Interview with Robert Green, of Robert Green Fine Arts

Robert Green Fine Arts is a well-established art gallery at the corner of Throckmorton Avenue and Madrona Street in Mill Valley, a block west of town square. You’ll often find Robert (Bob) at the front desk. More likely than not, the paintings surrounding him will be splashed with color – large splashes of color. 

Green has been in the art business for 53 years; 30 of them in this Mill Valley location. At 81 years old, he lives nearby with Pauline, his wife of nearly 50 years and has no intention of ever retiring from the work that he has spent much of his life pursuing. He loves the business of acquiring and selling fine art. With a specialty in current and mid-century abstract expressionism, Green is very well-known in that specific art genre.

“Bob has the best reputation in the business,” says Donna Seager, a former gallery partner and current neighbor. “He has absolute integrity and only shows works that he feels passionate about.”

I recently spent a couple hours with Bob Green to learn more about what makes him so enthusiastic about Abstract Impressionism and his place in the art market.

Photo above: Charlotte Bernstorm, painter and Co-director Robert Green Fine Arts and Robert Green
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Photo: Sam Francis 1963 (SF-75) Monoprint, 16x23 inches, available at Robert Green Fine Arts

Your gallery has “fine art” in its title and you specialize in “abstract expressionism.” Please explain both terms? Fine art is visually eloquent. Art is a communicative process and, just like a good speaker is labeled verbally eloquent if he or she can deliver a polished presentation, art is fine art if it is visually eloquent. You can see fine art when you look at the work of Francis O. Jenkins or Jane Cook. They can lay paint beautifully and that causes people to look. Sure, anyone can splatter and splash and dash paint around, but it isn’t good. Is that being subjective? Not really. People who look enough, who go to enough museums and see enough exhibits get a refined sensibility; you know what’s good and what’s bad. As for abstract expressionism, it is just as much human imagery as is painting a landscape; a human being is still doing it. But instead of painting a landscape, they are choosing to paint their emotions. The content of an abstract expressionist painting is emotion. It is the truest and most courageous form of painting because you are always in the moment; you are always in the process. You choose a color that reflects the emotional state you are in at that moment. You let your arm, or your body, move freely because that is the way you feel you need to move to convey a feeling or emotion. Does that make sense?

Who are the well-known exemplars of the form of art? Oh, I’d say Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning. Helen Franekenthaler and Joan Mitchell come quickly to mind. Many who’d experienced the Second World War in various ways, gathered in New York City in the 1950s and for them, abstract expressionism was how they expressed their emotions of that horrible conflict. It was America’s first “home grown” school of art and helped transfer the balance in art from Paris to New York. For the last several years our Mill Valley gallery has been a major seller of the works of Sam Francis, Paul Jenkins and Ed Moses; all three are considered outstanding abstract expressionist painters.

Tell us a secret about the art business; e.g., do you bargain with prices? Do we bargain? Oh yes. But we only bargain with people we feel are really moved by the piece we are bargaining over. And if that person is a consistent buyer and not if it’s not a particularly rare piece of art. We like to think the prices we are offering are fair to begin with. The way I work is that if a painting is on consignment, say for $7,000, the artist gets $3,500 and I get $3,500. But if I choose to bargain, the amount I bargain away comes off my $3,500, not the artist’s share.

As a gallery owner, do you own the art you sell: or is it on consignment from the artist? Two-thirds of the art I show, I own. Our current exhibit of Sam Francis mono-prints are works I recently acquired from his foundation. Prices range from $2,500 to $12,000. They are very exciting, one-of-a-kinds pieces. 

How are prices set on a work of art?  You can go to a big gallery in a big city where an artist fresh out of art school is getting $25,000 for a painting we wouldn’t have the guts to sell for more than $7,000. It used to be a rule of thumb, maybe it still is, that a painter at the beginning of their career who is selling regularly, could price a 30” x 40” painting for between $1,500 and $2,500. And a mid-career painter, who is turning out good work and has a good exhibition history, depending on the size and strength of the image, would charge between $7,000 and $14,000 for such a painting and they’ve got to sell regularly at that level. Then you’ve got the artist that’s been around forever and has a good history, it’s whatever the initial traffic will bear. But you don’t try to gouge anybody. The difference is now is the art business has become the art business. It’s all about money, particularly in New York. For me, I’m in that business, but it’s not all about the money. That isn’t the business I got into, that isn’t the business I want to be in. I love seeing someone buying a painting and taking it home excited to see it hanging. I want that person to feel as passionate about that painting as I do.

At age 81, why is it you have no plans to ever retire? A few years ago, I had to close for three months while repairs were made to the gallery’s foundation. But in those three months I discovered there’s only so much tennis you can play, only so many matinee movies you can see and only so many hikes you can take. That’s when I committed: I’m going to do this until I’m 100, maybe until I’m 200. I don’t want to brag, but my feeling is we’re one of the best galleries around, anywhere. Not just in the Bay Area, but in the whole country. I’ve had people actually tells us that; not just for the nature of the shows we do, but for the consistency of the good work we do. Sure we’re not showing Mark Rothkos and selling them for $17 million, but the painters we do show are showing damn good work. We don’t bring painters aboard unless we feel that what they are doing is really significant and visually eloquent. We look through their oeuvre, their body of work, and choose only the best stock. We want to be proud of everything we put on the wall. So I’m going to go with this as long as I’m ambulatory. 

Through the months of July and August, Robert Green Fine Arts will be exhibiting mono-prints by the American abstract expressionist Sam Francis. These are prints that have been in warehouse conditions since the 1960s and have never been exhibited before. There are 40 of them, ranging in size from 11” x 15” to 22” x 30” and, as previously stated, priced from $2,500 to $12,000. Robert Green Fine Arts is located at 154 Throckmorton Avenue in Mill Valley, California; their phone is 415.381.8776 and email is rgfa@sbcglobal.net.

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