Think Pro Tennis Is Competitive? Ask McEnroe About the Art Business

Deep in SoHo, a gallery exhibits the work of German Expressionist Emil Nolde. It is much like the many other art halls in this oh-so-trendy art colony that serves up paintings, lithographs, and figurative pieces. It is only when you look closely at the name of the gallery that this particular venue stands out: the John McEnroe Gallery.

Yes, that John McEnroe. American tennis's most notorious bad boy. The lefty from Douglaston, N.Y., in Queens, who took the tennis world by storm in the late 1970s with his curly locks and br ash demeanor. For more than 15 years, he used his larynx and extraordinary physical ability to wear down both officials and opponents over a turbulent yet often victorious career.

The same ferocity that drove McEnroe to success on the tennis court attracts him to works of art, says Steven Soulios, the gallery's curator. ''Everything John does he does with passion and intensity,'' he says, ''whether it is in business or as a tennis player.''

But why art? ''I wasn't into buying stocks or cars, and I saw great potential in art because it puts you in a space that relaxes you,'' Mr. McEnroe says from his gallery. ''When you buy a piece it is yours. For me art comes down to one thing: Do I like it?''

McEnroe is not just collecting art because his professional tennis career is over. Although he modestly states that he has never made a good deal on an art purchase, McEnroe has a large, albeit ''eclectic'' collection of works, ranging from the traditional (a Picasso he bought at Sotheby's) to the contemporary (an Eric Fischl). Current favorites are the sculptors David Smith, Alice Neel, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. McEnroe says he most enjoys his purchase of Philip Guston's ''Downtown.''

''I would love to do a Guston-Basquiat exhibit,'' he says. ''They both have that abstract, childlike quality, especially Guston's hooded figures, that is especially appealing to me.''

McEnroe's love for art dates back to his first years on the tour and his friendship with the late tennis player and art collector Vitas Gerulaitis, he says.

In 1978, Gerulaitis went to the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in New York to add to his collection. McEnroe joined him and immediately wanted to buy an Audrey Flack painting. Instead, gallery owner Louis Meisel suggested that McEnroe visit some contemporary European galleries. Much to Mr. Meisel's surprise, the young tennis star visited 21 of the 24 galleries on Meisel's list. ''He still ended up buying the Flack painting in the end,'' adds the SoHo gallery owner.

But the idea to open a gallery did not enter McEnroe's mind until much later, Meisel says. ''McEnroe came back to me and said that he might want to become an art dealer when he was not playing full time; I guess it is hard to find time when you are the No. 1 tennis player in the world.''

Mr. Soulios says the gallery, previously a warehouse, was supposed to be a ''hideaway from the kids'' for McEnroe and his ex-wife, Tatum O'Neal. But as McEnroe and O'Neal were in the process of breaking up, the tennis star decided to transform the space into a gallery.

The gallery itself has an industrial, understated look to it. The second-floor space holds 47 of Nolde's finer works and is awash in white paint. Corinthian columns, a comfortable, velvety couch, and two wooden chairs are stationed in the middle of the spacious gallery, which offers ample room to study Nolde's watercolors and graphics. Soulios's desk - covered with papers and computerware - and a table of art books are set off to one side.

The first exhibit open to the public featured New York artist Bruno Fonseca, who recently died of what was diagnosed as AIDS. McEnroe says he picked Fonseca to inaugurate his art hall earlier this year because he was a strong artist with a great collection and ''I wanted to do something positive for him before he died.''

McEnroe says he likes to work with promising artists because they have not been tainted by the cutthroat business aspects of art. ''I like working with emerging artists because they can trust someone like me not to rip them off,'' he says. ''And the relationship turns out great because I am not worrying about money.''

Although he adds he does not want to lose money, McEnroe is beginning to realize that he does not like the business side of art very much. ''It is more competitive than the tennis circuit.''

Reaction on the Nolde exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive. David Zwirner, owner of the David Zwirner Gallery next door, says that it ''looks like a professionally hung show, and I was impressed by the huge public turnout.'' Asked whether he thought the turnout was because of the name of the gallery or the exhibit, Zwirner replied: ''It's a combination. McEnroe is famous and Nolde is famous.''

The Nolde collection is made up of borrowed works from private German collectors, says McEnroe, and ''every one but two is on sale for the right price.'' McEnroe is partial to the ''Poppies'' watercolor, the most costly Nolde creation valued at $500,000, and the lithograph ''Sea (Wave).''

Paula Donis, a West Village resident visiting the gallery for the first time, says it is an incredible exhibit. Period. ''I am fan of flower art, and Nolde's work is fantastic,'' she says. ''McEnroe has a good eye for detail and the fact that it is his gallery was not a plus or minus - it was the exhibit that drew me here.''

Another visitor to the gallery did not even make the connection. ''Is this that John McEnroe's gallery? I didn't know.''

For the tennis-star-turned-art-collector, this is exactly how he wants his gallery to be viewed. Not as an art hall that is his in name only, but as a place for serious artworks chosen by the owner. ''Each year I want to learn a little bit more, do a few shows a year at my gallery, and eventually find my own niche in the art world.''

* The Nolde exhibit is on display at the John McEnroe Gallery, 41 Greene Street, New York, through July 23 and then will be shown in Leipzig, Germany, from Aug. 3 to Sept. 9.

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