ART511 Interview with Paul Schimmel

KC: Hi Paul, how are you doing?

PS: So you’re a performance artist.

KC: YUP! I do performance art, I do it all.

PS: Have you ever seen my performance catalog, Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object (1949-1979)? Probably the best show I’ll ever do. The catalog has become a standard. A lot of universities use it now. That was a big show I did in 1997-98 bringing together over 100 artists. It looked at the history of painting, sculptures, images and objects that came out of performances from the late forties to the late seventies. All the artists use it, flip through it and go, “Oh, I could do this better.” It was like the culmination of everything I had been thinking about for over twenty years. All these artists had kept all these objects not knowing what their value would be. They didn’t throw them away because they weren’t just fucking props. They were at the least the residue of performances and at the most the culmination. Tracking that through all these artists associated with Pierre-Félix Guattari, the Realists, up to Fluxus, Happenings, the emergence of Art and Destruction… but this is not what you contacted me about!

KC: That was just the introduction. I have a bunch of questions.

PS: Okay, fire away!

KC: During your lecture at the Philip Guston exhibition press preview, you mentioned the term Zombie Abstraction. Your language intrigued me; can you break this down a bit more in relationship to contemporary art and painting?

PS: I am very impressed with what a younger generation of artists in their twenties and thirties are doing vis–à–vis abstraction. It’s a great period yet again in the twentieth century for abstraction. Things have changed so dramatically in terms of how abstraction is made. You have artists struggling to find other artists to look at and learn from. We know there’s a lot of interest in the kind of factory made, manufactured synthetic abstraction that comes out of an artist like Warhol. I think for a lot of younger artists they want to look at something much slower – a studio-based practice, not quite so synthetic or computer generated, where the sense of the touch of its maker is still there. I hoped in the case of the Guston show to present 10 years of Guston in the prime of his life, digging in when everybody else was moving off to pop and hard edge. I thought this was a good thing for a young artist to see, someone digging in their heels and saying – studio counts, abstraction counts. We live right now in a time when so much art is evaluated so quickly. Looking at art at art fairs, it’s always the biggest, shiniest, brightest, most glamorous looking things that people see. The more quiet and thoughtful and in some ways “slower” art does not do well in auctions and fairs. One of the things I’ve hoped for with this LA Hauser & Wirth facility is that its easy access (there is no cost of returning you can see the shows as many times as you want). Instead of trying to come in and take it all in in an hour and a half or two, you’ll come back two, three, four times. You’ll take away an experience of art made in the studio, which is often much more contemplative, cerebral and slow than people realize. You’ll get away from factory fabricated production based work.

KC: Hauser & Wirth has been rapidly expanding its global reach in recent years. Can you talk about your business model and how it compares to galleries of equal caliber?

PS: I can’t speak for how the trends are moving everywhere. If you look at the 25 years of Hauser & Wirth it’s been a very personal, incremental expansion. One that I obviously have only been involved with since Somerset was realized and then Los Angeles. I don’t think it’s been nearly as programmatic or even consumerist as it’s been in many respects rather personal. Los Angeles has been such an important part of the program from its inception. That said, New York is, as it is for all the galleries, the center of the commercial art world. I think the expansion hasn’t been nearly as systematic or driven by a corporate mentality as it’s been driven out of a sense of who are we working with, where do we live, who do we want to work with?

KC: You mentioned in an L.A. Times article that the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Gallery is really a space at the “boundary” of the typical art institution and could be compared to Europe’s “non-collecting institution” or Kunsthalle model. Can you elaborate on some of the ways in which you have tweaked the traditional gallery model and why?

PS: Well it’s certainly a global business, on the other hand, as you can see this isn’t a little shopping boutique out here. This is a game changer that really deals with this space between commercial galleries and foundations, and what Kunsthalles do. It’s really a culmination of the very successful and organically developed interests that came out of Somerset with the restaurant and bookshop. It is as much a gathering place for artists and people who love art as it is a machine for selling.

KC: How do you envision the new Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Gallery integrating with the current LA art scene? How will you build relationships with LA-based artists?

PS: Artists that we work with saw the raw space and its potential from the get go. I like to think that the decision to be here has as much to do with the artist community – Paul McCarthy, the Box across the street, this whole arts district… When I first moved here in 1991 I remember talking to Mike Kelly on a rooftop party, I said, “This will be the next Soho” (there was no Chelsea at the time). Who knew it was going to take almost three generations of movement before this part of town really became activated? For a long time both the SCI-Arc and the Geffen were in a precarious institutional place. Was there going to be enough infrastructure and enough support to allow these public, not-for-profit institutions to be able to thrive and to grow? That change really has only taken place just in the last five years. I think in that respect we have been really lucky to get by all standards what is really an extraordinary building on what was always known as one of the most special blocks in the arts district. Real estate has so much value in New York; here in LA it’s relatively accessible. You don’t have the kinds of conflict and restrictions on development.

KC: As a curator who has moved from institution to commercial gallery, what do you hope to accomplish in your new position and what changes to your curatorial style did this transition bring about?

PS: I’ve been a curator truly since I was a teenager. I was very lucky, embraced while still a freshman by a wonderful museum director, James Harithas. I did internships at the Everson Museum and the Whitney Museum, worked on the Yoko Ono show and the Nam June Paik show. I hung out with people like Frank Gillette and Juan Downey. I’m sixty years old now. I’ve done this so long. I’ve been a chief curator. Here in the gallery I function to a very large degree as a curator. I’m currently working on as many exhibitions simultaneously as I ever did and overseeing even more. Every week I talk with my partners here at length about the program. We talk about artists, we talk about books. I like to remind people the history of museums is very short. It really began in the late nineteenth century with royal collections and then the rise of the middle class. You’ve only really had galleries continuously since the nineteenth century. Galleries have been doing great work. In that respect, growing up in museums in the seventies, I’ve watched how much museums (even museums of modern and contemporary art) have changed. When I first started out you could count on one hand the amount of American art institutions that allowed artists to participate and be visible and in dialogue with the curator. Only in the last fifteen or twenty years would museums be willing to take something directly from the studio – new work – work that had not been exhibited. Now that’s very desirable on the part of museums. As much as museums have in a sense grown up and deeply affected galleries, galleries have had an even more profound affect on the kind of work museums do. If you go back through the history of contemporary art you see how little we are able to really capture the words, the thinking, how artists best saw their own work being displayed. We’ve got thousands of years to fuck it up, we only have a few years with the artist to really see how they see their work. Galleries have provided a substantial interface between museums and artists working today and increasingly, a model.

KC: As a seasoned curator and now a gallerist, what is your advice to artists who are just beginning their art practice and are looking to enter into the gallery system, sell work and obtain representation?

PS: You know my view of the gallery world is greatly both enriched and maybe narrowed by the fact that I look at galleries all over the world. I’ve watched the history of galleries. I don’t think big galleries are the place for younger artists. In a very kind of naïve or idealistic way, I think it’s always important to find a sense of community, of place, of generation, and coherence among a group of artists. I love the fact that Ed Kienholz began Ferus Gallery with Walter Hopps driven by a community of artists that wanted representation. This is an extraordinary way that still has possibilities and you see it all over the world. When you are a young artist just out of graduate school immediately engaged with a larger more commercially driven gallery you are in some ways putting your art at risk. It’s important to give yourself the opportunity to develop as an artist – in the context that makes the most sense for your development, not the development of a commercial market but the development of your activities as an artist. That sense of community is so important when you’re younger. As you get older and you become more established and you know who you are, you know what you want – then other medium or larger size galleries make sense. That sense of knowing a little bit too well who your audience is, whether it’s wealthy collectors, distinguished curators or significant critics. When you’re young, being too close to that is problematic in my opinion.

KC: So just more broadly speaking, what do you feel are today’s most interesting trends in contemporary art?

PS: We used to have a tendency as curators, collectors, public institutions and galleries to try to narrow it down to a movement, a place. The most extraordinary thing that’s occurred in the last ten to twenty five years is we’ve gone from talking about an international art world to truly living in an age of globalism. The histories that are now being written are far more inclusive. The first go around, artists were ignored because of where they lived – whether it was Latin American, Asia or Africa. Ignored because of their identity – that can be gender, that can be race. Ignored because what they were doing didn’t seemed to be in lock step with the mainstream that was coming out of a few single hubs. You can call it globalism, you can call it the internet age. The level of communication between small, medium and large cities. The level of information and communication that doesn’t have to go through the center. There seem to be so many more centers now. It is an extraordinary period. Probably in the history of contemporary art there is nothing quite like this ever before. Look how many more private or public institutions, foundations and kunsthalles have opened globally. They’re not just showing the work that’s coming out of New York or Los Angeles they are showing that work along with work that’s being made in their region. Access to private collections through public entities and engagement directly between those foundations and the artists themselves is on the rise. This is an extraordinarily dynamic moment.

KC: I agree. Now that you have joined Hauser & Wirth as a partner, what are your plans for the LA gallery?  How do your current projects relate to some of the ideas you implemented while at LA MOCA?

PS: A lot of what I’ve learned as a curator in the 22 years at MOCA enriches both my interests and who I work with. Our opening exhibition Revolution in the Making couldn’t have happened without my history with artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Lee Bontecou, and Linda Benglis; as well as a deep sense of commitment to some of the emerging artists like Lara Schnitger, whom I met fifteen years ago when she was still a student. This exhibition was very directly a response to what I learned about the feminist revolution from Connie Butler’s WACK! Exhibition. I hired Connie at the MOCA to do that exhibition. She came from a generation that emerged in the eighties and nineties and took a much more specific social and political role in respect to “Feminist Art.” The success of Revolution in the Making involved the engagement of 34 artists, only five of whom the gallery worked with. This presented a challenge for myself and for what one could do in a gallery context. This meant reaching out to artists or their estates. This meant reaching out to collectors and curators, many of whom I have worked with over the years. I was now coming to them and asking them for their most significant examples by this artist or that artist. I am working with outstanding scholars, my co-curator Jenni Sorkin, Elizabeth Smith and Anne Wagner. To have approached all these artists, representatives, estates, galleries, museums and collections in a way that was very consistent with how I have worked on large-scale thematic exhibitions in the past. The results were enormously gratifying; we are first and foremost doing serious scholarship, including an outstanding publication. 85% of the work in this exhibition is loaned. Most important for some of the institutional lenders was that we would treat the work intellectually and conceptually in a manner that was consistent with loan requests from other institutions. I’ve been doing this all my life. I know what to say and how to ask. It was also important to have a facility that was up to museum standards from a security, environmental and access standpoint. I started sending out loan letters as I normally do a year before a show opens. We ended up with 51 lenders, almost twenty institutions lent.  By June/July of last summer I went WOW, this is going to work! My colleagues are really going to back me. Once we lined up a number of the big lenders, important, key works, major institutions, key artists – it moved very quickly. The show will be very much like what you see at contemporary art museums or Kunsthalles. Like what you see in historical revisionist group exhibitions or large survey exhibitions that are retrospectives. We’re bringing together a body of work that hasn’t been seen in many years. As for how the public experiences it, it will continue to be much more museum-like. Instead of a show being up for 4-6 weeks as you have in New York or London, here the exhibitions will run much longer. Much more like what museums do. People will come to appreciate it’s a museum-like facility with free access.

KC: In that sense, do you feel there are more or less restraints within a museum context? Is there an increasing amount of latitude in an evolved gallery model to explore alternative possibilities?

PS: I have been so fortunate, these things are not easy. You better love your show and you better love your artists. I hope for great exhibitions, why do anything less than that? I honestly think if curators say they can’t do it, they’ve lost some of their guts and conviction. Often in the long development and gestation periods that it takes to do these exhibitions the relationship with those artists or that body of work only gets better with time. Galleries do want to do things more quickly than museums, but museums want to do things more quickly than museums too. From a developmental standpoint, the ability to create this kind of an exhibition at this scale as coherently and as rapidly would be something very difficult to achieve in a not-for-profit space where you have so many diverse stakeholders. From a facilities standpoint this was quite a bit easier to do because of the strong patronage and support we have from Hauser & Wirth. From a programmatic standpoint, in terms of museums, you’re always thinking about your big blockbuster shows. Then there are the shows you do for niche audiences. The shows that are passionate on the part of a curator and the shows that are passionate on the part of the chief financial officer.  Maybe some curator wants to show so and so artist who lives in such and such a place and people kind of wonder… What good is it going to do for our community? We are not doing gallery exhibitions from a sales standpoint with the audience of collectors here in Los Angeles as our limit. I think it would be very hard to imagine doing these kinds of shows if this Hauser, Wirth & Schimmel weren’t part of Hauser & Wirth, where we have all the benefits of a global constituency of collectors and stakeholders. It’s very unlikely that I would have done this opening show if it hadn’t been for who Ursula Hauser was as a collector back in the eighties and her interest in developing the collections and artists in her personal collection, such as Bourgeois and Hesse. That said, there is never a museum or a gallery that comes from one point of view, one mind, one artist. You really do want the richness of overlapping, intersecting, both complementary and competing interests. That’s true here as it is up on the hill at MOCA.

KC: You talked to the L.A. Times about how the gallery is taking a special interest in women artists and feminist art beyond the commercial sphere. Can you talk more about the importance of equal gender representation in the arts?

PS: Iwan asked me “What do you want the first show to be?” in front of all the partners including Ursula and his wife Manuela. It made a lot of sense for me to start out with a group exhibition, a revisionist, thematic show. It was a way of really stress testing what a gallery can do, what I can do. It would be in many ways obvious to start with someone like Paul McCarthy. We met with Paul, we love Paul, he’s really the wellspring from which so much came. I thought it would be far more interesting to show a view of Hauser & Wirth in its earlier beginnings. Both as a private collection of Ursula Hauser and her unique sense of patronage. The foundation that she began, the exhibitions she organized. In fact Hauser & Wirth, amongst the comparable large-scale galleries, has a larger percentage of women. I thought this would be a very interesting aspect of Hauser & Wirth to highlight. It’s something that happened organically and is really one of the distinguishing factors of Hauser & Wirth. In their deep commitment to artists who are under recognized or under appreciated, they naturally gravitated toward women. My partners have been outstandingly supportive. Look at this focus on the Guston show, it was described by almost everyone as a “transitional period.” I said let’s not start with everything, let’s start with the thing that everyone knows the least about. Underappreciated, extraordinary and rich – when you can bring those elements together. Rich in the material that’s available, extraordinary in terms of its contribution to the history of art and our understanding of that artist’s work. This is what you hope exhibitions consistently bring. Whether it’s a thematic exhibition or a one-person show, it tries to lead rather than follow the market.

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