Continuum: everything (e:) talks with Rene Gimpel (RG:) and Simon Lee (SL:).
1. Dan Graham, Rodney Graham, Mike Kelly, Paul Mc Carthy, Daniel Oats, Richad Prince, Meyer Vaisman, Jeff Wall
2. John Roberts Mucking Out (and Mucking up) catalogue for Mind The Gap, Gimple Fils 1992
3. Adorno and Horkheimer The Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York 1969
4. Francis Frascina Art Monthly issue 171 November 1993
The Gimpel brothers founded their art firm in London shortly after the Second World War, building on an already long established family tradition. As such, the gallery pre-dated considerably many other commercial contemporary spaces.
To the outsider, the gallery's programme often seems unpredictable or even incongruous, contrasting dealing in what are generally termed "Modern masters" such as Hepworth and Nicholson with contemporary shows wide ranging enough to include figurative, conceptual, didactic and agitational work.
e: Virtually all artists I know have a sense of art history. Many of us would argue that it's impossible to produce serious work without a thorough conception of such. Many make work at some point in their careers overtly referencing perceived obligations to acknowledge this. And even if they don't, history is still there, for those-who-know to see. Is there an analogous situation for the gallerist? Do you feel the weight of history?
SL: I do certainly. In terms of the gallery it's a weighty obligation. It's also important in terms of producing objects. I'm very envious that you know so many artists with a sense of history - I tend to find the complete contrary, yet for me history is all important. One of the beauties of working here is that you have a 47 year historical continuum by which one can reference what we're doing today: the works, the records and he experience of the family. Last summer , alongside Yves Kline, we showed work by eight North American artists1 - there were so many resonances between the works. It's a good example of the sort of juxtapositions and syntheses that are possible here.
RG: There are other aspects to this question. During a recession such as this, galleries tend to "move back" a little to dealing in art that has created a history and therefore has a particular value: this enables us to pay for less productive shows. So in that sense, as a gallery, we rely on "history". There's a curious paradox: on the one hand a lack of interest in history, history in the Modernist sense of evolution, but a keen interest in postmodernist and ironical quizzing of history - and, on the other hand, given the recession, a tendency for collectors to seek out work with an established history, and a reluctance to risk money on new artists.
e: But when you show new artists, you're placing them in the context of this continuum, and yet the mix seems quite eclectic; Charles Beauchamp, Terry Atkinson, Alan Davie, Pamela Golde, Graham Ramsay and so on. Are you trying to break up a narrative of simply responding to the market ?
SL: I see Terry, Graham and Pamala's work almost as one school. They all deal with history and the politics of representation. But, yes, it is an eclectic mix - to a certain extent art history is an eclectic mix. The gallery has worked this way, mixing Ben Nicholson with Alan Davie and so on.
RG: What happens in due course is that a number of artists settle down and become identified with the gallery. We test out artists and they test us out. The gallery isn't really associated with any one style. It's difficult to see nowadays how one can be. A major gallery that in the past created a certain "feel" was the Lisson.
SL: And in some senses the choice facing developing galleries is whether to become an exclusively "blue chip" gallery showing only established artists or whether to also work with new talent at grass roots level, as it were. Everyone's working with young British artists at the moment because they've got such an international audience.
e: One of the most interesting shows here for me was "Mind The Gap". In the catalogue John Roberts wrote about devising maps: "non linear models that are capable of coping with the unpredictable" 2 Given the circumstances you've talked about, is that applicable to your work as gallerists ?
SL: It sounded like a good paradigm at the time! I think you need to have flexible borders and constantly re-assess your situation, strategy and the terrain you're operating in. Things change so quickly. You can't associate yourself with one narrow category, as Rene was saying. For example, you might think at a glance that certain galleries represent small apparently coherent groups of artists, but when you get down to analysing their concerns, putting them in a nutshell is usually impossible.
e: Is that because of the market ?
SL: No - it's because of the eclectic nature of art history.
e: Karsten Schubert talked in or fourteenth issue about the art market boom and slump of November 1990-May 1991. Obviously coping with that terrain needs a map - but do you need one also to locate the new works upstairs with the older ones downstairs, and in turn with the ones in the vault, in terms of the gallery's overall agenda?
SL: The overall agenda is to make enough money presenting as much as possible of what we like. That's perhaps a little harsh but it's basically true.
RG: It has to be, to cover our costs and overheads, which are enormous. Throughout the past year we've shown quite a lot of artists new to the gallery. In the coming year we will probably lean more towards an older generation. We both like the idea of the relationship between artists and the gallery being a continuous thing, There are artists we're showing here now who started here in the 1940's, and likewise the artists starting now we hope will still be showing in forty years time. So if you trace the exhibitions through, there remains, by and large, a slow process of evolution, even if it does appear "eclectic" occasionally.
e: "Mind the Gap" seemed more the kind of show you'd see in a public space, perhaps because of it's strong curatrorial aspect. You've done other "un commercial" shows, such as Peter Kennard's "Our 999", where OAP's and unemployed people could buy works for under a tenner.
RG: That's not uncommercial - that's really sticking one's neck out in a way. But there's also the pleasure of creating interest in those kinds of projects, around issues we feel people should be aware of. For instance, in the second half of January, Peter Kennard will exhibit an installation in the gallery and introduce a performance from someone new to the art world: Ken Livingstone MP.
e: There's other ways you've stuck your neck out - your support for artists re-sale rights, for example. Could you explain more ?
RG: I do support this in principle, although I have to say I don't practice it. I am on record as being the only member of the Society of London Art Dealers to support resale rights. It's not popular amongst dealers here, although it is practised in various forms in other countries. I would suggest the best method to distribute accrued royalties would be through some form of centrally administered fund. I think that the question will only be resolved via a directive from Brussels. Having said that, it's important that artists are organised in a representative organisation, to discuss issues like this.
e: Adorno talked about great artists being those who used style as a way of hardening themselves against the chaotic expression of suffering 3. Given the explicit political or social concerns of many of your artists, do you see yourself as selling style?
RG: The artists who have those concerns don't sell easily. We would like to see artists who deal with difficult subjects sell, but it's not easy.
SL: That kind of work tends to go down better in other countries. It's a curious phenomenon, that there is, not only on the part of institutions, but also on the part of the general collecting public, a timidity in approaching something that is questioning - other than questioning the visual status quo - whereas that sort of thing is embraced in countries where the social makeup is less repressed, or there is more self-interrogatory tradition.
RG: At the time of the "Time to Go" conference [a 1989 initiative sponsored by Claire Short MP and others for a phased withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland] we approached all four major auction houses to take part in a fund-raising venture. At least one had provided an auctioneer for a similar venture for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, but the auction houses didn't want to know in relation to Northern Ireland. A number of high profile artists similarly would not get involved.
e: In some senses the phenomenon of artist organised shows seems to have come into its own during the recession. The need to sustain a dialogue and show work seems to have forced many artists to develop their careers in that direction rather than look to commercial spaces, which may be cautious about taking on new talent. A number of high profile artists remain underrepresented commercially. Are there a lot of artists or projects you'd like to try out but don't because of the climate ?
SL: Constantly. That's one of the frustrating sides of 47 years of commitments and obligations. You can't do what you want, because of large overheads, other considerations and obligations, along with the question of taking a long term perspective as well. Trying things out is such a luxury.
e: How important are critics in determining the market ?
RG: They don't determine it much. They do give a lot of satisfaction to us and to the artists when they write favourably, and indirectly they do have an effect in raising an artist's profile.
SL: Reviews don't sell paintings, but they do give certain weight to what artists do, and the press is certainly a useful promotional tool. But there is absolutely no concrete correlation between the price of an object and it's critical reputation, not in an establishment market anyway. The thing that determines the market ultimately is the collectors. That is why you have the situation where some great artists who have all the critical acclaim in the world are unable to sell at auction, and vice versa.
RG: Other factors have to be taken into account on this issue. In this country there is a general visual unease with visual art. On the one hand, there are TV programs like The Late Show which on the whole give a favourable profile to contemporary art practice, and on the other hand there are periodic send ups - the art world seems to get more of this than any other. For example, in the gefuffle over the Evening Standard's art critic, lots of people leapt to the defence of Brian Sewell, someone who is quite uninterested in contemporary art issues. There's a sort of "Visual art has had enough gratitude - now let's bite its head off" approach. So, in turn, we have a situation where a whole range of internationally recognised artists are living and working here, there are two internationally recognised pre-eminent auction houses - Christie's and Sotheby's, and yet this country is seemingly unable to host a serious international art fair. In Britain, galleries don't get subsidies to promote art abroad unlike those in other European countries. The DTI might change this policy in relation to the U.S., but it's not yet clear. The British Council subsidises artists but not galleries. Historically sociologists might argue the tradition here has always been more towards literature and theatre, in terms of "establishment" art. In some senses one could trace the Jewish involvement in visual arts to the fact that, historically, Jewish people were excluded from the establishment "stately home" culture, and visual art has been discriminated against, by the same establishment.
e: That question of correlation between ethnicity and art histories is an interesting one. Francis Frascina wrote an excellent critique a while ago in Art Monthly of the Royal Academy's Amarican Art in the 20th Century exhibition, in which he pointed out that the history presented was that of a very narrow layer of artists, overwhelmingly male and of white, European extraction. 4 In this country, there seems to be more women artists gaining recognition, but the new generation of high profile artists tend to be white males. Do you see any way that this can be challenged by commercial galleries ?
SL: There is a cynical undercurrent amongst dealers and galleries to take token artists, and I think that's something artists are wary of. You see this in some galleries - one artist from a minority to represent all minorities, for political correctness' sake. That can be misinterpreted as "progress"; that now commercial structures are more open to taking on minorities, but I think it's dangerous to take that on board at face value.
RG: We are conscious of these issues. No gallery wants it to be said otherwise. Although we do represent quite a lot of women artists now, that's a situation which has evolved gradually. But the decision to show an artist for the second or third time has to be taken on monetary grounds - that ultimately we believe we can sell the work. Provided we give all artists we show the same degree of support, attention and exposure then that is a sign of real commitment. But we can't guarantee sales, and, at the end of the day, the collectors might not buy.