Los Angeles has become a Great Art City, with hundreds of galleries, thousands of artists, important art fairs and exhibitions, arts districts throughout the metropolitan and suburban areas, and a style–Low Brow–which was incubated and midwifed in the region. It’s a sign of our city’s embrace of art that the country’s leading Art Nouveau and Symbolist gallery, which also carries occult art and print materials from German Cabaret and European Silent Cinema along with several important current artists, has moved here: On December 1st, Century Guild— which features art of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, opens on the Westside with museum quality works. (Oh ye of Silver Lake and points eastward, don’t shudder; Century Guild is right off the 10 freeway, on Washington near La Cienega!). Century Guild has placed artworks in museums and top collections around the world; works previously in the Century Guild inventory are on permanent display in The Art Institute of Chicago, The Detroit Institute of Arts, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Century Guild ushers in a bygone era of art that is as fresh and exciting as when it was first created. As proof of this, crowds flocked to Century Guild’s Art Nouveau pavilion at ComiCon San Diego; the original artworks carried by the gallery, and the artists who created them, have influenced graphic novels as well as Gothic and Steampunk style. Century Guild’s gallery space is glorious, more like a salon than the traditional white-walled box, with beautiful antique furniture from the time periods featured in the collection curated by Thomas Negovan (pictured above, next to Thaw by Gail Potocki). Though Negovan was busy prepping for the gallery’s opening this upcoming Saturday–which along with showcasing the historical pieces will launch Jeremy Bastian‘s Cursed Pirate Girl into the City of Angels–he made time for an email interview with me. (Full disclosure, I was so excited about the Century Guild’s art that I bought an Auguste Donnay lithograph from their website before they even opened their doors here.) Along with Bastian, the Century Guild represents acclaimed and award winning Symbolist artist Gail Potocki, whose newest work was most recently seen as part of La Luz de Jesus’ “The Macabre Show.” Century Guild’s arrival in Los Angeles is yet another sign we are a city of art connoisseurs, ahead of the curve in collecting (and certainly what better place than the home of the entertainment industry for a gallery that features artwork from the European Silent Cinema!), with clear ideas about what we love. Fashions be damned! Truly Los Angeles is forward thinking, even when it comes to the art of the past, as Negovan explains in our interview, in which he covers art, how he got his start collecting (With books! And we at CARTWHEEL understand that, since our art collections grew out of our love of books.), how to collect art, and much more, including the upcoming Jeremy Bastian show.
Why did you expand to Los Angeles, a city which is just learning to preserve her history?
While we were in Chicago, we did very well with artists that are more traditional, and since that was the majority of our inventory it was a perfect fit. I remember showing collectors artists like Klimt and [Egon] Schiele a decade ago and having them not want to take a chance on an artist that didn’t have the popularity of, say, Picasso or Toulouse-Lautrec. The new collectors in Chicago are almost too traditional now. The collectors who took chances a century ago are the ones that brought all the amazing Van Gogh paintings to Chicago, but that wasn’t a traditional decision, that was as emotional a purchase as you could imagine. We’ve found that in the last decade when we find something really special that isn’t a household name, we pretty consistently were sending it to Los Angeles. Our experience has been that the art and artists that we were personally most passionate about are the ones that Los Angeles has appreciated us tracking down, and moving forward we want to see that relationship develop. We’ll still have artists like Gustav Klimt and Toulouse-Lautrec, but we’ll be focusing equal attention on things like German cabaret and European Silent Cinema, two areas of collecting that are filled with artworks that are incredibly, incredibly rare, historically important, and visually intoxicating.
How and when did the gallery start?
Century Guild was formed in 1999. After working for a top gallery specializing in Art Nouveau, I found myself in demand in the antique poster and Art Nouveau market as a consultant to galleries; basically, people had things they knew were special and rare, and I would pore through mountains of dusty books and periodicals to explain the historical context of the artwork. So Century Guild originally started as a consulting entity, and many of the galleries and collectors would ask me to help locate special things, or find collectors for particularly rare or esoteric works. I had always been interested in Symbolist Art of the late 19th century, and found that art dealers never carried any of the things that were more mystical or symbolic in nature, they were too rare to build a gallery around. So while doing all of this consulting, I would find myself with access to the inventories of literally hundreds of dealers, and I would pull aside any Symbolist or occult-themed works that would come up. For the first decade, we never offered any of those works for sale and focused on selling the more traditional Art Nouveau, it was around four or five years ago where we had enough material to make a proper inventory of the works that we are personally the most excited about.
What about Art Nouveau appeals to you? The other styles at Century Guild?
