr. Golub alleged that “Mr. Shorto twice advised me, albeit falsely, that he had”-and that last word is underscored in the document-“wire transferred to me the sum of $20,000.” Since then, however, Mr. Golub charged that Mr. Shorto had “refused to return my telephone calls.” As a result, Mr. Golub sought to attach Mr. Shorto’s alleged share in the property at 521 West 23rd Street, the site of the Perry Rubenstein Gallery.

At the hearing on Aug. 5, attorneys for Mr. Shorto didn’t show. The judge set the amount owed Mr. Golub at $25,000, but she opted to let Perry Rubenstein’s attorneys respond to Mr. Golub’s motion before making a decision.

Reached by phone, Mr. Golub said that ordinarily he never takes cases as small as the one against Mr. Ryman, but that he took it on because Mr. Shorto “was a friend of mine. He stayed at my house during the trial. I was best man at his last wedding.

“I stuck by him,” Mr. Golub added. “It was a matter of principle and friendship. And this is how he defines friendship.”

As for Mr. Ryman, Mr. Golub said: “When it comes to art, I only know what Robert Ryman said in the courtroom under oath. But I’m just a cross-examiner. If any collector or dealer knows more, let them come forward now and say their piece.”

Give the Governor Some

Governor George Pataki, who appeared on Late Show with David Letterman on Friday, August 2, was not just trying to score some tickets to the Aug. 12 Springsteen concert at Madison Square Garden.

Mr. Pataki made a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance on the Letterman broadcast, the same night that Mr. Springsteen made the second of two appearances on the talk show.

The Governor participated in what has become a running skit on the show: Late Show bandleader Paul Schaffer’s James Brown impersonation, which includes falling to his knees onstage and being helped off. (Come to think of it, Mr. Springsteen used to do a similar bit at his concerts, before his knees got creaky.)

When Mr. Schaffer performed the skit on Aug. 2, aid arrived in the form of Mr. Pataki, who even draped a cape over the trembling Mr. Schaffer’s shoulders before leading him offstage. When Mr. Schaffer revived and ran back onstage, the camera cut briefly to the Governor, who was looking gravely on and shaking his head with concern. A source at the show said that the consensus behind the scenes was that Mr. Pataki sold the skit better than former guests who have played the same bit, including Donald Trump, Nathan Lane and Ted Koppel.

Mike McKeon, a spokesman for Governor Pataki, said that someone from The Late Show had approached the Governor with the idea of making the appearance, and that though Mr. Pataki is a “big-time fan” of the Boss, his participation had nothing to do with Mr. Springsteen’s much-ballyhooed pit stop on the same night.

Tell it to the scalpers, buddy.

– Rebecca Traister

Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal

The evening of Thursday, Aug. 1, was sweltering in Manhattan, but at the West Village restaurant Wallsé, rocker Lou Reed, his companion Laurie Anderson and, it seems, their rat terrier Lolabelle were enjoying the coolness of the half-empty place. Mr. Reed and Ms. Anderson sat in a window banquette in the back dining room. Wrapped around Mr. Reed’s left wrist was a long black leash and, at the end of it, a tiny white dog with brown and black spots that kept creeping along the banquette to check out what the woman closest to the couple was eating. Given that it was a celebrity’s dog-and one with a reputation for being quite cranky, to boot-the woman did her best to pretend that the rodent-like canine’s behavior was cute. And every so often, Mr. Reed showed his dog who was boss by reining in the leash and hand-feeding it morsels from his plate.

– Elisabeth Franck

‘White’ Painter Debunks Prices on Witness Stand