Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Cultural Landscape Architects: Scott Zieher of ZieherSmith

(An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the Huffington Post in February of 2012). 

"Liz Markus: The Look of Love," February 16 – March 17, 2012, at ZieherSmith

As New York began to rebuild from September 11, 2001 and move into the 21st century, a new wave of younger people became successful art dealers. Scott Zieher and Andrea Smith (now, Andrea Zieher) opened ZieherSmith in 2003 and helped lead the way, with Andrea serving as President of the influential New Art Dealers Alliance (“NADA”) from 2005 to 2009. In addition to his “day job” as a prominent gallerist, Scott is an accomplished poet with three brand new books that just released this month.

All Photos Courtesy of ZieherSmith.

Scott Zieher (Photo: Andre Pretorius)

Julie Chae: Scott, how did you and Andrea decide to start your own gallery?

Scott Zieher: I had been working in midtown selling contemporary art for 2 years, in the spring of 2002, and my (now) wife Andrea was working as a director of exhibitions uptown for an American paintings dealer, Vance Jordan. We were living in Spanish Harlem and seeing shows constantly, writing $25 online reviews for AOL’s Digital City. We were both more interested in emerging, younger artists, and I knew a lot of great, unrepresented people that we felt would continue making strong work and likely sell. I started doing shows in my apartment and this unrepresented work was selling, so we felt confident we’d garner broader appeal with a storefront space.

September 11th happened and really changed everything; we decided to go after our own vision. We started looking for ground floor, store front space and after a few, excruciating months of hunting landed on a ground floor spot on West 25th Street. We were in business pretty quickly thereafter, opening on the Ides of March 2003. America went to war that day, so it seemed an auspicious start.

My memories of the beginning are very fond. My mother had passed away a couple of years earlier and I knew that she was proud of what we’d done.

JC: Were there any art world role models to guide or inspire you?

SC: My models are vast and various, but I can’t say anyone has influenced my eye, that’s far too personal. My mother gave me the freedom to be creative, and then encouraged it greatly when I seemed to gravitate toward the arts; I’m blessed for having her.

When it really comes down to it my influential precursors are specific to poets who’ve gravitated to the plastic arts and artists who’ve orbited poetry: principal, though are poets who championed art. I’ve most admired Frank O’Hara and Ezra Pound. O’Hara is well documented as a hero in the art world. His poetry has been invaluable: optimistic, urban, sophisticated and breezy, he danced with relative ease between the best of his contemporaries as a poet. Without caring much about academic aplomb, he forged careers for multiple canonical visual artists by way of a sociable, ambitious understanding of his American moment. Pound, despite his embarrassing political derivations, worked most of his life in the service of other poets and artists, this ceaseless approach is a model I strive for, and his output is unrivalled, multifarious and influential beyond comparison or recognition. His letters alone would dwarf the output of any artist you can name.

JC: ZieherSmith will be celebrating its ninth anniversary next month. Do you have any particularly special memories involving your shows or artists?

SC: Every show has a good story, if it matters in any way. I try not to dwell too much on shows past. I’m fond of our recent (December 2011) Allison Schulnik show “Mound.” We got great press and sold the work well and Allison is a complete joy to work with, across the board. After the opening we had dinner and she managed to get me to sing karaoke in Chinatown, a duet of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited,” no less, and she’s a real pro!

Allison Schulnik, Standing Gin #3, 2011, glazed porcelain ceramic, 19”x12”x9”

SZ: I’m also proud to have shown an extensive selection of works by Joseph Cornell for his 100th birthday in December 2004, grouped with a great crop of young artists. Cornell is another model for me, both in his singularity and his broad knowledge.

Chuck Webster, Untitled, 2012, oil on panel, 48”x60”

SZ: I’ll always cherish the first studio visit with Chuck Webster: 2003, North Adams, Massachusetts, cold as hell, the best first meeting ever, warmed by Chuck’s huge blanket of drawings. Chuck is both utterly contemporary and steeped in a past that is riveting and relevant; he’s a great inheritor and rejuvenator of the constantly moribund tradition of abstract painting. 

JC: During Andrea’s Presidency, NADA became a powerful presence in emerging art and most agree that under her leadership, the NADA Fair became second only to the main fair in prestige and importance at Miami Art Basel. Could you or Andrea share a couple of her proudest achievements while she was heading up NADA?

Andrea Zieher:  NADA was a very grassroots thing that took off incredibly fast with the great vision of its founders. I was proud to take the helm and turn it into a fully-functioning, stable organization with a large annual budget. My changes included expanding to a full-time staff with medical benefits, an independent office, and obtaining federal legal status as a non-profit 501c6. In addition, my board members and I strived to maintain a focus beyond the popular satellite fair during Miami Basel and kept an emphasis throughout the year on the membership and public service. The international membership expanded greatly during my tenure and I made sure that membership dues were used solely for membership activities that enhanced business practices, ethics, and relationships.

