When 32-year-old Ellen Gallagher’s cool abstract paintings appeared at the Mary Boone Gallery in January 1996, a number of people noted it as a refreshing change for the gallery. Ms. Gallagher, an artist who encodes cryptic messages from the black community in the stripes of her large, Agnes Martin-style paintings, had never had a solo exhibition in New York. And Ms. Boone, 43, had never been known for showing the works of black artists or women. The show was an overwhelming success, both critically and financially. But after Ms. Boone moved to 57th Street in May 1996, Ms. Gallagher decided to have her second solo show, which opened March 7 at Gagosian Gallery’s SoHo outlet.
Mario Diacono, Ms. Gallagher’s primary dealer in Boston, said that the change in venue had to do, simply, with being downtown and that there was nothing uncomfortable between Ms. Gallagher and Ms. Boone. Simply put, like a number of young artists, Ms. Gallagher has enjoyed playing the field-not committing to any one gallery.
“After Mary moved uptown, [Ellen] didn’t feel that for the time being her work should be seen in an uptown gallery,” said Mr. Diacono. “She felt that she was enough of a young artist that she wanted her work to be seen in SoHo.”
For her part, Ms. Boone said she tried to rent her old space on West Broadway for a month so she could please the fickle artist, but, alas, the old space was not available. And by that time, Ms. Gallagher had already asked Mr. Diacono to contact Larry Gagosian. Mr. Diacono explained, “She was challenging herself by thinking of her work showing in Larry’s space.”
Acknowledging hesitantly that the 57th Street Mary Boone Gallery is not as beautiful as the SoHo Mary Boone Gallery, Mr. Diacono insisted that for Ms. Gallagher, “it was not a question of space per se, but of context. She felt her work should be seen in the context of young work which is being shown in SoHo or in Chelsea.” Ms. Gallagher was not available for comment.
For her part, Ms. Boone had this to add about Ms. Gallagher’s decision: “Like a lot of artists from the 90′s, she takes a much more independent role when it comes to galleries. She felt that showing at Larry’s was really the thing to do because they do a lot of one-off shows. It wasn’t like joining another gallery. Mario is her dealer. We probably will continue to work with her.”
Mr. Gagosian told The Observer that he had been contacted by Mr. Diacono, who told him that Ms. Gallagher wanted to show her paintings in the SoHo branch of his eponymous gallery. “I knew her work from the Biennial,” said Mr. Gagosian, referring to the 1995 Whitney Biennial. “I noticed that she was a very interesting artist in that group of artists, but I didn’t pursue it at that time. And then I saw that she was having a show with Mario and with Anthony d’Offay and Mary Boone, so my sense of it was that she was well represented. I forgot about it. I didn’t move fast enough or whatever. So when Mario Diacono called … I said, Absolutely, let’s plan the show.” Mr. Gagosian then felt prompted to add that his gallery is “the most beautiful space downtown.”
Lawrence of Beijing
Vs. the Guggenheim
The trouble started in November 1997, when Lawrence Wu, a contemporary Chinese art dealer from Beijing who goes by “Lawrence of Beijing” when he is in New York, was contacted by the Guggenheim Museum in SoHo and told that seven artists that he represents would not be included in the exhibit China: 5,000 Years even though they had first been invited to be a part of the retrospective.
Mr. Wu, adjusting his ascot, was standing in his booth at the International Asian Art Fair in the rear of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue on March 25. The Larry Gagosian of Beijing, Mr. Wu has the leading contemporary art gallery in the capital of China, where he shows oil paintings and drawings by Chinese artists who paint in a range of Western styles, from 19th-century academic to postmodern. Mr. Wu has worked hard to become an art dealer in a communist country, where he pointed out that there have been auctions only for the past five years, and artists traditionally have not been allowed to paint anything that does not glorify the Government. So when the Guggenheim reneged on its offer to show some of his artists, he became embroiled in a controversy with the museum, and he immediately suspected that a nefarious force had a hand on the deck.
Mr. Wu went after Howard Rogers, a dealer of Chinese art here in New York who was a consultant to the exhibition. Mr. Rogers, while he has known Mr. Wu for a number of years and once considered him to be a friend, claims to have said nothing against the gallery owner. “I had nothing to do with the contemporary Chinese art show at the Guggenheim. I made none of the selections. It was totally unrelated. Mr. Wu knows very well I had nothing to do with it. It was his way of applying pressure on the Guggenheim itself to put back in the artists in which he has a financial interest. This has nothing to do with me.”
Jane DeBevoise, project director of China: 5000 Years , explained that Mr. Wu’s artists were withdrawn from the exhibition because of space constraints. “The major constraint was floor space. We had three floors. Then we were told that we would only have one and one-half floors. For that reason, we had to scale back our checklist.”
Mr. Wu will have none of Mr. Rogers’ or Ms. DeBevoise’s explanations. He walked excitedly around his booth, showing the artists whose works were excluded from the Guggenheim exhibition. They included two young women, one who paints in a style of photorealism that would have been at home in New York in the 1970′s, and a third artist who paints in a whimsical surrealistic style that seems to be also popular among artists from former Eastern bloc nations. He pointed out that the organizers of the exhibit cut out all art made after 1980. “After 1980, Chinese art became more vivid. The most vivid. Most active. After 80, Mao’s death, they open the door. You really have a boom,” said Mr. Wu.
“People like me here in the fair,” he said, and flashed a big movie-star smile.