In the art world of the last two decades, Marianne Boesky has seen it all. Opening her gallery in SoHo in 1996 and later moving to Chelsea, she helped introduce such internationally renowned stars as Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Lisa Yuskavage, and then faced a turnaround when her artists left during the peak of the mid-2000s art boom. Today, however, the dealer is the full swing of an exciting new chapter in the gallery's evolution, working with a roster of fresh talents who are as critically lauded as they are coveted by collectors. Underscoring the youthful cast of much of the program, Boesky is now opening a new outpost on the Lower East Side.
This is not to say that the gallery is consumed with the latest thing—in recent years, Boesky has pulled off major coups in securing the representation of two legendary living artists, the Arte Povera sculptor Pier Paolo Calzolari and the Minimalist icon Frank Stella, the latter of which recently made news when it was announced that his first major retrospective since 1970 will be the first show to fill a full floor of the Whitney's new Meatpacking District building when it opens next spring.
Of course, shifts in fortune are not new to Boesky, the daughter of 1980s finance titan Ivan Boesky, whose rise and fall were the inspiration for Wall Street's insider-trading Gordon Gekko. We spoke to the gallerist about the new makeup of her program, the thinking behind her downtown expansion, and what she learned from a career at the red-hot core of the fluctuating art market.
You grew up in Westchester in a sprawling home filled with the extraordinary collection of art that your father had accumulated, ranging from Monet and Degas to Giacometti. What was it like to spend your formative years in such surroundings?
I grew up in a world of incredible culture. My father had immigrant parents and came from nothing, put himself through school, made this fortune, and then blew it, and all the while he was voracious for music, culture, literature, everything. It opened up that whole world for me—he would put us to sleep at night to Chopin’s nocturnes, and he was the person who gave me the most inspiration to be an information-seeker. It was never about ownership for him, interestingly, but about experience. So everything that left him in his life, he doesn't notice it, because it wasn't about measuring yourself by things but the thrill of the experience of them. I think I took that from him. But I did get to grow up around pretty incredible art, sculpture in particular. I was most attracted to the more difficult ones, like the Giacomettis. I didn’t connect with the pretty things.
What was it that made you gravitate toward art in particular?
It’s a funny thing—since I was little I thought I was going to own an art gallery in SoHo. I didn’t even know what it meant, but that’s what I thought I would do, and it's what I ended up doing in a very circuitous way. But everything in my house was taken to extremes—sports, everything. If you were playing tennis, you had to be on the circuit and be number one. If you were going to be a playwright, and my brother is a playwright, you had to be the youngest person to ever get accepted to the Yale theater program. That was just the expectation, and it's a classic immigrant expectation for the next generation. There were four kids in my family, and all of us had different interests. I’m a very visual person and dyslexic, so as a kid and it was hard for me to read—though now I am a voracious reader and have been for years—and learning history through images was my ticket to getting through school. I could really grasp things through images.
Considering how invested your father was in the stock market, was the art market a topic of conversation around the house too?
The business market was very much discussed, but for that generation of collectors buying art was less about building portfolios and more about patronage. When you had gathered some wealth, the goal was to be a patron, while for this generation now it's much more about portfolio-building and partaking in the social aspect of the art world. So my dad didn’t buy art with the hope that it would go up in value, no. It was a different time. Think about the '70s—New York City was in terrible shape, and people who were buying art were a small group. My dad and his friends weren’t interested in contemporary art when they were coming up, either, but were going backwards, collecting the Impressionists and things like that. It's very different from now, when the people who are making fortunes are very much about the art of the now and being part of this moment.
So how did you go from being a child who wanted to have gallery to being a gallerist with a building of your own on 24th Street?
In college I studied art history, and I did internships at Sotheby’s and worked for private dealers uptown. Then I graduated in '89, and between '89 and '91 the market was completely dead. There was just no activity going on, so I was bored out of my mind and started to think that my whole plan was wrong. I knew I wanted to be around art—I had friends who were artists, and my life was downtown—but I thought I needed another profession, and decided that if I went to law school and became a lawyer then I could afford to have art in my life.
So I went to law school, which was amazing, and got interested in reproductive-rights litigation and worked for the ALCU, doing ethics and public-interest law, which I realized wasn’t going to pay any art bills. [Laughs] Then, in my first year out of law school, I met Patrick Callery and we decided to start something together and began selling works by a couple of artists—Lisa Yuskavage and a couple others—out of his apartment. We got a space on Greene Street, and he and I were only together for about 10 months, unfortunately, and when we split I went off on my own. I stopped practicing law, and it just grew.
Lisa Yuskavage was your gallery's first major star, but at the time you began working with her in the early '90s, painting had little cache and her highly sexualized canvases must have seemed particularly difficult. How did you come to represent her?
Lisa was the first artist we really represented, though at that point there were maybe 30 galleries in the city, so you didn’t really have representation and it wasn't really professional—it was all very new. But she came into my orbit through Patrick originally, and then we became really close. Then I met Rachel Feinstein, and somebody recommended I do studio visits with these other artists, so I met Murakami and Nara, and they both become a really important part of the program.
Many of these artist who formed the foundation of your program early on were radically at odds with the other work being shown in galleries, particularly Murakami and Nara. What was the initial reaction like?
I went to Art Cologne in 1988 as one of my first fairs, and Friedrich Petzel, Gavin Brown, and I were all sort of sponsored by the fair—they gave us our booths for nothing. And I remember being interviewed for a TV show and being so proud of having these artists there, but then when I saw the interview I realized they were actually making fun of me for having the worst booth in the entire fair. The work was just so ahead of its time, and people weren’t really ready for it, especially in Cologne.
Even here in New York, the people who were in the know looked at Murakami and said, "Oh, it's the Japanese Jeff Koons." But when you know that an artist is leagues ahead of their time, you get sucked into it in the best possible way. I was the same with Lisa Yuskavage—her work bothered me and stuck with me, and as I got to know her and understand what her sources and interests were, I became obsessed, and that let me communicate her work with complete enthusiasm. It's not easy, but it's fun when they get noticed, and you get to say, "I was right."
How did Murakami catch fire?
It was a combination of things. He’s brilliant, and he's rigorous, and every part of his plan is ruthless. We would train each other. He would come here or I would go to Japan and he would throw questions at me about the art world and art market. He was a ruthless information-seeker because his first goal was to create an art market in Japan for his generation—it wasn’t about and still isn’t about making money and being famous. He was trying to legitimize the art that was being made in his country in his time. In Japan back then, you were an artist if you made nihonga paintings and wore a suit to your studio and made $100,000 a year—then you were approved. His brother is that kind of artist. Murakami wanted the otaku and the manga artists and the people who were being creative in that field to be acknowledged as artists, and in the West that was happening.
So he purely came to show with me here on so that he could launch himself in America, because the Japanese are always glomming onto what the West is doing and always trying to appropriate it and ultimately catch up culturally with the West. He knew that if the West embraced him, they would have to. So he came out with his first show with me and Blum and Poe in America, and he had his version of the St. Pauli Girl with her big bursting breasts and the cowboy and the splash paintings, and it was brilliant.
Why was that first show such an important statment?
Because if you took the sculptures away, the splash paintings were a perfect combination of Pop Minimalism, gestural abstraction, and Hokusai wave paintings—he was capturing 100 years of painting history in these paintings and then putting them in the context of these ridiculously over-the-top sculptures, which were meant to be a commentary on how in the same way that we have stereotypes about the Japanese, they also have stereotypes of us, that we're all cowboys and St. Pauli Girls. Beer and boobs! [Laughs]
So he just handed it to the audience, and it worked. So that was the beginning, and then the strategic projects he did in Grand Central Station and Rockefeller Center and with Marc Jacobs were all part of a really considered plan. The nos and the yeses of what an artist does is a really important part of their trajectory, and he was like a military strategist.
Over the next few years, you found yourself in a position where several of your artists, including with Sarah Sze and Barnaby Furnas, were major stars. Then, during the peak of the art market that preceded the crash and the ensuing global crisis, there was an extraordinary amount of competition for your artists. What happened?
Each of those artists have incredibly powerful and unique voices, and they deserved it how it all came together. For me, it was a perfect market storm—2006, 2007, and 2008 were particularly difficult years for me. It was intense. The market was booming, but I lost two crucial artists at the time, Lisa and Murakami. My goal was to grow old with my artists—that's what I had always wanted to do—and I was not watching my back at all, and so it was a time of huge growing pains for me and confusion as to where I was going to go. I had also committed to building this building, so taking on the construction costs without being able to do the shows I had planned to pay for it made for a very stressful time.
