Oral history interview with Don Eiler, 2018

Dublin Core


Oral history interview with Don Eiler, 2018


Art collections
Collectors and collecting


Copyright 2018, Don Eiler and Madison Public Library. All rights reserved. For more information, contact Madison Public Library.


Eiler, Don


Rubin, Andy




Don Eiler meets with Andy Rubin to show and discuss the collection of artwork that he has at his Madison home. Don shares about his longtime partnership with artist Sam Gilliam and describes many of the pieces of sculpture and other artworks that he purchased from Gilliam over many decades.


Madison, Wisconsin





Sound Item Type Metadata


Please note: this transcription deviates from the audio in several places and has been edited for length and clarity.


INTERVIEWER: My name is Andy Rubin. I'm interviewing Don Eiler, and we are in his house, which is the art gallery of choice here—beautiful stuff all over all the walls, lots of Sam Gilliam and Bill Weege and William Wiley. That's a fun one—is that a David Hare?

DE: No, that is a series by Barry Flanagan. At one time we had Boxing Hare, which still has the imprint on it on the carpet leading into the tower. We had to raise the roof into the tower because of Boxing Hare —

INTERVIEWER: That’s what he’s best known for, right? These big rabbits?

DE: Yes, the hares. There’s a hare right here attacking a cougar.

INTERVIEWER: Can we start at the beginning? Were you born here in Madison?

DE: No, I was born in Indiana. Kendalville, Indiana. So I’m a Hoosier.

INTERVIEWER: A couple years ago when I retired from Tandem Press, I got a job teaching down in Bloomington. I got to meet a number of Hoosiers.

DE: The test of being a Hoosier is how you say the capital of our country. If I’m feeling very elegant I'll say “Washington,” but I don't feel right about that because it’s “Warshington.” And you “warsh” your clothes and you sit on the davenport. So that’s the natural way.

INTERVIEWER: Did you go to college down there, too?

DE: DePauw.

INTERVIEWER: When did you come to Madison first?

DE: 1970. But when I came I had already met Sam Gilliam, and Sam then came because we organized the show of Washington artists. Joe Wilfer and I flew to Washington, and the Madison Art Center rented a truck. We gathered up the art of 11 artists and we drove the truck back through a snowstorm.

INTERVIEWER: All right, so now you need to back up a little bit. How do you go from being the Hoosier coming to Madison and being interested in art—fill in a little bit of that. What was your business?

DE: I came here as an anesthesiologist.


DE: At Meriter, but for a while we were part of the university system, so I am a retired state employee, of all things. So I get their retirement benefits.

INTERVIEWER: How did you get interested in the arts?

[Break in the interview while Mr. Eiler lets his dogs into his house.]

DE: When I was in high school I went to Chicago for an orthopedic exam and I went across to the Art Institute, and there they had a series of totally black paintings, which absolutely blew my mind. I had no idea who they were for 20 years. They were early, first generation Ad Reinhardt. I just knew that that was really something, but I didn't do anything with it.

I went to college at Depauw in Greencastle, Indiana, met my wife, and we went off to med school in St. Louis. We were poor, so we would go around from grocery store to grocery store to gather up whatever they had on special, and then we’d go to the St. Louis Museum, which was free. They had some paintings on loan by some internist, and I remember thinking, “My goodness, someday I would like to have a museum-grade painting.” That was my literal thought.

Then we went back to Indianapolis through residency, and on to Washington, DC, for two years at the NIH in Bethesda. We kept going to museums, and one day I went to what was one of the seminal shows in the history of art, the Sam Gilliam/Rockne Krebs show at the Corcoran in 1969, where they had lasers and fog, and Sam’s drape paintings. It changed my life. The next day I was out running in Rock Creek Park—I was one of the early runners; nobody else was running when I came to Madison—and I thought to myself, I’m going to buy a Gilliam. So I went home and I called Jefferson Place Gallery, Nesta Dorrance, and she said, Come on down. She showed me three Gilliams, and I took one called Alphabet II.

INTERVIEWER: Is it here?

DE: Alphabet II was sold to someone in Germany at Basel, so it is gone.

