|Chrismas photo by
One of the great mysteries of the art world is how Doug Chrismas keeps on doing what he does. As director of Ace Institute of Contemporary Art, he’s provided a home for some of the world’s most demanding art since 1966. That makes Ace the longest-running gallery in town. Chrismas has the biggest gallery, too. Since 1986, Ace has occupied the entire second floor of the Desmond’s Department Store building, a grand old Art Deco structure that fills an entire block of Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. Inside, Ace has 30,000 feet of vast, cavernous gallery space worthy of Albert Speer.
In 1990, Chrismas opened Ace/New York, and that gallery is housed in the former Longshoreman’s hiring hall, a mammoth building measuring 20,000 square feet. Two years ago, Chrismas took out a 10-year lease on a former bank building in Beverly Hills, and in May he unveiled a second L.A./Ace there with a show of gigantic canvases by the late Sam Francis. This new gallery provides Ace with 17,000 additional feet, but it’s not big enough for Chrismas. He’s now working with Frank Gehry on a redesign that will expand the gallery and add a suite of condominiums on top of it. There’s an Ace curatorial office in Berlin, too, and in 1998 Chrismas launched Ace/Mexico City. (That space suspended its exhibitions program a year ago, but he plans to maintain an office there.) All told, Chrismas has 67,000 square feet of gallery space. A football field is 57,600 square feet.
Chrismas’ galleries aren’t just big, they’re beautiful. “Everyone is always bowled over by Doug’s great sense of theater and presentation,” says artist and gallerist Cliff Benjamin. “It’s like entering the Vatican when you walk into one of his galleries — you can’t help but say wow.”
“Wow” doesn’t come cheap. The rent on the Desmond’s building space alone is $39,811.50 per month, plus $42,000 per year for an additional space Chrismas rents on the 11th floor. Given the size and location of his other galleries, one assumes those rents must be comparable, which raises the obvious question: How on earth does he pay for it all?
A trip to L.A.’s Hall of Records suggests that paying his bills has never been easy for Chrismas. Going through court archives dating back only to 1976 turns up documentation for more than 55 lawsuits brought against him. He’s been sued by artists, dealers, collectors, private investors, service industries, landlords and former friends. He’s been sued under three different spellings of his surname and nine different business names — and this is just in L.A.
Richard Serra’s Delineator
at Ace/Venice, 1975
The subject of dozens of rumors alleging that he stiffs artists, has produced and sold unauthorized fabrications of sculptures, poaches artists from other dealers, and occasionally sells artworks that he fails to deliver to the buyer, Chrismas has become something of a local legend, partly because nobody really seems to know much about him. He’s a secretive man who flatly declares, “I don’t do interviews,” when contacted about the possibility of a profile. When several weeks pass and Chrismas learns the article is proceeding without his participation, he instructs his artists not to cooperate. He then begins calling regularly with various strategies conceived to kill or at least stall the article. He first attempts to make the case that he’s of no interest, then promises a scoop sometime in the future.
When neither approach bears fruit, he finally agrees to a breakfast meeting at a
Like most good businessmen, Chrismas plays things close to the vest. It’s difficult to get direct answers out of him, and he often responds to questions by scribbling incomprehensible diagrams and floor plans on scraps of paper. He seems nervous — he barely touches the bowl of fruit he orders — and admits as much. “My staff is paranoid about this article, because we run on a very thin wire,” says Chrismas, who’s somehow managed to be a prominent art dealer for 40 years without ever having been the subject of a profile. “The artists are upset, too, because they think it will cost them.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Chrismas to ask himself why a legitimate businessman should be horrified at the prospect of free publicity.
At 59, Chrismas is beginning to thicken at the waist, but he’s still youthful for his age. He dimples sweetly when he smiles, and it’s easy to imagine what he must’ve looked like as a child. Though his hairline receded ages ago, he keeps the gray hair he still has closely cropped and sleek, and his personal style is in keeping with the aesthetic of his galleries: He tends to wear simple clothes in dark colors. He’s not unaware of his reputation, and when I recount one rumor circulating about him — that artist Richard Serra had to pull a gun on him to get him to pay a fabricator he’d hired on a Serra project — he says the story is untrue, but looks amused and rather pleased.
