Doug Chrismas Photo by Joey Krebs

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by Gordy Grundy


[Editor's Note: The following conversation has been edited to preserve anonymity.]


Witness No. 3: I would say, Doug Chrismas wasn't the worst art dealer I ever worked with. And the other one is, you know, there's something systemically wrong with the art world that a person like him can flourish, as long as he did.

Gordy Grundy: Right. But let's stick with the first statement. He's not the worst. Which is kind of funny. And if you could elaborate a little bit more, I'd love to know what you mean by, Chrismas, as well as the others.

Witness No. 3: The fact is art dealers tend to over-promise and under-deliver, and Doug didn't really do that. I mean, you know, he never stuck his nose in my studio. He never told me what to do or how to do it. He never said anything.

He offered me a show, we would hang, you know, I'd bring in the work I'd been doing. He'd be supportive of the work and he wouldn't interfere.

You know, he took liberties in installation because he was a genius at installs. He never got involved in the creative practice. You know, he never told me, "Oh, make smaller ones or make bigger ones." You know, and uh, he put on great exhibitions and he was enthusiastic. I've other art dealers try to tell me what to produce.

Gordy Grundy: Yeah, that doesn't work well, but that's interesting.

No.3: And it's very common.

GG: Yeah, it's very common, but also, I think that does say something about Doug in a way.

No.3: Well, for all Doug's faults, when he took an artist on, from my experience, he believed in that artist. He believed in that artist, and he wanted you to have as much creative freedom in the studio as you wanted.

GG: And that's what a dealer should do.

No.3: Yeah, but that's not very common.

GG: Yeah. “More flowers! More flowers!”

No.3: Right. Or, could you make some? “I know you like to make big work, but could you make some medium-sized stuff?”

GG: Eh. I think that's okay...

No.3: Or, you know, you find out that somebody had purchased a piece, but the gallery seemed to forget to tell you about it.

GG: Right. Way over the line.

No.3: I mean I worked with galleries in Europe where, you know, it takes, it takes them forever to pay you.

GG: What would Doug do, just not pay or pay really late, or...?

No.3: To be totally honest with you, I never had money problems with Doug.

GG: That's something. I know a lot of others that did.

No.3: They did. I know that but I didn't. I don't know why he selected me out, but payment—money was not an issue.

My biggest issue with Doug was— When Donald Trump was president, I was constantly reminded of Doug. I mean, the behavior. It was like Doug had a very hard time staffing up. He was a micromanager. He didn't trust other people, so he found himself overwhelmed a lot because he was literally trying to do everything.

GG: I gather that.

No.3: He thought he was better than all the museums, so Doug didn't play well with others. When I was offered shows in other parts of the world, he would try to cockblock them. He didn't like to work with other galleries. So, you know, it wasn't that he wouldn't pay me, it was that it was just impossible to create relationships outside of him.

GG: Right. Now on the payment, do you think that was circumstantial? I mean, because I know some artists would demand a check at the gallery and they would go to the bank five minutes later to find that a stop payment had just been just been placed. Was it your timing with him or was it part of your relationship with him or...?

No.3: Up front, I made it clear that we would never have any financial issues.

GG: I see. Okay... You started with Doug when things were really exciting.

No.3: And that's why I did it. All the best artists in LA, they were all showing there. I was super excited to be offered. I got to be with the, you know, the likes of David Amico and Roger Herman and Bob Zoell and you know, I mean, these are the people! And then of course Tim Hawkinson and Tara Donovan. And like, there was a moment we were having a really good, fun time.

And you have this space in New York. I've had to do big shows in New York. I don't know. I mean, I saw this man who was this visionary person, and, but at the same time, it was clear that you know, he had certain personality disorders.

GG: Well, tell me, tell me again that Cy Twombly story because that's great.

No.3: Yeah, so basically, when I met Cy Twombly, we were at a dinner situation, he just wondered where I showed and I told him I showed with Ace, and he said that Doug Chrismas is just a genius. I asked him why he thought that. He said that Doug flew a group of artists to an exhibition in Paris for Robert, meaning Rauschenberg. Doug put everyone up at the finest hotel, fantastic massage, and dinner, beautiful space for Robert's exhibition, and I found out later he never paid for any of it.

GG: And that's what made him a genius.

No.3: Yeah. Yeah. But see, here's the thing, like, you know, there was a time and I'm not, you know, one can argue the morals of this or the principles, this goes into a philosophical thought experiment.

