Blame Ovitz: When Art Started Imitating Hollywood
Illustrations by Miguel ValenzuelaRising to the highest ranks of Hollywood professionally and socially is not enough for most entertainment moguls. They realize that to be taken seriously as major players, they have to hold sway in more than just one sphere of influence. The first big pond they almost always navigate is the art world. Unfortunately, their interest does not always spring from a deep and abiding love of fine art, but from their lust for another trapping of power. Many value paintings and sculpture in much the same way they value show biz properties: as a passionless commodity to conquer and control.
So it was with the once-unstoppable Michael Ovitz, who started acquiring art as he began attaining mogul status. Today he is one of the world’s top 200 collectors, along with six other Angelenos who made ARTnews magazine’s 15th-annual list this summer. True, David Geffen’s and Doug Cramer’s collections far surpass Ovitz’s, but his is better than Terry Semel’s and Jake Bloom’s. And that’s not even counting the giant Roy Lichtenstein in the lobby of the I.M. Pei–designed CAA building that Ovitz co-owns with ex-partners Ron Meyer and Bill Haber. (The famed Beverly Hills space, including the painting, will be put up for rent when CAA moves out next summer, more than ten years after Ovitz left the agency.) Ovitz was also the first Angeleno to be named to the coveted board of trustees at New York’s Museum of Modern Art after passing muster with legendary art collector David Rockefeller.
These feats usually take a lifetime to accomplish, or at least a billion-dollar net worth. Yet Ovitz did it in record time with only a hundred million to his name. But how? To date, no one has gone behind his collection to describe what he did to amass it early on. It’s a tale of ambition, greed and ego not only on his part but also on the part of those who did business with him. In the process, Ovitz helped change the art world for the worse by bringing the same ruthless tactics to SoHo and 57th Street that he’d used to rule Hollywood.
This story includes recollections from two dozen interview subjects, one of whom, famed gallery owner Leo Castelli, has since passed away. On Monday, I spoke with Ovitz, who would not go on the record to dispute any of the details contained here. He did indicate he’d forgotten about these and other incidents with some of the art world’s most famous names because they represented merely a few of the many transactions he conducted on a routine basis early on. He dealt with about three dozen art dealers and galleries in both Los Angeles and New York City while amassing his 1,000-plus collection of art and antiquities. He also emphasized that art wasn’t his business, but his hobby, and that one of the reasons he’d sought solace in it was to try to escape the pressure cooker of Hollywood and put himself into a different environment that was antithetical to his agency business. Besides, he pointed out to me, if he’d been such a jerk, would all those people have done business with him?
Probably. Because these were heady days in the art market. Like Hollywood at that time, supply was limited, demand was huge, and the dealers/agents were controlling the stars. To paint the picture with a broad brush, it wasn’t so much the art of the deal as it was the deal of the art. And Ovitz manipulated the two.
Let’s start at the beginning: In his early years as an agent, Ovitz, who came from a tract-home development in the San Fernando Valley, had little knowledge of art. He educated himself by hanging around people who grew up rich. Whatever art his more sophisticated pals indicated was good, Ovitz would try to buy. One friend even started looking for the worst thing in the gallery and then breathlessly declaring, “Now, that’s terrific!” Invariably, Ovitz purchased it.
At first, Ovitz was interested only in contemporary art, because it was the only art he could afford. His first real exposure came from an unlikely source: a former mailroom clerk at the William Morris Agency.
Barry Lowen rose from WMA to become vice president for creative affairs at Aaron Spelling Productions, but he was, as the Los Angeles Times once described him, a key “center of influence” in the art world. He’s best remembered as a founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown Los Angeles and the short-lived Entertainment Alliance of the Modern and Contemporary Council, a support group for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (After he died of complications from AIDS in 1985, Lowen left his multimillion-dollar collection to MOCA and named Ovitz as one of his estate’s three executors.) Lowen was a passionate collector: Even when he could only afford the equivalent of lawn furniture, Lowen had paintings that were museum quality. He Sheetrocked over every window in his Hollywood Hills home to have more wall space to hang his art. Lowen happened to be best friends with agent Bill Haber, who introduced him to Ovitz. In Lowen, Ovitz found a valuable contact inside the rarefied and cliquish New York gallery scene, which was all but closed to him then.
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 needed someone 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.
