Veteran dealer Jack Tilton’s explosive testimony in the preliminary phase of collector Craig Robins’ lawsuit against dealer David Zwirner over an alleged collector blacklist supposedly controlled by artist Marlene Dumas to prevent the resale of her work, before Federal District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan yesterday, could be the searchlight that finally irradiates the secrecy of the contemporary art world. Tilton, one of the most savvy secondary market dealers whose SoHo gallery basement "boiler room" was a legend in the 1990s, has been courageously fighting Parkinson’s Disease.
As one who often complained to me about being priced out of the contemporary Chinese art market, which Tilton originated, as well as expressing frustration with wealthier dealers who co-opted his artist discoveries (especially Marlene Dumas), Tilton appears to be throwing in the towel on a career of struggle and innovation, a medium-sized tuna biting back at the sharks, at last. What is most amazing about Tilton’s blanket testimony, naming names, is the crazy quilt, Keystone Kops reality of DealerWorld, what might be characterized in semiotic terms as "Control/Not Control."
The risibility of the alleged Dumas blacklist that Tilton described in court is such that the list, like a far more notorious blacklist in 1950s America, became so bloated with names (dealer Marc Jancou, even future Dumas rep Zwirner), that, in the words of Bob Dylan’s satire of the anti-communist witch hunt, Talking John Birch Society Blues, "I looked under the bed and wound up investigating myself!" Underscoring the surreality of Tilton’s minute description of his world is the constant expressed need for "secrecy" between such parties as Robins, Tilton, Zwirner, the Dumas studio and what must have been half the Amsterdam phonebook, while gossip, confusion and rumor swirl, babble and gag.
In a reaction typical of art-world outsiders, Judge Pauley bitched from the bench about the length of Tilton’s explosive testimony, complaining that he was late for a murder trial. Tilton’s characterization of Dumas and her studio can only be described as tragic. Far from glorying in her rare success and the attentions of major museums, galleries and collectors, Dumas, in Tilton’s telling, appears obsessed with issues of her legacy, the destinations of her paintings (which she regards with the kind of fixation that Brecht’s Mother Courage dangerously bestowed upon her ill-fated children) and the sad idea that someone somewhere might be making a buck off her labors. I mean, where is the joy, Marlene?
Already the art world owes a huge, huge debt to Craig Robins and his attorneys for shining a fierce disinfectant light on the confused rat hole of something as odious as a blacklist. Only a bored judge, and the possibility of a settlement, which defendant Zwirner would be most wise to immediately pursue, could stop this train in the depot. Meanwhile, God Bless Jack Tilton!
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).