I grew up in a time when artists had no expectations you were ever going to see any money. Like you were just going to be an artist and probably work construction or teach, whatever. Artists were scrappy. They were scrappy individuals and they were pretty punk rock about most things. ... And rarely did anybody have a sense of entitlement. You know, of course, the art world has always attracted larceny.

But to me, he was just an interesting character. And, there’s few characters as colorful as Doug Chrismas. He was this genius art dealer who was the first to have a mega space, the first to do major installations like Michael Heizer inside of a commercial gallery. He was the first with so many things.

His reputation was notorious. Now if you and I were talking about the world of rap music, we would be covering him like the most important OG in the game.


Doug Chrismas Photo by Joey Krebs Illustration by Art Report Today .com


GG: Right. Right.

No.3: But because the art world is so utterly, shockingly conservative on every matrix, they can't even find the humor in him, you know?

GG: Right.

No.3: But they don't have any problem with liking notorious big dealers. Like, you know, a rap star they're like, Yeah, cool, whatever, you know. Like Doug was a gangster......?

I mean, you know, and I'm not condoning it, I'm just sort of wondering. I'm not making a judgment as much as just thinking. Well, I'll say this, like 99% of the people who told me stories about Doug Chrismas and what he did and didn't do or whatever, had never dealt with him, and they were just gossipy.

Seriously, the amount of times I'd be at an opening or something, someone will be like, "Oh, I have heard about Doug Chrismas." And people would be telling me---artists most of the time---they would be telling these elaborate fantastical Doug Chrismas stories and I used to always wonder, "Where do they get all these stories? They've never even shown with him. They don't even know the guy."

And I realized there was this whole kind of cult and mythology and storytelling around Doug Chrismas. How much of it was accurate or inaccurate, inflammatory, made up, I don't know, but it just was always interesting that most of the gossip I heard, never was coming from an internal source. Like if I was talking to Roger (Herman) or David Amico or Tara, any of us, we never had these kinds of conversations.


...and I realized there was this whole kind of cult and mythology and storytelling around Doug Chrismas...


I remember the LA Weekly piece that came out on him. He was on the cover, an illustration of him on the cover, like a caricature. I'm reading the article and I'm thinking, "Holy fuck. This is terrible." When I later saw him, I said, "This is terrible." And he said, "Today."

GG: And what does he mean by that do you think?

No.3: He knows how news cycles work. It was just today. Nobody is going to talk about it tomorrow. You know, something else will happen, there'll be an earthquake, Michael Jackson will die, whatever, but like, it didn't affect him. And then he said, "Look, I have a reputation for being a bad boy. I play it." So Doug knew he was the bad boy and he plays the bad boy.

GG: Let's define bad boy.

No.3: That he was notorious, that he had a reputation for pulling bullshit on people or whatever. Somebody who played fast and loose with money and things like that, you know.

My relationship with Doug was when he owed me money and he couldn't pay me immediately, he would normally explain, "Oh, I just did this amazing Tara Donovan show. I had to hire like 40 people to do all the straws, to glue up the wall. I'm a little tight on the money. Can I pay in a week or two?" He would always ask. He never just assumed.

GG: That's a straight shooter.

No.3: But that's the Doug I knew. Here's the thing about a sociopath, right? We see this with, you know, Donald Trump or whoever, right. They select who they're going to be loyal to and good to, and it's almost like, I think they pick this the moment they meet you. ... I think it's like purely, purely an intuitive thing. Like I'm going to be really good to this person, this person I'm going to take advantage of, and I really believe that that's kinda how it goes with him.

From what I understand, David Amico never had a single complaint about Doug, he just loved him to death. As a matter of fact, he was so loyal to him, I used to call him 'gerbil.' But he seemed to have a really good relationship with him. I honestly believe that Mary Corse had a really good one, on and off. Sometimes, you know, you'd see artists come back and forth. They may leave and then they come back. Well, you know, they leave because he owes them money then he pays them and they come back.

GG: Well, he has a long history of that.

No.3: Yeah, I think Mary might've had a really good thing with him for a long time. I had a really good thing with him for a long time---and then I didn't. When I didn't was when I started getting offers to work with other galleries elsewhere around the world. He went out of his way to be disruptive, and one of the galleries that I was working was in Tokyo. She called me on the phone and goes, I don't think I can work with you because he keeps sending me faxes and stuff and changing your price.