But Ovitz insisted that Boone store all the artist’s work and sell nothing until the start of the show, so he could pick the best of the lot. Not only was his demand unspeakably arrogant, it also completely ignored any long-standing commitments Boone may have had with her regular customers of a decade or more. To draw a comparison to the movie business, it would have been as if a studio asked an agent not to sell a writer’s scripts for three years, storing up four or five in the meantime, so the studio could pick the best one and not have to risk losing out on that writer’s next blockbuster. Of course, Ovitz would have expressed outrage, and so did Boone.
But Ovitz always wanted, and expected, special treatment. Out of loyalty to her regular customers, and also fear of losing her artists, Boone refused to accede to Ovitz’s demand on this score — even when Ovitz suggested that she lie to her other clients about the practice. Instead, Boone gave Ovitz what she gave other good clients — right of first refusal.
When Eric Fischl’s Master Bedroom came up for sale, Boone, who’d advised Ovitz early on that his collection needed a Fischl, recommended that he buy the new painting at the bargain price of $25,000. She explained that it was a truly great piece of art, one even she wanted to keep herself, and that Fischl was rapidly becoming a hot commodity. Yet Ovitz was undecided, mostly because the painting’s style and subject were radical departures from what Fischl had been doing two years earlier. Ovitz didn’t trust Boone’s judgment that this new direction for the artist was an exciting one. So he passed.
The painting ended up being sold to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Ovitz kicked himself for not having bought it. Now it had the museum’s stamp of approval, not just Boone’s unofficial praise. In 1984, just two years later, Boone had another Fischl show. This time, Ovitz came prepared to buy.
But Fischl was now a darling of the art world, and only one of his paintings hadn’t yet sold. And that one, Vanity, had a reserve on it by the Tate Gallery in London. Ovitz, however, decided he had to have that painting. He nagged Boone to let him buy it, placing phone calls to her every day for the next two weeks. But Boone wasn’t listening. After all, she already had 50 too many collectors who all wanted the Fischl just as much as Ovitz, maybe even more. Ovitz was so desperate that he was prepared to openly grovel. In a letter sent via Federal Express to Boone and dated May 23, 1985, Ovitz repeated the word please 60 times. The Fischl soon found its way into Ovitz’s collection, not the Tate’s, thanks to Boone’s machinations. She expected him to be ecstatic.
Instead, he tried to renegotiate. “And that’s $25,000, right?” he asked.
Boone was shocked. Ovitz knew the price of the painting was $45,000, and a very conservative price it was, because Fischl on the secondary market was already fetching $500,000. (One reason was that Fischl only produced three or four paintings a year.) Ovitz could turn around and sell Vanity for three or four times its price. A huge fight ensued, and Boone told him not to buy the painting. Finally, Ovitz forked over the full $45,000, but only after considerable foot-dragging. And in a move that was both insulting and demeaning, he took four months to make payment — sending her two separate checks for $22,500. In the strangest move of all, he didn’t take immediate delivery of the painting. Instead, he asked Boone to store it at the gallery because he didn’t want his children to see the nude portrait. Boone’s gallery wound up holding Vanity for a full year. Even more embarrassing, every time Fischl himself visited during that time, he’d see his painting lying there unclaimed.
“Mike Ovitz doesn’t want his painting yet?” Fischl complained over and over.
Finally, in 1986, Fischl had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum to rave reviews. Vanity, credited to “Michael and Judy Ovitz,” was one of the paintings prominently featured. Suddenly, the painting’s nudity was no longer an issue, and Ovitz wanted the work sent immediately to his house. (Two years later, during an art lecture held at Ovitz’s Brentwood Park home, the CAA chieftain told the assembled group of collectors that he had acquired Vanity directly from Fischl before the artist had ever joined Boone’s gallery. Of course, it was common knowledge that Fischl had joined Boone’s gallery in 1982, and Vanity wasn’t even painted until 1984.)
Another artist Ovitz was eager to collect was Anselm Kiefer, one of the most influential German neo-expressionists. But that meant elbowing aside already-seasoned collectors. Boone had snagged a big Kiefer show for her gallery a few years earlier; now in the spring of 1983, she discovered that coming up for sale was a magnificent Kiefer — Deutsch, done in 1978, a time when the artist was producing little. It had been bought from her by the then-head of the Cologne Museum in Germany and since shown at many world exhibitions. The collector offered it to Boone to resell on the secondary market. Boone called Ovitz first. It was an extraordinary gesture, but it was also a litmus test of their ongoing relationship. The price was steep — $150,000, a sum that Kiefer at the time had never commanded. Ovitz’s reaction was to hem and haw.
