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Gallery Chat: Dennis Yares, the Color Field Crusader from the Southwest Explores the Frontier of the New York Art Market

“We came to New York because we want to champion the most under-recognized and under-valued segment of the art market—Color Field Painting,” said Dennis Yares, founder of Yares Art, a pioneering gallery that has advanced modern abstract art on the West Coast and beyond since the 1960s.

Dennis Yares’ mother, Riva Yares—a vivacious personality who immigrated from Israel to Scottsdale, Arizona with her two children—opened Yares Art in 1964 in Scottsdale, Arizona, (then called “The West-most Western Town,” says Dennis Yares), establishing a salon-like gallery space unlike anything seen in the area before. “Scottsdale was a progressive haven for New York collectors who established second residences during the winter months, however 15 years beforehand Scottsdale Road was dirt, and there was a saloon called ‘The Pink Pony’ on the corner,” Dennis Yares reminisced. “People were still riding their horses just a few decades before, so my mother’s work was truly a pioneering effort.”

A mother-son-run business for many years, the gallery expanded to include a second location in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1991. Twenty-five years later, Dennis took over the Sante Fe space on his own and built a new gallery building in 2014. From there he opened a private space in Palm Springs, California, and most recently, made his most ambitious move to New York when he signed the lease to the old McKee Gallery space on 5th Avenue in New York City. The gallery made a splash with its inaugural group exhibition, “Helen Frankenthaler + L, M, N, O, P,” which showcased Frankenthaler alongside other Color Field masters, including Morris Louis, Robert Motherwell, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Larry Poons— who Yares says is “probably the last living true Color Field painter of our time,” and whose solo exhibition of large-scale paintings from the 1960s to today is currently on view in the gallery. Yares spoke with us about the gallery’s unlikely beginnings in the Southwest, what the gallery has planned for the next 4 years, why art should remain mysterious, and more.

Let’s start from the very beginning. How did your mother launch the initial gallery?

The gallery was established in the mid-1960s. When we immigrated to America as very small children, there was a time that my sister and I lived in the gallery with my mother. She was teaching Hebrew and ceramics to sustain the gallery. Most of the stable of artists were resident professors at Arizona State University—sculptors, painters, ceramicists and so on. That is mostly who we represented at first. Then, in the early 1970s, prominent New York dealer André Emmerich came to town, walked into the gallery, and developed a great affinity for my mother and what she was trying to do.

He became a mentor to my mother and ultimately granted exhibitions to my mother in Arizona for his artists such as Hans Hofmann and Morris Louis, among many other established painters of the mid-century.

Your mother became a legendary force in the growing art scene in Scottsdale, Arizona. Why do you think she was able to grow such a sophisticated art gallery in what was initially a veritable cultural desert?

She had—and still has—an incredibly discerning and uncompromising eye. She was also extremely honest in her relationships with her artists. If they showed her work or a series and she didn’t find them favorable, she would just say so, and then emerging artists would come in with their satchels and portfolios and bring in a little painting and she’d say, “Bring me back a 10 or 20 foot painting, and we’ll talk again.” She just simply knew what was good.

When and how did you get involved in the business?

I had a job with a hotel chain called Westin, and ultimately was put in the position of helping to renovate the Arizona Biltmore Hotel, an iconic property that William Wrigley Jr. established during the height of The Depression. In this expansion I learned how to construct or renovate buildings and make them functional and so on, and at the same time my mother was ready to renovate her space and expand it dramatically, from maybe 1,500 sq. ft. to 12,000 sq. ft. and three levels. This was 1987. I was a young man. She said, “Would you perhaps oversee this?” And so I did to an extent, and then never left.

Why did you move the gallery to New York—a very different city than the gallery’s previous locations?

We didn’t have the intention of going to New York but were solicited for this particular space. We decided to make the move, however, because we wanted to champion what we felt was the most under-recognized and under-valued segment of the art market—Color Field painting—and realized we couldn’t do it elsewhere.

We still have our space in Santa Fe and call it “The Commissary.” A lot of the underlying trades of our business are there—our framers, photographers, conservators, printers. That’s also now expanded to the East Coast. Santa Fe is still the heartbeat where everything else filters out of, but not so conducive to our mission. It’s difficult to raise the bar for Color Field in Santa Fe, Scottsdale, or Palm Springs because it didn’t develop in those places. It developed on the East Coast, primarily in Washington D.C. and New York City.

Are you running the gallery differently now that it’s in New York?

In New York, our goal is to sustain ourselves while we magnify the painters we represent. To that end, our real mission here is behind the scenes—to develop these major collections seriously and quietly. Economics are secondary while in New York. It will be okay if we just break even to elevate the legacies of these painters. I think it’s important to us to be uncompromising in our approach, just as my mother was.

Being in New York is like a rebirth. It’s a blessing to have found the perfect venue. I used to come in here with my mother when it was David McKee’s—an incredibly reputable British art dealer who gave us his blessings after being here for three decades. I never knew this would be the space that we would ultimately take. Sometimes I feel things are destined, even ordained. You can’t resist it, but you just go along until you realize that you’re in the right place in the right moment.

Also, we’ve been introduced to a tremendous new body of collectors in New York— primarily mature ones. There is a segment of younger collectors, but primarily they are older and we’re old school, so that works. We’re not really looking to discover the next best thing. What I know best is what we already do.

