The Enterprising Mr. Brown

How one man has sold a hole in the ground, a soup kitchen, and lots of glitter pandas—without ever selling out.

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The Enterprising Mr. Brown
Gavin Brown

The Enterprising Mr. Brown

How one man has sold a hole in the ground, a soup kitchen, and lots of glitter pandas—without ever selling out.

In 1993, Gavin Brown rented room 828 in New York’s Chelsea Hotel to present the work of an unknown 27-year-old painter named Elizabeth Peyton, whose intimate portrait drawings of King Ludwig II, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth II, and other radiant notables were utterly out of step with the art world mainstream of the time. Brown, an artist and curator, sent out postcard invitations for the two-week run, which drew about 50 visitors, who had to retrieve a room key from the front desk to see the show. (Rirkrit Tiravanija, the Thai artist who was then Peyton’s husband, picked up the bill since he was the only one of them who had a credit card.) With no gallery of his own, Brown had been staging guerrilla exhibitions in unlikely venues: in his apartment on the Upper West Side and in a cubicle he rented in a Midtown office building. “I wanted to be apart in some way,” he recalled. “I thought Elizabeth also needed to stand apart—and have a stage that no one else could ever have.” He and Peyton were in search of a different kind of community; the Chelsea show brought them not only critical notice and sales but also a rowdy band of kindred spirits.

Six months later, Brown opened his first gallery, a hole in the wall in SoHo, where in short order he seeded the careers of Steven Pippin, Peter Doig, Piotr Uklanski, Anselm Reyle, and Chris Ofili. And even now, 20 years after that prescient Peyton show, Brown remains a rogue visionary. At a moment when the contemporary art world is convulsed by empire building and ever larger gallery spaces, Brown is an anomaly, having stuck to the goal he set for himself long ago: to ­experiment with what a gallery might be and do. His closest ally, Tiravanija, calls him “a punk ­anarchist” for whom a gallery is a kind of tool to make things happen and work out his ideas. “Gavin goes where any sound business mind would never go—and at great risk to himself and the gallery,” said Tom Eccles, who runs the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College and has known Brown for almost 20 years, pointing to such art world milestones as Urs Fischer’s 2007 You, when the artist dug a 38-foot-by-30-foot-by-8-foot crater inside Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, Brown’s current gallery in the West Village; and to Tiravanija’s 2011 Fear Eats the Soul, for which Tiravanija removed all the windows and doors of the main exhibition space to create a soup kitchen, a T-shirt factory, and a makeshift cooking pit in the ground—all of which was open to the street.

It’s those risks, said the influential Zurich collector Maja Hoffmann, that have enabled artists like Fischer or Tiravanija to go all the way in their vision and push the limits of art. Many of Brown’s projects aren’t salable, and his gift has been to create an environment—and an audience­—for those complicated ideas. “What sets him apart is that he’s an equal artist to all of the artists he represents,” Eccles said. “He’s never stopped being an artist.” (Next year, Brown will have his first solo show in two decades at Milwaukee’s Green Gallery. Fairly dismissive of his own art-making, save for a tall mirror sculpture he showed at David Zwirner’s New York gallery in 1994, Brown said only, “I’m making a video that will be projected.”)

When Brown started out, in the midst of the early-’90s-art-market downturn, he found the climate invigorating. “With the money gone, nothing is at stake; anyone can do what they want,” he remarked to The New York Times in 1994. These days, he said, “everyone is aware of how much is at stake, and no one wants to make a false move. I mean, $37 million for a Richter ­painting—$37 million! There’s a collective insanity in many parts of our world, and the art money is just another expression of it.” »

We were sitting in the open-plan kitchen of his house in Harlem, where he moved with the artist Hope Atherton and their two dogs two years ago. A high-profile couple since 2004, the pair married quietly last August at their home in upstate New York and are expecting their first baby this month. (Brown has three children: Max, 22; Rosy, 20; and Tallulah, 12; with his ex-wife, Lucy Barnes, who lives nearby.) He was wearing what he usually does: jeans, a crisp white shirt, and scuffed oxfords. With his full beard, dark curly hair, and rowdy swagger, Brown puts you in mind of a ­pirate—one with an easy laugh and dry wit. “He’s very magnetic,” said Peyton, recalling that when they started out, “people were a little scared of him.” Though, as Tiravanija noted, “his kind of fuck-off attitude” is Brown’s way of countering the fact that he’s actually very shy.

