Art Market

Artists Reflect on Mary Boone’s Legacy a Year after Her Prison Sentencing

Scott Indrisek
Jan 28, 2020 5:22PM

Mary Boone and Laurie Anderson. Photo by Merry Alpern/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images.

For decades, Mary Boone was an unstoppable force in the New York art world. She shot to prominence in the heady 1980s, shepherding brash talents like Julian Schnabel and Barbara Kruger to fame. Photogenic and supremely confident, Boone seemed to perform a cinematic version of the gallerist’s life, full of glitz, glamour, and determined deal-making. She remained vital and relevant into the 21st century as she updated her program, bringing former Swiss Institute curator Piper Marshall on board to organize a series of exhibitions with the likes of Ericka Beckman and Judith Bernstein. One thing Boone had received criticism for was the gender imbalance of her roster; the Guerrilla Girls called her out on their “Report Card,” noting that she’d shown zero female artists between 1985 and 1987, and dubbing her “Boy Crazy.”

But then, in 2018, everything blew up spectacularly. As even the most casual follower of art-world gossip will likely know, the fabled dealer is now serving a 30-month sentence in federal prison for tax evasion. The facts of the case showed that Boone’s behavior had been brazen and damning. She admitted to transferring $9.5 million from one bank to another and claiming the transfer as a deductible business expense. Other maneuvers she reported as business expenses included an apartment renovation that cost nearly $800,000, and $19,000 in purchases from Hermès and Louis Vuitton.

None of this could be played off as simple error; Boone’s actions went far beyond what we might call creative accounting. Her legal defense cited “childhood trauma” as the catalyst for her crimes. The vocal art critic Jerry Saltz didn’t excuse Boone’s tax transgression, but seemed to suggest that such trickery was par for the course in a field that lacks transparency. “I say pay the $ but no jail time,” he tweeted. “Or ALL dealers would be locked-up.”

The Boone diaspora


Beyond her criminal record, what is the state of Boone’s legacy as a dealer now nearly a year after she was sentenced to prison? Some artists officially in her stable—like Will Cotton, who first showed with Boone in 2000, and Erik Parker, who joined the dealer not long before her IRS woes became public—have yet to cement new representation in New York.

“Mary was the best dealer I ever worked with,” Cotton said. “She was great at installing and lighting exhibitions, selling work, paying for sold work right away.”

The ’80s painting star Ross Bleckner (the subject of another Boone legal controversy involving Alec Baldwin) is now on the roster at Petzel. Dawoud Bey shows with Sean Kelly. Cult hero Peter Saul is represented by two uptown galleries, Venus Over Manhattan and Michael Werner. Tomoo Gokita is at Blum & Poe. Many artists Boone collaborated with already had existing relationships with other galleries: Laurie Simmons (with Salon 94); Olivier Mosset (with Gagosian and Spencer Brownstone); Barry Le Va (with David Nolan); and John Miller (with Metro Pictures).

While some artists who worked with Boone in the recent and distant past preferred not to comment on their experiences with her, many were more than willing to reflect on the dealer’s legacy and personality. And a surprising number affirmed that, if Boone were to relaunch her gallery after her prison stint, they’d return her calls.

“I found Mary a supportive and generous dealer,” said Conceptual artist Robert Barry, who had a multi-decade survey at the gallery in 2016. “When she gets out, if she decides to open another gallery, I would be very happy to work with her.”

Boone is often described as demanding, driven, and perhaps a bit difficult. I asked B. Wurtz, who worked with the dealer on a 2014 two-person exhibition with Jim Isermann, what he thought about that side of her.

“Well, indeed I have heard about difficulties,” he said. “But I never had any with her, so what can I say? People are complex. The question makes me think of Andy Warhol, another person with a large quantity of fame. Some people said Andy was really nice—and funny—and others said he was a monster. Let’s remember that we are all human.…It will be interesting to see what Mary does when back out in the world. I don’t think she would be barred from joining the art world again. She will have paid her debt to society and I suppose one could say added to her persona. I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing something again with her in the future.”

Simmons was first introduced to Boone in the 1980s, when she was headquartered at 420 West Broadway in SoHo. “She kind of started the idea that art dealers could be as interesting as artists,” Simmons recalled. “I saw her gallery then as a place that showed male artists, but she was always respectful.” Much later, when Boone was making a concerted effort to diversify her program, Simmons signed on to do a single solo exhibition in 2018 at the gallery’s Chelsea location.

