HERE TO SERVE. Joel Mesler is an artist whose career in the art world started as an art dealer and gallerist.  A Master of Fine Arts graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, Mesler worked for almost two decades as an art dealer in Los Angeles and New York City, painting on and off while promoting artists Henry Taylor and Rashid Johnson early in their careers. In 2017, Mesler moved to Sag Harbor, where he owns Rental Gallery. He continues to paint, influenced by pop culture and nature as well as his own history of addiction and his Jewish heritage.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Joel Mesler, did you have an easy childhood?

No. I had to learn the things I did based on the necessity. Choices were made for me, and I made the best of my situations. My father was a cardiologist with a bad cocaine addiction. When he had opiates or ecstasy around the house I would steal his drugs and sell them in high school. Those were my early beginnings of art dealing!

Did your mother find herself in a desperate situation?

Yes. My life is the two movies Kramer vs. Kramer and Taxi Driver put together. My parents’ divorce changed California law. We went from a very opulent life on the 600 block of Beverly Hills to some of the saddest stories. My father turned the hot water off in the house so we would shampoo our hair in our swimming pool, because in California the water is warmer outside than inside. At a certain point there was too much shampoo and conditioner in the swimming pool so we couldn’t do it anymore. My mother’s friend Kathy would go to Ralphs market and throw food over to us because we were squatting, and if we left our house the city was going to lock it. We were living in this amazing house, but we couldn’t leave.

“Survival is our badge of honour”

Joel Mesler

Joel Mesler at his Rental Gallery where he finally was able to become the artist he is.

Joel Mesler, did you have a religious upbringing?

My father’s parents were very religious. My father’s first wife was not Jewish, and my grandfather was financing my father going through medical school and said if my father didn’t get a divorce from this non-Jew woman that he would stop supporting him. My father obviously picked money over love, as any anxious, fearful Jew would do. So she took the diamond ring and threw it in the ocean, and he married my mother.

You are an artist, so why did you become an art dealer?

I fell into art dealing because nobody liked what I was doing with my own art, which I was doing to be loved. I wanted to tell the world how messed up my life was. These aren’t reasons why people are going to love you back; you have to be giving them something to receive something back. All my friends were getting love, art shows, making money – and I was getting ignored, so I opened up an art gallery and sold other people’s art. Being an artist, I was able to connect with other artists, and it actually helped that I had an alcohol and drug problem.

When did that start?

I got high on my own supply in high school and it just carried on. The art world embraces that type of behavior, so I was able to sell art at 3 in the morning at clubs, where I would write notes on the back of my hand: “$25,000 with a 15% discount” and a couple of initials. I would wake up in the morning in the fetal position with a cocaine hangover, but as long as I could read the notes on the back of my hand I could walk into the gallery and give it to the registrar. I made money and so everybody forgave me, people even applauded me. I was a hero.

At a certain point you moved from L.A. to New York with the idea of a pop-up gallery space?

When I first moved to New York alternative spaces worked. There was the high end like Gagosian, but Hauser & Wirth wasn’t even Hauser & Wirth then, and there was space for the bottom end. I opened a gallery on East Broadway in Chinatown, on the sixth floor of this Chinese building. There was a wedding photography studio below me and an accountant and they would call me “Round Eye”, but I paid my rent on time and went about my business. I was living in the gallery in the back room, still in the throes of the addiction and my spiritual malady, and there was a bar called Good World around the corner where artist Sheree Hovsepian, who was Rashid Johnson’s girlfriend at the time, was the bartender. Rashid and I became fast friends.

Were you into the trend of what was happening rather than dealing established artists who were already selling?

This was in 2007 and I was 28, 29, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was an old prostitute Mahjong parlor and I literally knocked the walls down and said we are open. It wasn’t a traditional gallery and I didn’t represent artists. In the back of my head it was a way for me to say maybe there’s a chance for me still to sneak in being an artist. I barely knew anybody, but at my first opening Jerry Saltz, Klaus Biesenbach, Andrew Kreps and Anton Kern all showed up because they wondered who is this guy and why is he here in this location.

In 2013 you married Sarah Aibel. You have three children, a boy and twin girls, but for a time carried on being very irresponsible?

