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The Ace is Wild 

The Doug Chrismas story

Thursday, Oct 9 2003
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Page 4 of 10

Wheeler wasn’t the only Ace artist to defect during the ’70s; among those who left was Bruce Nauman, who had eight shows at Ace/Vancouver and Ace/Venice between 1971 and 1978. Nauman declines to comment on Chrismas, but their dispute is rumored to have been resolved just short of a lawsuit. Such setbacks have never fazed Chrismas, and in 1975 he opened a second Ace/Venice, at Windward and Main, where he continued to score exhibition coups. Among them was Richard Serra’s Delineator, a 1975 sculpture people still rave about. Composed of a massive steel plate suspended from the ceiling facing an identical steel plate on the floor, the piece required that Chrismas spend months and a great deal of money reinforcing the gallery. Serra, who showed with Chrismas through 1978 but has been with Gagosian Gallery since 1983, declines to comment on Chrismas. His assistant, however, volunteers that “Richard doesn’t comment if he can’t say anything nice.”

Chrismas’ appetite for space was voracious, and in 1976 he opened a third L.A. venue at 736 N. La Cienega Blvd., the former location of the legendary Ferus Gallery. But he continued to have problems keeping his artists. Irit Krygier directed Ace/La Cienega from 1976 to 1979. “There was a period when Doug represented all the major artists, and he could’ve been king of the world if he’d only paid them and taken care of them,” recalls Krygier, who’s now an art writer and adviser to private clients. “But Doug has a self-destructive streak, and he blew it. The artists used to call me screaming when he owed them money, and one by one they all left him.”

Still, he continued to present great shows. In 1977, Ace mounted acclaimed exhibitions of work by Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell, along with another show people still talk about, Michael Heizer’s Displaced/Replaced Mass. Installed at 72 Market, the piece required that huge chunks be gouged out of the gallery floor to create recessed areas able to accommodate imposing boulders; the work was a triumph for both artist
and dealer.

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Chrismas’ legal problems were picking up steam, though, and he was sued that year by the California Law Center in a dispute concerning a Warhol drawing that was stolen from Ace/Venice in 1977. Ace agreed to pay lawyers Steven Small and Ronald Levin $1,000 for securing the return of the drawing. It was returned, but Ace refused to pay the agreed-upon fee, then accused Levin — a notorious con man who was murdered by the Billionaire Boys Club in 1984 — of stealing the drawing in the first place. Meanwhile, Warhol was having his own problems with Chrismas. In his posthumously published book of 1989, The Andy Warhol Diaries, the first of several “Doug Chrismas didn’t send the check yet” entries appears in 1977.

Two of the three lawsuits filed against Chrismas in 1978 were brought by artists: Robert Motherwell took him to court following the disappearance of nine works with a combined value of $493,000 that had been consigned to Chrismas for sale; Robert Graham took him to court for violating an oral agreement. It seems both Graham and Chrismas were interested in purchasing the same piece of property in Venice. Rather than bid against each other, they agreed to buy the property together, with Chrismas placing the bid. Chrismas did place the bid, and when it was accepted he had the title of the property conveyed to his name only.

Today, Graham says he barely remembers the incident and has nothing but praise for Chrismas: “Doug’s one of the most courageous dealers around — lots of people don’t like him, but who would’ve shown artists like Heizer and Serra in L.A. if Doug hadn’t done it? I have great respect for him as a maverick who never takes any safe avenues.”

Chrismas was the subject of three lawsuits in 1979, and the following year collector Frederick Weisman took him to court when he failed to comply with the terms of a $125,000 loan. At the time, few people had any idea of the legal tangles Chrismas was ensnared in; they would find out a few years later, however, when he was the defendant in a highly public lawsuit.

 

During the ’80s, Chrismas’ luck began to turn. The art market was experiencing the biggest boom it had ever known, but Chrismas was no longer the only game in town. MOCA opened here in 1984, but more important, a young dealer named Larry Gagosian was making serious inroads onto Chrismas’ turf. Gagosian launched his career inauspiciously in 1975 with a tacky multiples store in Westwood called Prints on Broxton, but by 1981 he’d upgraded to the Gagosian Gallery, a sleek showroom in West Hollywood. The following year he opened a second L.A. space on Robertson Boulevard, where he showed hot young New York talents like Jean-Michel Basquiat and David Salle, along with a roster of blue-chip artists — many of whom had once been with Chrismas — that included Frank Stella and Richard Serra.

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