The last thing I ever wanted to
do was to open a gallery," Kenny Schachter said
the other day from behind an enormous, swooping steel
desk in his six-month-old gallery in Greenwich Village.
Fast-talking and opinionated, with a tendency to hold
forth on the sorry state of the art world, Mr. Schachter,
41, made his name in the 90's as an itinerant art
dealer, staging sprawling, temporary group shows of
emerging artists' work in vacant storefront spaces.
Seated across from him was Vito Acconci,
the performance-artist-turned-architect who designed
Mr. Schachter's new gallery space. Mr. Acconci, 62,
dressed from head to toe in black and smelling faintly
of cigarettes, was going over the plans for Mr. Schachter's
booth at the Armory Show, an annual four-day contemporary-art
fair that starts on Friday on two Hudson River piers.
Although Mr. Acconci has been designing
structures that fall somewhere between sculpture and
architecture for 20 years, he is reluctant to be pigeonholed
and for the moment at least remains
outside the architectural establishment. Mr. Schachter,
who has been organizing exhibitions and selling art
for the past decade, describes himself as an "anti-art-dealer
Similarly unorthodox in outlook, the
two men share a chameleonlike ability to invent themselves
anew. Before he became an art dealer, Mr. Schachter
worked variously as a lawyer, a stockbroker and a
traveling tie salesman. Mr. Acconci began his career
as a poet, then became well known in the 70's as a
performance and video artist before abandoning fine
art for architecture. Like Mr. Schachter, he is critical
of the ways in which contemporary art is seen and
"It's not art as an activity that
bothers me," Mr. Acconci explained, "it's
maybe art as a career or something. But art as an
activity is kind of incredible. When people move into
a house and put curtains on the windows, that's probably
the first impulse toward art. They want to change
something. Something was there, but they want to make
it a little different than it was."
Two years ago, Mr. Schachter approached
Mr. Acconci with a "theoretical idea" for
a gallery. "Actually, my idea was of what I didn't
want," he said. "I didn't want white walls.
I didn't want one of those intimidating, exclusionary
spaces with a polished concrete floor and a high desk
that visitors can't see behind." After searching
unsuccessfully for a street-level space, Mr. Schachter
grew impatient and decided to carve out 1,200 feet
of exhibition space in the back of the 19th-century
carriage house where he lives with his wife, the artist
Ilona Rich, and their four sons.
The entrance to the gallery is on Charles
Lane, a cobblestone alleyway near the Hudson River
a place even a native New Yorker would be challenged
to find. The space is long and narrow, with an imposing
steel front door that tilts into the front room and
gracefully morphs into the reception desk. Along the
walls are modular steel-mesh screens that flip up
to become seats or display shelves; in the back, part
of the ceiling swings down to become a video projection
The overall feel of the gallery, which
Mr. Schachter calls conTEMPorary, is curvy, fluid
and metallic, like Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim
turned inside-out. "Design-wise, the space has
succeeded beyond my wildest expectations," Mr.
Schachter said, "though it grew into some monster
it wasn't supposed to be. It was meant to be a temporary
thing and then it turned into 30,000 pounds of steel,
which is probably going to outlast the house itself."
For Mr. Schachter, the gallery's only
real flaw is its obscure location. "Ideally it
would have been in a very high-trafficked area,"
he said, "preferably outside the West Chelsea
gallery district, which is inaccessible to public
transportation and inaccessible to a mainstream audience."
Since the early 90's, Mr. Schachter
has been trying to attract viewers who may be unfamiliar
with contemporary art by presenting work in a less
intimidating context. (Abstract paintings and sculpture
by Robert Reynolds are currently on view.) "When
I did shows in temporary storefronts, I never put
a sign that said `gallery' on the wall," he said,
"because that would automatically turn away 99
percent of the population. I would always keep the
doors open, stay open extra hours, stay open on Sundays.
I mean, not one gallery in Chelsea is open on Sunday,"
he said somewhat hyperbolically. "And you wonder,
why would these galleries be closed on the one day
ordinary people have time to go look at art?"
Similarly, in many of his early performance-art
pieces, Mr. Acconci tried to take art out of the sterile
white cube of the gallery space and into the streets.
"At some point in the mid-70's," he said,
"I started to realize that I'm more interested
in the casual passer-by, in the person who doesn't
stop at something because it's called art, but stops
because for some reason, this thing interests this
person for a little while."
"What drew me to architecture,"
he continued, "is that it's the art that everybody
knows, whether they realize it or not, because everybody's
walked through a doorway, everybody's climbed a stairway.
But at the same time, maybe they know architecture
because they've been oppressed by it. The doorway's
been too narrow, the ceiling's been too low
but at least they know it by means of their bodies."
In the early 80's, Mr. Acconci began
designing architectural structures, like "Instant
House," a phone-booth-size cabinet with collapsible
walls emblazoned with American and Soviet flags, which
he generally presented in museums and galleries. Then
10 years ago, he officially stopped making art and
established the Acconci Studio, near the Manhattan
Bridge in Brooklyn, where he works with half a dozen
young architects on projects that range from an elementary
school courtyard to a floating island in the middle
of the Mur River in Austria. "Do I think I'm
an architect?" he asked. "I think we do
architecture." Mr. Schachter's gallery was the
studio's first private commission and first built
In planning his exhibitions, Mr. Schachter
has tried to make the content as fluid and mutable
as the walls themselves. "An integral part of
my program is to work outside the confines of the
art world, to cross-pollinate with architects, fashion
designers, dance groups and musicians," he explained.
"For me, this gallery is like a small incubator
for nurturing ideas, for working with disparate groups
of people. And I remain so hopeful that contemporary
art could speak to people and become an integral part
of people's lives if it's presented in a human way."
Mia Fineman is the author, with
Maria Morris Hambourg, of "Richard Avedon: Portraits"