Jim Jacobs Private Art Dealer

Paradigms from Elgin Marbles to Chamberlain and Judd

By: - Dec 26, 2014

The Egyptian and Classical departments had adjoining offices at the MFA. The door was always open and it seemed that they were having more fun working under the witty Cornelius Vermule. My boss, the eminent Egyptologist, William Stevenson Smith, was intense and serious.

One day I suggested that the other intern, Jim Jacobs, might join me for lunch.

We got stuck in traffic on Comm Ave. He was oblivious singing along with "Under the Boardwalk" rather loud and badly. I insisted he turn around. Grabbed a sub sandwich and headed back to my basement domain.

Smooth it over Jim, as he was known to friends, suggested another try. Meet at his apartment and we would hang out.

Arriving he was soon engaged in a food fight with his roommate and oldest friend Phil Bleeth. The father of Jasmine Bleeth, formerly of Bay Watch, Phil now lives in Thailand.

While continuing to be friends today we live in similar but different worlds. The common ground is a passion for art and deep roots in both its history and contemporary practice.

We met recently for lunch in the Berkshires first just catching up. Then buckled down for the intensive dialogue that follows. It was interesting and fun. There will be more to explore the next time.

Charles Giuliano How did you get into becoming an art dealer?

Jim Jacobs A collector of mine, Frances Ditmer, asked for a favor for a friend. There was a man named Gerry Evans who wanted to buy a Franz Klein. I never met him but bid for him and bought the painting for $1.3 million. I did it as a favor.

At that time I was doing well with my work. That year I think I made close to $500,000. I was selling screens, paintings and outdoor sculptures. I had four assistants and was working 50 weeks a year. I was dealing with having employees and going out to dinner with people you don’t like. Some of being an artist is really not so much fun.

Evans called me from Europe and said I would like to take you and your wife out to dinner.

It sounds like I was making a lot of money but after the expenses not really.

About a week before he returned from Europe I had a friend who I had known from when I worked at Castelli (Gallery). He called me and said “Hey, you know a lot of wealthy people. I have a Picasso for sale. I went to look at the painting. It was a late portrait but quite beautifully painted. He said I could buy it from him for $1.5 million. Anything over that you can get is yours.

Ok. So he gave me a transparency which is how it was done at that time.

We went to dinner and he asked what I was doing. I said that I was painting and selling some paintings on the side. So I pulled out the transparency.

CG Right there and then.

JJ He said I’ll give you $1.8 million. He said I like it a lot will you go see it for me. I said it’s in Texas. He said I’ll rent a jet for you.

CG Now you own two planes as well as a helicopter.

JJ Yes. So I flew to Texas and looked at the painting. He said what do you think? I said it’s really beautiful. Fine. Done. He sent me a check for $1.8 million. I sent Ed Mayhem a check for $1.5 million and I made $300,000 over dinner.

I said to myself, you’re in the wrong business. Over the next couple of years I slowly stopped painting and became an art dealer. I love being an art dealer. When I was 18 I loved being an art dealer. My first job in New York was at the Alan Gallery.

CG Charles Allen. A tiny space on the second floor on Madison Avenue.

JJ We showed Bruce Conner some of the new realists, Jack Levine. Suzi Gablick. It was an interesting gallery. Just Charles and myself.

CG He showed Joe Brainard.

JJ Yes. When I got a job at Castelli Leo called Charles who gave me a very good recommendation. You mentioned that I was good at many things.

CG Like riding a horse in Madison Square Garden as a teenager. When you were at BU you made a great portrait of Humphrey Bogart. I really admired it. You do many things well from skiing to cooking.

JJ And I’m a very good salesman. Loving art, being a good salesman, it fit better. Being an artist was great but the kind of people I had to deal with and the lifestyle became less and less interesting. I could almost say that now about art dealing.

CG Is there a secondary market for your work?

JJ Occasionally somebody calls me. Someone buys something of mine on the internet. Now and then that happens.

