Janice Guy and Margaret Murray opened Murray Guy Gallery in 1998 on 17th Street near 10th Avenue in Chelsea. The gallery, highly regarded for its intellectual rigor, represents an international roster of artists who work primarily in photography, video, film, and text, although a recent show featured paintings for the first time. I interviewed Guy last April in her gallery.
I know you received a BA at Sunderland Polytechnic in the northeast of England, and then enrolled at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany. That’s a story in and of itself. What made you decide to study in Germany?
It’s actually very simple. What people don’t realize is in the 1970s the art scene was quite small in England. There were very few private galleries. This changed dramatically at the end of the 1980s with the Young British Artists. If you went to art school it meant that you would likely end up teaching art in high school or that you would become a commercial artist.
I grew up in a village in Leicestershire, in the Midlands, and went to art school in a depressed industrial town in the northeast. I had to leave. I applied for various scholarships to study abroad. I don’t remember knowing much about art in Germany. I knew of Joseph Beuys of course and I had read a fascinating, three-part article in Studio International about Sigmar Polke, and I think I was aware of Gerhard Richter. I was awarded the German Academic Exchange Grant (DAAD) grant—they even sent me on an intensive course in German!
That must have been a surprise.
I don’t think anyone else was applying at the time [laughter]. I wasn’t attracted to the idea of Düsseldorf; Hamburg or Berlin sounded far more romantic, but Düsseldorf at the time had an exciting and international art scene. Apart from all the artists who lived there permanently or periodically—Palermo, Spoerri, Broodthaers—there was Kraftwerk, the club Creamcheese, and great museums in all the surrounding towns—Cologne, Krefeld, Bochum, Mönchengladbach, Essen. And there was Konrad Fischer’s gallery. I was lucky to be there right at that time.
Joseph Beuys had left by then?
He had officially been dismissed from his professorship but still had a studio and students at the school. It wasn’t possible to push him aside; he was already a very public figure.
Did you get to know him?
Not really. He was often around, but I had arrived after his influence at the school had waned somewhat. I worked part-time in a gallery near his house and would make pick-ups or deliveries to his studio—occasionally he would open the door. I think that was the closest I ever got to him.
How long were you there?
I had a scholarship for one year but I stayed five, I was able to continue as a student of the Academy. I had come from a provincial art school in England and here the teachers were Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter. At first, my professor was Klaus Rinke, a sculptor. I had made sculpture in England, figurative stuff, and had just started taking photographs—as sketches for the sculpture. In fact my portfolio submission for the DAAD grant was only these photographs.
Tell me about Klaus Rinke.
Klaus is a sculptor. At the time he did performances, often involving his sculpture, and made performance-based photographs, which very much interested me.
I remember that he was in Los Angeles.
Yes, he lived in LA for a while, but I had little contact with him after my time in Germany. Rinke favored his male students. In any case, there were only three or four of us women. Later I became a student of Bernd and Hilla Becher. I also worked with Nam June Paik on some of his projects, including a performance in homage to George Maciunas.
Were there any other foreign students?
Few, though in our class there was an exchange student from Sudan, and Japanese students, some who had come from Japan to study with Rinke, others from Düsseldorf’s Japanese community, at the time the biggest in Europe.
Who were some of your fellow students?
Thomas Schütte, Thomas Struth, Reinhard Mucha. Katarina Fritsch was there then, as was Isa Genzken. I was also friends with Lothar Baumgarten. Martin Kippenberger and Albert Oehlen spent a lot of time in Düsseldorf. That was before the art market became strong and many artists decamped to Cologne in the 1980s.
We spent a lot of time at Konrad Fischer’s gallery. In fact, Fischer was one of my biggest influences in Düsseldorf. He showed Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Lawrence Weiner, Gilbert & George, Richard Long, as well as On Kawara, Mario Merz, and Giuseppe Penone. Konrad was incredibly generous and would invite us to his house after his openings, where we hung out with these artists.
Fischer was responsible for getting American artists shown in Europe.
He was responsible for the careers of a lot of American conceptual artists, who were showing more in Europe than in the United States.
Yes, there was a network of galleries in Europe such as Sonnabend, Sperone, Toselli . . .
And curators like Kasper Koenig.
And Harald Szeemann.
