Filming with Mary Boone

26th March 2019

John Wyver writes: Back in the summer of 1986, writer Sandy Nairne, director Geoff Dunlop and I were in New York filming our 6-part Channel 4 series State of the Art. Sandy had conceived the second programme as an exploration of ideas of ‘value’, considering five places in which, as he wrote in the accompanying book, ‘validation and valuation occur: the private gallery, the private collection, the public museum, the art magazine and the public site’. For the private gallery we profiled the Galerie Michael Werner and the its transatlantic partnership with the gallery of Mary Boone. (This was also a personal partnership since Michael Werner and Mary Boone had just married.)

Mary Boone was the among the most prominent dealers in New York, having risen rapidly selling the paintings of, among others, Julian Schnabel, and representing at the time David Salle, Eric Fischl and Ross Bleckner. In 1982 she opened a beautifully designed gallery at 417 West Broadway, and four years later Mary was the hot young dealer in Manhattan. Fast forward more than thirty years and, extraordinarily, Mary Boone is facing a federal prison sentence of two and a half years after pleading guilty to filing false tax returns. Nadya Sayej wrote a good piece recently for the Guardian with all the background.

There’s more on this story below, together with further links, but first take a look at the complete sequence as it was shown in early 1987. And if you’re intrigued by what you see, the six episodes of the series, together with an interview with Sandy Nairne, can be purchased on DVD – go here for that.

Mary Boone generously permitted us to film her hanging a show of paintings by German artists but refused to appear speaking on camera. Instead, she was interviewed in audio only, which is why you only hear her voice in the extract. You also hear quotations, read by actors, from commentators including Kim Levin and Roberta Smith; an aural montage of many viewpoints is one of the distinctive techniques of the series.

Jeremy Stavenhagen’s 16mm film images catch the minimalist elegance of the gallery, and of Mary herself, and the sequence both expresses Mary’s public vision of her practice and contains some fascinating details: a Salle canvas could be yours for $70,000, and a painting by Penck for just $15,000! Not for the first time do I wish we had invested our fees in the works of the artists with whom we filmed.

Mary did not see the sequence until some time after transmission, but Sandy eventually arranged a viewing for her at a venue – and they were rare in New York at the time – that could play PAL videotapes. It is fair to say that Mary was not happy with what she saw, and I would be delighted if Sandy wished to contribute below a note of his own recall of the encounter. Within minutes, or so it seemed, she was on the phone to me in London, threatening, among other things, that she would ensure that I never worked in the art world again.

I explained that I was sorry she was upset, but that we felt we had been entirely fair (judge for yourself, gentle reader). Moreover, we had the right to do as we had done since we had respected the release form that Sandy had battled to get her to sign at the time of the filming. Mary disputed that she had signed such a form. So I dialled her number on our fax machine and fed in the two-page agreement. As it printed out in her office, the phone line went dead. I never heard from her again.

(How odd that this is a tale of redundant technologies: 16mm film, videotape, a fax.)

And now, as Nadya Sayej reports,

According to the Department of Justice, Boone falsely claimed a $500,000 payment to a contractor was a “commission”, when it was used to remodel one of her apartments. She apparently also fraudulently generated business losses, transferring $9.5m between business accounts that were apparently “tax deductible”,among other crimes.

Writing for The New York Times about the attempt of Mary Boone’s lawyers to secure leniency for her, Colin Moynahan noted,

Ms. Boone’s lawyers have argued that her troubled childhood led to mental health issues, a suicide attempt and drug and alcohol abuse. The poverty of her early life left her fearful that, despite her success, she would end up destitute and dependent upon others, they wrote, creating “a feeling of inevitable doom” and an “irrational fear that everything would fall apart.”

For more, find a library to consult the handsome book that Sandy Nairne wrote with Geoff Dunlop and myself, State of the Art: Ideas and Images in the 1980s (London: Chatto & Windus/Channel 4, 1987), and also see

Boone’s long-time partner Ron Warren said he expects her to overcome her current predicament and get a fresh start. The judge “gave her a license to do that,” he said. “She’ll have an Act 2.”


  1. Sandy Nairne says:

    … as a footnote to John’s narrative. I was in New York in February 1987, and Leon Golub kindly allowed me to screen in his studio those sections of ‘State of the Art’ that featured New York artists, such as Cindy Sherman, Eric Fischl, Barbara Kruger, Mary Miss and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Not all of them came, but Eric was there and he probably conveyed something to Mary Boone. And as my day diary for Wednesday 11 February notes: ‘Mary B called’. She was not happy.

    And for Friday 13th I’ve logged the location where I arranged to show her the second film – ‘Value, Commodity and Criticism’ – in which she had agreed to take part. As the film came to her section, she started to remonstrate at the screen, and at me … and kept repeating that I would never work with any of her artists again. As we left the screening room I handed her a copy of the ‘State of the Art’ book, and she flicked to the pages where we had reproduced (with permission) the cover of ‘New York’ magazine with the headline: ‘The New Queen Of the Art Scene’ and this seemed to upset her particularly. She said I would hear from her lawyers. I did, and there were several threats about libel proceedings, and later, after a public seminar on the series at Tate, a threat about slander. But they were not pursued.

    As a further footnote: in 2005 I visited Mary Boone’s uptown gallery to see an intriguing group exhibition curated by my old friend Bruce Ferguson (then Dean of the Arts at Columbia University), titled: ‘View Eight: A Few Domestic Objects Interrogate A Few Works of Art’. Once I’d enjoyed looking round the show I peered into the office space to see if someone could let me have a list of works. And quite unexpectedly (since I’d had no contact with her for 18 years) found Mary Boone walking towards me. She came up close and said: “You did me wrong.” So I said “No I didn’t. But I’m sorry if you thought that to be the case.” “Oh” she said, “Is that true?” “Yes” I said … And then we had a perfectly polite conversation about Bruce’s show, and this and that ….

  2. John Wyver says:

    Thanks so much, Sandy. I hadn’t previously heard the 2005 story! Nor did I know that Mary’s lawyers actually followed up after you had shown her the film. All of which has a key lesson for documentary makers – treat those who appear in your films fairly, but also ensure that they have signed unambiguous release forms.

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