Amid the familiar chaos of hammers, nails and art that accompany the yearly transition from Robert Berman Gallery into Santa Monica Auctions, gallery owner and founder of the auctions, Robert Berman was animatedly describing, over the phone, to longtime friend and art collector Cheech Marin the vibrant energy of Carlos Almaraz’ 1985 painting, The Boating Party. As Berman finished his conversation, he seamlessly segued into a discussion of Almaraz, “Los Four,” the influential Chicano artist collective of the ’70s and ’80s, and the Chicano art movement he has long championed before discussing the history of his own unique contribution to the Los Angeles art scene.
Robert Berman, who has just opened a new gallery in San Francisco, has been operating Santa Monica Auctions for 25 years. “In 1984, I had a small gallery on Main Street called B1É” From there Berman decides to go further back, describing his earlier years in Paris, working with art dealers and auctioneers, living near the core of excitement surrounding the renowned Hotel Drouot. It was here that Berman first experienced the distinct energy of the auction and expertise of the licensed auctioneer. “You were never allowed in France to be an auctioneer unless you had a license and were considered an expert in contemporary art or modern art… I always loved that idea that you were both a dealer and an auctioneer… an expert.” Berman recalls this experience as quite different from what he has encountered in the States, where “people sort of look down on auctions until you get to the highest of levels,” referring to the established institutions, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, traditionally housed in New York.
However, spending 25 years in a city that isn’t exactly known for its thriving auction scene, has given Berman the unique opportunity to create his own style and approach. His first event took place in a little club/bar, and generated notable sales, including a Warhol Marilyn print and a Jasper Johns, that sold for a fraction of their current market value. The auctions now take place in the heart of Bergamot Station. “Hosting the auction within the station adds a welcome bit of energy,” notes Samuel Freeman, of Samuel Freeman Gallery also located in Bergamot, adding that it challenges the galleries to compete by continually bringing in new work. For the buyer, Freeman adds “it’s paradise, if you’ve got the scratch.”
And that is the topic du jour. The economic climate looms large in ’09 and, like changes in the weather, seems to fluctuate on an almost daily basis. Simply put, today’s market value has the potential to be quite different from yesterday. Having traveled this territory before, Berman anticipates this concern. After the art boom of the 1980s, the ’92-’93 Savings and Loan Crisis came crashing in. During this period, Berman received a phone call from the government to sell the art of the closing banks. “That was an interesting boost… all of a sudden I had these amazing paintings and sculptures that were coming out of the banks in Beverly Hills.” For the savvy collector, Berman recalls, “it was an exciting event… and I feel it is on the verge of happening again.”
Such opportunities heighten the allure of auctions, as various legal issues – disputes, divorce, dissolution – necessitate the haste and transparency they provide. A prime example, Berman was involved with the ’98 liquidation of Rebecca’s Restaurant. The landmark eatery was home to Frank Gehry’s aquatic menagerie which included crocodiles, fish-lamps, and a fantastical 18-foot-long red, cut-glass octopus chandelier. The latter was acquired by art critic and writer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp. “Robert called and said he had good news and bad news,” recalls Drohojowska-Philp who placed an absentee bid on the item, “you won the auction.” And the bad news? A “slight modification” to her ceiling was needed in order to support the 2,000 pound carmine colossus.
While Berman prefers the minimalist look for his usual exhibitions, the Salon-style auctions give him a chance to create a completely different story. This is a defining element of the SMA, where the auction is also an exhibition, one full of unexpected juxtapositions, for over a month before the event. “For me it is fun to hang a Manuel O’Campo next to a Wallace Berman next to a Jeffrey Valance next to a Llyn Foulkes,” Berman’s eyes scan the walls as he describes the seemingly indiscriminate arrangement, continuing with a rising crescendo “…next to Andy Warhol next to a David Hockney next to an Ed Moses next to a Carlos Almaraz that is on top of a Tony Berlant that is next to a Lichtenstein. Now how does that work together? I don’t know… but it looks interesting.”
Berman also notes his fortune at having Vivica Pollen, “the most talented auctioneer that I have ever heard,” work with him for the past dozen years. Alluding to the dichotomy of the interaction between the crowd and the auctioneer, he noted Pollen’s keen ability “to reach out and basically be in sync with all the people who are there potentially to buy art… it is a weird sort of bonding and at the same time acrimony.”
This year, Pettibon promises to be a major player, with a rare selection of his early mid-80s work to be auctioned individually, and a collection of twelve hand-printed lithographs titled, Jots and Tittles, featuring handwritten text and an original painting in the portfolio case. Also featured are numerous works on paper, including Oliveira and Winters, a sculptural anime nymph by Murakami, and a large calligraphic painting by “Chaz” Bojorquez, a forefather of the LA graffiti artists. The prize for the year’s most unusual entry may be awarded to the Gehry-designed Hollywood Bowl fiberglass sphere, painted by artist Kenny Scharf after being removed from its acoustic origins. Berman, however, delightfully refrained from spilling the dirt on everything he expects to bring in, instead emphasizing, “they’d only just begun.”
Santa Monica Auctions will host a preview on Saturday May 30, from 6:00 Ð 9:00 pm. The auction will take place the following day, Sunday, May 31, beginning at 1:00 pm.