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Tales of Two Cities


by Adrian Dannatt
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Belleville is the currently modish Parisian arrondisement where, as in the East Village of yore, it remains possible to cruise the latest cultural objets while feeling actual physical menace from the locals, what one might term the “proletariat art threat.” And astroll there not too long ago what should I spy through a window but the umistakeable visage of Christian Leigh, the notorious curator who went missing after the Venice Biennale of 1993, presumably taking the money with him and leaving artworks marooned behind [see writer Alexi Worth’s summary, here].

Entering in bafflement the premises of Castillo/ Corrales, a collective-run gallery on rue Julien Lacroix, I discovered an entire exhibition, dubbed “Notorious (Christian Leigh),” lovingly if not obsessively assembled: ephemera, texts, publications, photographs and more, tracing the bizarre career of this individual who, gallery director Francois Piron admitted he was amazed to discover, more people did not seem to know today.

From his fame as a teenage couturier under the name Kristian Leigh, when he supposedly dressed Meryl Streep for the Oscars, to his bankruptcy and disappearance from the fashion business and his reappearance in the contemporary art world as the hottest international curator on the block, all was documented. All, including his mysterious vanishing, yet again, after the ’93 biennale, leaving behind a trail of debts, accusations and missing artworks, only to emerge once again this year as a fully fledged filmmaker.

Here on display was my own profile on the man from the Sunday Times Magazine, one which he had roundly denounced, accusing me of every sort of treachery, but which according to Piron he now claims to have written entirely by himself! As Leigh, like myself, apparently lives between Paris and London, this exhibition is an appropriate reminder of one of the art world’s most consistently intriguing characters.

And the very next morning -- ping -- came an email inviting me to the U.S. premiere of CS Leigh's A Quiet American: Ralph Rucci & Paris, which “takes viewers into the mind of one of the world's most renowned fashion designers,” a film that was being hosted during New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Will wonders never cease?

*     *     *
The huge crowds at “The Steins Collect” show at the Grand Palais were as committed to admiring the avant-garde art that Gertrude and her kin collected as to disparaging the avant-garde literature she created. Indeed, the section of the exhibition that included her own writings, and recordings of her performances, was filled with snorting, complaining, mocking philistines, the very same punters who oohed and aahed over her Matisses in the next room.

Without a doubt this was an audience that would be as dismissive of today’s avant-garde as their grandparents had been of Pablo Picasso. Which made all the more relevant the label on one, truly weird-shit bit of Picabia, his painting Pa of 1932. For here, among labels that spoke of institutions and private collections, was a picture that Stein had owned from 1934 until her death in 1946, and now bears the simple revelation, “Collection Mike Kelley, Los Angeles.” A historical link -- occluded, I understand, at the Metropolitan Museum -- all the more poignant for his passing.

Indeed, everyone in the art world seems to have been dying recently if not simultaneously. In May 2010 I spotted a set of amusing life-study academic drawings done by Louise Bourgeois as a student, up for sale at Christie’s Paris, and was literally bidding on them, unsuccessfully, at the very hour when she died over in New York aged 98.

Likewise I had just spotted a delicious small painting by Dorothea Tanning at the very same Christie’s Paris, and was again bidding, unsuccessfully once more, against its temptingly low estimate of just €1,500 (selling for €6,000 at the hammer), when she too dropped dead over in Manhattan, aged 101. Grandes Dames beware the lethal powers of the art merchants of Avenue Matignon!

So fair warning Carmen Herrera (b. 1915), you could be next! The Lisson Gallery’s first major solo show devoted to the Cuban artist’s work makes much of the fact that she is now all of nearly 97 and still hard at it, not to mention that she only sold her first painting, ever, aged 89. While Lisson’s impeccably frosty saleslady revealed that none of her early work is available for us ordinary folks, “it is reserved strictly for major institutions only,” paintings made in the last 20 years can be purchased, at a price, starting at $100,000.

As Nicholas Logsdail put it with infectious enthusiasm, “There’s just nothing wrong with her work, nothing, it absolutely reeks of authenticity, it positively reeks of the stuff!”

Equally ancient and elegant is painter Rose Hilton (b. 1931), widow of the artist Roger, now enjoying her own fame and fortune. A tremendously attractive and well-preserved woman, on being asked what she fancied as a present for her forthcoming 80th birthday, she cast her eye around and lit upon a handsome young man half her age, not only a collector of her late husband’s work but also a relative of the equally late Freddie Mercury. “I think that’s what I fancy for my birthday.”

And her wish was her command, as she squired the young man about London town for the next few celebratory months asetting all tongues awag.

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The extremely grand opening of Eykyn Maclean’s first-ever space in London, bang opposite Sotheby’s on St. George Street, was devoted to Twombly ultra-doodles from the revered collection of Sonnabend elle-même. And grand it was, with the most powerful dealers and curators out in force, from Sir Nick Serota to the infamously tanned and coiffed veteran art dealer Martin Summers and a smattering of those impossibly rich, rich-looking people that only London seems to still generate, all gurgling admiration of the great Cy.

The only vociferous and brave voice of dissent came from Lord Anthony Crichton-Stuart, former head of Old Master paintings at Christie’s and now running Noortman’s in London. “What is this stuff, can anyone explain? I have a background in classical and ancient civilization, I know all the references to every myth, Greek and Roman legend mentioned in these titles, but nobody here will explain to me any connection with the art.”

Ivor Braka certainly didn’t elucidate as he left the party to a chorus of amused reverence, “Ah, the ‘tastemaker’ is no longer in the building.” Braka, as London’s most powerful private dealer, has garnered this new nickname due to a recent Christie’s sale of his decorative knickknacks, for which he was embarrassingly termed a ‘tastemaker’ in its title.

Naturally everyone was keen to discover exactly what this infamous figure might deem worthy of “deaccessioning,” and there was indeed one revelation, proof that even the most infallible merchant can sometimes get it wrong. For Braka was amongst the feeding-frenzy that fell for Thérèse Oulton, a British painter whose fame and fortune imploded with the arrival of the YBAs, the supposedly “most-important artist of her generation” whose generation was, overnight, extinguished once and for all by Hirst et al.

Once on the cover of every magazine, in every important collection and gallery, even nominated for the Turner Prize in 1987, Oulton now stands as a sort of folkloric warning of the follies of fashion, a figurehead worthy of Bunyan. Braka’s painting was from July 1988, the very month Hirst’s "Freeze" show opened, the very month her fate was sealed, and sold for a solid £1,188, surely a fraction of its purchase price.

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Andrew Strauss quite literally grew up with Sotheby’s, not only having worked there his entire life running the Paris branch, but also as son of the legendary Michel Strauss, founder of the firm’s Impressionist and modern department, not to mention great-grandson of Impressionist collector Jules Strauss. And as a member of the hautest Haute Juiverie, his family tree including everyone from De Gunzbourg to Deutsch de la Meurthe and even Sir Isaiah Berlin, his intimate 50th birthday party at his own Hôtel Particulier was naturally slightly grand.

Le tout was certainly here, from cousin Cyrille de Gunzbourg, long-time dealer to the Parisian elite, to Number One antique-expert Nicolas Kugel, notorious Dada connoiseur Marc Dachy, auctionner Cyrille Cohen and even young Olivier Berggruen, the art historian with the greatest personal family art history. But best of all was the surprise appearance of not just one but two of the art world’s most famous identical twins, the Herring brothers, perhaps the most important, and certainly most discreet, international private dealers.

Yes, John and Paul Herring were both here, almost never seen together let alone snapped as a pair, and though usually extremely tight-lipped they were for once willing to let slip the occasional tit-bit, not least concerning the excellence of the exhibition of the private collection of Ronald Lauder (largely formed by themselves), currently at the Neue Galerie in New York, on view till Apr. 2, 2012.

Paul was also smart enough to suggest that now was the time, if ever, to buy some seriously major Old Masters in Britain, “their government has to spend everything they have on buying the Duke of Sutherland Titians and can’t save anything else.” He also explained how they plan to give away their celebrated private collection through the American Friends of the Israel Museum and have already handed over a few works from their Upper East Side townhouse. He also had a word of advice for any private dealer planning to do an art fair, “we only did it once, back in 1994, and of course we sold not a single work and gained not a single new client, but we got amazing press coverage and my mother-in-law was so very impressed that in the end it was worth the $25,000."

The Herring twins even left the party with their own specially inscribed doggie bag of leftovers, the only guests to take the remains of the feast away with them into the Paris night!

ADRIAN DANNATT is a Paris-based critic and writer.