April 2011, Interview with Jack Shainman
I first became interested in the perspective of Jack Shainman when I attended the opening of Richard Mosse's AIRSIDE back in November and December, 2008. I was deeply impressed by the show and was intrigued about the individual who ran this gallery and who brought Richard Mosse, Shimon Attie, Pascal Grandmaison, Elizabeth Crawford and a host of other remarkable artists to the attention of the New York art world.
Talking with Jack Shainman for the interview was a sheer pleasure; immediately I felt entirely at ease. He has a way of being accommodating while at the same time greatly energizing the dialogue. As you will see from the following interview, it begs for continuation. It is my sincere wish to carry on this interchange. He was at once open and gracious.
Jack Shainman: Williamstown, Massachusetts. It's in the northwest corner, it borders Vermont and New York. I feel very fortunate because I spent my first year in New York. My dad got a teaching position at Williams College, so I grew up in the country and I feel kind of lucky. Actually, part of why I do what I do is that where I grew up there's a sensational museum...the Clark Art Institute. I really think it made a difference. My folks used to take me there and I loved it. It's probably part of why I do this.
If you go online they have an incredible website...right now they're showing Picasso Looks at Degas. I was there for the opening. And the first time ever, they have Juan Muñoz in the new Tado Ando building. Just gorgeous.
As a kid which was one of my favorite things, they have a remarkable Bouguereau painting of a satyr, half-man, half-horse being led into the water by four naked nymphs. When I was a kid I was turned on by this painting! And I always wanted to go back.
Michaud: Do they still display that?
Shainman: Yes...it's so funny, because Glenn Lowry, the director of MoMA also grew up in Williamstown. I'm younger than he is but I knew him when we were kids...and he told me about a month ago: "I loved that painting, too!" All adolescent kids, boys especially, love that painting! It's also got something for everybody.
Michaud: Back at that age, did you want to become an artist? Did you ever go in that direction?
Shainman: Well, for a little bit in college I tried but I liked everybody else's art better. And I always had this funny feeling, I always felt like I had to have something important to say...and I didn't have that. I always loved other people's art. Actually, as a kid growing up in a college town, I used to buy art from the students for $5 to $20, so I had that collecting gene from the beginning.
Michaud: You were born for this.
Shainman: I was. And in a way it's really helpful, because both myself and Claude Simard (who's my partner at the gallery), both of us had that. If either of us had been born rich we'd have been phenomenal collectors. He's insatiable. I'm satiable, but it really helps with the gallery because when I go to an artist's studio, if I walk in the door and I want to own EVERYTHING I know I HAVE to have it in the gallery. And so I'm lucky for that. There are not enough collectors in the world, as I see it!
Michaud: Was Jack Shainman Gallery your first gallery?
Shainman: My first on my own, yes. Claude Simard and I started it in the fall of 1984 when we were very very young, with a lot of hope and a lot of possibilities. We opened the first space in Washington, DC. I had gone to school there and I thought I could really add an amazing energy to the city. It was a really good training and experience. It's really tough in Washington. The art world there (though there are some very good artists living there) suffers from a complex about New York. I think in a way it suffers from a proximity, whereas some place like, for instance, Boston, the local art scene is more exciting. Maybe part of it is because the change of administrations in DC everything is so transient. World-class museums but very funny for the art world.
Michaud: There's an exodus every four or eight years.
Shainman: It's a funny city because of that. Though the museums are world-class.
Michaud: You're always looking for new stuff, Jack...
Shainman: Well, I call it looking / NOT looking. Yes, looking for something extraordinary; however, having a group of artists that I work with and trying to do a good job for all of them. I CAN'T not look. I've been to studios and wanting NOT to like the work but loving it and having to...
Michaud: Has it ever gotten unmanageable?
With having too many?
