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
Ace/L.A.’s 1982 exhibition schedule included shows of work by Sam Francis, Robert Therrien, and Ed Ruscha, who left Ace that year and went to the Gagosian Gallery. “I showed with Doug for nine years,” says Ruscha, “and although he always put on a good show, I did have my problems with him. Checks would bounce, he’d postpone paying money I was owed, and he had an endless supply of lame excuses along the lines of ‘It’s a Canadian bank holiday, so the check’s been delayed.’ I got away relatively unscathed in that I never had to go to an attorney.”
Joseph Lafferman, landlord for the Ace at Windward and Main, did go to an attorney when he sought to have Chrismas evicted after the gallerist fell behind in his monthly rent of $5,517.04. Lafferman sued him again in 1983 and 1984, at which point Chrismas moved his gallery in with his bookstore on Melrose.
“Doug is an adventurous guy who’ll sign any kind of lease — leases don’t bother him,” says artist Ed Moses. “If he can’t pay, he just doesn’t pay until he gets the money, then whoever has the most muscle has the best shot at getting paid. Doug operates like an artist in that he does daring things without having the money to back it up, and then he figures out how to pay for it.”
Chrismas certainly doesn’t seem to be intimidated by landlords. In the spring of 1983, Lalezar Kavian leased him a space in the 600 block of La Cienega Boulevard for $6,250 a month. A provision of the lease was that within 10 days of its signing some underground tanks located on the property be removed, and the surface of the area be compacted following the removal. Chrismas told Kavian that if he gave him $7,000, he would get the job done and oversee its completion. Kavian gave Chrismas the money, but the tanks were never removed. In July of that year, Kavian evicted Chrismas, who hadn’t paid his rent since May.
Because of the multiple bankruptcies Chrismas filed in the early ’80s, the seven people who sued him between 1982 and 1984 had difficulty settling their accounts with him. A Canadian real estate developer named Frederick Stimpson refused to take no for an answer, however; in February of 1986, Stimpson had Chrismas arrested on seven felony counts of grand theft. Led from his gallery in handcuffs and jailed for three days, Chrismas was accused of reselling $1.2 million worth of art he’d sold to Stimpson, who’d asked Chrismas to store the works at his gallery until space could be made for them in Stimpson’s Vancouver home. Instead of storing the works, Chrismas sold five of them to other collectors.
One of the pieces — Rauschenberg’s Atlas Colonnade Jr. — was sold to New York collectors Jane Ordway and Dexter Guerrieri. Chrismas asked that $90,000 of the money due him from the couple be paid directly to artist Frank Stella, who’d long been owed money by Chrismas. They complied with his request, but Chrismas failed to deliver the art they’d purchased. Two years of litigation culminating in a federal trial in Los Angeles followed, and the couple was awarded a court order forcing Chrismas to hand over the art they’d paid him for.
Chrismas used another work owned by Stimpson — Rauschenberg’s Rodeo Palace, valued at $600,000 at the time — as collateral on a $200,000 loan from First Beverly Bank in Century City. When Chrismas defaulted on the loan, the piece was seized by the bank, which sold it to Margo Leavin, a prominent L.A. dealer who declines to comment on Chrismas. Six months after his arrest, Chrismas pleaded no contest to the charges brought against him by Stimpson, who agreed to allow Chrismas five years to pay him $650,000 for the artworks in question. “I was friends with Fred and his wife long before that problem arose, and the moment we resolved it we immediately regained our friendship,” Chrismas says. “Fred and his wife have unfortunately passed away, but I’m working with their children, and I currently have Fred Stimpson’s inventory in my gallery
More painful to Chrismas than his financial setbacks of the ’80s was the falling out he had with Robert Rauschenberg, whom he regarded as a mentor. Walter Hopps, founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston and a longtime friend of Rauschenberg, recalls, “Doug was all over us when we were doing Bob’s first retrospective for the Smithsonian in 1976, and he wanted us to borrow work from him, but he’s not someone I’ve ever wanted to deal with. I know Bob was unhappy with Doug because he got away with money that belonged to Bob. I think it’s terrible how he’s treated artists, and anything he might be credited with achieving seems tainted to me somehow.”
Rauschenberg sued Chrismas for $500,000 in a 1983 lawsuit the artist’s New York curator, David White, described as “very acrimonious.” In 1984, Rauschenberg obtained a judgment for $140,000 in his case against Chrismas, but the artist declines to comment on him today. It appears, however, that he’s forgiven Chrismas for past transgressions; when the second Rauschenberg retrospective (also curated by Hopps) was presented at the Guggenheim in 1997, a part of it — The Two-Furlong Piece, also known as The ? Mile Painting — was hung at Ace/New York.
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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