Perry Rubenstein, a dealer with deep social connections in New York and Los Angeles whose career was brought to halt by a grand theft conviction, has died at 68. His ex-wife, the PR executive Sara Fitzmaurice, confirmed Rubenstein’s passing and said he died of natural causes.
“Perry had some twists and turns on his journey, but his true north was always his unconditional love for his daughters and his legacy will live on with them,” Fitzmaurice wrote in an email. “He will be truly missed.”
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Prior to spending six months in jail several years ago, Rubenstein had been esteemed in the New York and L.A. scenes, thanks to his eponymous gallery, which filed for bankruptcy in 2014.
Rubenstein had worked with artists such as Mike Kelley, Sturtevant, James Lee Byars, Diana Al-Hadid, Iwan Baan, Jesper Just, Kamrooz Aram, and Robin Rhode. Having initially opened on Prince Street in SoHo in 1989, Rubenstein inaugurated two spaces in Chelsea in 2004, and then relocated his entire operation to Los Angeles in 2011, at a time when few New York galleries had done so.
But his grand theft charge, which resulted from allegations involving two L.A. collectors, tarnished his reputation. While he continued to work as an art adviser, his gallery never reopened.
Born in 1954, Rubenstein got his start as a model. He claimed to have been first noticed by the designer Gianni Versace during the ’70s while in Milan.
“Versace threw several sweaters at me, photographed me, and then said, ‘You’re the best model in this city,’” Rubenstein told Artillery in 2013. “Of course, I was the only 6-foot tall male model, as it was off-season. At the end of the day, he gave me $1,000 in cash. Soon I was working with Versace, Armani, Valentino and other major designers, modeling for French and Italian Vogue, traveling all over Europe and Africa.”
While in Europe, he bought works by Italian artists on the rise like Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, and Sandro Chia, amassing a collection that Artillery described as “small but significant.” Several years later, he quit modeling and moved to New York.
In that city, he fell in with a crowd that included Andy Warhol, Larry Gagosian, Tony Shafrazi, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In one of several Medium posts that Rubenstein wrote over the years, he described his friendship with Basquiat, calling himself an “enabler” of the artist’s drug habits during the early stages of Basquiat’s short career.
“Our relationship was based on my passion for his work and our shared passion for some of the same recreational drugs which became quite dangerous for both of us as we progressed from ganja to fine wine to the queen of drugs, cocaine,” Rubenstein wrote.
Although Rubenstein did not initially begin his career with serious art-world ambitions, his gallery ended up becoming a success. He told Artillery that he had been able to gain a foothold in the New York art world because “barriers of entry to this world were significantly less structured than today.”
Much later on, Rubenstein’s move to open in Chelsea in 2004 was considered an important one. He became an early adopter of the neighborhood, which is now considered one of New York’s central gallery districts. “If you go to Berlin and tell an artist that you are only going to show them on 57th Street and not in Chelsea, they won’t show with you,” he told the New York Times in 2007.
His tune changed in 2011, when he moved to L.A. and told the Los Angeles Times that there were “very limited possibilities in terms of what you can do with gallery space” in New York. He said that Los Angeles was “no longer the sideshow; it’s no longer second to New York as an arts capital.”
Things started to shift when, in 2013, Michael Ovitz, a collector and the cofounder of the Creative Artists Agency, sued Rubenstein over the sale of two works by Richard Prince worth nearly $1 million. Ovitz claimed that Rubenstein had withheld the proceeds from the sale of one piece and peddled another for a price lower than the one they had agreed upon. That same year, collector Michael Salke also alleged that Rubenstein had defrauded him during the sale of a Takashi Murakami piece. Rubenstein denied Ovitz and Salke’s allegations.
One year later, in 2014, Perry Rubenstein Gallery filed for bankruptcy in L.A. In the bankruptcy filing, the gallery reportedly listed $1.2 million in assets, much of it in the form of artwork, but said it owed $5.4 million. Also in 2014, Rubenstein and Fitzmaurice divorced.
In 2017, Rubenstein pleaded no contest to grand theft embezzlement felony counts and was sentenced to six months in jail.
In a Medium post, Rubenstein described the “injustice” he witnessed during his time behind bars. He recounted various instances of racism toward other inmates around him, many of whom were Black or Brown, and he pledged to remake himself as a better person.
“Through the fog of my own misery,” he wrote, “I began to see more clearly.”