Contemporary Magazine, UK
June July August 2002
One Man Show
Kenny Schachter refuses to choose between commerce and creation.
Kenny Schachter is wearing long-underwear. Its February in New York, and if you want to keep the doors wide open, youve got to come prepared. The doors belong to a storefront on Perry Street in New Yorks West Village, the site of Tensionism, the latest presentation of ROVE, Schachers roaming gallery. Over the past ten years, he has staged dozens of these itinerant exhibitions, popping up like a ground hog predicting the first day of Spring in vacant garages and gutted retails spaces. Hes been called an art activist, an opportunist, an iconoclast, and like most effective thorns in the side of the establishment, his methods have an elegant simplicity - ignore the rules.
Curator, artist, dealer and gallery girl, Kenny Schachter has built a career out of crossing the dotted lines of art world practice. He makes art, he sells art, he buys art. He shows his own work, reviews his own shows, mans his own front desk. In his refusal to choose between commerce and creation, he is viewed with a certain suspicion in the art world, neither fish nor fowl. In his efforts to confront the industrys unmentionables, namely money and elitism, suspicion turns to condescension, even contempt - the uppity kid with a thriving lemonade stand on the steps of Daddys country club. Schachter inhabits a kind of art world No Mans Land, and not unlike certain political and military deadlocks currently on the evening news, No Mans Land is where the action is.
Conservatively dressed, his cropped brown hair standing on end, eyes hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses, Schachter is as shy and serious as your highschool prom date on first introduction. But it takes only moments in his presence to notice the acid green tee-shirt peeking out from underneath the beige sweater, the frenetic intelligence and barely contained energy directed toward the task at hand. In a still photograph he most resembles a younger version of John Haynes 1973 portrait of Samuel Beckett. But turn him towards the work and youve got Willy Wonka, exuberant prince of a kingdom of goodies - a golden wrapper in every bar.
Schachters life has the sly makings of film - drawing people out of ordinary experience into spectacle is, after all, a specialty. Growing up in suburban Long Island Schachter describes his childhood as practically catatonic. Overweight and isolated, he would spend hours cutting pictures from magazines, arranging them on the corkboard walls of his room. A keen awareness of small cruelties, and an equally incredulous attitude toward their persistence, runs rampant through his own art, as well as his relationship with his profession. After studying philosophy and political science at George Washingtion University, he went to law school to hide from the marketplace. One semester in he took a full time job trading stocks on Wall Street, showing up only for his exams. He worked intermittently for a firm of lawyers who all failed the Bar Exam, and in a grass-roots attempt to become a fashion designer, sold ties out of a suitcase, Willie Loman style, across Middle America. Schachters epiphany came at the 1988 Sothebys sale of the Andy Warhol estate. Expecting to find an exhibition of Warhols work similar to what you might see in a museum, what he found instead was a prescient collection of Warhols peers, the art and ephemera of a creative universe. At Sothebys Schachter discovered the commercial art world that mediates between the artists studio and the walls of public museums - a largely hidden world, one he still seems to find in equal parts mesmerizing and infuriating. A few months after the Warhol sale he bought his first print, a Cy Twombly, at a New York gallery, and before you could say Abstract Impressionism, took an unsecured loan for $10,000 and began flying back and forth to Germany buying and selling contemporary art.
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Back on Perry Street, Schachter has switched on the electric heater under the front desk. A glance around Tensionism is not a bad gauge of what Schachter values in Art: a childlike exuberance, humor, color, irony, a certain indifference to commercial scale. He prefers to stage eclectic group shows, not necessarily the most efficient for sales, or for egos. He prefers the process of discovery, the creation of a market, to the sheparding and hand-holding of the traditional gallery process. Most importantly, he puts his money where his mouth is, buying the work of unknown artists, often giving them their first shows, and watches his investment grow as they move on to more established venues. Over the past ten years he has passed on the likes Janine Antoni to the Whitney Biennale and more recently, Graham Gillmore to Mary Boon.
It is not so much Schachters style of art dealing that ruffles feathers, but his refusal to separate his commereical activities from his own life as an artist. In a culture that accepts and promotes contemporary art as the high end of the luxury goods continuum, the professional art world still maintains an ambivalent, even queasy, relationship with commerce. Money is the art worlds raison detre - dealers need it to pay overheads, museums to fund shows, artists to eat, yet open discussion of money and its role in forming public opinion is considered downright dangerous in many of the art worlds hallowed halls, the polar opposite of the supposed autonomy and artistic integrity central to the progress of Culture with a capital C. Schachter has purposefully put himself between a rock and a hard place - not selling just what is commercially viable, and yet refusing to take the curatorial high road and absent himself from the commerce necessary to support new talent and disseminate new ideas. Using his own art to comment on the business of art, he plays both Master of Ceremonies and chief fire-eater in a one ring circus of his own creation.
On his website, Rove TV (www.rovetv.net) Schachter has turned the business of art into an on-going performance piece. In the spring of 2000, during his first London exhibition, I hate New York, he began broadcasting live via web-cam from inside the Shoreditch gallery. There is all this dead time. I began to ask myself how I could enliven it? It was a way for me to uncover the layers of secrecy in the gallery. Its more incriminating to me - you see me out there whoring myself. Most of the time I dont remember its on. More often than not you see me fighting with my wife. It did not take long for real-life drama to make its way to Schachters front desk. One afternoon two men lured Schachter into the back room to ask about a video projection. "There I was launching into my art rhetoric - dialectic, male female relationships etc., all of a sudden, one of them has me in a headlock. The pair proceeded to throw Schachter down a flight of stairs and lock him in a closet while they made off with his computer and video camera. Still physically jumpy from the experience, Schachter retains his sense of humour. There are plenty of people in the world who would pay to see me get my ass kicked on live television. No such luck. The thugs got the footage, Schachter got a large security guard, and I Hate New York was open for business later that day.
For his first solo exhibition in the UK, at the International Three Gallery in Manchester, Schachter produced a series of portraits of YBAs. No dead cows or soiled underwear here; these portraits have no faces, not even the iconic window-dressings of their subjects fame. Instead, the likes of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin are reduced to linear graphs, showing the progress of their works at auction. The brightly-coloured laminated graphs, worthy of the slickest boardroom presentation, express art as mere product, makers as the sum total of their asking price. Not surprisingly, the exhibition passed completely under the radar in a London art scene presided over by the owner of a certain colourless geometric form. As the YBAs enter a second decade of dominance in the contemporary art market, speculation about cashing in on tired ideas, is, to say the least, unwelcome.
Pursuing several avenues at once, Schachter has not made life easy for himself. I would be happy never to sell again. But, ultimately, this artist/dealer/curator/critic is also a pragmatist. Hell sell what he needs to sell to show what he wants to show. As for his own art, has he ever considered marketing himself his under an assumed name - making himself one of the anonymous up-and-comers he so doggedly supports. He looks at me for the first time as if Im missing the point. So much of what I do is about transparency, why not be frank.
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A stray pigeon flies into the Perry Street Gallery. Attracted, no doubt, by the enormous cardboard treehouse by Misaki Kawai that dominates the entrance. Under the patchwork canopy of green, a Pop-Folk interior - complete with orange polka-dotted toilet seat - is inhabited by long-torsoed dolls with Banshee-Eskimo hair. In the living room a small video screen serves as the family TV, playing a constant loop of the dolls conversing in Japanese. At the base of the tree two dolls have escaped for a cigarette break. Roberta Smith, probably the most influential art critic in New York, came in the other day. Forty percent of the art in this city is made with her in mind, and she wrote that the treehouse - Misaki has never exhibited in public before - was the only piece in the show worth looking at. There is dual sense of satisfaction and frustration in these reviews. Schachter doesnt need confirmation of his instincts, but all press is good press.
While Roberta Smith may be Schachters most influential visitor this past week, she is not his most important. Art doesnt exist without an audience, and Schachter is determined to make sure it is not just the smart set who partakes. His ground floor, open-door policy is an invitation to Joe Public, no experience or checkbook required. His lecture circuit includes not just the Junior Associates of the Museum of Modern Art, but community colleges, talk radio, and cable TV. The art world has painted itself into a corner. They tried so hard to limit their audience to the people who had money to buy - Its cutting the public off at the knees. Gavin Brown once said if he had 50 of the right people in his gallery he was a happy man. Id rather have 5,000 of the wrong people than 50 of the right ones.
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Even iconoclasts need to reinvent themselves upon occasion. Schachter recently experienced what might be described as an early mid-life crisis, and unsurprisingly, self-doubt has turned into something wildly productive.
I felt like I hit a wall - literally. When I started staging exhibitions in the early 90s there were no galleries in Brooklyn, no one taking unsolicited material. Now there are a hundred - most of them looking at "emerging artists". I felt like what I was doing was losing a sense of urgency.
The solution was a home. Schachter is in the process of knocking down walls in his West Village townhouse to make way for ConTEMPory, a bridge between the nomadic ROVE and an extensive permanent gallery in downtown Manhattan. Both gallery spaces are being designed by Acconci Studios, lead by performance and installation artist turned architect Vito Acconci. I asked him to design the anti-gallery. Anything but a white cube, Acconcis design for the interior is organic, organ-like, a sculpture in itself. I love the thought of showing in a giant sculpture. Part of the challenge will be to create for the space.
Blurring the lines between public and private space, the façade of the gallery will fold into the interior, drawing the viewer off the street into a womb-like bubble of fiberglass. The practical architecture of the gallery will be stored in columns spaced throughout; accordion-like extensions of metal mesh will create walls or floors necessary to install exhibitions. There will be no door, just an air wall, a permanent manifestation of Schachters open-door policy. The gallery will follow the trend of the recently re-opened Palais de Tokyo in Paris, hours more reflective of shopping and cinema than the 10-6, Tuesday to Saturday conventions of the gallery world. There is only one way to do this - nights, weekends, Sundays. I had a gallery owner once tell me I was dangerous because I was open at 9:30 am. Can you imagine? Dangerous.
One of the sites currently under consideration for the gallery is a Communist publishing house. Its not a bad analogy. They do corporate printing to support their other work. I feel a real empathy with their project. They find a way within the confines of the system to do what is important to them. I do the same, even if it is vastly dissimilar to the prevailing mindset. Even in the process of making a real estate deal Schachter gift for unlikely bed-follows is at work. I brought the real-estate developer Im working with to see the building, and theyre having some kind of hard-core Communist conference, with guards outside the door. They let us walk around, and the developer left with a copy of The History of the Labor Movement.
At first, Schachter will program the new spaces himself, continuing to work with emerging talent in the visual arts. But, true to form, he is already getting ahead of himself, and it is only a matter of time before the space is opened up to music, fashion, design. People always say Im inconsistent - thats the point.