The San Francisco-based art dealer Richard Polsky first made news in the publishing world in the late 1990s with his annual Art Market Guide, a survey that took the unusual step of rating top modern and contemporary artists as if they were stocks. (As regular readers of this website are well aware, in 2000 Polsky shifted his Art Market Guide to regular publication in Artnet Magazine.) Now, the irrepressible author has gone one step further -- he's published a memoir of his career as an art dealer, couched in terms of his pursuit of just the right work by the Pope of Pop, Andy Warhol. We might be a little biased, but Polsky's new book, I Bought Andy Warhol (Abrams), is easily the most readable -- and enlightening -- insider's look at the contemporary art business in recent memory. Herewith, an excerpt from early in the quest for a Warhol for his collection, involving the legendary Los Angeles dealer Jim Corcoran.
-- the Editors
How does one begin to describe James Corcoran? Physically he was intimidating, standing six-foot three, with the build of someone who worked out on a regular basis. He was an avid surfer -- a hobby that frustrated many visitors to his gallery who, unable to find him, were told: "Sorry, surf's up." You might say Jim was handsome, with a balding head and warm blue eyes. You might also say his face would have been even more attractive had he not consistently missed a few patches of whiskers when he shaved. He was one of those people you'd look at and swear he reminded you of someone famous. Occasionally, he was mistaken for Senator Bill Bradley. However, Jim was the least political person I knew. All he wanted to do was surf, play golf, chase Asian women and occasionally deal a great picture.
It was impossible to get a handle on Jim because he was a mess of contradictions. He could be charming one moment and remote as Antarctica the next. One day, he would be spotted at his gallery wearing the latest from Comme des Garcons, the next, he would be at his desk in a Body Glove T-shirt, Jimmy'Z shorts and no shoes. He was a member of the exclusive Riviere Country Club, but prided himself on hanging out with some of the biggest bums in the city. Jim projected a youthful image, but then spoiled it by driving a Cadillac. His intelligence was beyond dispute, but half the time you didn't know what he was talking about because his stories and explanations were so fantastic.
Despite all of his quirks, Jim was highly respected by his colleagues. He was probably the most connected dealer in California and was often a fellow dealer's first call when he was looking for a painting. Jim had worked hard at developing his network of contacts, and as a result could get virtually any major collector, dealer or artist on the phone. In the art world, that was considered power. Basically, he had a reputation as someone who could get things done.
Somehow, I had developed a tenuous friendship with Jim that was largely based on our mutual interest in Joseph Cornell. When Jim heard that I was willing to spend a fair amount of money on a Warhol painting, he pounced. Since he had a good eye, I knew that anything he offered me would be of high quality. Unfortunately, I also knew that negotiating with him would be a long, drawn-out process.
In the art world, a dealer can't just offer a collector a painting, quote a price, and get a yes or no response. Things are much more complicated than that. A dealer like Jim would test you a bit and make you earn the painting. Humiliation is standard practice, especially when dealers do business with each other. Collectors with deep pockets are generally spared. The only difference is that they are disparaged behind their backs rather than to their faces.
Jim wound up offering me a Warhol Jackie. Back in 1964, Warhol screened, at random, one of eight different images of Jackie Kennedy onto a large number of 20-by-16-inch canvases. Each canvas had either a blue, white or gold background. The poses ranged from Jackie with President Kennedy standing behind her, to an image of her in mourning with her face covered by a veil. In 1987, the going rate for Jackies was approximately $35,000 -- a little more for a gold one with JFK, a little less for some other variants.
Over the phone, Jim described his Jackie in exquisite detail. It sounded great. Unfortunately, there was one small catch. Jim had only 24 hours left on his option to offer the picture. If he didn't make a deal to buy or sell it, he had to return it to the owner, who ostensibly had another buyer for it. Normally, when a dealer uses high-pressure tactics on me, I don't take him seriously. But the contemporary art market was beginning to take on some heat. The urgency behind Jim's offer was real, so I asked him to FedEx me a transparency.
The next day, I waited at home until half past ten in the morning for the FedEx truck to arrive. By 11 o'clock, it hadn't shown up. I remained unconcerned because I figured he probably checked the "Standard Overnight" box rather than "Priority Overnight" in order to save a few bucks. I knew never to underestimate an art dealer's aversion to spending money. By five o'clock, the envelope still hadn't appeared, and I started to get worried. Something had gone wrong. I tried reaching Jim that evening but he was nowhere to be found. I went to sleep that night wondering what lame excuse he would come up with.