“Well,” he gulped, “I’ll be in Chicago in a day. Call me then.”
The clock was ticking for Boone, who had received the painting on consignment. One day stretched into two, and then three. A week went by and still Boone was unable to get Ovitz to make a decision. Every time she’d talk to him, he would say, “I don’t know. Let me think about it.” Finally, she could wait no longer and she tracked him down in a hotel in London. When she rang Ovitz’s room number, she was surprised when Ovitz client Bill Murray answered the phone. The actor started doing shtick.
“Don’t you understand? Mike is married,” Boone remembered Murray telling her. “He doesn’t want to have your phone calls all the time.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Boone replied, outraged. “This isn’t me chasing Mike Ovitz. This is about him making a decision about a goddamn painting!”
Murray called out to Ovitz, “Mike, you’d better get on the phone now.” Immediately, Ovitz picked up. Boone launched into an angry diatribe. “Listen, your business is full of homecoming queens from Omaha, Nebraska, that want to be movie stars. Well, my business is full of people that made a couple of dollars and want to be great collectors. When you want to be serious, you call me.”
With that, Boone hung up the phone.
Ovitz did not buy the Kiefer.
(Ironically, it came on the secondary market again in 1988, and, once more, Boone had control of its sale. She sold it to Angeleno Eli Broad. The price of the painting? One and a half million dollars — 10 times what Ovitz was asked to pay for it just five years earlier. The Kiefer became one of the highlights of Broad’s collection.)
After that phone call to London, the relationship between Boone and Ovitz chilled. Still, 18 months after Boone had hung up on him, Ovitz called her one day and asked contritely, “Can I talk to you?” Ovitz explained his hesitancy in buying the Kiefer and apologized. He acknowledged that he still had a lot to learn about the art world.
What he didn’t say was that he was learning it from Boone’s rival gallery owner, Arne Glimcher.
It was inevitable that the two men would link up. Ovitz and Glimcher shared the same striving social ambitions; both had reinvented themselves from nobodies into men of wealth and seeming sophistication. Like Ovitz, Glimcher came from a middle-class background. Born into a Midwestern Jewish family, Glimcher grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, began studying art, then borrowed $2,500 from his brother and opened a small Boston gallery called Pace, where he showed local artists. Eventually he moved to New York and was introduced into the heady New York art world. Soon Glimcher was buying upthe estates of Mark Rothko, Picasso and others at his elegant 57th Street Pace gallery.
It wasn’t long before, Glimcher and Boone were locked in a death match, especially after Schnabel met Glimcher at a Picasso exhibit, then jumped from downtown Boone to uptown Pace. At the time, defections of artists between galleries still had certain ground rules, which is why the old-school Castelli — for whom loyalty was everything — slammed down the phone on Schnabel upon hearing the news. It was around this time that Ovitz discovered Glimcher, thanks to Ovitz confidant and literary agent Mort Janklow, who made the introduction. Glimcher was not only Janklow’s art dealer but also a close friend, and Pace was conveniently located across the street from Janklow’s office.
Eager to replace Boone, Ovitz glommed on to Glimcher. And for good reason: Ovitz wanted special treatment, and this time he got it. He had offered that deal to famed dealer Larry Gagosian, who’d rejected it. He had offered that deal to Boone, who’d rejected it. He had offered that deal to Castelli, who’d rejected it. “I’d like to have a better relationship with you,” Castelli recalled Ovitz saying again and again.
“‘Well, you know what I have,’” Castelli said he’d replied. “‘You have to just keep in touch with me. Otherwise, I can’t constantly think of you.’ And then he disappeared.”
The deal, according to Castelli, was this: Ovitz tried to buy his art at cost, minus any dealer’s commission.
“He wanted to pay as little as possible, period,” Castelli told me. “No one was as bad as him. Now, some are hagglers. They want a 10 percent discount, no matter what, and if it’s possible to give to them, one does. If not, not. But generally speaking, they are not as bad as Ovitz. That’s just his nature.” (Ovitz insisted to me that paying commissions, or not paying commissions, was the responsibility of the artist, not the buyer.)
