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Ex-banker turned painter Steven Manolis on why art is the best business

The former mortgage securities creator tells Anthony Haden-Guest why he turned his back on the financial big-time to become a painter

The times, they are a-changing in the world of Contemporary art, one crucial indicator being that the relentlessly onward march of the -isms (Cubism, Fauvism, Minimalism, Postmodernism, Whateverism) has floundered, and there’s a state of melt. Another indicator is the changing shape of the art career. The beginnings of this used to be as pre-ordained as a career in law or medicine, with the wannabe going to art school, perhaps then becoming assistant to a successful artist, beavering away at his or her work, finding a dealer, and waiting for the collectors and curators to clamber on board.

Well, that system still struts but no longer rules. Some are now developing their potential through Street art. Australian figurative artist Adoni Astrinakis owes his successful career to Instagram. Other excellent artists have had such a profound distrust of the gallery system that they manage their careers entirely through public art commissions, and yet others have the trajectory of an Outsider artist, which is to say that after a lifelong career doing something totally different, they throw their energies into making art. But, that said, very few have entered into a driven art-making career in the cliché-busting fashion of Steven Manolis.

Manolis was a businessman. OK, so was Paul Gauguin, who took a job on the Paris Bourse in his early twenties, proved he had the knack, and only devoted himself to painting after the Paris stock market crashed. Jean Dubuffet was in the wine business until his early forties. And George Maciunas, who launched and controlled the Fluxus movement, not only did nicely in real estate but also helped shape the art world in so doing because his forte was selling lofts in the Manhattan district that was in the process of becoming SoHo. So an artist with a business brain is not an oddity. But an individual who designs a brilliant business model, then dumps it to make art? That’s a whole other story.

Manolis was in his late twenties in 1972 when he got a job with Salomon Brothers. He became the youngest partner when he was 33 because he had formulated a way to package and sell mortgages as securities and private assets. ‘It was a world-changing event in terms of finance,’ Manolis says. ‘How to structure this was the creative process. It became the biggest securities business in the world, and I was the key person that did that. It’s a terrible analogy, but the equivalent in science was the atom bomb.’

He was 42 and heading up this arm of Salomon when he resigned because he had his own strategies to pursue in two worlds: business and art. By then very well-to-do, he wanted to find entrepreneurial opportunities of interest and was equally intent on involving himself with art collecting, philanthropy, and the nuts and bolts of the art business generally. Oh, yes, he was also going to make art. ‘There was this voice inside of me saying, “You’ve got to do this!”’ he says. This ambition was most consuming of all.

Manolis’s desire to make art was not new-born, just a late delivery. He had grown up in Vermillion, South Dakota, with a Swedish mother and grandmother and a Greek father and grandfather. ‘My grandfather started three restaurants,’ Manolis says. ‘He worked seven days a week, and he slept between shifts.’ The grandfather charged into action when the young Steven told his family that he intended to become an artist, saying that no grandson of his was going to be a communist. This feedback from the old country pushed the boy on to the road that led to Salomon.

His hunger for paint flared up again when he had been at Salomon ten years. The inner voice did not shut up. ‘It kept on growing louder every year,’ Manolis says. ‘I have two people — they are beings, they are entities, they are not man or woman. OK, they are my guardians. And they said, “You have to do this.” I had these voices tell me that I could do this if I would give it my all.’

It was during this period that he met Wolf Kahn, the landscape artist, made a studio visit and bought a painting, the first of many. ‘The bulk of his things that I own, not all, are pure abstractions,’ he says. ‘They profoundly impacted me.’

They grew close. ‘We painted plein air for a decade — he with his pastel pad and me beside him trying to do it as well as he did, which, of course, I never could.’ Manolis wasn’t working in pastels, though. ‘I went to watercolour,’ he told me. ‘Because there was a voice inside of me that said, “Some day Steve, whether you never do anything other than paint privately, if you were a master of a medium that was very difficult, you’d be respected.”

‘I’m only slightly exaggerating, but I would say that in today’s art world watercolour is almost a dead medium, mainly because you have to plan ahead of time. If you make mistakes it’s like a document, where you just tear it up, put a new document in and start over again. Oil on canvas, you just keep moving the stuff around until it looks good. And everything that’s a mistake you just cover up. The ego part of me is that I wanted to master a medium that would give me respect. Because I was insecure.’

