Gilbert Silverman: In Memoriam

Ed Fella, Cover for the Detroit Focus Gallery exhibition catalog "Gil Silverman Selects," 1983. (Collection Vince Carducci.)
Long-time art patron and collector Gilbert Silverman died June 13 at age 91. The only obituary I saw was in Crain's Detroit Business. (Surprised but then again not that the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press didn't cover it.) It focused primarily on Gil's identity as a real estate developer, mentioning only briefly his arts advocacy in the form of board memberships at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Academy of Art and Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Those in the Detroit artworld who knew Gil, as well as those who only knew of him, knew he was much more than that. He was one of the major figures in Detroit's cultural history, dominating the last quarter of the twentieth century in the same way Detroit blue-blood W. Hawkins Ferry dominated the period after the Second World War and into the 1970s.
For a number of years in the 2000s, Gil and his life partner, the ever-graceful Lila who survives him, were represented on the ARTnews list of the world's top 200 collectors, primarily for their holdings in Fluxus and Conceptual art, although they collected widely in other areas as well. (I am particularly fond of the "Instruction Drawings," a collection of some 800 working drawings, installation instructions, musical scores, fabrication notes, and other items by the likes of Yoko Ono, Sol Lewitt, Dennis Oppenheim, John Cage, Andy Goldsworthy, and other Pop, Op, Conceptual, and Earth Art creators.) The Silverman Fluxus holdings, generally considered the largest and most important trove of its kind in the world, is surveyed in the catalogue raisonne Fluxus Codex, edited by Jon Hendricks (Abrams, 1988). The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008, along with an archive of thousands of support items, including artists' correspondence and journals and related books and catalogues. Duplicates from the collection are also held by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
In addition to the depth of the Silverman collection was its adventurousness. For years, there were only two collectors in the United States who owned the work of controversial avant-garde muckracker Hans Haacke, and the Silvermans were one of them. Haacke's work in the Silverman collection, the 1981 Der Pralinenmeister, a deconstruction of the machinations of German chocolate mogul Peter Ludwig, who leveraged corporate welfare and a low-wage pool of immigrant labor to expand his business empire and his art collection, was a highlight of the otherwise predictable, if bankable assemblage of trophy pieces in the 1981 DIA exhibition "Contemporary Art in Detroit Collections," which I reviewed for Detroit Focus Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 2). (Der Pralinenmeister is still on view in the Silverman home in Bloomfield Hills.)
Like many people, I have my Gil Silverman stories, a couple of which I'd like to share in his memory.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I whiled away my day-job downtime by creating and sending out mail art and other ephemera. Some of it was documentation of the conceptual performance piece Getting Over at the Office (1987-2000), which I have written about. There was also a series of limited-edition postcards playing with language. ("Primitivism" in 20th-Century Linguistics,1985, for example, simply contained the words "No am Chomsky" typed in IBM Selectric sans serif font in the center.) Another series consisted of fake auction announcements appropriating the branding and graphic standards of Christie's auction house. Later editions in the series were branded "Chrispie's" with the heads of Snap, Crackle, and Pop in place of the portrait of founder James Christie that used to be above the name before the logo's modernization.
For a while I sold extra copies of these pieces at commodity prices--$18.95, $24.95, etc. Then one day I was in Susanne Hilberry Gallery (back when it was on the lower level of the 555 Building in downtown Birmingham) and I chanced upon a modest-sized Lucas Samaras pastel with a mid-five-figure price tag on it. I vowed to put an art-commodity price tag on the next work I submitted for exhibition. The opportunity came in 1992 as part of the Detroit Artists Market "Text and Image" show. I submitted a 1989 Christie's announcement titled American Art Since Elvis, a send up of Neoexpressionism, intending to put a $25,000 price tag on it. Before I handed it in my wife Sue suggested I reduce the price to $1500, commenting that anyone who knew me would know the joke but that at the same time someone might actually buy it.
Not long after the opening, I was having dinner with sculptor Gary Kulak and the "marvelous" art maven Mary Denison. Mary told me that she had talked to Gil Silverman who had seen my piece at the Artists Market. She said that he had really liked it but thought it was kind of expensive. I said to Mary (this is before the bottom dropped out of the art market in the mid-1990s): "You'd better tell Gil he should buy it now before the price goes up!" A few days later I got a call from Gerry Craig, who was DAM's director at the time, informing me that Gil had bought the piece and, as Michael Hall quipped when he heard about the transaction, that he had "paid retail."

