ArtBlitz LA’s Jamie Samuel had the opportunity to sit down with Molly Barnes, an attractive woman who has worn many hats in the art world. Originally from London, Barnes has lived in all the major art-centric cities. Some know her as the first to represent John Baldessari, others as the voice of Art Talk on Art News on radio and television, or perhaps as the host of her Brown Bag Lunch series at the Roger Smith Hotel in New York, or even as a professor at the Otis MFA program, teaching artists “How to Get Hung.” Poised in black and white, with her bright lips at Primo Passo in Santa Monica, Barnes told me stories about the emerging art worlds in Los Angeles and New York.
When it comes to connections and relationships, Barnes has mastered it. She is the one who knows everyone in this industry: abstract expressionists, heads of radio networks, private dealers, famous artists and everyone in between. Over the course of two cappuccinos, I learned about the evolution of the art landscape in Los Angeles and how it continues to change every day. We discussed the role of media in art, the evolution of Los Angeles, specifically Culver City, the time when she first met Baldessari and set to show his work, and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
Molly, tell us about what you have been working on recently?
In the first two weeks of September, I teach a course at Otis College of Art and Design for professional artists, “How to Get Hung”. We meet in the first week and I teach them how to pitch their work and to talk with gallerists and people in the art world. I tell them to pretend they are sitting next to Eli Broad at a dinner and come up with something interesting to say. I don’t have them bring their work to the second class where they present a body of work to the class.
One of my students Mark Farina, is now showing at Jack Rutberg’s gallery and another student has opened the Hale Gallery in Venice, California. Another student, Sean Munley entered a juried show at LACMA, where he presented his work with printed funny messages, and ended up winning.. He works at the Comedy Store and integrates his humor into his work…it’s brilliant.
How did you find yourself in this industry?
After marrying my first husband, I moved to New York where I was introduced to the Abstract Expressionists in the East Hamptons. My husband was a Vice Prresident of CBS Radio in charge of network programming at the time and I met many people in the art and entertainment industry. This is where I met Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Lee Krasner, Andy Warhol and more. This was my first introduction into this world and later after we divorced, I summered in East Hampton, Long Island and opened an art school for children, copying the ideas I learned from my own painting teacher, Athos Zakarias, who was also the studio manager for Helen Frankethaller and Elaine deKooning.
After teaching in East Hampton, I returned to Los Angeles where I work for several art dealers—Rolph Nelson, Frank Gehry’s brother-in-law, the Feigen-Palmer Gallery in Los Angeles, and the California Arts Commission. Then in 1967, I opened my first gallery where I showed New York artists to the Los Angeles crowd. My gallery was located on La Cienega in West Hollywood.
What was the Los Angeles art scene like, how did you see it transform? How was it running your gallery and what were some of your best experiences?
In Los Angeles, there is so much space and so much light. That’s why so many artists worked here. In New York, the pieces had to be smaller and to fit in the freight elevators, it was different. To compare, in New York, the artists are the stars whereas in Los Angeles, Hollywood actors are the stars. Also, all the art magazines were in New York as well the major museums. To me it is much more fun there in New York. Everyone is involved with the art world there, but it is all about Hollywood and showbiz in Los Angeles.
I fell in love with New York and the artists (Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Lee Krasner, Andy Warhol) that I met. The existence of two generations of abstract expressionists created this synergistic feeling within one particular school of art—and that feeling is what I tried to bring to my gallery in Los Angeles.
La Cienega was like a small western frontier town. It was like a western movie and the galleries looked like barns, but had white walls to hang the art. On Monday nights, we would remain open and have an art walk; it was the cheapest date in town. It was wonderful, just like living in another time. I had the gallery for 18 years. I would show: John Baldessari, Warren Brandt, Bruce Connor, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Joe Goode, Gronk, George Herms, David Hockney, Steve Martin, Martin Mull, Klaus Oldenberg, Ed Ruscha, Victor Vasarely, and Andy Warhol.
A week before John Baldessari walked into my gallery, a man came into my gallery with a painting and held me up by gunpoint demanding that I pay S50,000 to buy the painting. And I said, “Could I at least see it?,” meanwhile my assistant called the police. So when Baldessari walked in a week later looking a little homeless man with a box of paintings I was a little nervous. But once he showed me his work, I realized there was something special about it and gave him three shows. When he left my gallery, he gave me a painting and I later sold it and bought my apartment in New York, the painting is now worth $11 million.
What happened next?
After 18 years, I moved to New York where I work and still work for the artist hotel, Roger Smith Hotel in midtown. For a short time I worked for Mark Kostabi running Kostabi World getting to know the art scene. At the Roger Smith Hotel, I began a salon called The Brown Bag Lunch Brunch, and it still exists today. My next salon will be October 2nd and 3rd featuring Gabrielle Selz and Sydney Cash. Every six weeks, I host a salon where the art world gathers and we invite artists to speak. I have been working there for the past 20 years and I have featured Clement Greenberg, Andre Serrano, Larry Rivers, Larry Poons, and Ivan Karp.
How did Art News Radio come to be?
I have always enjoyed talking about art. I approached KFWB Radio in Los Angeles and WNYC Radio in New York, and they both put me on the air and I was nominated for an Emmy for a TV show that I did on arts in Los Angeles for Falcon Communications. Also, I did a subscription TV show for Horace Solomon, husband of famous dealer Holly Solomon and father of fabulous Los Angeles dealer Tommy Solomon in Chinatown.
What would you like to do in the future?
I would like to expand art coverage on the air, similar to what New York Arts with hosts Paula Zahn and Philippe de Montebello. I would like to re open the Arts and TV stations at West LA College featuring full time discussion of art, music and theater.
Larry Poons said, “Art is not for everyone. It never has been. And it never will be. But for people who love art like I do, I want to turn you on. ” I feel the same way.
Barnes is currently in the process of writing her book about Abstract Expressionist, Willem de Kooning. She has written multiple books and uses her How to Get Hung as a textbook for her classes at Otis. Barnes is very active in the Los Angeles art scene and is on the board of the Century City Arts Commission where she will be hosting a panel about collecting in the fall. You can also find her talks about art at the Roger Smith Hotel where she continues to host her “Brown Bag” lunches. For someone who has been in this industry for some time, the stories she told provided me with amazing insight into this world.