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The Ace is Wild 

The Doug Chrismas story

Thursday, Oct 9 2003
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Page 3 of 10

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.”

 

In the ’70s, L.A.’s heavy art action was taking place in Venice, so that’s where Chrismas had to be. The openings he hosted at the two galleries he operated there between 1970 and 1985 were extraordinary, too. They were mobbed with a glamorous mix of artists, New Yorkers, Europeans, art students, models, writers, film people and wealthy collectors, and the crowds would spill into the streets and fill the surrounding sidewalks. Chrismas was doing important shows then; in 1972 he mounted Robert Irwin’s critically acclaimed installation Room Angle Light Volume at the first Ace/Venice, which opened at 72 Market Street in 1971. That year Chrismas also invested $9,000 in Robert Smithson’s crucial earthwork Spiral Jetty, a 1,500-foot-long, 15-foot-wide spiral form fashioned out of rocks positioned in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Artist Peter Plagens, former art critic for Newsweek and a contributing editor for Artforum, recalls feeling “indebted to Ace Gallery when I lived in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s, because it provided museum-quality shows of artists like Warhol, Rauschenberg and Heizer when you couldn’t see that stuff anyplace else in town.

“Doug’s a strange bird, though, and while I don’t know what the problem is, it seems there’s probably something repressed there,” adds Plagens, whose 1974 book Sunshine Muse was one of the first attempts at a comprehensive history of West Coast contemporary art. “In the early ’70s, Doug arranged for a bunch of L.A. artists that included Peter Alexander, Larry Bell and Ron Cooper to speak at a museum in ‰ Vancouver, and he flew us all up and picked us up at the airport. When we got to the car, Doug said, ‘You can’t put your bags in the trunk — they’ll have to go up front, because there’s something in the trunk.’ All those guys are wise-asses, so they started getting on Doug about what was in the trunk, and he got visibly upset. After we’d ridden for a while in this packed car, we started complaining loudly — ‘Come on, Doug, why can’t we put our bags in the trunk? What’s in there? Dope? A body?’ He got vividly angry, like veins bulging at the temple, pulled over on the freeway, and yelled that if we didn’t stop asking what was in the trunk we could get out and walk. To this day I don’t know what was in the trunk. It was odd.”

 

From the moment Chrismas set up shop, he was known to be a maverick businessman who wouldn’t flinch when the stakes got high; he has a taste for brinkmanship that’s unusual for someone in his line of work, and seems to enjoy devising new approaches to the traditionally staid business of dealing art. Sometimes his resourcefulness has paid off, but often it has not, and the grumbling about his unorthodox business practices became increasingly audible during his Venice years.

“Doug’s had a very checkered career, and he’s done some awful things in terms of his business ethics,” says Davidson. “I’ve often wondered how he’s managed to stay out of jail, and I’m very strict with him when we do business. Whenever I see him I say, ‘It’s such fun to be having dinner with my favorite art criminal,’ and he gives me a watery grin, because he knows it’s true.”

While Davidson regards Chrismas with measured warmth, many artists he’s represented have stronger feelings about him. “Everyone who’s shown with Doug has a love/hate relationship with him,” says Doug Wheeler. “He has a great eye, he’ll do anything to make a work come off in the best way possible, and he provides conditions for artists most galleries wouldn’t even consider. He’s not the most honest guy in the world, though, and by 1971 my relationship with him had become intolerable and I formally left the gallery.”

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