On the other hand, there were artists I had been interested in but who weren’t sure about the gallery because the context didn’t feel right to them, so I knew that the door had opened in a way. But I also knew that it was going to be a challenge, because at that time losing artists was not a rite of passage, it was like, "What have you done wrong?" Now artist are their own keepers, they move around, they do what they want, and they have multiple relationships. It's a totally different landscape.
Those years saw the art market turn into an arena, and your gallery wasn't a passive participant in the super-charged environment. There was a funny story about how after the mighty Hollywood collector Michael Ovitz surprised you by selling a major Barnaby Furnas at auction in 2006, Furnas responded by creating a less-than-flattering portrait of Ovitz that then was itself put up at auction. What transpired there?
That was a rumor—there was no Mike Ovitz painting at auction. I love Mike and I respect him tremendously, but for artists it was a very vulnerable, scary time. Again, it was different then—now artists are going straight to auction or consigning their own art to auction, but back then it was a crisis every time an artist's work went up for sale. So what happened was that Barnaby was asked at Columbia to make a series of prints, and he was working on these effigies that were related to Anton Artaud's letters that he wrote to his enemies, when Artaud would write letters and piss on them and stab them and then send them.
So Barnaby was feeling so vulnerable, and he was basically writing these letters to himself, making these works on paper and prints that were like Artaud's letters. And one of them looked a bit like Mike, and it created a problem, a problem that was resolved. But it wasn't intentional, and what artist who is living in Brooklyn and trying to make a career and doing all they can is going to go after Mike Ovitz, who is a 400-pound gorilla. It was such a pressure-cooker of an environment, when Barnaby was opening the first show here in our new space.
So, yes, the stakes have gotten higher and the personalities are diverse and intense and incredible in our business, as you know, and very emotional. It's a business that really functions a lot through emotions and relationships, so people react, but artists are human beings and they react too.
The auctions, also, seem like they were a real battleground.
It was a battle ground then. But I was also very aggressive early on about protecting the artists and having resale agreements and really making sure that if someone went to auction I really went after them. Auctions can be good and bad, and we have to play nice—we're all in the same sandbox, and at the end of the day it’s the collectors who make those decisions, so you really just have to know your clients and hope for the best, because nobody wants to be dealing with lawyers all day. It's not interesting. Part of the issue early on was that, having a legal background, I knew what my rights were and I wanted to assert them for my artists. Now I don't have the same drive—it's not that I'm not protective, I'm just more careful of where things go.
You also did fantastically well at auction yourself, when you sold Murakami's My Lonesome Cowboy at Sotheby's for $15.5 million in 2008, after he was poached by Gagosian, fetching five times his previous record.
Oh yeah, I did do great. I had a partner on that piece, and the timing was spectacular and Alex Rotter did an incredible deal. It was that culminating time in '08—it was nuts. But I hadn't represented Murakami for years and I had a partner who wanted out, so the timing was right. I have no qualms. I don’t feel sad. [Laughs]
Soon afterward this market coup, the crash came around, and there were a number of changes to the gallery's roster. How did that evolution occur?
It was a very difficult. We haven’t actually ever fired any artists, not like some other galleries. But there were two or three artists total who weren’t making work actively, and with the amount we have on our plates—you have expectations for yourself to deliver for each of these artists—there was a natural process of attrition with a few artists who weren’t as actively engaged in the gallery and their own practices as I would have liked, and it made room to bring in some others. It was a natural thing, rather than a kind of slaughterhouse. We haven’t changed that much. We've added.
I’d say that from 2006 to 2008 I was doing a lot of research and studio visits, trying to figure out what direction I wanted to go, and then by 2008 to 2009 I had identified a handful of artists that I really wanted to work with, from William O’Brien to Anthony Pearson to Jay Heikes. Then I also went back and really poked around among my own artists and looked more deeply at who they had been inspired by, and the group that always came up was the Italian Arte Povera artists. Previously we had done a lot of work with Gutai, which is now very fashionable, because that's what Murakami and Nara were interested in.
You also expanded uptown to a new space on East 64th Street. What led you to make that move?
