Interview with dealer Paul Kasmin: “I get a lot of amusement putting what’s downtown, uptown”

The New York-based dealer on his photographic roots and his future plans


It was arguably the stand-out stand at last month’s Armory Show (3-6 March): Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s 1.5m high, 25m long, neon Armory Fence with Paul Kasmin Gallery. Indeed, so striking was it that some neighbouring galleries could barely conceal their dismay at their proximity to its eerie glow.

The Armory was not the only place that Kasmin, an English-man who has lived in New York for the past 20 years, was making a statement. On the night after the Armory’s gala launch he opened a show of Navarro’s vertigo-inducing neons in his main Chelsea gallery. Both these events followed the installation by the New York artist Will Ryman, son of Robert, of 38 massive pink and red roses, some 25ft high, along Park Avenue in January.

Conveniently, some of these were placed opposite the entrance to the Park Avenue Armory, the home of the Art Dealers’ Association of America’s Art Show (2-6 March) at which Kasmin made a startling juxtaposition of the semi-pornographic pictures of William Copley with sculptures by the Lalannes. In a complete change of pace, at his second gallery on W27th St the dealer was making a nod to his early love, photography. “Drawing with Light, Paper Negatives, 1842 to 1864” (until 2 April) includes works by William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis-Rémy Robert among others.

This show, he says, was a return to his beginnings when he learned the trade by selling works by great photographers on the secondary market. But it could be argued that the business is in his blood. Born in 1960, Kasmin is the son of John Kasmin, one of the leading dealers of 1960s and 70s London. The Kasmin Gallery helped propel the careers of David Hockney and John Latham and brought a generation of American minimalists—including Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland—to Britain. His mother Jane, meanwhile, is from a family of artists that included Ben Nicholson. Kasmin has said he remembers childhood summers in France, where his parents hung out with the likes of Hockney and Ossie Clark, and, in the mornings, there were “thousands of empty bottles all over the place”.

The Art Newspaper: When someone grows up surrounded by a “scene”, as you did, it often encourages them to do something entirely different.

Paul Kasmin: I tried going off in other directions, but it didn’t work. I got interested in photography— I took pictures myself—and eventually started dealing. I still love photography but it didn’t satisfy me enough on its own.

How did you go on to develop your business?

These things seem to happen at their own speed. I used to come to New York in the 1980s, before there was a surge of excitement around London. It all seemed fantastically simple—everyone was suddenly interested in Man Ray and Charles Sheeler and you could just go and meet people from the Getty or Sam Wagstaff [the collector and partner of Robert Mapplethorpe]. At the same time I was great friends with [artist and curator] Daniel Moynihan, and he had a friend [Daniel Newburg] who had too much gallery space on Broadway, so I took a little room from him.

Did you take any money from the first show?

I opened with Brancusi’s photographs of his own sculptures. The first day was a great success. I’m not the best money-maker but I have never had a problem getting by. I started doing more photographs by artists. I remember I liked Fischli and Weiss, and I was also meeting more artists. After a while I moved from photographs to works on paper by the artists I was meeting, because I was getting a bit bored. Eventually I grew out of the little space so I took a building on Grand Street and Deitch [Jeffrey, now director of LA MoCA] moved in next door. Then the business grew and we needed to expand again.

Do you still have plans to open permanently in Istanbul?

I would like to but I haven’t totally worked it out. I have a number of Turkish friends and clients and one of them is trying to build a sort of Chelsea in Istanbul. He invited me to do a show of David LaChapelle, who at the time had an exhibition on in Tel Aviv. We put it on in Istanbul [Dec 2010-Jan 2011] and it was such a success that my friend said I would be crazy if I didn’t do something else in the city, which is what I’m investigating. But it’s tricky: I would like to expand but I haven’t totally worked it out. I still like the idea of having something uptown and downtown in New York. On the other hand I fly to Europe every month, so I’ve a desire to do something there, maybe in France.

You have a very diverse stable of artists, from Robert Indiana to Mattia Bonetti and Walton Ford, and a new generation like Nir Hod and Nyoman Masriadi.

