PRINT March 2003


For a six-year run beginning in 1987, CHRISTIAN LEIGH was one of the most visible—and ambitious—independent curators in the international art world. Then he vanished. ALEXI WORTH looks back on an enigmatic impresario of many guises whose disappearance remains as mysterious as Leigh himself.

In the mid-’90s, around the time that Christian Leigh went underground, or vanished, or worse (the more lurid versions of the story pictured him at the bottom of a Venetian canal), a curious fax began circulating through New York galleries. At the time, Leigh was a familiar figure in the art world—the most flamboyant of the independent curators who had risen to prominence with the bull market of the ’80s. But the fax had nothing to do with curating or with Leigh’s widely publicized disappearance. It was a copy of a profile from People magazine, dated September 5, 1983, and titled “Kristian Leigh Had a Dream: I Was a Teenage Dress Designer.” The accompanying photo showed a swollen, melancholy-eyed kid—a kind of cross between Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Lorre—flanked by a pair of sultry female models. The writers of the piece were evidently charmed by their eighteen-year-old subject—and by his tea dresses, his wool suits, and his evening gowns trimmed with marabou feathers and rhinestone-embroidered lace:

With price tags ranging up to $20,000, Leigh’s flashy creations are worn, he says, by private clients like Jane Fonda, Farrah Fawcett, Jessica Lange and Meryl Streep, who wore one of Leigh’s dresses to the 1982 Oscars.

Bankrolled by his mother, Barbara, who once owned a series of stores that sold discounted designer clothing, Leigh employs 25 helpers in his Manhattan salon. . . .

Leigh cut his first dress at age thirteen, when his mother told a valued client she had just taken on an in-house Parisian designer named ‘Pierre.’ Et voilà, five days later, the fictitious Frenchman, Kristian, came through.

For anyone who knew Leigh from his second act in the art world, the piece was both amusing and spooky. Everything was there already—the obsession with Hollywood, the flamboyance, the name-dropping, and above all, in the vignette about the “fictitious Frenchman,” Leigh’s predilection for self-creation. Few friends ever knew much for certain about Leigh’s past, but most remember sketchy, glamorous details. He had grown up in a mansion in Newport, he said, near the von Bülows. His mother collected Jasper Johns and was close to Barbra Streisand. He had graduated from high school at fifteen, then dropped out of Princeton. There was a stint in England, where he’d been a stylist for Boy George.

The stories were suspiciously colorful, and the ingredients varied. Some people heard Parsons rather than Princeton, Duran Duran rather than Boy George. But they rarely bothered to challenge Leigh: An air of fabrication was part of his charm. When I told his onetime friends, in the course of interviews for this article, that neither Princeton nor Parsons had any record of Leigh, and that Leigh probably wasn’t his real name anyway, few were surprised. They did wonder, though, why he never talked about the fashion career, and wondered if he’d ever really had one.

The truth, as with so many Christian Leigh stories, is elusive. Meryl Streep did attend the 1982 Oscars. At least one photo from the time (republished for a recent Oscar special in People) shows her in a long purple dress attributed to the “then-popular Kristian Leigh.” A source close to the actress, however, says she has “never heard of this person.” The business itself—Kristian Leigh Ltd.—did exist. For a few years in the early ’80s, it attracted a flurry of press notices. The earliest was an adoring 1982 piece by John Duka in the New York Times. The last, from the February 10, 1984, issue of Women’s Wear Daily, suggests some reasons for Leigh’s reticence. It tells a brief, tawdry story, involving unpaid debts to suppliers, the arrest of Leigh’s mother for writing a bad check, and a deserted office on East Twenty-eighth Street. The headline reads KRISTIAN LEIGH SHOWROOM CLOSED; DESIGNER’S WHEREABOUTS UNKNOWN.

Five years later, in the summer of 1989, a mega-exhibition of American art opened in Salzburg. “The Silent Baroque” is remembered above all for its absurdly extravagant opening festivities. A multitude of New York artists and critics were flown to Austria, put up in deluxe hotels, and treated to banquets on the grounds of Schloss Schönbrunn, outside Vienna. Attendees remember it as a fever dream of opulence, with night after night of Fellini-esque parties catered by liveried footmen. For some, the junket represented the grand finale of ’80s excess, the last and most lavish party of the waning decade. But “The Silent Baroque” is remembered for other things as well. It put Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac on the map, brought the neo-geo artists to Europe, and highlighted the ascendancy of its young maximalist curator—the corpulent, brilliant Christian Leigh.

