By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At the time, there was an incredible demand for contemporary art, especially by well-known and even up-and-coming painters. Like other art neophytes, Ovitz couldn’t go into a major gallery, see a painting he liked, and then buy it. The vast majority of works were sold right out of artists’ studios long before they ever graced a gallery’s walls. Only the privileged few serious collectors who’d done business for years with a dealer were given a chance to buy the best pieces. Outsiders like Ovitz were left to scour what might come available on the much more expensive secondary market.
It was around this time that Ovitz saw the April 19, 1982, cover of New York magazine, picturing an exotic brunette beauty who was tagged “The New Queen of the Art Scene.” Mary Boone was credited with reinvigorating the SoHo gallery scene by hyping the reputations and prices of several young artists, like Julian Schnabel, amid a media frenzy the likes of which hadn’t been seen then or since. Ovitz made up his mind to meet Boone. He had the perfect go-between: Lowen, who introduced Ovitz to Boone during an exhibition of David Salle’s work at her gallery later that year. “I wanted to meet you because you’re like me,” Boone recalled Ovitz saying to her.
And they were alike in so many ways. Born in middle-class Erie, Pennsylvania, Boone had changed the way people in her field repped artists as Ovitz did with agenting. Boone forged a new entity in the art world: the star dealer. The year she connected with Ovitz, she was well on her way to becoming a legend. At that first meeting, Ovitz kept gushing about his enthusiasm for art, and especially for Salle’s work, proclaiming, “I always liked him.” But Ovitz had only California artists in his collection. “People you’ve never heard of,” Boone recalled.
She quickly recognized that Ovitz was yet another nouveau riche guy who’d made it big and now wanted the art to prove it. But Boone did sit up and take notice when Ovitz pledged to her that he “really wanted to be a great collector.” Because that meant, potentially, big money for her artists. Soon, Ovitz began flaunting his new relationship with Boone. Within weeks of the New York magazine article, Ovitz and his wife attended a glamorous dinner party in Boone’s honor held at the Bel Air mansion of Doug Cramer, a Boone client and executive producer of Dynasty and Love Boat. Around CAA, to his close associates and even clients, Ovitz boasted about how smart Boone was and what taste she had. Ovitz would call her nearly every day and send her cases of wine and Elsa Peretti jewelry from Tiffany & Co.
But that first year of working together was difficult for both art dealer and client. The reason was Ovitz’s overwhelming and annoying paranoia. While trying to draw the parallel that he and she were in the same business, Ovitz cautioned her repeatedly, “Don’t hustle a hustler.” It got to a point where Ovitz would openly challenge Boone’s authority on art, saying, “Well, I don’t believe you,” or “What kind of scam are you trying to put over on me?” whenever she urged him to have faith in an artist he hadn’t heard of. He even began complaining to his friends that he’d been “suckered” by Boone into wildly overpaying for several pieces of art, including a couple of Schnabels. He didn’t share Boone’s faith that Schnabel would become a superstar.
Finally, Boone laid it out for Ovitz: professing that he “really, really” wanted to have a great collection and wanted to buy art from her wasn’t enough. He’d have to trust her.
“Mike is the kind of person who goes to the doctor because he’s got a disease and then tells the doctor what the diagnosis is,” explained Boone. “I had three degrees in art history, I did this for 20 years, and I do it 60 to 80 hours a week. It’s all I do. If I say this is a masterpiece, and I don’t say it often, people usually believe me.
“But he was always challenging.”
Why Ovitz couldn’t rely on her word alone was understandable given his history as an agent. He had guided CAA to make its reputation not on nurturing unrecognized talent, but on stealing already established superstars from other agencies. Ovitz not only wanted, he neededsomeone else’s stamp of approval first.
Boone also had trouble tolerating Ovitz’s way of expecting to be put ahead of all her other collectors. At first, Ovitz refused to buy from any Boone gallery show unless he had first choice of all the artist’s work to be exhibited. That was a near impossibility, since it could be three years or more between when an artist finished a work and when it was shown; the usual practice was to sell each painting as soon as the last brushstroke was dry in order to keep the artist’s energy and, more important, the cash flowing.