In Conversation with Art Dealer, Louis K. Meisel
Homa Taj Nasab – How did you get into selling art?
Louis Meisel – Ok, that’s an easy one. Every junky ends up selling the stuff to support his habit. Arts, antiques, drugs… they are all the same. I started to collect comic books and used to buy 3 and sell 1 to pay off for the other two. And, when I studied architecture in college, we had to take painting classes, but at the end of the term, everyone would throw out their canvases. So I decided to take them instead to the fraternity houses and convince them that instead of buying posters they should invest in original works for $25 each; I sold everything. My friends/ students got $15 each for their paintings and I got $10.
Formally speaking, though, back in 1964, I bought a $600 painting from the Greek-born first generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Theodoros Stamos, and had the opportunity to pay him off in weekly $5 installments. One day, my parents brought an art collector to my apartment to teach to me that I should not be wasting my money on something that I didn’t know. Well, it turned out that the collector loved Stamos’ work and they ended up buying a couple of paintings from him. After that, I sold a few more Stamos, and, in return, he relieved me of the remainder $550 debt that I owed him for the painting that I had originally bought from him. However, at some point, he had run out of paintings to give as commissions so he gave me $1000 (advanced commission) that covered my rent for six months.
HTN – When did you start to collect? Which came first, dealing or collecting?
LM – When I was around 5 years old, my parents would take me on trips to Canada & New England. My mom was an antiques collector so as I accompanied her on buying trips, I would look for scuttle cups that are these English and German shaving mugs. Later on, I have moved on to collecting Tiffany glass which then cost around $10-15. When I was 12 years old, in 1954, I had found a Tiffany decanter which cost $25 dollars; my dad thought that it was too much money but I took all my savings – allowance and snow shovelling moneys – and bought it for myself. I still have it. Of course, the inspiration comes from my mom and her taste in art.
HTN – You are a great collector of …a great number of collections. What are some of your most prized collections – on personal as well as art historical levels.
LM – My number one collection is comprised of Photorealist watercolours which is the finest in the world. It includes 3 of the very best works by each of the top 15 Photorealists. But I have about 115–20 different collections. I donated 7 (different collections) to The Southhampton Historical Museum, last year, including: decoy ducks, children’s chairs and others. I have, also, sold off complete collections such a Fiestaware.
Other more fun (minor) collections include 19th Century ice cream scoops, 1940s’ Moderne, Tin Toys, and Art Deco statues.
But, of course, the paintings are the most important to me!
HTN – You also collect, of all things, trees. Beech trees, to be more specific. How did you get into collecting naturalia and are there other living things that you collect? Do you share your collection with other collectors (do you sell them, etc.)?
LM – When I bought my house in the Hamptons, in 1984, I found out that you can buy trees and since my wife (Susan Meisel) & I are collectors by instinct, we began to research all kinds of trees to plant. Ultimately, I narrowed down our options to Beeches since there is a wide range of variety in this species. Also, they are pretty sturdy against hurricanes… & not susceptible to insects and diseases. So we have about 30 different kinds and over 100 individual Beeches.
HTN – Do you see a conflict of interest in collecting what you sell?
LM – In my earliest years, I had the greatest respect for dealers who invested all their time and energy to learn about and collect the art they were dealing in, these included: Ivan Karp and Allan Stone. I was very interested in their connoisseurial dedication… So No. I don’t think that there is a conflict of interest and people who buy from me like the fact that I am intellectually and emotionally invested in the works that I am selling.
HTN –We have talked about this before: there are thousands of art buyers – including ones with comfortable (but not huge) bank accounts who can afford to buy works valued at $100K+ – but there are extremely few collectors. How do you define ‘a collector’?
LM – Again, people like Karp and Stone who intellectually pursue amassing a group of objects that inform and teach others about them. This includes the pleasure that these objects bring to people’s lives. My wife identifies, say, 10 categories of collecting each year but I narrow them down to 1-2 possible fields based on rarity, availability, aesthetics, and, basically what it’s all about. We like to collect things that others haven’t, yet, discovered and then set out to learn as much about them as we can. The ultimate goal is to publish original material that enhances the scholarship on and appreciation for that particular genre. One example, is our groundbreaking work on Clarice Cliff.
HTN – Needless to say that I have three dozen different questions about the topic of Photorealism… but let’s just focus on your forthcoming book onPhotorealism in the Digital Age…
Photorealism in the Digital Age expands on the foundations that were set by my last three books on the subject, including: Photorealism (1980), Photorealism since 1980 (1993) and Photorealism at the Millennium (2002). All these titles were published by Harry N. Abrams but I’m not sure about this one. The book’s objective is to explore the rapidly growing technologies in: photography, computers, Photoshop and other programs that are used by the newest generation of Photorealist artists. Like their predecessors, they use the camera to gather information… except that now, they are employing technologies and instruments that have the capacity to capture images in huge megapixels and transpose them onto potentially equally powerful computers. They, then, can actually paint photographic images that someone like Richard Estes would have never been able to do. So the basic premise is that “If we can see it, we can paint it,” then, what happens when we see a whole lot more than the previous generation of artists! For example, today, there is technology developed by NASA that practically gives us the same visible ability as someone going up on a satellite and being able to read a New York Times that is being held on a corner of Madison Ave.
