Maverick gallery owner Eugene Binder went to the New Germany looking for a better market for Dallas artists. He found something more important.

THE CELEBRATORY ROUND GENE BINDER HAS just ordered from Mumm’s, the chic bistro next door to his gallery on St. Alpern Strasse, may be “the most expensive champagne in the world,” but it’s that kind of neighborhood. Sotheby’s is next door the other way, and just across the street is the biggest Toshiba computer distributorship in Europe. Very art and commerce, Cologne. Good place to be if your passions run that way. Binder’s do.

The champagne arrives and the ponytailed race-car-driver-turned-aesthetic-entrepreneur toasts his two Cologne assistants. Like Catherine Hermann back in Dallas, they are young, bright and good-looking, and they keep the operation running whenever the boss is absent, which is a lot. Two years of jet-set art dealing have made Binder, 45, a man so much of two countries that he is almost one of neither. His home is Dallas, “a good place to keep your head down and get things done,” but lately he has fallen in love with Cologne, the center of the European contemporary art market. Month in and month out, Binder books passage on Lufthansa or whoever is offering a bargain fare and tries to be in both cities at once. Like all wandering lovers, when he is away from one he is thinking about the other.

The toll is evident. Not even a self-described “monastic” life, early morning bike rides and forswearance of the heavy drinking that once earned Binder a deserved reputation as a wild man, can fend off the effects of chronic jet lag. Nor can any amount of trans-Atlantic phone calls camouflage his absences due to gallery-hopping. He’s bucking so many odds that on more than one nine-hour flight he’s asked himself if it’s worth it. The answer is always yes. Pay back-beyond dollars or deutschemarks-is good. It is everything,

Not 30 minutes earlier, a handsome, silver-haired psychologist, dressed in the ubiquitous black of the Cologne intelligentsia, had walked into the minimalist, white-walled Eugene Binder Galerie. Binder remembered the man well-a good dealer always does. A collector of primitive styles, especially those with mythical content, the psychologist had been fascinated with Binder’s “Outsider Art” exhibition last spring.

The show’s emphasis on naive American paintings, primarily African-American, advanced Binder’s emerging reputation for an unorthodox programm, as the Germans like to say. Binder was also considered honest and a little brazen-someone to watch. Like all his shows, “Outsiders” had been favorably reviewed in the influential Cologne art journals. He’d even been rated on the streets. A yellow banana stenciled on his door by the local free-lance graffiti critic known as “Jimmy Banana” marked him as a “good” gallery. Better than that, the young cultural guerillas who call themselves the Kunstpiraten (art pirates), liked him enough to pester him for an exhibit of their works. In a city of at least 200 galleries and thousands of shows a year, being watchable and getting reviewed, even by the Kunstpiraten, is no small coup.

The psychologist’s intrigue with the “Outsider” show had lingered for months. He had dropped in several times over the summer. One oil on canvas especially grabbed him: “Snake Woman,” by Jimmy Lee Sudduth. a black artist from Alabama. The simple, spare painting depicts a brown snake-with the head of a woman-curled in an elongated circle against a field of yellow. “Snake Woman” had undeniable artistic value, but the psychologist must have perceived a larger context.

The coiled serpent encircling the earth is a symbol of creativity and the life force in many ancient religions. Sudduth’s African heritage was certainly the source of the vision for his painting, but a Cologne psychologist attuned to mythology would likely have seen in “Snake Woman” a symbolic link to his own half-forgotten, half-taboo ancestry. An ambitious German-American art dealer from Dallas looking to make his mark in Cologne, for example Gene Binder, may have sensed the same link.

For weeks, the psychologist had held back from the buy. Like many German collectors, he liked to think over a purchase carefully-more so than Americans. This time, when he stopped in for a look, all that remained of the “Outsider” show was a stack of wooden shipping crates labeled “New York.” It was September, and the new fall opening was less than 24 hours away. The walls and floors of the Binder Galerie were now full of colored pencil drawings by Andreas Tschinkl and whimsical sculptures by Reiner Bergmann.