Yes. I was a disgusting human being. I put everything above or below the need to numb out with vodka and red wine and Ambien. I had conversations with Rashid, and he would say, “Maybe you want to take a break.” And I’d say, “But the alcohol is my medicine. Look at how terrible my life is. I need the alcohol or I will die.” And he said, “Maybe it’s not the medicine. Maybe it’s the alcohol that’s causing the pain.” In every fiber of my bone, I believed at the time that it was the alcohol that was saving me.

Is that what many addicts think?

Yes, this is the craziness of the disease. It’s literally yourself lying to yourself, and so how can anybody else tell you the truth when you’re lying to yourself? That’s why no one else can bring you to your knees. It’s only you. And so I had that moment.

“I’ll never stop painting rabbis”

Joel Mesler, what happened?

We had this property in upstate New York, and I was just starting to make drawings again, and I said to my wife, “I want to go and make art away from all the distractions of the children and from you who nags me. I’m going to make art because that’s what I deserve, and I deserve it without you guys bothering me.” I went up there with two bags of organic turkey slices and a big bottle of Tito’s vodka, and I got my art materials together, and I turned on Leonard Cohen, took my shirt off and started painting. I hadn’t realized it, but I drank more vodka than I had drunk in one sitting in a very long time, and when I tried to get to where my turkey slices were – because I knew I needed something in my stomach – I blacked out. I came to with scrapes and cuts. I could not even make it to the refrigerator to get these turkey slices. I realized as I was driving back home that I didn’t go up there to make art, I went up there to drink and be left alone. It was at that moment that I realized that I had been lying to myself, that that voice was actually killing me, but I had never had a day where I was not high and I didn’t know what to do, so, crying, I called Rashid on the way back and he led me back to my life.

You bought a house and moved near to Rashid Johnson in Bridgehampton?  

I bought a house across the street from him. I didn’t want to leave him. I needed to be that close to him. I opened a gallery in East Hampton, and I would paint in the basement and I would hear when clients would come in the door, and I’d run upstairs and sell other people’s art. Eventually people started to give me money for mine. It started at $2000 and then $4000 and every summer I would ask my wife, “I’m making some money, can I stop selling other people’s art?” And she’s, “Not yet. We don’t have enough money.” Eventually, when David Kordansky offered me a show, she said, “You’re now allowed to close the gallery.”

What kind of paintings were you doing?  

All of my art goes back to that moment when my parents got divorced, when my father had a nervous breakdown at the Beverly Hills Hotel and my mother was saying go see if he’s OK. I use the wallpaper that I scraped my nails across because as a child I didn’t know what was going on, and I remember my nails were bleeding and I had the phthalo green of the leaves in my nails. All of my art is about that time, and now I use the same green when I paint and I get that same green in my hands. Now I’ve empowered myself. I’m making money off of my trauma now.

You wrote words on this green background with serpents, and David Kordansky says that your work dialogs with Ed Ruscha and Christopher Wool, but in my mind it is closer to Rene Ricard, who wrote poems and painted and he also had a drug story. Are you aware of Rene and his work?

Yes, and I love his work, but at the time I wasn’t so familiar. I think of Ed as a cool cowboy from Oklahoma, where Rene and myself are bleeding hearts who wear our emotions on our sleeves. Survival is our badge of honour, and as a survivor you want to tell your story, almost as a service to other people. Rene painted his heart. It’s his love. The same with me. These are things my mother said to me, or these are my fears, or this is my love. This is all of me. I’m not trying to hide anything.

How have you been able to put your family together again in these past few years that you’re out of alcohol and drugs?

I did it with AA. I had a sober therapist, and I have a great group of other men that I meet with every day in the Hamptons and New York City and we have Zooms. We read from the Big Book, the 12 steps, and share. I never was able as a younger man to sit in a room full of men and talk about me, my life, my fears, my insecurities, and now I do it every day.  I found my voice in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the deeper I get into Alcoholics Anonymous; I’ve gotten closer to Judaism too. The Torah and the Big Book, even though one is the word of Hashem and one is written by a couple of broken drunk doctors in Ohio, it’s the same: to let go of ego and fear and to get present.

