Dore Ashton, 2015. Photo: Polly Bradford-Corris.
DORE ASHTON CAME OF AGE IN A GALVANIZING PLACE AND TIME—New York in the 1950s—when Abstract Expressionism was giving the art of the United States international significance and when partisan arguments over the proper way to interpret this art were flaring. The dominant voices in those arguments were male—Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, and Leo Steinberg among others—but a number of women were also shaping the critical discourse, including Aline Louchheim Saarinen, Elaine de Kooning, Belle Krasne, Katherine Kuh, and Emily Genauer.
Even as Ashton’s early reviews covered a broad range of work, she was unafraid to lock horns with Greenberg and Rosenberg over some of their favorite artists. Unlike those prominent critical counterparts, Ashton took seriously what the artists were saying about their work. She read and listened to them—she even reported on one of Rothko’s public lectures for the New York Times—and she treated their art and their theories as mutually illuminating. She quoted Rothko in a direct challenge to Rosenberg that appeared in the August 1957 issue of Arts and Architecture: “It is cowardly to ‘live’ through the painter’s act alone. The only glory is in going beyond the gesture.” She strove to clarify the often cryptic pronouncements of the artists, writing, for example:
“Rothko claims that his is the most violent painting in America today. One can take that to mean that by supreme effort of will he has harnessed turbulence. He paints the paradox of violence. Those colors which create genuine, immeasurable tensions are grappling among themselves as symbols.”
Her writing on Rothko evinced her conviction in artists’ belief that their work had philosophical significance, that its formal innovations were intertwined with profound reflections on modern experience.
“Most of these paintings [in Rothko’s 1958 exhibition at Sidney Janis Gallery] are in the great tragic voice (though one borders on irritable despair). They are, in their own way, equivalents to the ‘machine’ paintings of earlier periods, those large scale, ambitious canvases in which great painters tried to give form to great truths.”
And she accepted the challenge of articulating the truths rooted in their imposing abstract forms. “These large, resounding paintings embody Rothko’s deeply developed sense of the tragic. . . . I would like to suggest that the paling edges, the quavering areas of light, the completely ambiguous extremities of Rothko’s forms . . . are the crucial carriers of Rothko’s complex expression.”
Like some of the artists she admired, she appreciated paradox, and she did not shy away from framing it in her texts when she found it in the art and words of her artists. In Pollock’s paintings, for instance, space was the salient feature for Ashton; writing that his works “violently rejected established pictorial conventions for delimiting recessive space,” she elaborated:
“The labyrinth of lines, crossing and recrossing, occupies a narrow space, defined laterally. The spectator enters it and, led through the magical maze of the web, follows the chance succession of lines. . . . One can, like a spider, sit at the heart of the structure, and, behind the foreground, remain sheltered in the interior of the great web.”
The metaphors that helped Ashton articulate her experience of Pollock’s art conjured a space simultaneously sheltering and trapping, solid and delicate, magical and material.
Ashton’s willingness to employ abstract and complex language on behalf of Abstract Expressionism was a source of friction with her editor at the New York Times, John Canaday. “We have managed to eliminate the most esoteric phraseology from your articles but they are not yet satisfactory to me or to the editors,” he wrote to her in 1961. He also accused her of “using the columns of the Times for the professional and financial advantage of your husband and friends.” (She was married to the printmaker Adja Yunkers.) Outraged by the charges, Ashton stood her ground and brought her case to the Art Critics’ Association, which censured Canaday for bullying a fellow critic. Even as a young woman, she was not cowed by the most powerful male authorities in critical and institutional establishments.
Michael Leja is a professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s (1993).
SHOCK OVERCAME ME JANUARY 16, 2017, when I heard that gallerist and art historian Bernard Zürcher had died from a heart attack that morning in Paris. He was only sixty-three. What a loss for the international art world, for me and the other artists represented by Zürcher Gallery, for his wife and business partner, Gwénolée, and his son, Theo. Within a genuinely humble and sweet demeanor, Bernard was amazingly bright, educated, and accomplished. Although he had a practical side, Bernard was sincere, even idealistic, about supporting the art he loved.
