Which would you rather have: the hermetic, elitist, big money, cryptofascistic contemporary art world of today or the eccentric, dysfunctional, downright weird contemporary art world of yesterday? Art dealer John Weber, who died over the weekend, was a mascot and mover in that old world.
Did you know that, allegedly, because he didn’t pay his artists, that John was essentially the desk attendant in his own gallery? During the SoHo years, Alan McCollum got a bunch of John’s artists together and, on the down low, they arranged to manage the Weber Gallery’s finances so that they could pay themselves and then give John a stipend from the remainder. But it still said "John Weber Gallery" on the door!
As a secondary market dealer, John always had a choice piece in the back. In 1995, he called me over to peruse a sexy gray Mark Rothko, which he was about to flip. Years later, long after John was out of that deal, the painting went for millions at auction. Although he had trouble paying his artists, John stuck by them a lot longer than economics dictated. He was a man’s man, ex-Navy, one of the first dealers in SoHo in the 1970s. Artists like Don Gummer, Jim Biederman and Lucio Pozzi loved John for his faults; a hair-trigger temper, clouds of pot and booze, and a perverse loyalty that made John seek out their work in the most insignificant group show in the darkest back alley.
For the last 20 years of his life, Weber was essentially blind, a fact he artfully concealed with his all-seeing machismo. Once, in the mid-‘90s, John and I were casually sipping cocktails at Sean Kelly Gallery, right underneath a live, nude Marina Abramovic, who had crucified herself atop the gallery wall. John looked up, "That’s a pretty realistic painting, Charlie." "Uh, John," I replied, "That’s her!" He got pissed at me for discovering his secret, of course.
Other than myself, John Weber was the most politically incorrect, horny, mind-bending and obstreperous person I ever knew in the art world. For everything he took away or fucked up, he gave back tenfold, always on his terms. The Gagosians and Shafrazis, who make it all look so rich and easy, climbed to the top on the back of Weber, a guy who had to check if his dick was still attached when he got up in the morning. Give ’em hell, John, wherever you are!
Born in Los Angeles in 1932, John Weber served in the Navy and briefly joined the staff of the Dayton Art Institute before moving to New York, where he became director of the Martha Jackson Gallery in 1960. In 1962 he joined the Dwan Gallery, first in L.A. and then in New York, and opened his own space at 420 West Broadway in SoHo in 1971 with a show of Minimalist sculpture by Sol LeWitt. Weber specialized in adventurous art: Arte Povera, Daniel Buren, Richard Long, Art & Language, as well as U.S. Minimalists, Conceptual and Earthworks artists.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).