I became a close friend of Sam at that time. I would go into his warehouse studio. It reeked of paint. Incredible place. It was in a warehouse down an alley. He was on the second floor and Rockne Krebs was on the first floor, and Ed Zerne, who was a mutual friend, was on the third floor. Sam had custody of the whole warehouse, and he decided who was where. When I came out to Madison I saw Cham Hendon and we decided to have a Washington show. Sam came out and stayed with us in our rental house. At that time I was actively buying his early work. I bought a work called Atmosphere and I told him how much I wanted to pay for it, and Sam came down the stairs in the morning and said, “No, $2,000 less and you spend that money on local artists.” That's how I got to know Bill Weege. We all became great friends. Sam came out—he then was at the university for a month and he stayed with us. It just went on from there. In 1973 we built this house, and Sam had to come out and hang stuff.

INTERVIEWER: So just to back up a little bit, Cham Hendon was the first director of the Madison Art Center? Well actually, wasn’t Joe Wilfer the first director?

DE: No, Joe worked for [Hendon].

INTERVIEWER: So Janet Ela puts up some money, they buy this Lincoln High School or whatever, and they make it the Madison Art Center, and Cham is the first director.

DE: Yes. We had so much work that came in that we loaned a lot of work to the Madison Art Center, and then we organized a show. Out of that cabin—DC 10, DC 11, whatever it was. I picked the artists. It wasn't scientific or even rational, it was just guys I knew in Washington. It probably wasn't fair. Cham moved on, and Joe Wilfer became the director, until he went to Pace in New York. At about that time, Sam had a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Did you know that he had an early show there with big drapes everywhere? I drove with Ed Zerne in his van—big, huge amount of canvas in the back of it—and when we got to New York it was early, so when we got to the loading dock for the Museum of Modern Art we slept on the canvas.

INTERVIEWER: So I’m sitting here looking at a painting, and I’m assuming it’s Bill Weege. Over the years it’s been a little hard for me, when I go out to Bill's house, to try to figure out who's on the wall, because sometimes it's Sam, and sometimes it's Bill. I can see why you like both of them.

DE: You're leading into one of the key stories: Rondo. This is called Rondo Remembered. [WALKING THROUGH HOUSE] In here you’ll see on the ceiling remnants of Rondo. I bought Rondo in 1971 from Jefferson Place Gallery. It came out into the space. But Rondo wasn’t the way Rondo is now. Rondo was hung swinging out into the room—it’s 10 by 25 feet of canvas—and it has an oak beam that comes from Weege’s barn. Sam and Weege backed up into the kitchen and ran with the painting and jammed it up into the ceiling. It was looming over the painting, so I put in a wooden block so it wouldn’t fall into the painting.

Rondo is the key featured painting at the Kunstmuseum Basel for Sam’s show that just finished, The Music of Color. They wanted that really badly, so they got it, and they got it with the beam. I went with my son John and took all the old slides and old Polaroids of Rondo so they would have it for their archives. We sat and I told them the story of how Rondo got created—it got created right here, because Rondo wouldn't be Rondo without that beam. It was put up here with the beam for the first time. If I’d bought any other piece of canvas, that would be Rondo, because it’s the combination of the beam and the canvas, which is beautiful. So Rondo Remembered is here because every time I sell a Gilliam I commission a work from Bill Weege.

INTERVIEWER: You sell one and you need to replace the space? Bill’s got some big things.

DE: He does. I have things in storage that are huge.

INTERVIEWER: Besides this house? Is there storage in this house, or are you talking about another building?

DE: There’s storage in this house and there are things out on loan.

INTERVIEWER: Do you get approached by museums from around the country and the world who say, We’re doing a show, we know what you have?

DE: Sure. We had four works that originated from my buying them from Sam in his studio or from Jefferson Place that were in his show in Basel, out of 45 works. So four originated here. One sold in Basel, one sold in London. I saw it again, Snakebite, and it showed up again in Basel of all places. Also Basel bought one and I've got one, Atmosphere, that still is—I don't know where it is right now, probably is back in Kordansky Gallery.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have a secretary keeping track of all this?

DE: It’s all in my mind; in fact, since Nancy died, I’ve had to do inventory—the first one I've ever had. I never had a list. That isn’t how my mind works. I just knew—when I’d see a work I could tell you about it.

INTERVIEWER: Let's switch gears a little bit. It seems to be that you want to buy something and you love it, and then after a while it's okay to let it move on to someone else, and then you buy something else. I would think that most collectors would think, “No, I'm buying it and I'm keeping it forever and I’m just stashing it away, and when I want to I’ll just put it in storage and put something else up.” Can you talk a little about that?

DE: You’re talking about somebody whose mind works differently than mine.

INTERVIEWER: Yes. So it’s not about ownership?

