On Saturday, when in Prague for the Laver Cup tennis tournament—a short break en route to Asia and London—I starting writing this introduction in-between matches. (As a side note, I am told that Roger Federer, who is playing for Team Europe, is a serious collector of contemporary art; John McEnroe, captain of Team World, is a seasoned collector and one-time art dealer.)
Traveling always makes me pine for a great book to read (if I had the time). There are three books that I have often thought about writing, though almost definitely never will—but which I would love to read.
The Medicis of Modernism: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Heavenly Conduit
This is a book I conceived writing in the late 1980s but never did. The Dia Art Foundation was the brainchild of Heiner Friedrich, one of the great visionary art dealers of the postwar period, and Philippa de Menil, youngest child of John and Dominique de Menil, who was amongst the greatest art collectors, humanitarians, and art patrons of the 20th century.
Friedrich moved to New York in the early 1970s and began mounting ambitious single-artist exhibitions at 141 Wooster Street and 393 West Broadway, including a Dan Flavin installation that was a cotton-candy-colored revelation of environmental experience, Andy Warhol’s 102-panel Shadow silkscreens (1978) and Walter de Maria’s The Broken Kilometer (1979).
De Menil was Friedrich’s principal client, and soon the Heiner Friedrich Gallery became the Lone Star Foundation, which shortly thereafter evolved into Dia. At the time, Friedrich said that “dia” means “conduit” in Greek; it also translates as “heavenly”, and still others quote him as saying that it means “gift of the gods”.
393 became the permanent home of The Broken Kilometer, and therein began the geographical spread of the most ambitious program of arts patronage of the postwar years. The way Friedrich and de Menil (who later became Mrs. Friedrich) saw it, the contemporary American artists they patronized, amongst them Donald Judd, Flavin, Warhol, Cy Twombly, James Turrell, La Monte Young, Fred Sandback and Robert Whitman, were the great visionaries of the latter part of the 20th century, and they formed Dia to make possible the creation and permanence of contemporary masterpieces which would be the Gothic cathedrals of Modern Art.
Dia would provide the funds necessary to make all of this a reality, including ample monthly stipends for each artist, the accumulation of extraordinary holdings of each artist’s work, the acquisition of the real estate necessary to fulfill each artist’s ambition (whether a building, a crater, a castle, or a town), each to become a museum to the greatest works of art that the greatest artists of our time could imagine (and in this, the era of earthworks, those ideas could be awfully large).
It was a utopian commitment to art that had not been seen in centuries, since the times when art was understood as the product of divine intervention. As the ambition to enable this greatness to be manifested grew, so too did the ambitions and needs of the artists.
Dia acquired Dick’s Castle on the Hudson River (which had bankrupted the financier who built it, Evans P. Dick, in the 1910s) for Flavin’s collection of Hudson River School paintings; bought Judd an abandoned army post and much of downtown Marfa; and de Maria enough land in the New Mexico desert that nothing could ever be erected anywhere within sight of The Lightning Field (1977). Young had 30 staff to fulfill an iteration of his and Marian Zazeela’s Harrison Street v from 1979 until 1985.
The vision was remarkable‑every artist was brilliant and every project was amongst the greatest of the century (Dia’s unparalleled collection of Warhol Disasters was what got the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh going). All this was funded through de Menil’s trust, courtesy of stock from Schlumberger, her mother’s family’s company, one of the world’s most successful oil industry services providers.
But, in the period during which Dia’s ambitions grew, along with its costs, the value of the stock plummeted, and not only were dividends not enough to fund the project, but the money borrowed against the stock became equal to the value of de Menil’s trust.
The bank called in the loans, and this artistic tower of visionary brilliance nearly collapsed, resulting in unseemly public divorces from the artists and the sale of much of the real estate (including massive holdings of major properties in Manhattan and elsewhere for the future permanent homes of museums that would never be built), and some very great art.
It was thanks to the steady resourcefulness of director Charles Wright, a Seattle attorney, who replaced Friedrich in what was originally conceived as a custodial role, that Dia remained alive and developed a program in Manhattan, and through the ambition and pragmatic vision (if that’s not an oxymoron) of subsequent director Michael Govan, that there is even a Dia Art Foundation today.
This is the story of artistic vision, its extraordinary brilliance and grandiosity, as well as its hubris, vanity, and gluttony; of worshipful devotion, the end of Modern Art and, with that, the toppling of the Olympus of male artistic genius whose towering presence and ego had heretofore characterized the history of Western Art.
The Last Bohemian: A Biography of Gordon Matta-Clark
But before telling the story of the end of Modern Art through the collapse of the vision of Dia, I had intended to write a biography of one of the greatest artists of the postwar period: Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-78), who changed the course of both art and architecture.
He was the son of the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta, and dancer Anne Clark. He had an identical twin brother, Sebastian (called Batan). His godmother was Teeny Duchamp, wife of Marcel.
When the twins were young, the father abandoned his family and moved to Paris. Clark, without the funds or means to support her sons, moved with them to live with Matta’s family in Chile. Gordon would go on to study architecture at Cornell, though he never practiced it in the traditional understanding of the field. Instead, he invented what he called “anarchitecture”, which instead of making buildings, liberated them, as sculpture and as public space.
