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The Art Prophets

by Pedro Vélez
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Richard Polsky, The Art Prophets: The Artists, Dealers, and Tastemakers Who Shook the Art World, Other Press, 2011, 262 pp. $24.95.

Richard Polsky is a rare bird -- an art dealer who writes books (and magazine columns, which he used to contribute to this magazine). So far, he’s done two on Andy Warhol, filled with anecdotes about the art world, and a third on dinosaur-bone collectors.

Now he’s got a new one, The Art Prophets, which bills itself as an account of how “great 20th-century visionaries in the art world,” armed with money and confidence, were able to open the doors for new movements to emerge. You can’t underestimate the importance of money and confidence, but Art Prophets has a problem. It’s altogether too Pollyannaish for a time when the art world is in an accusatory frenzy.

The reader just can’t help contrasting Polsky’s super-optimistic musings with real-life dramas, like the potential scandal over at Knoedler & Company, the disbandment of the Andy Warhol Foundation authentication board or the uncertain behind-the-scenes arrangements that led to that Lichtenstein painting setting a ridiculous auction record.

For starters, equating “prophet” with “art dealer” might strike some as ludicrous. Polsky’s seers do not interpret signs from deities or foretell the future. Rather, they make niche markets, promote labels and brands and exploit commercial ghettoes. This situation begets the question: What came first, the egg or the chicken?

The book is fun, though, which may be more the point. Each prophet gets a chapter: Ivan Karp and Pop Art; Stan Lee and comic book art; Joshua Baer and Native American art; Jeffrey Fraenkel and photography; Louis Meisel and Photorealism; Tony Shafrazi and Street Art; and so on.

I skipped the chapter on Pop because I can’t stomach it anymore. However, the chapter on Outsider Art really got me. Blame it on a chance encounter noted Philadelphia dealer John Ollman had in 1982 with a stranger who showed up at his door with a box full of objects made of wound wire. 700 of them were apparently found abandoned in some alley.

Without any real evidence, specialists in the field were forced to assume the maker was African-American, since the alley was located in a poor neighborhood, and that these objects (presumably made in ‘70s) were abandoned there after the maker’s death.

Slowly but surely the seas parted in 2006 when Matthew Marks Gallery in New York decided to show the works amassed by Ollman. And so the legend of the Philadelphia Wireman was born. Polsky describes the event as an act of faith and fate.

“Had the owner of the assemblages shown them to another gallerist, there’s a distinct possibility that we never would have heard of the Philadelphia Wireman. You can have the greatest eye in the world, but you cannot be a true art-world visionary unless you ‘know when you see it’ -- even if you’ve never seen it before.”

Ah! Such are the virtues of an unregulated art market.

Other prophets, like ‘60s Bay Area rock promoters Bill Graham and Chet Helms, had to build their thing up from scratch by developing critical mass and street cred. They did it the old fashioned way, commissioning artists to make posters and employing high-concept production values to impress their audience. I love this chapter because it gives props to legend Stanley Mouse, the eminent artist of the “Weirdo Hot Rod” as well as so many great trippy rock posters, including those of the Grateful Dead. The Denver Art Museum now collects Mouse’s work, a well-deserved prize for his years of service to rock ‘n roll.

There’s a chapter on Virginia Dwan, the visionary responsible for raising capital and securing the land permits to build Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, but that one owes too much to Michael Kimmelman’s 2003 article in the New York Times, titled “The Forgotten Grandmother of DIA’s Artists.” You might want to read the report in the original.  

One final profile underlines the suspicion that many of Polsky’s prophets are wolves in sheeps’ clothing. The flamboyant ceramics lover Tod Volpe was once a dealer to the stars (Jack Nicholson and Barbara Streisand, among others) nicknamed “The Oracle” by Vogue magazine. Convicted of fraud and embezzlement 1997, he spent a couple of years in the caboose. Now in the free community, he is putting his life story, Framed: A Memoir, on the market. On his website you’ll find him holding a several lilies up to his face. That kitschy portrait I think tells the story of Art Prophets.

PEDRO VÉLEZ is an art critic and writer hibernating in Chicago.