I became a professional philosopher, like every academic nowadays, by taking graduate classes, learning to write and critique philosophical essays and reading the relevant literature. And then writing a doctoral dissertation. Entering the philosophy world is a well-organized activity, but entering the art world is generally a less formal process. I entered thanks to the complicated relationship with a businessman whom I will identify as T. (For reasons that will become clear, I prefer not to name him.) His story is interesting and maybe revealing, and since he’s passed, as have many of the other people in this story, now it can be frankly told.
T was a gifted, generous printer and art dealer who made and sold monotypes, and unique works of art on paper. I was introduced to him by an artist friend. T wanted to have a book about his art, and so he hired me as his writer. At the start, I knew nothing about monotypes, and so I had to spend some years visiting T’s studio and interviewing his artists. There were experienced writers ready to do such a book. Really, then, so I gradually realized, what T wanted was a relationship. And so I spent a lot of time with him. Although not a particularly bookish person, he respected my intellectual interests. Coming from a privileged family, T had a vast, two-story studio and home in Tribeca. At the center of his life were the big printing presses. T introduced many of the artists he worked with. He traded art on the walls at a grand, very nearby French restaurant for an amazing tab, and so we benefitted from that exchange. Once when the famous English critic David Sylvester came to town, we wined and dined him. Often we took other guests there. And on one occasion, T and I traveled to Italy together.
T, I discovered, had a fascinating, successful system of printing. He worked with two different kinds of artists: the famous ones whose monotypes paid the bills; and the younger people, who needed time to learn the ropes. In California, he printed Richard Diebenkorn and Sam Francis, and in New York, his artists included Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Ryman. A monotype is a very interesting art form, on paper (like a print) but unique (like a painting). And so much of our discussion revolved around explaining the special qualities of monotypes. The artist paints on a metal plate and then that plate is run through the press. The various reversals, top/bottom and left/right mean that it takes skill to master this process. And since each monotype is unique, T developed a process of splitting when a project was finished. The artist picked one completed work, T picked one, and so on in turn until all of the prints were divided. This was a good way to train yourself in connoisseurship. T was obsessed with the concept of collaboration, the way in which ideally his well-developed technical skills and the artists’ sensibility could together yield artworks. But as you can imagine, dealers were not happy with the way that they were excluded from this process. Once when I had an appointment uptown with a famous dealer, after he learned that I was with T, he ushered me straight out of his office.
For me the most intellectually challenging part of this art world life involved learning how to articulate verbally what was going on. I was a properly trained philosopher, fully capable of writing a publishable account on the conceptual issues of current interest. And I had followed and even contributed a little to Artforum, in the then fashionable theory-heavy debates about contemporary art. At this time, some of the most influential commentators on contemporary art argued that painting was dead. But that academic discussion had strikingly little to do with the activity in T’s studio. Even Peter Halley, famous for his theorizing, was, at least when I interviewed him, focused on the physical activity of art making. In order to write sensibly about T’s studio, I had to abandon my bookish concerns and learn how to talk to artists. In my extended discussions with Ryman, for example, I learned how little his sense of the practice of painting had to do with the fashionable accounts of his art. We had great fun walking together through his MoMA show and, also on another occasion, seeing the Mondrian retrospective at that museum.
I had never previously made artwork of any kind, but I persuaded T and his assistant to let me make some monotypes. I wanted to learn more about the process that I was describing. Philosophers, I should explain, are famously unphysical, and so T was concerned that I not make a mess in his beautiful studio. If you are trained as a writer, you learn a lot by trying to make art. For one thing, you see how difficult it is. I learned, also, about the commercial side of art dealing. Watching and even participating in the sale of expensive works was a good way to learn to make your own confident aesthetic judgments. When business was good, making monotypes was like having a license to print money. On a productive day, it was magical seeing the quickly painted monotypes pinned up on the high studio walls. But when times were tough, running T’s upscale business was hard to support. Selling and making art may look glamorous, but it’s often a lot of ungracious work. And once when a broken water main flooded storage, expensive disaster struck.
When T and I went to Venice together, we had lunch with a famous Italian sculptor. Speaking as only an old friend can, this man told T that, although he was extremely skilled, he lacked the single-mindedness of a true artist. Knowing (but perhaps not accepting) this judgment, T still liked to paint. But the ending of this story is sad, for T’s real gifts and his ultimate imitations were all too intimately connected. He was an aesthete, but wanted to be an artist. And he had what I always thought was a vivid fantasy life, claiming to be a secret agent. Maybe he was, but once when I arrived in a trendy Manhattan hotel bar to find him picking up the tab and regaling everyone in sight about his most recent mission, even I knew that a real CIA agent was unlikely to behave in this way. For a long time, however, T’s craziness co-existed with his very real completely sane ability to collaborate and sell art.
T had a great life. He was always generous, not just with money but with his time, and he was much respected in the art world community, because he made a real contribution. But he wanted to be something more- not just a gifted collaborator, with many devoted friends, but an artist himself. And so inevitably there was a certain tension in his seeking goals that could not be achieved. The last time that I saw him, my wife and I stayed in his marvelous house in Italy, enjoying, as often, his hospitality. Then after showing us the security system, he said: ’Please don’t touch the guns at the windows, for they’re loaded’. T had become scary, which may explain both why I want here to memorialize his very real achievements, and why I am (to be honest) thankful that I will never have to deal with his craziness again. After our relationship ended, I was so frustrated that to my present regret, I took a painting that he had given me and stabbed it, destroying that work. All personal stories don’t have happy endings. Still, sometimes when I visit NYC or write about visual art, I think with immense gratitude about T’s intelligence and good spirits. I wish that we were still in touch, for I learned a great deal from him. Thanks to him, I ceased to be a bookish art critic. And I remember the great day when in rural Italy, he bought for a bundle of cash a car trunkful of exquisite black truffles, which we enjoyed together over dinner. And his monotypes, are great.