Robert Shapazian: Memories of a Friend and Colleague.
It was over the telephone that I first met Robert Shapazian thirty years ago. I had just issued my first catalogue of rare photography books and was told by my wife at the time who worked in a gallery that I should send a copy to this interesting collector living in Fresno. Within a day or so I received a call from Robert. I was immediately struck by the fast energy of his voice. He was curious as to whom I was and upon telling him that I was just starting out in business he ordered a fairly expensive book. It may have been my first sale. I was to learn this was something constant with him: he was keen to help people start on new endeavors. Also during that first call we had a long discussion about Walter Benjamin whom I had just discovered. Robert's incisive thinking into Benjamin far surpassed mine and I was immediately hooked: we became close friends.
I mention all of this as it elicits three qualities of Robert as I got to know him. The first was his generosity. Robert was always lending a helping hand to others whether it was financial support, facilitating connections, or teaching. I owed a lot to him in this respect and I know many others did as well. One passion of his was for struggling young authors and it was through his efforts and good will that several of them were published. Later in life he participated in many community programs to assist the education of disadvantaged youth, including the InsideOUT Writers Program, where he taught a writing workshop for girls incarcerated at Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles; working with the Sherry Lansing Foundation to create a new program with the L.A. Unified School District; as well as being on the advisory board at the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy at Loyola Law School.
His intellectual curiosity was another quality that made Robert special. A voracious reader, filmgoer and traveler who gathered insights as others gather information. He wanted to get into the underbelly of a thing, as he was always fond of saying, and his gift was his ability to communicate these insights and make them sound as natural as if you had conceived them yourself. Though he wasn't a writer himself, he was a catalyst to discourse. This discourse centered on life, philosophy, politics and art. Some of this may have stemmed from his own academic training (B.A. from UC Berkeley, M.A. and PhD. in English from Harvard), but ultimately it was his own acute angle onto things. As another friend put it, it was Robert's sense of grand drama and his slightly agitated feelings of disorder in the world that made him enjoy their conversations.
After a hitch with Arthur Elrod Associates which put him in contact with the work of John Lautner and created a lifelong fascination with modernist architecture and its preservation, Robert joined the family agribusiness. Although he had begun importing and collecting Asian art by the time he was thirteen, selling some of it to the Cleveland Museum of Art under Sherman Lee, it was at this juncture that Robert began collecting in earnest. Art Deco objet and furniture led to an interest in experimental photography. His interest here was a logical extension: constructivist and Bauhaus photographs of Rodchenko, Lissitzky, and Moholy-Nagy. He was soon collecting 19th century photography such as Talbot, Nadar and Marey, and the surrealist photography of Man Ray, Maurice Tabard, and Roger Parry. He was one of the first to recognize the genius of Claude Cahun. He was elected to the photographic committees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At this point the twin obsessions of Malevich and especially Duchamp came into being. Duchamp informed much of his art thinking from this point on.
Itching to get out of the family business, his opportunity came when he moved to Los Angeles after being hired by Sam Francis to produce books for his Lapis Press. Robert became its editor and visual design creator. During his tenure they published books in literature, philosophy and fine arts with Robert working closely with such writers as Jean-Franois Lyotard and Harry Mathews, and artists such as Ed Ruscha and William Wegman. Many of these books were meta-textual (if I might be permitted the neologism) in that they associated texts with visual adjuncts in a system that seemed only Robert was privy to. But they worked! For his efforts, Robert was named Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters by Jack Lang, French Minister of Culture. The books themselves received many awards for their designs. At this same time he and I even pooled our critical thinking and edited a special issue on transgressive behavior together for the LAICA Journal publishing commissioned pieces by Jean Baudrillard, Felix Guttari and others.
After Francis died in 1994, Robert was asked by Larry Gagosian to become the director for his new gallery in Beverly Hills, where he remained for ten years. As with the Lapis Press, he enjoyed bringing in new talent to the gallery and working with artists. He was a great salesperson because he believed in the work he was selling. His own collecting at the time carried a similar conviction. Duchamp was soon joined in the Pantheon by Warhol whom Robert believed to be the single greatest form giver to the art of the second half of the 20th century. Indeed, Warhol became an intellectual obsession, and Robert made convincing arguments about the quality of all phases of Warhol's production. His passion for the work became its own truth. Looking ahead, he saw Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst as the true successors to-but in no way imitators of-Warhol.
