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THE TONY SHAFRAZI STORY
by Lisa Zeitz
 
Visitors are greeted by tall bamboo growing up a skylight as they climb the steps to the Tony Shafrazi Gallery on West 26th Street in Chelsea. In September the summer exhibition of early works by Andy Warhol will have been taken down, and a show by the dealer’s old friend, the actor and photographer Dennis Hopper, goes up, to be followed in October with an exhibition by the Zap Comix pioneer Robert Williams.

Shafrazi, who always stands out at openings and auctions with his bushy white sideburns, sits behind his desk munching pistachios, trying to concentrate on a thousand things at the same time. "Dennis!" he calls into his phone in order to catch Hopper’s full attention. "I don’t care if you are sitting in your car or if you have a doctor’s appointment. We have to talk about your show." Before saying goodbye, Shafrazi cautions his long-standing friend ("I was his best man twice!") to be careful parking the car.

Then, Shafrazi is ready to start talking about his life, his early childhood in Iran, his time at boarding school in England, art school in London, exciting first years in New York, working as an art consultant for the Shah of Iran, his friends Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and three decades of running a gallery. Yes, he is even ready to talk about his attack on Picasso’s Guernica in 1974, although it makes him squirm: "That is the cross I have to bear."

Within the first hour of our conversation it becomes clear that the artist and art dealer’s eventful career cannot be told in a single afternoon. His account requires some time and plenty of pistachios, tea, coffee, sushi and sake. Words roll off the tongue of this eloquent, incessantly gesturing man in a bubbling stream.

Shafrazi’s first trip to New York in 1965 is still vivid in his mind. Arriving from the prestigious Royal College in London, he dropped off his suitcase at the YMCA on East 47th Street in Manhattan, briefly glancing out of the window of his room. The figures walking up and down the fire escape opposite seemed vaguely familiar. Coincidence had it that the art student was staying opposite Andy Warhol’s Factory. Dressed appropriately as he was, in his sharp mod-style tailored suit, the 22-year-old Shafrazi turned on his heel and crossed the street to introduce himself. Warhol’s assistant Gerard Malanga rode in the freight elevator with him. "Wow," Shafrazi whispers in enduring awe, "the place is all silver, the walls, the phone, the elevator."

In contrast to the cool crowd whirling round the Silver Factory, Warhol was extremely friendly, in a mood of childish excitement. Shafrazi imitates Warhol’s high and whispery voice: "Oh gee, that’s great, would you like a sandwich and a Coca-Cola?" As Warhol returned to his Silver Pillows, which he was trying to fit with valves, Shafrazi noticed that he was having a bit of a hard time with the heat gun and obviously had no welding experience. Unlike Shafrazi, who had recently been working with heat guns and plastic at the Royal College. "Let me show you," he suggested and made a great impression on his idol. "Andy was stunned -- nobody else in the factory knew how to."

Next Shafrazi used a nickel to call Roy Lichtenstein, another one of his idols, from Warhol’s public phone and made a lunch date with him the following day. "To see the ‘Brushstroke Paintings’ in his studio was a heavenly experience," he recounts enthusiastically, "wow, it’s like Mickey Mouse from heaven painted them!" When Lichtenstein asked him to lend a hand delivering the ceramic coffee cup sculptures, which had just arrived, Shafrazi was not about to refuse. This way he met another Pop Art legend during his first 48 hours in New York: Leo Castelli. The art dealer even managed to sell a series of Warhol and Lichtenstein lithographs to the virtually penniless student -- back in his apartment in London they were all the rage.

In London, Shafrazi had already been a great admirer of the art dealer "Groovy Bob" Fraser. "He was very influential. The openings were unbelievable. Everyone was there: Marlon Brando opens the door for me, Tony Curtis is there, Paul McCartney tells a story to Jeff Koons and me, Mick Jagger pours champagne into Marianne Faithfull’s dress. . . ." However, at the time Shafrazi still saw his future as an artist rather than an art dealer. After graduating in 1967, he followed the common path and went on to teach at Manchester University and Hammersmith College in England. He moved to New York at the end of 1968, teaching art, design, and media theory at the School of Visual Arts: "My style as a teacher was explosive and very eventful. I was a riot."

