TONY SHAFRAZI: THE GALLERIST AS ARTIST, THE ARTIST AS GALLERIST
An Essay by Christopher Finch
I met Tony Shafrazi in London, in 1965, when he was a student in the Sculpture Department of the Royal College of Art. He introduced himself one evening at the Robert Fraser Gallery, then the hottest scene in town, where openings attracted the likes of Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, Warren Beatty, John Lennon and Mick Jagger, and flocks of beauties like Marianne Faithfull in delectable minishifts by Mary Quant. I remember thinking that this cherubic young fellow had a lot of self-confidence for someone still in school. He would walk up to anyone and start a conversation, armed with a supersized grin that usually proved irresistible.
What impressed me about him from the first was that he was the only person I knew, from my generation anyway, who had more information about the contemporary art scene than I did. This was partly the product of prodigious reading, but also derived from the fact that at 22 he had already travelled to New York, where he quickly became warm acquaintances with Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Leo Castelli and other luminaries, and then proceeded by slow stages, getting on and off the bus when he recognized the name of a town from popular rock n’ roll songs he had heard, to LA and Hollywood to spend the summer with his mother. In California he hooked up with Walter Hopps, Dennis Hopper, Wallace Berman, Larry Bell, Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston and other core members of the Venice Beach cool school. Other London artists had spent time in America but they seemed to come back, if anything, more British than before. Tony, an Armenian born in Iran and raised there till he was thirteen, didn’t have the same investment in thatched roofs, brown ale, and chips with everything, and seemed to have picked up a way of looking at things that was already inflected with an American bias.
Robert Fraser—an important and sometimes disruptive influence in Tony’s life, and mine too—was another important link to America. An Old Etonian, given to wearing Savile Row suits and silk cravats, Robert was nonetheless as much at home in SoHo or Hollywood as in Mayfair. At his flat you would encounter Warhol, William Burroughs, and Keith Richards as well as scions of the British aristocracy, admittedly usually of the black sheep variety. At his gallery, Robert showed both British and American stars and rising stars, ranging from Claus Oldenberg, Jim Dine, and the California rat pack, to Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake and Patrick Caulfield. Robert kick-started my career by hiring me to write catalogues, and also introduced me to key editors at magazines like Art & Artists and the London edition of Vogue.
He promised Tony a show, of which more later.
Another regular meeting place was The Prince of Wales, on Princedale Road, near Ladbroke Grove, a pub that was popular with artists and rock musicians who lived around Notting Hill and Holland Park. There we would enjoy a pint with painters like Pat Caulfield, Alan Uglow, and John Hoyland, who would all soon make their mark, but the heavy art discussions would happen after closing time when Tony and I would repair to his bed-sitter on Norland Square, a block away. There we would dissect the latest issues of Art Forum, Art News, Art international, and so on, analyzing the reproductions—often in black & white--of work by artists like Carl Andre, Robert Smithson, Dan Flavin, Sol LeWitt, and Don Judd, some of whom would have significant roles in Tony’s future. I often visited galleries and museums with him, and soon became aware that he had a remarkable eye, but the late nights spent poring over art magazines and books demonstrated that his analytical ability was equally impressive. Above all, the passion with which he would argue a case was more untrammeled than was usually the case in discussions about art in Britain in those days.
Surprisingly, a good deal of time went by before I saw much of Tony’s work. Prior to the Royal College, he had attended Hammersmith College of Art and Architecture at Lime Grove where he had displayed a gift for three-dimensional portraiture and other kinds of figurative sculpture. It was perhaps primarily this skill that earned him his place at the Royal College, with only six students being admitted to the sculpture department every year. By the time he arrived there in 1963, he was already attempting to come to grips with the implications of recent American art. His 1965 trip to New York and California, and towns and truck stops in between, gave him first-hand exposure to transatlantic Pop and Minimalism, which provided the impetus for him to attempt ambitiously radical work. It also reinforced his determination to take Warhol as the subject of his RCA diploma dissertation, a daring choice at the time.
In New York, he had seen the classic minimalism of people like Judd and LeWitt, and in Los Angeles the “finish fetish” minimalism of artists like Craig Kaufmann, John McCracken, and Larry Bell. He found the extrusion technology employed by Kaufmann and others unappealing and, while he appreciated the directness and simplicity of McCracken’s hard-edged, brightly-sprayed planks, his own sensibility pulled him in a different direction.