DE: No. It’s about process, the relationship. The work almost is unimportant.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s not really about each individual piece--it’s about your relationship with the artist.

DE: Well, that, that too.

This is a William T. Wiley. It started out as raw canvas, tacked to the wall. Wiley came out and made a painting. It took him about ten days. After ten years I was talking to him and I said, “If you had a group of fifty Wiley paintings and you drew out of a hat a list with numbers one to fifty, it would be the last one to be chosen.” There was something wrong with it. So he said, Send it on back. So we rolled it up and I sent it back freight and he sent it back. First of all he sent me the ends—those are down there.

INTERVIEWER: You're pointing at two rolls that look like newspaper rolls that are hanging from string next to the canvas. So you cut it down.

DE: Yes. And the painting itself, in theory you could frame it. The edges are the original painting, and you can see through it. You can see through this painting and see the old painting.

INTERVIEWER: So he’s painted over white and drawn all over it? So some of this kind of comes through?

DE: Well, yeah, a lot comes through. If you know what the old one was, you see it through that. It's called Construction Site. I have never read everything that's in it. I’ve had it now here for four, five, six years. There's a date down here—2008, ten years. I ration what I see. It's got so much information on it that I purposely don't try to go over it completely to decipher it. There’s a sculpture called Mugging that looks at it, and Mugging has a skeleton on it that while I stood down at the old Madison Art Center, somebody came in and pulled a leg off—just walked right up and pulled it off and then it got welded back on. Then it went to Indianapolis, came back, and then that leg got crushed again. So I brought it home to fix it.

INTERVIEWER: I love the way the eyeballs look like leg iron balls that would have been attached to your legs. So, I’m standing in a room—there’s basically two artists, I mean you’ve got a wonderful Madison photographer, Greg Conniff, but it’s basically William Wiley and Sam Gilliam, in this room. You’ve talked about Sam; how about Bill? Or is it William?

DE: Well, it’s Wiley. Everybody says Wiley. I met him here [in Madison]. He came as artist in residence at the old Madison Art Center and I met him and we went to Cham Hendon’s house and we sat. In 1970. He came out to our house and we sat around and we had a good time, and I asked him if he'd make us a watercolor or something. I didn't specify the medium. So he made this, and it talks about the meeting at Cham Hendon’s down here.

INTERVIEWER: And he had to write it backwards. No, this isn’t a print, this is a watercolor.

DE: It’s a watercolor. There are some prints made like this, afterwards.

INTERVIEWER: There’s an infamous story that I’ve never gotten the full version of, of all the guys at the university taking Wiley to the 602 Club, which was the great watering hole of the faculty. And for a long time there was a Wiley print hanging there which must have been his bar tab. [LAUGHTER]

DE: Yeah. The evening he came to dinner, he played his guitar in our little teeny dining room over in Nakoma was that painting over here, the Tom Downing painting, which is eight circles of color. Wiley looks at it and says, “You know, every one of those colors is sour but one.” And I went, “Oh my gosh.” I hadn’t told him the name of the painting—it’s called Sweet Red. He absolutely got it. You can see the little rings from the early acrylics that were turpentine based so they made a little ring stain. Later on, Tom Downing—twenty years later there was a demand for some more disks, so he made them, and he made fake rings around them.

INTERVIEWER: What other Madison artists were there besides Bill Weege?

DE: Oh, sure. Wayne Taylor. We donated a work to the Madison Art Center of Wayne Taylor's. That was part of the original $2,000 that Sam gave. Who else? Many of the retired guys have just faded out. Bill Weege really was the other person. I used to never tell him what he would do—he just did it and he’d bring it. There’s a German artist here named Georg Ettl who anchors both rooms. Georg came here and made Mensch Nach Picasso, which is the sculpture in that little alcove. That alcove was his space to make a sculpture for. Then he made this; this came from a show at the Minneapolis Art Institute of ten German artists, and it was in that show or one identical to it. Jiri Svestka was the curator of that show. He owns a gallery in Prague and he also was the head of the Dusseldorf Kuntsverein and they had a big show of Georg’s work. I got tons of catalogs of Georg Ettl.

INTERVIEWER: You must have quite a library of stuff. To the collection itself, I’m really glad you talked about it being more about meeting the artist than it being a personality thing, because I'm trying to see a consistency in style. There’s certainly minimalism, but you have a full range of very different types of things that do skirt pop art and minimalism, action painting, staining. But it’s not really about that. It’s about meeting people, and…

DE: There's a focus on the work, on the process. I like the artists. It's not about celebrity meeting at all. It’s hard to say. Your description of me—I don't quite identify with it.

