Bridgehampton - According to Bridgehampton gallery owner and Manhattanite-transplant Mark Borghi, the optimal philosophy on successful selling is the non-sell, devoid of calculated flattery, and without the least remnants of pressure. This self-dubbed "worst art dealer" has constructed a successful career upon straight-shooting sarcasm, and an open-door policy extended to non-purchasing pedestrians and patrons alike. His current exhibition, an expansive display of local Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning's studio sketches, epitomizes the notion of art that stands on its own merit, and is particularly timely considering an upcoming full-scale retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, scheduled to open in September.
"At many galleries, in some cases, you can't get anyone to talk to you," said Borghi, behind a monstrous Mac monitor and John Chamberlain sculpture. "On the other side of the spectrum, you can't get them away from you. And there never seems to be a happy middle. My policy is, you're welcome to come in and look around. If you're interested, I'd be happy to help you."
His casual, no-nonsense demeanor betrays his long-standing experience in the business. Getting his start at the age of eight, while confined to the four walls of his father's midtown gallery - "My mother made him take me to work, I used to tease my sister," he joked - Borghi spent the formative years of his adolescence marinating in the shadows of 18th and 19th century European and American painters. But it was not until his early adulthood that he was struck with an epiphany, inciting a passion for Post-War modernists that continues to inform his curatorial sensibility in the present.
According to Borghi, it started with Jackson Pollock, "Number 31, 1950."
"I grew up in art my whole life," he said. "I would look at [Pollock's] work, and say, this is baloney. I don't get it. Anyone can do this. But then I used to go to MOMA every day on my lunch hour, and I would stare at this painting. And after about six months, it just worked," he claimed, punctuating the statement with a snap. "And that was a revelatory experience for me. It's not scribble, it's not splatter. It's about balance. And this is really hard to do. It's not easy, by any means. And that was a big deal - that's the kind of reaction we should expect from art. If you can't get that 'oh my god,' 'that's cool' just doesn't cut it."
Beneath the echo of his raspy voice in the empty, white-walled gallery, Borghi let slip his passion, the unencumbered love for the visual arts that lingers beneath his hard-edged demeanor. In this moment it became clear: his applied nonchalance when it comes to his business is not about a lack of effort, but about the solemn reverence he maintains for the works he displays, as if a forced attempt to sell it would cheapen it, betray a level of respect as tactile to him as the Sol Lewitt ink drawing hung on the far wall, or the pastel de Kooning mounted as the centerpiece for walk-in viewers. This sentiment resurfaced when I asked him if his favorite aspect was curating and hanging his exhibitions.
"Do you enjoy that aspect more than" - I managed to say before he interjected.
"Most. I enjoy that part the most. It's my favorite thing to do, to put the stuff on the wall," he said. "I'll stare at the wall and stare at the work, from anywhere from a few seconds to an hour, then it just becomes clear what works. Like this exhibition. It took me three full days to hang."
His meticulous attention to detail, and keen awareness of the kinesthetic didactic between works on a wall, is clear when surveying his de Kooning retrospective currently on display, acquired directly from the artist's estate, from the care of his wife, Elaine de Kooning.
The exhibition begins chronologically, spanning the artist's oeuvre from the early 1940s, straight through the late 1960s, offering a penetrating glimpse at the progression of his visual language. The works begins with his early realist, figurative abstractions, to a "proto-synthetic cubism," straight through the famous series of women that dominated the 1950s, ending in his increasingly "expansive," looser renderings of the 1960s.
Of particular interest is a portrait sketch the artist produced of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, during the early days of the New York School and Works Progress Administration. The drawing ("Portrait of FDR," 1940-44), a hyper-realist representation of the New Deal President, is far removed from the typical fragmented forms de Kooning is known for, demonstrating the artist's skill as per the tenets of classical training.
"You would never think in a million years that this was a work de Kooning did," Borghi said. "This is a very important document in a lot of ways. It should go to the White House and the National Portrait Gallery. And this is one of the most fascinating drawings for me because it shows, 'yes, I know how to draw.'"
And with de Kooning's local appeal bolstering interest in the exhibition, the retrospective has been offered a phenomenal reception, with little red stickers bespeckling wall text, betraying happy evidence of fiscal success.
"We've sold fifteen," Borghi said on a laugh, since the opening on July 2.
So clearly, the non-sell is working for him.
The Willem de Kooning retrospective will be on display at the Mark Borghi Fine Art Gallery (2426 Main Street, Bridgehampton) until July 22. For more information, call 631-537-7245.