The art dealer Irving Blum remembers walking into Leo Castelli’s New York gallery in 1965 and being taken by Roy Lichtenstein’s painting of a composition book, because he himself had carried one throughout grade school.
Blum called Lichtenstein, a friend of his, and said he needed to see the Pop artist. “He said, ‘How urgent?’” Blum recalled. “I said, ‘Life or death.’ He said, ‘Come on over.’”
At Lichtenstein’s studio, Blum told him he was determined to buy the painting. But it had already been sold to the dealer Ileana Sonnabend, Castelli’s wife. “I said, ‘Roy, I’ve got it: I’ll marry Ileana. I simply have to have that painting.’”
Two months later, a crate arrived at Blum’s gallery with a duplicate version of the composition book and a note from Lichtenstein: “Dear Irving, Not necessary to marry Ileana. Best, Roy.’”
The exchange speaks to the closeness shared by the two men, and now Blum has organized a show of his friend’s rarely seen sculptures that opens at Gagosian on Madison Avenue in New York on Sept. 9 in honor of the centenary of Lichtenstein’s birth.
Roy Lichtenstein, “Cup and Saucer II,” 1977, painted and patinated bronze.Credit…Estate of Roy Lichtenstein; Photo by Rob McKeever, via Gagosian
“I really adored him,” Blum said in a recent interview at his spacious, art-filled home in Bel Air, which he shares with his wife, Jackie. “I love the work, and I bought several things for myself.”
The dealer, now 92 and long retired, drew on his warm memories of the artist when preparing the exhibition, “Lichtenstein Remembered,” which includes about 20 sculptures that haven’t before been shown as a group.
The three-dimensional works — mostly of painted bronze, some of which will be for sale — are like Lichtenstein paintings brought to life, with bold lines of black, yellow, white and blue. “The colors and the palette relate to the colors in many of his paintings, but he really found a way to make sculpture that stands on his own,” the dealer Larry Gagosian said, adding that Blum “has a long history with Roy and Dorothy.”
The artist’s widow, Dorothy Lichtenstein, who noted that the artist’s foundationis publishing the comprehensive catalogue raisonné on Lichtenstein’s birthday in October, said sculpture was integral to his practice. “Whether he was doing surrealism or German abstractionism, he always made sculpture to go with that,” she said. “It’s whimsical. It has wit and affection.”
Lichtenstein liked to explore the idea of solidity, Dorothy said, which is why he was drawn to making images of water. “Freezing a brush stroke — which is such a free thing — and conceptualizing it, I think intrigued him,” she said. “Water represented something flowing, but also solid in bronze. Or the smoke from a cup of coffee rising. He was always playing back and forth with those images.”
Dorothy said she asked Blum to organize the show because “he really knows Roy’s work from the beginning as a Pop artist” and he and her husband complemented each another. “Irving is very outgoing, and Roy was rather reticent,” she said. “They had the same sense of humor and irony.”
Lichtenstein showed with the famous dealer Castelli, whom Blum sought to emulate when in 1958 he bought the artist Edward Kienholz’s share of the Ferus Gallery on North La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles for $500. Blum ran Ferus with its other founders, Walter and Shirley Hopps, until Walter left in 1960 to become a curator at the Pasadena Art Museum in California (now the Norton Simon). After that, Blum ran Ferus on his own until it closed in 1966.
“It was hard at the beginning,” Blum said. “Not a lot of business.”
Blum gave Castelli’s artists a Los Angeles platform at Ferus. “He was a big influence,” Blum said. “Whenever I’d go to New York — I couldn’t afford to go more than a couple of times a year — that was my first job: to see Leo and talk about what he was doing.”
It was Castelli who introduced him to Andy Warhol, whom Blum met at the artist’s New York studio, viewing his unfinished cartoon paintings. “I liked him, but I thought what he was doing was just too mystifying,” Blum said. “I had no way to track it.”
When Blum visited again, six months later, he saw three of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can canvases on the floor leaning up against the wall. Warhol told him that he was going to make 32 of them. “I said, ‘How come?’” Blum recalled. “He said, ‘Well, there are 32 varieties, so I’m going to do them all.’”
