January 11, 2012
Louis K. Meisel & Frederico Sève
By Julia Halperin, Photographs by Micah Aaron Schmidt
Published January 2012 Art & Auction
Louis Meisel spent six times his weekly salary to acquire his first painting. That was in 1963, when he was 21 years old and working as a studio assistant in New York for the early Abstract Expressionist painter Theodoros Stamos. “I was making about $100 a week,” he recalls. The modes green and white canvas cost $600. “Stamos said I could pay him $5 a week. My father was making $200 a week – he didn’t understand.”
Three years later, a 20-year-old Frederico Seve, just beginning a job as a stockbroker in his native Brazil, purchased the artwork that would be the start of his collection, a small painting of a saint by the Brazilian modernist Alfredeo Volpi, for $1,000. “I had money to buy my first car or to buy a Volpi.” Seve says. “I bought the Volpi.”
The passion that led these two men to prioritize painting over practicalities has served them well. With more than 80 years in the art business between them, Meisel (in partnership with Frank Bernarducci) and Seve operate galleries one floor apart in the same building on West 57th Street in New York, and each possesses a private collection comprising thousands of works. Neither has a formal education in the arts – Meisel studied architecture for two years at Tulane University; Seve majored in economics at the University of Economics and Finance in Rio de Janeiro – but the two have carved out prominent positions in specialized corners of the market. Meisel, who also maintains his original gallery on Prince Street in SoHo, deals in hyperrealist and photorealist paintings from the 1970s to the present; Seve focuses on both emerging and established Latin American and Spanish artists.
The dealers’ extensive personal holdings reflect their respective business niches. Meisel and his wife, Susan, a realtor and decorative-arts dealer, live above the SoHo gallery in an airy loft that is packed with works by such major photorealist as Charles Bell, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, and Ralph Goings. Farther north, on the Upper West Side, Seve and his wife, the investment banker Violy McCausland, live in a seven-room apartment densely hung with works by Latin American women artists such as Gego, Mira Schendel, and Carmen Herrera, the 96-year-old abstract painter whom Seve rescued from obscurity during the last decade.
Although the two dealers share a goal of supporting the talents they sell and collect, they diverge sharply in how they pursue it: Meisel blurs the line between his inventory and his private holdings to maximize the artists’s exposure. Seve makes a sharp distinction between the two to avoid conflicts of interest.
“I’m a collector first and a dealer second,” Meisel is fond of saying. A fast talker, he rattles off the names of artists whose works he has acquired as if they were so many guests at a party. He estimates that he represents approximately 30 percent of the artists in his collection and owns at least one work by each name on his roster, unabashedly admitting that he keeps the best of their output for himself. “Artists know that when there is a show somewhere, thae are going to be represented by the best paintings they’ve done, because that’s what I’ve held onto,” Meisel says, referring to his frequent loans to museums around the world. The first exhibition devoted to collection , “Our Own Directions,” opened in September at Mana Contemporary Art Center, in Jersey City, where it will be on view through February 29, and he is both a leader to and a consultant on a photorealism exhibition being organized by the Institut fur Kulturaustausch, in Tubingen, that will travel to several venues in Europe starting in spring 2013. “They’ll get 50 percent of the show from outside loans, and I’ll fill in what they can’t come up with,” he says.
Seve takes a more circumspect position on personal acquisitions. He will consider buying a piece by an artist he represents only after the close of the gallery’s exhibition in which the work appears. “If you’re an art dealer and you collect too, you can ruin your image if you don’t do it in a very clear and very established way,” he explains “Collectors can say, “Wow, this guy is too clever: When it’s good, he buys for himself; when it is low quality, he sells.” I like to give the best works to the best clients.” He figures that works by artists he represents make up only a small fraction of his collection, which includes photography, sculpture, drawings, pottery, and glass.
