Arne Glimcher opened his first gallery in Boston in 1960 and has been responsible for nurturing the careers of countless artists, among them Mark Rothko, Chuck Close, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Rauschenberg and Agnes Martin who he first met in 1963 and about whom he's just written an incredibly personal and quite beautiful retrospective, Agnes Martin Paintings, Writings, Remembrances.
What’s your lasting memory of Agnes? I think of somebody who was not interested at all in commerce, somebody who spent her entire life searching for truth and beauty. I remember her saying to me at the beginning of our relationship, ‘If you ever try and sell my paintings I will leave your gallery. If people really want them let them buy them, but don’t ever try to sell them.’ It’s the only time I’ve every heard an artist say that! I think what she wanted most from me was the idea that I would install the shows the way she wanted and place the pictures in collections that weren’t speculative. 30 years ago it was very tough art that very few people could even see as art. But great artists turn the tide of taste in their own direction. Martin reinvented painting by taking everything out of the painting: colour, composition. . . The things that are all beneath notice in a painting became the subject of the painting. You could say minimalist in that way, but they take you to a step beyond in perception - the touch and the brush stroke, the way the pencil line was drawn over the surface of the weave of the linen. These paintings exist more like music or mantras than they do like paintings as we knew them.
Why do you think she shut herself away from the world as she did? She was somewhat psychologically disturbed. And she had a very rough time with psychosis and she considered one of the great sins to be the sin of pride and I believe she stopped painting for eight years from 1975 because she was getting famous and she couldn’t cope with that. She lived on a mesa in New Mexico, stranded for the winter, with just the preserves that she made to live on. It was quite a pioneer’s life – but she was a pioneer lady, she was from Saskatchewan, she entered the Olympics as a swimmer, and almost made it as a sailor too. She was tough. In a way she was a hermit, she didn’t want to be bothered by people. In the Sixties when I first met her she would go to parties and be in the social scene but then she went to New Mexico and didn’t want anyone to even bother her. On the gates of her house it said ‘At your own risk.’ She’d come to the door with a shotgun sometimes. . . Was it ever waved at me? No, I always came when I was invited!
Was it the notion of fame she rebelled against or its demands? It was the notion. Obviously our whole lives are one piece. But Martin sought to separate her life and her art. She didn’t want any comparisons of her life and art but of course it was all of one piece. I think that is a kind of psychotic notion that one can split one’s identity in that way. She really could not cope with adulation. She wanted people to respond to the paintings and their response was the work of art. Hers was only a map to that response. She said to me once, ‘A potato farmer stands in front of his potatoes and says these are my potatoes.' She said those are no more his potatoes than these are my paintings. We are the locus where it happened. So she really distanced herself. But of course it was this persona, this lifestyle, this organism and all the things around her that made those paintings. I think that when Agnes was painting she had no mental issues at all. It was only when she wasn’t that she had problems. But they were the balance in her life, making these absolutely beautiful paintings like some Buddha would produce as against the turmoil of her interior life from time to time.
In the book you detail - very personally and poetically - your many visits to her studio. What were the conversations you remember and the visits that stand out? We talked a lot about the art and the paintings. We talked about politics. She was a very liberal democrat. She had stickers all over her car for the presidential election and she was very much behind Clinton. But she loved popular music of the late 40s and 50s - Frank Sinatra, that sort of thing. Her other passion was Beethoven. There was always something by Beethoven playing in the house, she thought Beethoven was perfect. In reference to him she said ‘from music they accept pure emotion but from art they demand explanation.’ So there was no explanation. It was all about a search for beauty. It was such a long relationship. Agnes said to me at the beginning she said ‘we’re never going to be friends, we’re co-workers in the art field.’ And then we became really close friends. The visits that maybe stick in the mind are the ones where she would show me four versions of a single painting and she’d say to me. ‘I think this is the best one, what do you think?’ Invariably there was so little difference between them, it was so hard to say, they were all really beautiful. And then she’d say OK we’re gonna keep that one and we’re going to cut up the others. And I would help with a knife slice up the paintings. Those are the studio visits that I think are the sharpest, helping her destroy the work.
