She was born Paula Johnson in 1938. Her father was a Navy social worker so the family traveled around a lot before Ms. Cooper landed in New York in 1959, fresh out of the University of Maryland. She spent a year working the switchboard at Chanel. She was still Paula Johnson when she opened her first gallery in 1964, in a basement across from Hunter College on 68th Street. After Chanel she found a job at a pre-Columbian and African art gallery in the Carlyle. She started taking drawing classes at the Art Students League. She was terrible at it, but she developed “this tremendous respect and awe for artists.” It was at Herbert Mayer’s World House gallery that she began to learn the art business. She installed her first show there, a retrospective of Italian still life painter Giorgio Morandi. While at World House she married and eventually stopped working, but that didn’t last long. “I wasn’t allowed to work,” she said, “so I stopped being married.”
Paula Johnson Gallery was short-lived, but it was where she met the critic Lucy Lippard, the sculptor Walter De Maria (whose work she began showing) and a young graduate student named Lynda Benglis. She also had her first negative experience with a collector, taxi cab fleet owner Robert Scull, one of the earliest and most prominent champions of pop art. He and Ms. Cooper didn’t hit it off. Profiling Scull for the Herald Tribune, Tom Wolfe included a scene of the collector visiting Ms. Cooper’s gallery.
“It had Scull’s description of ‘discovering’ Walter De Maria,” she said. “It said he was walking down the street and he looked in this window—and you couldn’t look in the window because we were in the basement, you had to go inside—and he talked about how there was this dumb woman there.” She exhaled and said, “Well,” drawing out the word as she raised her eyebrows. “That was my first experience with any publicity or newspapers.”
After the gallery closed she was approached by art dealer John Gibson to work as the director of Park Place, a cooperative gallery on West Broadway. There were ten artists, five painters and five sculptors, switching off shows month to month. At one show, Leo Valledor invited Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt to show with him, which marked the beginning of Ms. Cooper’s long working relationship with LeWitt. While at Park Place, Ms. Cooper remarried—to Neil Cooper, the founder of the ROIR record label—and had a son. The gallery was funded by a few collectors who paid the bills in exchange for art, an arrangement that turned out to be unsustainable. When Park Place closed in 1967 she tried again with her own gallery. She wanted to get away from uptown, and found an old loft on Prince Street with columns and 10,000 square feet of space. The rent was $300 a month.
Soho back then had no Dean & Deluca, no Victoria’s Secret or Banana Republic. The neighborhood was more like a sprawling artists colony, with many living for free, illegally.
The first show at Ms. Cooper’s was a benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to end the war in Vietnam. The artists included Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Robert Mangold, Robert Ryman, Dan Flavin and Carl Andre, some of which would become the gallery’s core stable in those early years. The gallery could almost have passed for empty, with only a few scattered objects on the floor, and pale canvases that nearly blended in with the walls. LeWitt showcased his first wall drawing. Flavin had a neon light tucked away in a dark corner.
The exhibition established Ms. Cooper as a champion of minimalism and also aligned her with the political left. In her announcement for the show, she wrote a controversial statement about the nature of viewing art: “These 14 non-objective artists are against the war in Vietnam. They are supporting this commitment in the strongest manner open to them by contributing major examples of their current work. The artists and the individual pieces were selected to represent a particular esthetic attitude, in the conviction that a cohesive group of important works makes the most forceful statement for peace.”
The opening was packed, mostly with artists. Right away it was clear this was a new kind of gallery.
“We used to get all dressed up to go to openings on 57th Street,” said Lucy Lippard, who was one of the curators of the first show. “But this was going to be our neighborhood. We weren’t going to get all dressed up to go around the corner. Paula was really part of whatever the avant garde was, rather than some dealer trying to cash in on it. Luckily she sold art. She was good at that too.”
The renowned collector David Whitney bought Donald Judd’s piece, a brass floor sculpture called Untitled, which is now in the permanent collection at MoMA. In the end, the only money that was raised at the benefit was through art sales.
“I was supposed to charge admission,” Ms. Cooper said. “But I was very bad at that.”
Galleries moved into Soho, slowly at first. After leaving Castelli, where he’d been director, Ivan Karp opened OK Harris on West Broadway in 1969. Castelli himself opened a branch at 420 Broadway in 1971. In 1973, Ms. Cooper was kicked out of the loft on Prince Street after the building was sold, so she signed a long lease with an option to buy at the ground floor of 155 Wooster Street. Roberta Smith, now a New York Times art critic, was one of her few full-time employees. The gallery began showing the work of Joel Shapiro, Jackie Winsor, Bob Grosvenor and Lynda Benglis. Paula Cooper Gallery became increasingly known for difficult shows with young artists whose work toed the line between minimalism and conceptual art.
Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times, called a 1975 show of Joel Shapiro’s miniature “houses” “a minimalist oeuvre designed for a race of Lilliputians.”
“She had a lot of nerve,” Mr. Shapiro said. “You know: ‘Sure I’ll put this three-inch chair in the gallery.’ Paula installs work and it’s a kind of manifestation of her faith in the world. She doesn’t tart it up. Other dealers can be very fancy. It’s like putting an elaborate frame on a painting because you don’t think the painting is so good. Paula has this broad investment in culture. It’s culture, not commerce.”
This attitude was exemplified in 1974 by Ms. Benglis’s famous ad in Artforum, which was a kind of pinnacle of the time before contemporary art became big business. The magazine was doing a long profile on Ms. Benglis and she wanted them to include a photograph of her. In it, she is completely naked, aside from a pair of sunglasses. Her hair is cropped short, and her hand is wrapped around a large flesh-colored double-sided dildo that she holds between her legs. The editors of Artforum refused to print the photograph, so Ms. Benglis bought a full-page ad. The magazine said she couldn’t take out an ad; her gallery had to.
“So I said, ‘Ok. Fine,’” Ms. Cooper said. “But she paid for it. I was on the phone every day with ad people. They’d tell me ‘the printers don’t want to print it.’ ‘[Artforum editor] Charlie [Cowles] doesn’t want his mother to see it.’ Every day was fraught with…something.”
The ad was, in part, Ms. Benglis’ response to the S&M-styled photographs of the artist Robert Morris, her sometime-lover, that appeared in the same issue of Artforum. It was no coincidence that the controversy was the result of an image of a woman aggressively attacking the assumptions of her gender, supported by her stylish female dealer whose power and stature in the art world was rapidly expanding.
“There were always a lot of women dealers,” Ms. Cooper said, “But there were a lot more male dealers and they were ‘more important.’” Her voice turned sarcastic: “They were really much more important. It’s still difficult for women. There’s a whole bunch of these men who never—they’re so rude. You know, Gagosian, Mugrabi, what’s his name who owns those wonderful buildings? Lever House? Aby Rosen. They’re these macho guys who are really rude.”
When asked if that created a closeness with her female dealers, Ms. Cooper responded: “No way.”
When the ad ran, Ms. Benglis left town, but Ms. Cooper says she’d call everyday asking for updates.
“Nothing much happened actually,” Ms. Cooper said. “Except, you know, the staff of Artforum quit.” Several editors left, and went on to establish the more academic October. “I had seen the picture before it ran, but I didn’t think it would be that big. When I got the magazine and opened it up I said, ‘Oh my God it’s so huge!’”