Shainman: No; if you look at our website, there are some artists who are listed we may not be actively working with; either they're doing something in the studio privately or quietly. Sometimes there are health or family issues and there's not a lot of stuff being produced. Sometimes you have to give them more of the benefit of a doubt. So, some artists I'm more actively working with, especially if an exhibition is coming up at the gallery or if I'm organizing shows outside of the gallery, whether it be museum shows or gallery exhibitions. But, yes, you have to be careful as to how much you take on. I have a sensational staff. They give me a lot of backup. And Katy Rashid, our director, is amazing. The artists like to talk to her as much as to me.
Michaud: Having a good staff is always incredibly fortunate. Jack, could you talk about an aesthetic thread that might run through the work that interests you and the work you show?
Shainman: I couldn't really articulate it to you; artists of high quality and individuality. But people have articulated it once very well; there was something that holds it all together; way back one article on the gallery talked about how I had Catholic tastes, which is good for a Jew, because I collect Santos and other things. I've always liked bringing in to the New York arena things that haven't been considered, things that need to be considered, or from the outside that has merit. I really do love that. In terms of young artists, it's really exciting to bring in something that has never been seen before. You have to believe in the work if you put it on your walls. Right now is a time that is open for a lot of things like that; back 10 years ago it was very different. But now, people are open to a lot of different things, finding new things; the world has become so globalized. Do you know Subodh Gupta? When I first started working with him, his prices were fifteen to thirty thousand. Lots of people were saying "Who's going to pay that money for some unknown Indian artist?", meanwhile the people who'd bought his work for fifteen to thirty thousand turned around two years later and sold them for half a million dollars. So that was an incredible phenomenon. He was so collected and respected and revered.
Michaud: You seem to have a good sense of the the international art scene, as well.
Shainman: Well, back when we were still kids in the late 80s I was kind of known for bringing in mid-career European artists, people who had never shown in New York before, like Isa Genzken. I did her first show in New York in 1989. Susana Solano, the Spanish sculptor, is with McKee at this point. Isa is with David Zwirner now. I've always liked that kind of thing, bringing in the unexpected. And it's funny; back then there wasn't a lot of European art being shown. Marian Goodman had a lot of the most important European artists; otherwise, not a lot happening.
I remember people who are still considered very good collectors, when I had Isa's show, for example..."We really want to buy this, but we really only collect American. If you were to close, how would I re-sell the work?" I don't know if this has to do with the internet, but nobody's said that to me since '88 or '89.
Michaud: Jack, have you seen any work that you could NOT represent for one reason or another at the gallery?
Shainman: You mean artists that I would love to represent that I don't have?
Michaud: Not so much that...I'm sure there are artists who fall into that category. But, have you ever come across art that you might love but might be too far "out there"?
Shainman: Yeah. Sometimes you find things that you really love, maybe curators or collectors or even artists bring them to your attention and you really love it and can see the merit in it, but at the same time you don't need to get married to it. Once you get committed to an artist it's really like getting married. I'm really careful about that. As a collector person, sometimes I might want to own a work by a particular artist, but not necessarily want to represent
Michaud: From your perspective in the world today, are there any trends that are truly exciting for you? Any particular movements?
Shainman: It's hard to say, because sometimes it's harder to see shows in New York than in the rest of the world because when you're here you're so focused on what you're doing. I was just in Paris and it's so easy to go out there and see the museums and the galleries. It's funny how when I'm on my home turf I don't see as much as I would like. It's been for a while...it's a time in the art world that is open to so many different things, whereas in the past, like in the 80s, for a while it was figuration, kind of abstract expressionist figuration, like in the East Village where that was happening, and then the whole Neo-Geo thing, where everything had to be really cool and slick. I did my first show with Carrie James Marshall in 1991 and I remember a few people coming up to me and asking me: "What the hell are you doing showing figurative painting?" like it was a sacrilege against the church! I think now is a time that is open to so many things, like photography is thought of as an equal...
Michaud: ...And there's a lot more installation work. And a lot more of the celluloid-based variety, as well.
Shainman: And painting. It's not what it used to be. It was thought of as an old-fashioned, obsolete medium. And now I think artists are proud to be painters. There's a lot of good film and video. It really does seem like a time that's open to a lot of different things, and if you have originality and quality you can get some attention from it.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief