Bill Goldston is the Director of Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE). Since the beginning of the pandemic, he has been living in Udine, Italy, where he and his wife, Riccarda, have a home and studio. We recorded this conversation over Zoom and it has been edited for clarity.
I was reading the interview you did with Bill Jensen for the Brooklyn Rail, and it sounds pretty effortless, your collaboration with artists. I was wondering if you've had instances where you couldn’t work with an artist, even if you thought they're talented and brilliant and their work is amazing. Has that been a problem for you?
Only once or twice in 50 years.
When I first came to ULAE in 1969, Jasper Johns, Jim Rosenquist, Jim Dine, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Bob Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Lee Bontecou were already working there and all I had to do was learn who they were as people and how to be a friend. Because as a collaborator your goal really is to be anonymous, and to be a part of the artist's psyche at the same time, and I find friendship a key to that success.
So, what you can do is to provide certain possibilities that they would never have otherwise and the friendship that you have developed with them grows to a mutual trust between the two of you. Now, I don't work with people that I can't be friends with. If I don't feel I can be a good friend with an artist then I don't care what kind of work they do or for how much it sells for, I don't work with those intentions. It has to be a project in which I feel like I can contribute and the person will accept my contribution as theirs. I'm not asking for any recognition. It's just that my satisfaction comes from being helpful to that person, to that artist.
At this point, Bill has seen some of the interviews I’ve done with artists and he offers me some
You know, artists are visual people, they're usually not literal people, they don't usually talk about their work so much.
The whole thing is you need [to] really understand the person and what they're thinking, because they're thinking visually, they're not thinking about something they need to explain. And that's the least interesting thing to them. What they're interested in is what you see in what they've done. And if you bring to the table, you know, some observations about the work and it's critically interesting for them, then that becomes a very good way to get in, to communicate with them.
You know, Jasper Johns is a friend of mine. I love the guy and we talk sometimes about art, but mostly we talk about life. Gardens, cars, what's happening in the media, that sort of stuff. I mean, his artwork is really his inner person and he brings that person out in the work.
Try not talking about art. It's a very good beginning. Talk about life. Because really that's where we're all at anyway and we all have that in common. Jim Rosenquist, you know, we were talking about Ferraris and he'd be drawing on the plate and we're talking about the Ferraris’ carburation—and he'd be drawing away on the plate. But I mean, art is rarely the conversation. You're professional and you do your job. And that's where you're at, you know, everything else is ‘give me that plate, I'll etch it.’ We'll etch it for 30 seconds, and then ‘you can paint out that other piece’ and then we'll etch it for three minutes. You know, that's the extent of the conversation about the art. That's it, but a day can be spent discussing everything else. And then the next time you meet, you have all that conversation as history and so that history is applicable to everything you're doing the next time.
So I would really recommend you try to find out what they want to talk about. Give them an opportunity to tell you what they want to talk about. All of this, this is all before you get started—
[Here, Riccarda de Eccher, Bill’s wife, interjects. She’s an artist in her own right, and so I was curious to hear what she had to add—]
So I was listening to the conversation. What I was thinking is that, instead of talking to the artist, you might talk with him/her about the work.
I would feel funny people asking about me. It's about what I do, it's about my intention and my feelings, because there might not be an awareness of all this process and it's very intimate.
But if you look at my painting and start talking about my work, that gives us the feeling that the work has a life on its own. And that we are both together looking at the work.
So are you saying that instead of asking the artist to explain their work and how they made it, instead to talk about the work as its own thing separate [of the artist].
Let's fantasize that it is like the Zen idea that the artist is not the creator, that the artist is just something that the piece of art goes through to become a reality. So it's not about the artist, it's about the work. So instead of trying to go into people's brain—into people’s ideas, into people’s feelings—you stay with the artist like you are the ally of the artist, looking at the work together and seeing what you see in the work and what you discover in the work, and let the work talk, because that is interesting for the artist.
What every artist on the planet wants is that you see something more than they do. It’s not that artists don't want to reveal themselves, but sometimes there are no intentions that you're aware of. You simply do the work and something is in it, and if you discover it or you go together with the artist to discover that, that makes it very interesting. Bill, do you agree with this?
It seems the same thing, but it's really not.
Bob Rauschenberg. Once we were having dinner down in Florida getting ready to go over to his studio and start working, which usually started about 11 or 12 o'clock at night, and we would work until the sun came up in the morning. So I said, “Bob, how do you know when it's time to start painting?” And he said, “Well, there’s this guy named Rauschenberg, he's an artist, and he goes over to his studio every night. I simply go with him, and he starts picking up things and I try to help him pick out what might be interesting.” And I thought, that’s telling me almost— maybe the most profound thing that I've ever heard. Then I said, “Then how do you know when you have finished a painting?” “Well, when I see the next one ready to be made.” And I thought, “wow.”
Jasper is very interesting, too, because Jasper is very, very private about what he does. And I remember one time we were working on something. And he started describing something technical and I said, “Well, what do you want to do?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, tell me what you want to do” and he said, “I don't want to tell you what I want to do. I want to know if I can do this.” I said, “okay,” this is after we worked together for 45 years. And then two minutes later, he comes over and he says, “you know, it's not that I don't want to tell you what I want to do. It’s, I'm not sure I know what I want to do.”
Your experience and what you've been talking about has mostly been as someone who's collaborating with the artist in the process of making these prints. What do you think about the relationship between someone who's buying work, collecting an artist's work, and the artist? It's not necessarily a collaboration.
