'I've been in the arts since I was 17," says Michael Wolf, owner of the eponymous art gallery next to the Wine Bank downtown. "March will be the ten-year anniversary of my gallery. I've never seen an artist sell like this." The artist is Thomas Arvid, a still-life painter who has, for the past decade or so, made wine his subject. Specifically, wine in the bottle and in the glass, sometimes accompanied by corks, corkscrews, and wooden cases.
On a Friday night earlier this month, he paid a visit to Wolf's gallery to sell copies of his book Arvid: Redefining the Modern Still Life. The book, which chronicles Arvid's development as a painter and includes many images of his work, retails for $75. A special edition -- leatherbound, packed in a wooden "wine crate," and accompanied by three "pen-and-ink limited-edition serigraphs" -- sells for $1250. "It's the first time you've ever been able to get his sketch-type works," says Wolf. "I sold 50 books, four of the special editions, and all three of the serigraphs, framed, for $2100. I probably had 200 people through the three hours we were here. There was a line all through the gallery of people waiting for him to sign things. They had brought their pieces; they were going next door to the Wine Bank and buying bottles for him to sign. It was phenomenal."
Wolf also sold about twenty giclee-reproduction Arvid prints, which Arvid says start at around $700 and which often run up to $1200. And that's before they sell out their under-500 production run. Arvid says that some galleries will sit on the prints until they're sold out everywhere else, then sell them for as much as $3000. Wolf says he saw a print of Arvid's first painting of Opus One in Caesar's Palace for $6000. "It was $750 just two and a half years ago. Just phenomenal. Sylvie and Jean Michel Diot up at Tapenade bought around eight prints from me right at the beginning; they're sitting on a gold mine now."
And to top it off, "A client walked in about five minutes into the show and said, 'Anything original -- point me to it right now. I want it.' " As it happened, Wolf had an original for sale. An Opus painting, rougher than usual, but perhaps that was due in part to the surface: the wooden bottom of an Opus wine box. "It's the second one he's done," says Wolf. At a show a while back, "A client wanted something signed. He had this crate next to him, and he just started doodling with his signing pen. The client said, 'Oh, I'm going to hang this on my wall!' Arvid had the idea to go ahead and do some paintings. I got some crates from Mike at the Wine Bank and sent them to him. He kind of did it on the airplane on the way here and finished it out in his hotel. It's actually still drying," even as it hangs on the gallery wall. The original hungry client at the show took one look and bought it for $4000. "They're buying because of his name, wanting to get something original."
Wolf has an original in his gallery: Between You and Me, a full-size (32"x16") painting of a bottle of Opus flanked by two glasses, the cork resting on the table. But it wasn't for sale during the show; it had been purchased over the phone by a collector near Mexico City on Thanksgiving Day. Price: $24,000. "We commissioned the original two and a half years ago," amid the explosion of Arvid's career. "It was supposed to come to us within a year at $12,000. It ended up taking 26 months, and it came in at $20,000. Then, in the eight or nine months that I sat on it, it went from $20,000 to $25,000. In a couple more years, you're going to be looking at $50,000 to touch one of his pieces."
(And that's only the money side. Says Wolf, "His commission list is closed; it's over four years long. I can show you an e-mail from a client, a lady who said, 'My husband is turning 60. I have a bottle of 1945 Chateau Haut-Brion I want you to paint. Money's no object.' Arvid said, 'Sorry, my list is closed. When it opens, I'll call you.' That's crazy. Tell me another artist who can say that.")
Wolf commissioned Between You and Me after his friends/silent partners discovered Arvid at an art expo in New York. Arvid recounts that he had made a splash at the 2000 International Art Expo, "a convention where galleries go to seek out new talent. I was there just crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, and I just had a jam-packed booth. All the galleries were saying, 'I've never seen anything like this; this is exactly what the industry needs.' " The next year, Wolf's spotters -- collectors themselves -- saw something in Arvid's work and jumped at it. "It was great timing. Within a couple of hours, Exclusive Collections up in Mission Viejo wanted to get him, but we landed him. The closest gallery to get him is in Laguna."
Why is he so popular? Part of Wolf's explanation is eminently practical: it has to do with the way people use art to decorate. Arvid notes that "galleries tend to open up in tourist destinations. That's when people are thinking about their homes -- when they're away from them. At home, they're too busy making sure there are groceries in the refrigerator and doing their work and maybe a little bit of socializing. They don't think, 'Why don't we go to a few art galleries today?' But if there's a gallery on a tourist walk, something might catch their eye. They might see artwork and say, 'Hey, wouldn't that look great by the bar, or downstairs in the den?' "
Or in the wine cellar? Adds Wolf, "Ten years ago, people were not building wine cellars onto their homes. These days, people are building wine cellars, having collections, buying futures." An Arvid helps define the space in the home, and home is ascendant. "Believe it or not, I think 9/11 had something to do with it. We got away from going out so much, started spending more time with friends and family in our own cocoons, feeling safe and comfortable and so forth. You come to 'Okay, I have this new room for entertaining, this wine-tasting room. How do we go ahead and finish it out?' "
But that doesn't entirely explain it. People have been painting still lifes of wine bottles since forever. Arvid, without the benefit of formal training, changed the perspective and so invigorated the genre. "He's the first in how many years to change the look of a still life," says Wolf. "Instead of the sugar bowl/pear/fruit-on-a-flat-plane type of work -- which I call Grandma's still life -- this is our still life." Many of Arvid's paintings look down from above on their subjects. Explains Arvid, "That's the natural way we look at wine -- it's down on the counter or the table. In the traditional style of painting wine, you would have to put your chin on the table to see it that way."
Finally, says Wolf, "He's one of those pure talents. I'll be outside the gallery, and I'll hear people say, 'Why do I want a photograph of a wine bottle? I'll take my own photograph.' No, those are paintings. When you look at the realistic effect he gets from afar and then go up close and see the full painterly effect of what he's doing.... It makes other artists sick, because they'll train for years and they can't command a technique like this. For him to be self-taught and have this perspective -- he is a pure, pure talent."