During every important moment in history, an artist uses the genius of human creativity to capture the moment forever. Toward the end of the recent property and credit bubbles, acclaimed painter Geoffrey Raymond stepped into the emotional hurricane to let us cathartically express the zeitgeist of the times.
Geoffrey rose to the heights of stardom painting portraits of familiar financial moguls and bringing his portraits to the people for annotation. For example, his most famous painting, The Annotated Fuld, is a portrait of Lehman Brothers CEO Dick Fuld surrounded by the wrath and fury of former Lehman employees leaving their headquarters for the last time in the days preceding formal bankruptcy.
Geoffrey has painted other intriguing subjects such as Alan Greenspan, Maria Bartiromo, John Thain, Hank Paulson, Jim Cramer, and Lloyd Blankfein. Popular financial blog DealBreaker even called Geoffrey, “The greatest artist of our time.” I had the pleasure of befriending Geoffrey at the beginning of the year, and he has made me aware of many exciting new portraits on the horizon. Most importantly, as with all the people we choose for the Wall St. Cheat Sheet Q&A Series with The Brightest Minds on Wall Street, Geoffrey is as nice a guy as he is an excellent artist.
Damien Hoffman: Geoffrey, what inspired you to spend your time and energy creating portraits of financial villains?
Geoffrey: I closed my public relations agency in July of 2006 and spent most of the summer painting friends and local waitresses. I was 52 and my youngest daughter had just finished college. My Jackson Pollock/Chuck Close fusion idea had really evolved into an instantly recognizable style that was really coming into its own, so I figured it was now or never to make a jump into art.
One day, a friend of mine who works for Bloomberg Markets finally said to me, “You’ve got to start painting people who actually have money.” This was right around the time of the Richard Grasso [at the time, CEO of the New York Stock Exchange] retirement-package-uproar. So I painted a portrait of Grasso entitled, “Big Dick 1 (Hundred Million)” and propped it up outside the NYSE. Both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal did a story and I sold the portrait on eBay for $3,050. This felt very much like the writing on the wall — so I read it.
About a year later I started letting people write on my portraits. I had just painted Maria Bartiromo as the Virgin Mary and the image included a line of golden letters forming an arch above her head reading, “If I see that bitch Erin Burnett on the Today Show one more time I’m gonna freak out.” While I liked the idea of commentary on the business portraits, I worried I would run out of good stuff. This was right around the time when Rupert Murdoch was making his play for Dow Jones. So, about half way through painting him I thought perhaps it would be interesting to hear from the people with a real vested interest in the proceedings. So I gave the portrait a white background, bought a set of black and red sharpies, and set up shop outside the old WSJ headquarters.
The idea was Dow employees got red pens and general passersby got black. As you can imagine, there was a fair degree of corporate paranoia at the time — so not a lot of Dow employees were writing on the painting. Eventually a young guy walked up to me, asked for a red pen, and wrote an “N” right above Rupert’s head. Then he looked up and said, “Shit, there’s my editor. ” He ran over to the Sabrette’s stand and bought a hot dog. Once the editor went inside, he came back and finished his annotation. It read, “News is sacred.” That was when I knew I was onto something.
Damien: What was your experience when you were on Wall Street having the Dick Fuld piece annotated? What about the others?
Geoffrey: [Bear Sterns’ Jimmy] Cayne and [Lehman Brothers’ Dick] Fuld were the most emotionally fraught of all my paintings. In each case, I was in mid-town Manhattan standing outside a skyscraper full of about 10,000 people who had just lost their jobs. They were literally coming out the front door, putting down the cardboard boxes with the personal effects from their desks, and writing, “Fuck you, Jimmy,” on the surface of my painting.
That said, they weren’t all negative. Towards the end of my last day with the Cayne painting a Bear Stearns guy came up, asked for a red pen (BSC employees got red, everybody else black) and wrote, “I had a good run.” After that I rolled it up and the painting was finished.
They weren’t all nice, however. On the Fuld painting, somebody wrote “This could have been avoided. It didn’t have to be this way.” Another wrote, “U R Wall Street’s Most Wanted, ” signed, “Angry Employee Spouse.” Then, for good measure, she added, “U Suck!” At about mid afternoon of the second day, somebody wearing a green Lehman softball jersey threatened to beat me up.
One thing both the Cayne and Fuld paintings have in common is they were both bought off the street by somebody related to the company. Fuld went for $12,000. I’ve been asked not to reveal the Cayne purchase price.
Damien: How did you feel watching the angry Lehman and Bear employees leave on those historic days?
Geoffrey: I felt bad for all of them. One of the reasons I paint the way I do is the idea that I provide an opportunity for people to have a say in sometimes catastrophic events over which they have no control — even if it’s only a sentence or two on a painting. Of all those people at Bear and Lehman, only a handful really had any control over what happened to those companies. The others were just lost in the flood, so to speak.
People appreciated the opportunity. Out of the several hundred employees who signed my paintings, at least 25% thanked me in one way or another for the opportunity. Someone wrote, “What a day…What a year…What a firm,” on a painting of Dick Fuld in front of the Lehman Brothers offices, then picked up a cardboard box to move on to the next thing. Sounds fruity, but it’s a pretty good example of the healing power of art. It doesn’t get you your $2 million a year job back, but it’s something. It’s catharsis.
Damien: Tell me about your newest piece and why you chose Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs.
Geoffrey: The painting is entitled, “Big Lloyd 3 (The Root)”. Although, I’m thinking about changing it’s formal name to “Squid Vicious” to honor my favorite annotation to date. Actually, this is the third time I’ve painted Blankfein. I originally started painting him thinking I hadn’t done an annotated head of a surviving investment bank — I had done Vikram Pandit [CEO of Citigroup], but that’s different. Blankfein seemed the logical choice. Then, halfway through the painting, the Mike Taibbi story in Rolling Stone hit and made it all the more topical. Now there’s a New York Magazine story on the stands that takes about the same shots as Taibbi’s, so I’m back on the streets with the thing.
One of the ideas behind my paintings is they are historical documents as much as they are portraits. So it’s interesting to catch a subject at a moment in time that focuses the commentary. Goldman Sachs is having an interesting summer — paying off TARP, grappling with rumors the bonus pool is going to be huge, and the stories in Rolling Stone and New York Magazine. It’s a great time to have painted Lloyd.
Some of my favorite comments from Big Lloyd 3 are: “Squid Vicious”; “Everyone remain calm–We’re making money again”; “Bubble bubble, toil and trouble”; “Since when does LB have four chins?”; “Hey Lloyd–Is that hair on your palm?”; and, of course, “I am Spartacus.” “I am Spartacus” shows up on all my paintings.
Damien: Geoffrey, what do your portraits mean to you and what do you get out of painting/annotating them?
Geoffrey: My portraits mean a lot to me. First of all, painting is a solitary endeavor. I’m currently painting Mike Bloomberg and I’m completely alone, focusing on the task at hand. When I take him out onto the streets, however, it is an absolute reversal. You talk to a vast array of people ranging from serious with meaningful things to say or write, to absolute crazies. You get immediate feedback on your work and a sense you are providing a public service. I strongly believe that.
Additionally, I love watching the evolution of the un-annotated portrait into one which has 250 things written on it. On a purely visual level, the writing becomes impressionistic brush strokes creating a painted background that wasn’t previously there — a kind of van Gogh analog. On the other hand, three or four days of annotation locks the painting in as an historical document — a snapshot of that moment on Wall Street. I like the idea I am chronicling the events of the age for the financial community.
Damien: Why do you think people buy your paintings?
Geoffrey: They buy them because, when push comes to shove, my annotated paintings are as much historical documents as they are portraits. People who have the means to do so want to be able to look back at these difficult times and say, “I lived through it and look — I’ve got the painting to prove it.” For example, the buyers of both my Fuld and Cayne paintings had close ties with Lehman and Bear.
Also, people tell me they have friends who stop by their house, see one of my paintings and shout, “What the fuck? You’ve got one of those?” This is the stuff of a Mastercard commercial.
Damien: You have become one of my favorite artists, but who are your favorite artists?
Geoffrey: Jackson Pollock is first. The way I stumbled on my style of painting was a gag at first. I was going to do a coffee table book called, “Paint like Pollock,” and vanity-publish it for my friends. I was painting a ton of fake Pollocks but instead of being a gag, I found the act of throwing the paint onto the canvas a complex, involving artistic experience — way more compelling than I first thought. But I eventually stopped painting the fake Pollocks because, in the end, they were only fake Pollocks.
Chuck Close is second. He’s famous for the huge heads he creates by painting a grid of tiny, abstract squares. I was standing in the modern wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2005 staring at a Chuck Close painting and the idea came to me: What if I rejigger the Pollock calculus, turn it 180 degrees, and use a drip technique to paint large, representational portraits? I draw a direct link between that moment and the reason why we’re having this interview.
Francis Bacon is third. I still have this idea of taking one Bacon self-portrait and using it as a template to paint the talking heads at CNBC–Cramer, Maria, Burnett, Gasparino. The idea makes me smile.
The Tour de France rates the degree of difficulty for its mountain climbs by number. When a mountain gets too big, they call it HC, or “beyond category”. Picasso and Matisse are HC.
Damien: What can we look forward to from Geoffrey Raymond in the future?
Geoffrey: More of the same, with perhaps a greater emphasis on politicians during the upcoming election season. And I do really like the idea of painting four virtually identical paintings in the style of Bacon, each one respectively called, “The Annotated Gasparino,” “The Annotated Burnett,” etc. The metaphor is palpable. Like three day old fish.
Damien: Geoffrey, thanks for taking the time to chat with me. I look forward to covering your future works as you annotate and release them.
Geoffrey: Thanks for the interest! I appreciate it!