Interview with dealer Bernard Jacobson on his change of taste and direction

From Great British to stellar American art


Bernard Jacobson is a long established London dealer who has made his reputation representing English Modernists such as Ben Nicholson. Recently he has taken on some American artists so famous that many might think they were already dead, great Americans of the 50s and 60s and 70s. The Art Newspaper asked him how this happened.

Bernard Jacobson Actually, I started with these Americans in the late 60s, but with their prints. As the years went by I became more and more involved in British art as these were artists I could see on a daily basis. Around 1980 I found myself frustrated by the poor quality of the art of our time. I also kept seeing paintings by people like Bomberg and thinking, “That’s fantastic and just a couple of thousand pounds” so I found myself going back in time to Modern British art. From the early 80s and through the 80s we worked very heavily in that area.

We became the leading dealers in Modern British: Sutherland, Spencer, Bomberg, Nicholson, Lanyon, Scott, and others.

But then I felt as though I couldn’t learn any more. So I found myself in New York about five years ago and a friend of mine was just going to go and see Frank Stella. So I went to the studio and I thought, “This is what I should be doing with my time.” I took on Frank and eventually we became his world agents.

TAN: You had a sell-out show of him in Israel.

BJ: I was very friendly with the owner of Givon fine art in Tel Aviv. His daughter, Noemi, said to me that she had always wanted to own a Stella. I brought her the show, but I needed a financial guarantee and she said, “Okay, I’ll meet that”. She sweated like mad, because she was bringing a superstar to Israel. And it worked. It was on television, front pages of the newspapers; Stella gave a lecture with standing room only.

TAN: Some of Frank Stella’s works are huge. Supposing somebody came to you and said, “I want one of his really big works for the atrium of my skyscraper.” Would you negotiate this for him?

BJ: If I believed in them, I would go with them to the studio to meet Frank. We get offers every day for Frank’s stuff, from Zurich or New York, Paris, you name it—offers for exhibitions, for purchases. As Frank says, “You know, for somebody who is so out of favour, I’m doing rather well, aren’t I?”

TAN: This is the problem, isn’t it, of the artist in an advanced stage of his career: you’re a genius when you’re very young; you become established, and then everybody forgets about you until you’re dead.

BJ: No, until you’re about 70, and then you come in again.

TAN: To put it cynically, it helps to coincide with the decorating trends. I mean, Ellsworth Kelly has fitted in perfectly with the fashion for minimalism in design.

BJ: Yes, I think Stella hasn’t had fashion on his side yet, although it may also be because he is a very awkward person. He doesn’t like going with the flow. Virtually singlehandedly, he invented minimalism and just when the money and the going were becoming good, he moved on. Now, for example, he’s virtually inventing maximalism, which is also looking very good, but I think when that becomes very big in, maybe, 2005, you’ll find that Frank will move on again. His perversity comes in when you say “God, it’s really, really difficult to sell a 40-foot painting” and, suddenly, you go into Frank’s studio and he’s just done a 150-footer.

TAN: Helen Frankenthaler, the great aristocrat of American Abstraction: how did you get to represent her?

BJ: I just phoned her out of the blue. She’s been called a diva and she is a diva. I think she quietly knows she’s great, but she doesn’t abuse it. We talk endlessly about literature and music. We became friends. Eventually, when I got her confidence, she said, “Okay, I’ll give you a show.”

TAN: She was a close friend of Jackson Pollock, who has since turned into an American legend.

BJ: Yes. These artists whom I represent, independent of their own qualities, share in this legendariness. I’ve gone from dealing in good, but perfectly human, artists to dealing in legends, which is partly because America loves and makes legends, whereas England doesn’t so much.

I’m in my fifties and I just want to be involved in the best.

Do you know that Helen Frankenthaler is not even represented in the Tate, which I find absolutely embarrassing. The Tate Modern has a relatively weak collection of Abstract Expressionist artists, really only a token representation.

TAN: But aren’t they too expensive for the Tate?

BJ: No, look. I was at the FIAC fair in Paris last autumn and the stand opposite had Maurice Esteve. We had our stand with Frank Stellas at $85,000 upwards, and, do you know, the Esteves were also being offered at $85,000. I said to myself, “This is mad: here is a great giant, and then there’s this minor artist scraping away trying to do a fag end of French Twenties, Thirties art, both at the same price.”

TAN: How do you think Stella’s works looked in the Royal Academy Show last summer?

BJ: I’m afraid that the Royal Academy Summer Show can’t take very grand art exhibits. Originally, I turned the RA down when they approached me to include Frank Stella in the Summer Show, but then they said “If we gave him a room, would he accept?” and I said, “Yes”. I thought it wouldn’t matter that the other art was so bad, because he’d be separated from the summer show, but it was worse because they didn’t single him out as a great artist.

TAN: Do you have any English collectors?

BJ: Yes, lots, but mostly for the older art, Modern British art. For Tillyer or Stella or Phillip King or Jules Olitski, there are barely enough.

TAN: Is the art market really international now?

BJ: Germany is open to the new, so it will take foreign art. Elsewhere, markets are still surprisingly local; at the end of the day, FIAC is for the French, as the London Art Fair is for the British. But Stella breaks boundaries.

TAN: Has the web made any difference to you?

BJ: No. I’ve got some things on it, but nothing happens.

TAN: If an artist has a dealer already in another country, do you have separate territories or do you collaborate on sales?

BJ: We have territories. For the Morris Louis estate we have Europe, and we just don’t represent him for America.

TAN: Are you completely independent in your choice of artists?

BJ: I’m independent. I have to answer to various backers and banks and things, but they all pretty much trust me with what I’m doing.

TAN: If Cézanne is the artist you admire most, who would be the musician and the writer?

BJ: Beethoven. As for writers: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all the Russians.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'From Great British to stellar American art'