In advance of his gallery opening on 57th Street, dealer of photorealist and hyperrealist work Louis K. Meisel spoke with ARTINFO blogger Homa T. Nasab about his early days as a collector and his own unique art collection, which includes tin toys, 19th-century ice-cream scoops, and beech trees. View the full article for more anecdotes — including reminiscences of a young, aggressive Charles Saatchi.
How did you get into selling art?
OK, that’s an easy one. Every junky ends up selling the stuff to support his habit. Arts, antiques, drugs — they are all the same. I started to collect comic books and used to buy three and sell one to pay for the other two. And when I studied architecture in college we had to take painting classes, but at the end of the term, everyone would throw out their canvases. So I decided to take them instead to the fraternity houses and convince them that instead of buying posters they should invest in original works for $25 each; I sold everything. The artists got $15 each for their paintings and I got $10.Formally speaking, though, back in 1964, I bought a $600 painting from the Greek-born, first generation Abstract Expressionist painter, Theodoros Stamos, and had the opportunity to pay him off in weekly $5 installments. One day, my parents brought an art collector to my apartment to teach me that I should not be wasting my money on something I didn’t know about. Well, it turned out that the collector loved Stamos’s work and my parents ended up buying a couple of paintings from him. After that, I sold a few more Stamos pieces, and, in return, he relieved me of the remaining $550 debt that I owed him for the painting I had originally bought from him.
You are a great collector of a great number of collections. What are some of your most prized collections, on a personal as well as art-historical level?
My number one collection, and the finest in world of its kind, is comprised of photorealist watercolors. It includes three of the very best works by each of the top 15 photorealists. But I have about 115–120 different collections. I donated seven collections to the Southhampton Historical Museum last year, including decoy ducks, children’s chairs and others. I have also sold off complete collections such a Fiestaware. Other more fun and minor collections include 19th-century ice cream scoops, 1940s Art Moderne tin toys, and Art Deco statues. Of course, the paintings are the most important to me!
Why did you decide to open a new gallery in a different location?
The bottom line is that Ivan Karp, Paula Cooper, and I basically started SoHo. Ivan and I are the only ones that are still here. As long as people come to SoHo, they will be able to find at least one vintage gallery: mine. The new dealers are in Chelsea, where I am not interested in moving. But 57th Street has remained the center of the art world since I entered it in the late 1950s. The Louis K. Meisel gallery on Prince Street will remain intact where I can show larger works that we won’t be able to get into the 57th Street space. More prolific artists who can fill both galleries will be shown in both. And the Prince Street gallery will serve as a place where we can show a diversity of artists at once, something like an open-book museum.
I meet numerous photorealist and hyperrealist painters who would do just about anything to be represented by you. What advice would you give them to become great artists?
Since the original 13 photorealists and 15 peripheral ones, I find about five artists per decade. There is nothing that I can tell anybody; every artist has to develop on their own. I am not the be-all-to-end-all of it but I do have my standards. I cannot tell anybody what to paint. I don’t even tell my own artists what or how to paint anything. Who am I to second guess the artists in whom I believe?