Manolis was also busying himself with arts administration. Kahn was treasurer at the posh National Academy of Arts on Fifth Avenue, a job in which he was not wholly at home (‘He didn’t know an asset from a liability’), and he brought Manolis in as shadow treasurer. In due course he made the board.

Painting was the core activity, though. Manolis set to teaching himself to handle acrylic paints as freely as he could now use watercolour, and by September 2014 he felt ready to go public.

‘I secretly put a work in a group show,’ he says. The show was at Karyn Mannix Gallery in East Hampton. ‘I didn’t tell anybody in the world. And if I had invited my friends I would have had a mercy purchase, you know what I mean? The work sold for $6,000. Not another artist in the entire show sold a work.’

Six thousand was peanuts in Manolis’s business world, but hefty for an art event of that nature. ‘I felt like an astronaut must have felt when he first stepped on the moon. Real, indescribable joy and exhilaration. Because at that moment I absolutely knew it was going to happen, and happen big time! That is when I made the decision that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to painting.’

He broke the news to Michelle, his wife of 30 years. ‘I said, “You know I’ve travelled my whole life, I don’t want to travel any more. I want to paint, seven days a week. And I want to try to become the most respected painter of my generation.”’

Like his entire family, she thought he was crazy — so the marriage went pfft! But amicably, with Michelle getting half. ‘She was going to travel and enjoy the good life,’ says Manolis. ‘And I was going to be a crazy seven-day-a week artist.’

He knew that he was entering a hugely different space. ‘I was a very successful investment banker,’ he said. ‘I lived in a business world where I was working on 100, 150 deals at one time. Through my staff of 850 people, but I was highly involved, I wasn’t just a manager, I was totally involved.’

But he had already learned that this could be an art-world no-no. ‘My biggest liability was that people related to me as the guy who created the mortgage securities which changed that world,’ he says. ‘That was the negative thinking. How could I be an artist?’ Through unrelenting work, that’s how. He set to examining the aspect of the craft which devoured him: colour. ‘Hans Hoffman, a great teacher, said it’s time to quit painting what we see. It’s now time to paint what you feel! People said, “How do you paint what you feel?” His answer was how nature does it: through colour.’

Manolis worked out a systematic analysis. And a programme. ‘First of all you have to be able to paint multicolour. Monochromatic two, black-and-white three. You can’t be a colourist unless you have those three segments — you have to be able to do all three, and many other permutations. I have about ten to fifteen series now that I have painted and each one is like a mine in a mountain. I get in it and I paint like crazy, and when I come out of that mine I go to a different mine.’

The series includes paintings on the colours of Key West in Florida and will shortly include a series on the colours of the Hamptons. Looking at such canvases and hearing Manolis describe their provenance, I am reminded of the response of Monet when somebody asked him about a seascape. ‘It’s not a seascape,’ Monet said. ‘It’s a time of day.’

‘As a painter and a businessman, and as somebody who has a very specific goal in mind, I want to show, number one, that I can paint colorific, monochromatic and black-and-white. Number two, I want to show that I can do these works small-scale, medium-scale, large-scale, and ginormous scale. Number three, I want to do these pieces in both watercolour medium and in acrylic,’ Manolis says.

I like his self-referencing as a businessman. ‘I haven’t even celebrated my second anniversary yet,’ he says. ‘But I am completely conscious of trying to make pieces that are very difficult and that other people don’t do. I enjoy the challenge. Nobody else does it in the whole world. There’s nobody else like it.’

He opened Manolis Projects during Art Basel Miami in December and had a solo show at a museum there. And his infatuation with colour is only increasing. To him blue is cool, chic, contemplative and calming, whereas black and white, he says, are neutral (‘The viewer reads his own emotions into them). But red? Red is his thing, as you can tell from a recent email. Headed ‘REDWORLD’, it begins: A coveted place in your mind; That expands to become your physical universe; FULL-ON; ALL-IN! No woulda/coulda/shoulda; Intense and prideful FOCUS; Go for it! Don’t be afraid of failure....

And it ends: REDWORLD karma; I feel it, I paint it! I try to live it too! You should too! FULL-ON; ALL-IN!

So is Steven Manolis an artist-businessman? Well, of course. But not only.

Anthony Haden-Guest is Arts editor at Spear's



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