Unlike Castelli, who merely sold to Hollywood moguls, Glimcher dreamed of becoming a Hollywood player himself. In 1982, director Robert Benton gave him a cameo role as a bidder at an art auction in Still of the Night. According to Benton, Glimcher was so good that all of his footage made it into the movie. Then Ovitz pulled strings to get Glimcher an associate producer credit on Legal Eagles,the 1986 CAA package about the art world. Glimcher consulted with director Ivan Reitman (who became a Pace buyer), staged the art-happening scene, selected artwork for the sets and provided information about how the art business operated.
Soon, Ovitz was buying almost all of his art from Glimcher. Shortly after, Boone lured away the hugely respected artist Brice Marden from Pace, apparently in retaliation for Glimcher stealing Schnabel. The act stunned New York’s art community. The following year, Glimcher took away abstract painter Malcolm Morley from Boone in an almost gothic tale full of charges and counter-charges, including grave-robbing, slander, lawsuits and just plain gossip.
And in the middle of it all was Mike Ovitz.
By 1986, Morley was a major talent helped along by his long-time dealer, Xavier Fourcade. Fourcade had guided Morley to success by the start of the 1980s when the artist was 50. And Fourcade had lent Morley $500,000 to remodel the Methodist church on Bellport, Long Island, where Morley did most of his painting.
Still, Morley wanted to leave. His lawyer initially contacted several galleries, including Knoedler, Castelli, Robert Miller, Pace and Boone. In fact, the gallery that Morley most wanted to be with was Castelli’s, but the éminence grise steered Morley to Boone, who already had a long relationship with Morley. By February 1986, it came down to a choice between Boone and Glimcher. Boone offered Morley an incredible contract, which Morley signed with no fanfare in April 1986. The artist took an immediate million-dollar advance so that he could repay the $500,000 he had borrowed from Fourcade. But by the time Morley got his money, Fourcade had AIDS. Morley pledged he wouldn’t leave the dealer right then. So instead of making the contract public in September, as they had originally agreed, Boone, Morley and Morley’s lawyer decided to wait until after Fourcade’s death. That November, Pace announced it was organizing a show of prints for Morley. The artist flew to Los Angeles to make prints at Gemini G.E.L., the prestigious printmaker that Leo Castelli himself used. Staying at a friend’s home, Morley spent three months in Los Angeles mixing and mingling with the art world here. That’s when Ovitz made his move.
The first Boone learned of it was when producer Doug Cramer organized a lunch in Santa Monica at Michael’s Restaurant in Morley’s honor. Midway through, Morley took a phone call and then returned to his seat of honor. Then Morley took another call. And another. Three times in all. And each time, the phone call was from Ovitz. Cramer telephoned his pal Boone and told her that “something weird” was going on. Immediately, Boone became nervous. She grabbed the next plane to Los Angeles and arranged to meet with Morley. That’s when the artist began besieging her with questions. “I hear you’re going bankrupt,” he told her. “I hear Eric Fischl and David Salle are leaving your gallery. I hear you’re going to retire to the country and have a baby. I hear you cheat your artists.”
Boone was shocked. At first, Morley wouldn’t tell Boone who was spreading the rumors. When she pressed, he stammered, “Mike Ovitz is saying it.”
Boone asked Leo Castelli to intercede on her behalf. “I thought that probably Malcolm would be better off with Mary,” Castelli recalled during our interview. “Arne’s is a bigger gallery with lots of artists. He can’t take as good care, as Mary does, of artists. So that was my judgment. I spoke to Malcolm. He said, ‘Well, I’ll consider it.’?” (Morley later told Vanity Fair he was surprised to get the call from Castelli. “It was like God spoke! He said, ‘Stay with Mary. You can pop over the road anytime. We’ll have coffee...’”)
In February 1987, Fourcade died. The Morley-Boone contract was supposed to be announced. But Morley was still in Los Angeles, where Ovitz continued on an almost daily basis to lobby him, planting seeds of doubt about Boone while praising Glimcher. “Malcolm kept telling everyone that Michael was pushing and representing Arne and telling him that’s where he should go,” recalled Doug Cramer. According to a story in the New York Post, Ovitz told Morley that Boone was “going nowhere fast, that she was about to lose Eric Fischl and David Salle, that she was a pathological liar who had to pay her lunchmates like Philip Johnson to break bread with her.”
