To walk into the Leonard Tourne Gallery around 2:30 on Thursday was both real and fantasy, an in-between world where Karen constantly said “pinch me.” On the walls were the work of Nate Katz, artist. It was impossible to process. Most artists go a lifetime without an New York opening.
Nate walked the room, checking out his work with great pride and attention. We stood amazed, jaws dropping as we met Javier, the gallery owner, and his staff. Their reaction gave it the imprimatur we need: this is really art, not a favor to a friend or charity case. They see the value in Nate’s art and, as a result, so do we. It would remain to be seen whether others would.
But it was early, the opening didn’t start until 5, and we had time to kill. Some of it was spent right next door, at Rudy’s Music. This is SoHo branch of the legendary guitar store that started decades ago on West 48th. We struck up a lovely conversation with Rudy himself, a wonderfully warm and pleasant Argentine who spoke with us about barbecue, baseball and music. When he found out I was the Mayor of Cooperstown he was positively gushing. Karen and Nate left after awhile but Joey and I stayed and Rudy introduced us to his manager, Gordon. Great guys, who were both interested in our story, as we were in theirs.
At 5 we were back at the gallery, waiting for the hoped for crowd. Although we had told Nate that, as the artist, he needed to answer questions and not growl (as he does with us), he retreated up the narrow staircase, apart from the main room. He did come down once things got rolling.
Among the first to show were my cousins, who found it all unbelievable. They know Nate, and have seen his work, but in that setting, with those prices, it was all hard to process. My cousin Alan trekked upstairs to see Nate, who had yet to come down. He said how proud he was of Nate, Nate said thanks, and it was all very normal, very familiar, until Alan gave Nate a peck on the cheek.
“Whoa,” said Nate. Even though he knows Alan, Nate never “really” knows most people and, at the moment of impact, probably wondered “Who is this person giving me a kiss?”
Gale Gand, a dear friend for many years, and a celebrity chef, flew in from Chicago for the opening and brought a couple of friends with her. Her friends made history: they were the first buyers of an original Nate drawing of a Hilton Garden Inn Plaza.
When we saw that Javier was processing the sale, and putting a red dot on the label, there was a buzz that could be felt throughout the room. These folks didn’t know Nate, but something in the work struck home. Robinson, the female of the couple, often stayed at these Hiltons when she travelled. The picture meant something to her.
And that’s what is valid in Nate’s art. He sees these strip malls that we all scorn and dismiss as beautiful things, deserving of respect, without a hint of irony. There’s beauty there. Most of the richest and famous people in the country didn’t start out that way, and have fond memories of a family trip to a Hilton, or the first time they visited a Barnes & Noble Superstore, or a high school dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s. These places have value in our memories and Nate taps into that, unknowingly.
I think it’s unknowing. It’s hard to truly grasp what’s going on in his mind, but his art lends itself to criticism. Why does he see such joy in these places? Why is he obsessed? His details are fascinating. In some pictures he’s got little men, ant-like black silhouettes, who are doing work on ladders, putting up signs. He has notes to himself, or the viewer (though I’m not sure these works are made with a viewer in mind) that the five yellow-facaded stores are the former outline of a now defunct K-Mart location.
He also has timelines reminiscent of Donovan’s “There is a Mountain.” In these, Nate lays out the evolution of a site, from car dealership to vacant lot to new Wal-Mart. The things we see as permanent he knows are transient, and when laid out step by step, are somewhat sad and touching. All the hopes of a business dashed, then forgotten.
The room began filling up. I turned to see Rick Angell, another dear Chicago friend. I was stunned he was there.
“I responded to the Facebook invitation!” he said.
Since so many friends responded on Facebook that they were attending, even though they weren’t, or would be there in spirit, I’d stopped looking. It was a great surprise to see Rick. More friends came in, some strangers, some gallery invitees. Erin Cox, my agent, was there, as was David Bolotsky, founder of Uncommon Goods and an old college pal. Even Rudy and Gordon came from the music store!
Nate was now amongst the crowd, checking in with me as the night went on, wondering if he had money. I told him yes, not to worry, and pictures began to sell. Rick bought a huge one, one of my favorites from Vernon Hills that was featured on the postcard mailing. Gale bought one, and so did a few others.
It’s one thing for friends to show up. It’s another for them to buy. Doug Miller, who curated the show, explained to me that it’s a leap for people to buy art, even when they know you. Watching Javier walk the room, running credit cards through his handheld, was beyond belief, but not more so than Nate’s behavior.
Margrethe Lauber, Nate’s professor/adviser/guru, had told us that Nate should wear his “C boy” shirt. The “Alpha Folks” business that we are working on, t-shirts and other product based on Nate’s original designs, is still in its inception, but this was a great chance to market it. I’d told Nate to have a picture of all his work on his iPad, ready to show. He dutifully saved a blog post with all the faces and he presented them throughout the night. People would come up to me commenting on how great they were and which ones they wanted to buy.
So there was Nate Katz, former uncommunicative autistic boy, showing his work to friends and family, some he knew, some he didn’t, and some he did know but couldn’t place. That led to one of my favorite moment.
Paul Poux, a college friend, came in and I brought him to Nate.
“Nate, do you remember my friend Paul? We went out to eat once.”
“That was the Old Town Bar.”
“No Nate, that was with Paul Lukas,” I said. Paul L., UniWatch founder and ESPN.com, was in attendance. “It was a Mexican restaurant.”
“No Nate, that was with Jason and Bethany,” my cousins, who were also there. “It was in Albany.”
That was it. I loved that Nate categorized everyone based on where we shared a meal.
Nate has a hard time socializing, but Karen and I witnessed something that was, if possible, more shocking than the gallery show itself. At one point, Nate began taking people by the arm and leading them to works of art, schmoozing and trying to sell. I wondered if his input made it easier or harder to lock down a deal. I think easier. At one point I ‘m sure I heard him say, “Oh, here’s a picture you might like.” At least that’s what I want to believe he said.
By the end of the night, I had a conversation with one of the gallery patrons, who told me that, as a mother of two, her eyes grew watery seeing Nate’s work. She wants to carry his shirts when they are ready, as the gallery is looking at products to sell. How a about that? Not only a show, but a potential SoHo outlet for his design work? Just another in a series of unbelievable moments.
There was a transformation that took place night, a change sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle. Look at this face:
That is not an expression we’re used to seeing, pleasure mixed with joy and pride. It’s the best picture of Nate I’ve ever seen, natural, real, beautiful. He’s on his way to success. We all feel it deeply. It’s happening already.