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Called to arms, arts

Special to The Times

ART dealers seem to have an opinion about everything and a great willingness to share it. Ex-soldiers are known for reticence, especially about their military experiences.

Robert Gunderman is an Army veteran and the co-owner and operator of ACME, one of Los Angeles’ leading galleries of contemporary art. As a dealer, he’s unusual because he won’t talk your ear off when there’s art to be looked at. But the veteran in him is more conventional: Trying to pin down details about what he did as a soldier is more difficult than prying apart discretion and valor.

“I just believe in privacy,” the tall, lean and clean-cut 43-year-old says. “I think that familiarity is earned.”

Gunderman’s posture suggests he was never uncomfortable standing at attention. He speaks with patient precision, answering a question about leaving a career in the military and embarking on one in the arts by saying, “I was in the Arctic Circle doing something, and I had a little downtime.” Then he changes the subject.

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Three weeks later, when the question comes up again, he explains: “I was in a small military hospital receiving treatment for frostbite. It was the middle of winter, the sun never came up, and the aurora borealis was on in full force. The hospital had a tiny library, where I came across two albums by Brian Eno, ‘Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy)’ and ‘Before and After Science.’

“Coupled with the aurora borealis,” Gunderman says, “those records planted a seed. Something changed then. After continually training and preparing for three years to go to war and being so invested in that mind-set, somehow the idea of producing something that people might receive pleasure from viewing found me and became increasingly more appealing.”

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A fascination with ‘guy stuff’

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GUNDERMAN was born in Los Angeles in 1963 and grew up in Seal Beach. He attended Huntington Beach High School from 1978 to ’81 and then kicked around for three years, working odd jobs, following the Southern California punk scene and reading Nietzsche. In 1984 he enlisted in the Army for a six-year stint. After basic training in Texas, he completed jump school at Ft. Benning, Ga., and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

At Ft. Bragg he became a small-arms specialist. His job was to train a company to use weapons that ranged from .45-caliber sidearms to M60 machine guns and to maintain its arsenal.

The Army required two specialties, so Gunderman also completed radio telecommunications school. He followed that with northern warfare training (in the Arctic), mountain survival training (in New Mexico) and desert training (in the Mojave). Back at Ft. Bragg, he began training as a medic but “didn’t have the stomach for it,” and left the program after a few months. He rose to the rank of Specialist E-4.

“We just trained a lot,” Gunderman says. “I basically got to travel and train. In the Mojave Desert, they’d fly us out, we’d jump, and they’d pick us up four to six weeks later. It was all about preparation.”

It was, he says, a military totally unlike today’s, “where you could be working a desk job and the next thing you know you’re on the front line.

“When I was in, people weren’t enlisting because they loved the president or because they wanted to protect some sort of American values. It’s not always God and country. You do it because it’s a big question mark in your head. We just wanted to do crazy things -- guy stuff, like drive fast vehicles, jump out of planes, fire weapons you can’t get over the counter.”

He also found time to paint. Working at an easel in the corner of his room, he says, “I’d make these little pointless abstractions. It just felt really good to move paint around.”

Colleagues wrote poetry or played musical instruments or they read voraciously, especially the New Yorker and 19th century novels.

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Between desert and medical training, Gunderman injured a leg and required surgery. He spent eight days in the hospital at Ft. Bragg and three weeks recuperating. “That’s when I knew I wanted out,” he recalls. “I realized how strange it was to be training so intensively, constantly being in a wartime mind-set. I began to wonder if I’d ever really be free of it.”

He was honorably discharged in 1987. “I remember signing the last piece of paper. I thought, ‘I was born and raised here. I’ve been stripped and rebuilt. Now what?’ ”

So he went to art school.

