By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Douglas James Chrismas was born in 1944 to a middle-class Vancouver family with no ties to the art world. Asked about his parents, Chrismas struggles to hide his annoyance at having to answer a personal question. “My father was an interesting man who designed airplanes,” he explains, “but I haven’t seen him for years and don’t know if he’s still alive. I have a brother who got a doctorate in geology, then became a photographer.”
Of the beginnings of his art career, Chrismas says, “It all began for me when I walked into an art gallery by accident and realized there was something special in the environment. Not long after that, I opened my first gallery during summer vacation. I was 17 at the time, and I found the work so compelling that I never went back to school.”
Ian Davidson, a Canadian architect and art consultant who’s had a hand in several L.A. collections, was active in Vancouver’s art scene during the ’60s. He remembers Chrismas as “a brash, ambitious kid who was building furniture when we met. He doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His father was a car dealer in Alberta, but Doug had very little to do with him because his parents divorced when he was young. His mother sold real estate in Vancouver, and she did a lot to help him. She’s in a nursing home in Vancouver now, and I think he visits her once in a while.
“Doug was running a framing shop in downtown Vancouver in the early ’60s,” Davidson continues, “and at the time I was a partner in the first contemporary gallery in Vancouver. In 1961 we sold it to Doug, who renamed it Ace Gallery. Shortly after that he befriended Teresa Bjornson, who’d been a dancer with Merce Cunningham. Through Merce, Teresa met Bob Rauschenberg and many artists of that generation, and Teresa introduced them to Doug. Teresa opened the door for Doug, but she no longer speaks to him.” (Now living in the Palisades with her husband and three children, Bjornson declines to comment.)
Several art-world insiders mention Bjornson as a key figure in Chrismas’ early career, but Chrismas dismisses Davidson’s recollection as not true. “Teresa had a paper route when I hired her, and I made contact with New York myself. I heard Rauschenberg was going to be in Seattle and kept calling him until he agreed to meet me while he was there. He finally agreed to see me, we had a great meeting, and I started showing him.”
Bjornson had a friend named Jane Erickson with whom Chrismas became romantically involved, and in 1966 the two of them moved to Los Angeles. “Warhol told me L.A. was the future, so I decided to come to L.A. on Andy’s advice,” recalls Chrismas, who eventually closed his Vancouver gallery. On arriving in L.A., Chrismas opened the first local incarnation of Ace in a raw warehouse space below the Factory, a nightclub owned by Sammy Davis Jr. on La Peer Drive in West Hollywood.
“The first avant-garde show I ever did was in that space — it was a Sol Lewitt drawing show,” says Chrismas, who also exhibited plastic sculpture by DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander and John McCracken at the La Peer location. In 1969, Chrismas marked the closing of the space with a performance by artist Raphael Montanez Ortiz. However, this would be one of the last times he showed much interest in performance art. At that point his gaze was fixed on another horizon entirely.
Minimalism, earthworks, and light-and-space installations were the waves that were cresting in the late ’60s, and these modes of working dovetailed neatly with Chrismas’ interest in architecture, which plays a crucial role in the successful presentation of such work. This is extraordinarily challenging art — big, expensive to make, hard to sell — and you can count on one hand the people who’ve gone out on a limb to support it. There are Heiner and Fariha Friedrich, founders of the Dia Foundation, whose recently opened Dia:Beacon, a sprawling art park in upstate New York, will henceforth serve as the official mecca of High Minimal; there’s legendary dealer and heiress to the 3M fortune Virginia Dwan, who financed several major earthworks including Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide gash cut into facing slopes of a Nevada mesa; there’s Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. And there’s Doug Chrismas. This was the work that thrilled him, and he began creating galleries able to accommodate it. His first move in that direction was to take over a space on Lindbrook Avenue in Westwood that was occupied until 1969 by Virginia Dwan.
Doug Wheeler, an Arizona-born artist who played a major role in the development of light-and-space art, was one of the first people Chrismas called when he moved to Westwood. “[Chrismas] was a young, flamboyant guy who wore fringed jackets when we met,” recalls Wheeler, who’s split his time between L.A. and New Mexico since 1980. “At the time I had the impression he was a frustrated artist himself, and when he first approached me he had a space in West Hollywood where I wasn’t interested in showing. Doug is persistent, though, and he pursued me, and when he rented the Dwan space he asked me if I’d like to show there, and asked me to redesign the gallery to fit my work. Not long after, he started representing me and giving me a monthly stipend.”
This article made my blood run cold. This is not ancient history. Douglas Chrismas and Jennifer Kellen are still committing crimes and destroying lives. How do they survive? By conning people.
thank you for the article. Sad that the art world is caught up in so much drama - I suppose it would not matter if it were not for the fact that people really do get hurt in the process. Art, such an important component to our culture and our existance yet fraught with so many mental cases...
in any event, keep up the good investigative journalism.
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