Douglas James Chrismas was born in 1944 to a middle-class Vancouver family with no ties to the art world. Asked about his parents, Chrismas struggles to hide his annoyance at having to answer a personal question. “My father was an interesting man who designed airplanes,” he explains, “but I haven’t seen him for years and don’t know if he’s still alive. I have a brother who got a doctorate in geology, then became a photographer.”
Of the beginnings of his art career, Chrismas says, “It all began for me when I walked into an art gallery by accident and realized there was something special in the environment. Not long after that, I opened my first gallery during summer vacation. I was 17 at the time, and I found the work so compelling that I never went back to school.”
Ian Davidson, a Canadian architect and art consultant who’s had a hand in several L.A. collections, was active in Vancouver’s art scene during the ’60s. He remembers Chrismas as “a brash, ambitious kid who was building furniture when we met. He doesn’t come from a wealthy family. His father was a car dealer in Alberta, but Doug had very little to do with him because his parents divorced when he was young. His mother sold real estate in Vancouver, and she did a lot to help him. She’s in a nursing home in Vancouver now, and I think he visits her once in a while.
“Doug was running a framing shop in downtown Vancouver in the early ’60s,” Davidson continues, “and at the time I was a partner in the first contemporary gallery in Vancouver. In 1961 we sold it to Doug, who renamed it Ace Gallery. Shortly after that he befriended Teresa Bjornson, who’d been a dancer with Merce Cunningham. Through Merce, Teresa met Bob Rauschenberg and many artists of that generation, and Teresa introduced them to Doug. Teresa opened the door for Doug, but she no longer speaks to him.” (Now living in the Palisades with her husband and three children, Bjornson declines to comment.)
Several art-world insiders mention Bjornson as a key figure in Chrismas’ early career, but Chrismas dismisses Davidson’s recollection as not true. “Teresa had a paper route when I hired her, and I made contact with New York myself. I heard Rauschenberg was going to be in Seattle and kept calling him until he agreed to meet me while he was there. He finally agreed to see me, we had a great meeting, and I started showing him.”
Bjornson had a friend named Jane Erickson with whom Chrismas became romantically involved, and in 1966 the two of them moved to Los Angeles. “Warhol told me L.A. was the future, so I decided to come to L.A. on Andy’s advice,” recalls Chrismas, who eventually closed his Vancouver gallery. On arriving in L.A., Chrismas opened the first local incarnation of Ace in a raw warehouse space below the Factory, a nightclub owned by Sammy Davis Jr. on La Peer Drive in West Hollywood.
“The first avant-garde show I ever did was in that space — it was a Sol Lewitt drawing show,” says Chrismas, who also exhibited plastic sculpture by DeWain Valentine, Peter Alexander and John McCracken at the La Peer location. In 1969, Chrismas marked the closing of the space with a performance by artist Raphael Montanez Ortiz. However, this would be one of the last times he showed much interest in performance art. At that point his gaze was fixed on another horizon entirely.
Minimalism, earthworks, and light-and-space installations were the waves that were cresting in the late ’60s, and these modes of working dovetailed neatly with Chrismas’ interest in architecture, which plays a crucial role in the successful presentation of such work. This is extraordinarily challenging art — big, expensive to make, hard to sell — and you can count on one hand the people who’ve gone out on a limb to support it. There are Heiner and Fariha Friedrich, founders of the Dia Foundation, whose recently opened Dia:Beacon, a sprawling art park in upstate New York, will henceforth serve as the official mecca of High Minimal; there’s legendary dealer and heiress to the 3M fortune Virginia Dwan, who financed several major earthworks including Michael Heizer’s Double Negative, a 1,500-foot-long, 50-foot-deep, 30-foot-wide gash cut into facing slopes of a Nevada mesa; there’s Italian collector Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo. And there’s Doug Chrismas. This was the work that thrilled him, and he began creating galleries able to accommodate it. His first move in that direction was to take over a space on Lindbrook Avenue in Westwood that was occupied until 1969 by Virginia Dwan.
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.”
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
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.
