Thursday, November 8, 2007

Passionate or Pathological

“I always knew you were a bum,” Allan Stone’s father told him when he said he was giving up his law career to open an art gallery in 1960. Stone’s father, whom he called “Stoney,” didn’t speak to him for the next six years. Over the next 46 years, Allan Stone became one of the most visionary and influential gallery owners in New York City, as famous for his eye for new talent as for his insatiable hunger for collecting art himself. Olympia Stone, Allan’s daughter, chronicles this passionate often pathological mania for collecting art in her film, The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art, newly released on DVD by Microcinema International.

“The art experience to me is like a narcotic,” Allan Stone says at one point, surrounded by the forests of African fetish figures populating his home, whose walls seemed to disappear beneath his paintings and drawings. As the camera pans throughout the home, claustrophobia sets in as the walls seem to be closing in, the artwork taking over every inch. At one point, Stone pulls a pastel by Wayne Thiebaud out of a closet, still in plastic wrapping, making you wonder what other treasures lurk in the dark corners of his home.

Even while working as a lawyer, Stone was an “art junkie.” When the sculptor John Chamberlain walked into his firm’s offices, Stone jumped at the chance to work with an artist. That personal association helped Stone make contacts in the New York art scene. When Elaine de Kooning searched for legal advice in her separation from Willem de Kooning, Stone came to her aid. Elaine, in turn, served as Stone’s mentor for many years, helping him find his footing in the tough art business. Stone’s first coup came in the form of Thiebaud’s unconventional paintings of cakes and pies (such as his Cakes, above, from 1963). Stone saw Thiebaud standing outside his gallery one day with some of his works under his arm. After inviting him in and looking at his work, Stone offered Thiebaud an exhibition in his gallery, a sellout show that launched both Stone and Thiebaud. Stone’s gallery develops a reputation as a “deeply personal place” with “totally its own character,” in the words of Michael Kimmelmann , chief art critic of the New York Times. This unique character creates an inviting space to introduce new artists such as Cesar and Kobashi to America and to launch the career of Richard Estes, Stone’s other major find. “Other galleries were reverent and pristine,” says the artist Lorraine Shemesh, “but this one was about the making of art.”

Olympia Stone doesn’t hesitate to show the other side of addiction—the price paid by the addicted and those around him. Through interviews with her siblings and her own narration, Olympia conveys a sense of affection while also making it clear that Allan’s art often formed a wall between him and his family. Jason Graves’ jazz score accompanies many of these vignettes, setting a mood that captures both the manic chaos of Allan’s collecting as well as the wistful regret over his first failed marriage and other personal opportunities lost. In the end, we see Allan Stone as himself an artist—a collagist building a grand work of art from the individual pieces done by so many others, a mosaic of his madness.

Olympia also places her father within the context of the greater art market, showing how the art auction boom of the 1980s damaged the art world by prioritizing the investment aspect of art over the aesthetic one. In the midst of all that, Allan Stone continued to collect for love rather than profit, a dinosaur among the Wall Street hot shots looking for the quick score, yet outlasting them all when the boom went bust, all while retaining his own integrity and that of the art he loved.

Allan’s father “Stoney” died in 1972, having told others but never his son how proud he was over Allan’s success. Sadly, Allan himself died in 2006, just weeks before the premiere of this film. In this film, Olympia Stone shows us how proud she was of her father, something he most certainly knew in his heart.

[Many thanks to Microcinema International for providing me with a review copy of The Collector: Allan Stone’s Life in Art.]

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