SZ: Andrea worked really, really hard as president, and cared very deeply about the organization.

JC: Can you describe your program of artists or describe specific, special qualities about the art your gallery exhibits?  Would you articulate why it is important to exhibit the artists you do? 

SZ: We like to think our program consists of artists making technically sound and conceptually grounded work. I’m drawn to the narrative possibilities, and the human, hand-made.  Both Andrea and I, and most of our artists, are concerned with the past, and often this borders on a healthy obsession for me.

We also both really like old paper. I’m a sucker for the disembodied head and any smart re-interpretation of the human figure. I’m pretty visceral. That said, we try really hard to balance juicy, colorful oil painting with something that looks askance at the capabilities of a pristine white box.

I try really hard not to get caught up in what’s important about the things I do as a dealer, or discussing the idea of importance regarding art. I truly care about the people we represent and the work they make, and that’s what’s important to me. I’m trying everything I can to make sure their work lives on forever in as many capacities as possible.

JC: On a related note, I'd like to follow up on your comment in a May 2005 interview, where you say, “(A)s an art dealer, I like to think the ‘product’ we sell is pretty poetic.” 
When I read that, I completely connected with what you are saying, and it made perfect sense to me as I visualized the artists’ works that I know in the ZieherSmith program. Would you articulate what you mean by calling an artwork “poetic?”  

SZ: As a poet, I suppose I should be careful.  I mean that literally, in a kind of dictionary definition: I care about art that is emotionally charged and aesthetically relevant, but still challenging. Something poetic to me is a thing that has sensitivity above and beyond its bare facts. And to sell this type of “product” well, something which is a true luxury good as well as being widely misunderstood or ignored when it comes right down to it, takes the same resolve it takes to care deeply for poetry!

JC: Liz Markus and Eddie Martinez are acclaimed artists, good friends and popular among artists I know in New York. Liz just opened her 4th solo show at ZieherSmith!

How did you start working with them?

Eddie Martinez, Snake Eye, 2005, acrylic, pencil on paper, 11.5”x9”

SZ: We first showed Eddie in late 2005, at the NADA fair in Miami. He was introduced to me by Wes Lang at a party in Miami the year before (Eddie was making great, super-fast, little drawings on the beer splattered table, Wes was the DJ; that night will always remain as a swansong of December in Miami). Back in New York Eddie came to visit the gallery and we saw a lot of each other that Spring of 2005. His incredible energy and imagination were infectious. We had our first solo with him shortly thereafter and the rest is very successful history.

Eddie, in a generous turn, introduced us to Liz, including her in one of his many curatorial efforts.
Liz Markus, I Say a Little Prayer for You, 2012, acrylic on unprimed canvas, 54”x60”

JC: I remember that group show that Eddie curated; it included Katherine Bernhardt (KB), Jose Lerma and Andrew Guenther, as well as Liz. That was 2007 and the afterparty was at a dive bar in Chelsea and you’d ordered like a hundred pizzas to be delivered. KB introduced me to Andrew, who was painting those "dark" paintings back then, but I found him to be totally nice and not at all scary. And then there was a second afterparty in Eddie’s studio building in Bushwick, which back then was considered a really dangerous neighborhood. I'd never been there before so I didn't know. But Brian Belott got Eddie to call a car service for me when I was leaving. That cracks me up because you can still find multiple videos on the internet of Brian setting a huge fire to the hair on his head but that night he was concerned for my safety as I was leaving Eddie's studio building.

And what has it been like, working with Liz and Eddie?

SZ: Both relationships are nothing but fruitful, ambitious and reciprocal. We really try to embrace as much as we can of each artist’s approach to their practice, hopefully giving space when it’s needed and offering whatever we can when it’s asked for. We knew almost instantly with both artists that we’ve come upon something special. That’s all you can ask for, really; to recognize the ones with great focus coupled with ambition, and to recognize staying power combined hopefully with loyalty.

JC: I was visiting Liz’ studio back in 2007 and she showed me the press release to her first ZieherSmith solo show. I was very impressed with how you'd captured the essence of her work in a really nice way, and I asked her how it had been written. According to Liz, you two just sat down and talked about her work, and then you seemed to put it all together. Can you talk about how you approach discussing or writing about an artist's body of work (for an exhibition, let's say) and framing the way people look at that art?

Liz Markus, "All of These Things Were Way Beyond My Mind,” 2007, acrylic on unprimed canvas, 54”x72” 

SZ: I’m always delighted and shocked when people pay attention to our press releases, they can be the only public chance we have of “framing” the works we’re showing, and we try to take them seriously. Andrea is a very good, accomplished writer and a really keen editor and I guess it’s second nature to me to write about art, as I’ve actually been doing it for 30 years! I was really lucky to have art history classes in my high school in Waukesha, Wisconsin, so my ekphrastic impulse is long practiced.