Chrismas inaugurated the new decade on a high note with a 1980 show of work by sculptor Mark di Suvero; that relationship ended abruptly, however, and di Suvero declines to explain why. In 1981, Chrismas opened Charmer’s Market, an upscale grocery store on Main Street in Venice that was plagued with problems from the start. During its first year, a 69-year-old pharmacist named Kate Walden sued Chrismas after she fell on the property and broke her hip. Her 18-month legal fight with Chrismas was in progress in 1982 when his company, Flow Inc., filed for bankruptcy protection. The following year Walden committed suicide surrounded by the clothes she wanted to be buried in, along with a set of interrogatories received in her suit against Flow Inc. In 1984, Chrismas filed a personal Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and in 1985 he sold Charmer’s Market to comedian Bill Cosby. Chrismas won’t disclose what he was paid for the property, but says, “That money neutralized everything.”
In 1981, New York artist Leon Polk Smith demanded that Chrismas either pay him $39,000 for consigned works or return them. Chrismas turned the art over to a shipping company with instructions that it be returned to Smith, but the shipper seized it instead to cover Chrismas’ unpaid shipping bills. Smith won a $40,000 judgment in his suit against Flow Ace Gallery, but the judgment was thwarted by one of Chrismas’ bankruptcies, and Smith, who died in 1996, was given a lien on one of the dealer’s properties instead. “Most everyone I spoke to in New York advised me most strongly to have nothing to do with Doug Chrismas,” Smith recalled in a 1986 interview with the L.A. Times.
Chrismas was the subject of four lawsuits brought by individuals in 1982, and that same year he opened Art and Architecture of the Twentieth Century, a bookstore located next to the lithography studio Gemini G.E.L. on Melrose Avenue. He also ran a full-page ad in Artforum announcing the summer opening of yet another Ace Gallery — this one in Paris — which Chrismas says he maintained “for a few years.”
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.
“It’s true Rauschenberg sued me,” Chrismas concedes, “but that lawsuit was like a lovers’ quarrel — in fact, Bob came up to me at the opening of his retrospective and said, ‘I apologize for suing you.’ Bob is one of the most important contributors to whatever I have today, and it was his idea to have Ace be part of his Guggenheim retrospective. I didn’t ask for that.”
By the mid-’80s, Chrismas had become persona non grata in Venice, so he moved across town to the space he currently occupies. At that point he recruited a new stable of artists that included James Hayward, David Amico, Mary Corse, Roger Herman, Constance Mallinson and Charles Fine. Most of them describe their dealings with Ace as tempestuous.
Roger Herman finally left the gallery in 1998, “because a good friend of mine was dying, and I just didn’t have time for Doug’s bullshit. You have to be really strong to deal with him, because he’s a mind-fucker with weird accounting practices that drive you crazy, and I couldn’t handle it anymore. It often happened that I’d go to the gallery to collect money I was owed, and the minute I left Doug’s office he’d call the bank and put a stop payment on the check he’d just given me.
“Doug is a champion of austere minimalist installations, and he has a good eye for that kind of work,” Herman continues. “His understanding of art stopped at some point in the past, though, and he just doesn’t get new forms. In a funny way he made all his artists do similar work — he didn’t make us, exactly, but he gives you these spaces and encourages you to make really grand work to fill them. There was a period when I was making huge paintings, and I remember saying, ‘Gee, Doug, they’re really big,’ and he said, ‘Make them even bigger! We’ll blow people away! Who cares if we sell them!’
“In that way, he really is an artist’s dealer,” Herman adds. “Doug isn’t a shopkeeper, and I admire that about him. Lots of art dealers screw artists over, but they do it in a petty way, and Doug isn’t petty. He has more guts than most people, and he’s a good architect — in fact, he designed a museum in Thailand [the Museum of Bangkok].”
No less an authority than Frank Gehry agrees. “Doug’s got a great eye,” says Gehry, “and he’s been a valuable critic on some museums projects I’ve worked on, including the galleries in Bilbao.”