He was causing havoc and disorder to make the other gallery not want to work with me. But I have heard similar things, not quite the same story, but I've heard that Blum and Poe get mad at their artists when they want to go do a show with someone in Houston or wherever. Galleries are really proprietary.

GG: Absolutely.

No.3: So Doug was extremely proprietary. I reached a point where I realized my career was not doing well---and it wasn't because of the quality of my work was slipping. It had to do with the fact that I wasn't showing with a number of galleries around the world because Doug wouldn't let me, and I was making good money and I had the gallery in New York, I had the gallery in LA, so I, well, I kind of let it go maybe a few times when I shouldn't have. But at the end of the day, I finally just decided I really wanted to work with other people. I wanted different experiences, so I left.

I mean, I didn't leave because he owed me money and it went bad and he's a motherfucker. No, he was really proprietary. I found that hard to deal with after a while, and I just couldn't deal with the amount of control he wanted over me.

GG: Right. It's about growth.

No.3: Right. And I wanted to grow and he feared me growing because when other artists had grown like Tim Hawkinson, they left. So, I think his fear was that, if I do get in with somebody big in New York or Europe or whatever, that I'll end up leaving him. So, I think in some ways it was actually driven a bit by insecurity because historically, when major artists who had worked with him, like Bruce Nauman, throughout history when they got to a certain level, they moved on. You know, Laura Owens was with ACME forever, and you would've thought that relationship would never end, and then she got with Gavin Brown and she dumped the gallery that made her name. I mean, this happens.

GG: It's just part of the nature of the business.

No.3: Yeah. So Doug was just very controlling. Like I said, he never told me what to make, but, you know, he might order my salmon dinner because he wanted me to have low cholesterol. Like where he was controlling was in very interesting places, but never was he interested in controlling the creative process.

GG: And he was controlling in what ways?

No.3: Like who I could work with. You know, a museum called me, they wanted me to donate a piece to their auction. I wanted to do it. I mentioned it to him, he said, you know, we don't support museums, museums support us. You can't do it. He wouldn't let me do it, things like that.

GG: Right. But he was concerned about your health and diet.

No.3: Yeah. So, whenever we went out, he would like— "You should have salmon, just some salmon with asparagus." And I go, well, I kinda want a cheeseburger and fries. And he'd be like, "No, salmon and asparagus"—that kind of stuff.

Then he would send me emails and stuff of health advice. Like, oh, vitamin D is good. He was very weird about stuff. He's a hypochondriac, so he doesn't shake hands and stuff. He's got all that Howard Hughes weirdness.

He was very health-conscious and very conscious about what he ate. I don't think I've ever really even seen him have a sip of alcohol. So, you know, that was just him mirroring his own position about diet. ... I'm making a joke about it because of that kind of control. I wouldn't have left the gallery because Doug made me order salmon. I'm just making the point--- where he was controlling and where he wasn't, seems a bit off....

Doug Chrismas was a visionary art dealer way ahead of his time. So ahead of his time, it could almost be overlooked. Okay. But if you look at the archive, right, and on the other side, he was an unsavory gentleman. So there you go.

GG: How do you define unsavory?

No.3: He had a profoundly flexible morality, right. You know, he was a sociopath. In my personal opinion, and I can't state this on the record because I'm not a psychoanalyst and I'm not his psychoanalyst and but he's clearly, he's clearly a socio— Sociopaths are well-known for creating their own moral universe. Doug lived by his own moral universe and it wasn't the one we were all collectively agreed upon.

GG: When did his reputation start to tarnish? Mid-80s?

No.3: Oh, no, no, that's not true. He got in trouble with selling a Robert Rauschenberg more than once, but that was back in the late 70s. So, he started getting caught with his pants down earlier. But Doug is like Donald Trump, he's one of those people that just kind of, you know, like I used to always say, "If Doug was on the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk." He's just one of those really lucky people.


...if Doug was on the Titanic, the iceberg would have sunk...


GG: Well, for the most part, he's had a charmed career.

No.3: Yeah. He's got luck on his side and I know where it comes from.

GG: Where?

No.3: Because I've experienced it with sociopaths my whole life. Sociopaths do not, they don't experience stress. So like, if he's dealing with the Feds and all kinds of bad shit, kind of like Donald Trump, it doesn't actually cripple them emotionally. It doesn't. They experience it really neutral. They remain utterly calm in the face of shit that you and I would literally not get out of bed for.

