On April 7, 2020, my friend, the art dealer and lover of art Eugene Foney, passed away. I wanted to share some brief thoughts about this remarkable man.
My first encounter with Eugene came in late 1991. He arrived at my mothers’ home to see a painting that I had given to her as a gift. The painting was a very large Willem de Kooning-influenced abstraction. Eugene looked at the painting for a long time, then asked, “Can I buy it?”
I said, “Brother, it’s my mother’s painting!” We both laughed, and moved on to talk other business. The next day Eugene called and inquired about the painting, this time with a dollar figure. I said, “Dude, no,” but he would not be denied.
After going back and forth, I began to rethink the deal. I thought: Mom could use the cash; I could always make another painting. I met Eugene at my mothers’ home while she was at work — he took the painting, and I took the cash!
It’s now safe to say that cash did not win the day. Because later that day, when my mother came home, I handed her the cash, but with a confused look on her face she said, “What is this? And where is my painting?” Years later, I had a show of my drawings here in Houston. At the opening, Eugene spotted my mother across the crowded room and approached her, but before he could speak, she said to him, “The man who stole my painting!” They both laughed.
Although I had known Eugene for 30 years or so, he remained a mystery to me. I remember visiting him once at his home here in Houston. There was a rather large brick house in front and a garage apartment in back. Eugene lived in the garage apartment; he used the house in front for his art business.
The place was packed with art: prints, paintings, drawings, posters, photos, and books everywhere. I remember feeling that this was Eugene’s biography. A salesman’s travels — his passions, and perhaps his hardships.
Something else I recall about Eugene is that when you saw him at a public event he was always returning from someplace: Japan, Europe, NYC, or Chicago. I remember thinking, How does this cat pull this off? It was one of the things I admired most about him — he was a hustler, a throwback to something distant, something about him was the stuff of novels and plays.
Eugene convinced me to make my first set of serious prints. The set was called Ready Made Africans. We drove his car to San Antonio to meet the printers and we had a long talk about art. We spoke of artworld bullshit, cheap collectors, the state of black art in America, money, and why we chose to do this for a living.
For Eugene, art was a powerful device for communication. He felt the voice of African American artists had to be heard, and he wanted to be a part of providing that platform, and he was. Eugene’s relationship to the late-great artist John Biggers is well known. He was a longtime champion of the painter’s work and helped introduce Biggers to a new generation of artists. Of course, John had many champions in the wonderful people at Texas Southern University, and many others. But what caught my fancy was Eugene, the traveling salesman, with Biggers’ prints in his car.
Eugene’s independent spirit and trickster double consciousness was a powerful device — one I felt he used throughout his life. I really believe that he used these forces to help many African American artist thrive. He attended every opening and every talk, like the best boxers moving in and out of range but always going the distance. There will be another time to give a more intellectual analysis of Eugene’s career, but for now, in memory of my friend, I am reminded of the essay by James Baldwin called Sweet Lorraine, about the late Lorrine Hansberry. The essay ends with Baldwin’s telling of his last encounter with the her. He tells her how beautiful she looks as they’re departing, and she responds by saying, “It helps to develop a serious illness, Jimmy,” and then waves and disappears.
The last time I saw Eugene was at an opening at the Menil Collection in Houston. It was very crowded, and I saw him standing in the corner, looking very much like a tall African sculpture. We didn’t speak but stared at each other with that brother man stare that can say everything that needs to be said. I finally met him as we were both leaving, and as we walked out we talked a little about Chicago, and what I was working on, and set a time for a studio visit. As he headed to his car, he turned and said, “I will see you when I get back,” and then waved and disappeared.