I first met Bernard on January 20, 2013. In the fast-paced four years since, he and Gwénolée made a radical impact on my career. Considering my work for Zürcher Gallery, they contacted me after viewing my show “Regina Bogat: Stars,” in Williamsburg. Curiously, before the meeting I read Bernard’s book Georges Braque, Life and Work (1988). Its scholarship was impressive and fueled my excitement about their interest.
When Bernard and Gwénolée visited my studio, they had no prejudice about age, ethnicity, or gender, labels that for years made it so hard to get a foot in the art-world door. Although I was a painter for over sixty years, exhibitions of my work were infrequent as gallerists and museums focused on my husband, Alfred Jensen (1903–1981). This was new! Bernard and Gwénolée weren’t interested in my husband; they focused on my work. In an interview on Zürcher Gallery’s website, Bernard states his philosophy:
“You can do something on behalf of artists you admire, based on what I’d call an ‘intimate conviction’ rather than a market strategy.”
They put rocket fuel under my previously sleepy career: I’ve had multiple one-person shows at Zürcher Gallery both in New York and Paris and have been in many group shows and art fairs internationally; I won a Pommery Stand Prize at the Frieze Art Fair; and my work is now in collections spanning the globe, including the Blanton Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art! I am forever grateful to Bernard, who, with Gwenolée, was an extremely effective force for a previously ignored woman artist.
The more I knew Bernard the more I was amazed. Born 1953 in Algiers to a family of art historians and collectors, Bernard was Swiss, Belgian, and French. He was educated in Paris and graduated from the École du Louvre and Sorbonne, where he received highest honors. Then he taught Cubism at the École du Louvre. At twenty-seven, he wrote his first book, on Amedeo Modigliani, which brought him to meet his wife-to-be, Gwénolée de Beauregard. By chance, she read Bernard’s monograph on Modigliani, which she found so interesting that she asked the person who lent her the book to introduce her to Bernard. The meeting was arranged, and they married a year later, in 1981. For Bernard, who, incidentally, loved fishing as a pasttime, Gwénolée was quite a catch!
Although she never mentions it, Gwénolée is a baroness who grew up in in a medieval castle in Brittany. Her French aristocratic family tree includes illustrious generals and a famous admiral. She is also a Daughter of the American Revolution; the great-grandfather of her grandfather fought for American independence with Lafayette. Her art education began with childhood visits to her grandmother, whose Parisian home was adorned with old-master paintings and with whom she frequented the museums of Europe. It was through Bernard that she developed her passion for contemporary art. She remembers him reflecting on her background and saying to her:
“You are prepared to look at contemporary art.”
Gwénolée studied languages to become a professional translator, which she applied to art literature. Her ability as a linguist, her discipline and strength have been an advantage in the international art business and worked synergistically with Bernard’s talents to make a powerful team.
Early in their marriage, Gwénolée discovered a correspondence of Vincent van Gogh not yet published in France. She translated it from English into French, and Bernard wrote the foreword. It was published. Office du Livre de Fribourg, Rizzoli’s partner, read the book and invited Bernard to write a monograph on van Gogh, which was published in 1985 and translated into German, Italian, and Japanese. Office du Livre de Fribourg and Rizzoli were so thrilled with the book’s success that they asked Bernard to write a second monograph. Bernard spent two years researching and writing Georges Braque, Life and Work, which won the first Élie Faure Award. He then wrote Les Fauves (1995). Thus, by thirty-five, Bernard had already published three seminal books.
Also from 1978 to 1988, Bernard was working curatorially first at the Musée de l’Orangerie and then at the Palais de Tokyo. This experience fostered his great eye for installing exhibitions. Inspired by avant-garde gallery owners of the past, especially Pierre Loeb, Bernard wanted to open a gallery to champion unknown contemporary artists. In 1988, he and Gwénolée began showing works in a small space in Paris. Taking his responsibilities as a gallerist seriously, Bernard took evening classes in basic accounting. In 1992, they moved into a bigger space in Paris, and Galerie Zürcher was officially born. They expanded in 2009 by opening an additional Zürcher Gallery in New York. Bernard exhibited work that has achieved international attention. Emmanuelle Antille, Matt Bollinger, Marc Desgrandchamps, Wang Keping, Cordy Ryman, and Elisa Sighicelli are some of Zürcher Gallery’s successes.
