Jack Tilton (1951–2017)

Jack Tilton, in Betty Parson’s Studio, Southold, LI, 1981. Courtesy Tilton Gallery, New York.

JACK TILTON’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO MY OWN LITTLE REALM, to the contemporary art of China, and to the rest of the world were quite profound. Jack was one of the New York gallerists who became keen on developments in China before anybody else did. His foresight there was just a small part of his astonishing ability to find artists who had yet to find wider renown. Marlene Dumas, David Hammons, Mark Bradford, Joep van Lieshout, Patty Chang, Fred Tomaselli, Francis Alÿs, and many other heavyweights showed with Jack long before they were famous.

I worked with Jack for six months in 1998. His gallery was in SoHo then, near David Zwirner. One of our shows, by “Heilman-C,” essentially comprised live porn, created by several couples, that audience members were invited to direct. There was a line around the block for that. For another show, Wang Peng brought his posse of Times Square portrait painters to the gallery to make portraits of the art world’s elite.

Jack was always open and generous. I had only worked with him for a few months when he took me to Venice, where many of his Chinese artists were exhibiting in Harald Szeemann’s seminal Biennale. After I left, he welcomed me back to his space to curate Tehching Hsieh’s first show in twenty years. He even lent me his credit card for my own art project. I paid him back, of course, but never really paid him back for all that he taught me.

While I worked for Jack, Xu Bing, Liu Wei, Huang Yong Ping, and Zhang Peili all mounted solo shows at the gallery. For a month, Xu enlivened the SoHo space with three live pigs that wore panda-bear masks and shat all over the place. They ruined the floors, and Jack would never stop complaining about it. He complained a lot, and artists would often leave, employees would leave, partners would leave. I left. But like many who passed through his doors, I also stayed close to Jack and always liked his no-nonsense, fuck-the-world attitude. He had a great eye, great passion, and a great sense of humor. Not everyone is blessed with a great temper. He would often joke that his Chinese name was “headache.”

Over the years, Jack moved the gallery from SoHo to Chelsea (and opened a partner space in LA before LA was cool) and then to the Upper East Side, where he bought a beautiful brownstone on Seventy-Sixth Street and continued to show many great international artists. I actually thought I’d see Jack in Basel next week, but while he had been successfully fighting Parkinson’s disease for many years, it was cancer that he finally succumbed to (according to his wife). Jack died on the first weekend of May, but he will live on in the memories of all that he touched. Rest in peace, my friend.

Mathieu Borysevicz is founder and director of the curatorial/consultancy firm MABSOCIETY, whose gallery, BANK, has operated in Shanghai since 2013.