So, I decided I wanted to have the opportunity to do more context-building shows for our artists, and that was the advantage of opening the uptown gallery. I also thought that if I was going to show older works, it would be nice to show that in a different space, and I didn’t want to use that for the calendar spots in Chelsea for these curated, more laboratory-like endeavors that weren't about sales—they were more about parsing ideas and building connections. And I'm a total contrarian, so as the market was imploding I took a lease uptown in a beautiful building with an unusual space that's the opposite foil of the white cube, and the first show we did up there was a really powerful and beautiful suite of drawings that Donald Moffett and Robert Beck had collaborated on in the context of Lucio Fontana.
People were like, "What are you doing? What is this?" But it was exciting to bring these things together and make the connections for people. We're now in our fifth year in that space, and we've worked with incredible curators, from Anthony Huberman to Michele Grabner to Todd Levin to Debra Singer, and we've had artists curate, which is amazing and lets us get inside their brains. It’s a total labor of love. It's not a money-maker, but it's added so much in terms of being a nourishing, collaborative process. And you quickly figure out who your friends are, who wants to work together and who doesn’t.
So, in my mind it was always a five-year project, and now we have one more year and then I'll have to decide if we're going to continue with that or not, and if we do—which I'm inclined to do—we'll probably do more solo shows up there. Because all of our artists are champing at the bit—they love that space.
Today the gallery seems to be on excellent footing, and instead of obvious marquee market stars in the roster there are a number of new artists who seem to privilege substance and seriousness over bling factor, Matthias Bitzer, Serge Alain Nitegeka, and Jessica Jackson Hutchins. Can you talk about how the gallery is shifting?
I think it's funny, too, though that over our first 10 years the assumption is that my program was commercial. It was so not commercial when I was doing it! It became commercial—it was really all very layered conceptual work. But there have been so many changes since then. The art world used to have particular pockets of people who came together and you had personal dialogue with them, whereas now the platforms are so global and enormous that when art stars happen they often flash and burn.
I'm interested in the steady long-haul, and with my next generation of artists it doesn't matter whether you're reading about them as auction artists. Because it's the museums and the real collectors who collect them. Hannah van Bart is a perfect example—it doesn’t matter that she is not in the first 10 lots of the Phillips sale, because she'll still be making paintings 20 years from now. I don’t know if those other artists will survive this kind of gyration. There's a lot of pressure, especially on young artists.
One thing that's striking about many of your newer artists is that they are a bit more challenging to delve into—they don't have as many signature "moves."
Over the last eight years the artists we've taken on are complex, for sure. One of the things I think is interesting is that they don’t have a style. Jay Heikes is very mercurial—he works in sculpture, painting, photography, video. So is Matthias Bitzer. So they're not so identifiable, necessarily, but there are common threads that tie all their work together. Bringing Calzolari into the mix was in my mind a real coup, because he's such an important artist and he unites so many of my artists's themes together in his work, be it the tactility of Donald Moffett or the ideas of alchemy and transformation in Roxy Paine and Jay Heikes. They fit together in this beautiful but open-ended way. Now we have Frank Stella, which is kind of incredible.
We have about 25 artists, and they all have their own voice but they also speak to each other in an interesting way, so I feel like I have a program, not a style—which does pose some challenges. I mean, at art fairs, which have become such an interesting part of our landscape, we can only really show four or five artists at a time because their work is so layered and complex—you can't just cram it all in there and hope for the best. You need to lay out a platform that allows people to put things together and understand. So we're doing eight or nine fairs a year, which are all exhibitions in a sense now.
How do you feel the proliferation of art fairs and their increasing importance is impacting the way people display, look at, and talk about art?
Now you have very distinct lines in the art world, where you have a lot of artists who have commercial careers because they are on this other trajectory and then you have many artists who don’t satisfy that approach to art making, and they're doing exhibitions and museum work—you think about all the sound installations that MoMA is committing to and all these other kinds of things. It used to be that these commercial and critical approaches would overlap a lot more, but now you don’t see them merging so often.
I feel like our program is a tough one because we really are in both camps, and not all the work that show easily cash-and-carry for an art fair. But I feel that there are more galleries than ever that are committed to exhibitions, and there isn’t even enough newspaper space to cover and review them all. You still have that same single page on Fridays in the Times, but instead of having 40 galleries to review there are like 400 in Chelsea alone. So you get less and less opportunity. But for critics, who are on a budget, it's easier for them to go to a fair and see work from all these galleries in a few days than to choose a single city to visit.
