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

This past February, at one in the morning, there was an hour-long wait to get inside of Paula Cooper Gallery. The crowd that was there to see Christian Marclay’s film The Clock was not composed of the typical Chelsea throng. Models mingled with art handlers. Reporters and rival dealers waited patiently amongst the late-night swell of people.

“Everybody had to wait,” said Mr. Marclay, who first met Ms. Cooper when he played with the SEM ensemble at the gallery’s previous home on Wooster Street. “It didn’t matter that you were a high-powered collector, an art critic or some anonymous person. She treated everybody equally.”

A number of Ms. Cooper’s employees were working on less sleep while The Clock was on display, not because they had to work more hours; mostly, they were simply mesmerized by the work. A five-minute trip downstairs to pick a package turned into 45 minutes. Ms. Cooper herself would disappear into the theater for hours. The piece gave the gallery a new kind of recognition. People would stop Ms. Cooper on the street and thank her. The Clock came in an edition of six and each one sold to a major museum.

It was a far cry from Ms. Cooper’s early days in Chelsea, before the neighborhood became what it is today — the art world’s mecca, home to some 400 galleries, likely the highest concentration of galleries in the world. Back in the winter of 1996, the building still had dirt floors. Ms. Cooper had been living in the neighborhood for eight years, a block east on 21st. She had been looking casually for a new space, but no one was selling. When she found the building at 534 W. 21st Street, it was, quite simply, “a wreck,” an old garage with high ceilings covered in acoustical tiles. It was an old storage facility for air vents that had been gutted, layered with dust and grime. She took her artists to the space before it was renovated and they all stood in a circle drinking champagne. There was no electricity yet and everyone was scared about what would happen next. They told Ms. Cooper she was crazy. No one would ever go to Chelsea.

But there were artists from the gallery’s early days that stuck around. Sol LeWitt, Robert Grosvenor. The Chelsea space opened in the fall of 1996 with a show by Carl Andre. The first sentence of Michael Kimmelman’s review in the Times compared the new space to a “big chapel.”

There is, in fact, an ecclesiastical aura to the gallery. It is predominantly illuminated by natural light coming from a window in the center of a nearly 50-foot high cathedral ceiling. There are big wooden rafters arching at the top that make the room look rustic, nothing like the white cubes and concrete that characterize much of Chelsea.

Here, Ms. Cooper began to gather young talent like Rudolf Stingel, John Tremblay, Dan Walsh and Kelley Walker. She didn’t play to the glamour of the market boom that stretched from 2003 to 2008 – and, like most dealers, she has no small amount of disdain for auction houses – but it buttressed her business. The recession that followed hit her as hard as it did anyone else. But her recent signing of Tauba Auerbach sealed a new era in the gallery’s history, even as she has remained faithful to her taste and her eye for minimalism. In one show in 2005, Mr. Stingel cleared out the gallery, painted the walls and floors white and installed a single painting: a photorealist portrait of Ms. Cooper based on a 1984 photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Earlier this year, Mr. Stingel raised eyebrows when he did a show of similar, but much larger, photorealist portraits at Gagosian gallery’s enormous branch on 24th Street. In her review in the Times, Roberta Smith wrote ominously that he was “taking a break” from the gallery. By most accounts, the work was merely too big to fit inside Ms. Cooper’s space and Mr. Stingel insisted to his gallery that the show was a one-off (this didn’t stop Gagosian from listing Mr. Stingel on its web site).

When asked about the future, she began to list the shows she has planned for the next year. A larger time frame—ten years, even five—is not a consideration. She thinks “in terms of what shows we’ll do next.”

Asked if she ever thinks of retiring, she laughed, then said: “No.”

mmiller@observer.com

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