When Mary Boone learned, back in 2012, that she was under investigation for tax fraud, she called a woman who had been sent to prison for financial crimes. That’s how she wound up across from Martha Stewart at Bottega del Vino, a fancy restaurant and wine bar around the corner from the Plaza Hotel.
They met at a little after 3 p.m., knowing the place would be empty.
As Ms. Boone, 67, recalled, Ms. Stewart was “funny and supportive.” But one warning particularly resonated: “‘Just watch. They’re going to use you as an example.’ I remember her saying that.”
On Valentine’s Day this year, they did. Standing in a courtroom in downtown Manhattan after pleading guilty to two counts of filing false tax returns, Ms. Boone was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
“It was worse than any of us expected,” said her close friend, the designer Nicole Miller, who was there. “I thought she’d get a year.”
Ms. Boone was stoic. When she got up to leave, her son, Max Werner, 31, walked over to hug her.
Then, having left her preferred gray mink at home, Ms. Boone put on a navy coat and pink shawl, headed outside and vroomed off in a white Mercedes-Benz with a vanity plate across the back that read MEB1951.
An ‘Air of Authority’
An artist’s job is to make beauty out of illusion, but paint on canvas is not the sole (or even main) reason work sells for millions of dollars.
Superstars need narratives. Narratives need packagers.
Competent packagers can draw out an artist’s back story and minimize the boring parts without drawing attention to themselves. Great packagers often become packages themselves, as Mary Boone did in the 1980s.
It was she who led limousines to SoHo lofts; she who realized that gossip columnists, almost as much as serious critics, could help create an aura around an artist.
“We used to say that Mary brought the uptown gallery downtown,” said the artist Eric Fischl, who was represented by her from 1982 to 2015. “She knew she was showing artists whose work was going to become expensive, she knew the idea of bohemian SoHo was over, and she knew that the relationship the arts had to the media was changing, and that this element of glamour was going to be a part of the telling of the story of art and artist. For good or for worse.”
Sometimes, the degree to which people talked about Ms. Boone’s Chanel suits and cobra-skin high heels got on her nerves. But she didn’t have her nose fixed (a procedure she disclosed proudly in Vogue), her hair straightened and her wardrobe upgraded because she wanted photographers to ignore her.
Still, Ms. Boone was relatable. She talked about art without using words like “refraction.” The basics of her un-posh childhood became known because she discussed them openly, understanding that most legends are self-made, not born rich.
Today, Ms. Boone remains warm, unpretentious and deeply, raucously funny. Also prone to bouts of insecurity, reinforcing through her behavior that openness is not synonymous with honesty, and fuzzy details don’t always obscure larger truths.
The daughter of Egyptian immigrants (unless they were Lebanese), she was born in Erie, Pa., in 1951. Her mother’s primary job was raising her daughters. Her father worked on the assembly line at General Electric and died at 29 from a genetic cholesterol condition. “He was totally fit,” said Ms. Boone, who was 3 when it happened.
From his death, Ms. Boone learned both to be propulsive and to look around corners. From her mother’s subsequent marriage to a man who was more needed than loved, she learned to be both self-reliant and open to relationships that are transactional.
From a photograph of the Picasso painting “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” she learned art was her calling. From the teenage years she spent in Michigan she learned she was not in the place to do this. From the Rhode Island School of Design, she learned New York couldn’t come soon enough, and from a teacher at Hunter College, she learned that while her art was “terrible,” she might make a better dealer.
The professor who introduced this idea is Lynda Benglis, whose boyfriend in 1971 was Klaus Kertess. He ran Bykert Gallery, an influential but not especially profitable place on East 81st Street. Brice Marden and Chuck Close were among those whose paintings weren’t selling.
Ms. Boone began there as a secretary but had opportunities to do other things. That was an advantage that came from working at a place with limited resources and a boss who was figuring out he was gay. He needed space. She got responsibility.