Brown’s house is unfussy and lived-in—like a home, not a dealer’s temple to art. He gutted the place and left many of the walls in their stripped-down state. Purple balloons from Tallulah’s birthday party skimmed the ceiling near a giant glitter panda painting by Pruitt. A wooden table and chairs, a record player stacked with LPs, and an assortment of family photos punctuated the space. Even in the adjacent den, with its paintings by Doig, ­Peyton, Laura Owens, and a massive sculpture by Turner Prize winner Mark Leckey, there was no “Ta-da!” moment when the art announced itself. “I love the idea of living with art that you just glance at on your way to the bathroom,” Brown said. One of the few works hanging in his and Atherton’s minimal bedroom was an unframed painting Peyton made from a photograph she’d taken of Brown’s son Max, then 6, just after he’d fallen and hurt himself. “His eyes were still a little red, and there was just such a sense of trust in that photo, because he’s known Elizabeth all his life,” Brown explained. “It stayed with her, and she went on to make a painting. You know, that just doesn’t happen all the time.”

max brown by elizabeth peyton

Brown grew up in Croyden, a suburb about 12 miles outside London. His mother was a social worker; his father an architect, who abandoned the family when Brown was 11. “It was a shock,” he recalled as Dotti, his ever present cairn terrier, gnawed on a juice container and ignored his commands. “We didn’t know where he was, and then we heard from him again a year and a half later. He’d run off to Rome with another parent from my school.” As a kid, Brown liked to draw; he went on to study art at Newcastle Polytechnic and then at London’s Chelsea School of Art. Among his early works were cartoonlike images of the queen and a painting of a man sitting alone in a car with a gun in his mouth; for one project, he painted the interior of an abandoned strip club with op art microdots. In London, at the influential Anthony d’Offay gallery, Brown worked as an assistant in the back room alongside Damien Hirst in 1988. (“That room was too small for their respective ambitions,” quipped Matthew Higgs, a classmate at Newcastle who runs New York’s White Columns art space.) That same year, Brown moved to New York after he was accepted into the Whitney Museum’s prestigious independent-study program. “I was clueless about the American scene,” he said. “I just had some weird desire to come to New York that I still can’t explain.” He plunged in—first as a waiter at the ’80s hot spot Odeon (he was fired for being rude to a customer) and then hanging art for the late Pat Hearn, the pioneering dealer who with her husband, Colin de Land, was at the center of the burgeoning underground art world. Brown continued to make art: Walking home, he’d toss a match into a garbage can and take a Polaroid of the result; he also made sculptures out of paperbacks he bought by the hundreds from sidewalk booksellers. Hearn and de Land worked across the street from each other, and Brown recalled sitting on the steps with Hearn watching all the energy emanating from de Land’s American Fine Arts, a gallery-laboratory-hangout, as she simultaneously blew kisses to her husband and made cracks about him. Being in that orbit proved life changing: It gave Brown the model of a gallery as a conceptual artwork and a dynamic social hub.

In fact, when Brown opened his second gallery, on West 15th Street in 1997, he connected it to a bar he called Passerby. With a floor designed by Uklanski that changed color in time with the music, Passerby quickly ­became the locus of cool, drawing hipster artists, musicians, and the downtown fashion crowd. The electroclash performance-art duo Fischerspooner played there, and band member Eric Duncan, the musician Thomas Bullock, and the artist Spencer Sweeney took turns DJing.

Setting himself apart again, in 2003 Brown relocated to the outskirts of the West Village just as Chelsea was becoming full of galleries. When, in 2007, Fischer dug his gaping hole (without the landlord’s knowledge), he didn’t announce his plan to Brown until five weeks before the opening. “I said, ‘I want to show nothing,’ ” Fischer told me. “And then nothing became less than nothing.” (The billionaire collector Peter Brandt paid considerably more than nothing when he bought it.) In New York magazine, the critic Jerry Saltz called the work “a bold act that…makes you look at galleries in a new way.”

This past January, Brown took a lease on a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in an industrial section of Los Angeles in partnership with the artist Laura Owens. Tired of the gallery model, she wanted to make and show her giant new paintings in one place, to give viewers the feeling of experiencing them in an artist’s studio. Owens has turned the cavernous rooms into an event space as well, with Scrabble and karaoke nights, film screenings, and an ­artist-led reading of Rachel Kushner’s latest novel, The Flame Throwers. She plans to invite other artists to show there; Ooga Booga, a hip bookstore-boutique, has set up shop at the entrance. “I see something open-ended there, and that really excites me,” Brown said. “The artist is the ultimate entrepreneur: You have an idea, you do it, and you see if the world likes it.”

The ground floor of Brown’s Harlem home is yet another new project space. He refuses to name it, for fear of limiting its possibilities, but he has invited the public in to look at a Dan Colen trash sculpture and recent photographs by Steven Shearer, among others. “It’s similar to having the bar in the front of the gallery,” Brown explained. “I wanted to throw art and life together. I’m on a never-ending blind date.”