CG I loved your work particularly the screens. It was great that your work was included in the Folding Image exhibition at the National Gallery. For me they worked both as beautiful, sensual paintings as well as free standing sculptures. There was real growth as you evolved from the early, monochromatic, sprayed lacquer panels. (Shown at OK Harris Gallery)The screens were much more exotic and complex with paint applied over the built up, scratched bondo surfaces. They had an Art Deco quality. You gave me one of the Folded Mondrian paintings.

(Jim was in the early appropriation show Homage which I curated for the Danforth Museum. He helped me to find several New York artists and we drove the truck together to Framingham.)

JJ They were beautiful. Some people may take a beautiful photograph but that doesn’t make them a photographer.

CG We met in the mid 1960s when we worked at the Museum of Fine Arts. I was an intern in the Egyptian Department and you were in the next office in the Classical Department with Cornelius Vermeule. We both have deep roots in art history.

JJ Absolutely.

CG How did that impact dealing with artists?

JJ I’ll be glad to answer that. But I want to remind you that because we worked at the MFA we could have anything from storage in our offices. I had a Rembrandt.

CG Vlaminck.

JJ I had a Vlaminck.

In your office you had your paintings.

CG Of course. In particular I had a yellow monolith. It was yellow on yellow with richly built up textured surface. I also did white on white paintings. That was way before I became aware of Melevich or Ryman. I was really onto something but working in a vacuum with no support and the materials were expensive. When I was moving around I had them stored at home and my mother invited people to just take them.

At a family gathering I met a friend of a cousin who said that he had that yellow painting and some others.

I was told to remove them as they were not appropriate to the Egyptian Department. But I can legitimately say that my work hung in the MFA.

JJ But it’s the lifestyle. That’s what you have to decide. I talk to my daughter about that a lot. Look at the people who are doing what you want and to do and ask do you want to look like that. Because that’s what it’s going to be about.

I had a friend in high school and his father owned a gallery called The Old Print Center. I became involved with art through Michael. We would go to the gallery and his father would go with us to museums. When I got my first job in a gallery I liked it. In the 1960s it was a different world if you can remember what art galleries were like. You had relationships with dealers and you had a very collegial kind of experience.

Auctions were for professionals. Private people didn’t go to them. You went to galleries and became educated through dealers who were educated. They educated you. It was old style art dealing.

I really liked that life and even though I liked working as an artist in the end I have to say I vastly preferred being an art dealer.

CG To change the subject you have had access to important artists of our time. When you worked at Castelli you bought a drawing from Jasper Johns. Later you sold it and that allowed you to buy the back end of a mountain ski resort in the Berkshires. That’s how you were able to finance building a home.

JJ Correct.

CG You knew Jasper personally.

JJ Sure. I still know him.

CG When you were working at Castelli I remember a day hanging out while you did errands. That included visiting Andy in the factory to sign prints. We stopped to talk with Roy Lichtenstein. I recall meeting his “dotter” who explained how the Ben Day dots were applied to areas of the paintings by scrubbing paint through perforated sheets of plastic using a tooth brush.

During a Castelli opening you introduced me to Jim Rosenquist who was wearing a paper suit. That led to a gig as a studio assistant. Mostly that entailed cleaning up the studio after his paintings binges and with his main assistant, a guy named McCain, running errands. We also spent weekends in East Hampton working on his house and building a fence around it. The other guys were just into it for the money but I would talk with Jim about art and philosophy. Mostly he conveyed the blue collar persona of a transformed commercial artist and sign painter. But I engaged him on a different level even though I was just a kid. I learned a lot from being around him.

We were talking about Mass MoCA and you knew a lot of the artists who have been involved including Sol LeWitt. I don’t know if you know Kiefer?

JJ Of course I know Kiefer.

CG Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer?

JJ Louise I met many times but I do not know Holzer.

CG Robert Rauschenberg?

JJ Of course Bob. I knew all of these people. Mostly I have focused on the minimalists like (Dan) Flavin, (Donald) Judd, (Robert) Ryman. I am asked to go look at works by these artists. I’m asked about the works as to when they were made and how.