When word got around about the sale, I was criticized by people who thought I had taken advantage of Gil and in so doing put the local art market at risk. But a couple of years later, he came up to me after a James Rosenquist lecture and introduced himself.

"You're Vince Carducci, aren't you," he said. "I'm Gil Silverman and I own some of your work."

"I know who you are," I said. "And I know you own my work."

He said with a laugh, "I must be the only asshole in Detroit who would pay what I did for that piece."

I said, "I don't know, I thought it was pretty astute."

He said, "Tell me the truth. You never expected to sell that piece at that price. Be honest. That money was like a gift from heaven."

I said, "Well, to tell you the truth, I did go out a buy a stereo with the money. But you'll be happy to know that there is a card on top of it that reads 'Gift of Lila and Gilbert Silverman.'"

He chuckled at that and we talked a little bit about the role of art collecting as a vent in the system of capital accumulation, a kind of potlatch of luxurious waste that establishes the sovereignty of the consumer. (I had been reading George Bataille's Accursed Share at that moment.)

Just then Lila walked up and asked what we were doing. Gil introduced me and told Lila that he had purchased one of my works and had it at the office, neglecting to ever tell her about it. It occurred to me that Gil indeed was sovereign, as Bataille had theorized, able to spend $1500 on impulse without checking with his spouse in the same way one of us might pick up a magazine or a cup of coffee on our way home. All those people who had criticized me really didn't understand who was in control. (To be sure, in 1983 the graphic designer Ed Fella did a catalog of an exhibition of artists selected by Gil, the cover of which was a photograph of them all caught in midair. Of that image, Ed said, "The collector says 'Jump!' and the artists say 'How high'?")

When I told the story of American Art Since Elvis to Paul Kotula, who at the time was managing Revolution Gallery in Ferndale, he thought that I should write up the narrative, mount it on the wall next to the stereo system, add a zero on the end of the price tag, and invite Gil in to see if he would buy it. We thought you could repeat that process with ever more extravagant purchases and keep adding zeros to see who blinked first--$1500, $15,000, $150,000, 1,500,000, 15,000,000, and so on. (Years later when studying with Jay Bernstein at The New School I read Theodor Adorno's Aesthetic Theory: "The
absolute artwork converges with the absolute commodity" [p. 39]. That
is, an artwork, as an autonomous object, is absolute exchange value
without an iota of use value; therefore, no rational price can be
assigned to it, as the contemporary art market so clearly demonstrates.) We never did do it, but I do have the satisfaction of knowing that my piece went to MoMA as part of the Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Archives (File # VII.A.133).

The second, much-shorter story took place a few years later. I was still in my corporate-suit iteration, working as a marketing exec for a local financial institution that is now part of Bank of America.The company had recently been acquired in a cash buyout (not by BoA but by another organization based in Amsterdam) and a new CEO was in place. The company was getting an award from the Michigan State Housing Development Authority for its affordable housing efforts, and attending the awards dinner was one of the CEO's first public appearances. As an honoree, he was seated on dais next to Gil, who was then president of MSHDA. I was seated at a table off to the side with other representatives of the company.

As the story was later told to me, before things got started, Gil apparently turned to my CEO and said, "I'm Gil Silverman, president of MSHDA." My CEO said to Gil, "I'm Scott Heitmann, I'm the new CEO of Standard Federal." To which Gil said, "Standard Federal. You must work with Vince Carducci. He's the best artist in Detroit." I took it with a grain of salt, of course, thinking that Gil was being sociable and at the same time perhaps doling out a bit of puffery to bolster the value of his investment. (At a Friends of Modern Art panel discussion Gil once said that he never bought art as an investment, obviously so in my case, but that he did like to watch the auction returns to see the prices of the artists he owned go up. The Silverman Fluxus Collection and all of its archives were 100 percent donated to MoMA.)

Gil Silverman was quite a guy. He will be missed..