HTN – Tell us me some memorable stories about collectors whom you have advised? (Names may be withheld to protect the guilty!)
LM – During my early years as a dealer in Soho, in about 1972-3, a young British collector named Charles Saatchi came to me. He was a very inspired and aggressive collector who when told something was not for sale would find the owner and offer them more money than they could ever imagine getting for a work in their possession. Saatchi tracked down a great Malcolm Morley Ship painting with a major collector. It took him a lunch and a lot of money, but he got the painting. Saatchi then went on to build the best collection of Photorealist paintings outside the United States. The rest is history.
Hubert de Lartigue, Petit Sourire, Acrylic on canvas, 35” x 51”, 2010 –
Morten G. Neumann who started buying from Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, among others, in the 1930’s, is another memorable character with whom I have worked. I met him in 1969-70 on Madison Ave… and, he told me that it had been almost 30 years since he met a dealer to whom he could relate in the way that he related to Kahnweiler. He went on to amass a Photorealist collection from me and a few others. So, Saatchi started his career as a collector with me and Newman concluded it.
HTN – How did you meet Frank Bernaducci? How long have you been working together?
LM – In the late 1980’s, there was a conglomeration of galleries in East Village and it was sort of the next place after Soho, but the whole thing only lasted about 3 years. The place was vibrant and exciting and Frank was a part of it. When that collapsed, he moved to Broadway and Prince Streets in Soho and was more interested in Photorealism than other dealers, at the time. He began to borrow works like Charlie Bell’s paintings from me, regularly. Frank, then, worked as the Director of Tatistcheff Gallery on 57th Street for a good few years, and then as Director of Fischbach for four years, and got great experience in these two realist oriented galleries. In 2000, he approached me and told me, “I am ready to open my own gallery again and I want you to be my mentor and advisor or anything you want to assist and maybe work with me.” After 6-7 weeks of the four of us – Frank, Mary (his wife), Susan & I – hanging out and brainstorming, we decided to open a new gallery called Bernaducci Meisel. I agreed to put up the money for the first 2 years and told him, “Your job is to put in 100% of your time and energy into making this a success.” Now, our artists and collectors like Frank and it has been a very satisfying partnership. And, on September 30, we re-open Bernaducci Meisel on 57th Street doubling down the size from 3000 to 6000 square feet.
HTN – Why did you decide to open a new gallery in a different location?
LM – The bottom line is that Ivan Karp, Paula Cooper and I basically started Soho. Ivan & I are the only ones that are still here… As long as people come to Soho, they will come and be able to find at least one vintage gallery… MINE. New people (dealers) are in Chelsea where I am not interested in moving to. But 57th Street has remained the centre of the art world since I entered it in the late 1950’s.
My (Meisel) Gallery on Prince St. will remain intact where I can show larger works that we won’t be able to get into the 57th St space. More prolific artists who can fill both galleries will be shown in both. The Prince St. Gallery will serve as a place where we can show a diversity of artists at once, something like an open book museum!
HTN – I meet numerous (!) Photorealist and Hyperrealist painters who would do just about anything to be represented by you. What advice would you give them… if only to become great artists?
LM – Since the original 13 Photorealists and 15 peripheral ones, I find about 5 artists per decade. There is nothing that I can tell any body; every artist has to develop on their own. Not that I am the end all and be all of it but I do have my standards. I cannot tell anybody what to paint. I don’t even tell my own artists what or how to paint anything. Who am I to second guess the artists in whom I believe?!
LM – Not too long ago, I read about a collector who was suing a contemporary artist (& the dealer, I believe) for not selling him artworks. When I began to work with Photorealists, they would do 5-10 paintings a year and there were hundreds of people who wanted their work. Now if you were a smart dealer you could pick & choose the real collectors: those to whose collections other collectors would look up and that inclusion into their collections would do a lot to advance the artist’s career. I guess it sounds elitist, but that’s my job… Also, (as a dealer) you can choose people who had lent or donated works, or money, to museums. Rare exceptions include a great collector like Morton Neumann who was never good at doing that.
So there was a lot of stuff to think about. And, for example, to this day, if any buyer would even utter the word ‘investment,’ you know that s/he is the type who would turn around and sell the piece(s) as soon as their value rises, in a couple of years. And, then, there are those who show up with their interior designers… Forget it. I work with collectors who are as serious as I am about collecting. I want collectors who want to buy works for the pleasure(s) of enjoyment, and connoisseurship. Of course, there always are deaths, taxes and divorces… but that is a whole different story. Before Warhol left 30,000 works behind, it used to be much easier to manage an artist’s career. The same goes for a graffiti artist who produces 100 works a week… yet his dealer turns around and establishes a Waiting List for him just to make the pieces appear dearer to collectors. That is something that I don’t do. It’s something that I have never had to fake!