“I liked the idea of having absolute openness, of being in a completely unstructured situation. My father was a collector, so I was exposed to the visual arts. But I never thought, ‘I want to be a painter’ or ‘I want to run a gallery.’ ”

He enrolled at Otis College of Art and Design in 1988. He left after a year, partly because of expenses and partly because Otis wasn’t what he had hoped it would be. “After the severity of the military, I thought art school would be more intense. I realized a lot of people were there because they had just gotten divorced and needed to get their minds off of their miserable relationships.”

Still, the year was formative. “Some of the teachers were amazing. Dave Hickey visited often. Meg Cranston and Joyce Lightbody had the most impact on me. I still have an attraction to Otis and an appreciation for that.”

Two months after leaving Otis, Gunderman started Opus, a 2,000-square-foot gallery on the top floor of a manufacturing building on the edge of Little Tokyo. “Financially it was a losing proposition,” he says, “a tax write-off for my parents. I think ultimately they wanted a poster shop, with framing in the back. They came to the first show and were surprised to see an utterly unsalable installation.

“At the time all I was really interested in were ideas. I had no package to fit them into. And I am still really interested in how people deal with ideas, with our relationship to them, with treating ideas as individuals.”

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After three years, Gunderman’s folks cut off financial support. He wanted to maintain his involvement with art and artists and decided he needed to cultivate some collectors. He formed a partnership with friends Leonard Bravo and Steve Hartzog, artists but, like him, relatively inexperienced in the business side of things. They started Foodhouse in Santa Monica.

“In 1992, everybody told us that starting a gallery was the absolute worst thing you could do. For the three years we had Foodhouse there were basically two people collecting art, Peter Norton and Clyde Beswick. But they kept small galleries like ours alive. If we’d sell a piece for $3,000 to $5,000, we’d be covered for a while. The rent was between two and three hundred dollars a month. We ran the entire thing off the fax. There were no computers.”

Jennifer Steinkamp, now a professor at UCLA, was one of the artists whose work they exhibited. She remembers that along with the ubiquitous stack of art magazines in the gallery there was also a pile of gun magazines.

Bravo eventually left Foodhouse, and Randy Sommer, who had been director of Dorothy Goldeen Gallery, took his position. In 1994, Gunderman and Sommer applied to share the curator job at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. When they weren’t hired, they started ACME that October.

The gallery, first in Santa Monica and now on Wilshire Boulevard near Fairfax, quickly became one of the preeminent places to see works by an emerging generation of Los Angeles artists, including Monique Prieto, Chris Finley, Martin Kersels, Laura Owens, Kurt Kauper, John Sonsini, Uta Barth, Lightbody and Steinkamp. Since then, ACME has grown along with its artists’ reputations and careers. Today it has become an essential stop on any afternoon of gallery-hopping and is among the first places out-of-towners visit to get a sense of what’s going on in Los Angeles. (The works typically sell in the $5,000 to $60,000 range.) Although Gunderman and Sommer made their reputation exhibiting L.A. artists, they have branched out to include a New Yorker, Tony Feher; a Texan, Dario Robleto; and, most recently, German sensation Kai Althoff.

Gunderman attributes ACME’s success to the way he and Sommer treat artists. Both have been painters, so they understand the thrills and terrors of the studio as well as the obstacles businesses often create. “Some people are intimidated by uncertainty,” Gunderman says, “and some are excited by it. We fall into the second category.

“The philosophy of the gallery is taking care of artists’ needs. A lot of galleries put forth the image that artists work for them. We work for artists. We’re here to provide a service.”

Steinkamp calls Gunderman and Sommer visionaries for representing her projected light and sound installations when they were difficult to sell and she was a complete unknown.

Prieto, whom they took on right out of graduate school in 1994, says, “I was bracing myself for not enjoying the experience” of being represented by a gallery. “But they have been the gold standard by which I compare everyone else I do business with.

“He can be intimidating,” she says of Gunderman. “He has an edge. But it’s all so energizing.”

Kauper says, “When I first met Bob in 1994 I was still in graduate school, and he kind of scared me.” Gunderman was a lot heavier then. “He had a full beard and wore work boots and flannel shirts. He struck me as some kind of lumberjack.”