I finally heard from Jim the following morning. When he called, he sheepishly confessed, "Let me tell you what happened. I was on the golf course and it was already four in the afternoon. I was playing a friend of mine and was already up $6,000. If I had left in the middle of the match, I would have forfeited my winnings. So I figured the $6,000 was more than I stood to earn on the Jackie and decided to hell with FedEx."
I was amazed. Not by the fact that he didn't send the transparency, but by the creativity behind the excuse.
Jim continued, "Look, I really feel bad about this and I'm going to make it up to you. I happen to own an incredible small Mao. I wasn't planning on selling it, but it's yours if you want it."
"So send me a transparency."
"Nope," he said. "If you want to see it, you have to come down to L.A. this weekend. I'm throwing a party to celebrate the opening of my new space. Why don't you join us for dinner?"
I hadn't been to Los Angeles in six months and figured it might be fun.
"Can I ask you something?" I said.
"You already did," said Jim, using one of his favorite lines.
"How should I dress?"
"I don't give a shit what you wear. Good-bye."
Just like that, he hung up on me. Social convention was not Jim's strong point.
A few days after our conversation I found myself in Santa Monica cruising down Colorado Avenue toward the Corcoran Gallery. The warm Santa Ana winds were blowing and the streets were littered with palm tree fronds. It was one of those typical Los Angeles days where the hazy white light made it feel like it was eternally three in the afternoon -- too late in the day to start something new and too early to call it quits.
Visiting Jim's gallery always made me uncomfortable. In an odd way, it was comparable to going to the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits -- the prehistoric petroleum swamp that trapped mastodons and saber-toothed tigers in its sticky tar. Just as the tar pits' water-covered surface was alluring, so was the view peering into Jim's gallery. But like the suffocating tar, you certainly didn't want to get stuck there. Part of the problem was that Jim had a taste for the bizarre and hired his staff accordingly. Some of his employees resembled fugitives from a carnival freak show and, as a result, the gallery's ambiance bordered on the surreal.
That day, things were more chaotic than usual. A team of caterers was scurrying around making preparations for the dinner party. I heard a crash as a tray of glasses shattered on the gallery's shiny concrete floor. The loud noise set off a chain reaction, rousing Jim's dog Chico, a boxer with crazed yellow eyes. Like Dennis Hopper's character in Blue Velvet, he began to hump anything that moved.
Within seconds I had fallen victim to Chico's amorous advances. Extracting myself, I tried to get the attention of Jim's assistant, Barbara Little. She was responsible for the gallery's general operation, as well as screening Jim from the day's usual annoyances. Little was attractive in the way a Homecoming Queen nominee is -- not the actual Queen, but one of the runners-up. Unfortunately, she was preoccupied with a highly personal art project. She had become obsessed with making imaginative drawings of the gallery artists' penises. Each artist's unit resembled his work in some clever way. For instance, the artist Chuck Arnoldi, whose early constructions were made out of tree branches, was given a penis shaped like a skinny twig. I just shook my head, amazed at the freedom Jim gave his staff.
Most gallery owners are control fanatics. Mary Boone actually made her staff use specific green, blue or red pens to perform certain tasks -- and woe to the employee who used the wrong pen. Rumor had it that she once slapped one of her assistants across the face for mislabeling a slide. Imagine what would have happened if he had lost the slide.
Adding to the general tension at the Corcoran Gallery was a drama involving money. The day before Jim had sold a de Kooning canvas for $800,000. What should have been cause for celebration quickly turned to despair -- Jim had lost the check. Now his staff was on a frantic scavenger hunt for the missing funds. It was the only time I had ever seen Jim panicked.
In theory, he could have called the client and asked him to stop payment on the check and simply send a new one. But as with most large art deals, you didn't want to rock the boat. Why give a client an excuse to suffer buyer's remorse and cancel the sale? Not that a rich collector needed an excuse. Anyone wealthy enough to write a check of that magnitude didn't need a reason for what they did.
Little, the penile chronicler, had been kind enough to warn me about Jim's poor state of mind. Fully briefed, I made my way back to Jim's office. Walking down the hall, I passed an open bathroom and noticed someone was scrubbing the toilet bowl -- it was Squid (no one knew her real name) -- a 20-something Asian woman who was a mysterious presence in Jim's life. Rumor had it that she was Jim's lover. People who were familiar with Squid spoke of her dark side. Supposedly she had a tattoo on the bottom of her left sole that said, "Made in Japan." That day, she was sporting a short punk haircut and a revealing low-slung halter. Not wanting to get distracted, I simply waved to her and continued down to Jim's office.
