convergence & connection in 40+ years of wayfinding in the art world


Part Two: 1992-2002 Part One: 1980-1991 Part Three: 2003-2017
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This essay is premised on a look back at my own career to examine the depth and diversity of experiences afforded me in 40+ years working as an art curator, gallerist, consultant, educator, and advocate. As I unpacked the details of my life story I sought to frame my discourse around the pivotal moments and influential individuals I have encountered and examine the most salient themes and insights that emerged. In the process, I became cognizant of career-centric algorithms that are at play in a field where career tracks vary widely, and I endeavored to contextualize this awareness in the hopes that my journey might inspire and inform others seeking a similar path.

As I began to consider how to commence the telling of my story I couldn’t help but think about how the experiences of my early childhood and teenage years played a role in how my life and career have unfolded. My supposition is that my mother’s and father’s free-range parenting style, my exposure to the creative impulses of my brothers and sisters, a liberal arts education, and the cultural milieu of the 60s and 70s – along with the exposure to the celebrity and out-of-the-ordinary encounters I had while ballooning or participating in politics – all predisposed me to gravitate towards a life in the art world.

At a certain point – probably in my late teens as I was starting college – I found myself really pondering what I was going to do with my life. What was I going to say when people ask: “what do you do?” For me it wasn’t enough to just say I’m a student – even though that is where I was in my life. Maybe this was part of the dynamic I had felt growing up as the youngest sibling, always thinking I was supposed to know more than I did, always trying to be older than I was.

Regardless, I think there is a common societal pressure for a person to begin to grapple with the question of their career path around this time in their life. As Wiley notes, there is a “vocational psychology” during adolescence when a young person is developing an “efficacy to engage in academic and career planning, knowledge of self and others in career and academic contexts, understanding of the relationships between academic achievement and occupational opportunities, and early career decision making.” (Brown, 2005) Robert Frost portrays the process a bit more poetically: “The mind is a baby giant who, more provident in the cradle than he knows, has hurled his paths in life all round ahead of him, like playthings....” (Ingebretsen, 2003)

Mine is a career track that has not evolved in a straight line, but rather is a result of series of opportunities for which I was positioned to seize and act upon. I am amazed at the life I have carved out in the arts and how each day continues to bring some new and unexpected twist and turn. What has transpired for me is no less than remarkable and I am grateful for the opportunity to share my story in an academic setting.

The Journey Begins
My professional journey in the art world was launched by an essentially unplanned act, when, in the Spring of 1980, I dropped out of the University of New Mexico and headed for Los Angeles – and what began as an impulse, ended up spawning a career in the art world that has lasted more than three and a half decades. Upon arriving in Los Angles my first task was to find ways to support myself – since, as noted above, my move was not part of some career plan I was implementing and there was no job waiting for me.

Among the people I looked up first was Lonny Gans, a well-respected art dealer and consultant who I had met the previous summer. Lonny primarily represented the contemporary artwork of the West Coast, with an emphasis on artists associated with the Light and Space movement. At that time, Lonny was operating out of a gallery space on Little Santa Monica Blvd. in a complex that included the James Corcoran Gallery and the Asher Faure Gallery situated near the Margo Leavin Gallery, the Pacific Design Center, and the vibrant arts district in the West Hollywood and Beverly Hills area. She was preparing for a move to a new space at 21 Market Street in Venice and offered to hire me to transport and install work for her corporate and private clients – and introduced me to other gallerists and uber LA framer Jerry Solomon. It was also around this time that I first heard the quote by Ad Reinhardt: “Art is art. Everything else is everything else” – a phrase I would invoke periodically in subsequent years when an unassailable explanation of art was necessary. (Rothfuss, 2005)

In a short matter of time I was busy working for Gans, Solomon, and several other galleries and found myself ensconced in the burgeoning early 1980s art scene of LA. Author, publisher (and future curator at the NM Museum of Art) Sandy Ballatore notes that the arts boom of the time was:

intricately woven into a city approaching its bicentennial year in 1981 and preparing itself to host the 23rd Olympiad in 1984. Plans for expansion of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and construction of a new Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art are sending reverberations through the city the only major urban center in the nation lacking a home for modern and contemporary art. The entire national art scene, in fact, will change when Los Angeles ceases to be a cultural black hole at the edge of the continent. (Ballatore, 1980 - Click here to view article >>)

These were heady times indeed, but I was still quite naíve and failed to fully grasp the art world nexus I was operating in. Nonetheless, the tasks I performed transporting and installing work placed me in artists’ studios, the backrooms of galleries, museums, framers and ateliers, and in the homes and offices of collectors – and this exposure to major contemporary art and important galleries and art-related businesses was the beginning of my learning about the assumed practices within the art world. The personal and professional connections, artistic and aesthetic awareness, and technical skillsets I was developing became the foundations of my career going forward.

Between the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the vibrancy and creative energy embodied in the artwork, and people and places I encountered in the art world, I was hooked. This was also the moment in time when it became clear that, regardless of any inklings I had entertained of being an artist myself, my path forward was to be in service of the art world in other capacities.

During this time, I met artist Gary Burns who also worked as an art installer for Lonny Gans, Jerry Solomon and some of the same galleries I serviced. We decided to join forces and formed an art services business we called Contemporary Installations. We secured a Beverly Hills address (a mailbox at an answering service) and leased a truck.

