We drove up to Los Angeles on Sunday to attend the funeral of an old friend, Joni Gordon. Joni was, be any account, a key figure in the history of contemporary art in Los Angeles. In the early 1970s, she took over what had started as a small, artist-run alternative exhibition space, Newspace, and turned it into a gallery that became known for its recognition and support of young artists in the early days of their career. Joni herself was loyal to a fault, and not immune to the pain that accompanies the betrayal that is all too common in her situation, when thanks to her efforts those new, young artists begin to acquire a reputation--and leave to join what the ever-trendy art scene considers more prestigious or better-located show places. I remember having commiserated with her on numerous occasions about the fickleness of the art world and its denizens.
Joni would have nothing to do with fickle. She chose her artists judiciously, with a keen eye for their talent and their promise for the future, as well as for their seriousness of purpose and dedication to their work. Her relatively small space on Melrose Avenue was frankly off the beaten track, far from the areas that, in turn, found favor as gallery locations: La Brea, downtown, mid-Wilshire, Bergamot... I regret to have to admit that I did not get there very often myself, though I did review a fair number of her shows. But the high, vaulted ceilings and the ample white wall space allowed for the exhibition of works large and small, in a rich variety of media; the storage area was always open to anyone who wanted to wander through and find some wonderful surprise propped up against the wall, just out of its packing crate.
And Joni would invariably be there, in the back office space, surrounded by her rolodexes and her voluminous paperwork, surrounded by choice works from gallery artists hung around the walls. Her presence was intense, always enthusiastic. She was always anxious to pass on some new tidbit of essential information, some new discovery, some exhortation of art show not to be missed. Her range of knowledge was as formidable as her passion, and she was generous in sharing it. Most of all, she wanted the visitor to know her artists, to see them as she did, with unabashed pride and joy in their creative accomplishments.
Joni Gordon was of an age with me. We were born in the same year, before World War II. She died, we heard, of a massive brain hemorrhage, from which she simply never recovered. She had retired from the gallery business some years before, but kept active as a private dealer. Perhaps the most touching story at her funeral was news, at least to me. It was told by her son, John, who recalled how she would let off accumulated steam by boarding railroad trains and taking off for distant parts, far removed from Los Angeles and the art world--this in the days long before cell phones were around to stay connected--and simply disappear for days on end. It feels like she has taken off on one of those train rides now; sadly, though, it's one from which we cannot expect her to return.