Every afternoon, the gallery filled up with artists and collectors. Even among them, she stood out. “What I remember is this rivetingly beautiful dark-haired creature beavering away in her cubbyhole,” said Barbara Jakobson, a longtime Museum of Modern Art trustee. “You had this impression from the beginning that she was so in control in a way, that Klaus had come to depend upon her. She had this air of authority, an aura around her, even then.” (Ms. Boone said: “That is so not true. I was a nitwit. I didn’t know anything.”)
Around 1972, Ross Bleckner, who went to the California Institute of the Arts, walked into Bykert with a bunch of his slides. The paintings were dark and caustic, but he had a knack for social networking dating back to his childhood in the Five Towns of Long Island, where one of his best friends was Donna Karan. He introduced Ms. Boone to classmates of his like David Salle and Mr. Fischl, as well as his good friend Barbara Kruger.
After Mr. Kertess left the gallery, in 1975, Ms. Boone headed to SoHo and found a small ground-floor space at 420 West Broadway beneath the gallery of Leo Castelli, whose status as the most august dealer of contemporary art in the world was somewhat in decline.
The artists in his stable who were then considered a little stale included Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Richard Serra and Cy Twombly.
Soon, Mr. Castelli and Ms. Boone were staging shows together. He gave her history. She gave him youth. Although Mr. Castelli also got some of that from Larry Gagosian, whom we’ll get to later.
They all liked to go this restaurant after work. One University Place.
The owner was Mickey Ruskin, who also ran Max’s Kansas City. In the kitchen was a guy named Julian, whose favorite things besides food were sex, breaking things apart and painting. Eventually he put those pursuits together with a series of canvases that came to be known as the plate paintings because he glued broken plates on them, Gaudí-style.
Ms. Boone wasn’t sure at first that she wanted to be Julian’s dealer. Then Holly Solomon, another gallery owner, started circling and Ms. Boone swooped in. After that, she shouted the name Schnabel from the rooftops. Soon enough, the world caught on.
Ms. Boone appeared on the cover of New York magazine, as “The New Queen of the Art Scene.” (Anna Wintour commissioned the piece.) Mr. Schnabel’s paintings adorned the homes of characters in “American Psycho” and “Wall Street.” Personas developed.
Mr. Schnabel became known for his bombastic ego and not his big heart. Ms. Boone became known for her steamrolling drive and not the fragility underneath.
Doug Cramer couldn’t even get a Schnabel back then. Here he was, one of America’s major collectors, business partner of the TV king Aaron Spelling, a person accustomed — by his own estimation — to getting what he wanted. “Julian painted, like, four of them a year,” she said.
When Mr. Schnabel got a show in Los Angeles at Margo Leavin’s gallery, Mr. Cramer tried again to buy a painting and was rebuffed. A dinner was thrown in Mr. Schnabel’s honor, and Mr. Cramer got seated next to him. By the end of the night, they struck a deal: a Mercedes for a painting. “I collected cars,” said Mr. Cramer, who later became a MoMA trustee. “He wanted one.”
This became a problem for Ms. Leavin. Collectors aren’t supposed to go over the heads of dealers and negotiate directly with artists. So Mr. Cramer gave her a commission. “I sent her a tire,” he said. “We didn’t speak for several years.”
Ms. Boone thought it was hilarious, and thereafter was his friend. “Part of her charm was her vulnerability, and she used that and played on that when she needed to,” he said. “It was like she had two decks of cards and if one wasn’t working for her, the other was.”
In 1986, Mr. Cramer hosted the wedding party in Los Angeles when Ms. Boone married Michael Werner, a leading dealer on the international art scene. (They divorced in the early 1990s.) In 2000, Mr. Cramer forgave Ms. Boone for selling a Damian Loeb painting he thought he’d bought to another collector.
“The day before it was supposed to be delivered,” Mr. Cramer said. “Somehow she always managed to come out of things O.K.”
Mary and Larry
The rap on Mary Boone was that she was ambitious, bossy and married to a man who was married to someone else when they got involved. Also, noted Laurie Simmons (who was then, along with Cindy Sherman, represented by another gallery, Metro Pictures), “She was bringing out these guys, these men,” who were known for painting naked women.