The late ’80s found Chrismas with a new gallery and a new roster of artists, but he still had some of his same old problems, and landlords were at the top of that list. In 1988, Wilshire Dunsmuir Co., owners of the Desmond’s building, took legal action against him for being delinquent on his rent. Since then, Wilshire Dunsmuir has taken Chrismas to court on 10 more occasions, the most recent being this June, when he was late on his rent to the tune of $96,250.95. Nonetheless, Joseph Shabani, in-house counsel for Wilshire Dunsmuir Co., describes Chrismas as “a valued tenant who’s been with us for 18 years. It’s true we’ve taken legal action against Doug several times, but his rent is phenomenally high, so once in a while he falls behind on it. We recently had an issue with him concerning the roof of the building, but for the record we’ve resolved our differences.”
That’s something several artists who signed on with Chrismas after his move to Wilshire were unable to do. Constance Mallinson, who exhibited at Ace from 1987 to 1991, says, “This is a story I regret having to tell, but I was showing with Rosamund Felsen in the mid-’80s when Doug, in typical Doug fashion, started coming around saying, ‘You don’t want to show with her, I can do better for you. At that point I was in my starving-artist period, and when he offered me a monthly stipend, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Doug did start selling my work, and he wasn’t too bad about paying for a while, but then I began having difficulty getting paid and he stopped taking my calls. Our relationship continued to deteriorate over a period of months, and then we had one last heated conversation.
“Doug had an old-fashioned way of presenting art he was locked into — he’s really into that white-wall, big-work, hit-’em-between-the-eyes type of presentation,” continues Mallinson, who’s one of just five women Chrismas has represented in L.A. over the last 37 years. “As far as Doug’s concerned, bigger is always better. Look at the new Ace he just opened in Beverly Hills! Like he doesn’t have enough fucking room there on Wilshire Boulevard?! Anyhow, shortly after I had my first child he brought a client over to look at a piece at my house, and he went apeshit because there were some baby toys in the room. He later claimed he was unable to sell the piece because the presentation was tainted by this baby toy. I said, ‘You are a fucking asshole and I never want to see you again.’ As soon as I had a baby he told me having a child made me lose my focus, and he started trashing me right and left.”
Like Mallinson, James Hayward was showing with Rosamund Felsen in the ’80s when Chrismas offered him a stipend. Hayward has had his problems with Chrismas, too, and his show there this spring was his first at Ace in five years.
“Doug’s used to having his own way,” says Hayward, “and he seems to need to better people — deep in his heart he needs to feel he got you. He’s like a naughty little kid who likes to get away with stuff. He takes advantage left and right, he’s an amazing salesman, and he’s really sharp at playing angles. I once told Doug I was going to have business cards printed for him that said, ‘Ace Gallery/Walls, Balls & Bullshit Bookkeeping.’ He’s been sued so many times it’s as if he’s insulated himself from the law, because if you sue him you just throw your spear into somebody else’s lawsuit. Signing a contract with him is a waste of time, because the books there are impossible. I got so frustrated with him once that I threw a sledgehammer through one of the gallery walls.”
For every artist who stomps off in a fury, there’s another waiting to take his place, and in 1990 it was Ross Rudel’s turn. “As is the case with everyone, my experience with Doug was a mixture of incredible highs and incredible lows,” recalls Rudel, who showed with Chrismas from 1990 through 1994, and is now with Angles Gallery. “After I finished school I got a job in the MOCA bookstore, and one day I got a Post-It from my boss that said, ‘Call Doug Xmas.’ I had no idea who Doug was, but within a month of receiving that call he had me quit my job, got me a better studio, put me on a stipend, and got me working full time. Doug really knew how to fluff my aura, and he kept me going with a carrot constantly. I was young and vulnerable, and was at a point when that’s really what I needed, and he gave it to me fully. It’s irrelevant whether it was sincere, because it worked — and when it stopped working I left. ‰
“The incredible lows were the business end of things,” Rudel continues. “Doug’s program is sort of wrenching, and in order to withstand it you have to be able to take in stride the intense emotional swings that are part of it, and I just wasn’t up for it anymore. Still, it was amazing to watch him operate — I’ve seen Doug be three different people in five minutes. He’s abusive to the people who work for him, and he’d be furious with someone, then he’d turn around and flip a switch and be ingratiating, then turn to someone else and talk straight business. The guy can really spin a tale, and he’s an amazing facilitator in that sense. He could be whoever he needed to be at any given moment.”
