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At Art's Service

For 23 years, Manny Silverman catered to artists' needs. For the past decade, he's catered to a personal need: showcasing his beloved Abstract Expressionists.

October 26, 1997|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

Manny Silverman could be described as your basic success story. Born in L.A. in 1941, he was an only child, his mother was a Russian immigrant, his father worked as a night watchman until he'd saved enough money to buy a liquor store, and Silverman had a ho-hum education that culminated in a B.A. in history from a local college.

Then Silverman had an epiphany; he fell in love with Modern art and devised a way to get next to it. Proprietor of the Manny Silverman Gallery, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month with an exhibition of works on paper by Robert Motherwell, Silverman now spends his days surrounded by art.

Talking with him in the office of his West Hollywood gallery, one has the luxury of gazing at length at a Motherwell drawing, an extraordinary painting from 1978 by Philip Guston titled "Pink Sea," and boxes by Joseph Cornell and Hannelore Baron. Silverman built this beautiful nest on the strength of his abiding love for art, and the good feelings he's engendered in others. Silverman has a lot of friends, and his friendships are inextricably intertwined with his business. Take the Motherwell show, for instance, which opens Saturday.

"I used to make picture frames for Bob, and over the years we became friends," says Silverman, who co-owned Art Services, a company designed to accommodate artists' needs such as packing, framing, transportation and storage, with Jerry Solomon from 1965-87. "I visited Bob several months before he died in July of 1991, and he told me he loved that I'd 'kept the faith,' as he put it, and he promised to give me a show. His estate [the Dedalus Foundation] is honoring that promise, and this will be Bob's first gallery show since his death."

Comprising 60 works on paper dating from 1950 through 1991, the Motherwell show includes several works that have never previously been exhibited. It's unusual to encounter work with this degree of historical weight in a commercial space, and Silverman's ability to pull off such shows is what distinguishes his gallery from dozens of others in town.

Recounting the genesis of his relationship with art, Silverman recalls "my father loved classical music, so he used to take me to the Shrine Auditorium, and although he didn't care for contemporary art, he took me to museums too. I didn't really start to learn about art, however, until 1960, when I took a survey class at Cal State L.A."

Silverman was enrolled there as a history major and planned on a career in teaching, but after earning his B.A. in 1962 he discovered such jobs were scarce. Having just married Jacqueline Neidorf (who's been an art appraiser since 1977), Silverman was in need of a job and became a social worker. He then settled with his wife in an apartment near La Cienega, which was the main artery of L.A.'s young art scene at the time.

"Neither Jackie or myself grew up with art, but we really got the bug once we saw La Cienega," he recalls. "One night we saw a show by a guy named Karl Ragnar Johanssen, who painted in a German Expressionist style. A week later my father-in-law won some money in Las Vegas so he gave Jackie and I $100, and we bought a Johanssen painting and became friendly with Johanssen's dealer, Ernest Rayboff. A few months later Jackie and I began working for him at a small auction business he started in 1963. Part of my job was researching things he auctioned--he handled everything from ethnic art and Modernist work to American academicians--so I learned a lot and got to know L.A.'s art community. Then, in 1965, Maurice Tuchman did a show of the New York School at LACMA that really opened my eyes. Being on the West Coast, I came late to Abstract Expressionism, but I've never forgotten the power of my initial encounter with that work."

Silverman's dream of having a gallery took root then but as the father of two young children, he found the prospect too financially risky. He achieved a kind of compromise by going into business with Jerry Solomon and opening Art Services.

"After 23 years there I began to get itchy," Silverman continues. "My kids had graduated college, so I decided it was time to take a chance. One night I was at dinner with Sam Francis, and I told him I was thinking of leaving Art Services and getting an office. He said, 'Why be a private dealer pushing transparencies? Why not open a gallery? If you do, I'll give you a show.' The next day I was in Terry DeLapp's gallery on La Cienega and Terry told me he was closing. I recounted my conversation with Sam and he said why not take this space? Within a week the deal was done, and I called Sam and told him I was coming over for my show.

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