Boone couldn’t take it anymore. “Listen, Malcolm,” she told him, “I don’t really want an artist in my gallery that does not want to be there.” She and Morley agreed to rip up their contract. Immediately Morley joined Glimcher’s Pace Gallery.
Briefly, Boone considered suing Ovitz and Glimcher for contract interference. Catching wind of this, Glimcher tried sending Boone a conciliatory letter, dated April 7, 1987, claiming, “It is important to me that you realize that none of this was directed at you by me in any way. You were, unfortunately, the unwitting legatee of the negative aspects of these long negotiations. Currently, the art world seems to revolve around gossip.”
He never mentioned Ovitz. Neither did Boone’s reply, dated 10 days later. “It is true that gossip and rumors are all too prevalent in the art world, however they are not present here. The reality of the events as relayed to me from sources whom I believe we would both find reliable and from collectors normally associated with your gallery is that you clearly maliciously slandered my reputation with information and stories you knew to be lies.” Glimcher did not respond.
Soon, the news that a Hollywood agent was interfering in the art world hit the headlines: “Money Changes Everything,” “The Art Boom and the Disease of Acquisition.” In September 1987, Vanity Fair published an article, “The Art of Musical Chairs,” that soft-pedaled Ovitz’s unsavory role in the Boone-Glimcher-Morley brouhaha. The article even had Ovitz claiming it was Morley who’d first brought up the rumors, and that Ovitz had knocked them down.
Exactly how close Glimcher and Ovitz had become was soon clear to Edith Newhall, who, as an associate editor at New York magazine, began reporting a lengthy profile of Arne Glimcher in 1988. After she wrote Glimcher a letter asking for an interview, the magazine suddenly received a phone call from Ovitz. The agent had a brief conversation with Newhall’s editor, Peter Herbst, saying he was calling on Glimcher’s behalf to find out what kind of article Newhall was writing.
On September 12, 1988, in an article headlined “Hollywood Casts Shadow on Art Scene,” the New York Post’s Page Six reported that “any art dealer who doesn’t know who Michael Ovitz is better find out. It looks like the king of Hollywood dealmakers wants to tread on New York’s art turf,” noting that CAA was considering adding painters to its client roster: “The scariest thought for New York’s gallery owners could be that Ovitz may teach painters a new word: agent.” The article maintained that Ovitz had been “growing ever cozier” with Glimcher, and may even have become Glimcher’s partner.
Indeed, dealers commonly believed that Glimcher was giving Ovitz deep discounts — perhaps even selling him art at cost and without commission. Castelli, too, heard rumors that Ovitz had a “special deal” with Pace. In article after article, Glimcher insisted that everyone paid him a commission. And while researching her New York magazine article, Edith Newhall could not verify the charges. “I think I spoke to enough people who would have told me off the record that these things were true if they’d heard them,” Newhall explained. “And no one did. Afterward, when the article came out, no one wrote to me saying that I was wrong.” But when Malcolm Morley held his first Pace show the following year, Ovitz got the pick of the artist’s work. In fact, the painting was so big that Ovitz had to extend his dining room wall by eight inches. (Glimcher didn’t return calls for comment about this story.)
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Ovitz’s backing of Glimcher was no secret. In 1988, represented by Ovitz, Glimcher got executive producer credit on two big Hollywood movies, Gorillas in the Mist and The Good Mother. Glimcher was constantly dropping Ovitz’s name into every conversation. By 1989, Glimcher felt sufficiently schooled in moviemaking to jump from producer to director. That year, the hot property in Hollywood was Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and CAA controlled it. Ovitz delivered the book to Glimcher. (When the film came out in 1992, The New York Times film critic Vincent Canby said Glimcher at times didn’t even “seem to know where to put the camera.”)
By 1989, Ovitz secured a star for himself in the art cosmos when he finally made the cut for Art&Antiques’ annual list of America’s top 100 collectors. Noting that Ovitz was “tight-lipped” about his collection, the magazine declared him “one of the most active collectors of blue-chip contemporary paintings,” and publicized his relationship with “close chum” Glimcher. Included in his collection, the editors said, were Picasso, Stella, Kiefer, Terry Winters, Fischl, “and lots of West Coast African art,” which also happened to be one of Glimcher’s passions. The following year, Ovitz was listed with his photograph and an interview.
“I’m sure my helping Glimcher in the film area didn’t hurt me in getting art,” Ovitz later acknowledged.
