Wet Paint: Marlborough Gallery to Permanently Close Amid Coup Against Ailing Patriarch, When Woody Met Roman, & More Juicy Art-World Gossip
What art-world powerhouse started an all-white-woman action group for equity? Who secretly follows Ghislaine Maxwell? Read on for answers.
Every Thursday afternoon, Artnet News brings you Wet Paint, a gossip column of original scoops reported and written by Nate Freeman. If you have a tip, email Nate at [email protected]
FAMILY FEUD TAKES DOWN LEGENDARY SPACE
The nearly 80-year-old Marlborough Gallery, one of the most storied galleries of the postwar era, will close its New York operations amid a power struggle that pitted members of its ownership family against one another in a Shakespearean drama. Most notably, the retired former head of the London gallery Gilbert Lloyd—the son of gallery founder Frank Lloyd (who Anglicized his name from Levai)—and the Lloyd family has ousted Frank’s nephew Pierre Levai, the longtime maître of the gallery and a part owner of the trust, together with his son, Max Levai, who was named president last year. The decision was made during board meetings in June, Max Levai confirmed to Wet Paint in a statement Thursday.
The dramatic coup played out swiftly while the 83-year-old Pierre Levai was in hospice care, suffering from serious complications from COVID-19 when he got word of the decision.
“As he lay battling for his life, after testing positive for COVID-19 this spring, the board used his condition for their own advantage, and voted while he was incapacitated to permanently close the New York gallery,” Max Levai said in a statement. “The architects of this maneuver are board leaders Franz Plutschow, head accountant for Marlborough International since the Frank Lloyd days… and Stanley J. Bergman of [law firm] Withers Bergman.”
Word about trouble within the upper ranks of Marlborough’s august board started spreading late last week, with multiple sources coming forward to spill that the gallery—which has seen some turnover among staff in the last few years—was on its last legs. Some sources indicated that while business was going relatively well during the shutdown, the board decided to throw away exhibition schedules and an ambitious expansion plan in order to consolidate funds to weather the sputtering economy and probable recession.
The rumors turned out to be true—and then some. One half of the family was defenestrating the other.
“Having been effectively terminated by the board of trustees of the Lloyd family trusts, I have regrettably broken with the international Board of Marlborough Gallery,” Max Levai said. “This is an unfortunate ending because things were going well, and so much was planned for the future. However, decisions made by the board of trustees with regard to their treatment of me and my family have had legal ramifications and exacerbated serious health issues for my parents.”
It is unclear what lies ahead for the gallery in London. The Chelsea Arts Tower, which has housed the downtown New York space since it opened in 2007, is still owned by the Lloyd family trust. The board voted to pay a termination fee last year to break its lease on the gallery space on 57th Street, which had been home to Marlborough since in first opened in New York in 1963.
The news comes after much of the Marlborough staff was already laid off or furloughed in March. Another wave of temporary—now permanent—terminations came in April.
While some sources indicated that business was steady, others—including nearly a half-dozen sources who have either worked for the gallery or were familiar with its business—said that the board of trustees, which consists mostly of bankers and professionals outside the art world, were wary of the art business, concerned about declining sales, and wanted to shield their holdings by phasing out the gallery model.
But other sources indicated that the lynchpin behind the board’s stealth machinations was an abortive real estate deal that, when approved a year ago, looked like a bullish investment in the future. In mid-2019, Max Levai announced that the gallery would be purchasing the building next door at 547 West 25th Street, which had been home for decades to Chelsea outfit Cheim & Read. The cost was $19 million—a down payment was sent to co-owner Howard Read—and an elaborate plan to combine the two buildings into a single space was approved by the Chelsea Arts Tower and the New York Department of Buildings.
Then, on January 10, 2020, a deed—a copy of which was obtained by Wet Paint—was filed in the office of the city register transferring the ownership of the entire lot from Second Generation, LLC, the corporation associated with other transactions involving spaces occupied by the Cheim & Read space. It listed a new owner: John Cheim. According to the document, Cheim paid $0 for the property, incurring only a filing fee of $250 and a recording fee of $47. A press representative for Cheim & Read said the gallery—which decamped from Chelsea to a pared-down Upper East Side office in 2018—had no comment.
Such real-estate shuffling between two dealers who, according to reports, had already sold the building presaged what was to come. Earlier this week, as a payment to Read was due, the board abruptly pulled out of the deal—citing, per sources, the state of the art market in the age of COVID-19—essentially eating the deposit it gave to Read, and reneging on the agreed-upon purchase. The decision to close the gallery’s current space in the Chelsea Arts Tower came days later. Before the phoned-in board meeting this week, sources said, there was little indication of the shuttering, though there were a few phone calls from Bergman—legal council for Marlborough Fine Art in London over decades—inquiring regarding Pierre Levai’s health.
The timing of the closure is up in the air. Max Levai is technically still president of the gallery’s operations, and Marlborough is now participating in Art Basel’s current online fair, showing a group of works by the late painter R.B. Kitaj. Vice President Pascal Spengemann is still working as well, and will be informing the artists on the gallery roster of next steps.
