A New Boone

After years of playing hardball, tough-as-nails gallerist Mary Boone is beginning to show her softer side.


Over the course of three lunchtime interviews in recent months, Mary Boone stays resolutely on message: She insists she has been no more aggressive than the male art dealers who came before or after her. Unlike some of her male counterparts, namely Larry Gagosian and Matthew Marks, she says, she did not just swoop in and scoop up name artists developed by other gallerists—she went out and discovered new talent. And if you think sexism doesn’t exist in the art world, she asks, why is it that virtually every story written about her in the past 30 years has fixated on her (sexy, sky-high, expensive) shoes? Then, at our third lunch together, as Manhattan is emptying out for Labor Day weekend, Boone arrives at Michael’s, not far from her Fifth Avenue gallery, with her skin tanned from two weeks spent hiking, doing yoga and eating vegan at the Ashram retreat near Santa Monica. After her usual abundant niceties—she is generous with compliments—she dives right in. “I think I lost my way,” she announces, unprompted. “It was the Eighties. I got too involved with fame and fortune.”

Meet the new Mary Boone. The dealer who epitomized the hard-charging excesses of the Eighties art market, whose dragon-lady reputation made her a convenient scapegoat for its devastating crash, now improbably says that her mission in life is “helping other people.” Today the pint-size (five feet one, 105 pounds) pit bull of yore donates her thick, tar black hair to Locks of Love, an organization that makes wigs for sick children, and delights in feel-good movies like Wall-E. The woman who could sell a Hummer to Al Gore insists, “I’ve always been more interested in making history than in making money.” But fear not. The new Boone, who puts her age at 57, hasn’t gone all soft and boring. She remains an intriguingly complex, paradoxical figure—the same woman who took one day of maternity leave when her son, Max, was born (take that, Sarah Palin) but who always wore two watches so she could have one set to the time zone Max was in when he was visiting his father (and her ex-husband), art dealer Michael Werner, in Europe.

The story of Boone’s ascendancy could be scripted for Hollywood: She grew up in Michigan and Los Angeles, and later enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design. After realizing she couldn’t cut it as a painter, she came to New York to study art history at Hunter College. Sculptor Lynda Benglis, who was teaching at Hunter, helped Boone land a job as a secretary for her boyfriend, Klaus Kertess, at Bykert Gallery, his influential East 81st Street space with a roster that included Chuck Close, Brice Marden, Richard Tuttle and Dorothea Rockburne. “I was a complete nobody from no place,” Boone says while picking at her salad. “That was the job that changed my life.”

Since the 19-year-old Boone was Kertess’s one and only employee, she did more than just sit at the desk and look cute. “I sold something the first day I was there. Yay!” she chirps proudly. “To Citibank. No, not to Citibank, to Chase.” Ker- tess entrusted Boone with both major collectors and major artists. “I mean, he let me take Victor Ganz to Brice Marden’s studio,” she says.

“Mary was ambitious, as she still is,” says Ker­tess, adding that, though he had always encouraged his employees to build collector clienteles and earn sales commissions, “Mary was actually the first one to take me up on that.”

In 1975 Kertess decided he wanted out of Bykert. He liked launching new talent, but his artists had simply become too successful. “I was not so happy as a career manager,” he says. (“I thought, Wow, that’s when most people would buy more gallery space,” Boone says with a laugh.) The exact genesis of Boone’s gallery is somewhat murky. Boone says she declined Kertess’s offer to take over Bykert, preferring to start fresh on her own. In Kertess’s version, Boone lacked the financial backing to keep Bykert open, plus the gallery’s big names intended to join more prominent dealers. One of those artists, Chuck Close, says Boone would have liked to hold on to him and the others. “I think it made her very upset and sad that she couldn’t get Brice or me,” Close says. “She had to go out and make her own stable, which was the best thing that could have happened to her.”

To be sure, appropriating someone else’s vision would not have risen to Boone’s ambitions. She had deep admiration for Kertess and also for legendary dealer Leo Castelli, and she wanted to accomplish no less a feat than they had: to build a gallery every artist of her generation would want to join, one that, with a critical mass of influence, would leave a lasting mark on art history. And she did, making stars out of Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, David Salle, Eric Fischl and Ross Bleckner in the Eighties—and changing the way the art market works in the process. (Ironically, several Bykert artists, including Marden and Tuttle, would later show with her, albeit impermanently.)

