It was the summer of 1971 and I was living in Brooklyn. I had decided to stay in New York, instead of returning for a third time to the same summer job in New Hampshire. I had been the head cook at Eddie’s Steak House, an Italian-American restaurant run by a wildly dysfunctional French-Canadian family in the White Mountains.
I was a resident advisor in a Pratt Institute dorm, had a room for the summer and just needed some part time job to get me through to my last semester in September. Jim, an old room mate, had got a job at Castelli Graphics at East 77th St and 5th Ave. But he had also got a job doing carpentry for the school shrink in Woodstock. Woodstock in 1971 was a lot cooler than the Upper East Side so he fixed it so I would work the summer and we would share the job in the fall.
The first time I ever walked into a New York art gallery was when I arrived at 4 East 77th St. for my job interview. I talked with the owner Toiny , Leo’s wife, and Antoinette, the director, and got the job. I was in art school and had no idea that I had just landed a job at the hottest gallery showing the hottest artists of the time: Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Lictenstein, Stella, Judd, Flavin to name just a few. Take home pay after deductions was $45 a week.
The first week there Toiny was putting together a Black and White Show and asked me to go downstairs and pick out a black and white Rauschenberg print from the” Current Series”. Here was one of my top ten most favorite artists of all time and I was being given the task of selecting one. It was almost beyond belief. I went down to the basement and after what seemed like forever, choose one and brought it upstairs. Much to my surprise they liked it. I did my best to be cool. Basically my original job description was to run errands, clean fingerprints off the frames and walls, and sweep the floors. And now within a week I was choosing art.
The next week Toiny asked me to come over to their apartment around the corner on 5th Ave. They had just had the place painted and she wanted to rehang the art. I walked in the first thing I saw was Rauschenberg’s “Bed” sitting on the floor leaning against the wall. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I sputtered, “Is this “Bed”? This can’t be THE “Bed”.
Toiny said, “Of course it is. What else would it be?”
I said, “It’s got to be a reproduction. Somebody’s made a copy of it. It can’t be real.”
“Oh, Charles, don’t be so silly.” was her reply.
I had not met Rauschenberg at this point. I knew this man through art magazines, art films and slide lectures. This was Robert Rauschenberg. Winner of the Venice Bienalle. The guy who painted with silkscreens, did strange dances and made sculpture out of junk. His work was small (maybe 2 inches by 1 inch), black and white usually, and was made up of tiny half tone dots. It hit me that I knew these pieces through reproduction. Their being actual objects, one of a kind had not registered. Toiny told me how her son Jean Christophe had placed a small teddy bear between the spread and the sheet and how Rauschenberg had laughed when he saw it during a party.
Well, I hung “Bed” that afternoon. And I was very nervous about my hanging skills, but Toiny showed me the basics. As well as Bob’s “Persimmon”(a beautiful silkscreen painting featuring a Rubens’ nude), I rehung Johns’ “Target with Body Parts”, a large “Flag, and his “Fool’s Cup”, Lichtenstein’s “George Washington” and a large black and white Stella to boot. Quite an introduction to art installations, don’t you think?
I stayed with Castelli Graphics for over four years and in that time I went from go-fer to co-director. It was such a total immersion into the art world of the time that I call it my Master’s Degree.
I quit in September of 1975 and was hired by Rauschenberg to be his curator and was quickly thrown into the planning of his retrospective at the Smithsonian Institute scheduled to open the next year. I worked for him for over a dozen years off and on. I quit a couple times and got fired a couple of times. (It depends on whom you talk to.) There were many adventures.
But those stories are for another time.