Now that Anthony d’Offay has “retired”, Nicholas Logsdail is indisputably Britain’s leading gallery owner. He founded the first Lisson Gallery 35 years ago in a derelict building in Bell Street, and has just opened a second gallery. In fact, the organisation now enjoys a quasi-institutional status.
The Art Newspaper: This is a very good time for the Lisson gallery. Its artists seem to be all over London at present, whether it’s Anish Kapoor in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, solo shows for Rodney Graham at the Whitechapel and Douglas Gordon at the Hayward, Tony Cragg at Somerset House or Santiago Sierra in the Mexican show at the South London Gallery.
Nicholas Logsdail: In a way it took me by surprise, but with the artists we work with it’s not that different from the activity going on throughout the world; it just all happened to be in London at the same time.
TAN: This year is the Lisson’s 35th anniversary. To what do you attribute the gallery’s good health and longevity?
NL: I like art; it’s actually as simple as that. The work that gets shown is work I’ve really looked at and in which I have a deep interest. There is also a long history of successfully working with artists from the beginning of their careers; most of the major artists we represent had their first exhibition at Lisson.
TAN: How would you define the work that interests you; what do you look for in an artist?
NL: Artistic intelligence, new thinking, emotion, a kind of beauty or aesthetic that comes from the ideas behind the work, not the other way round and, above all, that indescribable feeling of seeing something for the first time and being excited by the work. The greatest joy is when an artist reveals a whole new panorama or way of visual expression; that wonderful moment of enlightenment.
TAN: Do you think that the fact you trained as an artist has made a difference?
NL: I came from being an artist to working with artists partly because in my last year at the Slade a number of friends decided to make a show and we named it Lisson Gallery after the street and the area. There was no intention to do more than one show, but I put so much time into it that I was asked to leave the Slade, much to my dismay, so there seemed every reason to do more shows and we are still doing them.
TAN: You seem to have a habit of opening galleries in recessions. As well as starting up the Lisson in an unfriendly economic climate, you also chose the 1990-91 recession to build a brand new five-floor gallery, and now you’ve opened the new space at 29 Bell Street, just as the stockmarket is taking a nosedive.
NL: Yes. As you grow older and look back at your life and what you’ve done, you try and understand why you did certain things, although at the time it seemed perfectly obvious. I suppose in many respects I’m a successful contrarian. I’ve seen flash-in-the-pan art movements come and go. When it feels like that I’m suspicious and look for what interests me more–and it looks as though I’ve done the opposite.
TAN: In what way?
NL: The emergence of the conceptual artists in the early days of the gallery was contrary to what people were interested in at the time. Outside a small inner core of people who were knowledgeable about it, minimal conceptual art was something that was completely uninteresting to the art world other than the brighter young people and two collectors. Instead, it was swinging London and Pop art that was big: it was in all the fashion mags. It was a little like the YBA phenomenon and it was very exciting in a way; I went to all those openings and met or observed many of the people
TAN: But it wasn’t your taste.
NL: Actually it was not my generation; but, to put it bluntly, no.
TAN: And then in the early 80s you didn’t go for the prevailing Neo-expressionism.
NL: The late 70s were the minimal conceptual era which, as it transpired, ended up dominating the whole international art world, or at least Europe. And around 1979 Jean-Christophe Amman did a show of the Neo-expressionist painters at the Kunsthalle in Basel and I remember going to that show, and it was as if overnight the entire art world had changed. On one level, it was incredibly refreshing because it just blew away all the old hegemonies; on the other hand, you looked at the work and on the whole it was a kind of replay of the more decorative, figurative, historical territories of the early 20th century. And of course that’s why it was so successful; it was very familiar to people: they didn’t have to think about it or work at it, they just saw a pretty picture or a stream of consciousness on a canvas, without theory and outside history.
TAN: While the sculptors with whom you became associated around this time were loosening up the language of conceptual minimalism, without falling into a welter of emotion.
NL: Precisely. What interested me about Deacon, Cragg, Woodrow and a little bit later Anish Kapoor was the one thing that they all had in common: that many of them as students had visited the gallery and I got to know them, and so they had in part learned their recent history through seeing the early shows. But what they realised–and I think they all realised it in different ways through being familiar with the artists of the preceding era—was that the reductivity of this period could not be for the next generation. It was imperative for them to challenge the immediate past and put metaphor and meaning, materiality and content back into the work.
TAN: Damien Hirst approached you early on, didn’t he?
NL: He did. We had discussions for about two years, off and on in pubs in East London and around here as well.
TAN: Do you regret not taking him on?
NL: Not really. It might have changed the history of everything—or I would have changed his whole history, so it would have been a different history for both of us.
Damien was already a very much larger-than-life character; that was what was fascinating about him. And there was some very interesting work: he’d just started doing: the medicine cabinets and there were a few spot paintings and that was, if I’m remembering rightly, pretty much all I saw. It was certainly convincing enough to do a show, but at the same time Damien had a lot of friends whom he wanted to show with contextually, and it became very clear to me that there just wasn’t room within our family of artists to do that in the way that it was probably necessary to do it.
TAN: So, although you represent Simon Patterson, who was a Goldsmiths contemporary of Hirst & Co, you kept your distance from the YBA phenomenon.
NL: We do work with artists of that generation, and around about the same time I saw Douglas Gordon’s work at the Slade and soon after that we met. We got on very well, and what impressed me was how different he was—his intelligence (there was something very fresh about Douglas)—I felt that he was really coming from somewhere else. We have many connections with Glasgow from this time and they came through Douglas.
TAN: How is the art market faring in the current wobbly economic climate–is it holding up?
NL: I’ve been through four recessions, this is the fifth, and it’s unlike all the others because the key component here is that the interest rates are so low. Also, people who became rich in the last 10 years have diversified in a way that people weren’t diversifying before: people with money have become much more financially sophisticated; they have their money in property and art and all kinds of other things that hold value, not just stocks and shares. These people seem very liquid now. But the most important factor of all is that I would guess there are 10 times more collectors than there were in 1990.
TAM: Why is that?
NL: Because art has become a first order cultural interest rather than something on the back-burner. We’ve been doing American and European art fairs for over 25 years and now it’s a completely different panorama; there are a dozen collectors for every one there was two decades ago.
TAN: Even in the UK?
NL: Yes, there is now a large collector base. That’s probably one of the most positive things thats happened in the growth of the London art world. and it’s especially good for the younger galleries. But for us as well, it’s lovely to see people coming into the gallery regularly who are London-based or local and buying seriously. I would say 30% of our collectors are in this country. You know, good art doesn’t cost any more than bad art; often it costs a great deal less which is a great incentive for a good collector.
TAN: Looking back over your 35 years running the Lisson Gallery, what do you feel has been your greatest achievement?
NL: This is an impossible question. Within the context of 350 shows over the years there have been some unbelievably wonderful ones. Maybe it’s that, in some way or other, we have contributed to a change of the landscape. Because I didn’t have a business background, without knowing it maybe the gallery created a new model, and at the centre of that is working with artists. The first moment of enlightenment with an artist’s work is very precious.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“I think I changed the landscape”