CG How did that come about?

JJ It came about through my relationship with Peter Bonnier.

CG He’s the Danish guy.

JJ No Swedish. We met in 1990 to 1991. We were buying and selling to each other. It didn’t make sense so we became partners. We have been partners now for almost 24 years. I was John Chamberlain’s best friend.

CG That’s a story.

JJ A long story. Peter was best friends with Donald Judd and Robert Ryman. I must have had 500 dinners with Judd because Donald and Chamberlain were best friends. We all ate at Max’s for years. And years and years we ate there. Plus at Don’s loft.

Because Peter and I connected as dealers it was natural for us to be selling Judds. And Ryman, Chamberlain and of course with those guys the other pop artists and the other minimalists.

CG Where does LeWitt come in?

JJ Sol was an acquaintance but not a good friend. When Peter and I go together Sol became a part of our life. I’m friends with his daughter and deal with his estate quite often.

Peter had worked for Paula Cooper so there again minimalism.

A lot of the younger people and others in the art world have never met these people. So everything is third hand.

CG Including their ideas.

JJ Yes. That’s ok.

CG No it isn’t. It’s what’s wrong with the art world today.

JJ That’s a much longer discussion.

CG They are coming out of graduate school having spent years looking at the ass of the horse instead of its mouth.

JJ That’s the nature of life. There’s nobody alive now who knew Cezanne.

CG I did. (laughs) You didn’t know that about me. I have always viewed the artist as the primary source. As both an undergraduate and graduate student I took seminars on Michelangelo. We read everything including the letters and sonnets. I he were alive today I would try to interview him.

For my Modern Art class at U Mass Lowell the chair invited a visiting scholar to lecture to my students. He read a text on Johns. An hour long discussion of his large white flag painting. Later I was part of a small group that joined him for dinner. I asked if he had met the artist? He had but after he had written. I asked what they talked about. He said anything but about his work. He didn’t want to be influenced.

For me that’s dead wrong. Whenever possible the artist is the primary source. There is so much you can learn directly like this dialogue. The theory of art should evolve from the dialectics. Too often today the reverse is true. In theatre I have colleagues who do not want to meet or know the people they write about. Of course I understand why but it means that their critical ideas don’t grow with time. For me the people I talk with and write about are my teachers. In graduate school you read books. That was then.

JJ That’s historically one of the issues. Did you read “A Team of Rivals” a brilliant book about Lincoln.

CG Do you remember the day when we went to Judd’s studio and picked up a load of rejected galvanized boxes. We drove them to a bailing company crushed them and turned them into elements for Chamberlain’s sculptures.

JJ Of course I remember.

Here’s an interesting story. We had a number of really large rejected Judd boxes. We had them sent to Great Barrington. They ended up in Mickey Ruskin’s gravel pit. (Owner of Max’s Kansas City) John and I hired a bulldozer and we used the blade to crush the boxes. We were half way through it when John came over to me and said “Take a look at the guy operating the bulldozer.”

On his shirt was a tag with his name “Art.” (both laugh) How’s that for irony. He turned those crushed boxes into his work.

CG Can you talk about your lawsuit with Chamberlain?

JJ Sure. This is much much later. We are flashing forward 40 years. It wasn’t me. I didn’t have a lawsuit against Chamberlain.

In 1971 when John was going to have a show at the Guggenheim nobody had any money. I didn’t have any money, John didn’t have any money, Gerard (Malanga) didn’t have any money. We were all living hand to mouth. Eating at Max’s for free. Now and then I would sell one of John’s sculpture and we would have a little money. Leo (Castelli) gave Chamberlain like $1,000 a month. For the 1Oth anniversary Andy did a series of silk screen portraits of the artists in the gallery.

CG The little plastic boxes.

JJ Some were bigger. The one of Chamberlain was 10 x 10”. I don’t know who said it, John, me or Gerard, but we said how about if we took these things (screens) and made a 10 x 10’ painting. It was for the entrance to the Guggenheim show. A large Warhol painting of John at the entrance. John said that it was a great idea.

