Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Morning Read: Art Is Theft, Art As Theft

Your Sunday morning long read is Robert Kolker's NY Magazine piece on the bizarre story of artist Jasper Johns and his assistant James Meyer, and how the reclusive artist is accusing Meyer of stealing his work.  But there's always more to the story than just simple theft, especially when the artist has always been secretive.  And since Johns's work has sold for tens of millions of dollars in the past, well, when you involve sums of money like that, things always get complicated.

Johns’s primary studio — a large, fully renovated old barn on the grounds of his 130-acre estate in Sharon, Connecticut — is a reflection of his personality. There is no Jeff Koons–like army of implementers doing his bidding and no Andy Warhol–like Factory of hangers-on in the corners, watching it all happen. He only occasionally allows visitors; the few assistants he’s employed are meant to recede into the background, there but not there. It was in Sharon that one friend, the art dealer Francis Naumann, first met Johns’s longtime studio assistant James Meyer.

Given how withdrawn Meyer was around Johns, it’s a little remarkable that Naumann managed to get to know him at all. Stocky and mostly silent, Meyer seemed mainly to be on hand to help Johns move things around in the studio; he would join them for lunch, too, but rarely took part in the conversation and almost never shared an opinion. After a number of visits, Meyer let Naumann know that he, too, was an artist. “He was painting a little like Jasper,” the art dealer remembers, “though, of course, he was completely unknown.” When he learned that Meyer had dyslexia and had difficulty writing the personal statements and other literature that an artist needs to be noticed by gallery owners and dealers, Naumann offered to help. “Every once in a while he would send me something that he wrote, and I would try to put it into better English.”

Naumann’s next brush with Meyer — the important one — took place in the spring of 2009. Naumann was contacted by a fellow art dealer named Fred Dorfman, asking if he knew of any collectors in the market for a small work by Jasper Johns, a 12-by-14-inch black-and-white drawing on plastic — “a complete and fully finished, beautiful drawing” signed by Johns, Naumann says. Dorfman emailed a photo of the drawing to Naumann, who then sent it to a client of his, a New Jersey–based collector named Frank Kolodny, who fell in love with it. Soon after, Naumann learned that the person selling the drawing was Meyer. On the face of it, he insists, the news that Johns’s longtime studio assistant was unloading one of his boss’s works struck him as only slightly peculiar. Artists like Meyer “always need money at one time or another,” Naumann says.

Given everything that’s happened since, it’s not surprising that Naumann sounds a little defensive when he tells the rest of the story. It made sense at the time, he says, that Meyer would, over the years, have received at least one of Johns’s works as a present. In fact, Naumann had once seen a Johns drawing not so different from this one hanging above the fireplace in the home of Sarah Taggart, Johns’s secretary. It also made sense, Naumann says, when he learned that Meyer had set two conditions on the transaction: The sale could not be public, and the buyer could not resell the drawing for eight years. “You can’t go tell the artist, ‘I’m selling the drawing you gave me,’ ” Naumann says. “It might make it a little bit uncomfortable if he’s still working for the guy.”

They agreed on a sale price: $400,000. Naumann says he conducted the appropriate due diligence. He negotiated for Kolodny to be allowed to break the eight-year sale restriction if Meyer stopped working for Johns for any reason. He had Dorfman send him a copy of an official record kept in Johns’s office, verifying the work was a gift to Meyer. And he got a sworn affidavit from Meyer himself saying the work was authentic, he’d owned it since 1995, and he had the authority to sell it.

What he didn’t do, however, was pick up the phone to try to discuss the sale with Johns. Better, he thought, to be discreet — and sensitive to the studio assistant who was parting with an artistic treasure he no doubt had witnessed the master create. For the same reason, he says, he never spoke with Meyer. This couldn’t have been an easy decision for the man. Why rub it in?

It would be another three years before Naumann, along with everyone else, would learn the truth — that the page from Johns’s ledger was a complete forgery; that the drawing, though a genuine artwork by Jasper Johns, never belonged to Meyer; that Meyer had covertly pulled it from a file drawer in Johns’s studio; and that there’d been a lot more where that came from

The whole story, I think, would make an excellent movie. Meyers is an artist in his own right, a frustrated one, obliterated in the shadow of the great Jasper Johns, and that's where things get very fuzzy.  Do read the story.

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