INTERVIEWER: That’s why we’re doing this interview. Is there something else you want to show me? Let’s keep walking.

DE: Here’s one that shows you how Sam works. When we went up to his studio he went and took this panel over here and rotated it and flipped it and it was over there. He put it over here. The painting we call Corcoran was flipped the other way. He flipped it. It comes together in three sections. Chalk over here ... This was before Eiler Red. And Chalk—when he made this painting, he was exploring—he’d put a square in, make a square bigger. It looks exploratory. The Eiler Red, by that time he’s a master of that way of doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Is that the title of that piece? Eiler Red?

DE: It is. It is not my choice. The Eiler Blues, which hung on this wall for years, is at the Madison Art Center. I called it Madison Blues, and Sam wouldn’t have any part of it. He called them directly and said, “Don’t do that.” I don’t know why he does that, because I don’t find it useful. Chalk, Sam sent that out because we had a Deborah Butterfield horse in the other room—it’s white. I said, “Sam, you know how people have couches that they get paintings to match their couch? Can you send a painting that matches the horse?” And he sent out Chalk. [LAUGHTER] And Chalk actually has a horse’s head over there, which I didn’t see for a couple of years.

INTERVIEWER: I’ve always found it interesting, having worked with Sam over many different times and periods, across a number of years at Tandem Press, was that a lot he would just stop and start talking about Matisse. For a long time I never got it, ever: “I’m not in the same ballpark with the way you’re thinking.” But the more I look at his stuff, and the way he handles very simple shapes and makes it complex—it’s very Matisse. So even though this is very aggressive painting and collage and assemblage, he really breaks it down to bare minimum.

DE: We’ve got paintings that are gone, they’re now in Milwaukee, at the Haggerty. We’ve given a lot. My favorite painting which was the Generation Below Them hung on this wall, it's at the Elvehjem, the Chazen. And there’s a lot of paintings at the Madison Art Center, MMoCA. A lot of the placement of paintings and the sales I did for Sam’s benefit.

INTERVIEWER: Now in the BIG show, there was that big curtain. Is that something that you had a hand in?

DE: That big curtain—the Carousel, the 75-foot one—that was sold at the time Sam came for the ten artists. The Madison Art Center paid $3,500 for that.

INTERVIEWER: Bill thought it was $5,000.

DE: No--$3,500.

INTERVIEWER: That brings us to another point. You’re still an active collector.

DE: I don’t try to be. Absolutely not. I have not been an “active collector” for some years. Things happen, things come in. I don’t replace. I never move something out to bring something in. It’s never been like that. I never had any plans for what size the collection would be and where they would be. I did have one rule: Collect in the size that the artist was most interested in. So if he worked large, never take a small thing, only the large. If he worked small, don't take a large thing. That’s a commonsense rule. I never worried about practicality.

INTERVIEWER: The question I was leading to was in the old days, you could buy a Gilliam for three or five thousand dollars …

DE: You could buy a Gilliam for one thousand dollars when I started. They now are in the seven figures. Kordansky is his dealer in Los Angeles and we have a number of works in their custody. I’ll get a call from time to time—Kunstmuseum Basel took Rondo early on and then during the show, somebody—I'm told he was a president or director of Geneva Kunstmuseum—they took Rite, which was the second work that we ever took.

INTERVIEWER: So does that give you a mental credit, to say, “Something else may come in?” I mean as far as money coming and going, that aspect of being a collector, which I understand you’ve downplayed, because that’s not really how you think about yourself.

DE: No. At this point I am a custodian of the family. Everything is for sale—except for the cougar, which I want dumped on top of my grave. Put me into the ground and then put him on top of me. Everything else Kordansky takes care of. We’ve sold Martin Puryear through his dealer and Deborah Butterfield through her dealer in Chicago.

INTERVIEWER: And you met them both through Madison, too?

DE: No, I met Martin Puryear in Washington.

INTERVIEWER: Because I know that Deborah Butterfield was here for a year.

DE: She came here, yeah, so I met her. I didn’t take anything at that time, but later on when the Madison Art Center had a Deborah Butterfield show I realized, “It's time for a horse.” My memory is that we took the horse in ’95. It was a big white horse. It filled that room.

INTERVIEWER: You have a very big house. Well, big rooms.

