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Dick and Sheindi lived downtown on Cherry Street, a street on the way to nowhere. She remembered it from her childhood, when the fragrance of spices rode in on the breeze from the East River warehouses a few blocks away. Her Orthodox Jewish background was as foreign to Dick as the shape of his eyes and his shock of black hair were to her. She’d been charmed by his voice, a resonant baritone mellowed by smoke and alcohol. A onetime radio announcer, Dick read aloud all his beloved writers, especially Wallace Stevens. “The lover writes, the believer hears, / The poet mumbles and the painter sees, / Each one, his fated eccentricity / … living in change.” He might teasingly append “and the art dealer droolingly sells.”1
He could make a game out of anything. “Dick-foolery,” his friends called it. On the evening of October 20, 1959, he helped Sheindi on with her coat with the politesse of a medieval knight. They were heading to the grand opening of the Guggenheim Museum, a black-tie affair. No one there would be dressed as Sheindi was. A thrift shop maven, like all her friends, Sheindi had found a handkerchief-silk sheath in rich autumnal colors that needed only a few repairs. She teamed it with a white slip Dick had bought for her in Chinatown, now light brown after a dip in tea. At a distance, the otherwise demure Hebrew school teacher seemed to be wearing nothing underneath.
Dick and Sheindi were getting by on her salary and the little he made from odd jobs. He’d been director of the artists’ cooperative Hansa Gallery until it folded in May. He had more time now to visit studios and the new, seat-of-the-pants galleries downtown. He dreamed of a gallery of his own, a place to show the art he found that baffled and unsettled him. At thirty-one, Dick was a man with few possessions—a seemingly humble figure, never taking nor being taken. He was like the Fool in a deck of Tarot cards, signifying change and new beginnings, life existing to be enjoyed.
* * *
Robert and Ethel Scull lived in Kings Point, Great Neck, Long Island, in a house Robert built for her on Blue Sea Lane. It overlooked a small cove on Manhasset Bay, as if nature had nibbled a recess in the coastline just for them. On the afternoon of the Guggenheim gala,2 Ethel skirted Bob’s desk and his Eames chair and called him from her Princess phone. He greeted her as Spike,3 the unlikely moniker Bob preferred to “Ethel.” He planned to leave his taxi garage in the Bronx with just enough time to pick her up in a quick turnaround. The housekeeper would ready his tux, and the cook would fix dinner for their three sons. Bob doodled as he talked, sketching his name in bold, slanted letters in his daybook.4
Ethel took her time deciding what to wear—she had such wonderful options. She appreciated the way a pink Balenciaga cocktail dress rose playfully at the front and trailed to the back, and she loved the fluidity and grace of a lace strapless designed by Yves Saint Laurent. Her closets were full of haute couture purchased abroad, all the more prized because she had paid no duty on her return. Before she left her Paris hotel, she delicately removed the French designers’ labels and stitched in American ones.5
With his share of his father-in-law’s taxi business, Bob had built a thriving cab company. In the past few years he and Ethel had begun to buy art—Renaissance bronzes—until prices turned dear. They moved on to art of their own time, newcomers such as Jasper Johns, and the abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko. But not Jackson Pollock. The market for Pollock, who had died in a car crash in 1956, already outpaced them.6 Growing the collection with “safe” investments required more money than they had or were willing to pay. It was getting too expensive to buy artists vetted before they became aware of them.
* * *
As the Sculls’ chauffeured Cadillac pulled up in front of the Guggenheim, the No. 6 train jolted to a halt at Eighty-Sixth Street and Lexington Avenue. Dick and Sheindi stepped off and strolled toward Central Park. They turned uptown at Fifth, the dark expanse of the park on their left. Like the Cheshire cat, the museum materialized all at once, disembodied bands of light set against the night sky. Frank Lloyd Wright’s design seemed an exhilarating preview of what the future would look like. New Yorkers hadn’t been so eager to experience an interior space since the early thirties, when Radio City Music Hall opened the largest indoor theater in the world. Unlike the Museum of Modern Art’s modernist box, which slid into place beside Gilded Age brownstones, the Guggenheim sat back on its lot like an imperious turbaned pasha.
Dick and Sheindi joined the soigné crowd pooling under the cantilever at the museum’s entrance. They funneled through revolving doors into a squat foyer and stepped into the bright cavity at its heart. They paused near Constantin Brancusi’s towering wood sculpture King of Kings7 and gazed up at the immense expanding spiral of space, as vast as the Pantheon or the Hagia Sophia.8 Dick took its measure and, as usual, kept his thoughts to himself. Somewhere in the throng, B. H. Friedman, a collector and writer, felt as if he were inside an enormous seashell,9 with an oceanic din in his ears. “Wouldn’t it be fun to roller-skate down the ramp?”10 the impish writer Pati Hill joked with her fiancé, Paul Bianchini, a gallerist who found it hard to be flippant. For Bianchini, the curlicue shape called to mind the Circles of Hell as diagrammed by William Blake.
“It reminds me of the dome of St. Peter’s,”11 said a voice just behind Dick. He turned to find Richard Brown Baker, one of the few collectors he knew who bought contemporary art. The two had a jocular, flirtatious friendship. Dick addressed him as Brown Bunny, who in turn called him George. It was a mark of intimacy when Dick identified himself as George, his favorite alter ego. He loved pseudonyms. He was “Finlay” in high school; “Mooney Peebles” on the radio; and, most recently, “Gogo” to his friend Miles Forst’s “Didi,”12 names of the two vagrants at the center of Waiting for Godot.
Dick and Sheindi walked up the coiling ramp, past bays of such modern masters as Cézanne and Picasso, along with abstract works by lesser-known artists from Japan, Spain, and the United States, sequenced visually, not chronologically. The enfilade of MoMA’s historical galleries had one route in and one way out, but at the Guggenheim, people could start at the bottom, the top, or anywhere in between. Sheindi stood at the low wall edging the center, dizzied by the visual plunge into open space. She saw the promenade of tuxedo-suited swells, le tout Paris of the art elite. It seemed an illicit thrill to watch people looking at art, unaware that they were under surveillance.13
“Mr. Berremy, I presume?”14 said the ebullient Ivan Karp, stepping close. “Ah, Missy Kup,” Dick responded in kind. Play-talking Pidgin was one of the shticks the two had perfected when they worked together at the Hansa. Although Dick’s Chinese mother spoke unaccented English, he occasionally spoke Pidgin, critiquing a stereotype by embracing it. On days of few chores and fewer visitors, the Hansa’s codirectors toyed with language and concocted satiric labels for people and things. In their lexicon, the widely read Art News became “The Watchtower,” also the name of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sentinel publication, and Thomas B. Hess, Art News’s quick-thinking editor, was “the fastest gun in the West” for rushing one of Jasper Johns’s target paintings onto the front cover of Art News in January 1958, the very month of the artist’s debut at the Castelli Gallery. As the Village Voice’s first art critic,15 Ivan met Dick when he came to the Hansa to review shows. Dick would be sitting on the floor, reading.16 The co-op members liked what Ivan had to say about them, and they hired him to buttress their lackadaisical manager, who’d sooner quote poetry than prices to prospective buyers.
After the Hansa closed in May 1959, Ivan worked at the posh Martha Jackson Gallery until Leo Castelli wooed him away to become the Castelli Gallery’s first director. In the weeks following the Guggenheim’s opening, Ivan would see Dick again at the premiere of Pull My Daisy, the grainy black-and-white film by their friends Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, who’d cast Dick as a sanctimonious bishop in this quintessentially Beat film starring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky as themselves. Jack Kerouac wrote and read the voice-over, a text suffused with bebop poetics. “Early morning in the universe…” it began.
A few floors away at the Guggenheim, Bob and Ethel Scull paused to inspect a de Kooning17 and admired its fleshy pink passages and electrifying swaths of red, turquoise, and chrome yellow. They owned a de Kooning—Bob had bought it from the artist.18 It wasn’t the Guggenheim’s collection they coveted as much as its cultural authority. They well understood art’s alchemy, its magical ability to transform mere gold into social standing. Bob was already visiting studios in addition to galleries, intent on sidestepping middlemen dealers.19 Aggressive, unfamiliar art excited him. He’d recently bought a scrap metal sculpture by an unknown John Chamberlain.20 The growing buzz about the young sculptor, who was now in Castelli’s stable, confirmed Bob’s prescience, but he didn’t have enough time to track down more talents like him. It was Ivan who’d sold him the Chamberlain when he worked for Martha Jackson. What Bob needed, he was coming to realize, was a gallery of his own, a gallery he wanted Ivan to direct.
Sometime after the gala, Bob put his proposition to Ivan. But Ivan had already had a taste of the collector’s abrasive personal style and loathed him for it. “I knew we wouldn’t last ten minutes working together,”21 he later reflected. So Ivan suggested that he approach Dick Bellamy—“somebody who was the exact opposite of himself.” It was a very odd combination of personalities, Ivan knew, “this classic American capitalist and successful entrepreneur, and this curious, offbeat, eccentric, even spiritual character.” It would take Bob a while to warm to Dick, a whimsical, disorderly type in a secondhand suit, a drink never far out of reach, but he recognized in him a man like himself, happiest in the company of artists.
Nearly a year to the day after the Guggenheim opened, the Green Gallery debuted on West Fifty-Seventh Street, with Bob’s covert support. If the museum’s design seemed to foretell the future, so too did the opening show Dick chose for the Green—monumental scrap wood and metal sculpture by Mark di Suvero, an artist in his twenties. Other artists used found materials, but di Suvero added scale and emotion to the mix and dispensed with pedestals. Here was an artist, one reviewer said, who “stepped beyond our immediate experience into history.”22 With Dick as its director, the Green would introduce many artists who stepped into history. Yet Dick himself would artfully dodge posterity. Acclaimed in the sixties as the country’s first celebrity collectors, Bob and Ethel Scull would become best known in the future not for owning art, but for selling it.
Copyright © 2016 by Judith E. Stein