At Home With His Artists: The Too-Short Career of Dealer Daniel Reich

(Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg)

(Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg)

He was born on Dec. 8, 1973, in New York City, the son of a lawyer and a teacher. The family lived in Brooklyn Heights with Mr. Reich’s younger sister until Mr. Reich was about 10 and they moved to Larchmont, N.Y. He was an artist in high school, and he attended Hampshire College, where he studied art history and literature. When he graduated in 1996, he moved back to the city, eventually landing a full-time job at Pat Hearn Gallery, dealing with the estate of Mark Morrisroe. Soon after, he became director. Ms. Hearn taught him everything she knew. He was inspired by her move to an old taxi garage in Chelsea after the art market crash at the end of the 80s. It was something very few people had thought of doing. He was shaken by her premature death, and would spend the rest of his life quoting her in conversation.

His apartment, where he started his gallery, was on West 21st Street. Though it’s been imitated much since, the idea of opening up shop in your own tiny home was groundbreaking in 2001. The business was successful immediately. He gave a 26-year-old Tyson Reeder his first solo show, predominantly made up of drawings on index cards, and it was reviewed positively in The New York Times by Roberta Smith. Mr. Reich would quickly get used to selling out shows. He also became the de facto leader of an art world “youthscape,” as The Times dubbed it, a kind of figurehead for the young dealers moving into Chelsea and the Lower East Side with very little money, tapping emerging talent, almost forcing people to take notice.

“I remember going by his apartment gallery and he was selling to Maurizio Cattelan, who was just sort of looking through a stack of drawings,” said the dealer James Fuentes. “He created so much in such a short period.”

He sold enough work to move into a white box gallery in November 2003. It maintained a certain combative spirit. For his first solo show, Christian Holstad transformed the gallery into an adolescent’s bedroom contained inside a giant transparent bubble. (He brought this same energy to art fairs: at Scope in 2003, which was held in the Dylan Hotel, he had Mr. Holstad dress in a slutty maid’s outfit and embroider the room in knit fabric.) In 2007, Mr. Reich held a “non-event” exhibition in which Sean Dack mailed out sheet music to a thousand people that transposed passages of Philip K. Dick onto the melody of pop ballad standards. During the 2008 election, Mr. Reich shut down the gallery for a whole week, turning it into an impromptu call center for Barack Obama.  (He also volunteered all of his time to President Obama’s reelection in 2012, which Paul P. referred to as his “last great project.”) One summer when Tyson Reeder was living in New York, he’d periodically shut down the gallery so the whole staff could talk about Mr. Reeder’s new paintings. Mr. Reich’s job was his life. Not many people in New York were used to seeing him outside of the context of a gallery or an art fair. For years, it seemed like he’d simply walk from his home, in the Chelsea Hotel, to the gallery and back again.

“The art world needs people like that to have a lot of passion,” said Karen Heagle, a painter who showed with Mr. Reich early on. “Almost so much passion that it’s difficult to function.”

Collectors liked him because he’d step back, lay out several works on a table and say, “Which one do you like?” He wasn’t aggressive, even when he should have been. Mr. Watson, who bought many works from Mr. Reich over the years—and donated a number of them to museum collections—said he “basically had to type up my own invoices.”

The subprime mortgage collapse and recession in 2008 took its toll on every gallery, and on top of that rents had gone up. But Mr. Reich, who wasn’t known for raising prices, was by and large selling work for the same amount as when he started out.

“It was touch and go during the recession,” Elizabeth Dee said. “I had a sense it was getting more difficult—I checked in on him more frequently.”

His roster would shuffle around occasionally, but many of his artists—like Tyson and Scott Reeder and Paul P.—were as devoted to their dealer as he was to them. They didn’t want to leave. But in the final years of the gallery, he was often unable to pay his artists on time, or at all. Mr. Watson said he was personally “frightened to go into the gallery. He would just ramble on for 45 minutes to an hour. He was slightly off. He could not focus.”

“Being an art dealer is so hard,” Mr. Watson continued. “It’s a privilege as an engaged viewer to walk the alleyways of Chelsea or the Lower East Side or 57th Street and it costs nothing. It’s extraordinary. But these individuals are shouldering the burden of huge overhead expenses. For youngsters like Daniel, who went from doing a home gallery to a professional enterprise, I think the pressure was more than the business could handle.”

Mr. Reich’s last show, which opened in June 2011, was of Tyson Reeder. It was hard for everyone. Mr. Reeder had to buy beer and lightbulbs for the opening. The show was still on display in July, when Mr. Reich started contacting his artists and telling them to pick up their work. After that, he wasn’t around as much. Asked if she thought Mr. Reich disappeared for a time after the gallery closed, Ms. Dee said yes but, “he disappeared sometimes when he had the gallery. But at the same time, if I ever wrote an e-mail, I always got a response within hours.”

The last time many people in the art world saw him was in the spring of 2012, less than a year after his gallery shuttered.

“As time went by he became a little less social,” said Heather Hubbs, the director of New Art Dealers Alliance, who also mentioned that she owes her career to Mr. Reich. “But then he kind of came back around—he was out more and he seemed happy.”

He was talking about the future, going around to galleries and asking lots of questions. He was working as an independent adviser to collectors. He’d written an essay for a book on Paul P. and he attended the launch party for it in March at the Lower East Side gallery Invisible-Exports. He seemed like his old self, and the people who saw him thought he’d make a quick comeback. In May of 2012, he attended Frieze Art Fair in New York. Last November, he wrote a poetic, charmingly rambling essay on the artist Miriam Cahn for Elizabeth Dee. (For example: “Orderliness (from 9:00 to 5:00) is drab without the fantastic, meditation or dreams (‘drawing with eyes closed,’ or ‘writing in dust,’ as Cahn puts it).”) A few people were suspicious when they didn’t see Mr. Reich during Armory Week this past March. There were people who were concerned about him, and everyone hoped he would land on his feet.

One art dealer colleague, who didn’t wish to be named, said it was known that Mr. Reich struggled with drug addiction. “People tried to help him,” the dealer said, “and no one could.”

Earlier this month Daniel Schmidt, who owns a gallery in Cologne and was a longtime friend of Mr. Reich’s (“He’s basically the reason why I’m a gallerist,” he said), and who hadn’t heard from Mr. Reich in several months, called Elizabeth Reich, Mr. Reich’s sister, whom he’d met at one of her brother’s openings.

“Daniel kept his family life and his business life very much apart,” Mr. Schmidt said. They were “two families, equally loved,” as Laura Higgins, one of Mr. Reich’s former directors put it, but there was very little overlap between the two. Ms. Reich informed Mr. Schmidt that her brother had taken his own life. (Mr. Reich’s family could not be reached for comment.)

“His family didn’t know how much he contributed to the art world,” Mr. Schmidt said, “and how thankful everyone was for that.”

Until word of his death slowly started to sink in, people still believed Mr. Reich would return with some new formula for selling art. After his gallery closed, he posted a note on his website. It didn’t say anything about shutting down. He wrote instead that he would be “relocating.”

“I naturally model my gallery after those who taught me how to do my job: Jack Tilton, Pat Hearn and Colin de Land. These individuals let me know that it was not easy and one had to persist as though on a mission. Through them I gained a completely useful fragmented oral history of an industry that is constantly changing. In navigating this change, I want to stick more to these roots and to what makes me different while evolving in a way hospitable to my integrity, interests and beliefs…[M]y ambition at this fortuitous moment is to have a gallery that is more reflective of myself somehow.”

mmiller@observer.com

At Home With His Artists: The Too-Short Career of Dealer Daniel Reich