It was during this period that he began to develop the idea of the tablet. The word “tablet” has acquired multiple meanings, ranging from the stone or clay tablets on which early texts were recorded, to the tiny “cakes” into which pharmacological substances are shaped for easy ingestion, and, more recently, electronic devices such as internet tablets and the graphics tablets used in design and animation. What Tony imagined when he thought about the idea of the “tablet” was something that would be wall-mounted, square or rectangular in plan-form, with a significant depth to give it substance, and—most importantly—with rounded off edges, front and back, and corners too, which would give the object a very different character from an object of the same shape and size but with sharp edges. The shape, form, and feel of the tablet conveyed a great deal of information passed through its tactile nature, rather welcoming to the eye and easy, pleasing, and pregnant to the touch.
The first of these to see the light of day, made soon after his return from America, was Yellow Curve, an homage to the sidewalks of New York. Not long after was Red Tablet 2 (48 x 98 inches), a highly-finished red double square which was installed on the floor for his diploma show at the Royal College. The surfaces were fabricated from two layers of fiberglass with a layer of honeycomb material between ensuring absolute rigidity, so that there would be no unwanted reflections caused by warping, however slight. The object was sprayed many times with cellulose paint, and sanded down between each coat to ensure a glass-like surface. This was the beginning of a series of tablets that he would produce over the next three years, a group of which would be exhibited at the Ricky Schwartz Gallery in Amsterdam in 1967 (where Tony befriended Jan Dibbets who also exhibited there). These ranged from a red square to elongated rectangles seven feet tall. They also varied in color, from something approaching duck egg blue to a delicate near purple, though it’s difficult to pin the colors down because they shifted subtly with the light.
This exhibition should have been followed by a larger exhibition at the Robert Fraser Gallery, which Tony had been promised some time earlier. Unfortunately, Robert was no longer at the gallery’s helm, having first been imprisoned after a notorious and vindictive narcotics raid on the home of Keith Richards. Although other arrests were made, Robert was the only person to receive a jail sentence, and when he was released he took refuge in India. The scheduled Tony Shafrazi show never happened, but Tony took matters into his own hands and arranged to mount an exhibition on the ground floor of a loft building—one of the first in London to be colonized by artists—at 45 Tabernacle Street near Whitechapel in the East End. Turning the space into a gallery involved him in learning many new skills that would later stand him in good stead in New York.
“I had to completely fix the place up,” he recalls, “and I’d never even heard of sheetrock. We had no money so I used two layers of wall paper and had smooth white walls.”
Even more importantly, in order to launch his show successfully, he developed entrepreneurial and promotional skills that would prove of enormous value when he became a full time gallerist more than a decade later. Recalling the party atmosphere—sometimes verging on the orgiastic—that Robert Fraser brought to his openings, Tony made sure that there was a good sampling of the Beautiful People on hand—a pair of sexy twins in particular—and livened proceedings with the help of a professional wrestler dressed in a tuxedo serving champagne. Anthony Caro, David Hockney, Alan Jones and numerous others flocked to the out of the way location and the party overflowed onto the street. Among the artworks that were sold, the great collector Alan Power purchased the famous “Soap tablets” piece, and the Leicestershire County Council and the Arts Council of Great Britain acquired very large tablets for their collections.
In the Fall of 1969, Tony moved full time to New York, and he did so as an artist, not a dealer. He managed to get a teaching gig at the School of Visual Arts, but to support himself, like most artists he was thrown back on the skills he had acquired while fixing up that space on Tabernacle Street. He put up a new ceiling at Chuck Close’s loft, and did extensive work on a building owned by the dealer Brooke Alexander. I had preceded him to America, having been offered a position as an associate curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and moved to New York a couple of weeks after Tony hit town. For a while we shared an apartment on East 12th Street. In some ways it was like old times as, after meeting friends at Max’s Kansas City, we would sit up all night talking about art, he as passionate and voluble as ever. We discussed an idea for producing a Duchamp-type box that would contain miniature boxes and images of boxes, and I remember Tony coming up with the notion of taking nighttime flashlight photographs of garbage on the sidewalks of SoHo. Increasingly he was thinking in terms of conceptual art, influenced by close friends like Robert Smithson, whose “Amarillo Ramp” Tony later helped to complete after Smithson’s death in 1973.