Over the years, Kauper has gotten to know Gunderman better and appreciates his support and unwillingness to tolerate the “nonsense of the art business.” Of his dealers, Kauper says, “Their honesty is impeccable. They always pay on time.”

Gunderman and Sommer also are known for understanding the unpredictability of art making. Last year, after the bulk of Kauper’s exhibition had been shipped from his Boston studio -- and immediately sold -- his dealers were waiting for him to show up at the opening with two new paintings. When Kauper arrived with only one, Gunderman just laughed and did his best to convey the humor to the collector.

Over the years, few artists have left ACME, which is rare in a business with its share of naked opportunism and flash-in-the-pan trendiness.

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Relationships based on trust

IN 2000, Gunderman had a solo show of his own. Upstairs from ACME, at Karen Lovegrove Gallery, he exhibited a series of paintings and sculptures of birds. He used the pseudonym Floyd Claypool -- “because it sounds like a real American name, one you might see on a fencepost in the country.” But it was no secret that the touching, even quaint works were his.

“At the time,” Gunderman recalls, “it seemed to be the most unfashionable thing to do.”

It was certainly unconventional. And it bespeaks the trusting relationship Gunderman has with artists. Most artists want their dealers to be dealing 24/7, not making their own art or attending their own openings. But with Gunderman, things are different. “There’s less hierarchy,” he says, “more collaboration.”

Sommer says that what surprised him was not Gunderman’s military background but his sensitivity “toward people, toward art, toward life.” A soft-spoken man who avoids confrontation gracefully, Sommer says, “In some ways, Bob and I are opposites -- I mean, can you imagine me in the military? But we’re almost the same person in how we deal with big issues. We’re normal people, and we like our privacy.”

Three years ago, Gunderman married Sarah Walker, a self-employed interior and furniture designer. They split their time between a home in Los Feliz and a cabin in Lake Arrowhead, where next-door neighbor is Gunderman’s dad. During the week, Gunderman runs eight to 10 miles each morning in Griffith Park. On weekends, it’s 12 to 14 in the mountains. To relax, he pilots the speedboat he named after a painting by Prieto -- “Orange You Glad.” On summer breaks, he does solo alpine-style mountaineering in California, Nevada or British Columbia. On each two- to four-week trip, he carries almost no supplies, climbs a few peaks over several days and covers about 20 miles a day. He describes these adventures as “spending a little quality time with Bob.”

Sommer doesn’t think Gunderman’s transition from the military to art was that big a shift. “He had a predilection for art. He’s a poet, a natural iconoclast. He sees things his own way, with a clarity and an abruptness. It’s not politically correct; it’s honest. We both used to make art and just know the difference between what’s genuine and what’s B.S.”

Gunderman says the major similarity between his work in the military and in art is the sense of uniqueness and solitude in each. “Both are filled with extended periods of time removed from the concerns of what govern most people. You’re not providing people with drinking water or other necessities. And as many people want to be invaded as want to look at contemporary painting.”

As for differences? He credits the military with giving him discipline, focus and confidence. “You don’t really get a sense,” he says, “that there’s something you can’t do.” Decisions with major consequences are made rapidly, and “the stakes are generally a little higher than they are at the gallery.”

He also notes, “There’s certainly more humor in the military.”

That’s one thing Dean Ans appreciates about his job as ACME’s director, a position he has held for two years and a title, he says, “at a place where titles don’t mean much. When Randy and Bob are away I miss them and wish they were here. They keep me laughing. I feel like I’m the straight guy around here, the most serious. They’re so silly.”

Gunderman thinks his military experience puts things in perspective. “Exhibiting and selling artwork are enjoyable activities. What I do at the gallery is incredibly simple, regardless of how unusual some people try to make it. The place for difficulty is in ideas, not in dealing with us.

“At some point, who you are has an effect on what you do. I’ve never thought of what I’m doing as being who I am.”


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