Even if the Lloyd family opts to continue the gallery in London under different auspices, this marks the end of a crucial chapter of New York gallery history. Founded in London in 1946, Marlborough was arguably the first mega-gallery, as it created the model of having branches in cities around the world to introduce one continent’s artists to another continent’s collectors. The New York branch represented many of the most important Abstract Expressionists of the day, including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and Philip Guston. Starting in the 1970s, the New York space was run by Pierre Levai, who weathered the storm after Marlborough sold more than 100 Rothkos at undervalued prices and was fined millions by a New York state court—a scandal that has clung to the gallery name ever since.
The younger Levai has been in charge of the Chelsea space since 2013, and, along with Spengemann, introduced a new set of emerging artists to the program, such as Andrew Kuo, Lars Fisk, and the duo of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. Right now, Levai—who has no leadership position or ownership stake in the trust—will spend the summer running the just-opened project Alone Gallery, a one-at-a-time social-distancing space in the Hamptons that currently has up a selection of work by Alex Katz and a group show of Marlborough artists such as Tony Matelli, Keith Mayerson, and Werner Büttner.
Max Levai said that his father is now almost fully recovered, and added that he is putting this chapter behind him and looks forward to what’s to come.
“It is the great artists, some inherited from years of history with Marlborough, and others who have more recently joined the program, who are truly responsible for the incredible moments and memories we will always cherish,” he said. “My top priority is to protect our artists and their work.”
TO ROMAN WITH LOVE
You probably didn’t read Woody Allen’s new memoir Apropos of Nothing, where he takes on what he calls the “#MeToo zealots.” Reviews called it “grim reading” and “tone deaf and banal.” If you started it but didn’t finish, tough luck with the rest, because “the final third of this book falls apart dreadfully,” Dwight Garner wrote in the New York Times.
If nothing else, those who skipped it missed out on a Woody self-own for the ages that involves his longtime pal, Larry Gagosian. Like you, Wet Paint did not read this book, but a source sent over a few pages that concern the world’s most powerful art dealer, and it’s an epic misunderstanding that boggles the mind. Let’s dive in.
Woody and his wife, Soon-Yi Previn, are in the South of France, having lunch with Gagosian. In the memoir, Woody recalls that he heard Gagosian invite him to a lunch with Roman Polanski. This, to Woody, sounds like a swell idea. Though he hasn’t seen Polanski in 40 years, he’s totally willing to hang out with a fugitive who hasn’t set foot on American soil in decades because he’s been evading statutory rape charges stemming from an assault on a 13-year-old girl in 1977. A few weeks later, Larry arranges a dinner, so Woody and Soon-Yi drive to Château de la Croë, a magnificent pad on the Cap d’Antibes, and when they arrived, they were greeted by a woman who introduced herself as Roman’s wife, She then introduced Soon-Yi to Roman, and they start talking about, per the memoir, “some other topic like yachts or private aircraft.”
Suddenly, Woody nudged his wife. “That’s not Roman Polanski,” he said to Soon-Yi. “His wife just introduced him,” Soon-Yi said. “You didn’t catch it because you’re deaf as Beethoven.” Woody insisted that this person was not the disgraced Polish filmmaker, and eventually, they figured out what was going on: they were not with Roman Polanski, they were with Roman Abramovich, the mega-collector Russian billionaire. (His wife at the time, who provided the ill-fated intro, was Dasha Zhukova; they have since divorced.)
Woody shrugged off the galactic-level misunderstanding, but Larry Gagosian was less than chill about the whole thing. “When Gagosian shows up and we relate the whole thing to him, he can’t seem to figure out how we could possibly have misunderstood,” Woody wrote. “I explained to him we discussed Roman Polanski, agreed to see him for dinner the next time Larry would be in town. So now, you come to town, you call, and say, ‘Shall we go to Roman’s for dinner?’ How could I know you meant Roman Abramovich?” Woody didn’t get off unscathed, though. He admitted that “the story spread like cholera, and I was the rube of the Cote d’Azur social set.”
WHITE WOMEN WANTED
Think way, way back the heady early days of the Donald Trump presidency, when a group of dealers and artists started a movement called Dear Ivanka. The mission was to try and convince the first daughter—who just years earlier was essentially a gallery-scene hanger-on, content to spend her days hobnobbing at charity functions and snapping up Dan Colen paintings—to talk some sense into her father. That went well. Now, Helen Molesworth, the curator who was fired from MOCA in Los Angeles amid a shakeup that eventually kicked director Philippe Vergne to the curb, has started an activist group in response to the recent protests surrounding the killing of George Floyd. Call it “Dear White Women.”
And that means just white women. In an email message obtained by Wet Paint, Molesworth describes the group as “an all-white group” that will be “working together as white women to understand our role in a racist society.”
The group will stage 90-minute Zoom meetings to address various issues. “I’ve heard ad infinitum from my white sisters that they ‘don’t know what they can say’ or they are ‘afraid’ to speak for saying the wrong thing,” Molesworth said. Another issue she’d like to address? “I’ve heard loud and clear from many of our African American sisters that they are exhausted by being asked to explain what they see as basic history, facts, and feelings to white audiences. The time has come for us to educate ourselves so we can be better allies in what is now a centuries-long struggle for equality and justice.”