Nobody in the art world remembers exactly when they first began hearing about Leigh. He seems to have burst onto the scene during the 1985–86 season, charming dealers and artists alike with his smarts, conspiratorial humor, and intimations of financial largesse. Soon he was writing reviews for Artforum, organizing loquacious dinners at Barocco, and curating memorable shows. Stefan Stux remembers being dazzled, as were many other dealers. “He would come into your gallery and say, ‘I love this work. How much is this one? Ten thousand dollars? Why don’t you put a reserve down on this one. And by the way, I’m going to curate a show in Europe, and I’d like to include some of your artists.’ You felt like you’d reached God’s foot.”

Physically, Leigh was a magnificent eyesore. Short, fat, bald, of indeterminate age and sexuality, he had a sort of reverse glamour, a magnetism that suggested both warmth and secrecy. His charisma wasn’t just a matter of telling people what they wanted to hear—although he seems to have had a special knack for that. He was quick, funny, full of definitive opinions and shrewd advice. People who treated him with skepticism often found themselves singled out and won over. The initial mistrust, the sense that there was, as the art critic Adrian Dannatt puts it, “some weird gap behind it all, that you didn’t really know who this guy was,” melted into fascination. Years later, friends and acquaintances still remember Leigh with surprising fondness. He had, the artist Gary Stephan remembers, an “aura of pleasurable positive energy. Every time I saw him I would think, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun.’”

In 1988, Leigh was invited to put together a dream project, a big-budget survey of new American art to inaugurate Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac—the show that would eventually become “The Silent Baroque.” At around the same time, he was asked to become reviews editor of Artforum. Leigh accepted both jobs, but it soon became clear he had a few too many irons in the fire for the taste of the magazine’s publishers, who made it known to Leigh that he would have to clean up his act or move on. He left after only three months. Leigh’s own writing wasn’t distinctive, but his eye for talent left a mark on the magazine, despite his short tenure. He had a hand in inviting people like novelist and poet Dennis Cooper and Jack Bankowsky—the present editor—to begin contributing.

Meanwhile, the grand “Silent Baroque” catalogue, with its mix of artists’ projects and interviews, not to mention its square format, came to resemble a giant hardcover issue of Artforum. Leigh’s own contribution to the book was odd: a long, earnest analysis of sexism in Hollywood. The other forty-two contributions were equally peculiar, and heterogeneous. Like the exhibition itself, the catalogue was essentially a grab bag of up-and-coming names, from Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, and Ashley Bickerton, to Hilton Als, Jerry Saltz, and Herbert Muschamp. Any organizing principle was conspicuous mainly by its absence.

This themelessness, wrote Donald Kuspit in the book’s most striking essay, was the whole point. Under the title “The Curator as Artist,” the veteran critic praised Leigh’s exhibitions as “zones of conflict in which reconciliation of the individual works and artists is suggested as a distant implication.” For Kuspit, the very remoteness of the governing premise—at one point he likened it to “an infinitely far idea”—made Leigh’s work challenging, fresh, even an art form in itself. Leigh’s exhibitions, Kuspit concluded on an extravagant note, were “more artistic than the artworks they subsume.”

The ebullience of the art market was waning, but Leigh’s career accelerated. Almost immediately, he put Kuspit’s license to work, initiating a bravura series of exhibitions named after Hitchcock films. Over the next couple of years, “Spellbound” at Marc Richards Gallery in Los Angeles was followed by “Vertigo” at Ropac’s Paris gallery; “Rope” at Alcolea in Barcelona; and “Psycho,” at a space Leigh rented on Greene Street in SoHo. The Hitchcock shows did not involve “literal illustrations of Hitchcock’s films,” as Dannatt pointed out in an amused, admiring profile for the London Independent. “There is no work that directly refers to them, and the gallerygoer has only the show’s title and their own imagination to work with.” To skeptics, the titles were simply talking points, ways for Leigh to indulge his obsession with Hollywood, or to sidestep the question of theme altogether. To Leigh, though, Hitchcock was a personal symbol for his own conception of the curator as auteur, a sort of directorial mastermind creating “a temporary and autonomous work of art made up entirely of other autonomous works of art.”