So when Ms. Boone — in her fancy clothes, selling art to all those stockbrokers — became a symbol of ’80s excess, powerful women in the industry didn’t all rush to defend her. Mr. Cramer even considered basing a “Dynasty” character on her.
Never mind that Ms. Boone was tagged for behavior to which she was religiously opposed. “People thought she told artists what to do,” Mr. Bleckner said. “Never. She never said, ‘Make more of these, they’re selling.’”
In fact, as time went on, what friends saw was not a relentless desire to expand but a strange desire to maintain her perfectly ordered microcosm.
Ms. Boone passed on getting the house in the Hamptons. Her clothes shopping dropped off. She turned out to be too financially cautious to borrow from banks for the purpose of investing in the secondary art market.
“Her instincts led her to where she stayed,” Ms. Jakobson said. “It was like she was a farmer with a beautiful plot but not a lot of acreage. She couldn’t have made it bigger because it wouldn’t have been possible to maintain control of it.”
As Ms. Boone became a highly successful stalwart who over the years showed Robert Mapplethorpe, Sherrie Levine, Brice Marden, Ms. Kruger, Tom Sachs and Ai Weiwei, Mr. Gagosian saw an opening.
The story of Ms. Boone and Mr. Gagosian dates back to 1980, when an electrician arrived at 420 West Broadway to fix the circuit breakers. His name was Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Ms. Boone didn’t pay much attention then, so he signed up with Annina Nosei, a gallery owner on Prince Street, instead. Ms. Nosei put Mr. Basquiat in a show with Ms. Kruger and introduced him to Mr. Gagosian.
Unlike Ms. Boone, Mr. Gagosian hadn’t gone to art school, started in a great gallery or displayed exceptional drive at the beginning. It took him six years to graduate from U.C.L.A., after which he spent much of the 1970s running a poster shop in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles.
By the end of the decade, Mr. Gagosian was in New York, showing photographers like Ralph Gibson out of his loft in SoHo and reselling work by Mr. Marden and Diane Arbus to wealthy collectors including Charles Saatchi and S.I. Newhouse Jr.
Mr. Gagosian and Mr. Basquiat became friends. Around 1981, they decamped to Los Angeles and lived briefly in Mr. Gagosian’s house along with a singer Mr. Basquiat was going out with. She had a record contract and doubled as their driver because Mr. Gagosian lost his license and his roomie couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel. “Hey, Madonna,” they’d say to her. “We need to get to Sunset.”
That fall, Ms. Boone expanded into a larger space across the street from 420 West Broadway. It took Mr. Gagosian another four years to get a space in Chelsea, where no one went. Least of all Mr. Basquiat, who by then was showing with Ms. Boone. “I didn’t have any so-called ‘primary’ relationships with artists because they all had relationships with other dealers,” Mr. Gagosian said in Interview magazine in 2012.
Hoping for traction, Mr. Gagosian went to lunch one day at the Factory, where Warhol pulled out some old paintings that were oxidized in urine. Afterward, Mr. Gagosian called Warhol’s dealer, Leo Castelli, and asked if he might show the series it came from.
Mr. Castelli had already done successful exhibits of Mr. Salle and Mr. Schnabel with Ms. Boone and didn’t much like standing around selling old work anyway. (Mr. Castelli also didn’t love the so-called piss paintings.) So he said O.K. When the show was a hit, Mr. Gagosian called about doing similar things for Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Jasper Johns.
By 1989, Warhol and Basquiat were dead. Ms. Boone’s marriage was showing strain, the stock market had crashed, and she was concerned about money. Too bad she had already sold her Basquiats, for definitely not enough. The buyer was Thomas Ammann, a frequent partner of Mr. Gagosian’s on the secondary market.
The Alec Baldwin Incident
“I forget dates and misremember details,” Ms. Boone said. “People make up stories about me.”
This, she said, includes the actor Alec Baldwin.
