La Jolla gallery owner Tasende at the top

Doesn't know if he loves art or hates it

Tasende Gallery

José Tasende has one request: “Make me the subject of your interviews, not the object. Take what I say and use it. But don’t make me the story. Write about what I say, not what I am.” Fair enough. There’s just one hitch. This is supposed to be a story about the art business, and Tasende is an art gallery owner in La Jolla. But Tasende is Basque and the possessor of a heritage that is evident in everything he says. His native tongue, Euskara, may have its roots in Cro-Magnon times. The Basques populated the Pyrenees Mountains dividing Spain and France long before the Romans arrived. Ask him if his hometown, Bilbao, is located in Spain or France and be prepared for his visage to darken with reflexive umbrage: “It’s in the Basque country!” he’ll insist. “My family, we never accept that we live in Spain.” He can barely utter the word Spain, whose most recent dictator, the late Francisco Franco, failed in his vow to eradicate every stump of Basque culture — accomplishing exactly the reverse with the 1937 saturation bombing of Guernica, the holy city of the Basques, an infamy immortalized in one of Picasso’s most famous paintings. Franco was dealing with a people whose sons were known to creep behind enemy lines in the Germanic wars to slay their captured fathers, rather than allow them to suffer the humiliation of imprisonment. Characteristically, Tasende refuses to say he’s been successful since establishing his gallery in La Jolla in 1979. He prefers to say he’s “survived.”

José Tasende

José Tasende

He’s survived so well that he’s been able to purchase the twenty-two sculptures, models, and preliminary works created by his friend and countryman Eduardo Chillida, which the artist used to plan his thirty-foot-tall concrete structure erected at Guernica this year. The artwork, commissioned by the Basque government, commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of the destruction of the town. The collection of support works was made into a traveling exhibition, “The Birth of a Monument,” that started in Chicago and is currently in St. Louis. Tasende will exhibit it in his Prospect Street gallery beginning in September. Then, except for the one piece that by agreement with the artist must remain in the public domain, he will sell the pieces separately. Today he’s not even sure how much he paid for them. “I’m so scared, I don’t want to see the cost,” he cracks. The pieces are part of the $2.5 million worth of artworks Tasende has purchased so far this year.

That Tasende is a major player in the world art market is undeniable. That he has drawn on his Basque genes to survive and to thrive in that world is irrefutable. That he was crazy to open up his kind of gallery in La Jolla, more than just miles away from New York, the center of the art universe, is at least debatable. You wouldn’t need to be Basque to try it, but you’d almost have to be Basque to survive it.

"Architect's Table" by Eduardo Chillida, 1984

"Architect's Table" by Eduardo Chillida, 1984

Tasende’s gallery reflects the cussedness of the Basques in a couple of important ways. Generally, the art galleries on the West Coast represent dealers, not artists. Tasende is a dealer, yes, but like a handful of the world’s most prestigious galleries, he also represents artists, some of them exclusively. He may be most well known for his association with the late British sculptor Henry Moore, arguably the most important sculptor of the Twentieth Century, who gave Tasende extraordinary access to his work. That access has endured since Moore’s death in 1986 through Tasende’s friendships with Moore’s heirs, who run the Henry Moore Foundation. Tasende’s friendship with Eduardo Chillida, also an unquestionably bankable sculptor, has helped the dealer become the artist’s exclusive representative in this country. “It’s very unusual for a dealer outside of New York or Chicago to control pieces by Moore and Chillida,” remarks Hugh Davies, director of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art. “There’s no mystery to what he does. The only mystery is how he gets close to these guys. A lot of artists would love to be represented by Tasende. But he only goes for the blue chip. His spectrum is narrow, but it’s the very top layer.”

The rest of Tasende’s stable is also quite renowned. British sculptor Lynn Chadwick, Mexican illustrator-draftsman José Luis Cuevas, Italian illustrator and sculptor Giacomo Manzu, Chilean artist Roberto Matta, and American sculptors Isamu Noguchi and Mark Di Suvero, among others, constitute a group of highly regarded international artists whose main West Coast outlet is through Tasende. Most West Coast galleries that deal with prized artists such as these are subsidiaries of New York galleries.