You get this intense activity around the fairs because it's efficient, not just for writers but also for people who are researching. We exhibited Serge at the Armory so it would force visitors to navigate his space, and it allowed for 10 museums to follow up. You use those opportunities the best you can, and less and less for just selling. It's a little silly, because of how much money we pay to do these fairs and then not make money out of them if we're going to choose to do it that way. It's a little counterintuitive.
How much does it cost to get an art-fair booth versus a full-page ad in Artforum toward the front?
To me, it's very interesting about the ads. People still read Artforum, but they read it online. Those ads are for the artists—they want to see an ad for their show in the magazine. But do you think anyone is thumbing through the magazine, saying, "Hmm, I think I might call this gallery, I like this ad"? No, that’s the past. But magazines are important and the content is super important, so we want to keep it going, we want to support the magazines because you can't have the content without the advertising. It's connected. But I don't think it's the advertising in the magazine that sells the show, it’s the content of the magazine that sells the show.
Now you're opening a new gallery on Clinton Street on the Lower East Side, which seems like a funny progression if you look at it in terms of Manhattan real estate—to go from SoHo to Chelsea to the Upper East Side and only then to the more hardscrabble Lower East Side. But obviously there's more at hand. What is your plan down there?
I guess it is that I realized that with bringing on new artists—which I continue to do, and want to always continue to do by looking for people who are exciting and different and young, not in age necessarily but in freshness—people don’t come to 24th Street to discover new talent anymore, they come here to see what they know and have it validated. And they have expectations of a price-point, and of a bio, and of books, all these things. When you try and launch an artist on 24th Street and people come in and the show is impressive to them, but then the paintings are $12,000 and there's no research they can do, they get really flummoxed.
I've encountered that confusion a couple of times, like with Melissa Gordon, an amazing artist who had her first show here, and the paintings were $12,000 to $15,000, and people were interested but unsure what to do with it. You take those same paintings to an art fair and they sell out in half an hour. [Laughs] So I realized that a lot of what is happening down there on the Lower East Side is exactly where I want to be with some of my artists, and not just the young unknown artists but the older known artists as well, because they're doing really interesting new things and people will come at their work with a different head down there. People who visit those galleries are more open, they're less full of expectation, and more full of curiosity, I think.
The whole idea of Clinton Street is not to make a Chelsea gallery on the Lower East Side—our Chelsea gallery is our anchor. It's to have a gritty, downtown opportunity for each of the artists in the program to make art to show in there. You know, if Adam Helms has a discreet suite of drawings that he's been working on but won't take up enough space in the Chelsea gallery, it's perfect for that gallery. He can just build a whole show out of that project. So that's the idea, to give all the artists another opportunity to have that context, which is so different. I think I underestimated that for a while here, where everyone has so many expectations.
I think of it as being a bit like Madison Square Garden versus something like the Knitting Factory.
Exactly, it's extreme. You're going to go see U2 if you go to Madison Square Garden, and we still show the up-and-comers. Jay Heikes did his first shows here and he just happens to be incredible with space, so he nails his show here, but for some of the others it's more challenging. Kon Trubkovich did a great job for his first solo show here, and Roberta Smith gave him a great review and all that, but it killed him—he was a mess afterward. He was 26 years old and it was just overwhelming, and I wish I had been able to give him the opportunity to take smaller steps. But now he's been showing here for 10 years, and his last show here was just amazing.
How did you choose Clinton Street?
I was really careful about the neighborhoods I was interested in, because I didn't want it to feel like Chelsea comes to the Lower East Side with me. I wanted to be part of what already exists down there so it's not standing out as something all sewn-up and done-up. I wanted it to be open. So we are starting with a Calzolari installation in the storefront that will be on view before the gallery is even open yet—it's a frost piece that in the morning freezes over and then melts overnight. So it is sort of a soft opening, rather than a big splashy, "ta-da" kind of thing. It's more about being part of something that already exists, and which we respect. It will show up and be there so its sort of a soft just a part of something that exists that we respect.
How have the other galleries in the neighborhood reacted so far?