Ovitz put an addition atop his Brentwood Park mansion to serve as an art gallery. Built onto the second story, it was a secluded room, painted pure white, with a raised ceiling and enclosed in a glass dome with electronic louvers. The art gallery became a regular attraction for dining guests and Ovitz would act like a professor leading a group of tourists through the Louvre.
With the 1989 opening of CAA’s new I.M. Pei–designed headquarters, Ovitz now had not just one, but two grand showplaces for his art. He painstakingly mapped out which artwork would grace the CAA atrium lobby. Glimcher had the idea to hire Roy Lichtenstein to paint the giant mural, but instead of going to Leo Castelli, Lichtenstein’s longtime dealer, Ovitz went around him. “He tried to go straight to Lichtenstein and make the deal with him,” Castelli said. “He didn’t succeed in my case.”
Ovitz’s next move was almost as outrageous. He decided that the price for the CAA mural should be based on size, and, since his canvas was only half as high as Lichtenstein’s Equitable Life Insurance Building mural in NYC, he should only have to pay half as much. Explained Castelli: “I had to get the help of Arne Glimcher for him to see that I couldn’t do that.” Even so, Castelli said, Ovitz paid a bargain price of $1 million for the mural, based on Oskar Schlemmer’s 1932 Bauhaus Stairway. “But money is not always the main factor. Roy was pleased having it there,” Castelli noted.
In fact, Castelli himself was disappointed with the mural’s ultimate placement. In the Equitable building, there was plenty of room for the public to view Lichtenstein’s mural from afar. Ovitz had pledged the same viewpoint for the mural at CAA. Instead, people who came into the lobby were placed just a few feet from the Lichtenstein, so they had no perspective on the mural. It was smack in their face. Castelli said it was not what Ovitz had promised.
Ovitz acknowledged to me that except for the Litchenstein, Castelli wouldn’t do business with him.
Ovitz also decided the lobby needed an original sculpture by Joel Shapiro, a celebrated minimalist artist whom Ovitz had learned was also his second cousin through their mothers. Ovitz called Shapiro’s representative, Paula Cooper, who ran one of the most respected galleries in SoHo. A gentle, soft-spoken woman, Cooper had little to do with Hollywood. And even less to do with Hollywood collectors. She didn’t know who Ovitz was, nor did she care. But the blood relationship between collector and artist interested both Ovitz and Cooper. Eventually, Ovitz came into Cooper’s gallery in New York, and she in turn saw him on a trip to Los Angeles. “He was extremely kind,” she recalled, “and put a car at my disposal one day. I went to see his collection.”
Soon Ovitz bought something small of Shapiro’s, as did CAA partner Ron Meyer. Ovitz even took Cooper out to lunch one day and explained that they should build a better relationship because, he said, “we do the same thing,” she recalled. Ovitz wanted to place a Shapiro prominently in CAA’s lobby. And that’s when the trouble started. “There wasn’t a problem for quite a few years,” recalled Cooper. “And then a problem developed, and his behavior was absolutely extraordinary. I was so shocked.”
Ovitz wanted to commission Shapiro but at cost. He wanted to pay nothing to Cooper as Shapiro’s dealer, and also refused to allow Shapiro to make an artist’s piece of the work. Under normal circumstances, cast bronzes are done in editions, so that the artist can retain at least one. But Ovitz wanted a unique piece, which Cooper felt was ridiculous considering the low price he wanted to pay.
As he had with Castelli, Ovitz tried to circumvent Cooper and deal directly with Shapiro, on the grounds that they were “family.” Shapiro was eager to do the sculpture but told Ovitz a commission would have to be paid to Cooper. Ovitz, according to Cooper, became furious. Ovitz was on the telephone to her and, in several conversations, “bullying, screaming, hollering,” she recalled. “He behaved like a child.” Cooper was amazed. “The idea that someone felt they were so powerful that they could threaten me... He had nothing to do with my life. What could he do?” she wondered. In the end, Shapiro did do the sculpture and he kept a cast of it. But Cooper was out of luck. She received a fax from Ovitz’s attorney informing her that in their view the commission was satisfied.
“We didn’t get a commission,” she said. “We got nothing.”
