Isn't it funny how some artists appear to have all of the tools, but for one reason or another, never make it big.
For example, Jules Olitski, now a largely overlooked name, once seemed to have everything going for him. His all-over "sprayed" paint surfaces had a wonderful ethereal quality. They were highly decorative and highly saleable. He also he had the blessing of the "Pope," Clement Greenberg -- which in its day carried a lot of weight. Yet, in the end, none of it made any difference. Olitski's market started out strong during the 1960s, faded in the 1970s, and then met with a curious revival during the late 1980s.
Under the backing of major collector, Asher Edelman, a deal was arranged with a Madison Avenue gallery to boost the market for Olitski. The artist was given a monthly stipend and the gallery was given the wherewithal for promotion. Edelman's concept was simple -- Olitski was historically relevant, yet grossly undervalued. During the 1980s, major canvases could be brought for under $50,000 at auction. The idea was to raise the price of the early paintings, while simultaneously raising the bar on the new work.
As with many art world schemes, things didn't quite play out as planned. The new work was horrendous, the old work, while good, found few buyers. The final straw came when a representative of the gallery was quoted in the press as saying something to the effect that Olitski was as good an artist as Jasper Johns. While most dealers are given to hyperbole when discussing their stable, this claim crossed the line into absurdity. The moral of the story is that ultimately it comes down to the artist's work.
Or does it?
The other day, I saw a show of recent paintings by the Southern California painter Ed Moses. The exhibition was at Robert Green Fine Art, an obscure space in Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Moses, who is 77, is an artist whose work I have followed for about 20 years. In this particular show, he appears to be at the top of his game. His large luminous abstractions absolutely glow. They seem to suck in available light and reflect it back ten-fold. His work is also reasonably priced. A small diptych (20 x 32 in.) can be had for $5,500. A standard large canvas (54 x 66 in.) is $35,000.
Though Moses' name should be spoken in the same breath as many of New York's leading abstract painters, you never hear anything about him. What went wrong? In many ways, Moses was his own worst enemy, constantly undermining his career with questionable behavior. While many artists can be difficult, Moses was in a league of his own.
Way back in the early 1960s, Ileana Sonnabend had split up with her husband and gallery partner, Leo Castelli. After a successful stint with her own gallery in Paris (Sonnabend was the first to show Warhol in Europe), she decided to close it and move her operation back to New York. During the planning stages for her new space, she put a lot of thought into her inaugural show. Eventually, she came up with an unlikely choice -- Ed Moses. That's how highly he was regarded back then.
The Sonnabend opening was a heavily anticipated art-world event. The bottom line was that Ed Moses, a lesser-known painter from California, was on his way to receiving the sort of attention that would likely put his reputation over the top. But it was not to be. At the last minute, Moses somehow got into a serious argument with Sonnabend (I have no idea what it was about) and the show was cancelled. Just like that, a highly promising career was thrown off track -- and never really recovered.
Proving Sonnabend's experience was no fluke, I once had a similar encounter with Moses. When I had a gallery during the 1980s, I was interested in showing his work. I had heard from various dealers that Moses was difficult. Ignoring these comments, I decided to see for myself. A meeting was arranged through a mutual friend -- the now-deceased artist Eric Orr. I had already shown Orr twice and we had a good relationship. I wound up flying to Los Angeles to meet with Moses over dinner. Orr was invited along as a steadying influence.
During our dinner, things were going smoothly so I decided to "pop the question." I invited Ed Moses to show with me. Orr had already prepared Moses by telling him about my gallery's background. Naturally, Orr emphasized the positive. As I continued my pitch, Moses listened attentively. When I finally asked him if he was interested, he replied, "How do I know you're honest? How do I know you'll pay me?" I was stunned. Gesturing toward Orr, I said, "Well, why don't you ask your buddy, over here, whether we paid him?" With a straight face, Moses replied, "Well, how do I know Eric will tell me the truth?" Needless to say, I never showed Ed Moses.
Years later, during the 1990s, a Bay Area collector, Mike Kelly, went to Moses' Venice studio to look at some paintings. Kelly and his girlfriend were welcomed into his atelier. Moses then showed them his most recent work. Unfortunately, Kelly's girlfriend made a fatal mistake. She unintentionally insulted Moses by saying, "Do you have any earlier work available?" Now, most artists would have gone with the flow. Instead, Moses ushered them out of his studio with the parting words, "You know, there are a lot of artists in Venice, I suggest you go meet a few."
At any rate, Ed Moses remains a serious painter who deserves wider recognition. He reminds me of one of those talented ballplayers with a bad rap, like Rasheed Wallace or Terrell Owens. These athletes are tricky to deal with but deliver the goods. If the right New York dealer were willing to take a chance on Ed Moses and really get behind the work -- the upside could be considerable.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer in San Francisco and the author of a book on the art market, I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams). Questions or comments: Polskyart@aol.com.