Interview With Paul Rodgers

Conducted by Morgan Labar,

Luxe Immo, May 24, 2011


Morgan Labar: Would you say a few words about your background, and about what led you to open a gallery in New York, after some years spent in the Parisian art world

Paul Rodgers: Well, I went to Paris when I got out of college because I wanted to discover the world of art. I knew I'd be moving on to New York, which I did at the end of 1980. Paris-New York, that's the trajectory of modern art, right? Actually, it's a little more complicated than that! My early experience gave me extraordinary insight into the contemporary art world. Having a gallery puts you in direct contact with artists, who can be very interesting people. You get to directly handle works of art, to live with them. You can lay hold of freedom of thought outside the class room and the institutions. You can be your own person

Your gallery feels very different to the visitor. Much of your activity seems to take place in your private viewing gallery which is larger than the public exhibition area. Are you looking for a different approach to the marketing and sale of contemporary art?

Yes. I have come to think of myself as less of an 'art dealer' and more of a private agent for modern artists. I think it is perhaps time to shift the model of the art dealer, which is based on a shop window mentality emphasizing marketing and sales volume. The physical space of my gallery is flexible. I may open it up to do a big public exhibition, like I did recently with Peter Sacks. Or I may divide the space and create a large private viewing area, as I am doing now for Joseph Marioni during the summer of 2011. This current installation of Marioni's work is only available for viewing by private appointment. It announces his one person museum exhibition at the Phillips Collection, Washington DC, opening in the fall, October 22nd. Of course, the gallery remains open and in the public area work by other artists is on view. 

What pushed you in this direction? 

Thinking about how to best serve my artists and my clients. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that the current gallery model has turned art into nothing more than a commercial product. Built into contemporary art is a planned obsolescence. After five years, the work of art exceeds its 'use by' date and the collector replaces it with the next thing. What then becomes of the long-term value of art? I sense a lot of frustration among more sophisticated collectors about this situation. Serious artists are also frustrated.

So tell me more about your artists... 

Well, they are not pop culture icons. They are mostly not media names. They tend to be well-established but are better known to specialists. They are artists who have a long-term view. Their work is made to be collected and held. It's my belief that they are among the significant artists of their time. To give an example, it's well-known that I have a very strong involvement with the work of Simon Hantaï, who died September 2008, based on a close working relationship and friendship with the artist which began back in the mid-1970's

Your recent exhibition of Simon Hantaï was specifically titled: 'Simon Hantaï - Not for Sale in New York.' It is rather a-typical in the world of contemporary art galleries, wouldn't you say?

Yes, I guess so. First of all, I was showing very rare paintings. We can say 'key works' or 'museum paintings'. I had to borrow them from private collectors who were not interested in selling them. There is a general understanding among collectors who own Hantaï's work that prices are extremely low for work of this importance: $350,000-$1.2 million in the current market. For a major figure of the 1960's and '70's international art world, which is the case for Hantaï beyond any doubt, these are beginner prices. There is, however, another more substantial issue. Hantaï memorably withdrew from commercial exhibition of his work in 1983, after he represented France in the Venice Biennial of 1982, on the grounds that the art world had substituted commerce for aesthetic integrity. Hantaï was interested in making paintings not printing dollar bills. He didn't want to pre-empt the Federal Reserve, like Andy Warhol apparently did! You know, I wrote a catalogue for that exhibition entitled: 'Simon Hantaï & Andy Warhol - the Fate of Modern Art in the Post-Second World War Era'. There is a lot to compare in the two artists. I share Hantaï's view about the integrity of art but that does not mean that I don't want to sell his paintings. I have since found other paintings for the collectors who wanted to buy from that show. The thing is, when you buy an expensive car, you expect it to drive well and it will. When you buy an expensive work of art today, what do you expect? My sense is that a lot of people don't know. There is a professional expression that you don't want the work of art to "fall off the wall". However, most contemporary art does, sometimes literally! I am interested in recommending art that does not "fall off the wall"; work that has some background. 

Up front you are showing a painting by Simon Hantaï in close proximity with a work of Joe Diebes. The least one can say is that they are pretty different. How do you make the connection?

I am glad you asked that. Joe Diebes is a wonderful young artist who comes from a musical background, having trained in composition at New York's Julliard School. He is interested in how sound and visual elements interrelate and exceed each other. Needless to say he is a cyber-technology whizz. The piece you are referring to is called 'one to one' and evokes Bach's Cello Suites. You see the artist's hand transcribing Bach's score on a video monitor while the music is heard on headphones. It's an extraordinarily beautiful work. It's about the human hand and its ability to feel and create. Joe was trying to explain to me what an 'algorithm' was and how the concept was present in his work. He said, pointing across at the big Hantaï Tabula painting: "well, that's an algorithm"; I said: "I guess that's why I put your work next to it!" 

Is this way of working easy to maintain in the context of Chelsea's galleries? 

It may feel like a slightly different approach. Art dealers used to be engaged in the work they represented. They would be aware of the evolving history of art. There was a context. You would go to them to learn about the issues. Nowadays, that's not always the case. Today one of the major art dealerships is proud to state that it doesn't show abstract art because it doesn't want to have to explain anything to its clients. I want to go on showing abstract paintings because I believe that Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are the great artists of our time. Since their day, Simon Hantaï, and now Joseph Marioni, among others, have continued to make paintings of the same integrity which continue this legacy. I am happy to talk to collectors about these issues. Such collectors are looking for authenticity in art.