Remembering Jack Tilton: An Atypical New York Art Dealer | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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Remembering Jack Tilton: An Atypical New York Art Dealer

Jack and Connie Tilton, Paris, 2008
(Courtesy Tilton Gallery New York)

The artist Richard Tuttle was on a visit to the Betty Parsons Gallery in Manhattan in the mid-1970s when a young and intrepid business graduate named Jack Tilton walked in.  “He came to the Betty Parsons Gallery to seek a job, and  I was an artist there,” said Tuttle. “I remember the first thing he said to me, which was shocking, was: ‘I want to sell  your work.’ I don’t like to sell my work. So I was not happy to meet somebody who said that to me first thing.” “He finally just stayed on the doorstep long enough until he found  that he was necessary,” Tuttle recalled. “Betty Parsons hired him. And I still didn’t like him.”  

Tilton would go on to become one of the most groundbreaking and influential gallerists of his generation. It helped that he was endowed with the twin qualities necessary for any dealer to thrive: a love of art, and a knack for business. Tilton was instrumental in getting artists such as Douglas Gordon, Glenn Ligon, Marlene Dumas, Kiki Smith, and Francis Alÿs known around the world, and in introducing Chinese Contemporary art to Western audiences. His death in May at the age of 66 left a huge gap in the American and international art world. For Tuttle, who by then had grown so close to Tilton that he considered him “family,” the pain was acute. “When Jack passed away, I was shocked how deeply I felt that,” said Tuttle. “I lost many friends in my life, but I haven’t lost anyone who loved my work as much as Jack. When you lose somebody who loved your work, it’s mega more impactful than losing someone who  loved you.”

Tuttle — who had an exhibition of works on paper at the Jack Tilton Gallery in 1993 but was not represented by the gallerist — said he was surprised to discover that Tilton had 150 of his works at the time of his death, no doubt carry-overs from Tilton’s days at the Parsons Gallery. “It’s about 140 more than I knew,” he said. The Tilton Gallery today represents Tuttle’s artist daughter Martha.

By all accounts, Tilton never lived up to the stereotype of the voracious New York art dealer. “He was an intriguingly nice, slow-talking, slow-moving guy in a fast-paced and not-that-nice world,” said Robert Storr, the art historian and former Dean of the Yale School of Art, who is himself a painter. “And he did very well.” “His home base was an old traditional New York gallery with a stable of artists that he saw through, that he championed, stuck with,” Storr added. “He didn’t just precipitously dump people as was going on in the ’80s and ’90s. He was keeping the faith.” Storr explained that to be able to finance the waves of new and emerging artists he brought in, Tilton did “a lot of backroom business selling old work” — i.e. artworks by more established artists that carried higher price tags and helped pay the bills. Tilton’s wife Connie Rogers Tilton is keeping the flame very much alive.  

“It somehow seemed obvious to me that we should continue. It never was really a decision: it was an obvious thing,” said Rogers Tilton in an interview. “For me and probably for everybody else, Jack was always so much about the present and the future that it felt very important not to just suddenly put his legacy in a box and close it. What he had created is a living and breathing entity.” Rogers Tilton noted that none of the represented artists (about two dozen, according to the web site) had defected since Jack’s passing. About a dozen others (including Tuttle and Dumas) are named as  having “additional works” by them available from the gallery. Storr said Rogers Tilton deserved a lot of credit for that continuity, both today and over the last decade, when Tilton suffered from Parkinson’s disease and ultimately died of complications related to cancer. “Half of it is truly Connie,” he said. “They were very much a team. Jack was more out front than Connie. But one of the artists said to me how well Connie has handled the transition. I think one can underestimate her role.”

Jack Tilton was born in 1951 in Littleton, New Hampshire. His father was for many years a member of the New Hampshire state legislature. He was also “a part-time artist with a degree from Yale Art School,” Tilton recalled in a 2016 interview with the Art Dealers Association of America. “He had a Christmas card company while I was a kid. I remember him designing the cards. Early on, I would look at paintings, and he would take us to see paintings — a Hudson River Bierstadt in Vermont, or Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in Boston.” Tilton got a Bachelor’s degree in business from Babson College in Massachusetts in 1974, then took a few courses at the University of New Hampshire’s graduate school of business.

He recalled in the ADAA interview that he “started to look at banking, but decided it was a bore and that I wanted to work in the art world instead.” As the respected New York gallerist Betty Parsons was a friend of his great grandmother, Tilton ended up working at her gallery starting in 1976. The way he described it, he got the job because Parsons and her secretary “were in the galleries trying to unwrap and hang some paintings. The art handlers and assistants didn’t show up and I offered to work for free. By the time they showed up, I worked myself up to a job, making $80 a week.”

