A friend of mine emailed me this photo from the home page of the Franklin Parrasch Gallery. I immediately knew it was Ron Davis’s work from the mid-sixties and I also easily recognized Ron Davis standing in the right foreground. But neither of us could place where it was. I figured because of the small space and the dressy clothing, it had to be some uptown New York Gallery. When I went by the Parrasch Gallery to see the show (more on that later) I was astounded to learn it was the Nicholas Wilder Gallery in Los Angeles.
The more I looked at the photo the more I remembered about the Wilder gallery and that time in Los Angeles. I was a student at UCLA’s Graduate School of Business and was in the process of transferring to the Art History Department (a story for another time). I was passionately interested in contemporary art and would get into intense arguments with my fellow students about such sophomoric things as “is there good and bad art,” or “the importance of the framing edge.”
I’d take a couple of buses (I was the only person I knew in LA without a car) to go to La Cienega Boulevard for the Monday night “Art Walks”. Eventually I met Nick Wilder who took me under his wing and taught me about contemporary art. He would pull out work from his back room and talk to me about it; he’d tell me about books and articles I should read; and he’d introduce me to artists, including a young student wunderkind, Bruce Nauman. He even took me and my wife to Laguna Beach once to meet John McLaughlin -- one of the high points of our lives in LA. And he introduced me to Ron Davis, who at the time was one of LA’s most famous artists. His work was on the cover of Artforum with an article by Michael Fried , and he showed with Leo Castelli.
Ron and I became good friends. I remember going to his home/studio in a scruffy part of LA, and later (when he became more successful financially) in Malibu where he had a house and later a studio designed by Frank Gehry (yet another story). He kept trying to talk me into becoming an artist. He said the way I wrote about art was the way an artist thinks about it. When I told him I couldn’t draw a straight line he told me that’s what rulers were for. We’d talk until 3:00 in the morning and, driving back very late (I was married and had a car by then) I remember telling my new wife that I wanted to be an artist and that if I wasn’t successful in five years I’d give it up. (That only lasted one year when I told her I couldn’t give it up successful or not).
Once, when Ron came by my studio and saw some drawings and tentative works on cheap paper I was doing, he told me if I wanted to make drawings I should continue doing what I was doing, but if I wanted to make paintings, make paintings. But the most important things I learned were from watching him paint. I learned that even the best screwed up, but really good artists (like carpenters) knew how to deal with their screw-ups -- including using them.
I’m writing this not just because it’s fun to reminisce (okay, that’s the main reason), but because I don’t think it’s possible for kids to have this kind of access and mentoring anymore. (And I haven’t even begun to relate all the other opportunities I had then.) I think the art world is just too big and too stratified, at least in New York and Los Angeles. Kids may be better off in a city like Philadelphia or Seattle where they might have more access, but access to whom? Would they be exposed to people of the ambitiousness, ability and knowledge, let alone generosity, that I was lucky enough to be exposed to? Artists have always gravitated to one city or another; I don’t think I’m being a provincial snob (although I am one) to say that the best artists (in the United States, anyway) want to be in New York or possibly LA.
And yet… and yet… young artists are so much smarter, talented, ambitious, hard-working and connected than I remember ever being. So who knows!!