New York had changed since his 1965 visit. The days of the original Warhol Factory and hangouts like the Dom seemed to belong to a lost age of innocence. The streets of the city had become a battleground pitting blacks against whites, students against hardhats, citizens against drug-dealers, cops against gays, and women against sexist men. Above all there was the Vietnam War and the domestic implosion from that tragedy manifested in events such as the 1970 shooting of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University, an incident that provoked a huge reaction in the Art community. Tony was in the thick of protests such as the Art Workers Coalition’s massive New York Art Strike which he brought out of the restricting confines of its tiny School of Visual Arts beginnings into the huge NYU Loeb Student Center, accommodating thousands of protestors and thus bringing it to the attention of a national and international audience. It was his activism at this time that led eventually to his widely publicized 1974 spray painting of Picasso’s Guernica with the words “KILL LIES ALL.” This was primarily a political act, but Tony later presented it as an artistic gesture too, telling Art in America, “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life.”
He later explained that he felt it was utterly inconceivable to have the greatest antiwar painting ever and possibly the most important painting of the century on full view in the Museum of Modern Art in New York while the US government blindly pursued daily bombings and destruction in Vietnam for 14 years. It was as if the painting had been lulled, made speechless, and hence invisible. What Tony did was give it a voice – he gave it speech and let it scream out.
In the wake of this episode, Tony moved to a Lower East Side apartment close to the home of underground filmmaker Jack Smith, of Flaming Creatures fame, which led to a friendship, and to Tony producing a “cinematic book” titled Moogambo in which an exotic story is told in photographic tableaux accompanied by an enigmatic text.
Until the mid 1970s, then, Tony Shafrazi was an artist, pure and simple. Then an unlikely set of circumstances intervened and he found himself thrust into the role of art advisor to the newly planned Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, working closely with Kamran Diba, the distinguished Iranian architect then serving as temporary museum director. Shuttling between Tehran and New York, Tony persuaded Diba to build one of the greatest contemporary collections of western art in the world. Soon after Tony opened his own small gallery in Tehran, there were tanks on the streets as the revolution that ousted the Shah, and replaced his rule with the Islamicist regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, which brought the era to an end.
Tony returned to America and in 1979 opened his first Manhattan gallery in SoHo, and so began his 33 year career as a prominent and very visible art dealer. His record in providing a home for some of the leading artists of the generation that came to the fore in the 1980s—Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Donald Baechler for example—speaks for itself. He has also represented figures like Dennis Hopper and William Burroughs, prominent crossovers from other mediums, and the gallery has housed numerous museum quality shows featuring artists of the stature of Picasso, Warhol, and Francis Bacon. As the American representative of the Bacon estate, Tony has been especially active in encouraging research into the many-layered aspects of the artist’s life and work.
To talk with Tony about Bacon, or Basquiat, is to realize how passionately he identified with them. It’s easy to imagine how excited he must have been when he first encountered artists like Haring and Basquiat, who must have reminded him of his own early days. It turns out that those days have never been forgotten and now he has returned to developing the idea of the tablet, left behind when he moved to America but not abandoned. This new incarnation of that concept reaches back to the tablets of the 1960s in terms of form, but superimposes on that platform imagery that conjures up today’s digital tablets—the iPads and Androids that bring information into our lives wherever we are. The tactile quality that Tony sought for in the original tablets is still there, but now it is dissolved by similacra of the flickering displays that bring us news and entertainment and link us to friends and to the workplace.
There are any number of gallerists out there who will tell you that they set out to be artists and were diverted into selling art for one good reason or another, usually lack of talent. Tony Shafrazi did not merely aspire to be an artist but in fact created a body of work that demonstrated that he was an artist. Circumstances diverted him into dealership, giving him the opportunity to demonstrate that artists make the best gallerists. Like any real artist, however, he has never been able to shed the desire to make art, and we should be thankful for the fact that he has succumbed once again to its allure and irresistible pull.
—From the catalogue “TONY SHAFRAZI – Why Not” published by Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York for the occasion of Art Basel, 2012. © Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York 2012