One afternoon in 2010, Mr. Baldwin arrived at her gallery hoping to buy an old painting by Mr. Bleckner. Ms. Boone attempted to obtain it from the current owners, who were unwilling to sell. So she called Mr. Bleckner and asked if he might paint a painting like it to sell Mr. Baldwin instead. Mr. Bleckner could and they did.
As Ms. Boone presents it, this is no different than Warhol painting multiple versions of, say, “Triple Elvis.” Her position remains that she told Mr. Baldwin by phone this was the plan, but no paper trail backs that up. Moreover, the gallery stamped the back of the painting she sold him with the same inventory number as the original. It didn’t look good.
Mr. Baldwin filed a lawsuit in 2016, saying he had been defrauded. Ms. Boone settled for about a million dollars. Funnily enough, an additional term of the settlement was that Mr. Bleckner had to paint Mr. Baldwin another copy of the copy.
“You want to know something? I regret that I settled,” Ms. Boone said. “Because now I’m thinking this would be a good thing to spend time doing in jail. Fighting this lawsuit with Alec Baldwin. This guy’s a fool.”
Mr. Baldwin said: “Mary is a devious, compulsive, eighth-degree black-belt liar. She wakes up in the morning and she starts lying.”
“The person most afraid of being robbed is usually a thief,” Ms. Boone said.
At dinner earlier this month, Ms. Boone regaled several guests with a story from her tenure in the ’80s as an art adviser to Michael Ovitz, then the chairman of the talent agency CAA.
“We were talking about the possibility of my having a second child,” she said. “I was saying, ‘probably not. One is enough.’ And he said something like, ‘82 percent of the world’s most successful people are only children. Look at me.’ Then I read his book and he wrote about his brother. That’s Mike Ovitz for you. Always an agent.”
Two days after the dinner, I found a black and white photograph of Ms. Boone and Mr. Basquiat that ran in Interview magazine in 2012. She’s in front looking beautiful and mysterious. He’s in back looking oh-so-handsome and not so high. The picture happens to be two snapshots Photoshopped together. The magazine wanted an image of them, and someone made sure it happened.
“What’s wrong with that?” Ms. Boone said.
Study in Contradictions
Her eyes are dark and intense. When she is happy, the gaze is kind enough to reach across an avenue. When she is angry or afraid, it can be hard to meet.
“Mary’s sympathetic and she’s not sympathetic,” said Ron Warren, who has managed her gallery since 1985 and has been a partner in it since 2009.
From the earliest days, she handed him enormous responsibility. To the end, she also saddled him with tasks that an intern could perform. “It’s not meant to be demeaning,” he said. “It’s about trusting that I can do it in a way that she wants.”
Artists who have shown with Ms. Boone over the years remark upon her obsessive tendencies, her ability to distort things they’ve said and her habit of calling them too often when she needs something and not enough when she doesn’t.
They also described her as being impossible not to love (Ms. Simmons and Mr. Schnabel), generous to a fault (Mr. Marden) and great in a crisis.
After Ms. Boone got sober in 1998, she staged an intervention for the artist Will Cotton that he said helped save his life from drug addiction. When Mr. Kertess, her mentor, began showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease, it was Ms. Boone who sat down his husband, Billy Sullivan, and said something needed to be done. “I was in denial,” Mr. Sullivan said. “I am forever grateful for what she did.”
No artist interviewed for this article felt cheated. Four employees (including two who had left on bad terms) said she was among the best-paying bosses they’d ever had.
Barry Frier, who has framed art for many big dealers including Ms. Boone, said she was almost unparalleled in her humor, her speed at settling a check and her ability to alienate studio managers.
Everyone said she has raised a son who is smart, empathic and poised.
On Valentine’s Day, Max Werner sent his mother a card that read: “In a world of plain toast, you’re a chocolate chip pancake.” It’s the only piece of paper on a tabletop in her apartment on East 64th Street.
Two weeks ago, at a dinner for the artist Julia Wachtel, the roman à clef “The Devil Wears Prada” came up in conversation. Ms. Boone made a point of defending its inspiration, Ms. Wintour, while indicting its author, Lauren Weisberger, a former Vogue employee, for being tacky.