Gerard came up to the country and we used Andy’s screens like Elaine Sturtevant did. We silk screened about 160 of these things. All the same image 10 x 10”. One image but 160 times. We were going to stretch them and put them all in one frame.

John took the painting to Andy and asked him to sign it. Andy said I don’t really want to, naah. So we didn’t do it. Gerard and I did it. We paid for it and we owned it. We didn’t think anything of it. We put it in a box and that was it.

(As a studio assistant to Warhol Gerard helped to silk screen many iconic works.)

When Chamberlain moved out of his studio he told me “I’m going to take that painting with me up to Essex Connecticut.”

Fast forward thirty years later. Andy is dead. John stretched them all and put them together as a 10 x 10’ painting. He went to the Warhol Foundation to have it authenticated. He said that he had traded a sculpture for it with Andy. It was a complete fabrication.

One day I ran into John and he said “You’ll never believe what happened to that painting. I stretched it all up. Authenticated it and sold it for $5 million.”

I said “I don’t care. Wonderful. I’m happy for you."

He did the same thing with Gerard. He told the same story. Gerard said “Hey wait a minute John. You don’t own that painting. Jim and I own that painting.”

Chamberlain told him to take a hike. Gerard went and got a lawyer. I said “Listen Gerard I don’t want any part of this.” I said “I’ll sell you my half of that painting for $1.” Gerard continued the suit. Five years later John spent a half million on lawyers. I don’t know why he didn’t just give Gerard something. Finally they settled. So that was the end of it.

I testified. John was wealthy and I don’t know why he didn’t just help Gerard. What was really strange was when John testified. They asked him “Do you know Jim Jacobs?” John answered “I never heard of him.”

CG What! Are you serious!

JJ Yes. That’s what he testified.

CG Of course Gerard helped to silk screen Andy’s paintings so who could do it better?

JJ Exactly. Gerard was there in the very beginning with Andy.

CG Let’s talk about Judd and the Chinati Foundation (Marfa, Texas).

JJ I’m not privy to a lot of what went down which was complex. So I am not the right person to talk with.

CG Give me an overview because you have visited often and knew Judd.

JJ Don was not an easy person. He was very strict. As you can see in the sculpture. When he died he left a lot of things clouded. He did an incredible thing. No question. Marfa is fabulous. I try to go once a year or once every other year. Usually I spend a few days.

The Chamberlain exhibition at Marfa is extraordinary. Have you seen it?

CG Yes.

JJ Marfa itself is beautiful. If we are on our way somewhere else we’ll stop at Marfa. We have a few acquaintances there.

Don left things clouded. So now you have the Judd Foundation and Chinati. They are sometimes at odds with each other.

CG Chinati was run by his wife.

JJ Not wife. Last girlfriend. They were at odds for years and maybe now things have settled down. That’s what I hear. I’m a friend of the Judd Foundation and send them money. I think the kids, Rainer and Flavin, are doing a great job. They are keeping Don’s flame alive and also preserving his heritage.

CG Some twenty five years from now how bright will that flame be? That question has come up related to Mass MoCA and a number of 25 year commitment to installations for artists. In the future will that make them a dated and less relevant institution? We are well aware how taste can change in a generation.

JJ The LeWitt installation is unique. Is there another 25 year installation like it anywhere in the world?

CG There is now the Kiefer building and plans for several more long term installations as a part of the Phase Three development. Will Marfa be dated?

JJ No. If anything it will be stronger. People ask me those questions all the times about works by painters and sculptors. What I say is, listen, stand in front of it and look at it. That sounds simple.

Do you know how you make an English lawn?

You level the ground, seed it, roll it. Then water it for 800 years.

It’s the same way about how to look at a painting. If you stand and look at paintings for 25 years you finally get in your head a notion of what’s going on.

CG Maybe. But maybe not.

JJ Ok. That’s fair.

