Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

The Hungry Connoisseur: Claude Simard, 1956 to 2014

Artist Leslie Wayne offered this eulogy for Claude Simard, co-founder of Jack Shainman Gallery where she shows her work, at a memorial for the Canadian artist and dealer in New York City last summer.

I first met Claude Simard in 1989, a year before I joined the gallery, when it was on the second floor of 560 Broadway. He was a strapping, beautiful and exotic looking man, like some sort of First Nations prince. Over the 24+ years I have known Claude, three qualities have come to identify him most profoundly in my mind: connoisseurship, generosity and passion.

Leslie Wayne and Claude Simard in front of a work by El Anatsui, 2012.  Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery
Leslie Wayne and Claude Simard in front of a work by El Anatsui, 2012. Courtesy of Jack Shainman Gallery

About his connoisseurship. Claude had an extraordinary eye that was supported by a deep intellect, an extremely wide base of knowledge and catholic tastes. He travelled often and far, seeking out art and artifacts for the gallery and for himself, as he was voracious collector of everything from antique Indian jewelry and African mud-cloths, to modern and contemporary art. He and Jack shared a deep love for the formal qualities in a work of art that make it above all, a thing of beauty to behold. As a fine artist, his own work was highly intellectual and conceptually based, but always formally rigorous, exquisitely crafted and beautiful to look at. His eye helped trail-blaze the gallery program, which over the years grew and expanded to reflect a deep appreciation for cultures beyond the Western contemporary cannon, and a preternatural instinct for risks worth taking.

As a person, Claude was exceptionally generous — generous with his time, with his support and with his honesty. Studio visits with him could sometimes be brutal. He was a man of little words, but when he spoke, you knew exactly what he liked and didn’t like. If he knew you were developing a new idea or direction in your work, he would send you a book or give you a piece of art from one of his travels that he thought would inspire you. Some years ago when the Gallery had several artists represented in the Venice Biennale, Claude said to me, “Come with us. You should be part of the ‘international blah blah’.” This cracked me up of course, because it expressed with good humor and clarity his attitude about the contemporary art scene. He knew it was important to be an artist with international reach, but he also understood much of the blah blah that inevitably came with it. I remember being reticent about all the socializing I’d have to do if I went with them, and then being both irritated and greatly relieved when he and Jack went to absolutely no parties. Not out of disdain, but because they worked so hard engaging during the day that all they wanted to do at night was have a good meal and go to bed. On further reflection, this seemed to me an eminently reasonable plan of action.

As for passion, the depth of Claude’s passion seemed almost without bounds. Everything he did was ardent. He took tremendous risks, the limits of which exceeded what most others would consider normal. For the Gallery, those risks more often than not paid off extraordinary dividends. For himself, they seemed driven by an insatiable hunger. When Claude decided to get tattooed, he tattooed his body from heel to neck in virtually one fell swoop. It was an extravagant act that turned his very self into a veritable work of art. His voracious collecting had that same level of hunger and aspect of pathos, almost as if he needed to surround himself with objects that could hold the secret to happiness and fulfillment.

One cannot judge for another what constitutes fulfillment. But I think it’s safe to say that Claude lived a life of extraordinary richness and depth, and that he pursued his passions without reserve. Not many of us can claim that accomplishment, and in that sense his life, while cut short, was well lived. I feel lucky to have known him.