Gallery brings the museum to the mountains
December 22, 2006
On a trip last month to New York City, Albert Sanford took in the exhibitions at the most prestigious of American art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But he could just as easily have stayed home in Aspen.Walking through MoMA’s Eye on Europe show, Sanford saw works by Miró and contemporary British artists Paul Morrison and the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos; a piece from Damien Hirst’s Spin series; and an original print of “Carrot Nose,” a signature work by Jean Dubuffet. At the Met, he viewed Picasso’s “Blind Minotaur,” part of an exhibit focusing on the noted French art dealer Ambroise.Sanford also saw hundreds of other works. But much of the experience touring through the museums was a literal déjà vu. He had already seen the Picasso, the “Carrot Nose,” and the others – on the walls of Galerie Maximillian, the Aspen gallery Sanford own and runs. Looking at the art at MoMA and the Met, what went through his mind, Sanford said, was “We have that. We have that. We have that.”Galerie Maximillian was a more modest venture when it opened 10 years ago. Sanford handled then the masters of the 19th and 20th century, including Matisse, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso among them. But the selection was relatively small, and limited almost exclusively to works on paper: prints, etchings and the like. The gallery only dabbled in contemporary work by little-known artists.As it celebrates its 10th anniversary, Galerie Maximillian still emphasizes works on paper. But if a collector is looking for one-of-a-kind pieces by the masters, Sanford can walk them into a space just in back of the main gallery, where million-dollar paintings by Chagall and Matisse are exhibited. In the front room hangs art that Sanford says represents some of the best work on paper by Picasso, Dubuffet and the like. Over the past three years, the gallery has come to represent a handful of the celebrated artists collectively known as the Young British Artists, or YBAs, including Hirst, Morrison and Grayson Perry, the transvestite potter who earned the prestigious Turner prize in 2003. Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, honored two years ago with Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s National Artist Award, is also represented.Along with the upswing in quality has come a sharp increase in quantity; Galerie Maximillian doesn’t exist in cramped quarters, but Sanford says his biggest challenge is the shortage of space, a fact backed up by the numerous artworks leaning against the wall, unwrapped.The owner, too, is not quite as modest as he once was. “I think my humility period is over,” said the 46-year-old Sanford, who is best described as refined, but not arrogant. “I’m not a braggadocio. But I think I’m not so humble as I was.
“This is something no other gallery has. There’s no other place like this where you can see ‘Bay of Angels,’ Chagall’s best print.” Of the “Carrot Nose” he saw at the MoMA, Sanford says, “Ours is better. You can see, their colors – ours is a little bit fresher. But theirs is OK.””That’s such a validation for a gallery,” said Anne Chapman, who helped open Galerie Maximillian and works there as an art consultant, “to see work that you are representing in not only a museum, but one of the most important museums in the world.” (And not only in museums: Turning the page on a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine, I came upon a feature on Jake and Dinos Chapman.)Galerie Maximillian celebrates its 10th anniversary – and Sanford’s own rise to prominence as an art dealer – with the exhibit Jean Dubuffet & Modern Masters of the 20th Century. The show, which features 60 works by the French figurative artist Dubuffet, opens with a reception Wednesday, Dec. 27 from 6-8 p.m., and runs through March. Also on display are works by Braque, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Miró and others. (Another milestone being marked is the passing of the gallery’s namesake. Max, the Yorkshire terrier beloved by Sanford and his wife, Dorothy Wildman, died in April.)”Dubuffet is not as much of a household name as Picasso, Chagall. But he’s a major figure in the 20th century,” Sanford said. “Every major museum has a Dubuffet; there are major sculptures of his in front of the Pompidou Center in Paris, in front of the state of Illinois building [now known as the James R. Thompson Center] in Chicago.”Not only is Dubuffet a major figure, but the Galerie Maximillian exhibit is a significant showcase. The 60 pieces range from 1944 to 1979, spanning virtually all of his career. (Dubuffet didn’t start making art until 1942, when he was 41.)”This is a dangerous word, retrospective, and I won’t call it that,” said Sanford. “That implies a much bigger venue. But this is as close to a retrospective as you can get with 1,250 square feet in a mountain town in Colorado. There’s not many places you can go in the world and see 60 Dubuffets – or one of the top five etchings of Picasso, the best color aquatint by Matisse.”Dubuffet created a movement, Art Brut – ‘raw art,'” continued Sanford. “The whole act of original printmaking was very key to his philosophy of art. He was anti-establishment, not classically trained. He was inspired by primitive art, the mentally insane, the art of children. He was trying to evolve a more visceral, emotional – raw – depiction of his images.”
Unlike Dubuffet, Sanford wasted little time getting to his art career. A native of Minneapolis, Sanford watched his parents build a low-key, fairly inexpensive art collection. But it was at the age of 16, when he was an exchange student in the south of France, that he got the collecting bug, and it wasn’t the art itself that first drove him.”I was living with a family, and I didn’t get along with the French ‘brother,’ who was supposed to be my buddy,” said Sanford. “I had to get out of the house, so I got myself a green Michelin guide and found there were all these amazing galleries and museums.”Two years later, as a freshman, Sanford began his business from his dorm room at Middlebury College in Vermont. He represented a French dealer, selling vintage posters to galleries. At 23, he went to work for Merrill Chase, an established Chicago-based chain on galleries. Over his 14 years there, he made his way up to president and CEO of the company, and learned the art of locating, buying and selling various kinds of art, with a specialty in works on paper.
Toward the end of his time with Merrill Chase, Sanford and Wildman bought pieces on their own, with an eye toward the future. They began emptying out Wildman’s T-shirt drawer, replacing the clothing with art. “We took layer and layer of T-shirts out, and filled the drawer, this big drawer, with original prints by Renoir, Picasso, Mary Cassatt, Lautrec,” said Sanford.Sanford didn’t know what exactly to expect in Aspen. But certainly he didn’t anticipate getting to a point where he could pull out 25 Picassos – or 25 Matisses – for an interested client. “I underestimated, in my first year, the power of the Aspen market,” he said.Sanford, who is nearly as passionate about civic affairs as he is about the international art market, isn’t deaf to the talk about local galleries selling million-dollar paintings. But he firmly believes that Galerie Maximillian makes Aspen more unique, and vibrant.”I really feel like I’m adding to the culture of this town,” he said. “Some people may not feel that way, that we’re just another gallery showing pictures on the wall. But we’re showing something special, what you would see in the great museums of the world.”Sanford also sees himself as not just a dealer, but an educator. He is not the sort to turn his back on an unsophisticated gallery visitor. That stems in part because he is frequently explaining the nature of prints – that they are not secondhand reproductions, but a series of work that the artist was intimately involved with. Also, Sanford is sympathetic to those learning about art; he says his own process, especially getting into contemporary art, makes him a student as well.Finally, he is just passionate about art. He doesn’t accept art on consignment; he has purchased everything in the gallery outright. That means that when he buys a piece of art, he does so knowing that it might be his to keep. And that is fine with Sanford.”This gallery is a reflection of what I want to do,” he said. “I wanted to own ‘Carrot Nose,’ whether I sell it or not. In fact, the best thing I could do is not sell ‘Carrot Nose,’ to hold onto it as long as I can.
“But I’ve already sold it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com