“It’s gone from Irving Blum to Blum & Poe. Art on La Cienaga has finally come round,” said dealer Jeffrey Poe, martini shaker rattling in hand. Poe, who owns Blum & Poe with Tim Blum, pretended to Irving's swashbuckling fame at the Ferus Gallery back in the '60s, and today's scene of capable artists and wily dealers may well reclaim the boulevard’s former glory. Last Wednesday, for one night only, Poe bartended and artist Dave Muller DJed at an insiders’ pre-opening of LA’s newest art bar, the Mandrake, which sits behind a nondescript storefront on the new gallery strip. As the official launch is September 2, only an upturned cardboard liquor box set upon a pole out front announced, in scrawled black marker, “The Bar Is Open.”
Walking into the woody, low-ceilinged space, I could see the party had already begun. LAXART curator Lauri Firstenberg and Maccarone director Erica Redling swapped gossip and quipped, “Doesn’t Dave Muller look like the Incredible Hulk?” Artists Mark Grotjahn and Jennifer Bornstein huddled in a corner shirking the limelight with new Jack Hanley director Alexandra Gaty, while Poe, sunburned and clad in a Greek fishing cap after a day at sea, lumbered behind the bar, slingin’ drinks much more slowly than he sells art. Founded by artists (but, true to art-world ways, funded by dealers), the Mandrake was formed as an entrepreneurial extension of Champion Fine Arts, but wasn’t officially christened until artist Christopher Williams finally nailed the name. For a while, wags dubbed the space Untitled, but after failed attempts and a little emotional infighting, they decided to pay homage to the venue’s previous incarnation as a gay bar called the Manhandler.
Williams and his wife, MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, were in attendance at the low-key fete. He balked at being photographed, but compromised by snatching the camera out of my hands and snapping a quick pic of Poe looking like a grizzly Hemingway in front of a cigar-chomping Castro. Muller stood in the large room at the end of the bar surrounded by stacked records, as if stuck in the middle of one of his signature music-archive paintings. “It all started with me being a DJ as an undergrad. It’s good to get it out into the world like this again.” The party, music, and unpretentious creative energy of this art bar echoed Muller’s Three Day Weekends, even though the only art on hand was a lonely video piece by art collective and band Hurray, which played quietly to no one in the desolate backroom. (This same “Backroom,” by the way, was curated for a spell by Magali Arriola, Kate Fowle, and Renaud Proch and featured artists Thomas Lawson, Allan Kaprow, and Euan Macdonald, among others.)
As the night wore on, artists, dealers, and writers reconvened in a mellow way before the September 9 opening-night cluster-fuck art bonanza. During a calm moment behind the bar, Poe stopped to talk about what’s going on. “LA is slow and low,” he said. “It’s just as happening as New York, but it’s not as flashy. LA is far-flung and displaced, but it’s all here.” Slipping away to fulfill a drink order, he returned with a Corona, taking a comradely sip before handing it off to a cute drunk girl. I asked Poe what the difference was between art dealing and bartending. After a contemplative pause, he said with a shrug, “They’re both service industries.”
Art and liquor have been bedfellows for a long time. When I queried a comfortably smashed Allyson Spellacy (Gagosian installer and director of the new, by-appointment-only Angela Hanley Gallery) whether she thought artists drank too much, she took a swig from her beer and lamented, in her low Irish brogue, “Not at all. They dooonnnn’t drink enough.”