GG: Exactly.

No.3: And it's absolutely the hallmark of a sociopath.

GG: Right. So, tell me some more stories about Doug facing the hurricane.

No.3: Well, I mean, the only stories I know, I would occasionally talk to him and I would know that things were a little wonky. I could feel it, you know.

GG: Like Charmer's Market went wonky.

(Editors Note: Kristine McKenna writes in The Ace Is Wild, "In 1981, Chrismas opened Charmer’s Market, an upscale grocery store on Main Street in Venice that was plagued with problems from the start." With a festive bar and cafe, Charmer's Market became a chic destination.)

No.3: Well, that was before my time, but when the Charmer's Market opened, there are all kinds of rumors that that was actually a money-laundering operation for Pablo Escobar. Now, what truth is there in that? Who knows?

GG: That's pretty glamorous.

No.3: Is it true? I don't know. I mean, it sounds good. It's sexy. But I don't know if it's true. I don't know why the Charmer's Market went sideways.

GG: I believe it was because he didn't have insurance and someone tripped and fell and sued. The first expense a gambler dumps is the insurance. You know, those little simple mistakes or choices that bite.

No.3: I don't really have a lot of stories like that because, you know, I didn't work at the gallery. So, I did my shows. I heard a lot of rumors about all kinds of stuff that was going on, but you know, who knows?

GG: What was it like traveling with him?

No.3: We didn't ever travel together. We happened to be in the same place at the same time for the same reason. We'd hang out, we'd go gallery hop, whatever. He was a brilliant guy. He's a funny guy and loved fine food and he loved fine art, and we ate, and we ate like kings, and we looked at great art and he was a great storyteller about the work we're looking at—if it was contemporary, nothing about art history. But if it was contemporary work, he knew.

GG: Well, tell me more about that personality.

No.3: Well, he was charismatic. I mean, Doug is a deeply charismatic person. And he had this charisma and he knew how to excite others about art. You know, he didn't like to talk about anything but art or food or movies. He loved the movies, but he wouldn't talk about business and he wouldn't talk about politics and he wouldn't talk about— Oh my God. He could tell a story about when he funded the Smithson Spiral Jetty, or like, he would talk about stories.

GG: You know, I would love to hear some of those stories.

No.3: Well, you know, I don't know much about them. I would hear him. I wasn't listening to that carefully, but he would, I just noticed at a dinner party someone say, "So you were involved with Smithson when he did the Jetty and I hear you funded a part of it." And he'd say, yeah, and then he would just tell a story about Smithson. Then he would just say how Smithson was this maniacal guy and, all you could say to Smithson was yes. So I just said "Yes." Things like that. You know, those are just really charismatic ways for him to keep the conversation off himself. And that's what charismatic people do; they make you feel like you're the most important person in the room.

GG: And he was good at that.

No.3: Absolutely brilliant at it, and that's why collectors time and time again, would come back to him even after they may or may have had some difficult business dealings with him.

GG: Well, he's got a long history of people coming back.

No.3: Well, they come back because the work is good. And one thing about wealthy people is they will crawl across cut glass for what they want. So, if they wanted an artist Doug represented, all of a sudden, they were going to forgive him for his transgression and they were going to come in and buy a work of art. thing about wealthy people is they will crawl across cut glass for what they want...


And I know other artists who, I can't mention their names, but other artists that he still calls, all the time. "I'm trying to get a gallery together and I want to do this, I want to do that."

GG: He is looking beyond his current legal issues and he's gung-ho about the Ace Museum.

No.3: Yeah. But that's no different than Donald Trump talking about 2024... I would imagine Doug might go to jail... Like he's got really bad charges against him, and they're truly legitimate and significant because they're actually court filings of where he broke the law with the bankruptcy court, so he's pissed off a bankruptcy judge.

Okay. So, you know, you might play fast and loose with artist's money, or you might burn a collector, but you don't burn a fucking Federal judge. Okay.

So the problem with a sociopath is they think they can always get away with it, and most of the time they can. You know, but they can until they can't. So, Doug will, I think he will fall. I don't think he'll ever open another space. I think he's 77 years old. I think he's going to be caught up in court for at least another two years. There's a very good chance he could end up getting significant jail time. He may die in jail. I don't know.