By chance, one of the only paintings not yet crated was “Snake Woman ” It was propped against a wall in a small downstairs viewing area. The psychologist, rattled at the thought of losing the painting, hurried down for another look. After a brief negotiation with Binder, he wrote a check for about three thousand American dollars. Then, smiling, he left. “A good omen,” said Binder.

Perhaps it was. Even as “Snake Woman” was sold, the gallery walls were filled-by chance- with other images of mythical serpents of creation. They came from the remote mountains of southern Bavaria, by way of the Australian Outback. Tschinkl, the 25-year-old German neo-expressionist who drew them, had united images of the Australian aboriginal Dreamtime, a complex creation allegory, with Germanic folk myths. Before leaving, the psychologist had looked at Tschinkl’s work very closely. You didn’t have to ask to know that he’d be back.

Binder picked up a slender flute of the world’s most expensive champagne. He had just done what he loves best in life-matched a work of art with a person who loved it enough to buy it, and made money in the exchange. That, too. was the completion of a circle-as ancient as any depicted on the canvas-and Binder was as happy as a kid about it.

A WEEK EARLIER IN DALLAS. BIND-er may be happy, but mostly he’s harried. It’s not bad enough that the Cologne opening is eight days hence. The companion event here, featuring Dallas abstract artist Sam Gummelt. is less than 24 hours away. One opening is enough to traumatize most gallery owners. Two, on different continents-straitjacket time.

Things have piled up. The Dallas gallery’s white walls are bare, revealing smudges left by a previous show. Gummelt’s oil on wood paintings are propped up all along the floor. Binder is still trying to work out which piece- based on color, composition, texture, size and a thousand resultant permutations-should hang next to another. “Theoretically” he says, pretty much to himself, “if I think hard enough everything will find its own place” So he thinks hard. Then he sighs. “It’s kind of like running a Ouija board. And that’s under the best of circumstances.”

His circumstances, at the moment, are less than ideal. Balanced atop two plastic milk crates jury-rigged to a metal scaffold about 12 feet above a concrete slab floor. Binder is leaning out 40 degrees while clutching an electrical cord he’s threading through a section of conduit for a new spotlight. Just so it won’t be any safer than necessary, he’s wearing slick-soled cowboy boots.

He’s been up and down the scaffold the better part of the evening after noticing that the unusually deep frames on Gummelt’s works create distracting shadows. The only solution is to modify the quartz lighting in the 16-foot ceiling with spots mounted from different angles for each of the paintings. Because Binder designed the lighting system himself-as he did in Cologne-he’s the only one who can make adjustments, or so he believes. “I’m the only one that’s going to walk in and see half of this stuff,” he admits. “And the artists. But those are two very important reasons it has to look great.”

Securing the spotlight, he hops backward off the milk carton and climbs down from the scaffold. He looks at his watch. Maybe “Rialto,” the big black and pink painting, would look better on the other wail. Or maybe… he remembers he forgot to make a follow-up tail to an important collector. He sent out 175 invitations but the personal touch is critical-“that’s what sells art.” Before he can do anything about it, a strange clanging noise comes from the parking lot outside on Exposition Avenue. The Eugene Binder Gallery, a former book bindery {yes, he likes the pun), is across the street from Fair Park and around the comer from the State Bar. He’s never been burgled, but he doesn’t miss many noises- in this case, only a man digging into a dumpster.

Binder comes back in and locks the door behind him. He squats in front of a neatly arranged grouping of art show paraphernalia: hundreds of high-tensile steel nails, an electric hand drill. hammers, a three-bubble level, stacks of 150-watt spotlight bulbs and toils of black electrical cord. “I’m fascinated as much by the process of art-making in general as I am by the finished product,” he says. Then, a moment later. “I’m also now realizing I have to make up 10 of these spots. I’m realizing it’s 9:30 at night and I’m here splicing wire.”

