Letter to Karen Wilkin (2000)
Written upon request for information for Wilkin's 50th anniversary book for Tibor de Nagy Gallery, July 6, 2000.
In the early '60s I was making very austere minimal paintings - a single pink circle on a pale pink ground, a 3" band of black around the white center of a 5' square canvas, a salmon-colored rectangle centered on a rust-colored ground. I was friendly with Frank Stella at the time and he kept pushing Leo Castelli, who was showing Frank's stripe paintings, to give me a show. Ivan Karp, Leo's assistant, was also enthusiastic. I think Leo sniffed the air and decided that minimalism was getting hot so he agreed to give me the opening show in the fall of '65. As I remember this was a last minute decision and advertising and promotion were put in the works immediately.
Leo called me soon after and said he needed a slide of a painting ASAP for the announcement. I replied that I didn't have any slides but that was doing newer, more complex pictures, and I thought one of the drawings I did for them would be appropriate. Leo responded he had better come see the paintings. He did not sound happy.
I brought the paintings to Frank's loft on Walker Street. Leo came with Ivan and he hated them. He was very polite, as always, but he told me he just couldn't show them, they "weren't right." He wanted minimalism and I was moving away from it. As I left, totally pissed, I could hear Ivan protesting "But everything is all set..."
So I took the paintings back to New Jersey and figured that was the breaks and maybe something else would happen. People came to my "show" at Castelli (I think some newspaper ads had been bought & appeared and there was word of mouth) and there was no show. It was kind of embarrassing, but at least I could call myself a pioneering conceptualist.
Soon afterward I got a call from Johnny Myers. He said Ron Gorchov was scheduled to have a show and had no paintings to put in it, and, apologizing for the short notice, said he had heard about me from several people and knew about the Leo incident and asked me if there was any possibility I would have enough work have a show right away with Tibor de Nagy. I may have asked if not-quite-100% minimalism was OK with them but of course said yes. That show sold well and got good reviews and for the next 5 years they sold pretty much everything I gave them.
The best thing about Tibor & Johnny was their positive enthusiasm and support. I once stood in another room and heard Johnny violently defend my paintings to some snotty, supercilious art critic, and I loved him for it. Johnny was always funny and Tibor was always the gentleman and it was always fun to be there. I think if any one thing sticks in my mind it was coming up with a truckload of paintings for a new show and finding a group of collectors Johnny had called literally standing in line to buy them. I got deluded into thinking that this is the way it was and it would never change.
Bad things? Not much. I didn't always get paid in time, and Johnny & Tibor bickered a lot, but there was nothing much to complain about. It was a fine gallery in a delightful time which I remember with nostalgia as wide-open and fast-moving with freshness and discovery always in the air.