Robert was a collector who always stayed under the radar. His wasn't a trophy collection: it was an extension the personal. As an assemblage of objects it made sense much in the way his book design made sense: it all eventually cohered and he could readily connect it for you. This was the third quality that made him special. And he was one of the greatest art detectives I have ever encountered. Years ago, William Copley sold at auction eight of Duchamp's Disks Inscribed with Puns, the ninth being long lost. Leave it to Robert-he found the missing disk in Paris. He had that knack. Robert was also someone always ahead of himself. There was not much interest in the ossified strategies of accumulation. This had no meaning for him. Feeling exhausted with the new, he began, curiously, to go back full circle. He began collecting artifacts of the Chinese Cultural Revolution; he assembled a magnificent group of 19th and early 20th century photographs of the Hajj going to Mecca. These pursuits were ultimately germane to his interest of people's struggles worldwide and to his travels to and the friends he developed in places like Egypt and Mali. Europe became so old school.
One day he called me saying he wanted to discuss a health issue. It was then when he told me about the illness that he would eventually succumb to. He was absolutely discreet about it, he only told a few friends. I found Robert in the last year of his life still forging on with his humanism, commitment and passion surprisingly intact. Ultimately, his greatest frustration during this time was his inability to travel and partake in new experiences. But there was no longer talk about material things such as art collecting. The conversations were more philosophical now and there was a new interest in comparative religions. Cycles of life and death. Some of the puckish personality was gone. There was still his concern for others. What do you need? How can I help you? It adds up to an impressive legacy.
Editor, Edward Ruscha Catalogue Raisonn of Paintings
Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol
In 1971 Andy Warhol told his friend and future biographer David Bourdon: "I could be the new Duchamp." (Oral interview with David Bourdon, June 4, 1971, transcript, Library of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 7. I am grateful to Thomas Kiedrowski for having drawn this quotation to my attention, and for having directed me to the source). This was not a flip or thoughtless comment, coming, as it did, just two years after the death of Marcel Duchamp, an artist whom Warhol greatly admired and whose work he collected (before his own untimely death in 1987, Warhol would amass some thirty objects by or related to Duchamp). Moreover, Duchamp's contribution to the history of 20th Century art is a fact that Warhol accepted and openly acknowledged. There can be no question that a close rapport between these two artists exists. Indeed, it could be argued that what Duchamp was to the first half of the 20th Century, Warhol was to the second. Because Warhol succeeded Duchamp, however, it is often assumed that much of the work he produced was made in conscious emulation of the older French artist, but nothing could be further from the truth. If a relationship between the two artists can be established, it is not a simple matter of formal influence, but rather a case where - through their work - each artist independently pursued issues that not only relate to the world of art, but to life itself. Some of these subjects are: gender identification, money and its relationship to art, optical experiments, readymade objects as art, preserving corporeal effusions, designing innovative installations, the adoption of pseudonyms, the art object as a reflection of popular culture, language games, etc..
The relationship between Duchamp and Warhol is a subject that was thoroughly explored in a recent exhibition held at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania entitled, appropriately, "Twisted Pair." It was organized by the museum's archivist, Matt Wrbican, and consisted of pairings of works by the two artists that demonstrate the surprising degree to which their works interrelate ("Twisted Pair: Marcel Duchamp Andy Warhol," The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, May 23-September 12, 2010. Ironically, the Irving Penn photograph that is discussed in this paragraph was not reproduced in the newspaper, for it was a stipulation of the Irving Penn Estate that the image be reproduced full page. Since that was not possible within the limited format, a black square was printed within which appeared the following explanation: "Because of the policy of the copyright owner of this photograph, it is not reproduced.") Both the show, as well as an accompanying tabloid-style guide to the exhibition, were introduced by the pairing of two remarkable photographs: one of Duchamp standing in the sharp corner of an interior space that was taken by Irving Penn in 1948, and another of Warhol standing with his back to the viewer at the intersection of two cement walls taken by Otto Fenn in 1954. The comparison is compelling, for it accurately encapsulates both the similarities and differences between these two artists, whose personalities could not have been at further remove: Duchamp the calm, articulate and sophisticated Frenchman, smiling at the camera and smoking his pipe, seemingly relaxed even in the cramped, artificial space in which he was placed, while, by contrast, Warhol appears somewhat disheveled, his shoulders roll forward as if dejected, accepting the position he has been given like a child who is punished by being forced to stand in a corner. There can be no question that Warhol was the more introverted of the two artists, but his reticent demeanor belied an artistic voice that was arguably more powerful than any other artist of his generation. When this photograph was taken, Warhol was only 25 years old and working in New York as a commercial illustrator - his commitment to the art world alluded to by the beret he wears - but within seven years, he would replace the beret with a shocking silver-blonde wig and go on to create some of the most memorable and iconic images of the Pop Movement.