The May 1990 installation of Richard Shaffer’s critically acclaimed “Kein Licht” (or “No Light’1) show. which involved cutting up Shaffer’s Fort Worth studio/home and trucking it over section by section, was so intense that for the last two hours, neither Binder nor Shaffer spoke to each other.

The quirk with Gummelt’s show has nothing to do with dismembering studios-it’s that Gummelt’s show wasn’t supposed to be Gummelt’s show. It was supposed to be Bill Haveron’s. Sam should have been showing in Santa Fe. but at the last minute the gallery owner there demanded that Gummelt, in addition to paying the cost of framing and absorbing any discounts, would have to pick up the tab for shipping his works to New Mexico. Since artists usually get only 50 percent of the sale price anyway, extra costs would’ve made Sam a candidate for Starving Artist tent shows. Gummelt told Binder about the broken deal and Gene prevailed upon Haveron. another longtime friend and client, to delay his show until December.

Binder is famous for the old switcheroo, even in his own life. After studying journalism at Hope College in Michigan, he moved to Dallas in 1967 to work on the student newspaper at Northwood Institute. But after taking an art history course from Henry T. Hopkins, at that time director of the Fort Worth Art Museum, Binder changed careers. He got a job at a small Dallas gallery and, living in an apartment in Oak Cliff, made friends with his neighbors-artists including Bob Wade, a co-founder of the Texas Funk style, and Sam Gummelt.

By 1974, with no academic background in the arts and only a few years of on-the-job training, he was named associate curator of Austin’s Laguna Gloria Art Museum. That led to directorships at two influential Texas galleries-Janie C. Lee in Houston, then Carpenter + Hochman in Dallas. In post-boom 1986, the Carpenter gallery faced closing. One night, while eating barbecue chicken and drinking beer with Dan Rizzie over at Sam Gummelt’s house, Binder decided it was time to go it on his own. And he did, with an indifference to risk that seems to infect everyone around him.

Only a month before September’s Gum-melt show. Binder had dropped by the Dallas studio of his friend John Pomara. He liked the big abstract paintings on wood so much that he convinced Pomara to put up an exhibit within a week-a horrendous undertaking. It didn’t square from a business standpoint, either. Summers are traditional dead times for dealers-the Binder Gallery usually closes for the month of August. But Gene wanted to put Pomara’s work up right away, because-well, what’s the point if you can’t throw together a show?

“In the art business the rules change every day,” Binder says. “I like the idea of being spontaneous. .. [but] sometimes the artists think I’m an asshole. Especially when I’m hard-pressed to give a concrete reason for changing plans. But more and more I realize it’s a question of a certain energy. With Sam, I felt that energy was there. A show was going to happen with Sam.” It did-within a month after Gummelt’s show opened, 11 of the 17 works, priced from $2,000 to $5,800, had sold.

IRONICALLY, BINDERS SUCCESS IN DAL-as helped inspire his move to Cologne. Expansion became not so much an ambition as a necessity. Like many small business owners. Binder reached a point at which he had to grow or stagnate. The Dallas/Fort Worth market, consisting of a base of perhaps several hundred regular local collectors, simply became too limited. Even in a good year, which there hasn’t been in a while, the volume of sales in Dallas is barely large enough to sustain the top galleries-Binder, Barry Whistler, Gerald Peters-let alone the several dozen others. 1991 was particularly rough-sales virtually halted during the Gulf war.

By 1989, Binder saw the need to protect his local market. “There was a lot of Dallasbashing going on, and there still is,” he recalls, “but the real question was how to change business strategies to develop the market you’re in.” One route for galleries is to expand to another city. Binder thought about going to the most obvious one, but didn’t. “I don’t know if you can get around New York, to tell the truth,” he says, “but I’m happy I didn’t choose to go there.” In terms of the economy, he thought, Dallas was in a much better position. Still is. In terms of the spirit, Binder was already in Europe.

