Vanning Around

When I started Vandeavors, I was mostly houching it. To houche, as I learned from the preparator of the Queens Museum at my first art handling gig, is to make it happen. If the screw doesn’t go in the wall, or the sculpture kinda wobbles, grab some tape, or a piece of gum (MacGyver style) and make it look good, houche it.

I bought my Astro off of Craigslist for straight cash. A lot could have gone wrong, but the stinky, Australian hippie who sold it to me seemed trustworthy and had only used the van to do a groovy cross country trip with his newlywed. He wanted to sell it quickly so he could get back to his life, wherever, playing hacky sack, or whatever.

I gave the thing a spit shine, bought some straps and moving blankets, and started moving art. I had years of experience art handling at that point, but very little in the delivery realm. I had lots of learning to do, but I was determined to make it happen.

I’ve learned a lot from vanning around for the past few years. I’ve learned the best ways to get across town, and how to avoid tolls while doing so. I know where the best parking is. I even know how much each type of parking ticket will cost. $115 for parking in the bus stop? Doesn’t that seem steep?

I have every preset on my radio dial memorized, so that I can flip between WNYC, WEPN and WFMU, which keep me informed of current events, local sports and rock and roll, respectively.

I’ve learned the art of the quick lunch. Sometimes I eat with the cabbies at Dil E Punjab on 9th avenue. They don’t talk to me, but I imagine that if they did we would commiserate about traffic and lack of lumbar support while we fork down our hot vegan fast food. Or often, I double park in front of Mamoun’s on Mcdougal Street. I can be in and out of that place with a spicy falafel sandwich in under two minutes. If you’re good, you can buy a hotdog and a water from a vendor while waiting at a red light. If you’re not so good, or if the vendor fumbles with the change, you’ll still get your hotdog and water, but you can expect a symphony of honking behind you.

The golden rule of navigating this city, I’ve learned, and this is true whether you’re walking, taking the subway, or driving, is to never unnecessarily waste someone else’s time. We’re all in a rush, please don’t pause for a photo.

This knowledge is not something I expected to acquire in my tenure in New York City. When I began college at 18, I didn’t think I would ever have the spaghetti bowl of highways out in Queens memorized. That being said, it’s a tremendous pleasure. The tri-state area has many secrets just waiting to be unlocked. So many basements, warehouses, studios, garages, mansions et cetera, all waiting for me to roll up and collect the goods.

Is a cargo van the key to the city? Sometimes it feels like it. I vanned in so many circles that if I were leaving a paint trail it would look like a big figure 8, stretched out over Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.

These are all logistical considerations though, and I’m interested in how one’s reach can go deeper. Never mind getting Yves Klein blue pigment under your nails, or seeing Richard Prince cut a check for a thousand dollars on a whim. I’m talking about beginning to see the machine of the art world as a whole. Maybe I haven’t been going in circles, but in a spiral, approaching some center of understanding. Beginning to connect the dots in what at first seemed like a completely fractured set of jobs and tasks.

For example, I once delivered a piece to Phillips De Pury for a savvy collector. She knew the artist was about to be in the Whitney Biennale and it was sellin’ time. I forgot all about it, until about six months later, a different collector, whom I know through a completely different gallery, asked me to pick something up at Phillips for him. I collected the box, not thinking much of it, until I went to unwrap it and hang it in his office for him. Lo and behold, it was the same piece. This would be less weird if I were always at Phillips, but I’m not, and I found the coincidence striking.

Another time, I collected a work from an artist’s studio in West New York, I arrived early and he invited me in and chatted me up as he was putting the final touches on a painting. I watched him glue one last element onto the canvas, and then sign the thing. Very ceremonious. We wrapped it together, and then I delivered it to the gallery. Months later, I was hanging that same painting at the NADA fair in Miami. We were running late, and the early rush of collectors was already pouring in. An old couple sauntered over and fell in love with the painting as I was leveling it, peering over my shoulder. They purchased the painting on the spot and I gave them my card and told them I could deliver and hang it for them at their house in Aventura, if they would like. I did just that, and as I pulled out of the fancy South Florida development adjacent to the bay, I realized I witnessed the whole life of the painting. From signing in New Jersey to hanging in a home in Florida, I saw the alpha and the omega.

The Buddha spoke of Samsara, the pattern of birth, death, and karmic rebirth that repeats itself for eternity. I must have good attained good karma through this repetitious and loyal art delivery practice, for when my Chevy Astro kicked the bucket after two hundred thousand miles, I got a great deal on a Ford Econoline 150 shortly afterward. After a brief but important coronation ceremony, I was reborn and right back on the road.

Here’s to most auspicious futures: where the city and its environs, its art lovers and makers all make a little more sense, and I have to houche it a little less.


Touching the Art

When elementary school children go to a museum, they must be prefaced on the pricelessness of the work they are about to see, and how touching it is strictly forbidden. “Bring your index finger and your thumb up to your ear, touch them together and pull them apart repeatedly, do you hear that? It’s your bodies natural oil making a tacky sound. That oil is all over your hands, and can damage precious pieces of art. That is why we see with our eyes, not our hands.”


Yet, there is a satisfaction that comes with touching art. The privilege to move it, higher or lower, in or out of a crate, across town, or into the basement, comes with great responsibility. If you are an art handler, as I am, you are probably a good toucher. The taboo of contact is lifted for you. The invisible laser alarm is disabled.

Sometimes I wish art handlers got a special card, one that we could present to any museum security guard, that says ‘This person can definitely touch the art’. We are the ones who put this thing here, wearing white gloves, and shined a light on it, after all.

How do you earn this privilege? Put in your time when the most touching happens: installation. The theater of a gallery or museum melts away during an installation. The curtains are drawn and there is a gestation period for the next exhibit.

All the lights are on and there is bubble-wrap and cardboard and loose stuff strewn amongst the work. A paper sign in the window says they will be closed for installation, but that you should be certain to attend the opening reception, later in the week, where refreshments will be served. The gallerinas have their hair up and the art handlers wear jeans with paint stains on them. The walls of formality disappear, replaced by the concern for the walls themselves. Do they need to be whitewashed? Do they have the fortitude to hold this heavy, mixed-media thing? Punk rock is playing from a dusty boombox, droning behind lively debates about display. “That’s not level” says someone who has been touching the art for longer than you. They spot this from behind hip spectacles, standing a good ten yards away. “Put it where it needs to go and make it look pretty.”

When you are used to this behind the scenes action, it becomes hard to look at art in a vacuum. The artist, the gallerist and the curator usually want you to consider art as if it’s floating in a white bubble, unto itself, separate from the space and time continuum. Important, expensive, and untouchable!

I know better. And that is why I have become obsessed with looking past the facade, searching for the bracketing device, the seam, the attachment, the frame. I wonder how it was crated, and who delivered it. I wonder why it’s right here, and not over there. All of this translates into a curiosity that is not just intellectual, but tactile. This is what happens when you touch too much art.

Indeed, I’m a cog in that buzzing, whirring machine that got this piece here. I did all this work to make it look like it was no work at all. When I wink at you at the reception after laying a corrective hand on a slightly askew painting, you’ll know I’m a card holder. A good toucher.