The first thing you have to do is to clarify. Number one. Why are you collecting the work of art? What makes you want to take bread out of your mouth and put it on a wall or in a room or outside of your house or on your TV? Why do you want to do that? Well, there are a lot of reasons that happens. It's interesting that some people get turned on by something in an artist's work. They like the way they draw, they like the colors they use, they like the references made in the work. There are all sorts of reasons for people to like something. There's no actual—the only reason I know that's in common with some collectors is they buy to make money. They invest. That's one reason, but the most interesting collectors are building collections that reflect their aesthetics and sensibilities and are usually people that have a particular idea. Why did Jasper have a following? Why did Bob [Rauchenberg] have a following? Why did Jim Rosenquist have a following? Why were these people turned on by Jim Rosenquist and not turned on by Jasper Johns? I mean, those visual things, those sensibilities that each collector has are all unique to that collector. The reason for collecting or the reason for even looking at art. Why do you look at it? What brings you to it? Those are all questions that nobody really has an answer for. Why does an artist—why is an artist an artist?
I would say people are trying to define themselves, define themselves with what they collect. So, try to find the basic soul of the collector. Is it about money or is it about something that they don't even know, something that they're looking for in the artwork that they collect?
For some reason in my mind, my idea of collecting art feels so far removed from how you collect art or how people in the past have collected art, and I think that's probably a combination of different things, one of them being how important social media is for an artist and to their success. Meanwhile, before it was, ‘OK, who represents you? What gallery are you showing in?’ So it feels like a completely different thing also because now we have platforms like Artsy and Artfare and all these different ways that you can buy directly from—well Artsy is through a gallery, but, you know, ways to buy directly from artists. I mean, does that make you feel like galleries are going to be a thing of the past or have you thought about these types of platforms and whether they're going to take over?
Well. Artists and administrators have one thing in common. The letter A. And that's it. So, in my experience, artists need galleries as much as galleries need artists. They need somebody to take care of what they need to be done, they don't need to be out there hawking their work. They need to be doing what they do best—making.
Jasper once said to me—he told a story. There were three or four of us involved in a conversation with neighbors, and it was at a dinner table one night at a fundraiser or something like that. He began an explanation to somebody’s question. I don't remember the question, but he said, “yeah, I'll tell you a story. Leo Castelli, I just finished a painting and I was so proud of this painting, so proud, I wanted Leo to see it, so I called him and I said, ‘Leo, you have to come over and see my new painting.’ Leo came over. Walked in the studio, took one look at my painting, and then started talking about a show that he was planning for his next big gallery exhibition in the gallery, and he talked to me for 30 or 40 minutes about that show. And he never said another word about my painting.
The next night there was a dinner, and Leo was invited and I was invited and we were seated at the table. And someone asked me. ‘Jasper, are you working on anything new?’ And Leo right away said, ‘oh, Jasper has the most fantastic new painting.’ And I thought, ‘okay, I'm just going to let him talk because he didn't spend five minutes looking at that painting yesterday, so I'm just going to wait and let him talk.’ Leo began to describe my painting with details—I couldn't even imagine that he had seen in my work. I thought he hadn’t looked at the painting but he knew everything about the piece and he described it in detail to this person who was there and I... I never said another word to him about it.”
So some people have that capacity. They are in another form, the artist talking about their work. Leo was great at that, and in part, he was great because with his European upbringing: he spoke French, he spoke Spanish, he spoke Italian, he spoke English, he spoke German.
I mean, if you walked into Leo's gallery, no matter where you were from, Leo could usually speak to you in your language one on one. And so, that kind of dealer is difficult to find in any case. And that's not for digital or no digital. That has to do with the fact that, like Ella James, Louis Armstrong, Beethoven or Mozart, they're just absolutely unusual people. And he did unusual things, and that's talent and there's no substitute for that. People who are lucky enough to find where they belong that fits best in our lives really are fortunate. Leo was 50 years old before he ever started with the gallery. What did he do before that?
I remember, [Leo] called up the studio one night and I was busy printing something. And so Riccarda was—we were very early in our relationship and Riccarda was there with me at the studio in West Islip and she answered the phone. And she's on the phone speaking in Italian with somebody for a half an hour and I thought, who in the hell can she be talking to? And I'm rolling and printing and rolling and printing. It's like 10:00 at night! So, I finish what I'm doing, put away my things and go in to wash my hands and she's on the phone, she said, “Bill, Leo's on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” I said, “Leo Castelli? What have you been doing talking to Leo Castelli?”
Well, guess what? Leo was a climber. He was a rock climber. And they discussed places where he had climbed that she had climbed and they were on the phone back and forth—and, you know, we became real close, kind of close friends. Leo invited us for lunch. Stuff like that. But that was just one of those deals, you know, and it's like that with artists too.
You find some common ground somewhere. And when you find that common ground, that's where you work and you do your job, and they do their job, and it makes better common ground. Because you're a professional, that's what you are, and they are too. And they need somebody to be their representative. You know, it's hard to understand this digital world, and I can tell you a lot of people are collecting things in it, but at present, diverse media will never replace talented, unusual people with an eye for art.
But that's life. That's what it is. Anyway, I like what you're doing. I like your project. And I think you just need to—you're a little young, you're not that old.
You're still beginning. This may not be the final format for what you do, but whatever it is, it's teaching you to do something and you're aware of where you're missing things and want to try to fix that. And in that search, you will find change.
Bob Rauschenberg said it best. It's not what we started out to do. It's just a lot better.