An art-world powerhouse with a strong personality

Laurie Simmons
Untitled (Band), 1994
Carolina Nitsch Contemporary Art

“Mary’s first and foremost passion is art,” Simmons said. “She has a truly great eye. She’d rather talk about art and artists than anything else. She has a photographic memory for artworks and also an artist’s resume—like which pieces were in what shows at which institutions.” And whether or not Boone’s programming always reflected feminist principles, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that she was a savvy woman playing what often seems like a man’s game.

“I see Mary as part of a powerhouse group of women dealers including Barbara Gladstone, Marian Goodman, Paula Cooper, and of course Helene [Winer] and Janelle [Reiring] at Metro Pictures,” Simmons added. “All of these women changed the face of the art world, and I’m sure Ileana Sonnebend influenced all of them.”

Pictures Generation artist Beckman, known for elaborate, large-scale video installations, had two well-received solo shows with Boone, in 2015 and 2016. They had first crossed paths decades earlier.

“What I liked about Mary was that she was the only dealer in the 1980s who came to see my work more than once,” Beckman said. “I respected her for taking the time to really look at the work, consider it, and remember that she did so many years later.” That didn’t necessarily translate into financial success. “I had everyone come to my loft [in the 1980s] since I was recommended by all the now famous artists of my generation,” Beckman added. “[Boone] sadly, as others at that time, could not figure out how to sell my work.”

“From an artist’s perspective, I like her strong personality a lot,” Beckman added. “She was decisive and upfront with decisions, advice, and planning. She didn’t shy from production costs.” Boone’s willingness to cut checks to make exhibitions happen the way artists and curators intended was echoed by other artists with whom I spoke.

“Mary was consistently charming throughout our 15-year relationship,” said Hilary Harkness. “She was always warm and complimentary to my paintings, she never directed or edited my artistic direction, and she did what she thought was best for me.” Harkness is now on the roster at P.P.O.W, the gallery founded by Wendy Olsoff and Penny Pilkington in 1983; she’ll have a solo at its new Tribeca location in 2021.

“Having your infamous art dealer go to jail is an easy way to garner offers without sticking your neck out,” Harkness said, “but I was sick at heart for Mary and needed weeks to think. I reached out to P.P.O.W because they have one of the best programs in town, and when Wendy Olsoff came to my studio, she impressed me by quickly and accurately connecting the dots between three seemingly divergent projects. She was radiant and brilliant—I had found my new art dealer. Both galleries have friendly employees with a flair for fashion, but what makes P.P.O.W special is they are a true community of artists.”

The painter Elizabeth Neel praised Boone’s “extreme attention to detail and quality” and said she had “never met anyone quite like her.” As for whether, given the opportunity, she would collaborate with the dealer again in the future, she said, “I believe in second chances, empathy, and forgiveness.”

Boone’s evolution

David Salle
On the River, 2010
Sevil Dolmacı Art Gallery

Neel acknowledged that Boone’s legacy was built on prominent men—her gallery showed Schnabel, David Salle, and Eric Fischl over the years—but applauded her for evolving with the times. “Mary received a lot of criticism early on for supporting ‘machos,’ but she should equally be given credit for consciously transforming her program into one that supported quite a few highly influential women artists over the years,” she said. “In such an intensely male-dominated field, it takes guts to do what she did.”

“Every time I was around her I was just blown away, because she’s really a bad-ass,” said Parker, who recalled reading about Boone in the late 1980s, when he was just getting turned onto contemporary art. Decades later, he was showing with Kasmin, but was drawn to Boone’s taste and her relationships with Saul, Gokita, and KAWS. Their first interactions were actually commercial: Boone arranged a payment plan for Parker so that he could acquire a Gokita painting he coveted. “I wasn’t the best at paying back on time,” he admitted, “but she was always really cool to me.” After that, Boone asked Parker if he would be interested in showing with her gallery. His answer was a resounding yes.

Parker was delighted by the drama and mystique that surrounded Boone, a panache that seemed straight out of a Jay McInerney novel: lunches at Cipriani; studio visits for which Boone arrived in an S-Class Mercedes, clad in head-to-toe Chanel. He said the dealer was always reachable by phone, at any hour—but that this availability cut both ways. “She would call me if she needed something at seven o’clock Sunday morning,” Parker recalled. “You know you’re in trouble if she starts a conversation with, ‘Erik, don’t hate me, but. . .’”

