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
PAINTINGS OF SOUP CANS, COMIC STRIPS AND WORDS ON THE OPEN CANVAS HAD NEVER BEEN SEEN BEFORE.
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.
HE KNEW WARHOL WOULD NEED SOME CONVINCING— HIS LIFE AND PAINTINGS WERE ALL ESTABLISHED IN NEW YORK.
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,”