Bernard’s practical, dutiful side becomes clear in his generous contributions to concerns beyond his gallery. From 1996 to 2006, he was the vice president of the Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art. In 2000, he helped form the Espace d’Art Contemporain on the École des Hautes Études Commerciales campus, where he contributed to the Médias Art & Création course. He was the vice president of the French Art Galleries Trade Union and a founding member and vice president of the Contemporary Art Professionals’ Association. A specialist in questions of patronage, Bernard also co-authored L’Art avec pertes ou profit? (2007), a book about the art business, with Karine Lisbonne, an HEC graduate.
At the time of his death, Bernard had just organized Galerie Zürcher’s twenty-fifth-anniversary show and corresponding catalogue, for which he wrote a charming yet uncanny essay. Bernard’s journey as a gallerist comes full circle in this essay, which seems to be a metaphor. It ends:
“We decided to take a side step and what might look like a strange initiative: paying a posthumous tribute (Dufour passed away on the night of July 21st, 2016) to a painter we could have exhibited during his lifetime but never did. His paintings simply came to us and we wanted to display them. The first sentence of André Berne Joffroy in the above-mentioned catalogue by the Musée d’art moderne L’Aventure de Pierre Loeb . . . seems particularly appropriate here: ‘this exhibition is like a bouquet, we made it with the flowers we found.’”
It was so easy to discuss art with Bernard. I miss him and wish we could talk again.
Regina Bogat is an artist based in New York.
Barbara Weiss, 2014. Photo: Jens Ziehe.
I MET BARBARA WEISS AT A TIME when I still regarded galleries as false agents of a new financialization of the city. So at first I hesitated to show with her, but over several conversations with her I found that she was receptive to my concerns and even shared some of them. This is what moved me to exhibit with her. At that point, I didn’t yet know the meaning of sustained collaboration or what it was like to be able to count on someone across decades; it was to her credit that she showed me that.
Barbara Weiss advocated not only artistic positions that represented their creator’s subjectivity but also those that admitted politically motivated conflicts and allowed debates and contradictions to exist within the work. Her program ranged from works dedicated to specific sites, to institutional critique to conceptual projects to painting. She represented these different positions with her own seasoned distance from the hot spots and hype of the art industry, always saying that “one does not have to go along with everything.”
In her gallery, the exhibitor and the exhibited each offered the other a kind of free space, making it possible for both, from time to time, to forget the assigned roles in a gallery. I want to emphasize this point, because in the course of the last two decades the economic pressures on both sides of the relationship between gallery and artist have increased. Barbara Weiss met these pressures with her own ethic that was opposed to them, an unflustered continuity and an absolute loyalty to the positions she represented that was never influenced by conformity to the market.
Barbara always bore with me the institutional and market-related consequences of some of my works—and with a countenance that, in a certain way, protected me. Barbara trusted my work fundamentally even if she did not necessarily wholly share its politics. She was no propagandist: The works she exhibited were not her personal program. She was a staunch gallerist who believed firmly in the meaning and importance of an artistic praxis.
It is hard to describe a person who always explicitly withdrew from attributions. She expressly refrained from the hype around Berlin’s art world, and because her reputation reached far beyond that city’s scene, she was able to engage the international art world at large. She was very influential in a dialogue between German and US artists, for example, representing positions on both sides; she also steadily expanded her program to take on more and more Eastern European artists.
And she did so not out of vanity or fear but rather to prevent the claims of her own artists to be instrumentalized for this hype.
Her engagement and her idea of what a gallery is and can achieve will remain. Barbara herself I will miss.
Andreas Siekmann is an artist based in Berlin.