In the six years that he was there, Tilton quickly moved up the ladder to become a director. After Parsons passed away, he started his own dealership in the same gallery space, launching it under his own name in 1983. From the very first exhibition, Tilton demonstrated an eye for the new and unexpected, and avoided revisiting tried and tested formulas. It paid off. His inaugural show — of work by four artists including Alan Johnston (from Scotland), Tulio de Gennario (from Italy) and Ernst Caramelle (from Austria) — drew a highly favorable review from The New York Times critic John Russell. By the early 1990s, the gallery moved to SoHo. At around the same time, Tilton became engrossed in the Contemporary art of China. He  hosted exhibitions of artists such as Liu Wei, Huang Yong Ping, and Xu Bing.

He also launched an artists’ residency program on the outskirts of China (dubbed the China Project) that was based in a space designed by Ai Weiwei and would become a training ground for emerging talents. Meanwhile, exhibitions of Chinese art were regularly held at the Tilton Gallery in New York. Friends say Tilton had a constant desire to scout out nascent talents. According to Tuttle, he got that at least in part from Parsons. “Betty was one of the few nurturing galleries,” said Tuttle. “Betty would say to me that the slowest way was the best way. She tried to slow down my career.”

“Jack, in his own way, inherited the nurturing gallery,” Tuttle added. “Many people are awestruck by the names of artists Jack showed before someone else. They’ve moved on and had big careers someplace else.” Storr recalled that Tilton would “come to Yale and talent-spot,” and later represented several African-American art students he met there. Storr disapproved of the campus recruitment by art dealers, and “cautioned artists not to get caught up in the market too early,” he  said. But that didn’t stop Tilton from discovering good artists while they were still green, including Derrick Adams and Tomashi Jackson. Storr himself was given an exhibition at the Tilton Gallery: “I  showed some work one time, and he treated me very, very well. He just was good with budding artists, and I was a budding artist.”  

The trouble was that once artists started to develop and mature,  some chose to go elsewhere. “Sometimes he’s criticized that he couldn’t keep artists,” said Tuttle. “How many chicks can a mother hen have and nurture? There’s a limit. Jack was always looking for a new chick to nurture. And so it was a bit of a natural process that after two or three shows, the artist would move on.”

Tilton himself admitted that he was initially upset by those departures, then grew a thicker skin. “You have to protect yourself and  find some security,” he said in the ADAA interview. “It hurts when artists leave, but I’ve come to a point where it doesn’t bother me anymore.” Tilton also showed an early eagerness to show women artists, who, needless to say, were not getting their due in the art world back then. He did so “not in a purposeful way, because he felt he needed to, but because he felt strongly about their art,” recalled his widow. “He  just showed it because he loved it.”

One of the female artists who owes much of her U.S. breakthrough to Tilton is the South African-born, Amsterdam-based artist Marlene  Dumas. Tilton first saw her work in Europe, then went to her studio to bring drawings back to the gallery for display — giving Dumas her first-ever U.S. solo exhibition in 1994. He continued to get more and more of her works for display, and to visit her in Europe. He  represented her for 18 years until she decided to move on; she is now represented in the US by David Zwirner.  

Making the Tilton Gallery all the more special in its heyday was that it operated like something of a cultural and intellectual salon. Tuttle recalled how Tilton would invite a major philosopher visiting from France to give a talk, and “you couldn’t get into the gallery, it was so packed. In the meantime, the money kept coming in, thanks in large part, again, to Tilton. “He was a fabulous salesman,” his widow recalled.

“As much as he loved art and reading and philosophy and poetry, he also loved selling. He went to business school before entering the art world. He had a streak of entrepreneurship that stood him well in the business aspects of running the gallery.”

In the last couple of decades of Tilton’s life, the art world started shifting dramatically. Size became key, small and mid-sized galleries began disappearing, and money and commerce became predominant. Collectors increasingly began viewing art as an investment, and seeking quantifiable and more or less immediate returns — rather than yearning for an object of beauty that happened also to be a store of value. How did Tilton fit into that landscape? “Through a combination of embracing some of the changes and retaining his own integrity,” said Rogers Tilton. “It wasn’t as if he was averse to change, but he maintained his own way of working, and didn’t  get caught up in the need to grow for the sake of his own power or the gallery’s power.” He also started acting as an art advisor as well as a gallerist. According to his widow, in his later years, he accompanied collectors to art fairs such as Art Basel and advised them to buy art from all over the world. As Tilton himself said in the ADAA interview, “Selling one secondary work could pay the gallery rent for a month.” Today, the gallery model is evolving more and more, and the scaling up is continuing unabated, as an increasing proportion of art is sold at art fairs at which mega-galleries with multiple international outposts thrive. That would appear to leave little room for gallerists such as Tilton. But to Storr, figures like him will always be needed for art to exist at all. “The way in which art enters into the bloodstream of culture is through smaller, intimate contact, not by the mega-blast,” he concluded. “Ideally, a gallery is a place where you acquire the taste for something you’ve never met before, or you discover as indispensable something you never needed before. That can only happen in places where people can come to realizations about what they’re seeing, and absorb it.” 

— This article appears in the March 2018 edition of Modern Painters