NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2009
MICHAEL PAUL MASON

THE DISAPPEARANCE
OF FORD BECKMAN

HOW A CELEBRATED AMERICAN ARTIST WAS FORCED TO TRADE HIS MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR COLLECTION FOR A JOB SELLING DONUTS

DISCUSSED: Tulsa, The Perfect Golf Swing, Ralph Lauren, Televangelism, Minimalism, Paternal Estrangement, Relentless Artists, German Castles, Cy Twombly, the IRS
Photograph by Jimmy Bloyed

When the economy sours, news anchors talk of housing and manufacturing, of hedge funds and barrels of oil. They generally don’t discuss the lives of artists, and how their careers are crushed into a dull oblivion. If artists survive the fiscal and emotional shakedown, they steady themselves as adjuncts in the Midwest, they design for architectural firms. They take corporate commissions and they sit on city planning boards. They might show again, but this time in coffee shops or farmers’ markets.

Artists fade, but they don’t disappear. Not the way Ford Beckman disappeared, at least. Beckman enjoyed heights few artists attain, and then no one in the art world could find him.

When Beckman’s name surfaced at showings, it was met with shoulder shrugs. Dealers scanned floors, looking for Beckman’s trademark velvet slippers, which he wore to exhibitions. They’d heard about financial issues, but they knew him as a man of resources. Where, they wondered, was Ford Beckman?

Beckman, now fifty-six, has been hiding in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where, until recently, he has been serving donuts for seven dollars an hour. A look into his eyes will tell you what you already know: there isn’t a more punishing zero than the sugary naught of a Krispy Kreme Hot Original Glazed. And yet Beckman is emerging, and doing so in one of the worst economic climates of our times. It’s a move that he feels particularly prepared to undertake.

*

To most in the art world, Ford Beckman came out of nowhere, when in fact he had been a lesser star in two different realms: golf and fashion.

Born in 1952, “Clancy” Beckman, as he was then known, was raised in a world of extremes. As a child, he and his brother ping-ponged between their divorced parents. His mother, an artist, lived in a meager two-bedroom bungalow in Florida; his father, “Spook” Beckman, an aloof, gum-chewing radio personality, owned a mansion in Ohio. Early on, Ford found peace in the midst of polarization, and one could argue that he even learned to generate the effect—a rhythm that still dictates his life.

Throughout his adolescence, painting came so naturally to Ford he didn’t think much of it. His art teachers marveled at his propensity for abstract work. Beckman says he has always sensed a complex relationship between colors, textures, and shapes. But instead of yielding to the siren’s call of aestheticism, he chose to perfect his golf swing. For years, Beckman practiced daily, and played in junior tournaments all over the world.

Just like his paintings, Beckman is something of a contradiction. He’s a heavy-set man, yet he gestures lightly and speaks quickly, like an excited teenager. He tells me that in the early ’70s, the televangelist Oral Roberts was building an athletics program at his university, and the school offered Beckman a golf scholarship.

“Oral and I used to hit golf balls at night together, up there on campus,” Beckman says. “I caddied for him on Saturdays, and he was the real deal. He taught me about faith and it changed my life.”

Roberts’s influence is most apparent in the religious titles of Beckman’s work. One of his panel series is called Holy Ground. Another later work—a solid white rectangle dividing a yellowed canvas—is called Salvation Painting: At the foot of the cross: To God Be the Glory. Beckman employs similarly evangelical titles across a majority of his work; he believes his paintings belong in churches more than galleries or museums.

His current studio is a large green Dutch barn in Tulsa. It sits off a bypass near the middle of town, backed up against a residential area and nestled among business offices. It’s the only building in the area with a gravel parking lot. The ground floor is dark and cluttered with a renovation-in-process, but the top floor is Beckman’s brightly-lit studio, a crisp, open space that gives his new series of drip paintings ample viewing room. Some of the works feature Beckman’s familiar colors—waxen yellow, slick black. Others are strikingly neon. Several of them have already been sold, one to the Armand Hammer Collection.

Beckman comfortably plants himself in the center of the room with his hands in the pockets of paint-splattered khakis. The series, Beckman estimates, might bring in two or three hundred thousand dollars—less than he would normally command, thanks to a newly depressed market.

*

While still a student at Oral Roberts University, Beckman majored in art, but instead of channeling the impulse onto canvas, he entered the world of fashion. In 1972, he opened a small apparel shop in Tulsa called Clancy’s, and took joy in orchestrating ensembles. He married Cynthia Harmon in 1973, and the couple devoted themselves to the business.

Throughout the ’70s, Beckman began to experiment with fashion by putting together his own designs. He paired colors like peach and teal; he added stripes to sportswear. The resulting displays grew Clancy’s in size and reputation—enough to attract the interest of New York silk dealer Dick Jacobson, who had mentored Ralph Lauren. In 1980, Jacobson arranged a meeting between Beckman and Lauren. The two spent an entire afternoon poring through Beckman’s portfolio, which consisted of more than twenty complete lines of fashion illustrations.

“Ralph told me I didn’t need to be there, and I wasn’t sure what he meant,” Beckman recalls. “Then he asked me to stay in New York for a couple days, while he made some phone calls.”

Lauren opened doors for Beckman—not as a merchandiser, but as a designer. Within a matter of months, the client representation company International Management Group put Beckman under contract, and for the next eight years managed the licensing for the Ford Beckman label. After relocating to Connecticut, Beckman began visiting European textile mills and creating new patterns and color combinations that designers such as Armani and Lauren snatched up.

Beckman’s designs moved beyond ties to full wardrobes, and his label found homes in retail department stores like Bergdorf, Harrods, Macy’s, and Dillard’s. In 1986, he was nominated for Cutty Sark’s most promising US menswear designer prize—at the time, the fashion world’s equivalent of an Academy Award nomination. Beckman estimates that he was pulling in an annual salary of six to seven figures throughout the ’80s.

Beckman began painting again, in private, in the mid-’80s, his florid personality oddly gravitating toward the confines of minimalism. In addition to running a business, he was whetting his interest in the art world by collecting. As his fashion fortune grew, he invested in works that appealed to him. He bought sixteen paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat before the artist’s death, as well as a number of pieces by Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, and other notables. His art collection was exhibited around the world, and came to be a source of enormous pride for Beckman. It would also one day be the cause of his public undoing.

*

Ford Beckman, POP Rhythm Orange and Black.
Enamel on canvas on wood, 64 x 64 inches, 2008. Courtesy Aberson Exhibits, Tulsa.

In 1988, Beckman’s paintings appeared at the Craig Cornelius Gallery in New York. He had opened a studio in Manhattan to work on his art while maintaining his home base in Connecticut for his fashion-world dealings. The idea that an artist could be a businessman in an altogether different industry was still foreign, and Beckman thought it prudent to keep his two worlds separate. It proved unnecessary. In 1988, a large textile company called Coloroll acquired Beckman’s fashion business in a larger purchase, and it promptly discontinued his line. The Ford Beckman label dissolved, and from the ashes, a new Ford Beckman identity arose.

At the start of his new career, Beckman created The Black Wall Paintings, which depicted deep, black squares against yellowing backgrounds that pour over canvassed plywood platforms. Good minimalist art teaches you subtlety. Beckman’s early paintings evoke a tension between antiquity and modernity, expansion and contraction. Layered with up to sixty coats of industrial varnish and lacquer, the heavy wooden squares deliver an austere visual mass.

The Black Wall Paintings caught the attention of Giuseppe Panza, a fastidious collector who was among the first to purchase works by Robert Rauschenberg and James Turrell. As was Panza’s custom, his secretary relayed strict instructions for his arrival. When Panza entered the studio, Beckman and all personnel quietly moved to the back of the room, where they would stand in silence, watching Panza inspect each work.

Impressed with the work’s human, flesh-like appearance, Panza bought several paintings from Beckman that day, and over the next several years, he accumulated dozens more. While he has given sizeable portions of his collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Guggenheim Bilbao, Panza keeps Beckmans in his permanent collection.