DE: Notice the windows are down low to maximize the size of the wall. This house had to be specifically built for the art. Our bedrooms are teeny—little Japanese bedrooms.

INTERVIEWER: What do you have in there? Little treasures?

DE: Basically we squeezed the bedrooms in and maximized the gallery space.

INTERVIEWER: Can we go down and look at storage? I think that was in the basement, wasn't it, where I walked in? I guess I want you to show me something else. We don’t have to do that—you can show me something different.

DE: I can show you the Caro, Anthony Caro, called Ginger. That was sitting next to a chair. Waddington Gallery in London is where I bought the first Boxing Hare [sculpture], the Flanagan. I made a visit and I came down for a cup of coffee in the director’s office, and there I sat next to that, so I took it. It’s an awfully good piece. It’s witty, it’s funny, it’s comic.

INTERVIEWER: I find it very Midwestern. Plowshare-ish. Plowshares and twists and angles.

DE: I just find it comic in how it balances things. It’s very successfully done.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve donated a lot of work, between here and Milwaukee—

DE: We’ve donated to the Smithsonian, too—a Wiley.

INTERVIEWER: I’m just wondering, do you like what's happening in Madison? Do you still go down to the art openings?

DE: I don't know what's going on in Madison. I don’t go to openings.

INTERVIEWER: Have you seen the Shapiros?

DE: I need to go down there because I would like to see his work in real life. Yes, I will go down there.

INTERVIEWER: It’s quite beautiful. I wasn't expecting to be impressed because I've seen a lot in magazines, but I was very impressed, and a lot of it is the humor of balance. Maybe that’s appropriate as we’re standing in front of this one.

DE: Yes, his dealer Paula Cooper—at least that was his dealer—she was Alan Shields’s dealer. I dealt directly with Alan Shields for that piece. We have another piece called Orange Pig, which is solid canvas. He carried it on the airplane coming out. This was made while—Weege says he was doing prints while Alan Shields was at the sewing machine, sewing away. Paula Cooper—I don’t think she liked the fact that I dealt directly with the artist. But I sent my checks to her.

INTERVIEWER: Is this a Wiley also? This part does look like him but this part doesn’t. The stick figures and this metal piece.

DE: He made this. The stick figures are out in the yard, and there’s a Wiley pyramid out there. We talked about making a game where there’d be a ring toss over the the pyramid. He sent me full-size cardboard forms and I had it made by somebody near Stoughton who did stainless steel milk trucks and he made this. This came from Badger Bowl—I made that.

INTERVIEWER: So it’s a collaborative piece.

DE: It is, yeah. I figured out how to attach it to the wall, and I made the bricks. I like bricks.

INTERVIEWER: Tell me a little bit about this one. I guess this is the oddball, not stylistically but because it sits out from the wall in front of the Wiley. It’s quite a stunning piece.

DE: That’s Snowfall by Howard Mehring. I have four Mehrings from different periods. Downstairs is a hard edge Mehring. This was done when he was 26 years old in 1958.

INTERVIEWER: Is he one of the DC stain painters, color painters?

DE: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: I think of them as second-generation Frankenthalers. Because she kind of plows through, and Sam and other people follow through.

DE: That’s fair.

INTERVIEWER: It’s really a stunning piece.

DE: Yeah. It kind of moves slowly in the wind, whatever the air currents are, so it’s perfect because it’s Snowfall. Doug from the Madison Art Center came out with help and they hung it for me.

INTERVIEWER: It’s another piece that has that Midwestern landscape feel—a lot of snow and what could be sky, though obviously it’s abstract. I’m going to see what it looks like from behind, because it does stick out. Wow, that's impressive. Because it's stained through. It’s subtle.

DE: Well, Sam’s--there’s a painting called Open that is out in California. They wanted to have it cleaned, and the person who was cleaning it—the conservator—wanted to remove the stains that were on the backside of the canvas. And of course that never would have ended.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah, she would have scraped it back to the front.

DE: This—on a drive on the interstate out to Custer State Park I kept seeing these old abandoned road signs—billboards—and they looked like this. I told Shields that, and he smiled like, “Oh yeah, finally somebody got it.” He was in Kansas, and that's part of his aesthetics.

INTERVIEWER: Incredible. I found that the reason I liked Alan so much was because he really engaged with his students. Of course, he painted all their fingernails. He was like a pirate, a larger-than-life figure. It’s good to show students that he was relatively humble considering he was larger than life.

DE: I would have liked for you to have seen the Orange Pig, which is about this scale. It’s hard to describe it, but you would really like it. It’s got beads hanging down in front.

INTERVIEWER: Is this piece in the same time period as the one that the Milwaukee Art Institute has?

DE: I’m sure they are. It is, because he didn't do that forever.

INTERVIEWER: Going back to that influence that either influences Bill Weege or Bill Weege influences—you never really know since it's sort of like a crapshoot, everybody's doing it. The idea of stringing things up—this is a very linear, stringy thing. Bill is also dipping paper in strings. There was just a point where all these guys were kind of connected.

DE: Yeah. Sam and Bill have always collaborated, working together. It's hard to tell who adds what. That’s another commissioned piece for a Gilliam sale.

INTERVIEWER: Wait, that’s a Gilliam?

DE: No, this is a Weege, but it’s a commission from a sale. It’s relatively new, maybe three or four years. Absolutely from the last five years.

INTERVIEWER: Because he’s got handmade paper, he’s spraying the color into the paper, he’s got all these little die-cut shapes. I’m amazed you found the signature.

DE: Well, I know where to look, over there in the corner. I just think it does nicely with the Shields.

INTERVIEWER: Very handsome piece. What else do we have? We have some wooden sculptures, some chairs and some tables.

DE: Yeah, Steven Spiro did the chairs and he did the table in here in the tower. The tower was a collaborative work. It actually began with Bill Weege. He had a silo in his barn, and you’d sit in the silo and have dinner. So I told [NAME UNCLEAR], “Can you make me a tower?” A dining tower, like a silo. So he did it oval. And I said, Can you do skylights, lights, windows up high like in Spanish buildings?

INTERVIEWER: So this tower that we’re standing in was added after the house was built?

DE: Oh sure. The house was very spare. Spiro went and recreated the shape with the table. And then I said, “Why can’t we put the inserts—?”

INTERVIEWER: Oh, those are the inserts? How smart is that! It has tables around the edge, and there’s a Sam Gilliam book sitting there.

DE: The Georg Ettl, which was made here, we went over to Milwaukee and picked out the marble.

INTERVIEWER: What does that say? “Mensch.”

DE: “Mensch Nach Picasso.” Picasso has a number of wooden driftwood figures. In Stuttgart Museum you go in the front door and it's all the way back, and this is after that. Georg came here and he sat down and he drew figure after figure, lining up the eyes and the nose and moving them around. He’s very sarcastic, gentle, funny, perfectionist. We went out to the airport, and a young guy was going to make that figure in steel and we were going to copper-plate it and then gold-plate it over the copper. I can tell you this is not the way Georg gave him the plans. When he gave him the plans, the eyes and the nose were moved around, and the guy out there drew a straight line across and lined them up. I looked at Georg because I know he’s a perfectionist, and he laughed and he said, “That’s okay.” Then we went down on East Washington and we had it copper-plated as a stage to it getting gold plated. He pulls it out of the bath—it’s on fire. Stop, that's it. And it hasn’t changed.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any artists that you would like to collect?

DE: Joseph Beuys. Absolutely. I even sent him a letter one time saying, “How would you like to send some work to the Madison Art Center.” I don’t know, I had fun writing it. Oh, sure. Joseph Beuys.

INTERVIEWER: That brings me to my second question, the relationship with the people in Madison as someone in the art scene. You don't want me to call you a collector, that's fine.

DE: No, I am a collector. I mean, I was.

INTERVIEWER: An art mover and shaker, maybe. Your relationship with Joe Wilfer must have been very strong. Did Joe keep pulling you in?

DE: I used to go over to the Madison Art Center and Joe and I would go up to the Plaza Burger. It was all very casual. I wouldn’t let Joe drive the truck coming back because he wasn't a very good driver of a truck, so I drove it through a snowstorm. When we got to Notre Dame we couldn't see any more on the interstate. I happened to be very near my father's house near Notre Dame and we drove down in this truck. Dad’s third wife came out and saw us and she was shocked because we didn't look very respectable. And there we were. Joe was driving the truck the next day and he turned on the windshield wipers because he thought it was raining. And it wasn’t. So I said, Pull over, Joe, and I’ll drive the rest of the way. I had a very comfortable relationship with Joe. But it wasn't like he or I told the other person what to do, or suggestions—it wasn't like that. We just liked hanging out.

