Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words. I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, the senior editor of Art Agency, Partners. Joining us today is Gavin Brown. an Englishman who opened his gallery, Gavin Brown’s enterprise, in 1994—a sort of punkish, creative staple of the art world ever since. It’s now based in Harlem. Gavin Brown brings an artist’s eye to art dealing, staging memorable exhibitions including one of my own favorite ever shows, the recreation of Jannis Kounellis’ Untitled (12 Horses) in June 2015, which is a legendary work of installation art, first executed in Rome in 1969.
Hi Gavin, thanks for joining us.
Gavin Brown: Thanks for inviting me.
Charlotte Burns: And also we have Allan Schwartzman, the co-founder of Art Agency, Partners and chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Arts Division. Hi Allan.
Allan Schwartzman: Hi there.
Charlotte Burns: So I thought we’d begin by talking to you, Gavin, I’m putting you on the spot a little bit by talking about your individuality as a dealer, which is one of the things that’s always struck me when thinking about your stable of artists, your choice of real estate locations, and the exhibitions you’ve encouraged your artists to mount. Kounellis is my favorite artist bar none, and that was one of the most wonderful exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Do you want to tell us more about how that came about?
Gavin Brown: It was originally an exhibition, or installation or “happening”, in a gallery in Rome where he tethered 12 horses to the walls of the gallery. There’s one iconic photograph of that work that I think is embedded in the minds of anyone who has any interest in post-war art. It’s an arresting image. It speaks to the power of the work that that one image was able to communicate a fraction of the power of what it must have been like to be in that room.
So, for many years it’s just been lodged in the back of my brain. On Greenwich Street, when we had a portion of the building, and then my landlords moved out from the other two thirds, it was one of those moments where you say, “Shall I try this?” So I negotiated renting the rest of the building, which was probably too much space—a leap of faith. Part of that was a notion that I could do a show like that. I remember having lunch with you, Allan, soon after I’d taken on the space, and somehow it popped out of my mouth.
Anyway, I put that dream aside and started to do regular exhibitions and get into the treadmill of the art world rather than actually doing the kind of things I imagined I might do. Not that I didn’t enjoy all of those shows, but it wasn’t until I realized that I had to move out of the space—because the building was being sold—that I realized it was now or never. Because as well as wanting to see it, and wanting to be in it, I thought that New York needed to see it, in a way.
I think Arte Povera always came over to these shores as an artifact—
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gavin Brown: —rather than a visceral experience. We never really touched it. It really did feel like something that I couldn’t avoid. I got in touch with Jannis through Howard Read [the dealer, who co-founded Cheim & Read Gallery] and we discussed the work. I was meeting [Jannis] to ask him permission, essentially.
I said to him that I saw this work as a weapon that I wanted him to loan me so I could wield it. I think that caught his imagination. We did stage that, and it was kind of a very emotional experience for a lot of people. Or a striking experience.
Charlotte Burns: Yeah it really was. I was always curious as to how you persuaded him, so it’s interesting to know that that was the language you used.
Gavin Brown: I think it was partly the idea that he could somehow help define this—we’re at a kind of fulcrum moment, I think we always are every day. There seemed to be a larger fulcrum moment happening, right now within our small world, and I think it reflects into larger worlds and…
Charlotte Burns: How would you describe that moment?
Gavin Brown: To borrow a few terms: hyper-normalization, hyper-capitalization, the shrunken status of an art work underneath the weight of just things like, you know, the price of real estate. I was having to move. Just that alone seemed like a reason for some kind of remark.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gavin Brown: It seemed to somehow be a moment for us all to look up and look around a little bit.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve said in an interview with Art Review that you weren’t sure that the model of the local gallery had a future, in New York anyway, and that the ecosystem might be reduced to whale sharks and suckerfish. You also wondered about the enormous entities—those whale sharks, which you also called Megalodons—and said that once art’s tamed, it tends to disintegrate and then reemerge in other places in our society. It’s not anyone’s fault necessarily—if water is money, then it does what it does best and rushes in, and, as it does, it pushes air—or art—out. And we’re all left gasping, wondering where all the air went.
Allan, I know this is something you think about a lot, the sort of squishing of that creative class of galleries and of artists. Is that something you want to talk about a little bit?
Allan Schwartzman: Sure. We’ve developed an unprecedented market for art that has in so many ways defined how we perceive the art that it embraces. Also, it sorts through art in a way that artificially divides it into different kinds of classes of experience. In a way this goes way back. I remember in the late 70s—as this art market that we’re in now was, where its roots were just being set—prior to that, there really wasn’t a market in New York for the work of younger artists. The art that sold was Pop art and Minimalism, which, you know, Minimalism was already 15 years old, and Pop older.
Once a few artists started to sell, you could see a kind of subtle but profound shift take place, where they went from making work to making shows, and once I saw that happening, I realized that so many artists had removed themselves from the space in which to potentially evolve into making something completely different from what we had known them for.
As the market started to gather momentum, objects that became more collectible became more the focus of the market. And the market got so effective at making anything collectible that, in a way, it left the door open for artists like Kounellis, of other generations who worked on environmental scale, to be collected as well. So, there was kind of a duality of it.
Certainly—over the last 20 or so years—certainly in the period of time, Gavin, from when—
Allan Schwartzman: —around when you opened your gallery and through ‘til today, there’s been the evolution of a market that, I think, many people saw as possible but didn’t ever imagine would exist on the scale that it does—both in terms of pricing and the size of the audience and the marketplace—and how that then shifts the perception of art as a living, developing thing.
It kind of creates this false division between artists and how they think and what they make. But at the same time I think it also seems to be developing younger generations of artists to whom the market, and the success of the object, is embedded in how they think about what they do and why they do it.
Charlotte Burns: How does that affect artists in the way they see themselves or the role of a gallery?
Gavin Brown: First of all, I’d like to just, just note that it’s ironic, on many levels, we’re discussing this here. Just preface everything by that.
Charlotte Burns: Right.
Gavin Brown: I don’t know, it’s just the oxygen we breathe now. My good friend Rirkrit Tiravanija once said just few years ago that he doesn’t believe there are any artists left in the West—and the West being an idea. We have to accept how far capital has come in the door of the artists’ studio, and some artists can cope with that, and embrace it, and do interesting things with that. I think you have to take quite a strict political position if you do, now, want to act outside of those paradigms. And—
Charlotte Burns: In what way?
Gavin Brown: How can you avoid commercial value in your work. Once you go down that road, you don’t get off really. You caught me at a particular mood. I think it’s an infinitely depressing situation. Not that there isn’t incredible work being made, but it feels like the virgin forests of the world—it’s an endangered situation.
Allan Schwartzman: So Gavin, when you opened your gallery, the market had crashed. A new generation of artists was starting to emerge whose values and the look of the things they made were fundamentally different. You opened near Soho, which was then—
Gavin Brown: Mm-hmm.
Allan Schwartzman: —the center of the art market, not in Soho. I’m wondering, in your mind, what you were doing and what it meant to be opening a gallery at that moment.
Gavin Brown: I don’t think I was thinking very clearly about it at the time. I had—by that time, I had two children, and I was trying, in some ways, to be an artist. But if I looked at the facts of my life, I would be spending maybe a handful of hours per week in a studio, have to keep a day job—the future looked pretty drab to keep going that way. And I guess I hadn’t found my own voice as an artist really. So I was, well in the back of my head I was saying, “What do you think you’re doing?” And having that day job—at that time—at 303 Gallery, I got into talking to people about art and about why it mattered. And it was the way to try and have my own life rather than have a job.
The crash happened in 1990.
Allan Schwartzman: ‘90, yeah.
Gavin Brown: And I supposed—you know—two ways of looking at it. Possibly it’s a more personal way of looking at the reason, but I guess I just had a sniff that there was a gap in the market for what I might be presenting, and I had a notion of the fact that I could perhaps trade back and forth across the Atlantic. I had to survive on everything I sold. Both the gallery had to and my family had to. So that was a great motivator.
Charlotte Burns: Survival.
Gavin Brown: Yeah. It’s a very creative state.
Allan Schwartzman: And so what defines survival today? In a market where there’s so much money for some art—
Gavin Brown: Mm-hmm.
Allan Schwartzman: —and in a moment where, as you quote Rirkrit [Tiravanija] as saying, maybe art no longer really exists in this environment. What leads to—
Gavin Brown: Which is obviously hyperbole, but—
Allan Schwartzman: Of course, but we get it, and—
Gavin Brown: Mm-hmm.
Allan Schwartzman: —and we feel it to various extents as well. What defines survival for you now? What kind of decisions do you make? Has your approach to this—or thinking about what it means to be a gallery—has that changed in all this time?
Gavin Brown: I’d want to put the question back to you. Does it look like it’s changed? I don’t know ‘cause I’m on the inside of it: 20-some years later, it feels as though I’m having to work just as hard as I ever did, and—don’t cry for me but—I thought it would be a lot easier by now. The stakes are just that much higher, and it feels just as much as on a knife-edge as it ever did.
Allan Schwartzman: Well, to me, your gallery’s always represented artists and not artworks, and that is what has given it a kind of spirit and sustenance and elasticity that has enabled you to change the program while remaining to work with some of the artists with which you started the gallery, and work with many other kinds of artists who you never could have imagined—I suspect—exhibiting when you first opened your doors.
Gavin Brown: So, yeah. You remind me that it is a very different gallery, I guess. I work with Alex Katz and Joan Jonas and Thomas Vila. I worked with Sturtevant. I worked with Kounellis. If nothing else, working with those artists—you know forget it’s what the gallery looks like because of that—just me, personally, that has been just sometimes, you know, in the most stressful circumstances, I think it’s okay actually, whatever happens because you’re walking an extraordinary path with these extraordinary people who are at this really sacred moment in their lives. These are the late moments of their lives and these are not politicians. They’re not functionaries. They’re artists, and they’re great artists.
So if this is where I am at the end of 25 years, I think that’s fantastic to have the opportunity to go to Alex’s studio—you know—two times a week, and he’s usually made one or two new paintings each time.
Allan Schwartzman: So, what opened that door for you? You began as the person I would look to to have the clearer sense of what’s truly compelling in new art.
Gavin Brown: You know, I was 29 when I opened the gallery and I’m 50—nearly 53 now. So, I’m a different person. Perhaps I feel more in common with these people, and I look to them in a way. Perhaps, I would have been, perhaps, dismissive of back then, you know, being arrogant. I think perhaps it speaks to what we were just talking about in terms of what it means for a younger artist to be working now and to come of age and not know anything but the permeating sense of capital everywhere that you don’t even know it’s there as with the internet really. It’s always hand-and-hand.
It’s just like a complete flood information and value. These artists came of age at a different time that I wasn’t necessarily aware of, I didn’t experience, but I was told about. The New York of 50 years ago, where you could afford to live very cheaply doesn’t exist. It’s still an idea that draws people here, but it’s gone.
They were products of that kind of idyllic utopian New York, bohemian New York. God, I sound nostalgic. I think I in some ways just wanted to make sure that I maintained contact with that kind of reality. We are at a fundamentally enormous inflection point. So, I guess I can stick my head in the sand and work with older artists, but it doesn’t feel that way.
Charlotte Burns: Well, you were also credited with giving them a re-contextualization. Throughout your time as a dealer, really, but I’m thinking since your move to Harlem, several recent exhibitions have had political grounding. Whether that was Arthur Jafa’s “Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death”, or the Obama portraits, and I was wondering the extent to which you feel compelled in the current political climate to change your program, to be political, or respond to the artist if they’re being political.
Gavin Brown: I do and don’t believe what I’m going to say. I think the current political climate is more of a revelation of what’s always been there in this country, and I think in the liberal left, we were complacent for a very, very long time. The fact that we had black president meant we didn’t need to really pay attention. But on the other hand, I do feel as though we are now in uncharted territory. Forget the level of incompetence or corruption: the venality and the vindictiveness, I think, is unprecedented.
Perhaps other people would say it’s just always been there systemically, and I also agree with that, but I think there are certain things happening. You know, you have an out-and-out fascist in charge of the Justice Department, so—
I was definitely complacent myself—not that I’m trying to play catch-up—but things fell into my lap and, for example, Arthur’s film. Meeting AJ, Arthur, is perhaps a greater effect on my life than the film even. It’s inseparable. But we had lunch, and he was saying, “I don’t want show it, I’m going to put it on YouTube.” And uh, I said, “I really think this needs to be seen in a formal setting as like a public sculpture.”
We opened in November 12th. And it was the weekend after the election, and I think a lot of people were quite stunned still. People weren’t at work. As their first time to kind of wake up without obligations to go to work, and—I think— that Saturday, thinking, “Wow what the hell is going on.” And people came to this opening and saw this film and the energy was—we had a party. I don’t know whether it was a funeral or something else, but it was extraordinary.
Charlotte Burns: Like an Irish wake.
Gavin Brown: Something like that.
Charlotte Burns: You’ve always had a reputation for a great eye and for forging your own path and we discussed some of the artists that you’ve been showing, but also in terms of real estate. When you were on the west side of downtown, you were further downtown than everybody else who was in Chelsea. You were in the West Village. You’re one of the few dealers in Harlem, and you have obviously the space in Rome as well. Why do you open in places where other people aren’t?
Gavin Brown: Usually it’s just expedient decisions about space and rent. But, you know, there’s another part of me—I just don’t want to be in a mall. Maybe it’s arrogance, “I think I’m better than everybody else.” It’s not that really. I think you have to have a part of that in yourself to do this job. I guess I’m just trying to, in some ways, hang on to the idea that this is a unique experience.
If I’m sandwiched in between two other galleries, I think it just restricts the way you think. I don’t know. Me anyway. I don’t—I’m not saying that’s the case for everybody.
Now in Harlem, it’s just the most awe-inspiring space and has such soul in terms of the paradigms of the contemporary art world, this is perhaps a step outside completely. Not even on the margins of it, but outside of it. It seemed to make some poetic sense in terms of one chapter after another.
Charlotte Burns: Has it changed the gallery—being in Harlem—does it change the way you think? Do you get visitors?
Gavin Brown: Absolutely. Yeah well for Arthur’s film, it definitely got visitors—that was a kind of before-and-after moment with “Love is The Message”, but definitely changing the way I think. You cannot possibly move a business like that from the location it was at to the location it is at now and imagine it’ll be business as usual.
Soho was an abandoned industrial space. And Chelsea was essentially an abandoned industrial zone, and Harlem is a residential neighborhood that cultural history of a century. So, it’s an entirely different thing. And it’s a strange time to be there, as it feels as though the subject of the origins of this country are finally being dealt with in some way—maybe not at all, I don’t know—it seems to be an unavoidable conversation now.
I think that’s exactly what one of the things AJ’s film was about. There is no way that we can ignore the experience of black [Americans] and pretend—there are contradictions in this society that are just unresolvable without conversation or without some kind of change.
Charlotte Burns: But how does that influence your program?
Gavin Brown: I am in an interesting point in my life, so I am trying to figure that out in a way that is respectful and effective. That’s a vague answer. I think I’m in a position now to have the gallery be something more than a place of commerce, which goes back to our original question. Where is the art? And the art now, it has to function in an arena that isn’t just about commerce and about that kind of value. I have to search for many different kinds of value.
Charlotte Burns: So you can use the commerce, the success you’ve achieved, to hopefully create something new?
Gavin Brown: I think selling art is fantastic. It seems contradictory, but whose art gets sold? And whose art is visible? I think we are at a moment, perhaps when we have had quite formal academic conversations with each other, is being forced to have a wider view.
Allan Schwartzman: There’s something about your space in Harlem that reminds me somewhat of two places that opened in the late 1970s or the mid 70s. One being PS1.
Gavin Brown: Mm-hmm.
Allan Schwartzman: When that was a building with raw space that had had a memory of it’s own history within it, but was also a blank slate where artists could do anything. Where the door was open to think, both spatially and mentally, quite broadly. And the other place that reminds me of somewhat is Fashion Moda, when Stefan Eins went up to the South Bronx—which was about as far from the center of culture that New York is known to be as any place in New York—and opened a store front gallery in the middle what was one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York.
Gavin Brown: Mm-hmm.
Allan Schwartzman: And it became the place where artists from downtown wanted to be because the art world had become too predictable, systematized, the art too categorizable. It was about place. It was about feeling like the traditional art environment had become stale and limiting.
Gavin Brown: I guess I do appreciate the comparison, but I am still making decisions because the financial imperative is so dense, I can’t ignore it in the decisions I make, so perhaps I could’ve gone up to Yonkers, and really kind of just jumped ship. But a number of kind of calculations my head told me that 127th street could possibly work financially, not in opposition, but in cooperation, in collusion with the rest of the market. That’s a contradiction inherent in my position there. It is a neighborhood, and, in order to function there, it is not just about having people visit to buy art, but—one of it’s ways it’s going to have to function is to be a neighbor. I’m figuring out what that means, too.
Allan Schwartzman: Could you speak about that in relation to Rome. I haven’t visited your space in Rome. That already is a completely other environment.
Gavin Brown: Rome was more, in many ways—someone should stop me doing it, ‘cause it takes a lot of energy, it makes not much money— but it was more just an escape hatch. Again, it was about the space, just as it was on 127th street, this space was just insistent. It’s a small space. So it’s an 8th-century church. And I’ve looked to the outside of it for about 10 years, just because I always go to this lovely little restaurant in Trastevere and sit outside and stare at this building, which has a very anonymous façade—the windows are high, way higher than you could ever look into, and they’re always dark, and the door is always shut. I’ve always got like kind of a real estate lust wherever I go—I think, “Well that could be a gallery, or that could be a gallery.”
Less so these days—I’ve kind of got a little burned—but it bewitched me, and eventually I asked through a friend. And then, that weekend, I was in there. I walked in the door and it was just an incredible space. It had a massive marble alter at the back, and the walls were totally crumbling, and the floor was mosaic, there was all these signs from it’s previous incarnations—I think there was a carpenter there, or some kind of workshop. All the beams had been burned off—the metal beams—there were kind of scars all around the wall, and I thought, “Oh, I’m done for.” It was just a way of somehow, perhaps looking for a door out of this place we were discussing in the beginning.
Charlotte Burns: Allan, do you have anything to ask?
Allan Schwartzman: What’s new today?
Gavin Brown: April 30th we are opening Joan Jonas on 127th street.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you so much.
Gavin Brown: Thank you very much.
Charlotte Burns: Thank you Gavin for joining us. Thank you Allan for joining us. It was really interesting. I appreciate it.
Allan Schwartzman: Thank you Gavin.
Gavin Brown: Thank you.