"Reclining Figure Prop" by Henry Moore

"Reclining Figure Prop" by Henry Moore

Tasende often finds himself selling pieces to dealers in New York galleries, who tack on an extra $150,000 to the price of a piece before selling it to their clients. The art market in recent years has experienced a frantic buying binge as the Japanese have combined with refugees from the stock market to form a new group of art collectors, and Tasende has benefited from it. Henry Moores that he sold two years ago for half a million dollars are now worth $1.5 million. He recently sold a Chillida for some hundreds of thousands of dollars (he won’t disclose the actual price), and Tasende says he could sell the piece now — which the buyer hasn’t yet picked up — for twice that amount.

One might assume that a 54-year-old dealer such has this, who combs the world for artists and clients and retains $10 million worth of art treasures in his La Jolla gallery must have been raised among art. But Tasende dismisses that notion tersely. “No. Art is just my recent occupation,” he remarks. Before he started trading in art, Tasende was a professional jai alai player who made very little money. Entering the art business was “very accidental. I wanted to stop playing after I had my best year as a jai alai player. That was 1965. I just didn’t want to play anymore. I never was a good jai alai player; I was very mediocre, to tell you the truth. I loved it, and I always do whatever I like in my life. But I decide to leave it.”

Tasende had started playing jai alai in Mexico City in 1948. Two years earlier, he and his mother (his father died when Tasende was a young child) had left the Basque country, alone with many of their countrymen, following World War II. The two of them took a ship to New York, arriving on Thanksgiving Day. Not knowing a word of English, they were mystified to find everyone in America eating turkey. They took a Greyhound bus from New York to Laredo, Texas, where they boarded a Mexican bus for the trip to Guadalajara, where Tasende’s mother had a sister.

Tasende became a professional jai alai player in 1952, and he played in Mexico and Florida for thirteen years. In 1957 he joined the roster at the fronton in Tijuana and played there for three years. He met his future wife Helen in San Diego at that time. They didn’t marry until 1966, after he retired from jai alai.

That same year he opened his first gallery in Acapulco. He didn’t see art dealing as something he would do for the rest of his life. “The most you can do in life is worry about what you want to do in this moment,” he explains. “Life is not hours or minutes, life is instants. Moments. Seconds. The concept of months and years is an invention of man. We try to frame love and time, and we invent marriage. We try to frame what we want to do in life, and we invent contracts. It’s not reality. You’re not able to say, ‘I’ll love you for two years.’ This is not possible. The only thing you can say is, ‘I love you now.’ This is the only thing you know.”

Tasende didn’t know then, and he doesn’t know now, if he loves art. He takes great pains to distinguish himself and his role as something completely separate from that of the aesthete or the critic. “I don’t fall in love with art pieces. I don’t know if I love art, I don’t know if I hate art. I like art as a subject, how art influences life, the economy, how it influences the disposition of people. Like in Chicago, how this magnificent attitude of the public started forming toward art, because they have these enormous sculptures and good display spaces there. One dealer from New York, Mary Cruz Bilbao, from my hometown, described my interest as the anthropology of art. Art itself, aesthetically, doesn’t move me very much.”

In Acapulco most of Tasende’s clients were traveling Americans. He describes his offerings then as “eclectic, confusing, very uneven. Sometimes terrible art.” One day he decided to call José Luis Cuevas, a Mexican artist who was just beginning to receive international acclaim. Tasende began offering Cuevas’s mystical drawings and engravings, and soon the two men became great friends. He met Francisco Zuniga, an unknown Costa Rican artist living in Mexico, the same way he met Cuevas. “These two artists made most of my career in Mexico,” he says now.

Tasende received an early education in the stunted anthropology of art in San Diego when he mounted an exhibition of Zuniga’s work at the San Diego Museum of Art in September 1971. “This town was controlled by a small group of people then, who dictated public taste in many things,’’ he says. “They tried to keep out one piece from the Zuniga exhibit because it was a nude.” On Tasende’s insistence and that of curator Ronald Hickman, the piece was left in the exhibit.

"The Marquis de Sade and Justine" by José Cuevas 1983

"The Marquis de Sade and Justine" by José Cuevas 1983

But he wasn’t soured completely on San Diego. In 1979 when he decided he had to leave Mexico, he and his wife chose to relocate the gallery to La Jolla because, simply, “It’s the best place to live. I didn’t want to open a gallery in New York and be just one of two dozen other galleries. And I couldn’t get this much space there anyway [the 11,000-square-foot gallery building on Prospect also contains Tasende’s home on the upper floor]. Everyone said I was crazy to stay out of New York, so if anywhere else is the wrong place, we figured why not open the gallery in the most pleasant place to live?”

Tasende’s move from Mexico was precipitated by the convergence of Mexico’s impending economic troubles and Tasende’s own ascendance into the world of international artists. “I saw the future crisis of Mexico. It was very clear,” he says. More importantly for him, he was finding it increasingly difficult to deal in works by internationally acclaimed artists while living in a Third World country. “The phones don’t work, people don’t come to Mexico to look for these kinds of artists, the importation and exportation laws weren’t able to accommodate this kind of traffic, many things.”

Just as he was planning to leave Mexico, Tasende wrote a letter to Henry Moore, whom he had never met. Tasende was interested in acquiring a large sculpture for the Phoenix Art Museum. The museum director, Ronald Hickman, was a friend of Tasende’s who had also been a curator at the San Diego Museum of Art. Moore was represented in England by prestigious galleries, such as the Marlborough Gallery and Fisher Fine Arts, but Tasende wrote to the artist directly, inquiring about a large sculpture. Moore replied quickly and simply: “How large is large?”

"Divided Oval: Butterfly" by Henry Moore, 1982

"Divided Oval: Butterfly" by Henry Moore, 1982

Tasende and Hickman jumped on a plane and went directly to Moore’s house in Much Hadham, England. Tasende purchased one of Moore’s reclining figures, which he later sold for $300,000 (Hickman was unable to make a deal for his museum). Thus began a mutually profitable relationship with the great British artist that lasted throughout the last years of Moore’s life. Tasende has lost count of all the Moores he bought and sold. “Mostly I buy the larger pieces, the big pieces. Now everybody is looking for the big pieces. I buy whatever he gives to me, to tell you the truth. If he gives me large sculptures, I say fine, and I buy three at one time. You don’t buy for someone else when you have access to this kind of material. Every day we receive ten, twelve letters from artists asking us to buy. I don’t want to buy anything like that. But if you have Moore or Picasso or Chillida, somebody like that, it’s a privilege to buy.” Sometimes Tasende buys with a particular client in mind, sometimes he buys just for his gallery. He prides himself on never telling a client to buy a piece he would not buy himself. Today Tasende owns four Moore sculptures, one of which resides in front of John Cole’s Book Shop in La Jolla, down the street from his gallery, and about a dozen drawings.

It is widely believed that Tasende gained such extraordinary access to Moore because the two became friends. Tasende is sensitive about this, and he resolutely maintains that his relationship with Moore was strictly professional. “I am a friend of some artists,” he says, “but I believe, and I want to believe, that with Moore friendship had nothing to do with it. I think it was professional. Other dealers say, ‘Tasende can’t be better than I, why would Moore give it to him? It had to be because they were friends.’ I don’t think so. I think he gave it to me because he thought I could do a better job with the work than others. I want to believe that way. I don’t want to take advantage of the friendship of anybody.”

Hugh Davies, among others, has questioned whether Tasende is as ignorant of aesthetic matters as he claims to be. “He plays sly like a fox,” says Davies. “Other dealers could be given the pick of the litter by a great artist and not know what to pick. It’s no coincidence he comes up with good pieces.” Tasende protests that he chooses his artworks only after consulting among his vast number of contacts throughout the art world, including museum directors such as Davies and Tom Messer, of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and Bill Lieberman, chairman of the twentieth-century art department of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. “I take my phone and say, ‘Listen, I have a piece that impresses me, will you take a look at it,’ ” Tasende explains. “They say okay and then tell me, ‘José, that’s a piece of shit, don’t be involved in that.’ ”

Davies says that Tasende is extremely conservative, if plunking down half a jillion dollars for a hunk of twisted bronze can be called conservative. “I bet when he was a jai alai player, he never took a low-percentage shot,” Davies speculates. “If he was a basketball player, he’d never take a three-point shot.” Tasende acknowledges this. “I’m not going to sell an artist, even if I know I can make a lot of money, if I don't know this artist has a possibility to survive,” he claims. “If somebody buys from me, I want him to know his children will have something. I don’t want to deal in momentary investments.”

Tasende doesn’t like what he sees happening in the art investment business now. Fueled by money from new Japanese investors, as well as by the enormous amounts of money available for corporate collections, art prices have doubled in the last two years. This has priced most museums completely out of the market for established artists.

Historically, museums could not afford to purchase all of the works in their collections, so they got patrons to buy the works and donate them — although recent IRS code changes make art donations a less attractive tax write-off. (About three-fourths of the collection owned by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art is donated.) Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers sold last year for $39.9 million and his Irises was purchased anonymously for $53.9 million; Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Museum, supported by a $3 billion trust that must be spent in order to keep its IRS exemptions, recently paid $3.6 million for a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci; publisher S.I. Newhouse has paid the same sum for a Jasper Johns piece, establishing a new record for the most money ever paid for a work by a living artist.

Tasende believes there is a ceiling somewhere, and once it is reached, there could be a collapse of art prices. “Today, the speculation with art is going too high, too far,’’ he says, echoing concerns raised by critics such as Time magazine’s Robert Hughes. “The Japanese, the stock market, people don’t trust the stock market so much anymore. I feel some of this money coming into the art business, and I don’t like it. Art isn’t the ultimate investment anymore; now people are buying it like it’s just a substitute for other commodities, like pork bellies. Art is not good for that. Art is not a substitute for pork bellies.”

In the old days, five years ago, Tasende says the ideal art buyer came to him only after the perfect life had been attained. “The children are out of drugs, the wife isn’t making love with the chauffeur, everything has to be perfect, then they come talk to me,” he explains. “They don’t talk to me if they have any problems. But if everything else is covered, they have all the extravagances, then they spend half a million on a Picasso. But everything’s changing now, people are coming in with different expectations, and that’s dangerous in the long term. Before, people never thought they’d be selling their art. Now, some of these people will trade their art like commodities, and that’s bad for the traditional stability of the art market. It could lead to a collapse.”

One thing Tasende has learned, and that new investors may not yet have experienced, is that buying art ties up a lot of cash, and if the piece isn’t a sure bet to appreciate in value, one shouldn’t take the risk. “I was looking around the other day and saw that one piece I paid $175 for in 1967 I sold for $6000 fourteen years later. That sounds like good business, but when you look at it and see how much $175 meant to me fourteen years ago, it was almost as much as $6000 is to me now. If you accumulate art, and pay cash, and this art is not a good investment, you’re out of business. How you going to survive, if you invest in all these emerging artists, and the prices stay the same ten years after?”

Tasende has no use for “emerging artists.” He says half the population of the planet is artists, but only a tiny fraction produce work of lasting value. “Emerging artists is a big fallacy,” he contends. “They don’t exist. They’ve been created by dealers who don’t have access to important artists, so they have ‘emerging’ artists instead.”

Most of Tasende’s clients are, like himself, conservative collectors. They buy art in the customary fashion, over the telephone while viewing transparencies of the pieces the same way museum directors do, and they don’t necessarily view the piece in person before closing the deal. Only about ten percent of Tasende’s clientele are San Diegans, but these local clients do not include big-name collectors such as Danah Fayman, Eugene Klein, or Carolyn Farris. His 300 or so customers are spread throughout the world, and he has several wealthy American clients whose sculpture gardens are touched only by Tasende’s hands. Tasende’s customers are not of the type now populating New York who purchase pieces such as the recent “subway series” created by Bill Anastasi. The artist rode subways sitting down with a pad of paper strapped to both knees, holding a pencil in both hands, he made marks on the pads as the train lurched in starts and stops. He had no trouble sellig the scribblings.

The question arises, Are all these people who are spending millions on art also able to appreciate their purchases? “Smart people know Picasso is the most important artist of the Twentieth Century,” Tasende observes, “so they buy a Picasso. And after that, they learn to like it; sometimes, not all the time. A collector who can invest in art and appreciate it at the same time is not rare, but it’s not very frequent, either. You have to look in books, talk to people, ask questions to know why it is good. Like you have to know why the man runs from first base to second base in order to enjoy baseball. Art is no different from baseball or boxing, or any sport. You have to know what is the purpose of the picture or sculpture: that Chillida deals with space, and Henry Moore deals with figure, that Cuevas deals with image. If you look at Chillida the same as you look at Moore, you never understand Chillida. How can you say you like it or not if you don’t know the artist's purpose? How can you like or not like baseball if you don’t understand the game?’"

Although only a small part of his business is based on local clientele and he’s therefore not much a part of the local art scene, Tasende possesses the keen view of the outsider toward San Diego’s aesthetic development. Last week’s action by the port district rejecting the two proposed publicly funded waterfront artworks was not a surprise to Tasnde, who had earlier turned down a request by Mayor Maureen O’Connor to be a part of the city’s public arts advisory panel. He says he wants no part of a political process that selects public art, because art selection cannot be democratic. “When they know what they want, then they can come to me and I can help obtain sculptures or whatever. That’s how I could contribute.”

Tasende underwent a learning experience of his own in 1982 when he was given permission by the City of San Diego and the coastal commission to exhibit a Moore sculpture in Scripps Park, just above Boomer Beach. A group of local residents, led by a man who admitted he didn’t know who Moore was, mounted a noisy protest. They claimed the sculpture’s placement was inappropriate, as it blocked one of La Jolla’s most magnificent views. The piece was removed after only a few months, adding yet another public art embarrassment to San Diego’s art history. But Tasende focuses on the bright side; he says the controversy brought valuable attention to the works of Henry Moore in this community.

The dealer combs the world, and he’s seen that most cities the size of San Diego have the same problems erecting public art, constructing significant architecture, supporting more than two or three major galleries, and keeping art museums afloat. Tasende doesn’t judge San Diego harshly. “Art is communication, and controversy is a form of communication,” he declares. “If the art doesn’t create controversy, then it isn’t effective. All the recent controversy is a sign of life in San Diego. Always, the power of ignorance is much stronger in the beginning. But the power of reason, given time, prevails.” Tasende is most encouraged by the emergence of good art criticism in San Diego, specifically Robert L. Pincus of the San Diego Union and Susan Freudenheim of the Tribune. Both he and Hugh Davies of the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art believe these two critics rival any critic outside New York and have brought about a major change among the art intelligentsia here. “The taste of the community is not in the hands of a small group of people anymore,” says Tasende.

San Diego’s bad old days were echoed recently when Freudenheim penned some critical words for a San Diego Museum of Art exhibition of works collected by museum patrons Barbara Walbridge and her late husband Norton. Freudenheim termed the exhibit “a good idea gone bad” and decried the inclusion of mediocre and downright lousy art. She even averred that “it is possible that this show is motivated purely by the promise of future gifts.” Her frank assessment prompted protests to the newspaper and calls for her dismissal from a few local art pooh-bahs. Tasende learned of the reactions and wrote an eloquent letter to the editor, defending the critic’s integrity and citing the review as “a perfect example of excellent art analysis and didactic journalism.” Speaking as a man who makes his living by comparing values, he declares, “The most expensive things in life are dignity and independence. You’re paying that price every second.”

Hugh Davies says the two critics have “made a tremendous difference here. They’ve raised the level of discussion and upped the ante in an extraordinary fashion. No longer can you get away with fuzzy exhibitions or acquisitions.... Seattle or St. Louis or Houston would give their eye teeth to have one of them, let alone both.”

But good criticism hasn’t yet helped bring good public art or architecture to San Diego. In a city blessed with so much natural beauty and a robust economy, valuable art and architecture are almost nonexistent. But Tasende looks at Dallas, “which is in economic ruin, and they invest so much money in the aesthetic aspects of art and architecture, they’re going to survive. Because that adds real value to the community. But in San Diego, they only look at the cost. I think it has something to do with greed here, this absence of interest in the aesthetic aspect of building a city.”

Tasende loves this city, but he looks downtown — where one of the most interesting pieces of architecture, the El Cortez Hotel, sits vacant and doomed — and he recoils. “One of the worst examples of architecture here is Horton Plaza,” he observes. “It’s a catastrophe! And its influence is spreading to other buildings. What a mistake. It’s a combination of the worst architecture of Beverly Hills and Tijuana. And the shopping center would have still been a success if it had been good architecture, because the timing, the location, and the idea was right. But the architecture is wrong.” Oops, there he goes again making aesthetic judgments for which he claims to be unqualified....

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