IT WAS THE CULTURAL COMMENTATOR FRED KAPLAN who observed that many of the great epiphanies of the 1960s were set in motion in 1959. This is certainly true in the case of Gustav Metzger—1959 was the year he wrote his first manifesto on “auto-destructive art,” a public art form that held up a mirror to a social and political system that Metzger felt was progressing toward total obliteration. Auto-destruction, he wrote, was “an attempt to deal rationally with a society that appears to be lunatic.”
I heard of Gustav years later. I was on an eight-city lecture tour of the UK with not much to lecture about because I was only twenty-three. To avoid embarrassment, ten minutes into my talk I would always put on a Fischli & Weiss video while I went out for coffee and a cigarette to gather my thoughts. It was quite an exhausting trip but one that ended in Glasgow with a moment of total ecstasy: I discovered the amazing Scottish arts scene. Roddy Buchanan, Jonathan Monk, Christine Borland, David Shrigley: I met them all in one night. And Douglas Gordon too, of course, which was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. I was reading about Robert Rauschenberg at the time and was taken with his idea that paintings could be clocks. Douglas told me of two British artists just as relevant to my interests: John Latham—whose time-based art we are currently showing at the Serpentine—and Gustav Metzger.
Gustav and I met in person when he came to my Serpentine show “Take Me (I’m Yours).” It was a participatory exhibition where visitors could touch and take home the works of art on view. That appealed to Gustav, who had his own exhibition at Gallery House with Sigi Krauss at the time. So began our collaboration, which continued on for twenty years. First there was “Life/Live” at the Musée D’Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris, which included Gustav’s Earth Minus Environment as well as two of his “Historic Photographs” that asked the audience to walk—or crawl—into direct confrontation with history. Then came his Serpentine survey exhibition “Decades: 1959–2009” and the all-night “Extinction Marathon” that we curated together. Crucially, that marathon was subtitled “Visions of the Future.”
On the subject of extinction, Gustav used to say: The work is never done. This is what led to Remember Nature, the education project and worldwide day of action that began with a single piece of paper torn from his notebook. “This appeal is for the widest possible participation from the world of the arts,” read his call to arms in agnès b’s publication Le Pointe d’Ironie. “The aim is to create a mass movement to ward off extinction.” He wanted to do something with the Royal Institution too, but they did not pursue it, perhaps because of Gustav’s anti-institutional stance. No matter. He was fighting extinction in other ways instead, inventing a new extinction handwriting for my ongoing Instagram project.
Gustav was involved in anticapitalist, anticonsumerist movements all his life. In 1961, he was even imprisoned briefly for encouraging mass nonviolent civil disobedience as part of the Committee of 100, the prominent British antiwar group. But what brings so many younger artists to Gustav besides his radical politics? I think it goes back to the transdisciplinarity that existed in the 1960s—that freedom to navigate between different fields. The more I read of contemporary science, the more I see interesting parallels with Gustav’s early writings and time-based work, all of which gain new meaning when we talk about the end of certainty, the dilemmas surrounding determinism, and the idea that there is no such thing as a secure or given future.
In the catalogue for “Art into Society, Society into Art,” Norman Rosenthal’s 1974 group exhibition of seven German artists at the ICA in London, Gustav put forward his argument for a universal three-year art strike: “The use of art for social change is bedevilled by the close integration of art and society. The state supports art, it needs art as a cosmetic cloak to its horrifying reality, and uses art to confuse, divert and entertain large numbers of people. Even when deployed against the interests of the state, art cannot cut loose from the umbilical cord of the state. Art in the service of revolution is unsatisfactory and mistrusted because of the numerous links of art with the state and capitalism. Despite these problems, artists will go on using art to change society.”
Gustav was unwell for the last few months of his life, yet still he worked until the very end. I visited him the week before he died, and during our conversation he encouraged me never to stop the fight. Then he asked for a piece of paper, which he crumpled into his palm and for fifteen minutes moulded with his hands until it became this strange, beautiful sculpture, the very last work he created. Watching him work, it could have been 1959.
A contributing editor of Artforum, Hans Ulrich Obrist is artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries, London.
For additional Gustav Metzger Passages, see the forthcoming summer issue of Artforum.
Barbara Weiss, 2013. Photo: Dawin Meckel/OSTKREUZ.
