Gavin Brown

Read our interview with the New York gallerist, from the January & February 2014 issue

By Tom Eccles

Gavin Brown is an Englishman whose eponymous gallery, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, opened in New York’s SoHo in 1994. In 1999 he opened Passerby, a bar located next to the gallery’s then location in the Meatpacking District. Famed for – among other things – its disco-style dancefloor (created by artist Piotr Uklanski), Passerby closed in 2008. Currently located in the West Village, the gallery represents a range of international artists, including Sturtevant, Rob Pruitt, Elizabeth Peyton, Kerstin Brätsch, Alex Katz, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Laura Owens.

ArtReview: You were once an artist and studied at Newcastle Polytechnic during the early 1980s. Why did you stop making art?

Gavin Brown: I stopped because I didn’t feel compelled to make. Also, I didn’t trust my own voice. Since then I have come to miss that conversation one has with oneself. The artist, in my mind, is the ultimate human being. The human being we were made to be. To paraphrase Keats: survival is creativity, creativity survival – that is all ye need to know, blah blah blah.

AR: That’s really paraphrasing. In that vein, Nietzsche said one must either have a ‘soul that is cheerful by nature, or a soul made cheerful by work, love, art and knowledge’. You seem to me the latter.

GB: I envy those souls who are cheerful by nature. They either understand the universe in a way I can only glimpse or – I suspect – they are actually missing something. And once the universe reveals itself to those cheerful souls, they join the rest of us in the ranks of those who seek solace in work, love, art and knowledge. That to me is the actual human condition. Anything else is denial. You haven’t looked around you.

AR: You’re unusual for a gallerist of your generation, not least because you don’t come from a privileged background.

GB: Not from a privileged background? Is that true? I’m white, male, born into a solidly middle-class family in a stable Western democracy. I think I am incredibly lucky. However, when one zooms in, and focuses on the island of Manhattan, and then still further down into the anthill that is the New York/ international artworld, maybe one could make an argument for otherwise. But part of the reason I moved to New York in the first place was because of the porous nature of its class stratification. In the UK at that time – and basically still today – your life and your prospects were rigidly defined by your background. Unless of course you are an artist – the ultimate human being. And if I look around me at my peers in New York, I would say the majority have ongoing anxiety about financial obligations. People who are surviving by hard work and creativity. The fact that almost all of them are white can be a little disturbing.

AR: How did you make it to New York? And how did you survive in the early days?

GB: The Early Days? All the way back? Ahh… I’m getting misty-eyed. I might have to take a moment. Do you mind if I reminisce? The first years in New York were all about surviving creatively. I came over with a few dollars in my pocket – about $3,000. In 1988 dollars, that wasn’t bad. I had made $1,500 by selling posters of kittens, boy bands and muscle cars on the sidewalk in various shopping centres around London. And dear old mum gave me another $1,500. When I arrived I found an old friend from college who was working at the diner that used to be on Spring and 6th. She knew that Canal Bar was hiring, so I went there and got a busboy job – one week here and I was watching Run- DMC demolish a tableful of lobsters. Watching Brian McNally work a room. That was an eye-opener. A week after starting, someone at Canal Bar told me the Odeon was hiring. So I went over there. I hadn’t ever waited tables before, but I somehow convinced them to give me a job. I only just survived my first week there. But that was a fun time. Running from lunch shift at the Odeon to dinner at Canal Bar. I got fired from the Odeon after a year or so. Then it was various apartment-painting gigs for a year or two until I got myself ensconced in some cushy gallery jobs. But in terms of surviving in the early days of the gallery? I sold art. There weren’t any other options.

AR: What were the first exhibitions you organised in New York?

GB: True to Life was actually the first show I did, at 303 Gallery in 1991. Another was a group show in a small rented office-space on East 39th Street. It was called Insignificant.

AR: In 1992. Did it sell?

GB: Some things.