I opened the door gingerly and found him slumped in his black leather Corbusier chair with a telephone glued to his ear. His face was red and he was obviously upset about something. When Jim saw me, he quickly terminated the call with an emphatic slam of the receiver.
"Well, well, if it isn't the Polecat. What are you doing here?"
"You invited me."
This was typical Jim ploy -- immediately putting you on the defensive. Sidestepping his opening remarks, I cut to the chase.
"I'm here to see the Mao."
As Jim stared at me, I remained standing. He was trying to determine how interested I really was. He continued to stare, watching my discomfort grow as the seconds ticked away. I felt like an insect being fried by a sadistic child holding a magnifying glass. Maybe I had acted too interested on the phone or, then again, maybe I hadn't acted interested enough. It was impossible to determine where Jim was coming from. Finally, He broke the silence by saying, "Do you think the Dodgers are going to win tonight?"
That was it. Nothing about the painting. It was one of the oldest bargaining strategies in the book -- talk about everything but the painting. Meeting him halfway, I responded with idle talk about baseball. It was as if whoever mentioned Mao first would lose. This mindless banter went on for five or six minutes until, mercifully, the tedium was broken by a knock on the door. In walked a tall, 30ish man dressed in a Club Med sweatshirt, khakis and topsiders with no socks. It was Ryan Collier.
Here was the proverbial accident waiting to happen. Collier was a young collector with a sweet disposition and a substantial trust fund. Despite Collier's habit of spending a big portion of his monthly stipend at the gallery, Jim gave him a hard time and found little ways to torment him. He probably resented Collier, but still wanted his business. Just the other night, there had been an incident at the movies. When Collier went out for popcorn, Jim purposefully switched seats so that Collier had to stumble around in the dark to try and find him. But that was nothing.
Two months earlier, their relationship had reached a new low when Collier asked Jim for a job. It wasn't that he needed the money, he was simply curious about the art business. Reluctantly, Jim hired him. Within a week, Collier made his first sale, only to be fired for accidentally selling a painting for $4,000 less than Jim paid for it. Jim yelled at him and shamed him so badly that Collier reportedly left the gallery in tears. A few days later, the two of them were seen lunching at the Ivy. Only in the art world could you humiliate one of your best clients and have him return to you as if nothing had happened.
Now Collier was back at the gallery for his daily share of abuse. Ignoring the unpleasant look on Jim's face, he said, "Hi guys. Where's the Mao painting I'm supposed to look at?"
My jaw dropped slightly. Here was a development I hadn't counted on. Was Collier genuinely interested in buying a Mao, or was he just a shill?
Quickly I scanned the room, trying to locate the painting. Maybe it wasn't even worth fighting over. Finally, I spotted it on the wall, peeking out from behind the door. My eyes locked onto it like radar -- the painting was the real deal. Mao's gaze was both beatific and malevolent. Here was the communist leader of the most populous nation on earth, whose ruthless politics cost the lives of millions, smiling like the Buddha. It was this irony that gave the painting its strength. Even though its colors resembled Pepto Bismol and a rotting orange, they enhanced the work's emotional content.
The Mao paintings, created in 1972-73, were Warhol's first significant work since he was shot five years earlier. Critics praised their painterly surfaces and their edgy subject matter. Collectors flocked to the work, buying up both the paintings and a series of prints that followed.
Finally, I said, "Okay Jim, what do you want for it?"
Rather than name a figure, Jim threw me a curve. In his deep baritone he said, "Hey, let's not get too serious, Richard. What I could really use right now is some comic relief." Pausing for effect, he went on, "Just this once, I'm going to let the two of you ask me a single question -- and I promise to answer it truthfully."
Jim looked at his watch, "You have exactly one minute to come up with the question." With that, he left the room.
Collier and I were speechless. What an opportunity! The grains of sand slid through the hourglass as Collier and I volleyed possibilities back and forth.
"Why don't we ask him how much money he made last year?" I suggested.
"No. I have a better idea," said Collier. "Let's ask him about the biggest single profit he ever made off a collector."
Just then it hit me. Here I was in the office of one of the most highly regarded dealers in the world, an accomplice to utter nonsense. Rather than closing the deal on the Mao, I was seriously pondering what sort of probing question I should be asking this joker. In just about any other industry this would never happen. Imagine Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric, having this same conversation with two of his better clients.
Exactly 60 seconds later, Jim walked back in.
"Time's up. What's your question?"
Before I could say anything, Collier blurted out, "Have you ever had a homosexual experience?"