Minimalism is an important American movement even though there is a European contingent to it. Arte Povere perhaps.

In that movement Don Judd is a giant. He is a very important artists and historically he will become very important. It takes 25 to 40 years for people like myself to look and say, ok, this is an important part of the history of art. Don Judd is definitely a part of the history of art.

Because of the internet and how contemporary art has exploded these things like Marfa will become even more important. People will discover Judd and like the National Parks they will make pilgrimages to Marfa.

CG And a whole community has been built up around it.

We now have Marfa, Dia Beacon and Mass MoCA. How do you see them relative to each other and where does Mass MoCA fit in that mix? Particularly in view of this new phase of expansion.

JJ Mass MoCA has a unique mission in the art world. It’s particularly appropriate to show over sized work.

CG Industrial scaled.

JJ Mass MoCA fills that void because these other venues don’t have that. Dia has that but it already has a permanent collection. It’s a very important minimalist collection.

CG There are no expansion slots.

JJ Exactly.

CG Unless they opt to build and expand.

JJ I don’t think that’s going to happen. I’m not a proponent that bigger is better. Every major museum in this country is building more space. I’m not a proponent of that.

CG Would you make an exception for Mass MoCA?

JJ Mass MoCA is different again. It has a niche. It’s different. It’s not building new buildings it’s appropriating them.

CG How about LA MoCA and the Broad Museum which will open up across the street?

JJ I’m not so familiar with those museums. That’s your world more than it’s mine.

Like when we were at the MFA I live with the objects. I buy them and can touch them. They are a part of my life. I live with these objects the Chamberlains, Stellas, Judds, Flavins. I actually get to hold them just like you did the Egyptian objects and I the classical ones back when we were both at the MFA.

Once they leave me I’m less interested. I sold a piece to the Art Institute of Chicago recently but more by accident than design. It was a 1968 Judd Stack.

CG What’s the market in Judd?

JJ It’s quite powerful. It’s not as powerful as Twombley.

CG Really.

JJ No. A Twombley just sold for $62 million at Christie’s.

CG What was your relationship with him?

JJ Cy was a wonderful man.

CG Did you see him in Rome?

JJ I saw him everywhere. Cy was a friend of mine. A close friend. He was a sweet guy. He was one of the first artists to give me something.

He gave me a drawing in 1966 which I had framed in a Kulicke frame (cheap metal frames popular at the time). It hung in my mother’s house. She hated the drawing.

In 1972 Ivan Karp said “I can get $5,000 for that drawing that Cy gave you.” I immediately sold it. Then bought it back in 1986 for $125,000. Sold it again for $250,000 then bought it back with Peter for $850,000 then sold it for $1.2 million. Same drawing. I don’t own it.

CG Of the artists you have been close to in a historical sense who have been the most important to you.

JJ I’m so pissed off at Chamberlain. If you put Pollock in a class by himself. Consider that de Kooning was the wise man of that movement. Then you would have to say that Chamberlain was the most important abstract expressionist sculptor. His sculptures look like de Kooning’s paintings. He had a huge influence on me. About color, about form, about shape. How things fit together. He was a quintessentially important person in the development of my thinking.

CG Not that many would put him that high on a short list.

JJ No. But if you see a good Chamberlain it is unbelievably good. He was an important artist. In the end he went to Pace Gallery and made some crappy work. Pace tends to do that with artists. They push them to be very commercial.

Judd. For the first eight to ten years that I saw Don’s work it didn’t mean anything to me. No. It was just so cold and mathematical. Then the light bulb lit up as it did with so many other people.

People hated Twombley then five years later they buy every work they can get their hands on.

For me personally Judd and Chamberlain have the most influence on my thinking. I had so many conversations with them. They were at opposite ends of the spectrum. One was an abstract expressionist and the other a minimalist.

CG Where do pop artists like Johns, Rauschenberg and Warhol come into this? Through Castelli you also knew them.

JJ Basically they’re representational artists. I love representational art. I always have. It’s much easier to like. Particularly when you are young and don’t have the experience to understand abstract art.

