Among the many arcane conventions of the contemporary art world is the very manner in which the product is dispersed. Paintings, photographs, sculptures and such are displayed in galleries and are theoretically available for purchase, though prices are only grudgingly disclosed, and from the way top-rung dealers vet would-be buyers, one could logically construe it was the gallery paying the collector for the object. One might also imagine collectors could come to resent such a system, and indeed, at times they do. But there is one particular New York gallerist, Marian Goodman, who has managed to build a loyal clientele who feel downright grateful for being granted permission to spend a million dollars on a work of art.
Take art consultant Sandy Heller’s reaction when Goodman anointed him with her blessing to buy a highly coveted piece at a recent art fair. “I didn’t even ask the price,” says Heller, whose clients include such heavyweight collectors as Steven A. Cohen and who declines to name the artist out of deference to Goodman (he doesn’t want to ratchet up the pressure he presumes runner-up collectors are already putting on her). “I mean, she’s giving out gifts. I regard that as a gift to me.” Albeit, a gift with strings attached. After bestowing the prize, “she looked at me and said, ‘Sandy, if this piece ever goes to auction, I’m gonna kill you,’” Heller recalls with a laugh. “Her delivery was so sweet. She handles being tough the sweetest way I’ve ever seen.”
Such may be the essence of Goodman, a diminutive woman of a certain, unspoken age who over the past 30 years has built one of the art world’s most important galleries, introducing a host of exceedingly influential, primarily foreign artists to New York audiences in the process. Her stable of talent makes collectors’ and museum curators’ mouths water, with names like Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, John Baldessari, Thomas Struth, William Kentridge, Gabriel Orozco, Maurizio Cattelan, Lawrence Weiner, Tacita Dean and Rineke Dijkstra among the 38 now on the gallery’s roster. As Goodman is fond of saying, “The heart and soul of the gallery are the artists.” Over breakfast down the block from her West 57th Street gallery on a late-summer morning, Goodman, whose voice never rises above a near whisper—the kind that commands others to bend in close and pay attention—is speaking lovingly of her artists, who tend to speak the same way of her. “The artist really places a lot of trust in the gallerist,” she says. “I’m always touched by their ability to trust. It’s such a close relationship. It’s not like a marriage, for obvious reasons, but it’s certainly a long-term commitment—and it can last longer.”
Part spouse, part den mother, part Hollywood agent, she tends to her artists before all else, spending hours on the phone with them daily and frequently flying to their far-flung studios to check on them and their work. She crosses the Atlantic every six weeks, making pit stops in Germany, Italy and Paris, where her gallery has a small outpost.
A lifelong New Yorker, Goodman grew up on the Upper West Side in a family she prefers to call middle-class but that would probably be more accurately defined as affluent. She and her younger brother attended the Little Red School House downtown. “We used to take the subway train every morning,” she recalls. “By the time I was eight or nine, I was taking my brother alone. They used to make a place for us in the front of the car because we would play this marble game. And, uh, it was a different world, you can say that.” Her father, an accountant, collected art, particularly that of Milton Avery, the American modernist painter, whom he also befriended. “My dad was passionately interested. He would sometimes give me books to read, but I wasn’t that interested.”
Goodman aspired to “save the world,” she says, either by working for the United Nations or as a journalist. Instead, at 21 she married William Goodman, whom she met while she was a student at Emerson College, and quickly thereafter had a son and a daughter (neither of whom works for the gallery). She lived for more than a decade as a housewife, though she began to discover her own interest in art, and, in particular, in working with artists. “I thought, If I’m really serious about this, I should go back to school,” she says, “and get myself a proper education in art history.” She enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Columbia: “I was not only the oldest person in the class, but also the only woman.”
