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Art & the New York Look – Gallery Hunting in New York in 1988

shantiConnections, as every authentic New Yorker knows, are everything.

Money and the New York Look are everything too, some say. It depends on how much soul you’re prepared to sell.

I lived in New York in the late 70′s and I was back in ’88 to find a gallery to show my paintings. I brought with me a list of 300 galleries on Madison Avenue, 57th Street and downtown in Soho.

I also had one connection, given to me by a friend before I left Sydney:

I was to meet with Aretha Blankperson, Australian socialite recently turned New York socialite. (Yes, all the names in this story have been changed to protect the obvious.)

Right from the very the start I was swamped with interest in the many nudes in my portfolio—particularly from the suspicious gaze of the U.S. Customs. I heard them say, “Can we let these nudes into the country?”

(When Customs officials become art critics this world won’t be worth living in.)

I arrived, and I’m not sure why but I called Aretha. She was available. Our meeting at her apartment went like this:

“Would you like a drink—a scotch or a beer?”

“A beer would be nice, thank you. Do you mind if I have a cigarette?”

“No not at all, go ahead,” she said, disappearing into her kitchen. She returned with my beer and seeing my cigarette in her ashtray she huffed, “Now I’m going to have to open the windows!”

“I can put it out,” I assured her.

“No, no, no, it’s just that it gets into everything!”

She flipped through my folio like it was a County Local and pointed out that she didn’t know anything about art or the art scene but that she did rub shoulders with some very very rich people, with similar tastes no doubt, who apparently would prefer me to have a haircut by Philippe and a $300 shirt from Bloomingdales, black with a gold chain.

That’s the New York Look and apparently without it you, “haven’t got a clue, dah-ling.” I was struggling to keep an open mind but it was too late.

I took her to Grassroots, a filthy tavern on the lower east side. I used to go there a lot in the 70′s with a motley bunch of very poor artists so there were some fond memories in that dusty joint. Come to think of it, they never had the New York Look and they’re all rich now, except Fred who restores paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Over a beer we tried to communicate:

“Money is everything. Oh my migraine!” she said.

“But Aretha—what about integrity?”

“You haven’t got a clue, you don’t even have the Look! Money is everything. Oh my migraine!”

Migraines are everything too.

I didn’t see Aretha after that. Needless to say I never got to see Philippe or the shirt either.

Luckily Americans like Australians more than Australians do. And pretty soon I discovered that the most effective meeting place was after dark, in bars. (In New York, connections are easy to make, especially if you drink.)

I’d had a long day of calling and visiting galleries, and getting replies like, “Do you know how many artists there are in New York?” “Post your slides” and “Sorry we don’t give interviews.”

So I found myself in a favorite old haunt called the Triple Inn on 54th Street, with my portfolio on my knee (never leave home without it).

Everyone always want to know who you are, what you do and what’s in the folio. I wished the galleries had taken as much interest—at least to look! But I was happy enough to have a few Budweiser’s and see people enjoying my work.

The interesting part is that these bar patrons were not only the unsophisticated common people I always enjoyed so much, they were also the people who knew the people who knew THE people.

And here’s a funny thing: when a New Yorker takes your phone number, they’re serious—they call you. Or somebody does.

A young lady, Susan I think, glanced over someone’s shoulder at my folio as she was leaving the bar. She asked me for my card. I couldn’t refuse. The next day I got a call from somebody using the name Patricia. She wanted to see my folio. What could I do? I thought she was pulling my leg but I showed her anyway. She liked what she saw and put me in touch with Harry Ramble, a leading art critic for a fancy American Art magazine. He liked my work too, but kept asking me about somebody using the name Patricia.

Harry was good to me. His recommendations proved to be invaluable, and the telephone became a kinder instrument to use.

“Sorry we don’t give interviews and we are not looking for new artists.”

“That’s strange—Harry Ramble suggested that I should call you.”

“How about tomorrow?”