I am quite aware that if you had a gallery in the 1960s you would be showing one thing, or you would be following Clement Greenberg. I noticed 10 or 15 years ago that everything was going off in such different directions that there was no difficulty in showing what you liked. It might be difficult for others to understand how you can like such diverse things but I love having the range of artists that I have, it keeps me interested.

What you like sounds very personal.

It is. And it helps a lot if you like the artist too. There are some extraordinarily grumpy ones, but I still like them.

Why did you show such a range of works across the Armory and ADAA shows?

I’ve always liked a mix of things, and I don’t mind if it’s new or old. Iván told me: “I’ve got an idea, but you’re not going to like it.” The Armory Fence took me a while to digest, but it does make sense: he grew up under a dictatorship, so there’s always a political current in his work. It’s an unbelievably strong statement: and although I’m delighted, it did take a while…I mean, if the production hadn’t been up to scratch it would have been a pretty big failure.

What about putting William Copley and the Lalannes together?

Last year I did a William Copley show called “X-Rated”, which re-created a fairly disastrous exhibition of the 1970s of his pornographic paintings at Huntington Hartford’s museum [now the Museum of Art and Design]. There’s this story I’ve always loved: when Copley was leaving Paris he took a shine to François Lalanne, so he offered him his studio, and added “I have fine neighbours: Brancusi, Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.” It was a bit of a stretch for a young sculptor, but Lalanne took it and they all ended up friends. So I wanted to show Lalanne and Copley together. It’s arguable, but I think Copley is the best American surrealist painter, and I think the relationships they had brought out the surrealist side of Lalanne.

I like playing with ideas. Copley was much more appealing to the downtown set, so I put him in the Park Avenue Armory: but the 19th-century paper negatives, that’s the sort of thing you only see at the Met. I get a lot of amusement out of putting what’s downtown, uptown and what’s uptown, downtown.

Some people say you are clever at rebranding or, let’s say, recontextualising artists.

I don’t think about that a lot. If I see something I like I make an effort to go with it. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Normally, if some work is agreed to be good by a few dealers and a few artists and if the pricing is low compared with younger contemporary artists, it’s fairly easy.

Because you wanted to make photography, do you consider that you think like an artist?

Certainly the thing I enjoy most is working with the artists, coming up with projects and ideas for them. With someone like Will [Ryman] we talk every day, and sit and scheme things out. Although with the Park Avenue installation I did absolutely nothing, to be honest. He showed me the plans for the installation and it was all there. Normally, I’m much more involved. I’m going to take Will to Los Angeles so we can see whether we can move some of the works there.

But it must be expensive?

I’ve spent a lot doing outdoor commissions but, touch wood, they’ve always managed to recoup the money.

How did your interest in public sculpture start? You showed the Lalannes’ animal sculptures in Miami in the Fairchild Botanical Garden last year.

I think it started with Robert Indiana, who I’ve worked with for a long time, and who has always made outdoor sculptures. Having a large public see what you are doing is particularly rewarding. I like the fact that if you take the Lalannes, the work looks entirely different in Miami than it does in Park Avenue.

Is the market for it growing?

I’m certain it is. Certainly among private collectors: there are more and more people buying large sculpture over the past 10 years.

And what about the New York market in general?

I would say things are good. I’ve put a lot of energy into certain things and luckily they seem to be working. It’s certainly possible to have a gallery and nothing going on. Often it’s just luck.

You’ve said that you take a long time to decide whether to take an artist on, but you’ve taken on quite a few in the past couple of years, including Navarro, Masriadi and Hod.

I’m always looking, and right now there seem to be a lot of artists that I like coming along at once, which isn’t normal. So I just decided I should go for it. I’ve only got 15 employees and I’m often told I’m understaffed. That may be true. If things carry on like this, then I’ll have to expand. But it could all suddenly change, I might not see anything I like for two or three years but right now we’ve got our work cut out.

Gallery history

mid-1980s: Starts private dealing in photography, principally in New York

1989: Takes small gallery space in building at Prince St and Broadway: moves from photography to works on paper

1992: Moves to Grand Street, until he decides the “end of Soho is near”

1999: Takes current space on 10th Avenue

2003: First major outdoor sculpture project with Robert Indiana, Park Avenue

2004: Opens second, smaller space on W27th St