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Called to arms, arts

For Robert Gunderman, a rigorous military stint was the unorthodox entree to life as co-owner of the influential contemporary gallery ACME.

January 22, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

ART dealers seem to have an opinion about everything and a great willingness to share it. Ex-soldiers are known for reticence, especially about their military experiences.

Robert Gunderman is an Army veteran and the co-owner and operator of ACME, one of Los Angeles' leading galleries of contemporary art. As a dealer, he's unusual because he won't talk your ear off when there's art to be looked at. But the veteran in him is more conventional: Trying to pin down details about what he did as a soldier is more difficult than prying apart discretion and valor.

"I just believe in privacy," the tall, lean and clean-cut 43-year-old says. "I think that familiarity is earned."

Gunderman's posture suggests he was never uncomfortable standing at attention. He speaks with patient precision, answering a question about leaving a career in the military and embarking on one in the arts by saying, "I was in the Arctic Circle doing something, and I had a little downtime." Then he changes the subject.

Three weeks later, when the question comes up again, he explains: "I was in a small military hospital receiving treatment for frostbite. It was the middle of winter, the sun never came up, and the aurora borealis was on in full force. The hospital had a tiny library, where I came across two albums by Brian Eno, 'Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)' and 'Before and After Science.'

"Coupled with the aurora borealis," Gunderman says, "those records planted a seed. Something changed then. After continually training and preparing for three years to go to war and being so invested in that mind-set, somehow the idea of producing something that people might receive pleasure from viewing found me and became increasingly more appealing."

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A fascination with 'guy stuff'

GUNDERMAN was born in Los Angeles in 1963 and grew up in Seal Beach. He attended Huntington Beach High School from 1978 to '81 and then kicked around for three years, working odd jobs, following the Southern California punk scene and reading Nietzsche. In 1984 he enlisted in the Army for a six-year stint. After basic training in Texas, he completed jump school at Ft. Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

At Ft. Bragg he became a small-arms specialist. His job was to train a company to use weapons that ranged from .45-caliber sidearms to M60 machine guns and to maintain its arsenal.

The Army required two specialties, so Gunderman also completed radio telecommunications school. He followed that with northern warfare training (in the Arctic), mountain survival training (in New Mexico) and desert training (in the Mojave). Back at Ft. Bragg, he began training as a medic but "didn't have the stomach for it," and left the program after a few months. He rose to the rank of Specialist E-4.

"We just trained a lot," Gunderman says. "I basically got to travel and train. In the Mojave Desert, they'd fly us out, we'd jump, and they'd pick us up four to six weeks later. It was all about preparation."

It was, he says, a military totally unlike today's, "where you could be working a desk job and the next thing you know you're on the front line.

"When I was in, people weren't enlisting because they loved the president or because they wanted to protect some sort of American values. It's not always God and country. You do it because it's a big question mark in your head. We just wanted to do crazy things -- guy stuff, like drive fast vehicles, jump out of planes, fire weapons you can't get over the counter."

He also found time to paint. Working at an easel in the corner of his room, he says, "I'd make these little pointless abstractions. It just felt really good to move paint around."

Colleagues wrote poetry or played musical instruments or they read voraciously, especially the New Yorker and 19th century novels.

Between desert and medical training, Gunderman injured a leg and required surgery. He spent eight days in the hospital at Ft. Bragg and three weeks recuperating. "That's when I knew I wanted out," he recalls. "I realized how strange it was to be training so intensively, constantly being in a wartime mind-set. I began to wonder if I'd ever really be free of it."

He was honorably discharged in 1987. "I remember signing the last piece of paper. I thought, 'I was born and raised here. I've been stripped and rebuilt. Now what?' "

So he went to art school.

"I liked the idea of having absolute openness, of being in a completely unstructured situation. My father was a collector, so I was exposed to the visual arts. But I never thought, 'I want to be a painter' or 'I want to run a gallery.' "

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