Divorce got in the way of her doctorate, and around the same time, her nephew Andrew Goodman, a young civil rights worker, was murdered in Mississippi in 1964, during Freedom Summer. “That made me question everything,” says Goodman, who remains committed to social justice. (Says Richter, with some amusement, “She is full of passion against Bush.”) In any case, her new circumstances precipitated the need for her own income. With seed money courtesy of one of her dad’s Avery canvases, Goodman opened Multiples, dealing in artists’ editions, in 1965. “That was the time when the whole field of editions was exciting,” she says. “Artists were really interested in experimenting and also in the idea of reaching a larger population and younger public who could actually afford to collect such work.”
Projects with groundbreaking artists of the era, including Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman and Richard Artschwager, followed. Business eventually brought her to Europe, where she remembers discovering “this very mature art world, several generations of artists who were basically unknown here.” One in particular caught her eye: Marcel Broodthaers, a cerebral Belgian and early installation artist who frequently worked with found objects. Though she considered him, along with Joseph Beuys, the continent’s most influential artist, he had yet to have a single show in New York. Goodman made it her mission to find him a New York gallery, but no one would bite. “I finally thought that if nobody’s gonna do this, I would love to, and in maybe an irrational leap of faith, it made me decide to open a gallery,” she says. Marian Goodman Gallery debuted in September 1977 with a solo exhibition of Broodthaers.
From the beginning, Goodman looked almost exclusively abroad to build her roster. Perhaps ironically for a woman of Jewish heritage of her generation, she found a particular kinship with Germans, from Richter and Anselm Kiefer to a young man named Lothar Baumgarten, whom she had hired to hang the gallery’s display at an art fair in Düsseldorf. “I had no idea that he was an artist at first, and he told me very quietly and modestly that he was having a show at Konrad Fischer gallery,” she recalls. She went to see the exhibition, a slide show considering a recently discovered South American tribe that apparently lived without conflict: “It was fabulous, dealing with a very profound subject.” Of Baumgarten and other postwar German artists, Goodman says, “They all had to make peace with the past, and many of them had to judge their parents, and of course there was a great desire to seek a better way. The issues of life were far more present. And I think it produced a lot of wonderful art, some very meaningful.” Asked if troubled times produce better work, Goodman responds, “The thing is, people think more.” Unlike today’s climate, in which the supply of collectors with checkbooks at the ready seems infinite—whether the artist works in Chinatown or China—in the late Seventies and early Eighties there was still resistance to contemporary European artists. “New York could barely accept artists from California, much less from Europe,” she says. “There were very few collectors, especially for the work that I was showing.”
The same was true for the one or two other Manhattan galleries also trying to broaden the local art world’s geographical palate. “Americans were very chauvinistic,” says Angela Westwater, whose Sperone Westwater gallery opened two years prior to Goodman’s with a mix of Americans and Europeans. “It was not so easy.”
For the first several years, Goodman’s gallery kept going thanks to the money brought in by Multiples. Little by little, she pushed her artists onto the radar. She began to show Kiefer’s bleak canvases in 1980, without much success. Then Nicholas Serota, now the powerful director of the Tate, curated a major London show, “A New Spirit in Painting,” a global kitchen sink of the medium. “There were, in my opinion, a lot of really bad artists in that show,” Goodman says. Still, SoHo galleries quickly signed several of them. “I remember this collector from Chicago coming in when we had a Kiefer show, and he said, ‘Well, it’s clear you picked the wrong German,’” Goodman recalls, still miffed. “He named two German artists that nobody’s even heard of today, and I was really embarrassed to challenge him, to tell him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. So I didn’t. He came back to the next show, but then he was interested because there’d been a certain amount of clearing of the tangled underbrush. And then he was furious because the prices had been raised.”
