passages

David Beitzel (1958–2019)

David Beitzel. Photo: Patrick McMullan.

I NEARLY ALWAYS SAW David Beitzel in a dark-blue suit and tie, as if he came from the world of banking or investments. But David was no stuffed shirt. A painter turned art dealer, he had just set up his first gallery in a storefront on Greene Street when I first met him, around 1989. Only three years later he moved to the second floor of 102 Prince Street and was showing a full roster of promising and established artists. His vision for the gallery clearly developed out of his early experiences as a painter at Bennington College, where he had lived and worked largely in solitude during his MFA years.

I met David regularly in the art world but also out in the Hamptons or in his SoHo loft, where his art collection was hung from floor to ceiling. Far from intimidating, it was one of the few art-world spots that truly felt like home to me. He was always a generous host, with a deep, hearty laugh that always set people at ease. Though he had been born into a comfortable, conservative background—his father was a top executive at IBM and was a trustee of the Katonah Museum of Art—he was also gay and had moved to New York from Vermont at the height of the AIDs epidemic, which the federal government did its best to belittle or ignore, even as it blamed gay men (and their perceived promiscuity) for bringing HIV to the US.

Increasingly during his career, he showed work that reflected themes of social injustice. His interest in social justice grew when, in 1992, I introduced him to the man who would become his life partner. Having just turned thirty during a visit to New Orleans and being single, I decided to throw a New Orleans–themed party for all my single gay New York friends. It meant preparing gumbo for the first time, and since I was working from a rather ambitious recipe featuring duck, Andouille sausage, and fresh oysters, I turned to a new friend, Darren Walker, who had grown up in Texas, not far from the Louisiana state line. He assured me that he knew virtually everything about gumbo. (I strongly remember him telling me, “If the roux doesn’t smell like burnt tires, you haven’t cooked it enough.”) Far more importantly, he insisted that no gumbo party was complete without large quantities of frozen daiquiris and showed up at my door with a blender, three bags of ice, six containers of frozen lemonade concentrate, and a completely insane amount of white rum. As a result, the fifty-odd gay men who crammed into my five-hundred-square-foot apartment that night not only enjoyed a fine dish of gumbo, but a mind-numbingly good time, courtesy of Darren and his blender.

The last two people to leave my apartment that night were Darren-and-David, as everyone would know them forever after. It wasn’t a match I’d seen coming—David was so quiet and formal, and Darren was such a live wire, the life of every party. But within a few weeks the two were inseparable, and they would remain so even as Darren moved up to Harlem to work with the Abyssinian Development Corporation and David remained bound to his many obligations at the gallery and on the art-fair circuit. Darren’s vision, ambition, intelligence, and energy would subsequently get him nominated to head the Rockefeller Foundation and then to become the president of the Ford Foundation. And as he always told me, he could never have done any of it without David.

In 2001, after ten years on Prince Street, David closed his gallery and began Beitzel Fine Arts, working as a consultant to private collectors and institutions, and becoming increasingly involved in nonprofit work: He sat on the board of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and endowed the Adams-Tillim Lecture at Bennington College, named after the two professors there who had meant so much to him. But David’s primary philanthropic involvement was with LGBTQ organizations: the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the public television news program In the Life, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of New York City.

A day after David’s sudden and entirely unexpected death from heart failure—he was always so physically fit and had just returned from a ski trip, but, as we later discovered, his aorta had been faulty, and it simply gave way—I went down to their loft to see Darren. I apologized that I’d never properly organized that glass of champagne at my apartment, the one we’d all planned to have, to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first meeting. Darren apologized too, about always being so busy—so busy that he and David never married, though they always meant to. They both always assumed there would be time.

Loving, supportive friendships and relationships meant a lot to David, who I think had struggled in his younger years (as I had, as had so many of our generation) with the question of being gay, which at that particular moment in time had been so closely tied to the revulsion and horror voiced by the American public over the AIDS epidemic. David’s great gift was in facilitating the brilliance of others, and it was a generosity of spirit he showed to so many artists over the years. Anyone who knew David knew the joy he felt in doing so. If David’s sudden departure has taught me anything, it is that this sort of selfless and complete love—both to give it and to receive it—is life’s greatest privilege.

Justin Spring is a biographer, writer, and critic based in New York.

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