Both dealers partner with their spouses in collecting. The Meisels’ vast and varied holdings – ranging from paintings to weeping copper-beech trees and from vintage ice-cream scoops to bronze Art Deco statuettes – are the subject of more than 20 books they have written including a four-volume history of photorealism soon to be capped off by Photorealism in the Digital Age, due out in 2013. As for Seve and McCausland, “we have very similar tastes,” she says. “I would never marry someone who would like to have figurative art, for example. “How about being married to someone whose professional code prevents her from bagging a prize exhibited in his gallery until the show is over?” I send friends to buy what I want,: McCausland says matter-of-factly. Not that she can keep her husband in the dark for long. “I get home and I find something that was not supposed to be here, ”he points out, “and I say, “Hey, that was bought by Mrs. Whoever.””
Seve and Meisel both describe their tastes as eclectic and favor flawless execution. The similarities end there, however: The latter’s loft is a shrine to Americana, while the former’s holdings are forthrightly cosmopolitan.
In Meisel’s sanctum sanctorum, Ralph Going’s Dick’s Union General, from the artist’s coveted pickup-truck series, hangs above a selection of circuit-camera panoramas from the 1920s and ‘30s of airships entering hangars. “Why do we collect this stuff? Because it hit our eye,” the dealer explains, adding that before eBay “Susan and I spent our lives going to antique shows and shops and tag sales.” Other prized possessions include a monumental Charles Bell painting of glistening rainbow –colored marbles, which is displayed next to a Chuck Close portrait of a bespectacled young Susan Meisel. Louis’s office is lined with pictures of pinup girls by midcentury illustrators like Alberto Vargas and by the painter Mel Ramos. Fine art rubs elbows with memorabilia that borders on kitsch. One bathroom is covered floor to ceiling with key chains, plastic cups, and other trinkets once sold at dime-store counters; another is plastered with group portraits of all the Miss America Pageant contestants from 1923 through the mid 1960s. “These are collections that will go nowhere and have no meaning except to me,” he says.
Besides the contingent stellar Latin American women artists, Seve and McCausland give wall space to paintings by the Americans Julian Schnabel, Jim Dine, and Robert Motherwell, as well as the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta. Other treasures include an Incan tapestry and a chair by the Japanese-American designer George Nakashima. The couple has a soft spot for drawings; a suite of sketches of circus performers by Alexander Calder and a large preparatory charcoal by William Kentridge are among their favorites. “I bought this at the first Miami Basel,” McCausland says of the Kentridge, “but I had no clue who he was at the time. I buy on impulse. My husband analyzes – looks at the price, the year, the subject, whether it is in good shape. He’s a dealer.” That business sense doesn’t preclude the personal, though. In the couple’s bedroom is a series of shots by the French photographer Frederic Brenner depicting McCausland at work – on the phone at the des, sitting on a table surrounded by papers. “He wanted to photograph me in my creative process,” she says. “I work on Saturdays because there’s nobody here and I can think clearly. I sit all over the place.”
Seve and McCausland say they have sold only two of their pieces: a Paul Klee gouache and a still life by the Brazilian painter Candido Portinari. “I still think about them,” says McCausland. “They were fantastic financial deals, but in hindsight I would love to have them.” The couple has also donated several pieces, including works by Gego and Herrera, to museums.
Meisel, in contrast, treats his private collection as a sort of long-term extension of his business inventory. “The bottom line is that if the pieces come in and I buy them, I don’t have a much pressure to sell – the artist has been paid,” he explains. “It also gives me a lot more power to pick and choose who’s going to get them.” Indeed, several works in the exhibition of his private collection at Mana Contemporary are also listed on his Web site as available for purchase. Nevertheless, certain paintings - the Goings pick up truck and the Bell marbles, for instance- are all but exempt from sale: “Only if MOMA came along and said it was desperate to have them and promised they’d be on the walls 50 percent of the time.”
Clearly Seve and Meisel have divergent views of how best to reconcile dealing and collecting. But when it comes to what guides their choices, the two concur. “It’s more about if we like it than if it’s a good or bad investment,” says Seve. Explains Meisel, “Regardless of what critics were saying, what was status or not status, what was investment or not investment, we just did our own thing.”