An urban, quasi-anarchic Robin Hood of public space, Matta-Clark believed empty buildings, of which there were many in New York in the 1970s, to be a criminal waste, and in the making of his sculpture liberated such spaces by opening them and carving them up. The result was heroically anti-heroic “monuments” about space, shelter and the people they are meant to house and serve.
Matta-Clark was a charismatic pied piper of the New York art scene. Along with the Fluxus artist George Maciunas, he transformed the nearly abandoned warehouse district of SoHo into the most vital artist community in the world. He founded the neighborhood’s first restaurant, FOOD, a communal hangout where many of his artist friends worked, gathered and ate.
He made photographs, films, and sculptures. His anarchic interventions, such as shooting all the windows of a disused building, or carving through the floor of an abandoned tenement and displaying the removal as sculpture, were as counter-culturally heroic as they were political. His films, some made of his acts of deconstructing architecture, others of performances in their own right, mix the everyman of Frank Capra with the tragicomic wit of Harold Lloyd. In the early 1970s, in a work titled Fake Estates (1973), he purchased at auction slivers of property that belonged in a no-man’s land of ownership between other properties, on sites too small to be used or developed.
Matta-Clark’s environmental sculptural works no longer exist, and were never meant to. They live on in the artist’s photographs and films. Chief amongst them are Splitting (1974), a house in New Jersey he sliced down the middle and tilted as though cracked open like an egg, and Day’s End (1975), in which he took an empty, locked pier on the Hudson River, cut a slice through it, and opened up a rose window of sorts at the far end, transforming this massive, disused behemoth into a sculptural cathedral, letting light and people in.
I always read his work not only in political and social terms, but as a continual enactment of dismantling the tyranny of authority, of killing off the father who broke up the family. The collapse of the towering presence of Minimalism that was typified by Dia found its antidote in the work of Matta-Clark, his work itself an unraveling of the phallocentric nature of authority.
Whereas magnetic, libertine, freethinking Gordon personified the New York art scene of the 1970s, which in large part he created, his brother Batan, who was also an artist, was the opposite—withdrawn and alone in the crowd. One day in 1976 Batan took his life by jumping out of Gordon’s loft window. At the time Gordon was healthy and virile; six months later, at age 35, he died of pancreatic cancer. It is not uncommon for identical twins to die within six months of each other.
While much of Matta-Clark’s work may read as anarchic, he was at the same time forward-looking and visionary (with a dose of the absurd). Throughout his artistic life he practiced alchemy, melting all kinds of materials in an ongoing effort to create gold, perhaps as an ode to optimism, or a ritualized act of futility. It is believed by many that this heroic process is what killed him.
There has not been an artist like Matta-Clark since. When he died, so, too, in my mind, did the spirit of the radical, and the fearless adventure that had defined the artist for more than a hundred years. A world defined and populated with artists soon gave way to an art market and a professionalism of the field that has characterized the art world we have known since.
Ileana Sonnabend: The Sphinx With a Secret
Now, here is a book I would never be qualified to write and that I believe can no longer be written, but which we all need to read.
Leo Castelli, the greatest art dealer of Pop Art and beyond, who invented the art market we know today, was charming and public. Leo got the glory, and he deserved it, but I think the power behind the throne was Ileana Sonnabend, his first wife and lifelong friend. Sonnabend had the wealth, eye, and lustful gluttony that characterizes the greatest collectors.
I didn’t know her well, and found her formidable and enigmatic—less by her bearing than by her being. I never heard her talk much, which I took to mean that she was often silent, but maybe this was the invention of an intimidated young man. When she tried to engage me in a chat, I shrank and became a monosyllabic mouse.
The key to her peerless collection of Pop Art and beyond, she said, was that she collected works from her Paris and New York galleries that nobody wanted to buy, which in retrospect often proved the most compelling. I am sure this is true, in part. But her collecting was so much more than that. She owned hordes of great works by the greatest artists that she showed as well as masterworks by artists such as Twombly, and, what I am told was the finest collection of Art Deco furniture ever assembled.
When once asked what two words best describe her, she replied “curiosity” and “greed”. An old friend told me a story of sitting through a business meeting she had with a major European art dealer who wanted to deepen his business relations with Sonnabend. To impress her, he took her to the finest restaurant in town. He tried to lavish upon her all the culinary finery, regaling the pleasures of every great dish. Instead, she sat silent through the meal, and when asked what she would like to order, she said simply, “A boiled potato.”
She had the face of my aunt Shirley and the shy, bemused smile of the proverbial cat who had gotten away with eating the canary. She had what must have been an intentionally ordinary appearance, usually attired in a shapeless dress and wearing an ill-fitting wig. Still, she had a gentle and regal aura—a true presence. I imagined her to be shy, but maybe this was a ruse to let the secrets die with her. If she had ever agreed to tell her story, which she never would, it would change our understanding of art in the postwar period. And now, to our loss, all of those secrets are now in the grave with her.