Not long after I graduated with an M.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute, Ella King Torrey, the school’s president during my time there, hanged herself in her house without leaving a note, and I realized this was a hard life. I had moved to New York after school with dreams of becoming an artist and showing with Mary Boone Gallery. I got so far as working as an assistant for David Salle, who at the time was one of Boone’s most successful artists. His studio was in Tribeca on White Street and was divided into three separate spaces: one where he painted, one where he drew, and a third where he entertained. I was in charge of keeping records of the drawing studio. He only listened to classical music and he had a large fridge that was never stocked with anything but Perrier and Belgian beer.
“David only drinks Perrier and Belgian beer in the studio,” Salle’s studio manager explained to me. She also said, quite often, “Help yourself to the fridge!” I was being paid good money for a job that involved taking only the occasional photograph of Salle’s drawings when he finished them, so I was overly cautious. I wanted to keep the job for as long as possible. I never made use of the fridge. I worked there for four months thinking it would be my entry to fame and fortune—that I would become a new David Salle in New York—but instead I learned that I didn’t know how to be that. My sole interaction with Salle during those months was a friendly reminder from him: “Don’t be afraid of the fridge!”
I moved home to live with my mother in Los Angeles. She gave me a $30,000 loan—all the money she had after a divorce settlement with my father—and I used it to put a down payment on a two-story building in Chinatown on Chung King Road. I chose carefully: it was sandwiched between what I thought were the most interesting galleries in the city at the time, Black Dragon Society and China Art Objects. I figured a business in the middle of the two could achieve success through sheer osmosis.
In May 2000 I opened my first gallery, which I called Dianne Pruess, with a show of artists I went to graduate school with. The show was up for two months. It was never reviewed and I did not sell any work. I was 26 years old.
Dianne Pruess was a character I invented—the result of residual artistic ambitions. Pruess was the name of the street my mom grew up on. Dianne sounded like the name of a rich housewife who took Quaaludes in the ’80s. The name made me feel like I could circumvent a system I didn’t believe in. The success of my direct neighbors meant that unknown artists would come into my space and ask about showing at the gallery. I would sit at my desk and tell them, “I don’t make decisions. Dianne does.”
One afternoon, Patrick Painter, a 350-pound Long Beach gangster who wore a gold chain, drove a red Ferrari, and was the first art dealer to show Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley—the greatest of all West Coast artists—came into the gallery and asked, “Is this Dianne’s new project?” I took this as a personal victory. Painter took a 20-minute shit in my bathroom and left.
My second show was of Phil Wagner, the star of my graduating class. I had no employees at my gallery. I bought my first computer at this time and would sit at the front desk alone while learning how to use Google. On Saturdays, Phil would come into the gallery on his day off from his job as an art preparator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and keep me company. I knew collectors came into Chinatown on Saturdays because I would look into China Art Objects and see Giovanni Intra, that gallery’s owner, not just on the phone, but actually talking to people face-to-face. Phil’s show had been up for over a month. He started living in the basement of the gallery.
My current gallery, UNTITLED, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, sold work by Phil at Art Basel in Miami Beach last year. In a lot of ways, the art world doesn’t change much, but I’m struck now by how easy it was to sell Phil’s work 15 years later, how I didn’t even have to be there to do it. My wife’s water broke the opening day of the fair. I stayed behind in New York while my business partner traveled to Miami, and I turned my phone off when my wife went into labor. We took a hired car to NYU Langone, and after 12 hours my first child was born. The next day I turned the phone back on. I was inundated with messages. One collector had written to me from Miami in my absence: “Where’s my Basel preview, twit?” I turned the phone off again.
My career began as a joke with varying degrees of humor until a lanky, middle-aged man walked into the gallery one Saturday. He spent a lot of time looking at Phil’s paintings and I came out from behind the desk. I told him the name of the artist and within minutes he bought a painting for $8,500. This was Martin Brest, the producer who wrote and directed Beverly Hills Cop. He gave me half of the money up front. Phil had been hiding silently in the back the whole time. We deposited the money at the Bank of America on College Street, then went to Hop Louie, the bar on Mei Ling Way, and called everyone we knew. We spent everything we had that same night.
Joel Mesler is the owner of UNTITLED Gallery in New York.This is the first installment of a recurring column.
A version of this story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 32.
You can read other parts in the series here.