I’d been an art dealer in Los Angeles for three years when I decided I’d had enough and got a job working the bar at Hop Louie, a neighborhood establishment in Chinatown. After Sinky, the 72-year-old Chinese bartender, suffered his second hernia, I started working there seven days a week. I charged locals $4 for a drink. When the porn star Brittany Andrews came in with the guys who worked for her production studio, which was around the corner, I charged $9 for the same drink.
It was in this role that I found myself sharing a lease with two regulars, Daniel Hug, the determined grandson of the painter László Moholy-Nagy, and David Kordansky, a former CalArts student who’d brag about how he was going to open the most important gallery in Los Angeles. I believed him.
Our space on Bernard Street, just off the main drag of Chung King Road, was so large that after we built it out to house separate galleries for Hug and Kordansky, there were 800 square feet left over, which I decided to claim for myself. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it because I wasn’t interested in reopening a gallery. My heart wasn’t in it.
The money interested me less back then than my own enjoyment. At Dianne Pruess, my old gallery, Mark von Schlegell and I had created a school called SCA—the Southern Cantonese Association. It had two students. Our classes included Art Theory While Soaking in a Custom Hot Tub with Dave Deany, a local artist. We claimed that Thomas Pynchon was on staff. It should go without saying that the school was not accredited.
I had also been publishing, again with von Schlegell, a neighborhood newsletter called the Rambler, which became something of a course catalogue for the school. We’d print 250 copies and distribute them by hand throughout Chinatown. I decided to use my new 800 square feet of space to revive the newsletter. I opened up a print shop, called Pruess Press, where I’d work with the artists who were coming in and out of the building doing shows with Hug and Kordansky.
Within a couple hours of opening the press, the artist Henry Taylor walked in. I had met him earlier that same week, while he was drinking beer and grilling steaks on the sidewalk in front of his studio—something I’d discover later was perfectly normal for him. He walked into the press that day with a J.C. Penney bag full of paintings he’d made on cigarette boxes. (He was as prolific a smoker as he was a painter.) He told me he had to visit his family in Oxnard, an hour and a half from L.A., but he couldn’t afford a bus ticket. He needed $80. I took two cigarette boxes and gave him $100, which he repeatedly declined, this being a greater sum than we had agreed on. Finally, he gave me two more boxes and left. Three days later, he knocked on my door holding a $20 bill. “I only needed $80,” he said.
I knew I was onto something with the press when a director who had done music videos for Ludacris came in and wanted me to make a book of the rapper’s drawings as a birthday present. I decided to quit bartending. As I had done with my last gallery, I moved into the space to consolidate costs. My new home was located in the front of the building, and I had to cross Kordansky’s gallery to get to my shower. Kordansky, who was intensely serious and had a tendency to say things like “you have to pay your dues” and “you have to respect the medium,” didn’t love these intrusions, but he accepted them, because I would shower after his gallery had closed. This only became a problem whenever I had to be someplace before 6 p.m. One day, I walked out of the shower in a towel and flip-flops while Kordansky was talking up a group of collectors. He was livid. “I can’t run a gallery if you’re taking showers during business hours,” he told me.
In my first years in the neighborhood, Chinatown was a quirky alternative to the mainstream, but Kordansky’s austerity made me realize that we were the mainstream now. Every available commercial space in the neighborhood had become a gallery. Preserving whatever scrappiness remained in Chinatown was Henry Taylor, whose all-night parties at his studio would often spill over into my press.
Hug and Kordansky remained pure businessmen, bringing in collectors from all over the world—the Rubells, the Horts, Charles Saatchi; people I had previously only heard of were now frequent guests in my building. Even Patrick Painter, the godfather in the Cosa Nostra of L.A. art dealers, would stop by—albeit with endless motives. Two weeks after the opening of an exhibition of Thomas Zipp at Hug’s gallery, in which Hug had swiftly sold everything, I saw Painter’s red Ferrari pull into our parking lot. Painter—all 350 pounds of him—got out of his car, walked right into the gallery and, with all the warmth of an assassin, said to a bewildered Hug, “I’m doing Thomas’s next show,” and left. It wasn’t exactly good news, but it felt like a rite of passage.
My return to art dealing started to feel inevitable. One night at Hop Louie, Hug and I thought up a new business model—a gallery that represented other galleries instead of artists. We found an empty space across from Hop Louie that we could rent to out-of-town dealers and take a 15 percent sales commission. We called it Rental. The idea started to take on a life of its own. (I won’t get into my European lawsuit with a German dealer who stole the name and the concept.)
Not long after we started the business, Dean Valentine, then CEO of the WB (he was responsible for bringing wrestling to the network and had collected work from Hug in the past), introduced us to Marilyn Manson, who was looking for a venue for an exhibition of his paintings. He met us at Pruess Press. I’d never seen Manson without makeup on. He was a gaunt, even more repellant version of the man I’d seen on television. He was also nervous and wiry, and used the bathroom a lot. He proposed a performance for the show’s opening wherein he would stand on the roof of Rental, shooting red paint balls at six for-hire midgets wrapped in gauze and running around the street below. He refused to show his paintings without the performance. When we decided to pass on this unique opportunity, he called us sellouts, at which point Hug and I had a long conversation about how much we were willing to do for easy money. After all, this was L.A., where countless people had let their ambitions get the better of them.
Joel Mesler owns UNTITLED gallery in New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 18 under the title “Part Four: Up All Night in the Dream Factory.”
This is the fourth installment in a recurring column. You can read other parts in the series here.