Autobiographical Reflections and the Art World

My brother Lionel and I grew up in French suburbia , about an hour west of Paris. Our mother Katia ran an art gallery in Paris and commuted back and forth from our home on the outskirts of the city. As we were kids, she would occasionally take us with her on Thursdays (the off-school days in France at that time). This was a great treat. She would set us up in the back of the gallery and keep us busy—behind doors and away from the public eye—with games or books , while she, herself, was busy selling editioned works by artists from the School of Paris (Marc Chagall, Georges Rouault, Jean Lurçat, etc.).

Wolf Vostell, “VOAEX” (1976). Museo Vostell Malpartida © ARS.

 The real treat would come when she would fetch us from the somewhat dark back of her gallery and ask (very rhetorically): “Are you ready to go out ?” We would then be taken to a variety of destinations—from museums to toy stores, and occasionally other art galleries.

From time to time, our father would also organize a trip to Paris. This was another kind of affair . Our father, then working under the pseudonym Isaac Pomié (as it would not be suitable for a true avant-garde artist to carry a name like Pissarro ), would take us to exhibitions he believed mattered. This is how I discovered the work of Robert Rauschenberg (Palais de Tokyo, 1968) , an artist who would occupy a capital place in my future academic life, and who eventually became a friend. Another exhibition that left a strong impression was a retrospective of Fluxus artist Wolf Vostell , also at the Palais de Tokyo . Here, one installation consisted of a room divided up into narrow rows of barbed wire from floor to ceiling, and the ground covered with hundreds of forks. The environment created an eerie sense of incarceration, conjuring a mix of concentration camp associations with an Ubu esque absurdity .

My brother and I thus grew up at the complicated and taut interstices between the art gallery world and the avant-garde museum space—or, between the profit-driven and the nonprofit art spaces—in post-1968 Paris.

Eventually, our parents joined forces professionally. My mother opened her own gallery in the trendy vicinity of the brand new Centre Pompidou, where she exhibited the works of our father and his friends. Our father had turned totally conceptual and was, by then, changing his name at each new exhibition. The idea that an artist could or would earn a living from his art was laughable, even despicable to him. Yet, he was producing strange-looking installations for display in a private art gallery whose rent was expensive. My mother was making money by selling works on the secondary market in order to support the primary aspect of her gallery, mainly occupied by her husband, and the avant-garde circles of the time (very much marked by Supports- Surfaces).

One day, a Swedish collector showed up . He liked my father’s sand-based installation. He found the pyramid-shaped sand formations that covered much of the otherwise impeccably waxed chevron-shaped wooden floor of the gallery intriguing. My mother was thrilled. My father was out; she prayed that he would not return while this collector contemplated making one of the first purchases of my father’s works. As the collector finally made up his mind, and my mother and he agreed on a significant purchase price for the work, they shook hands, and walked towards the elevator of the elegant building. As my mother pressed the elevator button and opened the door, my father emerged. My mother, visibly not amused, was forced to introduce this collector, sent from heaven, and explain what had happened, hoping that my father would join in and share her celebratory mood.

My father brought the collector back inside to say a few words about his “ practice.” He concluded : “You see, part of my practice lies in the fact that I cannot accept money for what I do as an artist. I MUST INSIST that you accept this work as a personal gift on my behalf.” To which he added : “This is an unconditional request.” He explained that his theoretical and political engagement (tainted at the time by  Maoist sympathies) did not allow him to make money from his art. The check was handed back to my mother and t he collector took possession of the piece. Six months later, my mother closed her gallery; she decided to concentrate solely on the secondary market.

Eventually, in the 1980s, my father changed track, and decided— as the erstwhile ideological models he has espoused were becoming weary —that there was nothing wrong, after all, in making money from one’s art. H e started producing works in series, very much drawing upon the sources of his grandfather, Camille. He resumed the surname he had abandoned and made so much money that he eventually had to leave France, for tax reasons, and chose to live in Ireland (a tax-exile for artists), where h e presently resides .

I decided to share this string of personal anecdotes as I believe they reflect the extraordinarily complex and fraught inter relationships that bind the art world’s two sides: trade versus nonprofit.

In the end, this story also suggests that easy definitional statements about either reality will not do to categorize the functions of either or both of these ultimately inseparable facets of the art world.

Contributor

Joachim Pissarro

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