Getting bought so deeply thrust Beckman into the limelight of the early ’90s art-world scene. Beckman had shows at the Whitney, and his paintings hung alongside those of Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly.

Reviews during Beckman’s epic rise in the late ’80s and early ’90s contain all the promise of a legend in the making: “[Beckman’s] work draws heavily on the artist’s own self-assurance, and is in this way reminiscent of Julian Schnabel’s paintings from the early ’80s with their can-do-no-wrong bravado,” proclaimed Art in America. ARTnews raved, “Though Beckman’s work is engaged in a dialogue with the past, his paintings prove that powerful and engaging work can still be produced within the world of geometric abstraction.”

In the throes of his feverish success, an image appeared to Beckman in a dream one night: a grinning clown. In Beckman’s mind, his deceased father, who once performed as a clown, kept blurring into the image. Hours upon waking, Beckman began scanning through library books for clown portraits. Finding them, he began the process of exorcising his feelings of paternal estrangement onto canvas, making a radical departure from his austere squares to representational pop paintings. Viewed casually, pop art portraits depict a merely reproduced image, but closer study reveals the stamped-on figure fading in the viewer’s consciousness like a watermark, so that the work’s emotional resonance transmits through its backdrop. Beckman’s clowns, for example, hover like ghosts over a field of black, from which the dolor of materials such as dirty linoleum kitchen tiles and cheap bed sheets cry out.

In 1991, Beckman produced his first series of silkscreens, none of them bearing the spiritually histrionic titles of his previous work. Instead, to the ire of his dealers, he called the entire series by their reflexive names: Pop Paintings. (Given the dream of his father, perhaps “pop” might carry an alternative meaning.) When the paintings premiered the same year in New York, Beckman received a studio visit from the art dealer Leo Castelli—tantamount to a papal blessing—which led to even more hangings throughout the world.

That same year, Beckman took a sizeable and private risk. He suspected his career, like that of every other artist, would fluctuate, and he wanted to protect himself against financial upheaval. He knew that his art collection would provide a buffer against hard times, so he invested heavily in more works to round out his collection. He targeted pieces by David Salle, Jeff Koons, Sean Scully, Keith Haring, and Ross Bleckner, taking out a multimillion-dollar loan to finance the acquisition. Less than thirty days later came what the history books call the art market crash of 1991, a phenomenon directly attributable, in theory, to a 74 percent drop in Sotheby’s shares, as well as a mass exodus of Japanese art investors. Even with the newly acquired paintings, Beckman’s collection was now worth only a fraction of what it had been two months earlier.

Every artist saw a major devaluation of their work. It wasn’t a lucrative time for Beckman to be popular, but it was an important time. One of Beckman’s clown portraits made the cover of the popular German magazine ART. He agreed to showings by the European dealer Hans Mayer, whose clients included Warhol and Cindy Sherman. Beckman didn’t admit to anyone that he needed the success in order to meet his basic financial obligations. Demand for his work seemed to outpace his prolific output, yet he began to feel commodified by the experience.

It was then, in the early ’90s and in the midst of rocketing fame, that Beckman found a close friend in the reclusive Cy Twombly, who had long since achieved recognition as one of the preeminent artists of his time. Through his connections in Rome, Twombly helped Beckman land a big show at the Galleria Il Ponte in 1993.

Time spent with Twombly in Italy introduced a shift in Beckman’s work. His abstract La Roma paintings reveal a soft luminescence and levity absent from his previous pieces. Shortly after creating the series, Beckman learned that his wife, Cynthia, was pregnant with their first child. He started another set of paintings, the Mon Jardinet, which feature blooms of warm colors abstractly rising from light backgrounds.

Beckman’s friendship with Twombly continued across continents and expanded to include a tight circle consisting of Donald Baechler, Julian Schnabel, and the collector Douglas Andrews. The friends often met in Florida, where Twombly would frequent flea markets for two-dollar purchases that he would transform into million-dollar sculptures weeks later.