If there was on thing the art world liked talking about, it was homosexuality. Jim grinned and said, "No. But I can see what's on your mind." So much for great revelations of the art world.
At that point, Jim sat down and started fidgeting in his chair. It was obvious that he was to distracted to consummate any sort of transaction. Rather than have him withdraw the painting, which he had been known to do in the past, I suggested that we talk later that night. He nodded, relieved by not having to make a commitment. With that, Collier and I took off.
After we left the building, I watched Collier casually slip into a sleek black Ferrari convertible. Money was meaningless in the art world -- everyone has it. What really matters in the quality of your art collection. Anyone can buy an exotic car, but only one person can own Jim's Mao. Therein lay one of the golden lures of collecting art. Some publications refer to art as the last great luxury. They are right. By hanging your home with works by leading artists, you announce to all visitors that you are above the fray. Not only do you have money, but you possess something even more valuable -- taste and sophistication.
Thanks to surprisingly light traffic, I arrived within a few minutes at the Shangri-La Hotel. Since the city's gallery scene had migrated to Santa Monica, the former Art Deco apartment building had become the hotel of choice. After checking in, I took a quick nap, trying to clear my head of all the Corcoran Gallery insanity. Before I knew it, the hours had slipped away and it was time to head back to the gallery for dinner.
I pulled up to Jim's art emporium and handed my car keys to the valet. The party was in full swing and the martinis were flowing. Remarkably, every aspect of the affair was first-rate -- from the high quality vodka to the well-groomed waiters. Despite the elitist nature of the art world, most galleries throw terrible parties. The bottom line is that they are reluctant to open their wallets. Gallery openings are notorious for serving the cheapest wine possible. While there is always an understandable fear of freeloaders, it seems counterproductive to risk alienating legitimate buyers with jug wine. But Jim believed in the best.
The dress code at an art event is less straightforward than the wine selection. It is always one extreme or another. At that time, either the guests wore the latest from Maxfield's -- the L.A. clothing store of the moment -- or they appeared as if they had gotten dressed in the dark. But that night, most of the revelers were wearing what I call "art world black." I never knew there were so many shades of black: blue black, charcoal black, jet black, just plain black. Although the expression "terminally hip" hadn't been introduced yet into popular jargon, that evening's gathering may have provided inspiration for the term.
I noticed that the artist delegation had already started breaking up into small cliques. Generally, the established artists would form one group and the emerging artists another. There was a reason for this. It is a truism in the creative world that a young artist has to pay his dues. You pay them by working your ass off to find representation at a top gallery. Until that happens, you don't deserve to hang out with the artists at the top of the food chain.
Looking around, I saw one artist standing off by himself. An aura of superiority seemed to envelop him. He was wearing an Armani blazer, pressed jeans and Belgian shoes. He was of medium height with broad, sloping shoulders from too many workouts at Gold's Gym. He had an angular head with closely cropped dark hair. I sense that, rather than join the crowd, he was waiting for people to seek him out. Sure enough, a few seconds later, one of Los Angeles's most important collectors strolled over and embraced him.
Chuck Arnoldi may not have been a household name in New York, but in Los Angeles he was a certified art star. He was also the Corcoran Gallery's biggest selling artist. For a period of time you couldn't walk into a prominent local home and not see an Arnoldi on the wall. Knowing a good thing when I saw it, I once pitched him to show at Acme Art. Over lunch, I used every compliment I could muster to convince him to join my stable. Chuck just soaked up the praise like a thirsty cactus after a desert downpour. When we finished our meal, he reached over and handed me a flat knife.
"What's that for?" I asked.
"That's in case you want to butter me up some more."
Chuck Arnoldi never joined my gallery, but that was a few years ago. Times had changed and that night I found him approaching me.
"So Richard, I hear you're in the market for a serious Warhol. That's a gutsy call. Why don't you go after a sure thing and buy one of my paintings?"
Some things never change.
I had to explain to him that while I was a fan of his work, I had my reasons for buying a Warhol. I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was concerned about liquidity. If push came to shove there was a far greater audience for Warhol than Arnoldi. It was much easier to get a collector in New York or London on the phone to offer him a work by an international artist who was in every museum and art history book than an artist who was a star only in Southern California.
Adjusting his lapel, Chuck turned to me and asked, "So, have you found a Warhol yet?"
"Possibly. Jim has a terrific Mao in his office. Want to see it?"
