The Im­por­tance of Be­ing Irv­ing

From his mus­ings on Andy Warhol t o his days with some of the world's most iconic con­tem­po­rary artist s, art dealer and col­lec­tor Ir ving Blum's past is just as cap­ti­vat­ing as his pres­ence.


Ir ving Blum passes through Hawai‘i


SIT­TING AT THE BEAU­TI­FUL HONOLULU MU­SEUM OF ART'S CAFÉ, IRV­ING BLUM SPORTS WHITE JEANS, A WHITE SHIRT, PER­FECTLY PRESSED, AND A pair of dark glasses mounted on the bridge of his nose. His pres­ence is com­mand­ing and he wastes no time trans­port­ing me to a house on Lexington Av­enue, circa 1961 …

Step­ping up to the door of the Man­hat­tan stu­dio, Blum rings the door­bell and en­ters into the cor­ri­dor to see three Camp­bell Soup Can paint­ings on the floor lean­ing up against the wall. Above the paint­ings, a pho­to­graph of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, torn from a Hol­ly­wood magazine, which seemed to look down at the cans.

Blum turns to Andy ( Warhol) and com­ments, “Why Three? They are iden­ti­cal.”

“No, they are dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties: Tomato, Vegetable, etc. ... Irv­ing, I’m go­ing to paint thirty-two!”

“WHAT?” Blum’s voice rings out with shock the same way it had more than 50 years ago.

“There are 32 va­ri­eties and I am go­ing to paint them all!”

Blum, in­trigued by the paint­ings that lay at his feet, thought for a mo­ment be­fore pos­ing the ques­tion that would put his hand upon his­tory it­self. He asked, “Do you have a gallery?” The min­utes that en­sued Blum calls “the long­est mo­ment of his life.” Blum, now in his late '80s, walks me through each mo­ment—the way he took Warhol's arm, coax­ing him to show his work in his gallery in Cal­i­for­nia. He knew Warhol would need some con­vinc­ing—his life and paint­ings were all es­tab­lished in New York. Blum re­calls glanc­ing up at Mar­i­lyn and said, “Andy, you know Hol­ly­wood movie stars come into the gallery all the time.” Amused at the white lie he told, Blum tells me, “Of course, the truth was celebri­ties never came into the gallery, I was just say­ing that to get the paint­ings into the show.” Warhol, with­out miss­ing a beat, replied, “Let's do it!” and the show took place in July of the fol­low­ing year.

Blum's voice is hyp­notic. I can only com­pare it to lead­ing man Carey Grant, draw­ing me in to hear the next story. “Five paint­ings were sold,” Blum tells me. Be­cause so few sold, he crafted the idea to keep all 32 paint­ings to­gether as a col­lec­tion.

He called all five col­lec­tors to see if they would agree to re­lease their most re­cent $100 pur­chase. All obliged but one. Ap­par­ently, Den­nis Hopper was very reluc­tant to give it up. Just as he did with Warhol, Blum was able to per­suade the ac­tor to let it go.

With all 32 paint­ings in hand, he asked Warhol how much it would cost to buy the en­tire col­lec­tion. Warhol pegged the set at $1,000. Blum, with very lit­tle money at the time, was able to pay in $100 in­stall­ments each month for 10 months. The paint­ings were kept with Blum for more than 20 years be­fore sell­ing them to The Mu­seum of Modern Art in New York, where the paint­ings cur­rently live. Suf­fice it to say those paint­ings fetched up­wards $15 mil­lion.

Early in his ca­reer, Blum worked at Knoll Fur­ni­ture Com­pany in New York City, where he was in­spired not only by

won­der­ful ex­am­ples of func­tional art—by the likes of Eero Saari­nen, Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe and Mar­cel Breuer—but he was also sur­rounded by the great­est gal­leries in New York City. On his lunch breaks, he would visit the gal­leries daily, try­ing to make sense of what he was see­ing. He found him­self de­vot­ing ev­ery spare minute to art. With this new ap­pre­ci­a­tion and un­der­stat­ing of art, Blum headed back west to Los An­ge­les with the in­ten­tion of start­ing a gallery.

Wan­der­ing the streets of LA, Blum came across a gallery named Ferus. He liked what he saw and asked to be a part of the gallery in some ca­pac­ity. Us­ing what lit­tle money he had, Blum pur­chased part of the gallery for $500, to which a few of his friends said he had over­paid. With his un­der­stand­ing of mar­ket­ing and art, he trans­formed the gallery into a hap­pen­ing place, draw­ing the likes of artists Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, Ken­neth Price, Larry Bell and Ed Ruscha. Each of these artists had their first solo shows at Ferus.

The rest is his­tory is a com­mon phrase; you are be­fore your time, an­other. Blum fits both adages. He bought into the Ferus gallery in Los An­ge­les in 1958—an in­ter­est­ing time to in­vest in a gallery on the West Coast while New York's ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ists ruled the world. Paint­ings of soup cans, comic strips and words on the open can­vas had never been seen be­fore. It was an ex­plo­ration into brand new ter­ri­tory for the pi­o­neers of pop.

“It came out of the air. It felt at the time the move was rad­i­cal. Whether or not it was his­tory, you couldn't quite tell.” No one would ar­gue that Blum had the con­fi­dence and bravado mixed with de­ter­mi­na­tion and courage to be suc­cess­ful when there was no bench­mark. I asked Blum, “Did you feel you were ahead of the times?” He replied, “No, I felt I was right on time.”

Blum is still an avid col­lec­tor, vis­it­ing artist stu­dios, at­tend­ing mu­seum ret­ro­spec­tives and gal­leries. Art and dis­cov­ery is in his mar­row. From the dis­cov­ery of Andy Warhol to con­tem­po­rary artist Alex Israel, Blum is still forg­ing into undis­cov­ered coun­try with the same flair and style he has al­ways dis­played.


( phot o by Marco Gar­cia)

Now in his 80s, Blum looks back on his ca­reer as some­thing that “came out of the air. It f elt at the t ime the move was rad­i­cal. Whether or not it was hist or y, you couldn't quite tell,”

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