At the mention of Picasso’s Guernica, tears well up in his eyes and he begins telling his story from the beginning: "To understand something today, we must contextualize it. In the 1960s, we started to witness assassinations on television -- JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Bobby Kennedy. It was an assault on the senses. The Vietnam War came into our living rooms. You saw jungles on fire, an industrial power attacking little villages, defining the time and devastating the innocence of youth." At about the same time, Shafrazi explains, the function of a gallery was in question, as art stepped out of its traditional context: "art went to the floor, to the city, to the outskirts, to the desert, to print, to text, to ideas and performances. . . . Institutions were no longer respected. . . .

"You have to remember a time when towns were literally on fire, streets were burning, in Philadelphia, in New York, in Chicago. The country was practically under martial law, there were tanks and military in the streets. By the early 1970s, if you walked the streets of Manhattan it was like medieval times. The clean modern world had collapsed. Debris was everywhere, people looked strange, beards and very long hair became common. Cataclysmic changes were happening. New York became the detritus of the Western world, and art lived in it almost like a parasite. The artists hovered in a state of worry and ineffectiveness. In this transition of the modern to postmodern fragmentation my role was painful, and I was beginning to feel the discomfort of the straitjacket that was art."

But wasn’t New York also wonderfully romantic? In reality most artists lived in absolute states of poverty: "Even well-known artists were lucky if they had three or four exhibitions and made $10,000 or $15,000 a year. Philip Glass drove a taxi, John Chamberlain cut hair, Richard Serra had a moving company. Most of the artwork questioned the idea of value. It was about authentic expression. Chris Burden locked himself in a locker, Acconci masturbated in public. They were desperately trying to find true depths of expression. The scale and the staggering size of the war relegated art to among the rats and mice. That was the context. This is how you have to understand what happened with Guernica." But before Shafrazi starts talking about the notable day in February 1974, he has to embark on another tangent in order to explain his unhinged state of mind.

An incisive moment of his life was the death of his friend Robert Smithson, which he was nearly witness to himself. In 1973, Shafrazi was staying in Santa Fe with fellow artists like Keith Sonnier and Joseph Kosuth, before Smithson persuaded him to join him and his wife Nancy Holt on a trip to Amarillo, Texas. On a quest in search of a suitable location for Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp, they rented a small plane and flew over the landscape together. "I had a horrible feeling," Shafrazi says. "The spiraling flight paralleled the spirals Bob was building. He just laughed."

On the last day of their sojourn, Smithson planned to get up early in the morning and survey the area once more, "I said don’t go. I am not going. We talked until 2 am in the morning, and then I had the deepest dream I ever had. There was a floating eye, no eyelashes, no head, the eye the size of the world, and the horror of an endless fall. Then there was a knock on the door, and then news of the accident, Bob was dead."

Soon afterwards Smithson’s widow Nancy Holt, Shafrazi and Richard Serra realized Amarillo Ramp according to Smithson’s plans. They spent 45 days in the desert, Shafrazi rode the truck and unloaded rocks and rubble for the ramp. Back in New York, Shafrazi was drawn to the phenomena of displacement and to Michael Heizer’s art, where negative space becomes form. "What if there is a slippage? A phrase in a new context? Lawrence Weiner let words climb from the canvas onto the wall. What if a phrase slipped off the canvas onto the floor, the city? What if it crossed onto another painting? A work from another historic culture? What if the words slipped onto a great work of art? The idea wouldn’t leave me. For six months it tormented me."

Guernica seemed to be the epitome of anti-war art, "and there it was gathering dust, castrated in a minor place in comparison to how the world was moving. As horrific as it was, the sacred surface seemed violated by being in a dysfunctional place, reduced to ineffectiveness." Shafrazi’s idea of writing on Picasso’s masterpiece with red paint seemed like a crazy, totally stupid idea at first, "an enormous taboo," disrespectful and illegal. "What would my father say?" he asked himself, "my family, the New York art world? Would I be crucified? I was not a U.S. citizen, maybe I would be thrown out or put to jail. I did not talk about it with anyone. I was haunted."

Initially, he had envisioned using stencils, brushes and a bucket of blood-red paint to apply the writing. However, he figured he would only have a few minutes for his action and therefore decided to be more pragmatic and use a spray can. Picasso’s painting, created for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris, had been on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York since the 1950s. (It was ceded to Spain in 1981.) Shafrazi has a clear memory of getting ready on February 28, 1974: "dressing up, all very clean, shaved head, with a black turtleneck, a leather jacket and black jeans, and I made sure I had my passport and traveler’s checks on me." He arrived at the museum around 2 pm and the first thing he did was call the press from a public phone. "I had to be my own Judas. I had to do it and I had to tell them."