The manifesto for the Art Nouveau movement reads like a treatment for the movie The Matrix; at the time, the Industrial Revolution had just occurred and people were afraid that this machinery would be a wedge between man and nature. They had no idea how right they were. Art Nouveau as a movement was an embrace of the connection between man and nature and an attempt to reinforce and nurture that connection mentally and spiritually. The other end of the era that we cover at Century Guild would be Expressionism, where man had been exposed to the horrors of the First World War and found a way to depict life in a much more raw and bold manner than ever before.
As a collector, what advice do you have for collectors just starting out?
I think that for me, art has always been an inspiration. When people ask me “what’s the best investment?” I have to ask them what that means to them… Financially? Emotionally? Spiritually? Financially, you can never really tell. I mean, yes, you can make educated decisions, but it’s like watching a pot of water coming to boil. I think that any artist would be mortified to know that someone was living with their art only because of its value. Toulouse-Lautrec gave his paintings away, it wasn’t about money. Art, by its presence, alters your consciousness in the space you’re collectively inhabiting. Great art doesn’t meet you halfway, and when you are in the subtle presence of a truly great artwork it reveals new elements of itself over time. You learn something about not only a different perspective but about the subtle psychologies of an entirely different place and time. It can’t help but expand your consciousness if you’re open to it. Collect things that help you understand and increase your sensitivity to a perspective that you want to enrich your life with. And on a practical level, buy from a dealer whose opinions you trust, and always buy the best you can possibly afford. The first serious antique I ever bought took me a year to pay off but I still have it in my living room twenty years later.
What are the chances of a miraculous find at a flea market or estate sale?
On an emotional level, they’re really good. You can always find something that has the experience of the hunt attached to it and that’s something important- the memory of the acquisition of the object or artwork. The downside is only that as your tastes get more sophisticated, you need to live with things that are historically important and truly great examples of their period, and those don’t turn up in those situations. I know of a couple of stories, but it’s never really happened to me in twenty years. I found a Winsor McCay comic once in Iowa for $350 that was in the price guide for $2000, but if you factor in three decades of antiquing that wouldn’t average out very well. I’ve actually made all my best purchases from dealers- every dealer buys collections, and has things that they will sell for below market value. In those cases, the dealer has done all the work finding and authenticating the piece, and if you really think about it in every situation the best deal is simply when you get an excellent artwork for your collection. I should also add that the dearth of artworks available at what seem to be amazing deals on the internet is misleading- in one case, I bought a vase on eBay that I thought I was getting for only 25% of its value, and when it arrived it was literally sawed off in a way that was hidden in the listing. After months of battling, I wasn’t able to get my money back, and that $2000 mistake is now holding peacock feathers in my friend’s house because it’s unsalable. So that might fall under the advice to new collectors question, as well- when you buy from a reputable dealer, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. Dealers, by the nature of constantly hunting, make a number of purchases that don’t work out, and in the end it all balances. You have to decide if you can afford to make it a full-time job and make purchases both good and bad in the process. I collect vintage recording equipment, for example, and I practice what I preach. I pay a little more to buy from a reputable dealer, but I know it’s going to be right every time, and that makes it much cheaper at the end of the balance sheet.
What have been some of your remarkable finds?
At first thought I might have read this question as wanting me to name some artworks, but right at this moment I’m really most grateful for finding Gail Potocki and Jeremy Bastian. When you specialize in Art Nouveau, artists show you their work that they claim is inspired by the movement, and you realize they’re looking at the surface of the art but completely and totally missing the entire point. When you look at an artist like Klimt or Mucha, even the tiniest gesture is spot on. A drawing of a hand on a napkin is enough to take your breath away. Jeremy Bastian is really coming into that place. It suggests the obsessions of British and French political illustrations of the 18th century but adds this modern whimsy that’s one of the most special things I’ve ever seen in my life. And there are a lot of painters that can make their work look like the Old Masters, but Gail Potocki paints with so much creativity in her content that she’s set very much apart. I’ve tried over the years to both exhibit and own a number of living artists, but when placed against the artists that we carry at Century Guild, the living artists consistently suffer for the comparison. I feel lucky that out of the small handful of artists that can carry their weight in that context, two of them are ones that I get to work with so intimately.
How long have you been collecting?
Old, beautiful books were my first weakness, and that would have been as early as ten or eleven. Then records, then decorative things like old clocks or whatever I could decorate my room with, and I think that my first serious artworks were probably when I was about 20 years old.
What do you collect personally?