While Rudel found Chrismas cunning and capable, New York sculptor Richard Nonas summarizes him as “a man with missing parts. Doug is the only person I’ve ever met who truly is morally dyslexic,” says Nonas, who showed at Ace in 1991 and 1993. “From the start I understood who he was, though, and I enjoyed dealing with him. Doug has a dream about how art should be presented, and he’s devised ways of achieving that dream that avoid lots of the bullshit, but his methods create whole new layers of complexity. He’s kind of a mad monk, like Rasputin and the way he operates gives him pleasure, there’s no doubt about it. He’s completely amoral, but his enthusiasm is fantastic, and it was worth it to me to be around his enthusiasm as long as he didn’t go too far. I always felt he understood there was a line he couldn’t cross with me, too. There was never a great deal of money at stake with my work, but as soon as there was a large sum of money involved, he crossed that line and I walked out.
“Doug basically has no friends, and he’s a subject many people don’t get over,” Nonas adds. “It isn’t the financial impropriety that’s so hard for Doug’s artists to take — the real trauma has to do with a loss of innocence artists who work with him experience. Nobody ever really trusts Doug, but they trust that he understands their work. Finally, here’s a dealer who understands why you want to do that thing that’s not so easy to do, and to be betrayed by the person with that understanding is a bitter pill. Still, he makes the best gallery spaces I know of, and to have access to those spaces and that enthusiasm was worth the [trouble] in the long run.”
There’s genuine affection in Nonas’ voice when he talks about Chrismas, and he’s not the only artist who feels that way. A funny thing about artists with Doug Chrismas war stories is that they often tell them in the wistful tone usually reserved for recollections of traumatic love affairs.
“Take the other shit away, the mind-fucking and all that, and he’s fascinating,” says Roger Herman. “Of course he’s crazy, but he has an interesting criminal mind, and I used to see a lot of him. We both like Hong Kong action films, so he used to take me to movies or Thai boxing matches, or we’d have lunch at some Vietnamese dive. He knows a lot about food and is obsessed with the health properties of food. He thinks it’s bad to eat garlic and onion together, for instance, because that combination is too earth-oriented and inhibits your ability to generate alpha waves, which govern creativity. He’s compulsive about germs and thinks it’s bad to read newspapers because it’s too much information, and it bothers his eyes to read from left to right — he thinks we should read from top to bottom. Sometimes I’d be listening to him talk and I’d think, my god, he’s out of his mind!”
Mallinson never found Chrismas endearingly eccentric, but concedes, “He’s chosen some very good art along the way and had some wonderful shows, so I guess you could say he’s been a positive force in the city.”
Doug Wheeler also regards his experience with Chrismas as too complex to summarize as good or bad. “Despite everything, I kind of like the guy,” Wheeler says with a laugh. “He really loves art, and there aren’t many dealers I say that about. Doug was genuinely turned on by the work I was making, and I think he’s oblivious to the fact that he made decisions that hurt my career. It amazes me he’s still in the game, though, because so many artists have been screwed by him. When I was working with him, I had no idea how he financed his operation, and to this day I don’t know how he does it.”
Why Chrismas does what he does is as mysterious as how he does it. What’s motivating him? Nobody knows for sure, but everyone agrees it’s not money.
“Doug doesn’t live lavishly,” says James Hayward. “I’ve never been to his house — nobody I know has — and I have no idea where he lives. Years ago I drove him to a weird little rundown apartment in Hollywood so he could walk his dog. I don’t know if it was a place he used as a kennel for his dog or it was where he lived, but it wasn’t much.”
Roger Herman concurs. “Doug derives his pleasure from power not money, and aspires to be someone like Tom Krens, who runs the Guggenheim. Doug does museum-scale shows, but he could never work at a museum because he’s incapable of working with people, and he despises curators.”
Mallinson sees something else at work. “I think there’s a big ego operating there that overpowers everything that man does. I never had the sense he had an undying love of art, and looking back on it, I don’t know why he took me on, because my aesthetic isn’t in sync with his. It occurred to me that the only reason he wanted to represent me was because Rosamund was interested.” (Felsen declined to comment.)
