Into the Light: Mary Boone, Then and Now

The art dealer is heading for prison. We take a look at the history of — and the final show at — her gallery.


A Mary Boone story: Back in 1991, my wife and I went to Soho (it was still a thriving gallery district then) to see what was to be seen, particularly excited about a Jasper Johns exhibition at Leo Castelli’s 420 West Broadway space. I can’t remember what else we saw, but I do recall the raw, gloomy March day. The Johns show didn’t help.

The series on view was derived from old-master motifs, though at the time the artist refused to reveal any sources. Viewers were encouraged to root about in the compositions to ferret out where in art history some elongated bit of leached color might have come from. Unfortunately, the clotted, mushy imagery wasn’t compelling enough for me to want to bother. Straining for sophistication, the works actually came across more like an airport novel filled with red herrings, one which, upon landing, is forgotten in the seat pocket.

We trudged out into a cold, spitting rain and wandered into Mary Boone’s gallery, a renovated truck garage across the street. Boone had started in a small space beneath Castelli fourteen years earlier and had struck gold with a stable of Eighties painters, putting on exhibitions of David Salle’s cerebral titillations, Julian Schnabel’s slathered crockery, and Ross Bleckner’s elegant diffusions. Expecting paint, we instead stepped into the light.

No longer just a brassy upstart, by 1991 Boone had the juice to exhibit an acknowledged modern master in Dan Flavin, maestro of the fluorescent tube. Boone’s large, open space was suffused with white light from a group of pieces that were untitled but appended with the phrase “(monument for V. Tatlin),” a reference to Vladimir Tatlin’s never-built “Monument to the Third International,” unveiled in 1920 as a soaring high-rise of rotating steel and glass — a showpiece that would surpass the Eiffel Tower as a manifestation of modernism. As longtime Mary Boone Gallery director Ron Warren once told an interviewer about the Flavin show of Tatlin monuments, “We relied only on the light emitted from the works. The gallery had a highly polished terra-cotta tile floor, and the reflection of the vertical fluorescent tubes gave the darkened space the aura of a sanctuary.”

Indeed. If the Johns show had felt like a purgatory of boredom, the Tatlin monuments were as luminous as the rapture.

Ten years after Boone first opened her gallery, the Village Voice wondered if maybe she was also brightening prospects for female artists, despite her proclivity for male painters. In a special art supplement in the October 6, 1987, issue, the stalwart Voice writer Elizabeth Hess took a hard look at an art world that still accepted women more readily as dealers than as artists. She wrote that artists Sherrie Levine and Barbara Kruger “didn’t have to think twice before accepting Boone’s offer [of representation]. These confessions may be hard to take, but no one should be surprised that Kruger and Levine are celebrating their ascension. Artists with disdain for success rarely have any.”

Hess noted Boone’s power in the art world, and also the dealer’s canniness: “While Boone is famous for making the careers of young male artists, she waited until both Kruger and Levine were quite well seasoned before letting them join her. This way both artists bring something to her. Kruger is the most polemical artist Boone has shown, but now that political work is fashionable, there are fewer risks involved.”

Boone’s rise in the art world continued for decades, as she moved to ever more sumptuous spaces.

But her next move will be to jail.

Boone was convicted of cheating on her taxes and has been sentenced to thirty months in prison. She has also paid in the neighborhood of $3 million in restitution. While we agree with that venerable TV philosopher Anthony Vincenzo Baretta — “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” — we feel that a whole bunch more bros involved in the S&L crisis of the Nineties, the financial crash of 2008, the recent Wells Fargo scandals, and the Donald J. Trump Foundation should be in the slammer to greet Boone when she gets there. But it’s clear that most members of the various old boys’ clubs that still rule too many an American roost will never see the inside of a courtroom (unless they’re Supreme Court justices). Which goes to show that there is apparently one area in which women can easily surpass men: doing time for white-collar crime (just ask Martha Stewart).

With incarceration looming in May, Boone announced the closing of her galleries in Chelsea and on Fifth Avenue. Perhaps it’s fitting that the last show in her Chelsea space features a woman who first came to prominence in the 1980s, had a lower profile in the following decades, then kept at it and is now at the top of her game. Julia Wachtel has always used “culture as nature,” to borrow a phrase from critic Robert Hughes. Brash advertising, sappy greeting cards, and other shards of cultural detritus have long been her visual stock in trade.

I occasionally do a Google image search for “Images,” and over the years I have wondered what amalgam of algorithms brings forth the varying constellations of pixels. Once, unicorns and dragons dominated. A few months’ later, busty women occupied the most slots. Less often, you get rangy men with just-so hair. Fuzzy, funny, and beautiful animals are always well-represented, as are flowers and upbeat baubles, whether smiley faces or balloon hearts.

For quite a while now, Wachtel has cast her nets into this churning mass of electrons to snag juxtapositions that get viewers contemplating our own epoch while simultaneously sending us down tributaries of art history and pop verities. The artist’s bold compositions bait us with eye candy (or maybe it’s now “iCandy”?), but they are not simply selections derived through search popularity. The nine-foot-wide Helpp features Wile E. Coyote holding up a sign asking, “Help!” This is juxtaposed with a woman’s voluptuous torso clad in a tight T-shirt with a big, desperate eye adorning each breast and a wide-open mouth at her navel, perhaps yelling the title. Or maybe the gesture is as salacious as — outside of an art gallery, anyway— some men might want to take it. Or, maybe (again), it is a sharp reversal of the canon’s male gaze. Because, after all, what was Wile E. Coyote but one of postwar history’s most audacious stalkers, always violently pursuing that graceful roadrunner? But unlike in real life, the perp always came to a ruinous end. In Wachtel’s vision, #MeToo has finally caught up with the Warner Bros.

Another work that vibrantly traverses postmodernist ground is 2018’s Coda, which features two denizens from a desert island cartoon divided on their tiny domain by a pixelated vista of sandy expanse, punctuated by simple building-block structures. Like Cao Fei’s moving video, iMirror, which features avatars loving and losing across the virtual realms of Second Life, there is something surprisingly touching in seeing these characters we know from countless magazine cartoons separated by a world beyond their time. Wachtel’s brushy schmutz over the schlubby characters further divorces them from those clean lines of virtual freedom — or digital manipulations and lies, as the case may be. Coda recalls a scene in William Gibson’s prescient 1984 novel, Neuromancer, in which the hacker hero watches as the beach he’s standing on disintegrates into lines of code, moiré patterns, symbols, and static — terra firma and its virtual doppelgänger in constant flux. “Really, my artiste, you amaze me,” a malevolent computer program taunts the human. “The lengths you will go to in order to accomplish your own destruction.”

Wachtel mines a similar pathos in Modern Landscape (2018), which is almost eleven feet wide. Two panels feature repeated screen prints of — as a caption in the screen grab helpfully informs us— a “Unicorn Foil Balloon.” A nondescript landscape photo occupies the middle of the composition. Juxtaposed with the mythical animals reduced to dollar-store odd lots, the scraggly vegetation seems to be waiting for something or someone to arrive. The proportion of blue sky to ground recalls Jack Smith’s 1960s photos of his “creatures” cavorting amid sunflowers. The far-right panels depict a black-and-white drawing of curving farm fields, vaguely recalling Van Gogh’s drawings of the same subject, but here the stark lines and hash marks seem to cry out for a child’s crayon. A simple yellow bar reaches across all three motifs, as if the upload has timed out before color and life and children could be inserted.

Wachtel’s elisions of form, aesthetics, materials, and content— which is pretty much the definition of painting — engender a fittingly wry melancholy, appropriate to bringing down the curtain on Boone’s gallery.