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Binder arrived in the once-divided city two weeks later, partly to help translate for his journalist girlfriend, partly to check out possible gallery space. It was good instinct-Berlin will very likely become the European art center in a decade-but premature timing. The action remains in Cologne, in the heart of the prosperous Ruhr basin and a short train ride along the Rhine from Bonn, Düsseldorf and Frankfurt, which also have thriving art markets. Binder scouted all four, and in December 1989 settled on Cologne. Kreishaus, a newly refurbished stone building devoted to upscale art galleries, was accepting tenants. Binder signed a lease. Five months later he was opening the “Texas Show.” Although he later quipped that the exhibit was so unusual for Cologne that it “could’ve been imported from Mars as far as a lot of people around here were concerned,” it was critically praised and well attended. An entire new clientele came to view, and buy, the works of Binder’s crew, including Rizzie, David Bates, Gummelt, Haveron, Shaffer, Barbara Simcoe, Ken Luce and Gregory Horndeski.

Back in Dallas. Binder’s move to Europe inspired persistent rumors that he was leaving town, Binder shrugged off the trade gossip. “It’s pretty much a given that everybody from Buddy Holly to Van Cliburn can’t get any recognition unless they leave Texas,” he said. “The point was to get the artists I’m representing into a different setting [and] out of the stigma of regionalism.”

Operating two galleries soon became a tremendous problem. To date, he has been unable to leave one gallery or the other in the hands of a strong director, as have, for example, the owners of the Gerald Peters Gallery. Based in Santa Fe, the gallery successfully expanded to Dallas because the owners delegated on-site management to director Marguerite Steed, a well-connected veteran of the Dallas art scene.

Many observers on both sides of the ocean see the lack of a strong second-in-command in either of Binder’s galleries as a serious long-term liability. “The problem in this business is that the collectors always want to talk to the owner,” observes one of Binder’s Cologne competitors, Frank Berndt, whose 4-year-old dadaist gallery, Galerie Berndt + Krips, also has space in New York. “No assistant can have this function.”

Rudolf Zwirner also thinks running two operations is asking for trouble, and in Cologne, you listen to Rudolf Zwirner. Since settling in the “provincial little town,” as he still calls it, in the early 1960s, Zwirner has. become Cologne’s most prestigious dealer. A show in his contemporary gallery, just around the corner in Old Town from Binder’s, is the ultimate proof of artistic status. To the sternly handsome, graying lion of the German art market, Binder’s expansion idea is “extremely risky. I suppose one reason might be that it could help the sales back in Texas-but that’s an old idea.” As it happens, Zwirner has an alternative. “I think it is better,” he says, “to find someone doing business here and work with them.”

Old idea or not, Binder is still committed to running his own operation. Not only can dual markets reinforce each other, but one can offer relief if the other is depressed.

The strategy can also jump the ocean the other way. About the same time Binder went to Cologne, one of that city’s impresarios, Michael Werner, former husband of New York superdealer Mary Boone, opened a satellite gallery in New York. Not only did Werner reverse Binder’s pattern, but he did it for much the same reason-he thought his local territory had become saturated. The downturn in the American market, though, has made him question his decision. “I gave myself two years in New York to find out if I could make it,” Werner says. “Now I know I have to go longer than two years.”

Binder realizes two years isn’t enough to feel secure, either. He also realizes (hat surviving past five-the bench mark for a new gallery-means modifying his original game plan. When he set up in Cologne in April 1990, he had three objectives: to find a new market for his Texas artists, to validate them with international exposure and to bring European artists back to Texas collectors. The plan has resulted in some terrific shows both here and there and has enhanced prestige for his Dallas retinue, but the Cologne gallery remains very much on trial.

The facts of gallery life are that working artists, even when selling well, don’t always command big fees. Binder sold Bates’ “Water Lily,” an oil on display in a back room during the Gummelt show, that listed for $38,000. But many of Binder’s contemporary shows, Cologne or Dallas, emphasize less commercial works like Gummelt’s, with price tags under $10,000-in the case of Andreas Tschinkl, under $2,000. To stay in business, Binder, like other dealers, needs a reliable, fiscal fallback.