Blum said he persuaded Warhol to let him show all 32 of them in Los Angeles in 1962 by telling the artist, “movie stars come into the gallery.”
Five of the soup cans sold, but then Blum had the idea to keep all the paintings together and the buyers agreed to sell them back, having not yet picked them up. (Only the actor Dennis Hopper initially resisted, Blum said.) Blum then purchased the set for $1,000, paying Warhol $100 a month over 10 months, and in 1996, transferred them to the Museum of Modern Art in a transaction that was part gift, part $15 million sale.
“Irving made it possible for us to buy that work of art, pure and simple,” said Glenn D. Lowry, MoMA’s longtime director. “It really gave us the arc that we needed to represent Warhol well.”
Blum has also donated other works to institutions, including Ellsworth Kelly’s “Spectrum IV” to MoMA, Warhol’s “Ten-Foot Flowers” acrylic and silk-screen ink on linen to the Met, and Frank Stella’s “Ctesiphon 1” to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Blum was a late arrival to the art world. Born Dec. 1, 1930, in New York, where his father owned furniture stores, Blum moved to Phoenix when he was 10.
After attending college in Tucson, he served in the Air Force and then went to New York, where he met Hans Knoll, the German-born furniture maker, who offered him a job at Knoll in Midtown Manhattan. Blum met the collectors who came to visit galleries in the area.
“Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, Eleanor Ward of the Stable Gallery, Martha Jackson — they were all within walking distance,” he said. “I began going to them and visiting and chatting. A guy called Sam Kootz had a wonderful gallery and was available in a way that dealers are not available now.”
The architect and designer Florence Knoll asked Blum to help her find art to decorate a Connecticut life insurance office. Blum came back with a painting by Josef Albers — a pioneer of color in abstract art — and he was on his way. Then in 1956 the gallerist David Herbert took Blum to meet Ellsworth Kelly.
“That was the beginning of a relationship that went on for 50 years,” said Blum, who bought a small black-and-white painting from Kelly that day for $75 that currently hangs in his home. (He also has an apartment on Park Avenue.)
Blum remembers going up to the roof at Kelly’s home in Coenties Slip — a street in Lower Manhattan populated by struggling artists — where a barbecue gathering included the painters Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin and James Rosenquist.
“It was a hotbed of artistic activity,” Blum said.
In Los Angeles — where Pop Art had yet to become a common term — Blum was a bridge to the West Coast variation, showing Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin and Ed Ruscha. He mounted his first Lichtenstein show in 1963. In an essay for the Gagosian exhibition’s catalog, the actor and collector Steve Martin describes wandering into the Ferus gallery in the 1960s and buying a Ruscha print for $125 from Blum — “the upbeat, astute, proselytizing champion of the new art.”
From 1957 to 1966, Blum’s Ferus gallery was the heart of the Los Angeles scene, presenting the early solo shows of Ken Price, Larry Bell and Frank Stella.
“Ferus represented the pluralism of American art as well as — if not better than — any New York gallery of its era,” Roberta Smith wrote in The New York Times in 2002.
In Amy Newman’s oral history, “Challenging Art: Artforum, 1962-1974,” Philip Leider, the founding editor of Artforum magazine, said: “Without Ferus there was nothing,” adding, “Irving was the scene.”
“He spoke brilliantly, not very deeply, but brilliantly,” Leider continued, “like a dealer should.”
In 1973, Blum relocated to the Blum-Helman Gallery in New York, where he spent 20 years.
Sitting at his dining room table recently, Blum gestured to one of his favorite Lichtenstein paintings, which dominates his entry foyer, “Two Paintings: Dagwood, 1983,” featuring the comic-strip character and two other images separated by vertical lines.
Blum recounted his experience with the painting through his dialogue with Lichtenstein: “He said, ‘How do you read it?’” Blum recalled. “I said, ‘I read it as a portrait of Dagwood.’ He said, ‘It’s more complicated. It’s art history in the 20th century: On the left hand side is Expressionism, in the middle Formalism and at the end Pop.’”
“He said it encapsulates all of it,’” Blum continued. “And I said, ‘I’ll buy it.’”
Sept. 9-Oct. 21, Gagosian, 980 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-744-2313, gagosian.com.