This story originally appeared in the November 25, 2009, issue of St. Louis Jewish Light. It has been republished in its entirety, with the permission of St. Louis Jewish Light.
Usually artists and art dealers occupy two separate and often hostile worlds. One makes, the other sells what has been made. But local art dealer Philip Slein, whose eponymous Washington Avenue gallery mounts some of the most engaging exhibitions in town, moonlights as a painter and has been enjoying a lot of buzz over a show of his recent satirical art-world portraits at Schmidt Contemporary Art in Grand Center.
Slein, of course, is not the first artist/dealer. Johannes Vermeer, the great Dutch master, made his living selling the works of other Dutch masters. Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, was Constantin Brancusi's American dealer, and Alfred Steiglitz, the great modernist photographer, introduced Picasso and Matisse to the American market and launched the careers of an entire crop of American modernists, including his future wife, Georgia O'Keeffe.
When I recently mentioned those precedents to Slein over a bottle of California cabernet sauvignon in his downtown loft, he was quite embarrassed. "I couldn't possibly consider myself in such company," he said.
"But people forget that I have always been a painter," he quickly added. "Since I opened the gallery in 2003, people have seen me exclusively as a dealer. No one remembers that I actually had a painting career. I had a solo show with Duane Reed (a local gallery then in Clayton) in 2002 — that was only seven years ago!"
The work Slein was painting then is quite different from what he's doing now. Earlier, he was painting color-based biomorphic abstractions. Now, he's painting satirical portraits. You could see it as a 180-degree turn, but a strong sense of color and bold forms connect the two bodies of work.
"Artists sometime don't develop their mature styles until they're 40 or so," Slein, 41, said. "There was an article in the New York Times recently about Arshile Gorky, who went through a long apprenticeship exploring the styles of his heroes. In my younger years I was trying out various styles as well, settling for a while on a form of abstraction popular in St. Louis at the time." Slein identified Jerald Ieans, at that time a very successful local artist, as his big influence.
Slein's current show is titled The Art Crowd. It features five paintings — three solo portraits and two crowded group portraits. Altogether, more than 90 members of the local art community are depicted, among them local collectors Nancy and Ken Kranzberg, arts patroness Emily Pulitzer, artist/impresario Matt Strauss, Contemporary Art Museum director Paul Ha, St. Louis Art Museum director Brent Benjamin, art print publisher Robert Lococo, painters Michael Byron and Erik Spehn, caterer Bryan Young, arts patrons Mark Weil, his brother and sister-in-law John and Anabeth Weil, and Post-Dispatch gossip columnist Deb Peterson. (Full disclosure: this writer is in three of the paintings, including a solo portrait.)
"When I opened a gallery I was introduced to the art world in its full complexity, including people I didn't know about as a young painter," Slein said. "The full extent of the art world, from art movers and framers to critics to internationally known collectors like Emily Pulitzer, was very interesting to me."
Slein credited a visit to my apartment when I hired him and his business partner Tom Bussmann to hang a few pictures with his transformation.
"People are mostly interested in themselves and in other people," he said. "I had started to paint again, but fell back into my old pattern, which wasn't satisfying, and then we came over to your apartment and I observed the clutter of your books, magazines and art, jazz playing on the stereo, all the colors – the green dome of the Cathedral Basilica out the window, the red upholstery of the Saarinen chair – and I thought I had to paint a picture."
Slein said that it started as a joke – something to show his friends – but the responses were universally positive and he decided to paint more satirical portraits of art world figures.
I have to admit that I was horrified when I saw the portrait Slein painted of me (shown, left). He captured a truth that I didn't want to admit: I was a fat, old man with a taste for wine and gossip (I'm holding a glass of red wine in one hand and a telephone in the other).
But within an instant I was laughing. It was frank in its appraisal, but it was appreciative. Now, I love the portrait.
"My intention was never to be mean, but to have fun," Slein said. "I wanted to paint people who had made a contribution to the local arts community, people I like and admire."
Beginnings in St. Louis
Slein was born in 1968 and grew up in Olivette. He graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in 1987. Slein's family has been in St. Louis since the Civil War era. His father, Ted Slein, was in sales and mental health work before his retirement; his mother was of Swedish background; she died at age 28 when he was two-years-old. He has a younger sister Alison, who is also an artist.
Slein was brought up Jewish. "My family went to Temple Israel. I was confirmed there," he said. "But I really grew up at the JCC. I loved it there, and I still go there to this day with my father. I love the old guys in the men's club. It's great to hear their stories – it's like having 35 grandfathers."
After getting his M.F.A. at Washington University, Slein tried to get a job teaching. He served as an adjunct instructor at most of the local schools.
Slein credits a transformative moment to getting a gig directing the gallery at Forest Park Community College. "It was a former teacher's lounge, a horrible space, with stained carpets and discolored ceiling tiles," he reminisced. "But it was at exactly the right time. There were no galleries for young artists in St. Louis, and I knew many of the young artists who were ready to show.
"All of a sudden there was media attention. William Shearburn (a prominent Central West End dealer) took on Andy Millner (a successful local artist) after I showed him at Forest Park."
Slein said he parlayed the job into one directing the Des Lee Gallery, a non-profit sponsored by Washington University in the downtown loft district.
"I kept that job until 2008, which meant I was directing two galleries, one non-profit, one commercial, for five years after I opened my own gallery in 2003," he said.
Once again, Slein said opening his own gallery occurred at a good time. "There was a lot of positive energy in the local art scene, Eliott Smith (a prominent local gallery) was closing. At first there were lots of sales and lots of money coming in."
Recession hit art world hard
Slein acknowledged that the art world has been hard hit by the recession. "There have not been many sales during the past year. I love art, I love showing art, but a gallery needs to make sales to stay in business, and artists need to sell their work in order to live. I'm frightened from month to month if we're going to be able to stay open.
"Dealers are the financial engines of the art world," Slein said. "There are artists I'd love to show, but if I know I can't sell their work, I recommend that they go to the non-profits."
So will Slein, the reinvented painter, close his gallery for painting?
"There's no way I'm going to quit my day job!" he exclaimed. "I can't suppress my creativity, but I don't have any illusions about my achievement. I have been gratified by the response, it's very encouraging. I plan to continue painting – I have a lot of people and situations in mind as future subjects. But I also love selling art and I plan to keep doing that as long as people are willing to buy."
The Philip Slein Gallery, 1319 Washington Avenue, is showing "Flatworks: Ron Leax" through Dec. 19. 314-621-4634.
*David Bonetti recently retired as the art critic of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.