His basement serves as a sculpture studio for Atherton, a kind of fashion wild child known for her boho-meets-goth style, whose striking primeval black clay forms sit in Brown’s second-floor home office on a table Fischer collaged with the faces of competing art dealers. (“He can sit and make his deals there,” Fischer said.) Atherton and Brown were introduced at a White Columns benefit by the curator Clarissa Dalrymple and the Art Production Fund cofounder Yvonne Force Villareal. “Despite appearances,” Brown said playfully when I asked how they met, “Hope’s quite normal.” Atherton has kept her old apartment in Chinatown as a painting studio; it’s an Aladdin’s lair, crammed with an antique Chinese opium bed, vintage clothes, drying canvases, and headpieces she designed for the 2005 Narnia movie.

Someday soon Atherton will have to make room in the basement for the sandwich shop Brown plans to open with Tiravanija. “Most people with a house like his would want to be away from things,” Tiravanija said. “But of course, with Gavin, having a gallery and sandwich shop there is just another tool for inserting anarchy into his life.” The two met in 1991, after Brown included a work by Tiravanija—a stack of Rolling Rock beer bottles—in a show he curated at Lisa Spellman’s 303 Gallery, where he was the art handler. Tiravanija’s art relies on the visitor’s becoming an active participant to complete it. In 1999, he replicated his East Village apartment in Brown’s space on West 15th Street and called it Tomorrow Can Shut Up and Go Away. The work was open for viewing 24 hours a day for two months and “encapsulated a lot of ideas that I have about what art could be and do,” said ­Tiravanija. “It could be nurturing—but at the same time aggressive. And it was all in the hands of whoever was there.” It certainly was: Artists like Ashley Bickerton drew on the walls, a few homeless people moved in, and a gay-porn shoot took place in the bedroom. Lately Tiravanija has been holding the sculpture class he teaches for Columbia University in Brown’s kitchen. And one of his and Brown’s more fanciful schemes involves running an artist-designed nine-hole golf course near their weekend homes upstate that would include a clubhouse-restaurant and an exhibition space.

Brown’s enterprises have always been built around a social network. As the paterfamilias of a large brood, which includes his children and a tight circle of artists, collectors, and curators, Brown is celebrated for the intimate gatherings he throws for artist openings, either upstairs from his gallery or in his home; he makes highly personal toasts; and guests serve themselves food prepared by the in-house chef, Mina Stone, who also cooks studio lunches for Fischer. “They’re like family reunions,” said Pruitt, the godfather of Brown’s son Max. Most great gallerists are associated with artists of their own generation, and Brown certainly maintains his grip on the moment—in September, he’ll present for the first time in his gallery the unruly Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard, whose shows have included sexually graphic installations and live tiger cubs—but he has also come to see radicality in old masters. Such was the case with two fairly recent recruits: the figurative painter Alex Katz, 86, and the multimedia artist Elaine Sturtevant, 82, who since the ’60s has explored ideas about authenticity and authorship in her groundbreaking reproductions of paintings by Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and others.

Gavin Brown

Gavin Brown

In late April, I accompanied Brown to Pruitt’s studio in Red Hook, Brooklyn, to see how a new work was progressing. Pruitt was a fallen art star working at Martha Stewart Living when Brown invited him to present his “101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself” in 1999. (Peyton had stopped by Pruitt’s apartment one day to see what he was up to and alerted Brown.) “Gavin gave me a second chance,” said Pruitt, recalling that after his and Jack Early’s roundly panned 1992 show at Leo Castelli, about the marketing of African-American culture, he withdrew from the art world. “Most dealers see what’s hot and decide to show that. Gavin chose me when I was the thing no one else would touch.” These days, Pruitt’s glitter panda paintings, first shown in 2001 at Brown’s, are in numerous major collections.

Pruitt directed us to his latest canvas, The Last Panda. A skeleton faced the viewer, carrying a baby panda in its outstretched arms, like some twisted Pietà. The work was to be exhibited in Brown’s old Passerby space. In the 10 years since Brown vacated it, the place had gone to ruin, with mounds of garbage and detritus everywhere. “It’s quite apocalyptic just thinking of all the energy that happened there and how quickly it can be wiped off the face of the earth,” Brown said to Pruitt, whose Last Panda, as it happens, alludes to extinction. Brown had worked out a deal with his former landlord to allow spectators to see Pruitt’s painting and the huge dinosaur sculpture that would face it; still, visitors were going to have to sign waivers at the door agreeing that they were entering at their own risk.

In keeping with that commando spirit, Brown dispensed with the customary e-mail invitation for the preview, hoping to create buzz instead via Twitter and Instagram. “It feels like there are enormous changes coming up,” he said on the drive back to his gallery, referring both to the baby about to enter his life and the culture at large. “It always petrifies me, these moments of shift. And if you focus on this small world of artists and galleries and museums, I think we’re kind of spinning our wheels wondering what’s next because we know something is coming. All the old models seem to be running out of gas. It’s a fascinating time,” he said as he got out and paid the driver. “Everything is up in the air.”