Leigh’s Hitchcock shows, with their brightly painted walls, sound tracks of Kraftwerk-style electronica, and unpredictable juxtapositions, embodied the new, deliberately overweening scope of Leigh’s ambition. In print, Leigh was careful to say that the individual works remained primary, that they were not “subsumed,” as Kuspit had put it. In conversation, he was less careful. He had begun to take his role as conceptual impresario with an increasingly delighted irreverence. Plenty of gallerygoers were irked. The growing backlash included people who thought Leigh’s curating was overcrowded and random, that the Hitchcock titles were branding gimmicks. Most of the time, though, as Leigh himself said in his last published interview (for Galleries magazine), “What I believe people are talking about when they question my integrity is money.”

Sometime in 1991, a well-known art dealer (who prefers to remain unnamed), frustrated at not being called back about some missing paintings, hacked into Leigh’s answering machine. It was easy to do. “At the time,” the dealer remembers, “everyone had a Panasonic phone machine. The access number was a two-digit code. I began punching 00, 01, 02, and not too far along, I hit it.” Leigh’s messages began playing. “Half the calls were like, ‘Hey Christian, it’s so-and-so, I’d love you to come by my studio . . .’ ” They were solicitous, polite calls, the kind of thing you’d expect on a rising young curator’s phone machine. The other voices were not polite. They were the voices of shippers, vendors, lawyers—and they were angry. “You can’t hide from me. Pick up. I’m coming over. I know you’re there. I’m going to sue you.” The dealer listened to most of an hour of alternating solicitations and threats. He may have been the first person to get a glimpse into the underside of Leigh’s precipitous ascent.

Leigh had, as the New York Times eventually put it, a “dicey reputation,” but the scope of his financial misdealings is impossible to determine, partly because several of the people once closest to him refuse to be interviewed. What’s clear, though, is that money problems date back to the very beginning of Leigh’s curating—to his first show, the 1987 biennial in Cuenca, Ecuador. The Buffalo firm that printed the catalogue wasn’t paid. They sued, and won a judgment for $29,260.69. Leigh never paid it. A pair of later civil judgments, for smaller sums, are also outstanding. What’s surprising, at least given the extent of Leigh’s reputation, is that his legal trail is so faint. It’s possible that other financial complaints were settled quietly or that Leigh’s alleged transgressions were exaggerated. Another explanation is that Leigh was lucky to be working in the art world, where people seldom take their problems to court. The artist Sturtevant, for example, hired a lawyer to recover a presentation book (including some original artworks) that Leigh had borrowed. When her lawyer told her that Leigh wouldn’t return the book without a confidentiality agreement that would have prevented her from discussing the incident publicly, she dropped the whole matter in disgust. Most of those on “the long list of people Christian stiffed,” as the art dealer Josh Baer puts it, never even went that far. If they called anyone to complain, it was Leigh himself.

Perhaps Leigh’s biggest and most forgiving victim was Thaddaeus Ropac. During preparations for “The Silent Baroque,” Leigh had gone “totally, totally over budget,” Ropac remembers. But the gallery owner was grateful for the show’s impact, and he continued to think of Leigh simply as “a brilliant, crazy curator who doesn’t know his limits.” Leigh remained on salary for almost two years. At one point, Ropac recalls, Leigh called from New York, saying he had found a terrific early Peter Halley—something Ropac had to have. Ropac wired him thirty thousand dollars. The painting never appeared. Leigh claimed he had lost the key to the warehouse where the painting was stored. Over the course of several months, other excuses followed; things got “very fishy,” Ropac says. Finally, he gave up. “It was better for me if I step back,” he decided. He ceased doing business with Leigh but never pursued the matter further. Today Ropac speaks about Leigh mildly, with a mixture of wonder, pity, and regret.

Several friends suggest that Leigh’s missteps may have been inadvertent, the result of “administrative chaos.” But Marvin Kosmin, a collector and confidant, remembers a more deliberate policy. Leigh felt, Kosmin says, that “if he did something for an artist he should get something in return.” During a studio visit, “Maybe he would say he was buying something, but in fact he regarded it as a fait accompli . . . a payback.” Another close friend, the novelist Brian D’Amato, speculates along more clinical lines. “My amateur diagnosis, arrived at too late, was that he was either a congenital sociopath—although not a violent one—or someone who for obvious reasons felt himself to be a born victim and began to believe he was above ordinary standards of behavior.” By the early ’90s, friends were noticing Leigh’s oddly frequent use of the term “pathological liar.” Dealers were warning their artists not to work with him. Increasing numbers of people came to feel, as D’Amato puts it, that “this guy is the Titanic.”