Picasso’s Guernica was in a room of its own on the museum’s third floor. About a dozen people were stunned as Shafrazi pulled out the spray can from his bag and wrote "LIES ALL" and then added "KILL" in capital letters across the canvas, words which he says were influenced by James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and the media -- and which he describes as a Zen-like anti-war message. The agitation that he had been feeling in the preceding months had disappeared: "I was absolutely calm," he says, "not angry, not stoned." There had been total silence in the room during his act of vandalism, then the guard came, Shafrazi handed him the spray can, and shortly afterwards the police arrived to arrest him. MoMA’s restorers went to work on the painting just 20 minutes after the attack, and it is said that they were able to remove the spray paint from the varnished surface without any permanent damage.

Shafrazi remembers approximately 20 to 30 police cars gathered in front of the museum, a train of them escorting him to the notorious jail in Lower Manhattan known as "The Tombs." The police officers there greeted him with the words: "Che pasa, Picasso?" before they took him off to a cell, where he waited for his hearing with 30 to 40 other detainees. By this time some of the inmates had already seen him on the news on television and congratulated him, "Man, kids in our neighborhood have been doing that for years, but you made history!" Warhol had used newspaper clippings with disaster reports as images for his silk-screen prints. Now Shafrazi’s action was reversely making headlines out of art: Shafrazi says his action made it to the front page of newspapers in China, Sweden and France the following day.

It wasn’t until the middle of the night that he was taken to court for arraignment. Shafrazi was surprised to find the courtroom full of artists who had already been hanging around waiting there for him for hours. He doesn’t want to mention any names, because he imagines that his friends might still get into trouble about it after more than 30 years. "I was naïve. I expected a Socratic occasion." Instead, the judge insisted on $1,000 bail for Shafrazi, although he had a clean criminal record. He wouldn’t accept Shafrazi’s checks, so the artists in the room dug through their pockets and came up with the money. Then the crowd moved on to Max’s Kansas City, the legendary bar where a whole generation of artists and musicians congregated for many years, from the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol to Carl Andre, Joseph Kosuth and Richard Serra. Their reactions were varied, spanning from pure horror to disbelieving astonishment -- and respect.

Shafrazi’s luck had it that the prominent lawyer Jay Topkis approached him and took on his case on a pro bono basis. "It was very complicated; I think I had to plead guilty, but it was ruled a misdemeanor, not a felony. . . I got five years probation." Shafrazi remembers how the judge asked him if he would do it again. "I said no, I did it already. I have to do other things. ‘What other things?’ he asked, and I said ‘I don’t know.’"

Shafrazi’s path took him on to Iran, where he had been giving occasional lectures about contemporary art and culture. "I love the young Iranians. Isfahan is a place full of humor, sweetness, fruits, roses, poetry and incredible gardens, like 1001 Nights." At the time there were plans to build a museum, and Shafrazi chimed in by contacting the architect Kamran Diba, a cousin of Farah Diba’s. Shafrazi wanted to provide the New York connection and bring the best artists and art works of the time to Iran. "Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, no more money in the U.S.: the Shah was a dream come true for gallerists."

Shafrazi travelled to Teheran with suitcases full of transparencies and acted as an intermediary "for very small commissions from the dealers and no money from the royal family." He initiated the sale of contemporary masterpieces, among them great disaster paintings by Andy Warhol that cost $110,000 at the time, a big Jasper Johns, three de Koonings, and three Lichtensteins. After the opening of the museum, Shafrazi decided to open a gallery in Tehran himself, and commissioned Zadik Zadikian to create a work of "maximal minimalism" for the inaugural exhibition: the artist covered 1,000 bricks with gold leaf, referring to Iran’s precious traditional culture.

The timing of the venture, however, could hardly have been worse. "Iran was jumping from third world to first world, and that was not supposed to happen." On the night of the opening, tanks invaded the streets, martial law was declared and the Iranian Revolution started. The first show was also the last. Shafrazi lost everything in Iran -- including Zadikian’s bricks -- and moved back to New York shortly afterwards. The next phase of Shafrazi’s career, in which he befriends and champions Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, is another story, to be told some other time, after more cups of tea, more cigarettes and many more pistachios.


LISA ZEITZ is an art correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.



 



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