Warhol was briefly introduced to Duchamp in early 1963, and they became acquainted again during the opening of Duchamp's first major retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of Art later in the year. Warhol was on the west coast for the opening of his own exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, where he showed his Silver Liz and Elvis paintings, an exhibition that Duchamp also visited during his stay in California. Duchamp had spent the better part of his career challenging what he called the "retinal" aspect of art, by which he meant an art that was appreciated primarily on the basis of its visual qualities. With this aesthetic position, he must have found Warhol's work refreshing, for it certainly represented a departure from Abstract Expressionism, the prevalent painterly movement of the day that had dominated the art scene in America for at least two decades. Instead, Warhol's mechanically reproduced imagery (the Soup Cans were made by tracing a projected image on the canvas, and the silver paintings were all made by means of silkscreens) must have appealed to Duchamp, who some fifty years earlier, had himself resorted to mechanical drafting techniques to free himself from what he called the artist's patte (paw print), the personal mark or style that displays the artists' individuality and, at the same time, their ego. Above all, Duchamp was drawn to the incessant repetition of images. "If you take a Campbell's soup can and repeat it 50 times," he later told to an interviewer, "you are not interested in the retinal image. What interests you is the concept that wants to put 50 Campbell's soup cans on a canvas" (quoted in R. Constable, "New York's Avant Garde, And How it Got There," New York Herald Tribune, May 17, 1964, p. 7).
In 1966, Duchamp invited Warhol to participate in an exhibition devoted to the theme of chess that was to be held at the Cordier & Ekstrom Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York. Warhol never responded to the invitation, but he and a camera crew showed up at the opening to make a movie of Duchamp. From 1964 to 1966, Warhol shot almost 500 so-called "screen tests," 16 mm. silent, three-minute black-and-white head-shots of various people who visited The Factory. Later Duchamp told an interviewer what took place with Warhol and his entourage at the opening. "Warhol had brought his camera and he asked me to pose," he explained, "on the single condition that I keep my mouth shut for twenty minutes." Duchamp did exactly that, but when we watch the film today, it is clear that he appears somewhat distracted. Rather than leave Duchamp alone before the bright lights and camera mounted on a tripod - as was his custom with other screen tests - he encouraged the young and beautiful Benedetta Barzini (an Italian model who was then dating Warhol's studio assistant, Gerard Malanga), to crouch down out of camera range and gently rub his legs. "I had a girl on my knee, at least, nearly," he later explained, "a very cuddly little actress came and sat by me practically lying on top of me, rubbing herself up against me." Duchamp had an unusually positive reaction to Warhol's efforts as a filmmaker (a profession that Duchamp had himself seriously contemplated pursuing many years earlier). "He's not just some painter or movie-maker," he said. "He's a filmeur, and I like that very much" (Duchamp's comments are quoted from his interview with Otto Hahn, "G255300," Art and Artists, 1, no. 4 , July 1966, p. 7).