And yet the allure of Leigh’s high-profile shows remained hard to resist. By 1993, the year of his disappearance, Leigh was the most visible independent curator in town, the only one who had sustained the freewheeling social and rhetorical momentum of older maverick curators like Tricia Collins and Richard Milazzo. In his final two shows, first the colossal “I Am the Enunciator” at Thread Waxing Space, and then “I Love You More Than My Own Death” (also called “Transactions”) in Venice, Leigh organized what were essentially giant cross-generational art-world balls. With more than a hundred artists, “Enunciator” mixed factions, generations, and professions: hot ’80s stars like Schnabel and Salle; cool ones like Koons and Halley; and a legion of A-list names, including Alice Neel and Louise Bourgeois, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, Jean-Luc Godard and Peter Greenaway. The critical reaction, however, included the only real pan of Leigh’s career. Writing in Artforum, Thomas McEvilley called the show “all too familiar—a kind of attempt to resuscitate the ’80s long enough to squeeze one last gasp out of them.” McEvilley derided Leigh’s “empty grandiosity,” and went so far as to suggest that the curator owed the artists involved an apology. But McEvilley’s was the minority opinion. For many viewers, “Enunciator” was a signal event: Not only did it put the alternative venue Thread Waxing Space on the map (just as “The Silent Baroque” had done for Thaddaeus Ropac), it also defied the cautious tenor of the recession-spooked moment, offering a shot of dazzling energy and attitude.

By contrast, Leigh’s downfall, which came later that summer, was on the surface a fairly banal affair, amounting to a bureaucratic deadlock over shipping fees. It’s not clear why or how Leigh neglected to arrange virtually all the costs associated with a large-scale exhibition—something like $150,000, including even his own airline ticket, which a trusting travel agent provided. Heidi James, who was Leigh’s principal assistant that summer, believes Leigh had backers in mind, and that he expected, as a last resort, that the Biennale or the catalogue publisher would pick up the tab. As it turned out, no one did. At the end of the show’s run in September, the owners of the site, alarmed about their own missing rent, confiscated the packed artworks. Biennale officials refused to assume responsibility; the United States Information Agency was called in to negotiate.

What spiced up the media coverage for the affair was the mystery of the central player, Leigh himself, who returned to New York for a few months and then “abruptly left town,” as the New York Times put it, sometime around December 1993. His phone was disconnected, his mail returned “Address Unknown.” The Times report quoted an interview where he sounded melodramatic and paranoid: “I make a good villain. . . . I’ve had death threats on and off for six years now.” No one covering the story seems to have been aware of Leigh’s abortive first career, so an odd little symmetry went unnoticed: Leigh’s previous disappearance had taken place around December 1983, exactly ten years earlier.

In fact, Leigh didn’t really disappear, at least not right away. Even as rumors about Leigh lying at the bottom of the Grand Canal began circulating, Heidi James was getting long faxes from Paris, where Leigh was trying to arrange a sponsor to pay off the Biennale debts—in between visits to haute couture shows with his mother. For someone as physically bizarre as Leigh, disappearance was difficult. The artist Christian Eckart bumped into Leigh in Munich. The Times relayed reports of his presence in London. He was spotted in Paris restaurants and apparently bolted from a meeting he had set up at the Cahiers du Cinéma office. Back in New York, close friends got phone calls and letters. Eventually, friend by friend, those petered out.

Finally, in early 1998, Leigh’s Italian creditors accepted a partial settlement from a consortium of dealers and artists, and allowed the works to be shipped to New Jersey. The so-called art-held-hostage saga was over, but the curator was still AWOL. His closest friends hadn’t heard from him in more than three years. They called each other occasionally, asking for news of Leigh. Gradually even they began to wonder if something had happened, if the rumors about his death were more than just rumors.

So where is Christian Leigh? There are no warrants that would prevent him from returning to the US, and in fact, when Adrian Dannatt bumped into Leigh on the street in Paris in 1998, Leigh told him that he was back in New York regularly. We still don’t know his real name (unconfirmed reports give it as Ezra S’ftia, or Saftia, of Ocean Avenue, Brooklyn). He remains, for now at least, off the map. But it’s possible to get a rough sense of his latest career. The Internet Movie Database lists production details for three feature films written, directed, and coproduced by Christian or “C.S.” Leigh. A photograph on another site shows Leigh on the set looking faintly sinister, calm, and Hitchcockian.

