Sipping an Orangina soda and smiling warmly, Paula Cooper is not quite what I’d imagined. A sharp-suited espresso drinker might have been more in keeping with expectations of one of the world’s most powerful art dealers, especially one whose tastes are famously austere. After all, Cooper has survived and thrived in a mercurial art world for almost five decades. Hers was the first gallery to open in New York’s Soho, staging an exhibition of works by artists including Carl Andre, Dan Flavin and Donald Judd to benefit the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam in 1968, when Lyndon Johnson was the US president.
Since then a further eight presidents have been elected and the world has changed immeasurably, as has the art industry. The art market has vaulted from cottage industry to multibillion-dollar business while museums have morphed from dusty elitist temples to dazzling tourism hubs.
Through it all, Cooper has maintained her position as one of the most respected international gallerists. She has championed many now-legendary Minimalist and Conceptualist artists and her influence is recognised at home and abroad: the French government awarded her its insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters last November.
The French connection is pertinent, since it was in Paris as a teenager that she set her sights on the art world. “I was 17, living in Paris and very lonely,” Cooper says. “I grew up loving art because my mother was a Sunday painter, though she wouldn’t like that description if she heard it. In Paris, I lived in galleries and museums. My whole life was art. That’s when I decided I wanted to work with living artists.”
Born to do it Cooper knew she wanted to be a dealer. “I didn’t want to work in a museum because you can’t touch the art,” she says. “We have so much fun in the gallery. We have the freedom to just be able to pick a work up or to change shows whenever we feel like it. You get to live with work and really know how you really feel about it.”
She found inspiration in Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis—“real dealers”, she says, the kind known for having a great eye. She doesn’t talk much about whether it was harder for her to make it as a woman, but recalls being “patted on the head as though I were amusing” by male peers. She wryly notes that female dealers “have never been considered as significant. Edith Halpert was really important for artists but she’s never really commented upon.”
Cooper has always had some nerve. She refused to learn to type as a young woman in case she was tempted to fall back on the skill and “be someone’s secretary”. Instead, she built a reputation as one of a handful of remarkable female art dealers, including Barbara Gladstone and Marian Goodman, without whom the New York scene would be different and diminished.
In contrast to male-led dealerships such as Gagosian Gallery, Pace or Hauser & Wirth, Cooper has never wanted to build a global empire. “Everything is about control and it always leads to huge battles,” she says, perched behind a desk crowded with piles of papers and books, with no computer in sight, her hair half-scooped up, and messily so.
Cooper’s way of operating is more low-key. “I am a mom-and-pop shop and that’s the way I want it,” she says. “Just look at the guys; David Zwirner is a modern art store and that’s the way he likes it. But I don’t want 100 people working for me—I want to know what’s going on. I could just send in a crew to hang everything eight inches apart, which would make things go faster, but where’s the fun in that? And I’ve always thought that if you’re interested in making money, you’ll make money.”
In a sea of mega-dealers, Cooper stands out because artists love to work with her. She cares about their work and its longevity more than any short-term market success. It was a coup for her to sign Tauba Auerbach in 2012. The young abstract artist was left without a dealer when Jeffrey Deitch closed his space to begin his short-lived tenure as the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, and Auerbach was pursued by major galleries before joining Cooper.
“I don’t believe you should tell artists what to do, though I always let them know what I think through silence more than vocalising,” Cooper says. “You have to be diplomatic. If artists trust you, they will consider advice. I don’t think you can edit what an artist does unless you ask not to show it, if you think it’s really horrible.”
Has she ever been in that situation? “We staged an exhibition I was against, and the artist knew it. I felt the works were too quiet—I didn’t use the word bland. In the end, it got the artist to a place where he at least listens.”
Future plans Asked about her plans for the next decade, Cooper says she doesn’t “think like that any more”. She laughs, quoting the actress Hermione Gingold, who, when asked about her age, quipped that she was “between 59 and death”.
Cooper says she will leave the gallery to a couple of people. “Whatever they do, they’re free to do,” she adds, taking off her black-rimmed glasses, folding them and, precisely, placing them parallel to the piles on her desk. “The only thing I’m concerned about now is that the few artists I work with who haven’t got their just deserts do get them.”
Cooper was one of the pioneers of the Chelsea scene, opening there in 1996, and has no plans to move even though the neighbourhood has altered beyond measure. “Everything is so blah now. The building next door used to be an S&M club; there were always lots of unsavoury-looking characters around,” she says cheerfully. “The park used to be filled with transvestites and hookers, but it had a nice grittiness. It’s very pleasant now, but it’s been a bit ghettoised by lots of very well-off people.”
The same could be said of the art world, which she says has become “bigger but more similar. Everybody dresses the same.” She remembers this happening in the 1980s, “when artists were very affluent and started to become more like their patrons. Everyone wore the same things, and went to the same shops for their cashmere sweaters and to the same restaurants for the same food and wine.”
So are we still riding the same consumer wave, just with more swell? “Right now, we are at a stage where a small segment of the population is tremendously rich and they’re running everything. A lot of them collect art, and for the same reasons people complained about 30, 40 years ago—as an investment, to enhance their reputations, to enhance their social lives,” she says.
Although Cooper finds the international aspects of the art world’s growth “interesting—it’s opening up the whole world”, the ramping-up of the market is not something she finds exciting. “It’s just too much. There’s a lot of very quickly made art around. Anyone can be an artist now; they just need a copying machine. We live in unstable times.”
As for her own legacy, Cooper, aged 77, says she doesn’t “think about it. It was brought to my attention recently that I don’t have a clue about how people see me, and it’s because I don’t really care. I just want to do what I want to do.”
She shows no signs of slowing down. “More than ever, I am totally engaged in working, and working really hard. We’ll see what happens when it happens. One day I may just run out of steam, I guess,” she says, unconvincingly.