One of the themes that Duchamp and Warhol shared and explored through their work is gender play, Duchamp's being of course the introduction of his infamous alter ego in 1920, Rrose Sélavy. On more than one occasion, Warhol had himself photographed in feminine guise and, in 1973, when he was asked to contribute an homage to Duchamp for the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he submitted the photograph of himself surrounded by transvestites and drag queens, labeling the picture: "For Rrose Sélavy and Belle Haleine" (only later was it discovered that the image of his face had been mechanically inserted). Whereas the similarity is likely coincidental, it is hard not to compare the glamorous photographs of Rrose Sélavy with those of Warhol's Liz or Marilyn paintings, for they, too, represent depictions of conspicuously alluring and seductive femme fatales. It may have been for similar reasons that both Duchamp and Warhol seized upon images of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa for the painting had attained an iconic status within the history of art comparable to that of Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor in the movie industry. After leaving Pittsburgh in 1949, Warhol changed his professional name from Warhola and in later years, like Duchamp, adopted several amusing pseudonyms during the course of his career (from the anonymous "John Doe" to "Drella," a combination of Dracula and Cinderella, an allusion, doubtlessly, to his notoriously mercurial character). Duchamp wore a wig to create Rrose, but Warhol wore a conspicuously artificial wig whenever he appeared in public (and even made a painting of wigs in 1961 from an advertisement). The wig was not a part of Warhol's persona that could be easily overlooked. "He looks like a Merino, a white rabbit with pink eyes," Duchamp recalled. "It's very strange, that grey-white hair which doesn't manage to be blond, or the other way around" (Interview with Otto Hahn, ibid., p. 7. An interesting paper exploring Duchamp and Warhol's gender-bending works was presented by James W. McManus, "Twisted Sisters Rrose and Drella: In View Out of Sight - Hiding in Front of the Camera," Further Thoughts on the Twisted Pair, a colloquium, The Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, September 11-12, 2010. The 14 papers presented at that event, plus numerous photographs of the exhibition, will be published by the museum at a future date).
Comparisons between the work of Duchamp and Warhol are so numerous as to suggest that the latter artist consciously imitated the former, but the similarities are caused more by an interest in the exploration of common themes. The most focused point of their conjunction comes with the readymade, a concept that Duchamp introduced in the early years of the 20th century, where commonplace, everyday objects could be considered works of art if selected by the artist and presented within the context of art. Warhol was especially intrigued by Duchamp's Fountain, a urinal that the artist submitted to the Independents Exhibition of 1917 under the pseudonym "R. Mutt." Warhol eventually went on to acquire an example of this work from the Schwarz edition of 1964 and, in 1961, he also made large black-and-white paintings of Victorian toilets and bathtubs, appropriated from illustrations in an old plumbing-supply catalogue. In a like manner, he also made two paintings of a manual typewriter, which Wrbican describes as a "precise riposte" to Duchamp's Traveler's Folding Item, an actual Underwood typewriter cover that was selected as a readymade in 1916 (but which was subsequently lost or destroyed). Just as Duchamp will be remembered for his readymades, Warhol will never be forgotten for his iconic paintings of Soup Cans, and also his simulation of the cardboard boxes that were designed to contain similar products of mass consumption: Brillo, Corn Flakes, Heinz Ketchup boxes, etc.. In an exhibition at the Bianchini Gallery in 1964 called "The American Supermarket Show," Warhol showed examples of his Brillo and Del Monte Peach Halves boxes, as well as a painting of a Campbell's Soup Can, which was priced at $1,500. But on display below the painting, as a Life magazine article later reported in astonishment, were actual cans of Campbell's soup that normally are offered at a price of two-for-35 cents, but now - graced with Warhol's signature - sell briskly at the rate of $ 6 per can ("You Think This is a Supermarket?" Life, November 20, 1964, pp. 138-40. I am grateful to Robert Hobbs for having drawn this article to my attention, to Matt Wrbican for having found a copy in the Warhol Time Capsules, and to Greg Burchard at the Warhol Museum for having provided me with a scan).
There is no record of what Duchamp might have thought of this escalation in price, although he disdained any attempt to commercialize his own work (with the exception of the Schwarz edition of readymades produced in 1964, which were done more for the purpose of producing examples of his work for display in museums than any monetary reward). Warhol, on the other hand, made every effort possible to be as rich and famous as the people he depicted in his celebrity portraits, an effort at which he certainly succeeded, well exceeding the time limit suggested in his most famous quotation: "In the future, everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes."
Francis M. Naumann