It is called the “secondary market,” the relatively cloistered activity of re-selling known, and often very expensive, works among the dealer/collector network. Binder describes it as “more marketing and less aesthetic judgment,” but without the secondary market he couldn’t make it.

Not that “secondary” means second-rate. If the Louvre put up the Mona Lisa for auction, it would be via the secondary market. So would one of Andy Warhol’s tres ’60s Marilyn Monroe prints, among the expensive “name” works Binder keeps in a storage area in Dallas. Binder also maintains computerized files and indexes of several thousand collectors, galleries and museums that at any given moment are buying or selling. If a collector calls him to ask for a Rausch-enberg, Binder finds out where one is for sale and either buys it outright for resale or acts as a broker. Conversely, if a collector wants to sell something-and in a down economy many are liquidating art inventories to raise cash-Binder uses the same network to find a buyer.

Last November, Binder decided it was time to exploit secondary marketing in Cologne, too. “Master Drawings,” a brokered collection of sketches he assembled through contacts in the collector/gallery network, featured the works of virtually anyone who is anyone in contemporary art: Willem De Kooning, Alberto Giacometti, Claes Oldenburg, Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Mark Rothko-Sam Gummelt, too. Prices for some, such as Pollock and Johns, approached a half-million dollars. Binder doesn’t have to sell many of those, even at a 10 to 20 percent broker’s commission, to keep Cologne fiscally, as well as critically, successful.

Actually, if Binder stuck only with secondary sales, he’d never again worry about paying the rent. But that’s not what he’s about. If it were, he would run a business more or less as he did at the Janie C. Lee Gallery in Houston where, in the early 1980s, “we got to be pretty blase about selling a modern master for $95,000 and ’yes, dear, we’ll get it out to your house this afternoon.’”

The money is part of it-secretive and shrewd, Binder is out to make a buck. But throughout his career, he also has shown himself to be committed to what the money can do for the art. That’s what Binder brings to the circle. The artists have to contribute their own hell of creativity and some poverty, too. As a dealer, Binder contributes that part of the soul that gets dirty because if it doesn’t, the other souls can’t stay clean.

EVERY SO OFTEN, GENE BINDER DRAGS a friend to a department store restaurant in Cologne to eat raw meat-mett, in German. It’s hamburger tartare, spicy and full of onions, served on a half-roll. You eat it with, or more accurately after, several glasses of fresh Kolsch. the beer brewed only in Cologne. Drinking Kolsch and snacking on mett is German in the way that drinking Shiner on tap and eating barbecue is Texan.

Although Binder often seems suspended between the two cultures, he finds himself increasingly drawn to the ways of his ancestors. Each time he returns to Cologne, Binder reinvigorates himself, takes some emotional shortcut back to Schwaben, the rural, mountainous south German region from which his father emigrated in the 1920s before settling in Detroit. Cologne, which might be likened to the Austin of Germany, calms Binder in a way Texas does not. Amid the culture of his ancestors, the hard-drinking, hellbent macho art dealer facade of the last two decades seems moot.

Even in his midlife return to his roots. Binder has been smiled upon by chance. German reunification focused worldwide attention-obsession, more accurately-on the fatherland. Everybody from sales reps to CEOs is looking at a country which, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, figures to be the major player in the New Europe. But looking at Germany, East or West, hasn’t been easy since the Third Reich. Especially for artists.

For some time, neo-expressionists such as Joseph Beuys, Anselm Kiefer and A.R. Penck have filled their works with symbols and themes hijacked by the Nazis, for example the ancient luck emblem known as the swastika. Their art has two objectives. One is to subvert, ridicule and deflate the power of the Nazi images. The second, and more problematic, is to purify these images in the fires of re-examination and in so doing allow the German soul to heal.

The dawn of a New Germany has intensified interest in examining these myths and symbols. Since his first trip to Berlin, Binder has encountered artists, students and other gallery owners connected in some way to this revived national introspection. He’s prowled studios, museums and shows. Last year he found Andreas Tschinkl.