Chuck's eyes lit up and we discretely left the party and walked into Jim's office. The room was perfectly lit with a lone spotlight illuminating the painting. Even someone as jaded as Chuck had to be impressed. For a moment he was speechless. When he finally spoke, I wished he hadn't.
"That's quite a painting," he said, taking a step toward the picture, "I've always wanted a Warhol. Maybe I'll buy it."
I was shocked because I knew he was serious. That's all I needed -- more competition. If this turned into a bidding war, I knew Chuck's bankroll was fatter than mine, and Collier had more money than both of us put together.
Trying to change the subject, I said, "So Chuck, tell me about the new series of paintings you're working on." That seemed to do the trick. We wandered back to the party where we noticed Jim standing alone in a corner, looking a bit melancholy.
Chuck said to me, "Corcoran looks like he's at a funeral."
"Yeah, he's mourning the loss of $800,000," I said, trying to keep a straight face.
As we continued talking, a tuxedoed waiter ushered us into the main space for dinner. My dining companions were a microcosm of the art world: a dealer, a critic, a pair of collectors, a curator and a couple of artists. As the appetizer was served, the usual art world gossip began: which artist was leaving which dealer (old news), a controversy over a show at a museum that included paintings owned by its trustees (a serious conflict of interest, but every museum was doing it), and who had recently came out of the closet (also old news).
As the meal gathered momentum, I noticed our overly solicitous waiters were filling our glasses with wine at every opportunity. I couldn't have take more than two sips of my Edna Valley chardonnay before a tiny cascade of liquid seemed to come from nowhere and top off the contents of my glass. By the time the main course was set before us, most of us were inebriated.
Scanning the other tables, I noticed the guests were getting a bit rowdy. Jim Corcoran's table was particularly boisterous. I heard Squid loudly arguing with his current girlfriend, Cherise Chen. At another table, two of Jim's cronies, affectionately known as Z and Pokey, were also well on their way to oblivion. Even the normally dignified curator Henry Hopkins appeared tipsy, a toothy grin flashing under his gray moustache.
I turned to nobody in particular and slurred, "This is starting to get ugly."
The words had just left my mouth when a chicken wing flew across the room like a greasy missile. It failed to do any damage and slid harmlessly across the floor. The next salvo proved more deadly: a chicken wing scored a direct hit on Marcia Weisman's blond bouffant. The indignant doyenne of L.A. collectors spun around and hurled an unidentified piece of food in retaliation. That was it -- pandemonium erupted in the Corcoran Gallery. Guests intent on self-preservation began hoisting up sections of white tablecloth to protect themselves from the crossfire.
As it happened, the carnage occurred while Jim was out of the room, but the audible commotion brought him rushing in. By the surprised expression on his face, I couldn't tell if he was going to put a quick stop to the riot or join in. While he was making up his mind, a whole chicken breast took flight and just missed hitting Chuck Arnoldi. Never one to back down from a fight, Chuck grabbed a drumstick and hurled it at the perceived marauder. His intended target ducked and the drumstick kept going until it splattered on an Ed Ruscha silhouette painting of a Joshua tree -- leaving a grease spot the size of a silver dollar.
Just like that, the dinner party's hostilities came to a screeching halt. A $65,000 painting had been damaged, perhaps irrevocably. The artist himself was at the party and came rushing over to inspect the injury. A look of anger slowly crossed Ruscha's face as he said to Jim, "I sure hope you have insurance."
That was it. The party was over. No one even bothered with dessert. One by one, the guests hastily gathered up their belongings and went up to Jim to thank him for dinner. But I didn't care about such social amenities -- all I could think about was buying the Warhol. Knowing I had nothing to lose, I waited until everyone had left and said to Jim, "Great party, Let's go into your office and take another look at the Mao."
Jim stared at me for a moment, glanced at a chicken wing on the floor, then shrugged. "Sure," he said. "What the hell." When we were inside his office, he sat down wearily and said, "That's the last party you'll ever see at this gallery. If I find the asshole who hit the Ruscha. . . ."
I nodded sympathetically. I considered fingering Arnoldi, but resisted. "So how much do you want for the Warhol?"
"You know, Richard, the more I look at this painting the more I like it. Why should I sell it? I don't need the money. I think I'm just going to hang on to it," said Jim, with a tone of finality.
I was crushed. All that for nothing.
"What I do need right now is something to settle me down," said Jim. "You want a shot of vodka?"
With that, he went into a small Eames wooden cabinet behind his desk. As he carefully opened a hidden compartment, a wide grin crossed his face. He reached in, extracted a piece of light blue paper, and held it aloft triumphantly. It was the missing $800,000 check.