artnet Asks… Bowery Gallerist and Street Art Champion Rick Rounick
A downtown dealer discusses how Haring and Basquiat transformed New York.
Dealer Rick Rounick has 30 years of experience collecting and selling contemporary art, and on April 10 he opened the exhibition “Back to the Bowery,” featuring works Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat created between 1980 and 1990. artnet News reached Rounick via email to find out more about his attitudes and his gallery space on the Bowery, Soho Contemporary Art.
If you could live in any decade, which decade would it be and why?
Groucho Marx said that “yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet, I just have one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” I’m really content in this decade and I wouldn’t change anything.
What’s the nearest you’ve ever come to giving it all up?
I love what I do and I haven’t thought about giving it up.
Could you tell me about a moment that set you on your way to founding Soho Contemporary Art?
I always wanted to have a contemporary art gallery with a bit of an edge to it. I’ve been selling the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein for years, and when I found this space at 259 Bowery, I knew it was the perfect location. To be able to continue the tradition of art in this neighborhood as well as introduce new artists as they come along is very exciting.
If you weren’t running Soho Contemporary Art, what would you be doing?
Playing golf and tennis in La Jolla, California.
Why was the Bowery so important to artists?
This was the center of the creative universe during the 1960s-80s. Art and music merging together. The Bowery was the epicenter for creativity and art. There is an enigmatic aura about this area due to its early rich history. Roy Lichtenstein had a studio on the Bowery and Robert Indiana lived on the Bowery. We showed our VIP collectors some rare film footage taken at the Fun Gallery in the early-80s. Many of our collectors never met Jean-Michel Basquiat or Keith Haring, and have only seen them vicariously through their artwork. This was a chance for them to hear both artists speak about their work during the most pivotal times of their career. These primary interviews allowed collectors to garner tremendous insight into the artists’ paintings, as they both spoke candidly about their thoughts on their work, inspirations, and aspirations. Haring spoke about his work being in museums when, at the time of his interview in 1982, he was having his first solo exhibition. Basquiat’s interview revealed a soft, shy, thoughtful, and very intelligent artist who was quite open about discussing the meanings behind his complex imagery and literary text.
How long have you been an admirer of street art, and which cities do you like the most for street-art walks?
I’ve always been an admirer of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose roots are in street art. Both artists used the streets as their canvas to convey their individual ideas to the general public. The works themselves were at times a social commentary to the world around them. A rare work that is featured in our exhibition is Haring’s “Don’t Be A Litter Pig” subway drawing. It was Haring’s graffiti public service announcement to urge New Yorkers to be socially responsible. Serendipitously, Haring ended up being commissioned by the Department of Sanitation to create a logo for their “Don’t Be A Litter Pig” campaign that same year. During the official ceremony, Haring cheekily presented a book of his subway drawings to the staunch anti-graffiti advocate, Mayor Ed Koch.
Both artists’ work reflected the rich culture of Downtown New York in the 80s. Their street art was a way to get their message out to everyday people. Haring employed simple images that had a universal language and Basquiat used provocative literary text. This was their way to create a dialogue on social issues that were important to them whereby sharing their personal thoughts on life and politics. Street art is now being considered as carrying bonafide cultural value. There are some talented graffiti artists doing some amazing work the world won’t find in your average art gallery. There’s an immense growth of street art in London and some of the top graffiti artists in the world are in Berlin, but there’s no better city for street art than New York City.
Tell me a little about the genesis of the “Back to the Bowery” exhibition.
I have always wanted to exhibit and sell the work of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the neighborhood where it was originally created. Books have been written and pictures taken of both artists living and working in this area. Keith Haring painted his famous mural at the corner of Houston and Bowery in 1982 when this area was a desolate wasteland. We are thrilled to be selling all of this rare artwork.
How do you think people’s attitudes about the artworks of Haring and Basquiat—especially the attitudes of collectors—have changed since these men have died?
Both artists works have continued to increase in value and their stature in the art world has continued to rise. They died very young and they did not create a lot of work. Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat have continued to gain respect and recognition from curators and museums around the world. I really believe they are still way undervalued.
Have you worked with a group of core collectors over the years? What are some of the satisfactions and frustrations of working with collectors?
I have been selling art for over 30 years and I have a tremendous following of loyal collectors. Also, having our gallery on the Bowery we are meeting great new friends and collectors every day. My only frustration is when I have a client who does not purchase a piece they want or I think they should have and they come back years later and tell me they should have bought it.
Downtown question: Do you have any thoughts about the possible sale and closing of Pearl Paint on Canal Street?
Its always been a valuable resource for young artists and it’s unfortunate that they will no longer have that as a resource. As a matter of fact, that’s where Jean-Michel Basquiat bought his first art supplies.
“Back to the Bowery” runs at Soho Contemporary Art through April 27.
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