How can you not like Andy and fruit colored self portraits. They’re beautiful. And Jasper’s touch with the newspaper and wax. Rauschenberg is the daddy of that. It’s just that he made so many bad things for so long you forget what a great artist he was.

CG When you see retrospectives at the Guggenheim like the Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg you get a stronger sense of the phases of an artist’s work. As you say being aware of all the bad or minor works. When like sharks they are just circling the tank. Making work because to stop is to die.

Professors of art history don’t teach how to identify bad works or weak periods. There is little or no connoisseurship. Programs dealing with theory don’t delve into really looking at work. The signifiers, for example, that separate seemingly identical analytical cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso. Or why The Polish Rider in the Frick is not by Rembrandt. With the minimalists is that a real Judd or in the Chamberlain fiasco what made a real Warhol in the opinion of the Foundation? They use formulas rather than really looking at works.

In the survey books by Janson and Gardner all works of all periods are treated as equally important. You just memorize facts about them. All artists are not equal. Judith Leyster is not as important as Rembrandt. But feminism places them side by side in the canon. It’s a lie but understandable for all the wrong reasons. Is Derain as important as Matisse? Robert Indiana as important as Warhol or on a par with Jim Dine? Art historians and critics don’t think that way but dealers and auction houses do by assigning a price or value to the work. That’s why the market often seems out of sync with critical thinking.

I spent years looking at and thinking about Turner’s masterpiece The Slave Ship in the MFA. There is nothing like it in the Tate. Just all that fog and soup. What makes The Slave Ship so unique? It’s what Kara Walker didn’t get when she dashed off a work “inspired” by the Turner. Looking at it just infuriated me. That kind of response doesn’t happen unless you spend most of a lifetime really looking at and feeling masterpieces.

It is interesting that you and Peter have those memory chips for minimalism. There are other artists I relate to in a similar manner. Perhaps it becomes different in your case when pay big bucks for the works. That Twombley drawing story is fascinating and insightful. Critics in general don’t get their hands dirty dealing with the value of what they write about. We may or may not get paid for what we write. Where you get a nice taste of the action. Other than a handful of players the opinions of critics are worthless.

You might as well be a poet or a monk.

Aren’t there a lot of bad Picassos? Don’t you think that Rauschenberg was just playing the odds of hitting it now and then.

JJ With Picasso it was always in the hand where Rauschenberg was screening things.

Here’s the thing. As artists become wealthy they have the power, resources and studio to make more work. By the way when was the last Johns that you liked?

I like the work of Jasper, Andy and Bob. But what I like is the best of it. Same with Stella. He’s a fantastic artist but what I like is the best of him.

CG Other than the early stripes, protractors, the exotic birds or here and there most of Stella is overrated.

JJ Have you seen the copper paintings or the silver paintings? They’re incredibly beautiful paintings.

CG You dismiss Warhol, Johns and Rauschenberg as representational.

JJ No I don’t.

CG From the Venus of Willendorf to Malevich art was representational.

JJ The White on White Malevich is 1902.

CG No it’s not.

JJ It’s pre cubist.

CG No it’s not. Cubism is 1907 and Suprematism is around 1917 or 1918 after Synthetic Cubism.

JJ Look at abstraction in late Monet. Well you’re the art historian. It’s all abstraction except for one water lily in the lower right corner. Representational art is easier to like. I’m sorry it is. Not for you and I necessarily but for the general public.

I was in London and went to see the Elgin Marbles. If you figure that they were done around 525 to 475 B.C. and the David was done around 1500 A.D. it took 2000 years for Michelangelo, an artist to arrive on the plant to rival Praxitiles and the Greeks. When you go see the David you could cry it’s so beautiful.

CG Carved from a single block of stone. Which because of a flaw had been abandoned. That’s how as a young artist he was able to get such a large block of marble because nobody could work around the flaw without shattering the piece.

JJ It’s rare that such great work comes along. Picasso at his best could certainly reach that level.