Gary had considerably more experience in the field than I did and working with him definitely enhanced my skills as an art handler. By virtue of this partnership we developed a significant clientele and quickly established ourselves among the go-to entities for art transportation and installation services. I was also able to hire others, such as my brother Rusty and longtime friend Jon Hunner, to periodically assist in our work, much of which involved the installation of corporate collections, multi-gallery cross country trips to art expos in Chicago and New York, and individual deliveries along the route through the Southwest. Clients included the Margo Leavin Gallery, Karl Bornstein Mirage Editions, Gemini G.E.L., the Kirk deGooyer Gallery, the Neil Ovsey Gallery, the Janus Gallery, Gallery West, the Malinda Wyatt Gallery, the Elaine Horwich Gallery, the Roy Boyd Gallery, the Jan Baum Gallery, Cirrus Gallery, the Asher Faure Gallery, the Dubins Gallery, the James Corcoran Gallery, Larry Gagosian, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery - Barnsdall Park, Palm Springs Desert Museum, Fluor Corp., and Cummins Corp., among others.

One of the many seminal experiences that emerged from this period revolves around our installation of the inaugural exhibition of Gans’ new gallery on Market Street in Venice entitled California 1: Light and Space. Over a period of a month I worked with a team to renovate the exhibition area, install multiple works by Larry Bell, DeWain Valentine, Ron Cooper, and others, and construct installation environments for artists Eric Orr and Laddie Dill. This was at a time when my awareness and grasp of important contemporary art was still very much in the formative stages and my involvement in this project deepened my appreciation and understanding of the aesthetics and mechanics of the Light and Space movement – artistic principles that I am still partial to today.

In the words of LA Herald Examiner critic Christopher Knight: “Light and Space, it is said, are to Southern California art of the 1960s and 70s what gestural abstraction and the all-over image are to the New York School of the 50s. In general, the movement has been claimed as the first wholly unique contribution to contemporary art made by Los Angeles artists.” (Knight, 1981) He goes on to note that this exhibition included “a number of intriguing works that provide clues to the larger concern of area artists involved with light and space as materials.” (ibid)
Click here to view article >>

Fast forward 36 years to the spring of 2017 when I would cross paths again with the work of Laddie Dill and Larry Bell, who each had pieces displayed in exhibitions I visited at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney respectively – Dill’s a full-size version of the same work I had created the installation environment for in Venice, and Bell’s a new red-toned iteration of his “cube” series – a serendipitous discovery made in the course of writing this paper that provides tidy bookends for my research.

It was also around this same time that I made a trip back to New Mexico, during which I met several important artists who figured prominently in my life and career in subsequent years. I met and stayed with Larry Bell and saw in person for the first time his enormous, Jules Verne-esque vacuum chamber that he utilized in adhering reflective materials to glass and other materials; I visited the studio of Gus Foster where I became aware of his 360˚ panorama work with a spring-driven motorized tripod; I visited the studio of Paul Sarkisian in the old schoolhouse in Cerrillos and saw his monumental photorealist paintings; I stayed with Joan Myers and learned about her gorgeous hand-colored platinum palladium print photographs; and I met Meg Heydt and Sam Bair who had opened a major contemporary art gallery in a building previously occupied by Tito’s
Food Line grocery store (now occupied by Downtown Subscription coffee shop & newsstand). It was in this space that I would present my first major exhibition as a curator approximately one year later. Coincidentally, the Heydt / Bair Gallery director I met at the time, Philip Yenawine, would resurface 36 years later in one of my museum studies classes referencing the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) curriculum he co-created as education director of the Museum of Modern Art that uses art “to deepen learning across school disciplines” by enhancing student’s “ability to find meaning in imagery” which has become a cornerstone of museum education programs nationally and internationally. (Yenawine, 2013)

It is also worth noting another one of the important seeds of discovery that were planted during my time in LA related to the world of fine art printmaking. From my work for clients such as the renowned atelier Gemini, GEL, and editions publisher Mirage Editions, I gleaned a fundamental understanding of the production techniques and business practices of the print world that were quickly emerging at the time. We had numerous gallery clients in the Melrose /West Hollywood area and I had many opportunities to visit Gemini – a place that, for me, had a special aura that emanated from the prestige of the artists who worked there and the creativity that was taking place inside. I had the opportunity to handle and install many works with the Gemini chop by major artists such as Frank Stella, David Hockney, Richard Diebenkorn, Ed Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein, Sam Francis, and Ron Davis, among others.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, printers and printmakers would figure prominently in the years to come in my work with various artists and exhibitions, numerous dealings with Tamarind Institute, Arber & Sons and various smaller presses, and in a decades long friendship with master printmaker Ron Adams, founder of Hand Graphics Print Shop.  

My time in Los Angeles was certainly a period in which I began to chart a career course in the art world. However, as a young man barely out of my teens, I was beset by significant insecurities and lacked the money management skills and consistent income to establish a stable living situation for myself. Although my instincts and people skills had allowed me to operate for a time in this realm, it became clear that I needed to retreat and regroup. It is only in retrospect that I have come to understand that my self-doubt and insecurities have not ever left me but I have learned how to harness them as inspiration in striving to do better. This period and the subsequent episodes described in this paper demonstrate something else I now know – that it is by persevering through frustration and loss that we open up the space for new opportunities, new experiences, and new chapters in our lives.

Continued on page two >>

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Click to view Abstract, Acknowledgements, Dedication, and Bibliography

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James Rutherford  •  STUDIOPASSPORT  •  P.O. Box 1054  •  Santa Fe, NM 87504
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