Clock Stopper: Paula Cooper Opened the First Art Gallery in SoHo and Hasn’t Slowed Down Since

Ms. Cooper’s approach to running a gallery was influenced, she said, by the idea of the “gentleman dealer.” She thought of Sidney Janis as a model. In 1967, Janis donated his private collection—which included works by Picasso, Mondrian and Klee—to MoMA to do with as they pleased. She initially opened in SoHo because that’s where the artists were. In those early days, there was only a small group of collectors.

“If Paula was doing well, it meant that the rest of us were doing well too,” said curator Klaus Kertess, who ran the Bykert Gallery uptown from 1966 to 1975. His artists included Brice Marden and Chuck Close. “I can’t tell you it was a booming business but I was breaking even. It was growing.”

By most accounts, Ms. Cooper is modest in managing artists’ prices. Steve Henry, the gallery’s director since 1997, said that her method of raising prices is a “steady build over a long period of time.”

She speaks highly of Leo Castelli, whose gallery Donald Judd left for hers in 1985. She remembers Mr. Castelli coming to her gallery the next day in a huff.

“He confronted me. That’s why I liked Leo. He sat down in my office and he said: ‘Alright. How much did you give him?’ I didn’t want to hurt his feelings and say ‘nothing,’ so I didn’t say anything.”

She is known for being tough and serious, but the art world—which can be tight-lipped with its praise—likes her. Mary Boone called her “fabulous.” Bob Nickas, the critic and curator, started talking about her by asking, skeptically, “How many people have a continuous, unblemished business for 40 years?” He mentioned the possibility of skeletons in the closet. He proceeded to praise the gallery for 45 minutes without really pausing and then said, “Huh. I guess I don’t have anything bad to say.”

Conceptual artist John Baldessari said in an interview that Ms. Cooper was “just like another artist.”

“She had a way of selling things with so few words it was uncanny,” said the dealer James Cohan, who worked with the gallery from 1986 to 1991. “She’d say, ‘People come in and they buy works of art from us; we don’t sell them.’ I think artists go there because they feel safe. There was a real regard for what was in the best interest of the artist at all times. It never felt like it was just business decisions.”

That model was hardly in tune with the times as the art world entered the hedonistic 80s. Contemporary art was being sold quickly and for more money than ever before. Dealers were cashing in on stylistic fads like Neo-expressionism and raising prices quickly through what economists at the time called the “winner-take-all” model. A handful of artists became superstars and media darlings. Though Castelli once accused Ms. Cooper of inflating the market for Jennifer Bartlett’s work (an accusation Ms. Bartlett refuted in an interview), she is mostly known for being more reserved.

“I think it’s come around to be her attribute,” Mr. Cohan said, “But in the mid to late 80s it was to her detriment,” he said. “She knew how to do things a certain way. And her model went out of fashion. The market changed. Artists were all powerful and expecting more from the dealer. They wanted people to spend more, to be more aggressive. It wasn’t her style. Lavish catalogs, huge parties. The day of the limousine, that suited Pace and that suited other dealers, but she wasn’t going to bestow some kind of special behavior onto the artist. It was never spoken around the gallery but the world was changing, and she was doing it the same she’d always done it. Which in the end probably proved to be the right way.”

By his own telling, Douglas Baxter, currently a president of The Pace Gallery, began working at Paula Cooper Gallery through Roberta Smith. He said Ms. Smith was writing for Artforum at the time she worked there. She had written a scathing review of a show at ACE Gallery and Artforum editor Charles Cowles said it wasn’t fair. Ms. Smith worked for a gallery that didn’t advertise as much. He said she had to decide between working in a gallery and being a critic. Mr. Baxter said Roberta Smith introduced him as her replacement at the gallery.

“What gallery? My gallery?” Ms. Cooper said in response to the story. “I met Douglas through [Fischbach Gallery director] Aladar Marberger. I went to see a show he had and Douglas was working for him. There was this sweet blonde boy who was so charming. I think he carried a package for me out of the gallery. And eventually I hired him.”

Mr. Baxter worked closely with Ms. Cooper for nearly 15 years, as the gallery was building up the careers of Mr. Shapiro, Ms. Bartlett, Jonathan Borofsky, Elizabeth Murray, Richard Van Buren and, eventually, Donald Judd. In 1986, Mr. Baxter left to work for Pace and, over time, took many of Ms. Cooper’s artists with him.

But his years with Ms. Cooper represented a kind of financial golden age for the gallery, as well as for the rest of the art world. After a lull in the seventies, prices began steadily rising. Mary Boone teamed up with Castelli to sell Schnabels for hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was a thief running around SoHo and snatching work from galleries. He was arrested in front of Paula Cooper trying to carry away a Joel Shapiro sculpture worth $30,000. The art business was booming.

“In the early 80s I asked Paula if she’d speak at CalArts,” John Baldessari said. “Afterwards we were having lunch and she was upset and I asked why. And she said they didn’t want to hear about her artists or what they were doing, they just wanted to hear how much they were selling for. It was the first time I had heard someone say something like that. It was a tipping point. It was about then that people started talking about money in art, not about art.”

In 1986, there were 100 galleries in SoHo. By 1988, there were 250.

Reportedly, Pace gave Mr. Baxter a BMW convertible and a big raise to come work for them. In 1991, after the art market had entered a deadly recession, Donald Judd joined him.

“That annoyed me,” Ms. Cooper said. “We had worked so well for him. He was in a very bad spot when we started working with him. ”

“Don and I were very close,” Mr. Baxter said. “He approached me. The economy was sort of on the skids and I think he wanted to be associated with a bigger gallery. A strong gallery.”

Other artists struggled with leaving. Ms. Cooper said that Mr. Shapiro spent three years contemplating it before departing in the early 90s.

“I just somehow sensed a certain weariness in the relationship,” Mr. Shapiro said. “It’s difficult to talk about. You sort of develop in a certain situation but you want a broader kind of voice. Was it a necessary move on my part? I doubt it. I don’t regret it, but I don’t know if it was necessary.”

Every gallery has a few artists that bring in more money than the others, enabling it to take risks on younger, or less commercial talent. Judd and Mr. Shapiro were those artists for Ms. Cooper.   Her stable was clearing out just when the art market was collapsing. Many of the artists that left had been there for more than two decades and Ms. Cooper was hurt by her artists leaving, as much emotionally as financially.

Last month in her office, as her staff was photographing works by Tauba Auerbach, the gallery’s newest artist, for an exhibition catalog, Ms. Cooper said, “We got over it.”

Clock Stopper: Paula Cooper Opened the First Art Gallery in SoHo and Hasn’t Slowed Down Since