Well, we haven’t really announced it yet in a big way, so some people know because they've seen us working on it, but everybody is supportive. And again, I think it's important that we're not going down there and doing something that's bigger than them. We want to be part of what they're doing and have the same energy that they have. I also love that there are a lot of women right there—there's Bureau, Nicelle Beauchene, Lisa Cooley. It's a nice little pocket.
You've evidently been very attended to these larger shifts in the market, and now that auctions and fairs are having so much more sway in the newest contemporary art, and the art world keeps getting bigger and bigger, and people are buying artworks online and via photos, how would you say the way that people collect art is changing?
It’s changed a lot in just the sheer numbers of people who collect art, and I think that people collect in very different ways. There's not one particular way. There are some people who collect because they want their home to be beautiful and they're buying art just for their home. There are other people who collect because it's what they do—it's who they are. Their entire life is built around collecting art, and around their collection. Then there are people who are building portfolios and investing. There are such different ways of skinning this cat, but the incredible positive that comes out of it is that more art can be made and more art can be seen.
It also means that navigating is more difficult, because there's that much more to edit, there's constantly a lot of noise, especially with all the hype around the market. As a gallerist it's hard to keep that noise at bay and to keep your eye on the ball, whatever that ball is. And there are moments when you think, "Oh, maybe I should be over there… but no, I can't do that, I'm doing this." So it's hard. And people are so passionate about what they're supporting that it can be really overwhelming.
Today there are new industries that are emerging and concentrating so much wealth in the hands of a new class of people in the tech sphere, and many people are wondering whether they will become interested in collecting art. Last month, you participated in the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair in a limited way, sending a video to be a part of their programming. How much do you think the art profession has succeeded in engaging this new group of potential buyers, and what do you make of the new challenges and opportunities there?
I think that the challenge is to educate people, because some people who aren’t steeped in contemporary art just don’t trust it and think it’s a sham, and others think that they don’t have enough money to enter, or they're not smart enough to enter. You know, the entries are so easily accessible now that I think that's the opportunity. I think it's a little cynical to launch art fairs wherever there are rich people. [Laughs] But I think if you go to Silicon Valley you'll find museums and curators who are really cultivating the next generation, and I think that generation is there to be cultivated and developed.
We participated in that art fair because they approached us to do something with their video program, so they gave us a platform to show an animated painting by Jacco Olivier, and it was just wonderful—it was one more venue for his work to be seen, which is great. I feel the opportunity is there and the interest is there, but it's not this quick thing. There's not this quick money-grab that I think some people enter the art world thinking that there is. You need to enter the art world because you love art and want to be a part of something, and the money that people have made is this incredible incidental benefit. People who come in with the agenda to make money? I don’t know how well they do, or how helpful that is to any of it.
But people get really caught up in it—you can look at Stefan Simchowitz, he is the "cultural aggregator," and I don’t know how I’m sitting here with you because I don’t do business with him and I should be out of business if I don't do business with him, right? [Laughs] I guess I should put up my "for sale" sign. It's weird how these things happen, and then they go away. But art is the constant, so if you're focused on the art you're going to stay part of something. If you're focused on everything around it as your priority, then it gets confusing. For all that he is doing, and his energy and interest, I wish him the best—but I wish my neighbors to do well too. It's about the art.
Over the nearly two decades of your gallery, you've experienced a roller-coaster trajectory, going through boom times and then recalibrating and now gaining an extraordinary amount of momentum again. What are the lessons you've learned from this experience?
Yeah, well the lessons of boom and bust and money and all of that, those weren't lessons, strangely, that I needed to learn. Because when the boom happened I was bust—I had lost my biggest artists. So we've had consistently good times and bad times through the 18 years, and we've never been a one-artist gallery, there's never been a reliance on one artist to pay our bills. We've always been responsible and more nimble, because there are ups and downs, and things come into fashion and out of fashion, so if you believe in something you're going to have to believe through those out-of-fashion too.
The lessons learned were more about relationships. Now, 18 years into it, I understand that artists leave, they move on, they follow their needs and their bliss, and I don't need to take things so personally. I think that's the real lesson. I'm invested personally and thoroughly, but I don't think my emotional state can be devastated the same way by my work anymore. I've grown thicker skin. It's a necessity.