Houston photography dealer John Cleary was a bear of a man, but of the "Teddy" type, and it was a shock to the photo community to have him pass away so quickly. He had thought the problem was diabetes, but it turned out to be pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed on New Year's Day. John lasted out the month and passed away on the morning of February 1st. Many of us had seen him during Art Basel Miami week in early December. While he had lost weight and looked tired, none of us, including John, realized how serious it was.
I met John in the 1980s when he was still a private dealer doing many of the same table-top shows that we all did then. Then 12 years ago John opened his gallery at 2635 Colquitt in Houston. His associate, who really ran the place anyway, Catherine Couturier, will continue the gallery, so please go visit and buy some of John's selections.
Here's how his old hotel roommate and fellow photo dealer Barry Singer described him during his eulogy: "I never met anyone quite like John Cleary. What did I know? I was just a country bumpkin from Petaluma. John was from the WORLD…meaning Texas. He loved being from Texas, especially when it made others uncomfortable. He was always the perfect host. If you were in his town, you were HIS guest and away you went to his favorite honky tonk Bar, Blanco's or the best BBQ in Texas, and along the way you would always run into past wives and girlfriends…still in hot pursuit."
Houston collector and close friend Burt Nelson said this about John in his eulogy: "John was a totally honorable man and a wheeler dealer at the same time. If I didn't buy the print he had found for me, he would almost always have a second buyer lined up for it. But in an attempt to get prints into the RIGHT home, John would offer that collector a better price. If you ever protested about the price, which several of us did simply to get John riled up, even though we knew the price to be fair, John would utter one of his trademark lines, 'Where you gonna get another one?' John's death leaves a hole in my world, and in the world of photography. In answer to the question 'Where you gonna get another one', I know I can find another photo dealer, but I know I can't find another John Cleary."
One of his girlfriends told me that one of the reasons John started his gallery was to hide his gambling winnings. He was a gin rummy player extraordinaire. And his eulogizers, including his sister, all noted John's love for women and their reciprocation. Nelson said, "John did love his women, and vice versa. My estimation is that John kept every girlfriend he ever had. As he was bed-ridden in his last few weeks, women visitors cut a furrow in the carpet heading to his apartment. The guard at the building actually asked 'Didn't Mister Cleary know any men?'"
As you might tell from the descriptions, John was someone bigger than life. He was loved by many, including me. The service was attended by over 250 people, including a contingent of college fraternity brothers, ex-girlfriends, photo collectors and photo dealers. AIPAD dealers who came to services included Steve Bulger from Toronto, Andy Smith from Santa Fe, Terry Etherton from Tucson, Barry Singer from Petaluma, Henry Feldstein (who was a pall bearer), William Schaeffer from Chester, CT, Burt Finger from Dallas and myself. I want to thank collector Burt Nelson, who took us all out later to dinner at one of John's favorite bar-b-que places. A huge lightening storm lit up the horizon during dinner, as if John was letting us know he wasn't going quietly. Rest in peace, my friend.