I’m in a place right now where my living space has become its own creature- I like information, so my collection of books takes up an entire floor of my house. I find that most of what I spend my money on personally are things that take me away from Paris in 1900 and Germany in 1920- but when I say “spend my money on” it’s such a rare thing, most of what I enjoy are directly related to my work. I read books about the Weimar Republic for fun. But I will admit to having a ridiculous amount of graphic novels and pinball games in my basement.
What preservation tips do you have regarding prints and lithographs?
Always frame archivally, that’s it- it’s that easy.
What is your background/education?
I grew up very working class on the South Side of Chicago. I went to college for one day, but as soon as I realized fifteen minutes into my day that I was in the wrong class, I went home. I was a terrible student, anyway. When I was in high school, I barely passed some classes but in a class like Psychology I got an A and never even bought the books. The worst class experience I had was Geometry; I was reading a book at the time by Hans Reichenbach called “The Philosophy of Space and Time” and the foreword tells you “First, forget everything you learned in Geometry.” I literally started reading this book the first day of the class! I’m not proud of it, I was a terrible student. I wanted to learn what I wanted to learn, and anything else was ignored. I will publicly apologize here to Mr. Augustyn who said, “I’m not going to flunk you, because I know that you’re a smart kid, and I’m not going to waste your summer again. But try harder next time.” What he meant by “again” is that I had flunked Algebra the previous year of high school, and his first teaching gig was that class for summer school. Because I actually focused on it, I got something like a 98% grade that summer after having failed the class, so he was being very very gracious and kind. Fast forward to just last month, and I make friends with a writer named Brian Augustyn and it turns out my old geometry teacher is his little brother! How funny is that? I owe that man one summer of my life. Another short story: I was working at one of the Poster Fairs that you see travel the country, for a New York dealer. I was flipping the posters on the table, and as I was telling the stories of the posters and artists, a crowd gathered. When they parted, a man who had been sitting there looking through photographs of the inventory asked “How much of that did you make up?” I couldn’t understand the question, I hadn’t made any of it up. I was all things I’d read in period literature and found in research materials. This man was one of the founders of the International Vintage Poster Dealers Association, and he said that he had learned more from me in the last twenty minutes than in his twenty years as a dealer. I took it as a very nice compliment, but I felt sorry for his clients!
What are your other interests?
I’ve been spending time recently exploring the earliest recording technologies. You can see a talk I gave at TEDx on my experiences here. http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxNaperville-Thomas-Negovan-B
Tell me about Cursed Pirate Girl and Jeremy Bastian.
Cursed Pirate Girl is a graphic novel that is six chapters. The first three chapters took four years to produce because of how many intricate details Jeremy Bastian puts on a page. In the tiniest corner of any given panel is a story all unto itself that goes untold- it’s literally the most dense creative world I’ve ever seen. He’s like a Henry Darger. We printed the first three chapters ourselves in comic form, the books sold out immediately, and some copies sold for hundreds of dollars the next month. We went through four printings of the first chapter, and our collected edition was at the time the highest grossing Kickstarter for a comics project, we reached 1000% of our goal. Those are all gone, now, and we’re excited that this Christmas a deluxe hardcover will be in stores from Archaia publishing. The final three chapters are being worked on as we speak, and should see the light of day sometime in 2015. Jeremy creates his work with a 00 brush. My friends Grant Morrison and Dave McKean also work in the graphic novel field, and see a ton of art- they were completely blown away by how intricate and powerful his work was, all the time thinking he’d done it with a pen. When I explained it was a brush, Dave shouted, “He did that with a BRUSH?” and Grant commented “It’s more like the absence of brush, it’s like he’s pushing around air…” Mike Mignola makes a comic called Hellboy and gave us a great quote for the book that called Jeremy a genius, he thought it was one of the most original things he’d ever seen. The number of creative people who are fans of Jeremy Bastian are staggering, and I’m hoping that 2013 sees him move from being an “artist’s artist” into a nice place in pop culture.
You have contemporary as well as historical artists in the gallery, what do you look for when taking on contemporary artists?
I don’t generally work with contemporary artists, I’ve shown artists that I personally admire from time to time but it’s purely as a labor of love.
How would you like to be depicted in a piece of art? By which artist?
I think that Gail Potocki did a great job with Tattered Mothe! Now I just have to get Jeremy to do something…
Jeremy Bastian, Cursed Pirate Girl/Century Guild Opening Reception
Saturday December 1, 6-9 pm Cursed Pirate Girlruns weekends through December 24; special holiday sale of Century Guild collected artworks December 12-24.
6150 West Washington Boulevard
Culver City, CA 90232
Special holiday sale hours daily December 12-24 noon to 10pm; normally open by appointment only.