“I get where you’re coming from, I get your anger at the issue,” Mr. Werner said in response. “But awful people can do great things, and great people can do things that are awful. And because great people are sometimes awful, it doesn’t mean they’re not equally great.”
After the charges came down, it became a game of Clue.
Had Mr. Baldwin tipped off the feds? Although he might have had motive, the I.R.S. was investigating her in 2012, years before L’affaire Bleckner really began.
A better theory was a disgruntled employee hoping for a whistle-blower reward.
Regardless, Ms. Boone pleaded guilty to filing federal returns that included reporting a business loss of $52,000 for 2011 when the gallery’s profit was about $3.7 million.
In her plea, she admitted to using business funds to pay for $1.6 million in personal expenses, including an $800,000 renovation of her 64th Street apartment. As restitution, she paid the government back about $7 million, including penalties.
At her sentencing, Judge Alvin Hellerstein said he had no doubt she felt remorse but expressed the opinion that prison is a necessary deterrent to potential white-collar criminals. Some friends translate that as making Ms. Boone a poster girl for noxious rich people.
“I think the sentencing is just awful,” Mr. Marden said, noting that Paul Manafort received a sentence of just four years for an eight-count felony conviction. (Mr. Manafort separately received another three and a half years for conspiracy and witness tampering.)
“The only thing you can look at is Martha Stewart,” Mr. Sullivan said. “They ran her up a tree, too.”
Certainly, Ms. Boone’s sentence was harsher than that given to other art-world miscreants.
Peter Brant received 90 days in jail in 1990 after pleading guilty to federal tax charges that included billing over $1 million in personal expenses — among them, silk sheets, massages and scalp treatments — to a newsprint company he owned.
Al Taubman was sentenced in 2001 to a year in prison after his conviction in a price-fixing scheme that swindled more than $100 million from auction house customers. He served less than eight months.
Mr. Gagosian has also been accused of cheating the government out of taxes. Twice. He paid the government several million dollars and was never charged with a crime.
On a recent Tuesday evening, Francesco Clemente and Mr. Sullivan milled around Mr. Gagosian’s Upper East Side gallery during an opening of Helen Marden’s paintings. “Did Brice tell you about how she gave him $1 million to fund his calligraphy?” Ms. Marden said, of Ms. Boone.
Jerry Saltz, the art critic at New York magazine, wafted by. On Twitter he had suggested that it was not Ms. Boone who should be in hot water, but the evening’s host, Mr. Gagosian.
She’ll Be Back
Because no one but Mary Boone was ever going run the Mary Boone Gallery, both locations will close in May. Nevertheless, she was determined to go on with scheduled shows for Ms. Wachtel and Derek Adams.
They opened the second week in March and were filled with people who walked up expecting to console Ms. Boone about her coming prison stint and instead found someone relaxed and in her element.
“I’m going to be her first show when she gets out,” Mickalene Thomas said at Mr. Adams’s opening on Fifth Avenue.
Two days later Ms. Boone was down in Chelsea celebrating Ms. Wachtel, when Ms. Simmons walked up with her husband, Carroll Dunham, and said she’d be visiting Ms. Boone at the Federal Correctional Institute, Danbury. “Near our country house!” Ms. Simmons said.
Around 8 p.m, a group headed over to Bottino, a restaurant on 10th Avenue. Mr. Cotton smiled at Ms. Boone as she dished about the art world and fretted over how she looked. “Fat,” she said. (Nope.)
But mostly, she sounded grateful.
To artists like Ms. Wachtel, whom Ms. Boone courted for years and now was finally showing for the first time. “And not a moment too soon,” she said, during a toast.
She was certain she would be coming back to New York in 2021. “If my 30 months in prison does anything,” she said, “I hope it provides an example for young women who face something really disastrous and difficult, that they say, ‘Mary made it through and so can I.’”
The more she thought about it, the more she was sure. “I want to be the Martha Stewart of the art world,” she said.