In the beginning, though, “because I showed predominantly unknown artists, it was a struggle,” she says, adding that it was also hard being taken seriously as a 26-year-old proprietor. “Now, it’s like the ageism goes in the opposite direction.” She did have a Rolodex of collectors from her Bykert days, and doing deals on the secondary market kept her afloat. She also had backing from a consortium of collectors, in exchange for first dibs on the best art she had to offer.

Boone built her stable, she says, “just kind of hanging out.” She, along with much of the art world, often ate at a restaurant called One University Place, where Schnabel was a chef. “[Schnabel] came up to me and said, ‘I hear you’re opening a gallery,’” she recalls. “I said to him before I even went [to his studio], ‘I don’t usually make commitments quickly.’ So I went there, and I was kind of bowled over by the work, and I said, ‘Well, I definitely want to do something with you,’ which for me was saying a lot. That night he called me and he says, ‘You have to make a commitment to me because otherwise I’m going to go to Holly Solomon.’ I said okay.”

She’d had her eye on Bleckner since he’d walked into Bykert one day with slides of his student paintings. To this day, she says, he is the only artist she’s ever discovered from slides. Bleckner talked up friends including Fischl, Salle and Barbara Kruger, all of whom would eventually join Boone.

She took on Fischl in 1982, but he says he’d noticed Boone sometime before—and not just because “her reputation was growing by the minute in terms of being the most dynamic dealer of my generation.” Fischl’s day job was building crates for a company called Hague Art Deliveries, located in the back of 420 West Broadway, where Boone had a tiny ground-floor space (downstairs from both Castelli’s and his ex-wife Ileana Sonnabend’s galleries). Each morning like clockwork, Fischl says, she would arrive, go to her office, come out again to collect the mail, return to her office, emerge one more time to get coffee and finally retreat into her office. “She was very routinized,” he says. Then one day she showed up carrying something in her hand. “It took me a while to notice that it was actually the heel to her shoe, which had come off. Of course, the rap on Mary is that she has a zillion shoes, so one assumes that she has several pairs in her office. But on schedule she comes back out of her office, still carrying the heel, and I’m thinking she’s going to the shoe repair. Then on schedule she walks back in with the mail, the heel in her hand. Then she walks out again with the heel in her hand and goes and gets coffee, and I’m thinking, This is the act of an extraordinary person here.” The peculiar combination of “zaniness and willpower to push forward” on display cemented his desire to show with her.

Together Boone and her artists redirected the art world’s gaze. Rejecting the Minimalist and conceptual-laden Seventies, they re-energized painting with bold, heavily figurative canvases and made neo-Expressionism the dominant aesthetic. Boone became the queen of SoHo.

It was a mantle she did not wear lightly. Boone gained a reputation as aggressive, manipulative and combative. When the crash finally hit, in 1990, she was vilified for tackily hyping her artists in the media, turning them into commodities with stratospheric prices and waiting lists for their work. Whatever her role in overheating the market, she stuck by her suddenly struggling artists during the Nineties chill. “When the art market crashed, and my prices, which had been at an all-time high for me, almost overnight were cut in half and then in half again,” Fischl says, “she made sure I had the money I needed to continue to work and support the life I had. She did it by the sheer will to sell whatever she could sell and take just a small portion.” Other dealers, he contends, “would have expected you to feel the same pain.”

In retrospect, Boone admits, her artists’ prices were inflated in the Eighties, and she wishes their work hadn’t been quite so in demand. “I found, a lot of times, artists that get hot, hot, hot—it’s the opposite from being good,” she says. “I think artists are able to develop better when they’re not at their marketing peak.” Boone can’t resist taking a swipe at rival Gagosian, who has lured many of the best-selling artists in the world, most recently Richard Prince from Gladstone Gallery, with seemingly bottomless coffers. “I think Larry is a great dealer; I love Larry,” she says. “But he’s not very good when the artist isn’t in play. And every artist goes through slumps.” Gagosian did not respond to requests for comment.

Most of her early core group of artists have remained steadfast (even Salle, who defected to Gagosian, eventually returned). “What can I say? The devil you know is better than the one you don’t,” Bleckner says with a wicked peal of laughter.

The younger generation has been trickier. Artists both interesting (Tom Sachs, Inka Essenhigh) and not (Damian Loeb) have cycled in and out of Boone’s gallery, which, though still a contender, has never regained quite the same luster it had in the Eighties. It’s not an unusual circumstance for a dealer, particularly the kind who prides herself on being a talent scout. “Very, very few dealers transcend that one generation,” Close says, “and are able to identify qualities in the next generation and do it again.”