I HAD HEARD MANY THINGS ABOUT BARBARA WEISS before she invited me for a one-person show at her legendary gallery in Berlin this past November. She was notoriously tough, strong willed, known for doing things her way and speaking her mind. But by the time I arrived in the city she was already bedridden with cancer. So from the invitation to the exhibition itself I communicated exclusively with Barbara through her directors, Daniel Herleth and Bärbel Trautwein, who helped me to turn my show into a wonderful, successful endeavor.
This made my exhibition an exercise in remote communication and delayed decision-making. It was an unusual experience to have my full presence in Berlin accompanied by her total physical absence. After having finished my installation, our abstract communication found its climax in a bouquet of flowers I had delivered to her. I was told that she was very surprised and happy about the flowers. Her “sich sehr freuen” in response to this gesture excited me more than her approval of my show, which she passed on to me after viewing images of it from what would be her deathbed, where she remained working until her final hours.
Rainer Ganahl is an artist based in Stuttgart and New York.
CAN AN EXHIBITION, CONSIDERED IN RETROSPECT, PROVE TO BE A CREATIVE MARRIAGE OF SORTS between an artist and a gallerist?
Jannis Kounellis’s presentation of live horses in the garage space in Rome I’d converted into an art gallery was undoubtedly the apex of our careers: Jannis’s, and mine. Yes, in a certain sense, we tied the knot on January 14, 1969, when his quadrupeds entered the garage. That exhibition of twelve mighty Dutch horses, arranged in a semicircle with their reins attached to the walls, lasted three days. Visitors moved among the horses, who defecated and urinated continually, their enormous penises there for all to see. Stable hands cleaned and fed the animals. The night of the show’s opening, the city was hit with a strong afternoon storm, and few people came, thirty or so at most, for an exhibition that would go on to become extremely famous. What could be more avant-garde? The horses had already been gone for several days when Harald Szeemann, the well-known Swiss curator, stopped by. Yet even the empty site was enough for him to understand the absolute novelty of that exhibition space, which had a workability previously unseen in art galleries. The next month, in the catalogue for “When Attitudes Become Form,” an international exhibition he organized at his museum in Bern, its image of the horses stood out.
The Bern catalogue circulated around the world. That April, I saw proof of this when I was in New York, where I had arrived in the midst of organizing the festival “Danza, volo, musica, dinamite” (“Dance, flight, music, dynamite”) at my space in Rome. (Around that time I connected with Simone Forti, whom I had met in Rome the year before. During our conversations then, I first began to fully articulate my vision for my exhibition space: one that was good for both installations and performance art, music and dance, that would accommodate both immobile objects and bodies in motion.) At a party, in the midst of strangers, I heard a voice speaking from among a small group: “Did you know there’s a gallery in Rome that exhibits live horses?” It was the critic Seth Siegelaub, and there was genuine amazement in his voice, which was understandable, given that most New York art galleries opened directly into streets, like shops, or were incorporated into skyscrapers, like apartments. Months passed: In June, my underground garage would host La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer and Deborah Hay, David Bradshaw and, of course, Simone Forti. And then, after that, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Charlemagne Palestine, and Joan Jonas.
In art, as in life, there are marriages and divorces. And so Kounellis and I also divorced. A long silence descended between us. On the surface, our disagreement was resolvable. But perhaps the real reason for our split was unfathomable. I didn’t understand, for example, why Kounellis insisted on presenting the horses again, at the Venice Biennale and elsewhere. At that point they were legendary, I told myself, tied to an unrepeatable space and time.
While writing these lines, my telephone rings. I answer and cannot believe my ears: The L’Attico garage—which had become a discotheque after I closed it in 1976, flooding the space with water—is soon to be invaded by cars once again. It will return to its originally intended use as a garage. But before that happens, I learn, there is still the opportunity, for one evening, to show video of the horses there.
Jannis, what do you say: Shall we remarry?
Fabio Sargentini is a writer, filmmaker, and actor who owns and directs the Galleria L’Attico in Rome.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
For more Passages, see a forthcoming issue of Artforum.