Part of “Best of Chicago Art Magazine” originally posted May 6, 2011.
I’ve gotten to know Tom Torluemke’s work pretty well lately; having seen his exhibitions at the Cultural Center, Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the Version Festival. Tom also came to talk to our group at Co-Prosperity School. More recently, my wife Stephanie Burke and I purchased one of Tom’s drawings from him at the Co-Prosperity Sphere’s 1995 Lumpen Sex Issue Release Party. I recently asked Tom to share his thoughts and experiences in regard to gallery representation.
Jeriah Hildwine: First I’d like to ask about how you ended up with your first gallery. How did you first start exhibiting, and from there, how did you first get gallery representation?
Tom Torluemke: When I was first represented by a gallery, I was in my early 20s, maybe 23. I had been sending portfolios to this gallery, (RH Love) a gallery that specialized in American artwork from 1776 through 1900. Then they opened up RH Love Modern, they showed abstract expressionist and color field painters like Hans Hoffman, Larry Poons, Jules Olitski and Kenneth Noland who’s work I liked. So I set my sights on trying to be represented there. I sent him many packages with no response.
So finally, one day I got upset, loaded up my car with paintings and did a cold call walk-in. I had a small portfolio with photos of my paintings and my resume. The problem was it was me and the reception desk lady head-to-head, and a camera pointed on us from above, which I knew was connected to a monitor that Richard Love the owner, was looking at at that moment. She was trying to turn me away; my goal was to stay by the desk as long as possible. So I made lots of small talk and finally what I was hoping would happen, did. Richard Love came out, probably with the idea that he would protect his receptionist from another persistent artist.
He glanced over her shoulder at my portfolio and picked up my resume and said, “Wow, you have done a lot of things for such a young guy.” Then he asked me some questions about some paintings he saw in my portfolio. I knew this was my chance, I said, “Oh wait one minute please, I have these paintings in my car.” I turned around and rushed right out pretending I did not hear him saying, “Oh you don’t have to go get your paintings…” I came back with the paintings he was speaking about. He liked them quite a bit; he thought he could sell them. Then he turned and looked me straight in the eyes as said, “What do you want from me?” That was the defining moment. I had to answer confidently and humbly and quickly with no break. So I said, ” I would like you take a couple paintings, hang them in the back room and see if your clients respond to them. Maybe even buy one. And if that happens, we just continue a gradual development of our relationship and I work as hard as I can and eventually down the road have a one-man show. “And that’s exactly what happened, within a week he sold both paintings and a year later I had my first one man show. It sold out.
I was represented by Richard Love for 12 years, I think I had six shows there. My work was getting stronger and more critical attention, but the sales were going down. The last three shows I didn’t sell anything. Richard Love said that I needed to go elsewhere, my work was too progressive for his clients. He would still have me in his stable if I wanted, but I needed to go to New York or LA, etc.
Jeriah: You’ve mentioned having a lot of galleries you’ve been with, and many of them closing or going out of business shortly after taking you on. If you could tell that story, I’d love it.
In regards to the closing galleries, I realized that RH Love was not the best place for me; he had gotten a lot of bad press about financial issues, Modern Critics would not review the shows. So I started scouting around for young alternative galleries, showing challenging work. Four of the galleries I hooked up with were not at the same time, but one after the other. Steiner Gallery closed, Crux Gallery closed, Space Gallery closed and Abel Joseph Gallery closed. Not to mention RH Love Modern had closed, and a gallery I was most recently in, in Indianapolis, closed. Some of these galleries showed quite accomplished artists. For example, Abel Joseph Gallery had Adam Brooks, Space Gallery had Michael Lash, so I was very excited for each of these galleries. An artist has to adjust to each new gallery relationship and once they’ve adjusted they go at their artwork with wild abandon to please their gallery and before they know it, they are let down and the gallery closes. If this happens many times in a row, the artist gets the gas knocked out of them and makes them question if the gallery route is even worth it.
Jeriah: You mentioned at Co-Prosperity School that you eventually decided you were better off representing yourself, rather than going through a gallery. How did you make this decision?
Tom: As far a representing myself goes, after all those galleries closed, I decided I was just going to make my work as raw, impetuous and unbridled as possible and then when I thought I had something, I would try to find a place to show it: a non-profit place that specializes in artists showing non-commercial work, like ARC, Artemesia, Randolph Street Gallery, Contemporary Art Workshop, and also pioneering non-traditional places to show, like an abandoned building or some other building where an owner had blank walls and is willing to take a chance. The two places I showed of the Non-Profits were ARC and Contemporary Art Workshop. One thing I learned during this period of time was that there were groups of artists out there and alternative galleries that were tied together, through a common history. Some groups went to the Art Institute, some groups went to UIC and others went to the University of Chicago. I was completely on the outside, not only early on was I hooked up with a not very respected gallery, but I also didn’t have the preferred education. I represented myself in this manner for quite a few years and I realized that I was ready to try to work with a gallery again.
The ones I had my sights set on were, Carl Hammer and Ann Nathan. My work had a bit of an outsider flavor. I’ll share these two experiences with you, I think it’s important. I really think that an artist has to respect the difficulty and challenge of being a gallery owner and what happened to me, clarified it for me. I went to Carl Hammer with a portfolio, beautiful presentation, he praised my work and presentation. He said that I came at a very bad time, Phyllis Kind had closed and he had picked up several new artists and didn’t want to take on yet another one. So he said he would make an appointment with Ann Nathan for me. He called her up right away, I walked from his gallery, right over to hers. She loved the work, she asked if I had any big paintings and I said yes and I brought them over several days later, rolled them out on the floor, she and her gallery assistant seemed very excited. She said, “Let’s set you up for a show, in the back room.” Not the headliner, but that was OK with me. Then she said in order to finalize this, that I was to come back in a couple weeks after she returned from New York. During that two-week period, I received a letter from her, saying thanks for bringing all my stuff in, but she changed her mind, sorry and she wished me luck. And to follow up again with Carl Hammer.
A few years later, I worked another angle with Carl Hammer. I had some friends who were pretty close to Carl Hammer. One was a big collector; that man set up a studio visit for me with Carl Hammer. He seemed to really like the artwork. So much so, he asked me to frame up some collages and he also took some small sculptures with him. So I proceeded to frame the collages and then about two weeks later, I got a call from his assistant saying he changed his mind and he didn’t think it was a good fit. All in all, the gallery owner has to be really excited about your artwork and think that they can sell it.
Jeriah is an artist, educator, writer, and snack enthusiast. You can see his work at www.jeriahhildwine.com, and read his columns at Art Talk Chicago and Chicago Art Magazine. Jeriah lives and works in Chicago, with his wife Stephanie Burke.