Andrea typically lets me start and I improvise and gesticulate wildly for 3 paragraphs which she in turn carves into little ribbons of butter. It means a lot to me that people read our little 350 word expository exercises, so thank you.

JC: I so wanted to drive to Nashville for the opening of your pop-up space during the summer! I’d gone so far as to look up the driving route from NYC and asked Liz if she could go, in the hopes we might roadtrip. Since I saw it was a fifteen-hour drive, I’d emailed you to say that while 2 guys transporting art typically will drive non-stop for 20 hours, I suggested an overnight stop so you guys wouldn’t arrive exhausted -– maybe a stop in Charlottesville, VA, as the “grounds” (campus) are nice to walk around. You immediately emailed me back a detailed, 5-day itinerary that included a minor league baseball game! It sounded so great! 

So how much fun did you have driving down, with the excellent itinerary you’d planned? And why did you decide to exhibit in Nashville, when you could have been vacationing?

ZS: I was lucky to be driven to Nashville, with our dog, Robert, by a great ally and friend, Brad Hajzak. He’s a collector, advisor and great friend who wanted to be a part of the behind the scenes set-up for a travelling exhibition, so we made a road trip out of it. We mapped the route through Pennsylvania to stop at Falling Water and then Pittsburgh for the Warhol Museum. I managed to find us the worst hotel in Columbus, Ohio; even the dog was skittish. The next morning we proceeded to a marvelous chili dog lunch at Skyline in Louisville. We made good time and had a great trip.

We decided to do the pop-up because my wife’s family is primarily in the vicinity and we visit there often. There’s a lively scene in Nashville, and we hadn’t really tapped into it, so this seemed like a very thorough way to get to know some of the people making things happen. We were hoping to think apart from the art fair model, which has become really tiresome. It worked, as the local press all wrote at length about the show. We had a great turnout and hosted several events, we sold a good amount of work to local collectors who were new to us, and met a ton of artists, musicians and writers, including Dan Auerbach of the Black Key, who stopped by more than once.

JC: Have you decided yet whether you’ll do another pop-up show in Nashville this summer?

SZ: Yes we are! We have boots on the ground there, people looking at spaces for us all the time, but we can’t act on that until late Spring early summer.

JC: You’re a practicing poet. How do you find the dual energy to handle the needs and considerations and sensitivities of visual artists as a vocation while working toward furthering your own creative practice?

Scott’s latest books: THE PORNOGRAPHERS and PORNOGRAPHIES, with novelist Christopher Grimes (both: Jaded Ibis Press 2012); and GENTRY, featuring cover art by Stan Vanderbeek (Emergency Press 2012)

SZ: I love artists and the processes and practices of making art, I love art materials, in all their infinite capabilities. It seems perfectly logical to me to spend a life working in the service of people making art. Separating my own endeavors with the artists I represent has been crucial and very natural. As the age-old adage asks the poet: “what do you do with the other 23 hours in the day?” In addition to selling art, I write every day, and I have a desk at home where I work on collages. I’ll be in a group exhibition this summer at Charles Bank Gallery on the Bowery and I’m honored to be publishing three books this year, two are collaborations with Christopher Grimes: THE PORNOGRAPHERS and PORNOGRAPHIES (both: Jaded Ibis, 2012) featuring 195 collages I made in the last year. The other is my third book-length poem GENTRY (Emergency Press, 2012).

It’s my firm opinion that a poet who isn’t constantly writing poems, whole books of poems, or a poet who needs a pristine cabin in the woods with no distractions to create is a lazy poser. Quit sniveling, get to work. No excuses. If you truly care you will fail until you succeed.

Elbert Hubbard is one of my models. He wrote “Get your happiness out of your work or you will never know what happiness is.” Stellar advice; the world would be better off it was followed to the letter.
Scott Zieher, (Untitled), 2011, collage, from THE PORNOGRAPHERS, with Christopher Grimes (Jaded Ibis 2012)

Scott Zieher is co-owner of the contemporary art gallery ZieherSmith. In 2004 he won Emergency Press’ international book contest for his book-length poem, VIRGA. He has since published the following books: IMPATIENCE (Emergency Press 2009); BAND OF BIKERS (powerHouse Books 2010), his collection of found photographs from 1972; GENTRY (Emergency Press 2012), his third book-length poem; and THE PORNOGRAPHERS and PORNOGRAPHIES (both: Jaded Ibis Press 2012), collaborations with novelist Christopher Grimes featuring Zieher’s collages. Recent poetry has appeared in The Believer, Jubilat, KNOCK and The Iowa Review. Zieher was born in Waukesha, Wisconsin and received his MFA in poetry from Columbia University in 1996. He lives in Manhattan with his wife (and co-owner of the gallery) Andrea, their son, Tennessee and dog, Robert.
516 West 20th Street
Currently on view: "Liz Markus: The Look of Love," February 16 - March 17
Upcoming:" Paul Housley: Mudpusher Blues," March 22 - April 21

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