Exactly. It was a good time to be in Germany.
Did you have shows then? This was when women were beginning to be shown more.
In fact my work was in a large survey show in Berlin titled International Women Artists, 1877 to 1977, which travelled to Frankfurt and Munich. It was a big, big show. I had work in some group shows and then I had my first solo gallery show at Rolf Ricke in Cologne in 1979.
Were you aware of other women who were working in a similar vein?
The European artists I was looking at included Katharina Sieverding, Rebecca Horn, Ulrike Rosenbach, Friederike Pezold, Valie Export, Gina Pane, Ketty La Rocca. It was great to see the work of some of these artists again in Connie Butler’s 2007 show Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution. The Americans I was reading about were Hannah Wilke, Joan Jonas, and Yvonne Rainer. In Düsseldorf I saw a performance by Marina Abramović and Ulay. Klaus Rinke was a friend of Marina’s and invited them to perform in our studio. They built a wall in the middle of the studio and threw themselves against it. It made an enormous impression on me.
They did that often—it was physically punishing.
I think it was her strongest work.
Recently you showed your early photographic work in Cleopatra’s, a gallery in Brooklyn. Martha Schwendener, in her review, related your work to that of Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, and Hannah Wilke . . .
All of them were working with their bodies. I was very flattered to be mentioned in the context of these artists.
Didn’t I read that Thomas Struth stored your work for many years?
Yes, for some thirty years. You can’t imagine what it was like for me to find all of my prints and negatives intact. A very good friend! I had left it all with him when I went to live in Italy.
I didn’t know that!
After five years in Germany I was unsure whether I wanted to stay longer or return to the UK. So I decided to go to Italy for one year and I ended up staying twelve.
What city did you live in?
First I lived in Rome—I had a travel grant from the Düsseldorf Academy—then Naples.
What date was this?
What did you do in Italy?
Things changed a lot when I went to Italy––it was a different life altogether. It was relatively inexpensive to live in Rome, and I did translations for magazines and catalogues and other texts. It was the time of the Transavanguardia . . .
Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, and Enzo Cucchi, so named and promoted by Achille Bonito Oliva.
That work didn’t interest me much.
How long were you in Rome?
I was in Rome for five years. During that time I stopped making my own work—I didn’t have a studio or a darkroom; I no longer had my peer group. But I did frequent the galleries—Sperone and also Pieroni, Mario Diacono, Maria Colao of Primo Piano—and I got to know some of Rome’s particularly interesting artists—Luigi Ontani, Emilio Prini, Gino De Dominicis.
What took you to Naples?
I was offered a job with Lia Rumma, together with Lucio Amelio one of the great Italian gallerists . . . both in Naples! This was in 1984 just a few years after the devastating earthquake of 1980. Repairs to the city were only makeshift, often ineffectual, and most of the rebuilding funds had vanished into the businesses of the Camorra. I lived in a 17th-century palazzo with wooden planks buttressing the stairwell. When I was moving in and unable to get my furniture past the wood, the doorman lent me a saw! Naples was damaged, anarchic, and in the grip of organized crime. It was dangerous and very exciting.
What artists were in the gallery?
Lia Rumma had a close personal connection to arte povera and a collection of extraordinary works of Pistoletto, Kounellis, and Pascali. She was showing Joseph Kosuth, Douglas Huebler, and Don Judd. When I worked for her, we showed Michelangelo Pistoletto, Enrico Castellani, and Aldo Rossi. We showed Gino de Dominicis, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Günther Förg, Reinhard Mucha, Dan Graham, and Haim Steinbach. We helped organize a remarkable group exhibition, Rooted Rhetoric, of contemporary American conceptual artists at Castel dell’Ovo, the Norman fortress that sits out on the bay.
It was an extraordinary time engaging with these artists with the backdrop of Vesuvius, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, Capri and Amalfi, and the baroque Naples of the seicento. Naples has remained a very important place and time for me.
Why did you leave?
Though I was traveling a lot for Lia, Naples was beginning to feel too constricting. Then in 1989, Barbara Gladstone hired me to direct a gallery in Rome that she was going to open. She had already rented a beautiful space in Trastevere near the botanical gardens, when she was suddenly proposed a partnership in New York with Galleria Christian Stein from Turin, at which point she postponed opening the Rome gallery. Together with the art advisor Thea Westreich she set up a residency project in the Trastevere space, which I ran. We invited artists to stay for two months at a time. On Kawara, Lawrence Weiner, Franz West, Christopher Wool, and Richard Prince were among the artists invited.