What goes through your mind the first time you hear something like that? It’s her work, and I’m a co-worker in the art field. . . but yeah. It is brutal. I was there at the end of her life and she said ‘go down to the studio, there are three paintings. Hanging on the wall is the one I want to keep, I want you to destroy the other two.’ So I went down to the studio. The two paintings she wanted me to destroy were magnificent – absolutely perfect. The one on the wall was a very stormy painting, unlike anything that she had made since the 60s. I certainly didn’t want to destroy those two spectacular paintings but I did. I sliced them to ribbons and put them in the trash. When I came back. She said, 'did you do it?' I said, 'I did it.' And that was that. Our last conversation.
You've had similarly intense relationships with Mark Rothko, Chuck Close, Jean Dubuffet, Louise Nevelson among others and appear to choose the art you sell because of its visceral impact upon you. What's attracting you to Chinese art and artists right now? Simple, the narrative. Enormously important things are happening in China and the Chinese recognise that. They have it now. Like we recognise that we had it in New York in the Sixties. In New York we didn’t even consider what was happening in Germany in the Sixties, it was beneath notice and wasn’t going to compete at all with what we were doing. But obviously, look at Richter, look at Baselitz look at Kiefer. . . The western world is myopic and the west is making a huge mistake because you can’t take Chinese art for granted or as anything secondary unless you’re going to take China as a secondary country. I think it’s chauvinism and I think it’s protectionist. One has to realise that an artist like Zhang Xiaogang, who’s working in a figurative way, is just as important as John Currin who’s working in a figurative way here. They have the narrative that we do not have any longer. There’s an urgency there that does not exist here. The cultural revolution destroyed the entire history of China for a generation. So you’re dealing with the oldest country in the world and the newest country in the world and that schism between who they were and who they are and what is happening in China – that’s the narrative. We had that schism in America after the war - abstract expressionism. After the war something amazing happened, and after the war in Germany something amazing happened and after the war in China something amazing happened and that’s all part of the nature of new art and the west doesn’t realise or see that.
Pace has obviously been a big hit in China but your son Marc has just opened the gallery in London (as Zwirner and Gagosian have). Why London now? There are so many international people in London who do not need to come to New York anymore. A lot of those people used to make trips to New York four or five times a year to see exhibitions and they don’t now. They’ll come at auction time or do the art fairs – which I hate. I think they’re selling themselves short in coming to an art fair. Dealers try to bring very good things to art fairs so you may see a drawing by Chuck Close but you haven’t seen a Chuck Close show. Art wasnt always this huge social event with parties and dinners. I think it’s fine to have a good time but I think people are missing a lot by not seeing art as solo shows as they used to and just seeing one piece. So we really felt that we had to have a base in Europe and London seemed to be the most exciting city for us.
You worked in Hollywood in the 80s and 90s, producing Gorillas In The Mist and directing The Mambo Kings, how does it compare to the art world? Well, I was in Africa for the best part of a year making Gorillas and that was very hard. We lived in camps on the side of a mountain for long periods of time at 12,000 feet you could hardly breathe. But it was Dian Fossey's story that meant something to me, the idea that one woman could stand up and make a difference. I’ve always been very interested in Latin music so Mambo Kings was a natural fit for me. For me, I just always wanted to make movies. It was a good time for me. I made a lot of friends out there who became collectors and I think I guided a lot of people with their collections. I think I’ve produced and or directed about eight films. If I make another one it’ll be a documentary (Glimcher previously directed the excellent Martin Scorsese-produced Picasso & Braque Go To The Movies). But what I'd really like to do is a television show on the arts. . .
Is there a mambo song you still sing in the shower? Well my favourite song is Beny Moré’s Sabor a Mi - The Taste Of You. I think the song is a beautiful bolero. It’s just absolutely beautiful – the essence of Cuban romantic music. He was a lot of the heart of Cuban boleros. Then I love all of Celia Cruz’s music. She played a major role in Mambo Kings.
How do you present your art at home? I’ve been collecting for 50 years and I change what I hang in the house every six or eight months. I don’t think that one period is enough to satisfy me when there’s such enormous richness in the history or art. I love works from antiquity and I also like very contemporary things. Right now the paintings that are hanging are all abstract expressionism. Before this it was all minimalism. I do that kind of thing - I have my own little shows for myself!