How did you get involved with collecting and painting Rabbi portraits? 

We grew up with a couple of rabbi portraits in our home and when my mother passed away I hung them in my house. When you go to people’s homes today of my generation, you don’t see rabbi portraits, but when I was young and would go to my parents’ friends’ houses, you would see rabbi portraits. It wasn’t famous rabbis and it wasn’t famous artists, but there were rabbis around the house. I’m a big collector of Ben Shahn paintings, drawings, prints, books – anything Ben Shahn – and I realized that in these auctions where I was buying Ben Shahn all these rabbi portraits were coming up and nobody was buying them. Not even one bid. And so I thought, if nobody is going to buy these rabbi portraits, I’m going to buy them, because where do they go if nobody buys them?  This whole generation are selling these rabbis, so I have to be the custodian of these rabbi portraits, over 300 now. They’re in my store, I have them everywhere.

And then you started painting rabbis yourself?

I’m a painter and I’m a collector of rabbi portraits, and I started painting my favorite rabbi portraits, and after doing this for some months John Cheim came by the studio and saw what I was doing. I said it was just a side thing, just the love of the rabbi, this isn’t my art, this is private, but he said we need to show these. David Kordansky gave us his blessing and all of a sudden people bought the rabbis. We added a zero to the prices of the original rabbis and now all of a sudden a younger generation of Jews on Park Avenue that didn’t have the rabbis on their walls – and even some non-Jews – have rabbis on their walls again. I’m doing an inadvertent mitzvah by getting Judaica back on the walls, and now I’ll never stop painting rabbis although it takes a lot out of me. When I do the rabbis, I’m painting with oil paint and I get really messy and covered in paint.  When I’m doing the other work of leaves and words it’s more like I’m an architect and I’m burning incense and I’m in a Zen state, but when I’m doing the rabbis, I’m fighting, I’m going to battle.

Joel Mesler

JOEL MESLER: Untitled (Pool Party) 2022

Joel Mesler

JOEL MESLER: Untitled (Love People) 2023

Joel Mesler

JOEL MESLER: Home Run 2022

Joel Mesler

JOEL MESLER: Rabbi with red blue beard 2023

Joel Mesler

JOEL MESLER: Untitled (Love Joy) 2023

“There’s nothing to hide”

Joel Mesler, you have showed in Hong Kong and Shanghai. What kind of shows do you have?

Those are my other bodies of work and those are the ones I think that are more digestible, but the Sunrise Sunset show I just did in Los Angeles with David Kordansky is the first time I mix the two. I did 13 paintings of the leaves, and it was the idea of a boy becomes a man, one year of a boy’s life until he becomes 13. And then I had 9 rabbi paintings, so the idea was that the boy becomes a man and he can sit in the minyan with the other 9 men. It was the idea that he and the viewer can enter the paintings of the leaves that they traditionally know, and then they could enter the rabbi room. It was quite successful. People understood it and they understood that I also do the rabbis. I have two big installations in July that will grapple with the same ideas through different mediums.  

Where are they and what are you going to show?  

Sculptures. Paintings. Drawings. I’m literally putting everything I have, it’s my whole journey. This is the end of Act One for me in a certain way. In July, I’m unveiling a monumental public sculpture installation, taking over the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. It will be an immersive pool party where the kids can have ice cream and dip their toes in the faux pool. I’ll be doing activations throughout the summer, like a performance piece, to encourage the kids to connect with their emotions. Where my previous shows have all been looking inward, these shows are focused on a new language and bringing the joy in my paintings to life. 

And is this before or after your exhibition at Château La Coste? 

The timing of it all is so serendipitous. Last summer, I was invited to the sensational Château La Coste by my dear friend Georgina Cohen (I call her my sister/wife) to see the artist Jennifer Guidi’s show at the Richard Rogers Gallery. I’m not the best traveler, but Georgina encouraged me to come and told me I’d never experience a place like it before. She was so right, it’s an artist’s dream, not only to have a show in such a beautiful place , but it will be my first European solo show as well. I’m so grateful for Paddy McKillen’s vision, they asked me to do a show while I was there and then everything sort of coincided with Château opening in July, right after Rock Center. I’ll be flying over with the Olympians going to Paris. These two shows are saying: here I am now, this is who I am.