AR: Both included works by Rirkrit Tiravanija. From the earliest days in the mid-1990s, you seemed to emphasise that a gallery was a social system, a community, where dinners and gatherings were as important as exhibitions. It’s more than Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of ‘connectors’ (people who have a unique ‘combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, and energy’). Rirkrit, who often included ‘lots of people’ among the descriptive materials of his work, must have been influential.

GB: It was always a social system for me, as I did not bring a social system to it. I was young and without roots in New York. I had no family here and no resources from a previous business or activity. So the gallery gave me that social system. It gave me the structure of my life in New York. Also, in my imagining of New York, or actually just of a generalised bohemian creative environment, I saw it centred around artists who saw each other as central. But that New York had pretty much disappeared by the time I arrived. In order to survive I needed a mutually supportive environment, and subconsciously I think I tried to form that.

A fantastic catalyst for that is breaking bread together. As a kid my parents had dinner parties that I circled the edges of until it was time for bed. Then in the morning it was always a treat to get up first and taste all the alcohol left in the glasses that had not been cleared up. My parents came from working-class backgrounds and were upwardly mobile, as so many people were after the war in Britain. They took advantage of the huge expansion in access to college education and moved from the North East of England to London, settling in the suburbs. Even then, at that age, I could sense that those dinner parties were aping an idea that was received from elsewhere.

It was a watered-down, badly transited version of what? Smoky bars with Sartre in Paris? A party at Leonard Bernstein’s in New York? Dinner with Harold Pinter in London? My parents had come up during the social revolution of the 1950s and 60s. Its ripples washed into their lives. It gave them something to aspire to – socially at the least. Perhaps I got a scent of what the point was in all this bad food and the newly discovered idea of wine. On top of that piece of pop psychology, I do feel that when an artist makes something for us, and exhibits it – sticks their neck out for us – then that is a cause for celebration.

It goes back to your question about souls made cheerful by work, love, art and knowledge. Life is hard. It is a struggle. Art is a gift that shows us the beauty inside that struggle. I feel the celebration of that – recognising that beauty – is as much a celebration of us all as it is of the artist. So in that sense, yes, these dinners, these celebrations are connective. But more perhaps a glue than a network. To be honest I do not know the influence of Rirkrit on the evolution of the gallery. I see things from so close and day-to-day that it is very difficult to have a more dispassionate and reasoned view – the view from a distance. I have to assume his influence has been enormous. I intuit that he is in every cell of the gallery.

But I have never made any decisions I can think of that were a conscious reference to him. I love him. He is the elder brother I didn’t know I needed. Who often guides and sometimes disapproves. It was once I saw his work that the spark was lit – of knowing that I should advocate for art rather than make it. The way an artist can get under your skin without you knowing it is one of the gifts of having a space to show art. I was asked the other day whether Martin Creed’s lights-on-and-off works gave me a sense that the gallery could be used in a more expansive and total way. It was not something I had thought of before, but as soon as I was asked, it became obvious: of course it had. The gallery is an amazingly productive place for me to learn, even if I don’t realise it. If I were to take a step backward I think it would be obvious that Rirkrit’s notions around the idea of ‘lots of people’ is one that I have embraced.

AR: Surprisingly, I think, for the time, you were always committed to painting. Elizabeth Peyton, of course, but also Chris Ofili, Peter Doig, Laura Owens, Verne Dawson and now, among others, Joe Bradley and Alex Katz. In one late-night speech you claimed that after the environmental apocalypse it will be painting that will remain the testament to human life on earth! It was shortly after Hurricane Sandy flooded New York, so understandably hyperbolic. But do you believe this? It seems to go hand-in-hand with your idea of the ‘artist as ultimate human being’.

GB: Surprisingly for the time? What time is that? Today? Yesterday? Postwar? All of these ideas of time are an illusion or even irrelevant when one considers that the history of the human mark runs as far back as the history of our consciousness. In fact, they are one and the same thing. We and our mark cannot be separated. So why would it be a surprise to be committed to painting? I love painting, like I love myself, like I love you, like I love us. To imagine that painting can be compartmentalised into an ‘ism’ or a medium is ridiculous and possibly verging on proto-fascist. But the mark need not be confined to painting as such. Our mark is everywhere, in many forms. But its essence, its beginning, is painting.

And yes, it will be the mark, in whatever form you wish to imagine it as, that will be our testament – whether we survive or not. A testament to our hubris, our foolishness and our stupidity. But also our nobility and grandeur under countless stars. I do not think it is hyperbolic to recognise our real and imminent self destruction. It is happening. It is a cosmic tragedy. And ultimately all we have that can match that vile animal darkness that is surely driving us over that cosmic cliff is our divine gift, our understanding of beauty and our will to leave a mark that honours that gift.

AR: Having moved to the Meatpacking District in 1997 and opening the bar Passerby a couple of years later, you moved downtown to Greenwich Street to a much bigger space, which opened in 2003, the same year that John Currin left Andrea Rosen for Larry Gagosian. It was a watershed moment: the start of a more cannibalistic artworld. As someone who has assiduously nurtured many young careers, who is as much a friend as a business partner to artists, how do you react when an artist leaves the gallery?

GB: What a long preamble for such a banal question: how do I react when an artist leaves the gallery? Certainly I don’t celebrate. In the end each of us lives our own life, and if someone feels their life is not connected to mine in the way it was, in the way I thought it was or think it should be, I’m sad, of course, but that’s their life and I hope it works for them. So a small (tiny) part of me does celebrate that they are taking a step in their life. It takes a certain boldness to do that, and that’s something to admire. On a more prosaic political level, I wonder what is actually being offered to artists who leave galleries. What is being desired? Why have we become preoccupied with the idea that an artist can be a ‘success’? I don’t believe that I am somehow outside of that system (in the immortal words of the Pop Group, ‘we are all prostitutes, everyone has their price’), but I still have a sense that we have veered far off the path of what an artist is.

AR: Agreed. That was a very long preamble. Sorry. I think I was asking a larger question about the value of relationships, friendships and money in the arts today. You named your gallery ‘Gavin Brown’s Enterprise’, after all. It was probably ironic at the time, or at least seemed so. If artists are (or should be) the ‘ultimate human beings’, what are gallerists?

GB: We are Charon, ferrying artists safely across the river Styx to the afterworld.

AR: Really? If I remember my Dante, Charon is a figure who holds a bat ready to beat those who delay on their descent into hell. That’s not a great, certainly not an uplifting, metaphor for your profession.

GB According to Virgil: There Chairon stands, who rules the dreary coast – A sordid god: down from his hairy chin A length of beard descends, uncombed, unclean; His eyes, like hollow furnaces on fire; A girdle, foul with grease, binds his obscene attire. Sound like anyone you know?

AR: In recent articles, Jerry Saltz has bemoaned how empty the galleries feel today, the end of galleries as meeting points and places of discussion, and the destructive effect of megagalleries on how artists make work. You recently told me that you thought the economic model of the gallery no longer worked. How do you see the future?

GB: I am not sure the model of the ‘local’ gallery has a future – in New York anyway. The ecosystem may be reduced to whale sharks and suckerfish – with nothing in between. But is there even a future for such Megalodons? While the economic model for anything smaller seems in doubt, I also wonder about the social, philosophical, even ethical foundation of these enormous entities. The systemisation necessary for these places to function has a byproduct – or perhaps a central aim – of taming art and artists. It feels like an inevitability, like a natural balance. And once art is tamed, it tends to disintegrate, and then reemerge in other places in our society. It’s not anyone’s fault necessarily. If money is water, then it does what it does best and rushes in. And as it does, it pushes air (art) out. And we are all left gasping, wondering where all the air went.

This article was first published in the January & February 2014 issue