Last year Boone hired her old boss, Kertess, who had become a curator and writer, as an adviser to the gallery. And having collaborated with her ex-husband on numerous shows over the years, she has initiated a series of projects with gallerists representing promising emerging artists, particularly those who work outside of her comfort zone of painting, including Terence Koh and Patty Chang. “At this point in my life, I’m not interested in stealing artists from anybody,” she says.

Boone teamed up with respected young dealer Zach Feuer—who has a radar for his generation not unlike the one Boone had for hers but lacks her deep pockets—to produce a film and mount a show of multimedia artist Luis Gispert in both of their Chelsea galleries. Gispert says the experience was educational, and not just because Boone knows how to work a room. “She runs a very tight ship, and she’s definitely the captain there,” he says. “I tend to have a big personality and a big ego, and Mary does too, so we would clash, but in the end we’d figure it out.”

Gispert is far from the first artist to note a tendency for Boone to be controlling and overbearing. It’s not that she interferes with the creative process. Barbara Kruger, for example, says Boone has never pressured her to produce more, “because there’s no way I’m going to do a show a year and become a Santa’s workshop, and she understands that.” Fischl, though, recalls coming to loggerheads with Boone in 2003 when he was preparing for an exhibition. The paintings were markedly different for him, and shortly before the opening, he says, he grew anxious about finishing them. “I called her and asked if I could postpone it,” he says. “And she said no, the announcements were out, the advertisements were out. We got into a really ugly moment. But I thought we had kind of resolved it. Then it turned out that in fact we hadn’t resolved it, that she had decided she was going to open the show without anything being in the show.” Rather than giving in and rescheduling, Boone “just simply closed the gallery, and people came to the opening to find a gallery that was closed,” Fischl says. “It was vindictive.”

Boone has a different take on the incident, insisting it wasn’t a big deal. For most of the day of the opening, she says, “I sat at the front desk telling people it wasn’t happening.” But she can’t resist adding that Fischl held on to the canvases to show to a visiting museum director: “The work was in the studio, and it was finished. He just didn’t want to give it to me. Eric had known for two years what the dates of the show were.”

“She’s somebody who never used to be able to hear ‘no,’” Fischl says. “It did not register.” Now, though, “she gets it. She’s changed radically. Dramatically but slowly, if that’s possible. She’s really moved from a mono-focused, obsessive, driven character who could be bullying, infuriating, quick to argue and ultimately isolated to somebody who—through her spiritual development, her revelations—serves her community.”

That newfound religion, another longtime friend notes, is a bit of a euphemism: She didn’t just find God. In other words, she shed substance abuse. At our third interview, Boone acknowledges that she indeed did stop drinking—and other stuff—and underwent a belated maturation based on “just wanting to become a nicer person.” “When you’re young, it’s easy to do things without a lot of examination,” she says philosophically. “I was lucky to have a lot of success in my early years, but it didn’t translate into happiness, whereas now I think of myself as a remarkably happy person.”

Boone is reluctant to discuss her alcoholism extensively, citing lingering prejudice about addiction and concern for Max, now 21. (Though in practically the next breath she indiscreetly reels off more than a half dozen names of prominent artists she’s gotten sober.) She does, however, point to her father’s death when she was just three years old and to what she describes as extended, untreated postpartum depression as two triggers of her drinking problem. Sober for 10 years, Boone says she also cut down on sugar and, hardest of all, excised Diet Coke. “Just the alcohol and the sugar, I found that it made my mood swings incredible,” she says. “And I had issues like everybody. I had control issues, temper issues.” Though Boone devotes time to her church and to the Young at Art program she funds in New York’s public schools, she remains such a workaholic that she still hasn’t bothered to buy a country house, because she spends most Saturdays in the gallery.

At the end of our meal at Michael’s, she asks the waiter, as she has unblinkingly at each of our lunches, for a doggie bag. She doesn’t like waste. Currently single, she’s taking her mother and Max to dinner at the Four Seasons tonight, so perhaps she plans on giving the three quarters of her $36 Cobb salad that sits untouched on her plate to a homeless person, something she and her son often do. After all, the new Boone tells me in all sincerity, “It’s really about living by the Golden Rule and having a conscience.”