Photo of MICHAEL FINDLAY and RAY JOHNSON at Richard Feigen Gallery, New York, c. 1968. Photo by William S. Wilson. Courtesy the Ray Johnson Estate.

Wong Kit Yi on Michael Findlay

Also available in:  Chinese

March 1, 2021

Dear ______________,

Let’s get something straight: Michael Findlay is a dealer. Not a gallerist. He loathes that term. No, he’s a dealer. He makes deals on masterpieces, he’s been doing so for decades, and he feels there’s no need to bring in other fancy terms to dress up what he does.

This point of terminology is important not just because he insists on it. It’s important because, for me, he’s also a dealer in another, equally vital sense. He’s my dealer. That’s not to say he represents me or sells my work. He deals to me. He deals me regular doses of wisdom about art history, practice, value, and language, which end up informing my sense of what it means to be an artist. Oh, and sometimes he deals me good gossip.

Nowadays, Michael primarily deals the works of dead and dying artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Wayne Thiebaud. But in the 1960s and ’70s, he was the first dealer in the United States for Joseph Beuys, and gave then-unknown artists such as John Baldessari and Hannah Wilke their first solo exhibitions in New York. 

Talking to Michael about art always gives me a sense of joie de vivre that is otherwise hard to come by in the art world, given the way “most art is buried under the generic label of ‘history,’ no longer alive for us,” as Michael writes in his book Seeing Slowly (2017). To give you an example of how he gives life to art, here’s something he said in a recent Zoom hangout:

I know lots of the works I see today by your peers. You may say it’s very good, it’s well made and intelligent, but I can see within it not only where it comes from but also where it’s going. I can see its history and its nature revealed fairly quickly. And it falls into a space that already exists for it. Whereas when John Baldessari showed me his word paintings [Quality Material (1966–68)], there was no space for them. There was no category for them. There are two types of things: something that you don’t know and something that’s obviously a desire to make and remake something . . . In 1954, when Matisse died, Picasso said, “I don’t have anybody to talk to.” He needed that conversation so he went to the Louvre and he started to look at Eugène Delacroix’s [Women of Algiers (1834)]. He took that painting and he did 15 versions of it that break it up. Basically, he destroyed that painting and he remade it. To me that is also very exciting. I mean he is going back but he is also going way forward.

Michael’s wealth of stories is what impresses me most. He’s a walking archive of art history, full of anecdotes, insider accounts, and detailed knowledge of countless works. He dishes up obscure, non-canonical gems—some of them about canonical figures—that official art history, with its deadening ennui, easily misses. It’s art history that has not been routinized according to approved methodologies and discursive practices.

Another quality that I love about Michael is his ability to join together seemingly unrelated topics in a carefree manner. This is something I find myself doing in my own work, as in the following extract from one of my karaoke-lecture videos. A hybrid of documentary film and karaoke, these video-lectures, with sing-along subtitles, are a form I’ve been working with since 2015 (contrary to Michael’s advice, in this instance, if you want to engage with my work, you better be seeing quickly—my subtitles don’t wait!). This particular extract talks about another recent work of mine, commissioned by the Public Art Fund, called Yes-Jet-Lag (2020):

Thinking about the idea of time is really, well, timely right now. I’m exploring the phenomenon of reverse jet lag. For people who travel a lot, jet lag is part of the very fabric of their everyday reality. But with the pandemic keeping everyone at home, there’s no need to get used to new time zones anymore. For some people, this itself takes some adjusting to. So I came up with the idea of Yes-Jet-Lag, a jet-lag-inducing patch that returns users to their normal sense of dislocation right in their own home. At a time when many lack access to health care and the ability to feel better, this new product is intended to balance things out by helping the elite jet-setters feel just a bit worse. The phenomenon of jet lag throws up some interesting existential questions. Under the effect of jet lag, our bodies are tired because we still feel like we’re in the time zone that we came from, even though we’re no longer there. But is it possible that something has happened to the soul? Maybe it got left behind? Perhaps upon arrival in a new location, our souls must be awaited, like lost baggage.

In the same video (presented at Asia Art Archive in America’s
end-of-2020 fundraiser event on Zoom), I go on to ask whether witches in the Middle Ages experienced jet lag from flying on a broom (“maybe some kind of broom lag?”). Again, I feel there’s an affinity here between my narrative style and Michael’s, which (as in the extended quote from him above) hops about freely between different time periods. Perhaps such affinities in our narrative, and presumably thus our cognitive, styles are why we’re friends.

Before I end this letter (oh yes, if you’re wondering why it’s a letter, it’s a tribute to the mail-based art of Michael’s friend Ray Johnson), I forgot to mention how I first met Michael. We were introduced through email, and I asked him for advice on the secret to pricing my unborn artworks for my 2015 solo presentation “North Pole Futures” at P!, New York. Michael replied (Tue, Jan 12, 2015, 5:44 pm): “No problem, I’m not sure I grasp this but happy to talk to you. Sadly there are no top secrets!” Little did I know I was about to learn the value of so much more than my own work. Thus, the series of exchanges with my bubbly friend, enlightening mentor, and adventurous patron began.

If you have any thoughts about the above, please send them to karaoke@wongkityi.com. I’m more likely to correspond with those who are not in tune with my way of thinking.

Sincerely yours, 

Wong Kit Yi

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