INTERVIEWER: I have a very peripheral relationship with Joe, because of course he’d already been well established here, and he was already in New York by the time I got to Tandem. I met him a handful of times but always found that there was this energy that happened, that I had a choice—I either could go home or I was in it. It was like being in a whirlwind.

DE: Well, imagine Joe and Bill Weege working together, with Sam. I would not have known how good Joe was except that I knew that Bill Weege really respected him. That's how I knew. I wouldn’t have known directly because I’d never seen him in action. I just knew—it was in the air.

INTERVIEWER: My impression was just things happened. All of a sudden artists would show up at Tandem and I’d hear this murmur and come to find out that Joe had just walked up to them and said, “Hey, you want to go print, go out there.”

DE: Yeah. It was the highest level of casual spontaneity. That was swell. I like being around that.

INTERVIEWER: And look where he ends up. He ends up at Pace Editions, which is no slouch, they’re one of the top three or four in the world for publishing and galleries.

DE: Who knows what would have happened if Joe had lived longer. Sam is now 84, 85. It's incredible that he is so productive at this age and that he survived this long. The quality of his work—

INTERVIEWER: And he’s being kind of rediscovered now, even though he’s never gone away.

DE: The next phase is going to be the Double River stage. I’ll show you. This is from 1976. Sam and I were talking—this is going to be at the Hirshhorn sometime. Here we go. That’s Double River. That’s out at Kordansky.

INTERVIEWER: This is a piece that you bought?

DE: Yeah. I bought that—I went up to his studio—I remember that when I went up and he had Coffee Thyme, which I think is in the Metropolitan. It was this way and Double River was over there leaning against the wall and I just took Double River.

INTERVIEWER: Imagine what that’s like as an artist, to have someone who is so supportive of them. There's got to be this mutual respect.

DE: I’ve felt that with Sam I’ve been very fortunate. I mean, good heavens. The relationship has been really mutually supportive. There were times when Sam would call me and he needed to make me a work, so he would. Most of my Gilliams—the majority—I never picked. Not at all.

INTERVIEWER: We don’t need to go deeper into that question, what do you think that means: “I need to make you a work, I need money.”

DE: Absolutely, totally. He had a staff of people there, he had a payroll to make, and when I could—that's how I got many of my works is that he was ready to make one. Sometimes I’d show up and say, I want to buy a work, but that didn't happen all that often.

INTERVIEWER: The majority of your Gilliams, I'm assuming, then, are through Sam, not through a gallery?

DE: Through Sam. Early on through Jefferson Place Gallery with Nesta Dorrance, and Paul—

INTERVIEWER: It is more fun working directly, though, isn’t it?

DE: Oh, sure, you smell the paint. But Nesta Dorrance, who was English, she was the real deal. She gave Noland his first target show. My relationship with her as a primary source lasted about six months because I came out to Madison, plus I would go straight down to Sam's warehouse.

INTERVIEWER: At the lecture, where Bill Weege and Sam were supposed to be there together—Sam doesn't travel very much anymore—Bill, in introducing you—it was kind of a joke, but maybe you could explain it a little bit—how you really would have rather bought Kenneth Noland and some of the other Washington School artists, but you could only afford Sam.

DE: I don't remember that. And that isn’t true. His work—the drapiness—whatever it was, I would not have traded any Noland for those Gilliams. Not at all.

INTERVIEWER: The one thing that I take from 27 years at Tandem Press is that occasionally it's about work, and people who work. I’m a Midwestern boy. My dad was a union painter. You work for your money. You work, and a hard day's work means that you’ve accomplished something. Of course, he didn’t understand art. He wanted a flower to look like a flower—that’s fine. But over the years I was able to show him what I did as a printer, and he would always say, Why didn’t you tell me you were working? You have to grind a stone, you have to do all this stuff. But I think in the end there’s also this point where you really feel like you're standing next to what can only be described as genius, something that maybe I don’t have myself, but I get to stand next to it and I recognize it, and it’s infectious. It’s intoxicating.

DE: I guess I knew from the very first that Sam was a brilliant, great artist. I just knew that. His intellect and his wide-ranging reading—I'm not sure everybody understands. One time Nancy Weege, Bill’s first wife, said, Sam—they were out at the barn or at the farmhouse next to the barn—and she says, Sam, what should I read. Sam said, Put down 10 numbers. Then he gave 10 titles and he gave 10 authors, then he gave the publishers. I sat there while he did that. He had it all organized. His immersion into the history of art—we shared that feeling. I didn't write many letters. I wrote a letter to the editor of the arts section in the New York Times. I was infuriated because she put down Sam because his work wasn't ethnic enough, because he had, in a way, betrayed. I always thought of him as the Duke Ellington of art. When Basel called it the Music of Color, I said, Oh yeah, they're finally getting it. Sam also was deeply involved with art as art. That was a commonality for Sam and me. Nothing about anything else other than his work and the continuity of the tradition of art and its importance in our life.