“Boone can be a difficult person, but I enjoyed it a lot,” he added. “I appreciated the attention, even if it was a little bit manipulative, or trying to get what she wanted.…I guess it isn’t for everyone, but I liked it. I like action—I feel like I got a lot of it with her. I got a lot of attention.”

Parker was pleased with his shows with Boone in 2018 and 2019, at both her Chelsea and Midtown locations. Sales were good, and he felt appreciated on her roster. If Boone returns to the scene, he’d be keen to work with her again. “She’s complicated, but who isn’t?” Parker asked. “If you work as hard as she’s going to work, then you’re going to have great results. That’s how I felt with her.”

A dealer’s dealer

Portrait of Mary Boone in her Soho gallery, New York, 1992. Photo by Michel Delsol/Getty Images.

Boone didn’t just go to bat for her artists. José Freire, of Team Gallery, credited her with helping his own gallery to survive. Boone, he said, tried to hire him shortly after the 2004 Whitney Biennial, which featured three of Team’s artists (Cory Arcangel, Slater Bradley, and Banks Violette). He turned her down, but then realized a different sort of collaboration could be possible. Freire proposed a trio of group shows for 2006, “I Love My Scene,” which would ultimately mingle on-the-rise contemporary artists with staples of Boone’s roster, like Bleckner and Damian Loeb.

“It was an incredible pleasure doing those shows,” said Freire, who added that Boone gifted him a work from each installment. “She never second-guessed me, she never balked at the cost of anything.”

Shortly thereafter, Freire chose to abandon his Chelsea digs for a new location in SoHo. His lease was affordable, but the building itself was in “deplorable condition…the space was trash,” he said. Contractors quoted him renovation costs around $400,000. He discussed his options with Boone, who cautioned Freire to triple that sum if he wanted to know what things would actually end up costing. That was spot-on advice; the refurbishment ended up running around $1.1 million. Regardless of the estimate, Freire had a cashflow problem and was waiting on overdue payments himself.

“She said to me, ‘I’ll send you my bankers tomorrow,’” he recalled. “And she sent these people to me. I got an unsecured loan that she must have signed for, for $500,000. I had four years to pay it back, and one year was interest-free.…If it weren’t for Mary Boone, Team in SoHo would never have happened.”

Ross Bleckner
Banding Patterns, 2000
Serge Sorokko Gallery

Freire and Boone went on to collaborate on an additional project—a Pierre Bismuth exhibition that stretched from Team to both of Boone’s New York locations—and they maintained a social relationship.

“I love to go to the movies, and Mary Boone, it seems, also loves to go to the movies,” Freire said. “It was like, why bother going to an art dinner in a boring art restaurant where you’ve got to whisper because everyone at the other tables works at some other art gallery? We would go to movies on the Upper West Side, on Sunday afternoons, Sunday mornings.”

Freire couldn’t recall any special, shared cinematic taste between the two of them, but he does have a visceral memory of bringing her to see Michael Haneke’s slow-burn thriller Caché (2005) at the New York Film Festival. “There’s a point in that movie where someone, seemingly out of nowhere, slits their own throat. And Mary grabbed my arm—she has kind of, you know, couture-y nails—and they went right into my arm. I thought to myself, ‘Make a note: Never take Mary Boone to see a scary movie again!’”

I asked Freire if he thought Boone would make a return to the New York art world once her prison term is up. Somewhat surprisingly, he said no—but not due to any failing on Boone’s part, nor because of any backlash from the community regarding her financial crimes.

“It’s not because of her, it’s because of the art world,” he said. “The increased corporatization of the art world is so accelerated that I think, give it another six months, and we won’t even recognize what it is now. I look back on last year with nostalgia!” (Freire’s past year hasn’t been without its own drama.)

It might just be that Boone—who cut her chops in the high-flying 1980s and became a dashing personality to be reckoned with—simply can’t compete in an age where international mega-galleries gobble up artists and estates.

“If she comes back, what is she going to come back with, and what is she going to come back to?” Freire asked. “Is she going to be a director at Hauser & Wirth?”

Scott Indrisek