Very nice indeed.

But there’s more. Writer of musicals, child of the circus, master of ceremonies and Triple Inn irregular, yes ladies and gentlemen the one and only Pete Lairy, HE gave me some tips too.

He told me to go see his good buddy Lenny Riot. Now Lenny was the super of a building on 57th Street and it just so happened that Kid Famous had his gallery in that very same building, and Riot and Famous were good mates. I’d heard about Famous and, as luck would have it, Lenny had the keys.

With a word from Pete, I made contact with Lenny. He liked my folio. “You’re gonna make it kid! Call me next Wednesday, oh, around 12:00. I’ll get you an interview. Get a show with Kid Famous and they’ll be after you for the rest of your life.”

That sounded good to me.

The day arrived and except for Lenny, the building was closed. He called upstairs.

“Hey, I’ve got this guy down here from Australia. I think you should look at his work. . . I know I’m bothering you, that’s why I called. . . OK, I’ll send him up.”

Connections, warm connections. Forget the New York Look—all you need is the New York Attitude!

It felt good, but I persisted with more calls and more interviews. I got lots of “nice work but not for us.” I couldn’t understand.

Maybe you will.

I had an early morning meeting with Magnus Artmangle at his Gallery on 57th Street. He poured through my portfolio surprisingly slowly and said, “These are really beautiful.” He gestured to the abstract paintings on his walls and blurted, “Look at this stuff—it’s trite.” I’d noticed.

He took pains to reassure me that the artist could “really paint very well” but that “she has to do this for a living!”

Well, well, well, all is not well. The artist is unhappy, the gallery director is unhappy
and the buyer is very very rich and too unhappy to notice how terribly unhappy he is. But no one is game to move. The gallery wall gives the work its credibility, both as art and as investment. So nobody moves.

This sad little love triangle holds most of the galleries in New York in a vice. I realised why they looked at my slides so quickly, as if they were looking for a “look.” They don’t want to lose their clients—well, would you?

Ninety-percent of the galleries depend on abstract art (which means anything innocuous and therefore simply decorative) or minimal (which is sort of decorative without having anything to look at). You can even invite your relatives. No one will be offended nor, sadly, moved in any way.

Representational art is rare, and rarely good and figurative art is rarer still.

The Michael Dingbat Gallery in Soho hands out leaflets called “a guide for artists submitting work.” In that document you will read: “nudes are inappropriate subject matter.”

Tough luck Leonardo, rough times Titian, too bad Botticelli, bitter pills Picasso, rainy days Degas, and stiff cheese to the rest of you Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir, Rodin, Michelangelo, Matisse, Delacroix, Ingre, etc, etc, etc, and to hell with all the Greeks and the Romans too!

In the end, out of the 300 galleries on my list, five wanted my work—two immediately, two later and one gave me a show in Italy the next February. I was told I’d be lucky to get ONE. That’s nearly a 99% failure rate! But 1% success is still success. Just ask Walt Disney.

I guess that’s what a figurative expressionist has to expect in a largely abstract and minimal art world. Some say the human figure is out of fashion, but I like to tell them that the figure is the only thing that can’t go out of fashion. In 100 years it will be all you will be able to recognize.

Thankfully, in the end, very few people care what artists look like—most would probably prefer not to know. So here’s a tip: if a gallery rejects your work, look at what they have on their walls. You might not feel bad at all.

(Here’s another tip—Triple Inn, Fanellis Bar, Prince Street Bar, Spring Street Bar, Broome Street Bar.)

What? You didn’t think I’d tell you everything did you?

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Growing up as an artist on a mid-Missouri subsistence farm was a study in severed heads and limbs, a disconnected experience that would've made an abstract painter out of anyone. Most of our food came from the land. We butchered both hunted animals and farm animals on a daily basis. Squirrels, chickens, deer, cows. I became good at kneading joints with my fingers, on where to insert the knife. . . read more

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