Author and gallerist Louis K. Meisel arrived at Mana Contemporary on August 31st to oversee the installation of his collection of Photorealist paintings at the Eileen S. Kaminsky Family Foundation gallery for the exhibition, Our Own Directions, opening Sunday, September 18th. We had the opportunity to speak with Meisel and follow up with a short interview.
Q: You mentioned that you grew up in Brooklyn in the ’40s and moved to Manhattan as a young adult. Can you tell us more about the character of each borough at that time, what motivated your move and what the transition was like for you?
A: East 21st Street, two blocks from Brooklyn College, was a great place to spend childhood and attend grammar school at PS 152. The neighborhood was crime free. I had total freedom to run, skate, bike and play. My family lived in a three-story Victorian house above my grandparents on first floor. We went to the Brooklyn Museum, the Academy of Music, the library, the zoo and the botanical gardens on the weekends, and of course, the Dodgers’ games. In 1954, when I was 12, my parents moved us to a split-level brick house in Tenafly, New Jersey four miles from George Washington Bridge. I went to junior high and high school there and overcame serious religious and racial prejudice.
On September 4th, 1956, I went to this place called the Museum of Modern Art with a friend and the son of a member. My background in classical music did not prepare me for the visual experiences it awakened for me. Over the next four years, I got to meet many of the hot artists at the time and became friendly with Theodoro Stamos and, to a much lesser extent, Mark Rothko. I dealt Stamos’ work from 1964 until he died in the ‘90s.
In 1960, I went to Tulane in New Orleans where Rothko was an artist-in-residence, though I did not see much of him there. I returned to New York in early ‘60s and met most of the pop artists. I befriended Larry Rivers, Tom Wesselmann, and became closest to Mel Ramos.
After serving in the army and retiring as Lieutenant Armor before the Vietnam War, I lived in Chelsea from ‘64 to ‘65. When I married my wife, Susan, in ‘66, we moved to the border of Chelsea and the West Village until ‘69. After another move, we finally settled into our home in SoHo.
Q: Without a formal education in the arts, you opened a gallery on Madison Avenue. How did you become interested in exhibiting and selling art?
A: I have always been a collector, as has Susan. We have about 150 collections containing thousands of works. We’ve always identified areas and objects that have not been discovered by others and intelligently assembled the best possible collections by studying, researching and learning all there was to know. In many cases, we’ve then published this information for the benefit of others. How did I become a dealer? Easy. Every junkie ends up selling the stuff to support his habit!
I took one class in art, The Janson Book, at Tulane. I also took a studio course at the New School with Ralph Humphrey. The rest I learned by spending time with just about every artist around in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, and also by looking and reading. I never worked for a gallery, auction house, museum or any other obvious springboard. Instead, I opened and ran an art publishing and printing firm, Eminent Publications, for ten years. We printed and published for 80 galleries and many museums. I also opened and ran a fine art screen printing business, Editions Lassiter Meisel, for seven years and printed for the Photorealists – Warhol, Jenkins, Bearden and Anuskiewicz, to name a few.
Q: How did you meet the original artists who shaped Photorealism such as Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell and Audrey Flack?
A: Charles Bell came into my gallery at 1022 Madison Avenue in 1969 and asked me to represent him. He was one of the finest artists I worked with, and we had great success together. I met Audrey Flack at a lecture at the New School in ‘72 and took her from the minor gallery she was working with. I met Robert Bechtle and many others in the genre when I was commissioning and assembling the Stuart M. Speiser collection, now the Photorealist holdings of the National Gallery.
Q: Former New York Times picture editor Philip Gefter writes in his collection of essays, Photography After Frank, “It is worth noting that Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, pioneers of color photography in the early 1970s, borrowed, consciously or not, from the Photo-Realists. Their photographic interpretation of the American vernacular – gas stations, diners, parking lots – is foretold in Photo-Realist paintings that preceded their pictures.”
You also mention in a 2008 interview with Guggenheim curator Valerie Hillings and art history professor David Lubin that Richard Prince, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Struth each acknowledged the influence of Photorealism on their work. Can you elaborate on the relationship between Photorealist painting and contemporary color photography?
A: All I can say is that the influence is obvious. The Photorealists influenced the preponderance of art utilizing imagery as opposed to abstraction in the past 40 years. By legitimizing the use of the camera and photography in fine art, they opened all sorts of doors for all sorts of artists.
Q: Photorealism’s reputation in the art world has waxed and waned throughout the past several decades. An exhibition of Robert Bechtle’s work at the Corcoran Gallery was highly regarded by artists, collectors and the general public, and his work was included in the Whitney Biennial in 2008. How do you think the creative legacy of other artists who defined the Photorealist movement has fared in the 21st century?
A: I do not see any actual waning. As a genre, Photorealism has steadily gained true practitioners, collectors, museum interest and publications. Prices have been on a steady – if not stellar – but safe rise. There have been about 100 important museum exhibitions in the past 15 years, including such diverse venues as The Berlin Guggenheim, The National Gallery in Krakow, Poland, and four museums in Japan, among others. I am currently working on tours that will travel to eight or ten museums in European cities starting late next year.
Q: You mentioned that artist Yigal Ozeri, whose work is included in Our Own Directions, introduced you to Mana Contemporary. What led to your decision to exhibit your collection of paintings here?
A: Yigal Ozeri and Mike Weiss came to a party at 141 Prince Street. They got a glimpse of our collections and asked us to show some of the work at Mana Contemporary. We agreed.
Q: Our Own Directions: Works from the Louis K. Meisel and Susan P. Meisel Collection is the second major exhibition in the ESKFF gallery at Mana Contemporary. As someone who has been deeply involved in the art world since the ’60s, what are your impressions of this new environment for contemporary art? How can Mana Contemporary continue to build relationships with artists, galleries and arts organizations in New York City and beyond?
A: We have lent artwork to more than 300 museums and other exhibitions over 45 years. Many collectors lend pieces, but there has never been a venue to show a single collector’s vision intact. Typically, there are just a few curated works to fit a particular theme. Mana is unique in this sense, and I hope they can exhibit many of these personal visions in the future.
Q: Finally, can you comment on your relationship at this stage with some of the artists whose work is included in the exhibition? What kind of reaction from them have you received in regard to this upcoming exhibition of their work? Are any of the artists attending the opening?
A: I am a friend first, a collector second, and a dealer third to all of the artists in the collection. A number are no longer with us, but I make sure they live through the art they made and through this type of event. Some will be here for the opening, and many will come to see the exhibition. All are very happy to be included.
– Tema Stauffer