“Showing young artists isn’t a way to make a lot of money but I do it because I love art and it’s fun to help young artists,” the dealer Jack Tilton said in an interview last year with the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA). Throughout his career, which spanned more than 40 years, Tilton was relentless in shining a spotlight on both emerging artists and work that he believed had been wrongly overlooked. In an era that has come to be defined by ever-expanding mega galleries, he was a maverick. Tilton passed away this past weekend, ARTnews has learned.
Despite helping to launch the careers of numerous mainstays of today’s contemporary art scene, he operated on a relatively modest, personal scale, promoting his latest enthusiasms out of an Upper East Side townhouse over the past decade. His death, which has been confirmed with people who were close to him, marks the end of a uniquely original career. The details of his passing were not immediately available, but he had had Parkinson’s Disease since at least 2010.
Tilton cut his teeth from 1976 to 1982 at the storied Betty Parsons Gallery, which showed Abstract Expressionist giants as well as an eclectic group of other artists, from Forrest Bess to Richard Tuttle. “She felt art should be democratic,” Tilton told the New York Times in 1992, describing an ethos to which he also adhered. “The gallery was not just about stardom and making money. She wanted to show what she wanted to show.”
In 1983, Tilton opened his own gallery in Parsons’s old space, on West 57th Street in Manhattan, and in the 1990s he relocated to Greene Street in SoHo. In those early years he gave shows to pivotal figures like Marlene Dumas, Nicole Eisenman, and Francis Alÿs. In 1999 he opened a Los Angeles gallery with Bennett and Julie Roberts called Roberts & Tilton, which is located in Culver City. The next year he formed a partnership with Anna Kustera. In 2005, he moved his gallery to a tranquil townhouse on the Upper East Side. He also ran a residency for artists in Tong Zhoa, China, called China Project.
Tilton Gallery, which he ran with his wife, Connie Rogers Tilton, currently has on its roster a multi-generational band of artists, both emerging and established, from Brenna Youngblood, Egan Frantz, and Yashua Klos to John Outterbridge, David Lynch (the director, who also paints), and Ed Clark, the veteran African-American artist whose 2014 show at the gallery was organized by David Hammons, another artist whose work Tilton supported.
Janine Cirincione, who was a director at Tilton’s gallery from 1987 to 1995, and again from 2001 to 2007, said that “the way he shared his love of art, it was casual. He was such an intrepid spirit when he was pursuing new knowledge, and he brought everybody along for that ride.”
In the 1980s, Cirincione recalled, Tilton was one of only a few galleries in New York that was engaging with European artists. “It was a very international place from the get-go.” He was equally intrepid, she said, in his expansion into China, when contemporary art from the region was not well understood. She remembered early exhibitions of artists like Alvin Lucier, who filled the gallery with plants that had electrodes hooked up to them, and another exhibition that involved mice running around on a sheet of rubber, revealing themselves by their footprints. “More than anyone else he marched to the tune of his own drum,” she said. “And found humor in everything. And people loved him for that.”
Klos, whose most recent show with Tilton was in 2015, said that the dealer “authentically loved artists and he highly respected their minds,” adding that “it did seem like he had really seen every art object ever made to date. He would also talk my ear off about string theory and quantum physics.”
The painter Natalie Frank, who was in a Tilton group show at 2006, when she was in graduate school, said, “Jack was kind and generous and unflinchingly lovely. . . . I remember him as a man deeply committed to the integrity of art and artists. And feel so fortunate that he set such an early standard for empathy and strength of character.”
The range of Tilton’s taste was formidable. The artist and writer Walter Robinson said, “My favorite memory is the show he gave to Heilman-C at his gallery on Greene Street [in 1998]. She was filming four porn stars, two couples, and allowed members of the public direct the shoots. The line stretched all the way down the street to Canal. It was awesome. Despite an intensely sexualized society, it’s rare to see sex acts in person.”
Asked in that ADAA interview last year about what made him decide to represent an artist, Tilton said, in his characteristically low-key way, “There’s no magical answer to that question but we try to show people who create meaning, or do something, for our time—who are of the moment.”
Sarah Douglas contributed reporting.