Peter Gray, the cinematographer who worked on the earliest of the three films, Sentimental Education (shot in Amsterdam and Copenhagen in 1997 and 1998), talks about Leigh with professional reserve. His cinematic style struck Gray as a kind of art-house maximalism, involving lots of characters, lots of dialogue, and some “unusual visuals.” He reluctantly mentions that Leigh “wasn’t particularly honest.” In postproduction, there were familiar-sounding financial problems. A mysterious backer Leigh had promised never turned up, and the Dutch production company went bankrupt. But Leigh found new producers in England and completed a second film, Far From China, in 2000 (with a cast that included Marianne Faithfull, and a sound track by the British band Suede). The next year, he gave his third film the coyly Duchampian title Nude Descending.

Firsthand information about these films is remarkably difficult to find. Well-connected distributors in London and Paris have never heard of any of them. The closest thing to a peek at the movies themselves comes from a less-than-reliable source: a pair of Internet-posted audience reviews. Someone named Dominique Lescure offers qualified praise for Far From China, which was ostensibly screened in England on several occasions in late 2000 and early 2001: “This,” he writes in part, “is what we French call an auteur film, and if you like those films of the Nouvelle Vague, you will . . . enjoy this madness.” A second, more enthusiastic viewer, calling himself Jack Cralth, was “taken to the premiere as a guest” and was “out and out amazed, you have the idea the director is a guy to watch, the film has a kind of cool ’70s split and quad screen thing going on but not in the way of cliched music video, reminds me of jarman, todd haines [sic], cammel [sic], roeg, that type film, very intense, little bit cold, but godard and new wave too. . . .” Both reviews focus almost exclusively on the direction. Both praise Leigh in very much his own terms. “Lescure” and “Cralth” could be covers for Leigh himself, or cronies doing favors. E-mail messages to both names, along with calls to the production companies involved, have gone unanswered. For the moment, the status, artistic merit, and even the existence of Leigh’s films remains as much a mystery as his fate.

It’s impossible to have a conversation with anyone who knew Leigh without their bringing up Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, The Grifters, or The Duke of Deception, not to mention Catch Me If You Can. Few people would argue that Leigh was a crucial figure, but he remains a subject of speculation, irritation, and wistfulness. Could Leigh have succeeded in the long run? Could he have ended up with his own Twenty-fourth Street gallery? Was he a casualty of the recession, a spendthrift caught up in a moment of austerity? Or on the contrary, was he a beneficiary of the recession, a huckster who was tolerated because times were slack? In the art world, whatever legacy Leigh left remains divisive. He may deserve, as Adrian Dannatt points out, a niche in gallery folklore. He was, in a sense, a deliberate embodiment of the bad, self-serving curator—the paradigm, in Dannatt’s words, “of what you often see curators accused of.” For admirers, Leigh’s amazing six-year run of exhibitions makes him an avatar of something largely missing from today’s art world—a reckless, crackpot, outscale energy. Leigh himself was fond of this view. In the “Enunciator” catalogue, he wrote approvingly of an unnamed friend who likened his exhibitions to “an exploded movie with a thousand levels” and called him “Mr. Hurricane.” The harsher view is that Leigh is a blowfish: a small creature puffed up by desperation and chutzpah. That he had charm and drive, but no ideas of his own—or ideas that were little more than rhinestones and marabou feathers.

Perhaps the most damning assessment is that Leigh wasn’t particularly discriminating, that he mirrored downtown establishment taste, that his shows were so big simply because he had a hard time saying no. From this angle, too, Leigh is a tempting synecdoche for his times—the manic, spectacle-driven, rhetorical decade that he outlasted by just a few years. “He understood,” says the dealer Jeffrey Deitch, “how to do something that gets a lot of coverage. He mastered the system, but it was all on the surface. That’s the ’80s—very much about the surface.” Deitch, like nearly everyone in the art world, speaks about Leigh in the past tense. But Christian Leigh—whatever his actual name and whereabouts—is almost certainly alive, not yet forty, and as ambitious as ever. It’s way too early to write his epitaph.

New York–based painter and curator Alexi Worth, a frequent contributor to Artforum, is currently a senior critic at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts.