everything talks with Robin Klassnik

Yellow objectImage 1
Robin Klassnik turned his studio into a gallery back in 1979. Since then Matt's Gallery has become recognised as a leading exhibition space for artists showing work which many mainstream galleries would find difficult to accommodate. Klassnik's interests always put the art and the artists before commercial concerns. The result has been to make art accessible which would otherwise have remained hidden. Klassnik's close working relationship with artists and his determination to show new work by side-stepping the main stream has influenced many of the artist-led spaces which now exist in London.

Image 1:
Robin Klassnik
Yellow Object Sculpture
Courtesy the artist

e: Where did you study art?

RK: I studied Fine Art at Hornsey College; I did two years there and three years at Leicester, and graduated in 1968. There was a lot of conceptual stuff about but I wasn't particularly involved with that. I studied painting which I gave up the day I left. Then I got a Space Studio in St Katharine's Dock. That's really where I started again.

e: What made you give up painting?

RK: I couldn't paint. Nobody ever really told me at college that I just wasn't cut out to be a painter. I think as a painter, even though a lot of the work I show is quite sculpturally oriented. I see things in the flat but I think I've got a kind of spatial dyslexia. I can't for instance read an A to Z because I have a real problem locating things in space; the space we're sitting in now for example (Matt's Gallery) grew from a collaboration with the architect. It was a very similar process to putting on a show. The architect came over from France and sat in the building for six weeks with his drawing board. We worked on it together, the architect, myself and Alison [Alison Rafftery is the gallery administrator - without whom, Klassnik says, things would just fall apart] .The architect could read the space and kept assuring me that it would look fine. I couldn't accept that, because I couldn't visualise the plans as a reality. Alison and I actually got huge rolls of newsprint and made all of the new walls in paper. Some of these walls are 35-40 feet long, and we cut out the doors so I could walk through it and visualise it. It looked very Japanese.

e: Given that you think as a painter, what kind of painting were you doing and was the decision to stop a conscious move toward working three dimensionally ?

RK: I don't know. I was painting these kind of abstract, Matisse-like.. snail-like paintings. I did it for three years and I didn't know why.

e: But you were allowed to just continue?

RK: Yes I was allowed to and I got a 2:1, or a 2:2, I don't remember, and right at the end I had a typical art student "I'm not going to show" syndrome, and I got these big bales of coloured polythene and put them in my space just before the graduation show. I didn't know why I was doing that, but then I didn't know why I was painting either. When I left, I came to London and got the studio. I can't remember how. It was one of the first Space Studios. Shortly after that, a colleague of mine from Leicester called Peter Moderate and I were asked to do something in Croydon for an organisation called Pavilions in the Park, who invited artists to make works in a series of portable structures. We worked together, that was my first collaboration with another artist, and we made a walk through painting.

e: So that wasn't just the beginnings of working collaboratively, it was also to do with working with space?

RK: Yes, the whole thing was very much about the space and the cross-over of art forms.

e: A piece of yours that I always remember is "Yellow Objects" which was instrumental in making your contact with Jarosalw Kozlowski?

RK: Yes, that's right. The Yellow Object sculpture was originally shown at the ICA in 1972 and then in various other spaces. At the ICA it was shown in the corridor which had been converted into five shops, and five artists were invited to do things. I think the artists involved had all been working in shops. Earlier I had rented the window of a book shop in Hornsey and invited people at random, to participate by contributing objects out of which I could make an object. I distributed large brown envelopes with my name and address on through peoples doors in Crouch End, and received 1231 objects from posting about 4000 requests. Every day I would just put another object in the shop window. There was no system or aesthetic judgement to it and this is where, in retrospect, I came to a dead end. It looked like any Oxfam Shop. I decided that for the ICA show, I had to make some sort of qualitative decision so I chose a colour. There was no particular reason for choosing yellow, it was just a means of unifying it. Again, in retrospect I think it was a mistake to go into an art gallery to build a shop, but that's what I was asked to do, and of course I wanted to be in an art gallery, we all do. And the ICA wasn't a bad place to be. Because there aren't too many houses around the ICA, I put the envelopes, this time around 8000 for which I think I got sponsorship, in the car parks. They found their own way all over the world. So to come back to your question about Jaroslaw, he must have got hold of one, and he sent me five or six bobbins of yellow thread. In 74 or 75 he started writing to me and told me that he'd started a gallery called Akumualtory 2 in Poznan. He invited me to make an exhibition, and that was another turning point in my way of looking at things.

Jaroslaw and I struck up a friendship from then. One of the things that impressed me in Poznan was the way that I was treated. I was in a completely alien land in Eastern Europe which had even more severe economic problems than today. But there was a one to one relationship. When I had put the show up, I was wondering if anyone was going to come, and nobody turned up. Then Jaroslaw walked in and said "Are you ready?" and I said "What do you mean - ready for what?" He said "Are you ready for people to come in?" This was the policy: Until the artist is ready and satisfied with the work the public can wait. he opened the doors and forty or fifty people walked in. If I had said I wasn't ready he would have gone out there and said "He's not opening up - he doesn't want to do it". And I think that was something quite touching.

e: Akumulatory 2 became the model for Matt's Gallery didn't it?

RK: Yes, I showed there four times, and then I think I started to run out of ideas, or at least, out of ways to articulate them. At that time I had the studio in Martello St, and in 1979 I opened it up as a gallery. I'm not really sure why. I had had experience of organising open studios in 75 for Space with Alexis Hunter, and enjoyed that process; but what I didn't like was, again, something to do with quality. There was something lacking and I had some sort of need to... unify things in some way. The need for quality became important.

e: Your approach to the gallery was in many ways similar to that of Kozlowski and I suppose one might say that there was a meeting of minds between you. Where do you differ ?

RK: I think Jaroslaw and myself have got a similar role. I think we have very similar ideas, though I think we are very different in our approach in how things should be articulated, and may have differing perceptions on the role of the artists curator. But Jaraslaw was the catalyst which generated Matt's Gallery.

e: Both Akumaltory 2 and Matt's Gallery sought of subverted the idea of the gallery.

RK: Yes, Jaroslaw was using a small room rented from the students union. Can you imagine that in the west? I used the studio space and, yes, I suppose I was subverting the idea of the gallery, but I didn't intend to. A lot of what's happened to me wasn't intended. It just happened naturally. I've always been a gallery and it was just allowed to develop. I've got more skilled at it and I've learned more about how galleries and institutions operate, but I'm not really interested in that. My idea is just really to show art and in some way, to have a one to one relationship with the artists I show. That's vary important to me. I'm not an administrator. If I get asked how things are made for Matt's Gallery.. it's just something that develops. I guess I'm supposed to bullshit and tell people the reasons why, but I really don't know. I never gave it any thought.

e: Isn't that the way that any art-form develops? The precise root to something and its specific outcome may be unknown at the outset, but the underlying concept which shapes it is thought out in some depth. That's partly why exhibiting is necessary to the artist, to see how the specific results are measuring up to their broader concerns.

RK: Yes, you have to have some notion of what you're doing. You have to have some idea. If we go right back to the first exhibition that David Troostwyk made, I think you've just reiterated something from our press release which I think stands true today. David and I wrote that this was a show that would be on for a week for those who wanted to see it and that it was as much for the artist to see what he'd actually done. I forget the actual words, but it said that the work was there in a sense to be tested, and then maybe changed. That is one of the good things about Matt's Gallery: it allows artists that time for the work to develop and change. You can be here for three months and can sort thinks out before you open. Sometimes changes are made because something doesn't work. Some things have been radically changed from the way they started out. Much of the work I show, especially the kind of work that in the end I've gained a reputation for, desperately needs this extra time. Now this reminds me of something I read which was said by Nicholas Serota, along the lines that the difference between showing art in a gallery and a performance at the theatre was that in a gallery there are no dress rehearsal. At Matt's Gallery we have dress rehearsals. Now that we've two spaces it's much easier because one exhibition can be opened whilst the other is being developed. It's something that became necessary. This amount of space at the beginning would have been wasted because I wouldn't have known what to do with it.

e: You've said before that in some sense Matt's Gallery at Martello St was a white cube that could have been anywhere in the world. Is the same true of the new space? Aside from issues of sheer scale, it couldn't be in Cork St for example could it?

RK: No, when I think about it, I don't think I could be in the centre of town, partly because of the person I am. I don't go into town. I don't go to clubs or restaurants or to private views, its another place. When I do go it's to see an exhibition. I come here and I go to Walthamstow where I live. When I tell people that, I have to explain that it's on the Victoria line, the other end from Brixton. But this is an area I'm happy with and understand. The Galleries on Cork and Dering St have to be where they are for commercial reasons. International buyers can hop on a plane, hale a cab, do their shopping and be off again in a few hours.

e: Has it also become a matter of principal for you to avoid those areas ?

RK: Probably it has... I don't really know because I don't have to be anywhere else. I'm not a commercial gallery in that sense and I'm happy with our audience. We have an enormous audience here, probably no smaller than the galleries I'm talking about; only they have more a peripheral lot of bods dropping in on a lunch time, more passing trade. People have to make a bit of an effort to come over here.

e: What about the teaching? You have given up full time teaching in London and have been Teaching in Oslo for some time now haven't you ?

RK: Yes, I've been teaching in Norway for the past five years for just 25 days per year in the sculpture department of the academy of fine arts in Oslo. Over here I still regularly visit art schools and am an external assessor at Dublin, Newcastle and Brighton on BA and MA fine art courses.

e: Do you find any difference between teaching in Oslo and London ?

RK: You can go into any art school anywhere, the internal politics are the same, the students are the same, there work is the same, and the messages on the wall are the same; "I'm in the bar".

© Keith Ball 1994elogo