A Minimalist’s Instinct Keeps Him Ahead of the Game
He’s become a familiar sight pacing in front of his gallery on Ocean Avenue, cell phone clamped to his ear, waving at friends whose numbers have grown exponentially over the years he has spent in the gallery business.
Peter Blake is celebrating 20 years as a gallerist, selling contemporary art since 1993 when plein-air, seascapes and genre paintings held sway in Laguna Beach.
It’s also the talk of the town, how Blake’s physical countenance has become quite lean, much like the content of the abstract, minimalist works he purveys these days. For him, less has become more on several fronts, and he stresses that he’s as happy and healthy as he’s ever been in his 48 years.
“I thrive on change,” he said in a typical understatement. Once disinterested in art fairs, he recently garnered acclaim for his booths at the LA Art Fair and at Palm Springs. Averse to travel, he now commutes between Laguna Beach and Palm Springs. Loath to flying, he recently went to New York, the place of his birth, and is contemplating trips to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands where he has found an exciting new crop of artists to represent. “I am through being provincial,” he said.
Arriving from Washington, D.C., in 1986, he had an amorphous dream of making it in Laguna. To earn a living, he took a cue from his restaurateur father and became a waiter and then a maître d at Romeo Cucina on Broadway Street.
His true vocation found him wandering through town and spying an empty retail space at the Village Faire Shoppes. “That would make a great gallery,” he remembers thinking and set about turning thought into reality.
Driven more by determination than acumen, he scoured Laguna Canyon for local artists. “I had no idea how to run a gallery, no focus and was all over the map,” he recalls.
Laguna artist Jorg Dubin said, “I had no idea who he was and was hesitant at first but he was persistent and I came to embrace him and his new gallery.” Dubin showed his dramatic figurative/representational work with Blake from ’93 until 2012, when he bid all representation and figuration adieu. “Peter had finally decided to focus on works that were closest to his personal aesthetic,” said Dubin.
Blake’s rise began in 1995 when he and fellow artist/gallerist William DeBilzan decided to revive a near moribund stretch of North Coast Highway into what became known as “gallery” row. The friends set about establishing a local art walk modeled after DeBilzan’s experiences in Seattle and Portland. “We got a couple of galleries to join in and, when we got cooperation from the city, all the naysayers came on board too,” recalled DeBilzan, now a Florida resident.
In his 30s, Blake emerged as “the wunderkind with the eye” when he began showing a veritable “Who’s Who” of the ‘60s artist elite: Llyn Foulkes, Ed Moses, Chuck Arnoldi, Robert Graham, Joe Goode, Peter Alexander, Peter Lodato, John Altoon, Larry Bell, the list could go on. Wine and Guinness flowed, and collectors thronged openings until the economy began to sour. Regardless of economic fluctuations, clients like entrepreneur Greg Salmeri and health professionals Mitch Katz and Linda Scott-Katz have continued to buy art from him. “Peter has changed and evolved over the years and always stayed a few years ahead of people’s taste. As a collector I feel good about what Peter has passed on to me,” said Salmeri of Laguna Beach.
The Katzes, who live in Newport Beach, collect art to relieve the stresses of their professions, said Mr. Katz. “We treasure the pieces we bought 20 years ago as much as our most recent purchases. Peter has introduced us to and educated us about various artists and when he is excited about a work, invariably we are as well,” he said.
Some dubbed Blake the Godfather since much of his business was done on a handshake and he both provided and demanded unswerving loyalty from artists and clients. “It means now that I have been around long enough for people to come to me for advice and I exert a certain amount of influence,” said Blake.
“Peter is one of the best dealers I have ever worked with because his restaurant experience has taught him how to deal with people. He is funny and passionate about art but he was also very territorial at one time and highly ego-driven,” said Peter Alexander, who fell out with Blake but has recently re-united with him. “Peter has lived on the edge and I know that feeling as an artist. We’ve had our good and bad times since Peter wanted to be in control.” He added that their relationship had also been built on tolerance, a sense of fun and quirks of the self-made.
Blake has served on the Chamber of Commerce and also is on the Laguna Art Museum’s Palette to Palate committee.
Looking back on two decades, Blake shakes his head at his odd sense of timing. “I opened my first gallery in ’93 during the first recession, helped my (former) wife open a dress shop in Laguna Beach one month after Sept. 11 (2001) and moved my gallery from North Coast Highway to Ocean Avenue just in time for the economy to crash,” he said. “People have thought that my finger is glued to the ‘self-destruct’ button, but I have always followed my instincts and stayed, sometimes just barely, ahead of the game.”
Photo by Edgar Obrand