The Sol Goldman Real Estate Empire exhibition presented at the Tate

Photo illustration by Sol Goldman (Getty, Twitter)

In the days before ACRIS and Internet sleuths, Sol Goldman’s Manhattan real estate empire was shrouded in near-total secrecy, his only paper trail lying unassembled in the dusty filing cabinets of the clerk’s office. New York County. In 1972, at the height of Goldman’s dominance and notoriety, Hans Haacke decided to put it all back together.

Building by building, Haacke, a German-born artist, sketched a treasure map documenting the location, purchase price and ownership entities of the approximately 350 buildings controlled by Goldman and his partner, Alex DiLorenzo. With each description, Haacke included photographs of the building’s facades. The final product translated Goldman’s confused holdings into 11 columns of clear information, printed on plain paper. It was basic by today’s standards but unprecedented at the time.

This Rosetta Stone is now on display at the Tate Modern in London, titled “Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971”. The article opens with a list of the 19 fictitious companies used by Goldman to buy the properties, their delightfully boring names one by one: Oxford Associates, Pierpont Associates, Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse Incorporated.

The job, like Goldman’s real estate strategy — buy buildings, rent them, almost never sell them — is simple. This is reminiscent of Haacke’s minimalist contemporaries like Donald Judd, who constructed their featureless sculptures to be mirrors of the minds of their viewers. With no obvious meaning, their art reflected everything the viewer saw in it.

“In this business, you make money slowly.”

–Sol Goldman

Haacke’s work also includes a map of Manhattan, with each of Goldman’s properties circled. They dot the network like chickenpox, afflicting every end of Manhattan, from the Upper East Side to the Financial District.

Goldman favored long-term land leases, which promised stable returns over time. The tenants paid him rent for the land, but covered the property taxes and maintenance of the building themselves. In 2013, The real deal pegged the value of the family’s assets at $6 billion, including land under trophies such as 1407 Broadway, the Olympic Tower, and the Cartier Building.

“In this business, you make money slowly,” Goldman told Forbes in 1985, two years before his death. “The main thing is not to sell anything.”

Goldman’s portfolio passed to his children, Jane and Allan Goldman of Solil Management. Goldman’s nephew, Lloyd Goldman, founded BLDG Management, a major sole proprietor with more than 300 properties, according to its website.

Throughout his tenure, tenant groups criticized Goldman, alleging his company harassed tenants and neglected buildings.

In 1960, just 18 days after Goldman took over the Chrysler Building, its service and maintenance staff went on strike. Goldman brought in a labor relations firm, SGS Associates, to handle the situation. The company’s treasurer and partner, according to a gold-plated sign on his office door, was a certain Carlo Gambino, head of the Gambino crime family.

“I wanted to do something about power in New York.”

– Hans Haacke

Union officials said shortly after the strike began, goons arrived on the scene in Cadillacs with guns akimbo, according to the New York Times. The strike ended a few hours later, after the intervention of the mayor’s office. Goldman was so pleased with the group’s methods that he paid them an annual retainer of $13,500 until 1963.

Goldman’s shell companies and tenants have inserted layers between the landlord and the alleged suffering in his properties. By cataloging the property records so clearly, Haacke breaks that distance, as if it were housing a Jenga tower so that only the top layer – Goldman – and the bottom layer – its tenants – remained.

For his first solo exhibition in the United States, Haacke planned to exhibit the piece and another similar one tracing the estates of owner Harry Shapolsky at the Guggenheim Museum. Guggenheim director Thomas Messer canceled the show and fired a curator who defended the work. The museum, Messer said, was “not the appropriate place to display the Slumber Merchants”.

For Haacke, the piece was not limited to enlightening an owner.

“I wanted to do something for power in New York,” he told The Times in 1987. “And that is immovable.”