The Legendary Art Dealer Talks the Birth of Pop and Roy Lichtenstein’s Cartoon Beauty
Pop gallerist extraordinaire Irving Blum discusses the pivotal moment he discovered Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic masterpiece “Sleeping Girl” with Sotheby’s Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art, Tobias Meyer. Becoming Director of Los Angeles’s Ferus Gallery in 1958 after buying the stake of departing artist and co-founder Ed Kienholz for the princely sum of $500, Blum made Ferus central to the burgeoning LA art scene through championing emerging New York stars like Frank Stella, Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol. “Ferus was pivotal,” enthuses Meyer, who also interviewed fashion designer Tom Ford and Chief Curator at MOCA Paul Schimmel as part of an upcoming series of films celebrating "Sleeping Girl." “There was no other West coast gallery in 1962 that showed Andy Warhol. It was where all the important artists were showing.” Closeted in Beatrice and Phillip Gersh’s private collection for the past 50 years, Lichtenstein’s sultry “Sleeping Girl” is on display at Sotheby’s in London, before traveling to New York and going on auction in May with an estimate of $40 million—a substantial price tag for a work which originally sold for a mere $1,600. NOWNESS spoke to Tobias Meyer as the lauded painting went on display at Sotheby’s Bond Street.
What makes "Sleeping Girl" such a masterpiece?
Tobias Meyer: When you stand in front of it, it’s a very moving and incredibly beautiful painting. This shock of blonde hair and her sleeping face—it speaks about sexuality, desire and identity. What is she dreaming about? It was coveted from the moment it first came out of a crate.
Do you envy Blum's moment of discovery in unpacking "Sleeping Girl"?
TM: No, I don’t, I am happy for him, and make these discoveries every day for myself! I walked into the living room of this collector and there it is, and I can hardly look at it because it’s so beautiful.
What's been your greatest moment of discovery?
TM: I think that that happened with me with the "Rockefeller" Rothko [entitled "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender)," and which David Rockefeller sold in 2007]. It hung in Mr. Rockefeller’s office, and he liked it but he didn’t pay that much attention to it. When you took it out of that space and hung it on the wall you suddenly realised how astonishingly beautiful it was. Everybody had valued it at $20 million, and I valued it at $60 million, and it sold for $72 million at auction. It was a hidden beauty. That was probably my proudest moment.
Blum mentions there were over 300 pop artists around at the time. What makes an artist or a work stand out from the crowd?
TM: Lichtenstein and Warhol started it all in 1961. By 1963, because this idiom was based on commercial imagery, it was quite easy for an artist to lift it and turn it into art. I think that the art of Andy and Roy, in the long term, continues to fascinate and describe the human condition. There were probably many artists who worked in pop in the 1960s that made nice objects, but over a length of time they empty themselves. A great work of art is a vessel that refills itself. However old it becomes it continues to draw you back to it. There are certain works of art that have relevance as they speak of the moment of time they were made in, but as they become older they lose their "nowness," they won’t retain permanence, and so there is nothing left.
Who is heir to the pop legacy?
TM: Jeff Koons, without a doubt. He is the one that takes that language and turns it into something else.