But whatever he's saying about his new gallery, his new museum, or whatever, any of that stuff, that's just what he does. It's been his job forever, so he's still doing his job, but who's going to work with him? I can't think of an artist. He's also very old. I'll give you an example. So, I just did a couple of group shows. None of these people know who he is because they're young.

GG: Yeah. He's been out of the game for a bit.

No.3: He's been out of the game long enough that he's no longer even in the news cycle to them. And when they hear about it in the news that, oh, the notorious! They'll say things like, "Oh yeah, I heard something about him." But really, he's just fading away, which happens.

GG: It is a cruel world.

No.3: I guess I'm hoping that somehow in your article, you're posing a question in this, like, there is an environment in Hollywood which allowed Harvey Weinstein, and there's an environment that is the art world that invites the types of people like Doug Chrismas, and he's certainly not the first.

I guess my point is, is that, it goes back to— you don't throw rocks in a glasshouse. And I just really feel the art world is a glasshouse, and I'm just really surprised at how many people are throwing rocks at him. And is he a bad guy? Yeah, he is a bad guy. But is the art world kind of a bad place? Yeah, it's kind of a real fucking bad place actually.

GG: How do you mean?

No.3: First of all, artists are egomaniacs and wildly insecure as much as they are egotistical. They're always about themselves first. I'm probably guilty of it, we all are. We do not make great friends with each other. Yeah, it's competitive and you know, it's not a team sport. We're not in a band, you know, and it drives me crazy that the art world likes to pretend that it's just really progressive. We're with people! Nobody's with anybody.

When I was younger, I'd say, "You know who your friends are in the art world because they stabbed you from the front." So I've been really cynical about the art world since I got in it.

GG: As a clever charmer, I assume Doug can read people fast.

No.3: Right. Well, that's what he could do. Like when he met an artist, he could very quickly sum up who he could fuck with and who he couldn't fuck with. I mean, he did, you know. There's a sucker born every second, and one thing sociopaths are really good at is isolating them.

GG: What was difficult for Doug?

No.3: From my experience, I believe one of the undoing's of Doug Chrismas was his inability to delegate. I really believe that Gagosian is a tremendously good person in delegating and he hires good people. He trusts them to do their jobs. I'm not saying Larry is easy to deal with, I'm sure he's not, but he trusts people to do their jobs. He has staffed up really good. He pays his staff really well, so they're loyal. And then he can travel around the world and become the impresario Larry Gagosian.

Doug has to be at his desk every day. He micromanaged the shit out of it, and I really believe the only reason we're even having these conversations about Doug was his inability to delegate, his inability to trust other people, and I think potentially it had to do with the fact that he knew he wasn't trustworthy. When you're not trustworthy, it's hard to trust people.


...when you're not trustworthy, it's hard to trust people...


This is the thing that I find so curious about him, was like, when he was dealing with installation, that he was dealing with art and he was absolutely masterful, and he's the same guy who has embezzling charges against him. So, you know, I'm more interested in the kind of complexity, psyche, that in a man with such gifts, such unbelievable gifts, was also a person that had absolutely no moral center. How can he be so brilliant here and such a shit there?

My point is it's an interesting story about a man, a man who had tremendous, who had many sides to his personality, and, you know, he, Doug, the shadow won over the light and we all have a shadow side and it's kind of a really, an amazing story to tell.

And I appreciate that you, that you recognize, like, this is a story about Doug Chrismas, but it's also a story about the very kind of insidious nature of the art business.

I recently ran into an ex-Ace artist. We caught up on what we had been doing and where we had been showing. Then we both kind of stopped and he said, "I kind of miss those big Ace spaces." And I went, "Yeah, man." I said , "I long to do a show in a big space like that again." And we both talked about this.

All we talked about was how we really missed the opportunity to put on those kinds of shows. And I talked to Roger Herman one time and he said the same thing. None of us talked about any negative periods.

At the end of the day... That's why I made the statement, "He's not the worst art dealer I've ever worked with."



GORDY GRUNDY is the editor-in-chief of Art Report Today .com, the most comprehensive arts and culture news platform in the world.



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Doug Chrismas Photo by Joey Krebs
Photo Illustrations courtesy of Art Report Today .com


Gordy Grundy

Gordy Grundy

Gordy Grundy

Gordy Grundy

Gordy Grundy