Twombly’s influence amplified the sense of artistic merit that Beckman craved; his paintings were still being sold in galleries, even though Beckman urged his dealers to pursue placement in museums. At the same time, Beckman was also feeling the pinch of his art-collection loan, and worried that he couldn’t sustain the heavy debt if his own sales dropped even slightly. With a daughter on the way, he felt an even greater sense of duty to provide financial security. The predicament gnawed at him until he received a phone call from a virtually unheard-of German art dealer: Adolf von Ribbentrop.

Ribbentrop explained how he had been following Beckman’s career with great interest, filling up his mansion with Beckman’s pop paintings. Hoping to strengthen his presence as a competitive art dealer, Ribbentrop asked Beckman if he wouldn’t mind meeting him the next morning.

“He was calling me from Frankfurt,” says Beckman, who was in New York at the time. “And sure enough, I went to my studio the next day, and at nine o’clock, there’s a knock on my door, and here is a man with a hat on, and his arms are full of gifts.”

Enthusiasm was a big part of Ribbentrop’s appeal, but so was his generosity. On the spot, Ribbentrop wrote a check for all the works Beckman had available in his studio—about thirty-five paintings—and offered to visit him and his wife in Connecticut. Upon meeting with Ribbentrop, Cynthia Beckman was equally charmed. During the visit, Beckman learned that most of Ribbentrop’s clientele came from the German aristocracy, and that he mainly dealt in paintings by modern masters like Picasso and Warhol. More important, he seemed wholly committed to Beckman’s work.

“He wanted to buy each one for himself—he was that pure,” Beckman says. “That is such a compliment to an artist of any kind. That is what you dream of hearing. And I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

Beckman called his other representatives across Europe to inform them he had chosen Ribbentrop, and the response was icy for reasons Beckman guessed were obvious. They had made fortunes from him, he reckoned, and they were mad about being shrugged off.

It wasn’t until later that Beckman learned from a friend about Ribbentrop’s legacy. His father, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was the foreign minister of Germany and Hitler’s most dutiful aide; he was the first politician executed at Nuremberg on October 16, 1946. His son—named after Hitler—was eleven years old at the time. Ribbentrop may not be the most popular person in the art world, Beckman’s friend suggested.

In Beckman’s spiritual worldview, the sins of the father aren’t enough to condemn a son. By visiting Ribbentrop in Germany, Beckman would be able to judge for himself whether Nazi history had morally poisoned the art dealer. When he arrived at Ribbentrop’s castle overlooking the Rhine, Beckman found the family full of warmth and love. More important, they shared common ground in their religious faith. Ribbentrop, pragmatic and earnest, suggested that he and Beckman load a moving van full of paintings and visit his friends.

“And so we start selling paintings, and we go from castle to castle, literally,” recalls Beckman. “Dukes, earls—these are serious people.”

Beckman was pleased to see his paintings sell well over the next several years. The Kestnergessellschaft in Hanover, where Klee, Kandinsky, and Picasso had also made appearances, showcased a Beckman exhibition in 1996, bringing him the level of recognition he had long sought.

*

Returning to America, Beckman couldn’t have been more pleased—that is, until he heard the rumor that Ribbentrop was being denied entry into some of Europe’s most critical art fairs. Beckman placed calls to Germany and learned even worse news: Ribbentrop was seriously ill, his family said, and he needed ample time to convalesce. Just when Beckman was poised to become a museum-level regular, he was on the brink of financial mayhem. Paying off his debt required steady income, but Beckman had no product to offer. The majority of his work was tied up in Ribbentrop’s inventory.

So began Ford Beckman’s dissolution. His former dealers ostracized him. His possessions began to slip away from him. First, he lost control of his beloved art collection, painting by painting, until a bank ultimately acquired the remaining works. Then he sold his home in Connecticut to pay off the outstanding debt. And finally, there was the IRS, which sought its due on the heavy revenues.