Elizabeth Dunbar was working at the Whitney Museum prior to moving to L.A. in 2000 to work for Chrismas, and she agrees with Mallinson. “He’s a selfish, narcissistic man with an enormous ego, and it was all about perception and image with him,” says Dunbar, who’s now chief curator of the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita. “If important collectors came from out of town, he’d rent a BMW rather than take them around in the Jeep he usually drives, and he was always making empty promises about building a library and publishing catalogs, none of which will ever happen.”
Chrismas’ life outside his galleries is something people really don’t know about. The general assumption is that he lives somewhere in one of his galleries, but nobody seems to know for sure. His most recent bankruptcy filing lists his address as 6230 Wilshire Boulevard, but that’s a postal service in a strip mall. For the past decade he’s kept company with Jennifer Kellen, a senior staff assistant in the education department of the Getty Museum, but he’s never married or had children.
“Doug’s pretty much a loner,” says Herman. “I always thought he and I were close, but I learned that we are not, and that I was naive to think we were. He once said to me, ‘To the straights I’m straight, and to the gays I’m gay,’ but I don’t think he has any real friends. He certainly always treated his staff pretty bad.”
Elizabeth Dunbar — who quit Ace after six months — will testify to that. “He’s a monster. I saw him berate his receptionists until he’d reduced them to tears repeatedly, and although he keeps the finances of the gallery a secret, I heard the rumblings from artists who weren’t getting paid. We often weren’t able to cash our paychecks, but there was never an apology — you were expected to accept it as part of the territory. He was a total cheapskate, too. You’d have to clock out and take your 30-minute lunch, you couldn’t work overtime, he hires day laborers with no art experience to do prep work for exhibitions, and pays them the minimum he can get by with.”
Chrismas clearly hasn’t lost his flair for alienating people, and he continues to have legal problems. He was sued in 1999 by art dealer Burnett Miller, who committed suicide in 2001. Chrismas filed for bankruptcy again in 1999, too, but 18 months and a blizzard of paperwork later, his bankruptcy filing was dismissed. He was barred from filing Chapter 11 for two years, and ordered to immediately pay his creditors, which included the state Board of Equalization and the IRS.
Chrismas is nothing if not indefatigable, and three months after his defeat in court he took out the lease on the Beverly Hills building. Asked why he opened a second gallery here, Chrismas says, “When I saw [Sam Francis’] Edge Paintings, I knew I had to show them, and the ceilings aren’t high enough for them in the Wilshire space.” This explanation is puzzling given that last spring Chrismas announced that Ace/Beverly Hills would debut with a James Turrell show. What happened to Turrell? The artist declines to comment, but Chrismas says, “Jim wants to build a large environment in the new space, and he’s anxious to do something major in L.A., because it’s been so long since he’s done anything here.” In the meantime, an exhibition of new work by Mary Corse goes on view there on October 25.
Chrismas is devoting much of his energy these days to advancing the plans for Frank Gehry’s renovation of Ace/Beverly Hills. As to where they are in that process, Gehry says, “We’ve given him some direction as to where the project might go, and he’s used that to get some approvals and find money for it, but he hasn’t been back yet to say get going.”
Asked if he has any apprehension about embarking on a major project with Chrismas given his reputation, Gehry says, “I’ve known Doug for years, he’s one of the smartest guys in the art world, and we’ve worked together several times. He’s a special guy — complicated, but special — and I love him so much I wouldn’t want to get into something where it turned bad and we ended up not friends. I always tell him that, so I know he wants to be careful.”
It’s odd that Chrismas is eager to sink millions of dollars into a building he doesn’t own. Asked why he’s doing it, he says, “I want to give something meaningful to the city.
“If you wanted to have a thriving business, you wouldn’t do what I do,” Chrismas adds. “I’ve never wanted to be a classical-art dealer. The thing that excites me is enabling artists to feel loose and free in their approach to doing an exhibition, and the way you do that is by giving them space. I made a bond with myself long ago that the people who count are the artists.”