Did you like the Chamberlain show?
I thought it was wonderful, all about invention, talent and taste, heavy things imbued with lightness. With regard to biennials, I have a plan. When they make me president, I’m going to ban all group shows. I’m tired of going to dinner and only getting the hors d’oeuvres table—of seeing exhibitions that emphasize the least interesting aspects of the works in the show and demonstrate the vaulting ‘intellectual’ ambition of some preening curator. I want to see a one-person show, or maybe a two-person show. I want some fucking substance, but we can’t do that, because we have to be fair, and, as my grandmother said, fair happens once a year, and usually in the country.
I went into the art world because I thought it was private, because I thought it was nice manners with sex and drugs, because if you had a nice living room and dining room and a business card you could run an art business. It was sort of non-visible and I’m best suited to a one-step culture. All these contracts, like the one at the Guggenheim, arise from the fact that we don’t know each other anymore. I used to know everyone in the art world. Now I wouldn’t want to, and this has reduced the level of cordiality. It has destroyed the effortlessness of the work I used to do. I’ve always been solicited and I have only requested one essay in my life, the Ken Price piece, because he was a hero of mine and a dear friend. The experience was a nightmare of bad manners. They treated me as if I’d come in to do the drywall.
This was for the current Ken Price retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?
Yes. My essay is kind of about how, 50 years later, Ken Price and I discovered that we have all this biographical resonance. We both grew up in Pacific Palisades about three blocks from each other. Our house hung off the cliff overlooking the ocean and Ken’s house hung off the cliff overlooking the polo fields. This was back when Pacific Palisades was a string of nice houses surrounded by humdrum San Fernando Valley LA. Three blocks away there was a 7-11 and the car wash. So there’s personal reverie in the essay. Ken and I surfed the same waves and went to the same jazz clubs.
Margo Leavin closed her gallery recently and there was an article in the Los Angeles Times in which her business partner said, “People are approaching art differently today. They’re not seeking out the thoughtful, complete statement that artists make when they create gallery exhibitions. … The exhibitions have been such an important part of what we do, and they are no longer valued as much by the public.” She went on to talk about how important art fairs have become. What are your thoughts on fairs?
I like them for the fashions and the chatter, but nothing is coherent. When I first came to New York, I could look at an artist’s work and tell if they showed at Sidney Janis or Andre Emmrich or Leo Castelli or Allan Stone or wherever. Galleries represented the dealer’s taste. Today, even if I go to a good gallery, one I like, like Andrea Rosen, I’m getting a department store. Here’s our Iranian Minimalist; here’s our Belgian pornographer. And when you compromise your taste, you lose power. When you take advice, you lose power. When a magazine publishes pro and con reviews, they lose power. When a museum shows the art they think they should, they lose power, and the declining power of the collectors, dealers, museums and critics has made it hard to tell the sheep from the goats. The tendency—and I understand it (the same way I understand credit default swaps) is you do what rational actors do. Which, in Larry Gagosian’s case, is to represent a clientele rather than represent artists. Usually a gallery has someone who handles each artist. I called up Gagosian in New York and asked to speak to their Chamberlain person. The lady said, “Are you interested in a large one, or a medium-sized one, or a small one?” I thought, Holy shit! It’s not Larry’s fault. I have a grudging admiration for him. He’s a rational actor under present circumstances
Do you go to many fairs?
I don’t. I’ve been to Frieze and to Miami a couple of times, some in New York and others here and there, and I actually like them. I like to look at art and to price things. I started out as a dealer and most of my writing is market-driven. I have this old-time notion that there should be some equity between price and value. If I think somebody is underpriced, I try to raise their prices. If I think somebody is overpriced, I try to lower their prices. I don’t just go around discovering wonder women in Brooklyn.
This reminds me of your McLaughlin Principle.
Exactly. John McLaughlin was a great painter. How many John McLaughlin paintings is this artwork worth? I started off as an art dealer, and it’s the last really honest thing I’ve ever done. It’s the last thing I did where you were punished for your mistakes, and the prospect of the gallows will really hold your attention. I regarded Leo Castelli, the Janis brothers and Irving Blum as my mentors. They were the people who told me everything I needed to know. [Castelli Gallery director] Ivan Karp told me things I needed to know that I didn’t want to know. But I loved Ivan. He told me how to close a sale, but I still can’t do it. When I asked Leo how he and Ivan worked together, he said, “David, you need a poser and a closer to sell art. I’m the poser, Ivan is the closer.”
Who was your closer?
When I ran Reese Palley in New York, it was Betty Cunningham. She was great. In Austin, it was my ex-wife Mary Jane, who was also great. She could say, “Well, if you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it.” And throw up her hands. That’s closing.