What do you think would help a larger public understand and appreciate the Color Field Movement?

I think Color Field relates to Minimalism to a certain extent, especially if you go back to the 1950s and 1960s. It’s clearly even less representational. You can sometimes extract things from Abstract Expressionist paintings—some forms and something else that seems more complex—but to me Color Field is absolutely leaps and bounds more complex. Think of it this way: when we were in first grade, we would bring home something we had drawn for our parents. The drawing is in crayon, and there’s a grass field, a house, a stick figure, a sun, flowers sprouting, and so on. So it’s amazing that a Color Field painter ends up with something so minimal and child-like as an adult.

But also it’s amazing when the adult painter also has the discipline to know when to stop. For example, the general public may see a Kenneth Noland circle and say “Wow, that’s just three or four rings.” They may see that it’s in minimalistic space and think that it’s too simplistic to have merit in technical terms. But to me, knowing that this form and that form is integrated just enough, is where the integrity lies and it is extremely heartfelt and joyous. I often find that the simplest forms are the most difficult to achieve.

You will be exhibiting Kenneth Noland’s work next month. Tell us about the show.

We’ll be pairing the early works of Kenneth Noland with his later works for the first time—the early circles from 1959-62 and the late circles from 1999-2002, when he went back to the same format using different medium. We’ve done exhibits for both, but they’ve never been shown together, with 40 years of disparity from one series to the other.

There will be 14 or 15 paintings on view, but there might be only three for sale. It will be museum-level. It has to be, or else we’re not going to rise up to where we want to go. This is really a secondary market effort these days because so many of these artists are now deceased. We have to borrow and loan paintings to facilitate any exhibition. It’s a painstaking process, but how else are we going to illuminate for the public why the artists are important if we don’t bring their great paintings in?

You’re currently exhibiting new works by Larry Poons, who is still alive. How did this show come to fruition?

We were introduced to Larry by a collector of his, and the moment I met Larry, I knew it would be a terrific relationship. He is probably the last living major Color Field painter of our time and to have such a historically significant Color Field painter we can have a dialogue with brings forth so much information—that’s just been a blessing.

And Larry is still so dynamic. He’s on the cusp of his 80th birthday and not only is he creating these large-scale expressionistic abstractions, but the continuity is there from where he began to where he is now, and you see all this evolution from decade to decade in his works—that he didn’t get stuck in one identity. We feel that he is still just starting, much like we are just starting.

Documentary film director Nathaniel Kahn is making a film about artists and Larry is one of the highlights, in addition to Jeff Koons and Gerhard Richter. There will also be a monograph on Larry Poons released next year and a catalogue raisonné is in process. So you have all of these things maturing at the same time, and they are all well-deserved.

What else is planned for Yares Art in New York?

Soon we’ll publish a Poons catalogue and we’ll also actually be publishing a catalogue for each of the artists in “Helen Frankenthaler + L, M, N, O, P.” Ultimately they will all be in one box set, so we can present the world with a document for the ages, in essence.

Our agenda is set for the next three years. God willing, we hope to do one-person exhibitions for each specific Color Field artist we represent, beginning now, of course, with Larry Poons and Kenneth Noland.

We also have handled the Milton Avery estate since my mother befriended his widow Sally Avery in 1971. It’s been a relationship of nearly 50 years, featuring close to 20 solo exhibitions. This forthcoming spring we’ll present “Milton Avery, The Last Decade,” which will feature his paintings from 1954-64, when he became much more minimalistic and transparent in his application.

We also champion the next tier of Color Field artists, including Thomas Downing— who we’ll do an extensive show for—and, ultimately, Gene Davis. There are 9 exhibitions planned over the next 3 seasons.

What advice would you give to aspiring dealers?

For us the whole thing is about transparency. We are really transparent—maybe too transparent—in divulging history, divulging structure, divulging pricing. There’s no hidden agenda whatsoever. I don’t know if that is advice for others coming up into the business, but that’s the only way we know how to work. To be entirely open to the extent that is proper in our eyes.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring collectors?

I find that, unfortunately, people don’t attend galleries in the same manner they used to or create the relationships like my mother did with some of her contemporaries. Part of that is simply progression in technology. You have access to visuals by internet and JPEG, or can see a work at a warehouse or an art fair, etc. It diminishes the initial idea of what André Emmerich would do with, say, a Morris Louis show in 1962. If you were interested in Morris Louis, and you wanted to have a chance to acquire a piece, you were going to be knocking at the door at the opening or the day before to see it, because that was really the only manner of seeing the work effectively.

So it’s been much more complex because the audience isn’t always physically present and that can lead to a lot of short-sightedness. It becomes about the single transaction, instead of looking with foresight at the whole to develop a real collection. The relationship between art dealer and collector has diminished somewhat, so I recommend collectors put effort into building a relationship with art dealers.

I think sometimes there’s also too much reliance on education. Not to diminish those who are scholars—they have to be and we need them to be—but there’s sometimes so much reliance on academia that you start losing what the art is by dissecting it. I think that it’s got to be more spiritual and more heartfelt. Art should remain mysterious because then it is about looking at a work for your own self- discovery based on what you see in the picture.

All Images Courtesy Yares Art, New York.


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