But just for whom Ovitz was trying to save money wasn’t clear. In fact, exactly which pieces belonged to the agency and which to the building that Ovitz still co-owns became muddied in many minds. Several agents would hear Ovitz describe the same piece as his personally and then, days later, as belonging to the agency. As Ovitz’s art buying became an obsession, it became anobject of awe and even ridicule at the agency. Every time agents made a million-dollar deal with a client, they’d say, “I just bought another Lichtenstein for Mike’s dining room,” or, “I just bought Mike another Schnabel.”
By 1990, fulfilling the NY Post’s worst fears, the agent did indeed begin representing the artists themselves. The New York art world had become as bewitched by Hollywood as the rest of the nation. Jasper Johns, John Baldessari and James Rosenquist turned up regularly at Hollywood-heavy parties with stars like Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper and Martin Scorsese. Eventually, even Schnabel made a movie about the life of art star Jean-Michel Basquiat.
That year Glimcher was so busy with his film work that he needed someone to run Pace for him so he could devote himself full-time to the movie business. The dealer wanted an expert who could lend a scholarly patina to the gallery. Ovitz had the perfect candidate: Richard Koshalek, the world-class art historian and scholar who headed MOCA and whose hiring was considered a coup for the entire city. Ovitz began secretly wooing Koshalek for the job of running Pace. According to Koshalek, no terms were ever discussed, but Ovitz was said to be offering a deal at Pace that would pay the museum head $300,000 a year, plus such perks as an apartment in New York, a car and driver and a liberal expense account. Koshalek passed and instead signed a new five-year deal with MOCA. (Glimcher ended up stealing Paula Cooper’s gallery head Doug Baxter, who took Shapiro with him to Pace.)
Even without the completed deal, Ovitz’s wooing of Koshalek seemed to pay off when the MOCA chief delivered a much-coveted recommendation of Ovitz to the Museum of Modern Art’s prestigious board in New York. With the backing of Koshalek and others, Ovitz was invited to serve on a MoMA side board as one of Rockefeller’s special Chairman’s Council members, composed of about two-dozen other influential businessmen.
In May 1991, Ovitz personally hosted a major fund-raiser at CAA for the Museum of Contemporary Art’s preview of new Richard Artschwager artwork. The event was perfectly timed so that mention of it, and a photograph, could be included in a Los Angeles Times Calendar cover story headlined “The Art of Hollywood’s Other Deals.” In it, Ovitz and his wife, Judy, were pictured standing stiffly with Koshalek and Artschwager beneath the CAA lobby’s Lichtenstein mural. Another photograph of Ovitz and Koshalek was printed in MOCA’s in-house newsletter. But in that same edition, Ovitz and his wife were listed as surprisingly stingy benefactors of MOCA’s exhibitions and programs.
By 1992, Ovitz was finally elected to MoMA’s board of trustees, the only Californian on the panel. He had achieved the highest recognition in the contemporary art world. But the truth was MoMA did not bring in Ovitz because of his invaluable art expertise. Attendance at MoMA’s all-important fund-raisers and film programming had been steadily dwindling. The museum needed Ovitz’s Hollywood movies and stars to draw crowds.
As his first delivery, Ovitz gave MoMA the premiere of Barry Levinson’s Christmas release, Toys. The museum made money. But the movie was such a disaster that many MoMA partiers walked out of the theater in the middle of the screening.
It was inevitable that, eventually, Ovitz’s art collection would impact his CAA business. All the time, Ovitz would huddle in his home with stars and directors he wanted to sign, but not before showing off his art to the likes of Tim Burton and Tom Hanks.
Just how far would Ovitz let art rule his life or his agency?
The answer came when Ovitz talked one of his signature clients, Sean Connery, into starring in the 1995 movie Just Cause, directed by Glimcher. The shoot was troubled from the beginning and got even worse when Connery saw the final scenes and pitched a fit. He demanded that the ending be redone. Glimcher refused. Things reached such an impasse that Connery threatened not to do any pre-release publicity for the movie. Studio boss Terry Semel called Ovitz and read him the riot act: “It is very important that you support Sean because he believes that all you care about is your fucking art dealer.”
Connery prevailed. As the press materials were being readied and the media junket was about to kick off, the movie went back into the editing room for weeks of furious recutting. “This caused an extraordinary breach between me and Mike,” Connery confided soon after. “I have done something that is not in keeping with who I am. I have kept my mouth shut. I have not said a word to any member of the press. I have behaved myself. If you knew me better, you would know just how hard that is.”
Ovitz almost lost a big client — all for the sake of his art.
> Email at email@example.com
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.