How I Did Not Get My First One-Man Show (2006)
Written for the Phillips Exeter Academy Bulletin and Class of 1952 Website, Winter 2006: Essays, Anecdotes and Archives.
My father, bless his soul, wanted his children to follow respectable paths in life. What he got was an artist, an actor and a daughter who married a folk singer.
He wanted me to be a lawyer. I dutifully went up to the door of the room at Princeton where the LSAT was being given, looked in, saw a bunch of guys I did not care for, turned around and left.
No, I thought. I have had enough school. I am going to go to NYC and be a starving artist. So that's what I did.
At Princeton I was friendly with Frank Stella. During the late '50s we worked out a reductive form of abstract painting which later came to be called "minimalism." He was immediately successful, got shown in an important exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art and signed on with Leo Castelli, probably the best of the galleries showing new art.
I got known through a number of good group shows, and Frank and Leo's assistant, Ivan Karp, kept pushing Leo to give me a one-man exhibit. Leo was a canny dealer who had an instinct for what was coming. Minimalism, by that time, was getting hot. MOMA scheduled a very large exhibit for 1965, called "The Responsive Eye," which I was in. Minimalist exhibits were popping up and Minimalist artists were being signed on all over.
Finally, in 1964, Leo decided he needed another Minimalist, and gave me the first slot of the 1964/1965 season, opening in October.
I was very pleased. However, in the meantime I had changed my painting. Minimalism, I decided, was boring and limited. I began to make more complex paintings.
Leo did not get around to actually look at the new paintings until September. When he saw them he turned green. "Is this how you are painting now?" he said. "Is this how you are going to paint?"
"Of course" I said, sweetly.
Leo excused himself and went off in a corner to talk furiously with Ivan. I heard Ivan say, "We can't do that Leo, we are committed..."
Damn, I thought. Something is wrong. I thought I was an up and coming young painter Leo wanted in his gallery. I had no idea I was meant to be a token Minimalist.
The ads were in, the announcements were out and the show was set. (I still have the listing from the October, 1964 issue of the Gallery Guide.) But it never happened. Leo cancelled it. People came to my "opening" and found a group show instead.
I have always claimed that by virtue of this singular non-exhibit I was one of the first and certainly the most extreme of the conceptual artists.
A month later I got a frantic call from Johnny Myers of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery to say that one of his artists had no paintings at all for a show in January and could I please, please fill in for him.
"Of course" I said, sweetly. And then I added, "Maybe first you better come see the new paintings."
He did, and the show went on. It was the beginning of a long, pleasant, profitable relationship.