By Jerry Wennstrom | Posted 3/14/23 | Updated 8/6/23
There was a time in New York (around 1974) when wealthy investors collected artists as much as they collected art.
I met Rubin Gorewitz about the time there was this strange mix of interest in art and artist. It was probably the art collector Trudy Regan or collector/lawyer Arthur Penn who introduced me to Rubin. Although I was young and unknown, my art found its way into their collections.
There appeared to be an abundance of art in circulation at that time, for those who could afford it. Arthur boasted an amazing collection of his own, some of which he received as payment for legal work he had done for the artists. He owned an enormous Alvin Loving painting hanging in his beautiful upper East Side brownstone office where he had also arranged an art show for me.
Arthur once handed me a crumpled paper bag containing three small flower paintings by Andy Warhol and asked if I could mount them on stretchers for him. Once rooting around in the basement of his building, looking for something, I saw what looked like rolled up artwork on the floor. I picked it up, unrolled it and saw an original Peter Max drawing. When I showed it to Arthur and asked about it, he said, "Oh… it's a Peter Max, I don't know where that came from."
It was around this time that famed fashion photographer Bill King photographed Rubin, an artist-rights accountant, and it was featured in 1974's November issue of Esquire. In the picture, Rubin was surrounded by the most famous artists of the day: Wolf Kahn, Marisol, Jackie Winsor, Nancy Graves, Jo Baer, Emily Mason, Cy Twombly, John Chamberlain, John Clem Clarke, Michael Balog, Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Petersen, Robert Indiana, Malcolm Morley, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, Larry Rivers, Joseph Kosuth, James Rosenquist, and Andy Warhol.
The highlight for me as a young artist was meeting Robert Rauchenberg at a party Rubin held at his New York suburban home. Rubin was given a signed print of a painting (with a paper bag glued to it!) by Rauchenberg that he was extremely excited about. When he showed it to me, I did not quite see its significance, as many artists were mass-producing and signing works like this, presumably to sell. It was a strange time on the art scene where artists held the celebrity status of rock stars. Those in Soho's elite circle could not produce art fast enough to meet the demands of an insatiable public, and they mass-produced signed prints to fill that need.
Often at the peak of any movement the band-wagon effect kicks in, and there is a rush to come on-board while the light is shining its brightest. Perhaps this is done with a deeper knowing that it can go only downhill from there. This was also the beginning of the end of Soho, as substance was getting thin as the untalented masses moved in to be part of the action. I was young, naive, and just a little too self-important; and the portrait I painted of Rubin may have been (perhaps unfairly) the result of what I was seeing and feeling was happening in the art world and to me personally.
Another piece of the story, influencing my trajectory from this time, was working with famed artist Sari Dienes who lived in the prestigious Gate Hill Community known locally as "The Land." Sari was up in age, and I helped her organize the materials and creative projects she had done and gathered throughout her life. Her house and yard were full of everything, and there was hardly room to move. She had a second level of storage space built, cutting her unusual cinderblock house in half to allow for even more storage.
I loved and respected Sari very much — and was certainly impressed and envious of her accomplishments as an artist — but the sheer volume of stuff collected in one lifetime left me with mixed feelings. Spending nights at her house while organizing things gave me a real sense of what it might be like for me to keep going in the direction I was going. I longed for simplicity. It was a simplicity I did not know or have in my life. I was lost in my idea of myself as an artist and did not know it. Shortly after this period, spending time in the above-mentioned New York art scene, I began feeling personally paralyzed by equal amounts of attraction and repulsion to all I saw.
Artist Deborah Koff-Chapin and I had just gotten together. Deborah held the valuable lease of a Soho loft, where she lived and worked for several years when Soho was at its peak. When deciding where we would live and work, we decided to sell the lease and move to the humbler and more grounded Nyack loft instead.
As a result of the illusion that I believed art had become, collectively and personally, I became fiercely determined to face my own illusions in whatever way necessary. Some part of the art scene felt like a big lie to me. Painting day and night, trying to stay true to the false god that art had become, made me feel like the biggest liar of all.
The one thing I knew for sure was that I needed to call this false god's bluff and find grounding in the deeper spirit of the larger creative journey. I needed to dive into the depths of my own being and find out What Is, separate from the glittering illusions of art and the art market.
Artist, Deborah Koff-Chapin and I had been together for several inspiring years, and our paths had begun to change. Deborah had gone through her own radical shift and seemed to know what she wanted, and I did not.
After months of withdrawal and soul searching, I felt that the most alive and creative thing I could do as an artist would be to let it all go and stand terrifyingly alone in the creation of my own Being. This is what I did in 1979 by destroying all my paintings and giving away everything I owned. In the clarity and light of retrospect, 42 years down the road, it remains the most inspired act of my life — as an artist and a human being.
©2022 by Jerry Wennstrom. All rights reserved.
Artist and writer Jerry Wennstrom was born in New York, where he lived-out the first half of his prolific art career. The superficial post-Andy Warhol-Soho-art-scene in the late '70s repelled him. ...