Nowadays black artists are in vogue, but you are white Jewish? 

I am not white. I’m Jewish. American Jews have received so much white privilege up until October 7th for so long, and now American Jews are experiencing ‘the other’ and never really had. But I’ve always been the other. I’ve always been on the outside. I have always felt more comfortable, or maybe because I was forced in that position, as the other. I would rather sit in a room full of a bunch of Jews and blacks than really anybody else. This isn’t  an intellectual or conceptual response. It’s just  a humanistic and intuitive response. It’s just where I’m comfortable. It’s just where I want to sit. When I first met Henry Taylor and he was barbecuing steak in Chinatown, that’s just where I wanted to be. It’s not that I wanted to work with black artists it’s just that I felt more comfortable with Henry Taylor than I did with other people, because maybe we spoke the same language, we saw each other the same way. He accepted me. I accepted him. He didn’t judge me. I didn’t judge him. He’s my brother. He’s still my brother. He will always be my brother.

In many parts of the diaspora, since October 7th Jews are careful about wearing yarmulke or even remove mezuzahs from their doors for fear of anti-Semitism. How do you feel?

I was raised conservative in Los Angeles, and I studied at Yeshiva in Jerusalem for over a year and then carried on learning Torah and I felt very connected to that world until I entered the art world, when I took off my tzitzit. After October 7th, I was flying to Paris and I decided to start wearing it again, and my wife’s saying, ”You’re going to fly to Paris and wear that tzitzit This is crazy, what do you do?” But I have put the tzitzit back on and I have not taken them off since then. There’s something about owning this space that’s very important, and it’s not political, but there’s this idea of the light, what it is that I am doing, what it is the responsibility of the Jews about having the Torah. This is nothing new. This has happened before. This will probably happen again. Maybe it hasn’t happened in my generation, but there is understanding, there’s a history to reference, and so I have a responsibility as a living person to continue to be the light in this world. There’s nothing to hide. There’s nothing to be proud of or not be proud of. I just have to stay on course about what I was asked to do, because this is not about me.

Is it about being brave?

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan said, and I’m here to serve. There’s something bigger happening, and  I just want to be the light. I want to give joy to the world. If there’s generational trauma, geographical trauma, territorial trauma, or religious trauma, I understand. I’ve gone through my trauma. I’m going to stay focused on what I was told to do, which is be the light, and that’s all I can do. If my light can shed light where there’s darkness, then “Baruch Hashem” but I’m not going to try to control other people. I think of it as a clock. At 12 it comes to 1 again, it’s  a cycle. There’s a reason why it’s a 12-step program too. Once you’ve gotten to your resolution, and you’ve gotten to the top, the whole point is that you help somebody else. You lend your hand to another person who is sick and suffering. So if you’ve healed yourself, you get to work, you don’t sit around and celebrate your victory. You go out and help somebody else who is sick and suffering. And so it begins again.

You are now known and accepted as an artist.

Thank you for saying that, but honestly I don’t have the space or the desire or the time to think about it or to worry about it, because all that does is take time away from the things that I need to be doing. Which is to serve. I serve my kids, and I love them so dearly. I miss them. My girls just got braces yesterday. I am here for them. I am here for so many people that I love and I care about. I’m here to serve. It’s not about me anymore.

Has spending part of your life misbehaving been very important to form and create the person you are now?

Very much. I often say that I am grateful to be an alcoholic, so I was able to recover. I am also terrified. Had I not recovered, what my life would have been. I am not afraid of drinking again. I’m afraid of becoming a person full of ego and fear again. I am what’s one day at a time. I’m grateful to be here. I’m here for other people. I don’t have anything in control. It’s just one step at a time.

Do you think that other people have something in control?

That’s not my business.

Thank you.

Joel Mesler, Pool Party, is at Rockefeller Center, July 2 – July 22, 2024

Joel Mesler, You, me and the sunset, is at Château La Coste, July 7 – September 8, 2024.

Images courtesy of Joel Mesler and copyright Joel Mesler.