If any white women want to joint the group, they can email [email protected]
BIESENBACH’S BAD FOLLOW-BACK
A few weeks ago, Wet Paint dug into Jeffrey Epstein’s little black book and found that many, many art world bigwigs had at least some connection to the billionaire convicted sex offender who stood accused of trafficking underaged girls. But what about Ghislaine Maxwell, Epstein’s number two and alleged co-conspirator in the sickening sex ring? If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, one survivor after another makes it clear that Maxwell was very involved in enabling Epstein’s alleged crimes. But she hasn’t been heard from since that strange, probably photoshopped image of her at an In-N-Out Burger surfaced last summer. Perhaps we’ve found a clue—a tipster sent in what appears to be Maxwell’s Instagram, which links to the TerraMar Project, her ocean conservation nonprofit that was shut down last year as the charges were brought against her former partner. And look who’s following Ghislaine’s account—that would be Klaus Biesenbach, director of MOCA in Los Angeles.
Not much is known of their relationship, apart from the fact they both attended Martha Stewart’s inaugural American Made Awards in 2012, as can be seen in the photo above. A rep for MOCA did not respond to a request for comment.
Last week was a Pop Quiz that touched upon some many things that your humble trivia proprietor loves and misses. Namely: Los Angeles, long lunches at fabulous restaurants, bawdy scribblings on ephemera, and open-air galleries in the downtown arts district. Here are all the details. The drawing was by Paul McCarthy, as many guessed, but it was not one of his “Sushi Drawings,” the sketches he made on placemats from the Yamaha Restaurant in Glendale that are currently in the collection of the Hammer Museum. Rather, it’s one of the sketches he made on the menu for Manuela, the breezy restaurant inside Hauser & Wirth’s expansive Los Angeles compound.
It’s currently hanging on a wall near the open kitchen—though you can’t see it right now, since the restaurant is closed due to COVID-19. Here’s hoping it reopens soon.
This week, there are just two winners—but we appreciate all the guesses! The two people who responded correctly actually both work for Karma, the beloved New York gallery and bookshop, but they answered independently. They are: Alexis Kerin, Karma’s Los Angeles director; and Karma books proprietor Matt Shuster. Congrats to the two of you!
Here’s this week’s quiz, and we think that a few more people can get it this week if you really put your brains to work. Name the person whose hand this is, name the work in the background on the right, and name the owner of the work.
Please email the master of quizzes at [email protected] with all three correct answers—and by all means, wild guesses are completely welcome. Winners get martinis at Lucien! We are really going to enjoy purchasing all these martinis for Pop Quiz winners one day.
A collector with “an important private American collection” is callously cashing in on the death of artist Matthew Wong by consigning the large painting The Realm of Appearances to Sotheby’s, where it’s set to sell this month for $60,000 to $80,000—and another collector has consigned a work on paper, Landscape With Young Bather, to Phillips for its 20th Century & Contemporary Art Afternoon Sale in July … Fortnight Institute, the beloved salon and gallery in the East Village, has moved out of its E. 4th Street location to open a by-appointment-only space at an undisclosed location … advisor Benjamin Godsill is organizing a group show at Joel Mesler’s East Hampton gallery, Rental, with a portion of sales proceeds going to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Healthcare Heroes Fund for COVID-19; artists in the show include Jonas Wood, Rashid Johnson, Hugh Hayden, Austyn Weiner, Borna Sammak, Farah Al Qasimi, Josh Kline, and Anicka Yi … Berlin galleries are opening up and local favorite Société is on the move, as they’ve packed up and opened a new space in the Charlottenburg hood … Bob Dylan spent his quarantine painting, so perhaps another Gagosian show is in the offing when all this is over … if you’re not quick enough to be the first commenter on Jonathan Monk’s Instagram and thus have missed your chance to buy one of his fabulous receipt drawings, boy are you in luck: dealer Tom Lee is raffling off two works given to him by the artist, with proceeds going to a grants for young BIPOC artists, and there’s no limit on buying tickets—so snap them up before the drawing Friday … Nicole Eisenman’s new portrait of writer Sarah Nicole Prickett sold at the Hauser & Wirth booth at Art Basel’s online viewing room for $150,000 to a European foundation …
Vincent Fremont, former manager of Andy Warhol’s studio, entering the comments on a Matthew Higgs Instagram post to offer up his review of Blake Gopnik’s doorstop of a Warhol biography: “It was a slog of a read & boring.” *** Helen Marden checking in on the lily pads at Tower Hill, Anne Bass’s island estate in Nevis *** Dakis Joannou flashing back to a happening on his Jeff Koons-designed yacht, Guilty, with Maurizio Cattelan and Martin Parr taking pictures of Fawn Rogers sitting on a David Shrigley bed *** OG food critic Robert Sietsema stumbling into a silver hot rod with a vanity plate that says WINNING at the Mobile station on 8th Avenue in the Meatpacking District—perhaps, he intimated, it belongs with Charlie Sheen ***
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