Her relationship with Kiefer eventually soured, and he left the gallery, a rarity for Goodman. Though many have tried, few dealers have succeeded in poaching her artists. Says Heller, “You don’t upgrade from Marian Goodman Gallery.” Many have been with her 15, 20 years. Jeff Wall, the Vancouver-based photographer whose light boxes are among collectors’ most coveted items, says he’s never had reason to entertain another offer. “You hear stories of artists who’ve had bad experiences with galleries, where galleries try to pressure them this way or that, or just kind of call the shots,” he explains. “She’s never asked me to do anything, ever. There are some gallerists who see you as part of their business plan. Marian is not like that. She’s very old-school.”
That’s not to say she’s a pushover. “Marian may be soft-spoken, but she’s not soft,” Wall says. “No one wants a dealer who’s soft. You don’t want them to take any bulls—.” Indeed, Robert Fitzpatrick, the gregarious director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, who says he rarely misses a Goodman show, calls her a “cross between my third-grade teacher and a professor at MIT.” While the latter analogy may be self-evident, the former refers to the time a museum staffer made a holiday card for trustees featuring digitized snow falling on Thomas Schütte’s Big Spirits XL sculpture of three figures that sits outside the MCA. When Fitzpatrick sent Goodman an e-mail with the kitschy image of her artist’s piece, she called, “and she said, ‘Bob, you know that’s not a good thing to do, and if Thomas knew, he would not be happy. Please don’t send it to anybody else,’” he remembers with a chuckle. “It was like my third-grade teacher calling me in and saying, ‘Bobby, don’t do this again. Now go back to class.’ She scolded me very gently.”
William Kentridge, the South African known for his politically subtle animated films made from charcoal drawings, is just one of the artists who have benefited from her unwavering support. “She’s a gentle woman, and yet somehow mountains all move into the right places when they need to,” he says. When he has occasionally “knocked heads” with museum curators, “after a quiet word with Marian—and I don’t know what the word is—a no becomes a yes, or a bad space becomes a good space.” Kentridge himself has felt the almost imperceptible heat. “Things are asked for very quietly. I’ll say, ‘Marian, I’m completely busy.’ ‘Yes, I know,’” he says, mimicking her lilting gentility, “‘but it would be lovely to have two drawings for the art fair.’”
Before he joined Goodman’s gallery, Kentridge’s only real visibility in New York had been via a group show at Gladstone Gallery, itself a prestigious venue, but he says that most Manhattan galleries in the Eighties were not interested in a Johannesburg-based white artist making drawings and not paintings. And the ones that were, he says, emanated a kind of 20th-century colonialism, treating him “like a Third World peasant producing work for the American market. With Marian I never felt that. It was a gallery that acknowledged the world didn’t begin and end in New York.”
Goodman describes herself as “slow to decide” whether to invite an artist to show with her. The way artists recount the process, it sounds like an old-fashioned courtship. In Orozco’s case, she took almost a year to offer him a show after first meeting with him in a coffee shop and looking at photos of his work. He, like Struth, was tipped to her by a close friend, art critic Benjamin Buchloh. In the interim, Goodman invited Orozco to other openings and dinners and sent curators to evaluate his work. “When she asked me finally,” he says, “it was a really big deal. For many people who didn’t know me at all, they were like, ‘This young Mexican?’”
Kentridge, Struth and Orozco, like most of Goodman’s artists, joined her relatively early in their careers. One exception is Richter, who had had three exhibitions with Sperone Westwater before deciding to show simultaneously there and with Goodman. After several years of this joint arrangement, he dropped the original gallery.
Richter, one of the preeminent artists of the 20th century, praises Goodman’s blend of avant-garde taste and classical attitude. “She can tell the back side and the front side,” he says. “She knows the difference. Some gallerists don’t.”
While most great gallerists—from Leo Castelli to Jay Jopling—are closely associated with artists of their own generations, Goodman has maintained a rigorous openness to new talent. Many of her artists are young enough to be her children—or even her grandchildren. “She operates ahead of the curve,” Heller says. Most art professionals, himself included, “can be influential in the moment, make a dent, but we’re going to lose it eventually, not be able to hit the high, fast one, as we say. Marian Goodman can hit any pitch—any fastball, any fly, any changeup,” he says, using an apt metaphor (Goodman was a star softball player in her youth). “She’s proven it for 30 years.”