INTERVIEWER: They asked Louise Bourgeois, What’s it like to be a famous artist? She said, Well, I never went anywhere, I'm only famous because I'm old and I’m still around. Louise has had a lot of success, so has Sam. It’s nice to see them being thought of again. At the same time he’s never really gone anywhere. He hasn’t really changed. He’s still hardworking--the consummate artist.

DE: His productivity is sensational. He's found a way— It’s like Georg Ettl. You don't know that Georg had a demyelinating neurological disease that was sort of like a slow version of ALS. It finally killed him. But for a long period of time he could still be productive with his people helping him. He would guide them when he couldn't even move his arms. Sam has worked with people always. When we had a painting, Eiler Blues, stretched along the wall, he had us go out and get Sears paint and Sam sat in a canvas chair while Nancy and I painted a wall with our left hands. Then he put that painting directly onto it while it was wet. He had in his studio—he still has—a gentleman from the streets who does a lot of the painting. It’s everybody collaborating. That is a strength of his.

INTERVIEWER: It wasn’t too different at Tandem, where a lot of things would be done beforehand—we’d make paper, mix tons of colors, cut blocks. Bill would come out and get something going so we could be in full swing while Sam walked in. One day Sam would say, Mix me 10 colors, no whites, just start printing. And then next it’d be, Mix me 10 colors, all whites, start printing again. And then occasionally, “Let’s just get some history here, and then I’ll respond.” And then of course he changes them and manipulates. The white piece of paper wasn’t a good thing.

DE: In college with Nancy, you had all the big bands, this in the early 1950s, and they all came to DePauw—Duke Ellington, Count Basie. I watched them at the piano, effortlessly playing the piano, and that’s kind of like Sam. Everybody’s doing things around him. There’s good documentation at Basel Kuntsmuseum of Sam hanging the shows. He totally dictated how all the paintings went up from a wheelchair. A painting called Rite which always hung down near the floor and flowing onto the floor, he had it up high, and I think that sold the painting, because it looked elegant up there. When it hung down on the floor—I had a dog one day back up and take a dump on it. So the guy in Geneva—there’s probably dog DNA from Sally on that painting. I think if it had been down in the traditional way that Sam hung it—he hung it for us half a dozen times over the years—now it was up high and elegant. Sold.

INTERVIEWER: We've been chatting for about an hour. Any last remarks?

DE: I am the opposite of jaded, being used to the art around me. Every day I’m thrilled to be in this house living with this work. It's always fresh for me. It's an amazing experience to be here. I love having the occasional visitor who doesn’t come very often come by and I can tell some stories. One more story about Georg Ettl’s Mensch Nach Picasso. I have a catalog downstairs from France with it on the cover. The picture was taken right here. They came up from Chicago—two guys came out to measure and plan the crate to go to France—Lyons, somewhere—then to Basel. The invitations to the show had this sculpture on it. The lead article on the inside of the catalog has this sculpture on it. I never heard from them again. They never shipped it. Georg said, Yeah, it was too expensive. Something like this, three moves would be like a fire, I guess. You never had to travel and it got on the cover of a catalog.

INTERVIEWER: I do have one last question. What’s next? Do you have a new passion?

DE: I read German and I speak German and I love to go to Germany. Right now I'm working my way through six of the eight crime novels that led to Babylon Berlin. Have you seen that series? They’re 550 pages. I’m finishing up number two. I’ve got them all in there stacked up. But I don't have any “next.” Until I ran out of gas I would go every day to Verona High School for the fifth-year German class to help out. You had to come back home through four o’clock rush hour, and that's when I want to take a nap. I did that for spring and then until just this last weekend. It was too much, regrettably. No, I don’t have a “next.” I just turned 80. I don’t think about that. I think about, How can we have a good day, what’s a good day. I’d like to get Sam’s work placed. I feel responsible for getting it well sited. I'm no longer donating his work. They're going to have to pay for it. But I know the Kordansky, they only sell to where the works ought to go.


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