The Beckmans moved into an apartment in Connecticut and scraped by on a few meager shows until 2002, when Cynthia’s father in Oklahoma became ill. They planned only a short visit, but due to his father-in-law’s deteriorating health, Beckman found himself stuck in Tulsa and financially unable to return to the East Coast. Beckman left his remaining belongings in storage there, and aimed to find work in Oklahoma, but the search proved fruitless. What kind of income can a top-tier artist find in a small Midwestern city? Beckman scratched together money from the occasional show in Europe, but the rare royalty checks hardly sustained him. Most of his income was garnered by the IRS.

Despondent and beside himself with stress, Beckman was driving along Tulsa’s strip-mall laden Seventy-First Street in 2005, when he pulled into the city’s only Krispy Kreme franchise and filled out an application. Under “previous experience,” he simply wrote “artist.” He was hired on the spot. For a year and a half, Beckman worked forty hours a week serving donuts, then took on an evening shift packing ham at a nearby deli. He had no time to paint, nor the money for basic supplies.

“Well, it was very humbling, when you’re working with a bunch of high-school guys, and they’re asking you, ‘Where’d you come from?’ and ‘What did you do?’ You don’t tell them at first,” says Beckman. “Well, I did painting. ‘What kind of painting?’ And you start to talk.”

“He paints like, modern, abstract stuff. I saw some of it on the Internet,” said Kimberly Grimes, recalling her months working alongside Beckman. “He was a real whiz with donuts—a real cool dude, too.”

Humiliation fathers the reclusive, and Beckman was no exception. He stopped communicating with the art world and left his mail unforwarded and lines disconnected. Beckman thought he might remain in anonymity, until he was working the drive-thru one day in December 2006. An old college pal, Ben Farrell, pulled up to the window and reached for his order. Farrell had followed Beckman’s rise in the art world and was flabbergasted to see him in a local donut shop. He immediately offered him a job redesigning the offices for his advertising agency, and helped Beckman set up a studio in an unused barn he planned to remodel.

Although the salary allowed Beckman to quit Krispy Kreme and the deli, the hardships persisted. Six months into his consulting work, on May 25, 2007, Beckman suffered a massive heart attack at a Tulsa restaurant.

Fortunately, a woman sitting nearby was a nurse and responded immediately. Beckman regained consciousness in the ambulance, but the experience alarmed him. “Your body can only take so much pressure,” Beckman says.

Soon after, Beckman suffered what he considers a final emotional devastation. The IRS held a public auction for all of his remaining items in storage—forty crates in total—and raised about two hundred thousand dollars. Beckman lost his personal treasures—gifts from friends, furniture, even his clothing and his library. (Today, he still owes the IRS, but the debt is only a fraction of what it once was.)

*

The art world is once again in financial upheaval—the worst since 1991. The Mei Moses Annual All Art Index estimates a 35 percent drop in sales this year. In the middle of the turbulence, Beckman stands undaunted and productive. He walks a few steps into his Tulsa studio, turns, and faces a large work, a six-and-a-half-foot-square drip painting. Drip works are a litmus test for a painter because they reveal so much about an artist’s maturity and skill. Beckman’s piece has a surface texture as smooth as a printed poster, a subtle boast that contributes to its contained but balanced gyroscopic whir.

“What you see here is that the black has now exploded,” Beckman says, pointing to Rhythm Painting #1. The famous black square is gone, replaced by swirls of black paint looped over a glazed, yellowing background. It looks heavy and solid, and although the painting appears to be moving, it also seems to have captured a moment in Beckman’s evolution as an artist and his journey as a human. His Black Wall Paintings depicted a psychological pressure that gave rise to the tortured Pop Paintings. Then came the intimate Mon Jardinet and the La Roma works, exuding the kind of warmth and conviction brought about by companionship and fatherhood. Beckman’s new work is that of a mid-career artist, severely tested. His Rhythm Painting #1 evokes uncertainty and discomfort, or a chase between unraveling and becoming.

“All my paintings are self-portraits,” Beckman says.

Michael Paul Mason is the author of Head Cases: Stories of Brain Injury and Its Aftermath.

Photograph by Jimmy Bloyed

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