With his thick glasses, rumpled paisley-print shirt and short curly hair, Tschinkl looks like a science nerd, not an avatar of the German soul on ice. He could also pass for a reasonable facsimile of Buddy Holly. And he knows who Buddy Holly is. Although born in southern Germany, Tschinkl went to high school in Killeen, Texas, where his father, an American GI. was stationed.

Three years ago, on an extended visit to central Australia to learn the techniques of pointillist bark painting. Tschinkl became absorbed in the Dreamtime, the spirit world of his aboriginal (anangu) hosts. Upon returning to Germany, Tschinkl couldn’t get the spirits out of his head. So he began to draw them, but with his own spin: “to recreate the Dreamtime of my own ancestors in their own forgotten spirit world.” In pastels of orange, brown and green you might easily mistake for Hopi or Navaho paintings, Tschinkl overlaid aboriginal symbols with those of ancient Germanic myths, mixing crosses, runes and six-point snow-flakes with snakes, kangaroos and dingoes. He gave the works strange titles, such as “Kill Them All Dreaming,”

And then Tschinkl did something else. He added lightning bolts and swastikas and he became part of the upheaval. “I think if we resurrect these symbols and put them in the right context,” he says, “we do not have to be afraid of the symbols anymore.”

Binder took one look and booked Tschinkl for one of the most visible shows of the year, the fall 1991 opening. If the exhibit was, as Binder’s part-time assistant Gerard Goodrow warned, “almost a little dangerous,” it proved worth the peril. By opening night, word had gotten around town, and several of Cologne’s better-known artists, swathed against the cold in leather or denim jackets, cruised by. And for the first time in a year and a half, Rudolf Zwirner dropped by the Binder Galerie.

But what did he see? More to the point, what did Binder see? A hint had come the previous afternoon. Watching Tschinkl assemble a frame, the interloper from Texas who had presumed to present his host country with a disturbing commentary on its national soul revealed a little of his own.

“Andreas’s work is the programm I was trying to get into even from the ’Outsiders’ show.” Binder had mused. “1 find that his work conveys”-he searched for the phrase- “a spiritual meaning. I want to show work that has a powerful spirituality.”

For a dealer, the assessment seemed surprisingly non-commercial. And yet it was exactly right. A spiritual quality leaps from the work of almost every artist Binder exhibits. “I look at a work and if it means something to me I want to show it.” Binder continued, leaning forward. “I don’t want to just show another ’big1 artist of your choice. When I was a museum curator I was always being asked. ’What does the city want to see?” It’s impossible to know that. You show what is meaningful to you personally m hopes it may appeal to a few other people.”

He slumped back against a bare wall, amused at his own philosophizing. Tschinkl continued to work on his frame, but when he glanced over at Binder, he was smiling, too. They were in it together.

LATER, WALKING THE OLD TOWN streets on a chilly autumn evening, Binder pauses to look at an excavation of a Roman wall built to keep out the barbarians. Sometimes he appears to be a character in Wim Wenders’ cult film, The American Friend, the bizarre story of an art dealer (Dennis Hopper) in West Germany who eventually crosses the line between genius and larceny. Now, Binder seems more like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. Kurt Vonnegut’s dark comedy of the Allied firebombing of Dresden. Pilgrim became ’’unstuck in time” and moved abruptly back and forth along what the aboriginals might call the Songline-a lyrical route-of his own life.

Binder, too, is moving along a line whose connecting points often seem random. As a cross-cultural pilgrim, he makes good speed, both to and from Dallas. Tonight, he stares down at the vaults of time. “I’m looking for something that has some context,” he says. “Context has been out of fashion. So has narrative. I found the whole decade of post-modernism to be cold, austere and not a summation of the aesthetics I experienced in the “80s.” He tugs at the lapels of his vintage sport coat to stay warm. “Is Andreas a big risk? I’m proud to show his work. Anyway, it’s no more a risk than being a dealer in Germany. It’s a risk just being in that gallery.”


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