The exceptional caliber of her artists has also enabled Goodman to profit handsomely from their shows, freeing her from major involvement in the secondary market, which pays the bills for many galleries with weaker programs. Negotiating with Goodman, Fitzpatrick says, is a straightforward affair and “generally takes 28 minutes.” He had waited years for a Jeff Wall for the MCA when Goodman offered him In front of a nightclub (2006). He flew to Paris to see it, and the two dined atop the Centre Pompidou. “We ordered white asparagus, and Marian said, ‘All right, before the asparagus comes, let’s talk business,’” Fitzpatrick says. “At one point we got Jeff on the phone. In a moment it was done. It was timed perfectly with the arrival of the asparagus.” One client describes her succinctly as “the anti-Larry.” A prominent gallerist, though, gripes that Goodman has plenty in common with über dealer Larry Gagosian, who has a reputation for poaching rising stars and then jacking up their prices. “She’s not this nice old Jewish grandmother that everyone thinks, or purely intellectual and not interested in commerce,” the gallerist says. “She’s made millions. She can be every bit as competitive as Larry.” The rival allows that Goodman offers a serious program, replete with exhibition catalogs of densely written texts, but says the patina of academic scholarship tells only part of the story. “Those kinds of intellectual underpinnings do not necessarily mean that commerce is not an interest.” The view of her as Gagosian’s antithesis, however, has as much to do with style as substance. She is not known to aggressively lure artists from competitors, and she does not have a public visibility bordering on celebrity. And while some clients describe a rejection from Gagosian as emasculating, the Goodman gallery staff is meticulously well mannered. As one client who requested anonymity for fear of alienating other dealers explains, “I can be disappointed, but it’s the way a dealer lets you down. With Marian, there’s a graciousness, rather than a f— you. Some people have the tendency to give you the finger.”
For the past 26 years, the gallery has occupied the fourth floor of a small building on West 57th Street. As the art world migrated downtown, first to SoHo and then to Chelsea, Goodman and her artists resisted. She was afraid of acquiring what she viewed as the art mall’s mob mentality, and she says the artists “were worried that it became hard to remember which show you saw where, and just the sense of people hurrying through.” But with her lease up next June, Goodman began to cave and spent a year looking for a Chelsea space. She came close to taking over Dia’s former space, a somewhat “irrational” move, she says, because it was in need of several million dollars’ worth of repairs. In the end she decided to stay put, taking an additional half floor in the building. (But this is a woman who, save for the first seven years of her life spent on the Upper East Side, has always lived within a one-mile radius.) On opening nights a queue for the tiny elevators inevitably forms out the lobby doors. Upstairs, where the crowds can get thick and the narrow hall connecting the two biggest showplaces nearly impassable, it’s not unusual for guests to feel the need to go back down for some air. At 8:30, she typically hosts a dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant that’s anything but flashy, or at her cozy penthouse on Central Park West, where, after eating, old friends hang out on the banquettelike sofa. (Goodman, who has never remarried, lives alone, though her guest apartment is sometimes occupied by artists.)
All an utter contrast to the gala she threw in September to celebrate her 30 years in business. Struth, Wall, Baldessari, Dijkstra, Orozco, Baumgarten, Dan Graham and Dara Birnbaum were among more than 20 of her artists who came to the first of two shows commemorating the gallery’s beginnings. At the festive dinner that followed at the Four Seasons, museum directors who had flown in from around the country stood shoulder to shoulder with megacollectors Michael Ovitz, Mitchell Rales and Agnes Gund when hundreds rose to pay homage to Goodman with a standing ovation. The tribute begs the question: Does she think about retiring?
“No, I don’t, as long as I’m healthy,” Goodman says, without pause. “I’ve never lost my interest.” •