Opinion

Stefan Simchowitz Isn’t as Controversial as He’d Like You to Believe

Stefan Simchowitz (photo courtesy Stefan Simchowitz)
Stefan Simchowitz (photo courtesy Stefan Simchowitz)

Stefan Simchowitz has a talent for making himself the center of conversation. That talent was on full view over the past week, since the New York Times released its Sunday magazine profile of the art collector/dealer online last Wednesday, with a striking photograph of Simchowitz in his underwear surrounded by a harem of glamorous bohemian lifemates and teammates.

Simchowitz knows how to get up a lot of noses. As much as he complains about being demonized, he clearly thrives on the idea of being an outsider — in fact, much of his fame is based upon his own definition of thoroughly conventional behavior as outré and threatening to the establishment. Much like the photograph accompanying the story, there’s not much Simchowitz does that’s new or different, save his use of Instagram to promote work instead of owning an exhibition space. His underserved collectors are nothing new, they just happen to be his clients; his dealing practices are thoroughly conventional, though he rose to public attention entirely on his own willingness to be quoted extensively in Katya Kazakina’s story on art flipping; and the custom of buying up an artist’s output in exchange for covering expenses for a period of time is hardly novel.

To suggest, as the Times does, that Simchowitz is the author of a form of financial innovation on par with the swashbuckling junk bond market that Michael Milken commanded from LA before his conviction on securities fraud is surely not believable.

For one thing, as mentioned, the kind of deal where an artist is paid a set fee to cover living and work expenses in exchange for some or all of his or her output is very old-fashioned, a relic from a much earlier era when artists actually lived in garrets in Paris.

As an example, let’s take a story about Pablo Picasso — not the world-famous Picasso with villas in the south of France filled with wives and mistresses, but the Picasso who was a poor immigrant to Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

Upon arrival in the great city, Picasso quickly gained the attention of a number of art dealers, but did he not immediately establish himself. His talent was much remarked upon, but the trajectory of his career had yet to suggest itself.

That’s where another Spanish expat, Pere Manyac — with some striking similarities to Simchowitz, in that he was the son of a wealthy industrialist but had fallen out with his father and emigrated to France — came to play a role in Picasso’s rise.

The novelist Patrick O’Brian’s somewhat curious biography of Picasso explains how the private dealer and collector financed the young artist during his first stay in Paris and subsequent return to Spain:

Finding himself on bad terms with his father in the early nineties, [Manyac] came to Paris; and there, having artistic leanings, he set up as a picture-dealer, acting as an intermediary between the Catalan painters and the Paris market. He was perfectly fluent in French and he knew a great many people [.…] Manyac offered to take Picasso under contract.

These contracts are perhaps somewhat less known in England and the United States, but they were and are common practice in France: they stipulate that the artist shall make over the entirety of his production to the merchant in exchange for a stated sum, usually to be paid by the month. In principle the whole of the artist’s work becomes the merchant’s exclusive property, … and the stated sum was a hundred and fifty francs a month, then about five pounds sixty or twenty-two dollars. … Manyac could not tell how soon the public would share his taste nor whether they would ever do so at all: and he did not know, nor could he guess, Picasso’s enormous dynamism and the consequent volume of work that the contract would cover. He was taking a risk; he was not at all rich, having no gallery of his own and living in a two-roomed flat; and although perhaps he was a keen dealer with an appetite for profit, he cannot be called a shark. … A hundred and fifty francs was not wealth nor anything like it, but a man could live with less: it meant a well-filled belly, wine, tobacco, and shelter. Few unknown painters, just nineteen years old, who had never seen a hundred and fifty francs all in one golden mass, nor yet the promise of a year’s independent carefree living , ever had such an offer; fewer still would not have been overjoyed, filled with an elastic excitement and delight renewed every waking day for weeks; and none would have refused to sign it.

The deals Manyac and Simchowitz struck were expedient and rarely lead to a long-term relationship between artist and dealer that sustains either. Picasso moved on to Kahnweiler and others. None of Simchowitz’s artists seem to rely upon him to be their primary representative. Nor does Simchowitz relish the role. 

In a response to the article posted on art blogger Paddy Johnson’s Facebook page, Simchowitz dilates upon the subject of his business:

The day to day business is run by Rosi Riedl my partner in both bed, life and business for 17 years. She is an amazing woman and the luck of my life. She manages the team, which consists in a similar way to a gallery of shipping, logistics, invoicing and collections. We sell a lot of work under the 20K USD mark and the logistics is a big side of the business and something we have invested heavily in.

We are not a gallery per se, so generally do not have the luxury of 50% margins. We make it up in sheer scale and volume and servicing clients in a way that most consultants can not compete. Most consultant will tell you “I am sick of emerging contemporary, I want to to do bigger deals and move up the ladder and sell Stingel and Wool and Jasper Johns where the fees are bigger” and the logistical service of these consultants and galleries is often very weak as they are undercapitalized and staffed to handle complex logistics. Moving art around the world is challenging and always complicated.

We as an organization, have huge conviction in emerging contemporary. It is a category where we want to stay, consolidate and frankly dominate. We believe in the artists and the energy of the field fundamentally. We do not want to start working with artists who are older or dead or more expensive. We like it where we are, and we believe in the future. We invest in the future, we don’t try to arbitrage the past.

If Simchowitz is distinctive, it’s in his ability to find the artists who later become the talk of the market. The Times story features of number of names who are now sought after — Sterling Ruby, Oscar Murillo, Parker Ito, Petra Cortright, and Kour Pour — not to mention those Simchowitz wants credit for getting in on early and whom he knows will be on everyone’s lips some day. More from his comments on Johnson’s Facebook page:

I bought Joe Bradley in 2007. Sterling the same year. Tauba a year later. There are artists who I collect who no one has heard of, least write about yet, because there is no money made yet. Jimmy Merris, Lucy Stahl, Matthis Altman, Nikolas Gamberoff, Aaron Garber-Maikovska, Graham Wilson, Zachary Armstrong and many, many others.

Where does this leave us? Simchowitz is hardly the only art world figure who thrives on insincere indignation and an aggressive persecution complex. As with the critic Jerry Saltz, self-absorbed outrage amplified by social media have become an effective method of self-promotion.

Everybody needs a gimmick, but we shouldn’t let that distract us from the fact that critics and collectors — speculative or otherwise — are defined not by their umbrage but by their track records over time.

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