Sounds like this was a great job.
It was. Cindy Sherman worked on her history photographs. Thomas Struth made his Pantheon and Vatican Museum photographs. I was facilitator, studio assistant, translator, and guide. The Rome Studio operated for two years. Then, in 1991, I came to New York to be the director of SteinGladstone, which, like many of the partnerships at that time, did not survive the recession.
What came next?
After a couple of years I started doing shows in my apartment on King Street, a school building that had been converted into condos.
Who did you show?
A lot of women. Katy Schimert had her first solo show there. There was a three-person show with Cecily Brown, Anna Gaskell, and Bonnie Collura, a film and light installation by Liisa Roberts, a solo with Beat Streuli. I also did a show of Matt Mullican’s early drawings, pinned to the wall, floor to ceiling, and a beautiful exhibition of drawings by Thomas Schütte.
When did you meet Margaret Murray?
In 1995 we met casually at a dinner. Both English, we naturally started to talk, and it turned out that Margaret was also doing shows—renting spaces short term for exhibitions, which today would be called pop-up galleries. After a few years of this activity we both realized we couldn’t continue operating without a permanent location open not only by appointment, and decided to start a gallery together. Margaret curated one of the last shows I had in King Street, which included Francis Cape, whom we have represented since.
You must share a sensibility.
Also a similar kind of spirit about how we wanted to do it. It was good for me to work with someone from England again after having been away so long.
Murray Guy opened in 1998?
Yes, on 17th Street in Chelsea where we still are.
As you know, I always begin on 17th Street when I start my Chelsea slog.
I’m so glad you do!
I read on the Yelp website (serious research tool) that the gallery has switched from showing mid- to late-career artists to young and hip artists.
That’s funny. I don’t know about young and hip, but we just had our first show of a young painter, Leidy Churchman.
That ruins the way I was about to characterize your gallery, i.e., a lot of variety—sound works (Sergei Tcherepnin), sculpture (Lucy Skaer, Francis Cape), primarily video, film, photography . . . but now a painter!
I haven’t really been looking at painting for a while. Our director, Sonel Breslav, introduced us to Leidy’s work. We responded immediately to his very particular figuration. He has made a stunning show.
Your artists tend to be intellectual.
The artists of the gallery work with photography, film and video, and a lot of text. A number of them also engage with literature. As photography was my medium, I naturally feel an affinity for it. The photographers we show are very diverse: An-My Lê’s fascination with military culture that intersects with her Vietnamese childhood and adolescence; Moyra Davey’s exquisite examination of the details of her daily life and her reading; Barbara Probst’s cinematic groupings of images portraying one single instant.
And many of the others have a photographic production in their work.
Kota Ezawa in particular has engaged with iconic photographic images and film and TV footage to make his particular brand of reduced cartoon-like animations and lightboxes. We’ve been showing Ann Lislegaard’s recent series of digital animations inspired by science fiction literary works. Both Moyra and An-My have made extraordinary video works. Also Patricia Esquivias. And Alejandro Cesarco, who recently had a show at Kiria Koula in San Francisco, is a romantic conceptualist who works in video, photography, and many other mediums. We also represent Matthew Buckingham who is primarily a filmmaker, but also uses photography, sculpture, and drawing to question the role social memory plays in contemporary life. Lucy Skaer’s mediums comprise film, drawing, printmaking, and sculpture using a myriad of materials. Both her sculpture and that of Francis Cape have a strong reference to the arts and crafts movement.
And the artist who works with sound?
Sergei Tcherepnin, who was trained as a composer, transforms objects into speakers or sound instruments, orchestrating them in compositions or interacting with them in performances. And now we are showing painting!
Do you feel there are two contemporary art worlds—the conceptual world in its broadest sense, which you see in biennials, and the one that dominates the art fairs, i.e., salable works, mostly paintings.
I wouldn’t necessarily see these two worlds as being so far apart these days. Recently, we took a break from art fairs to see how it would feel, and to concentrate on the gallery exhibitions.
But can you afford not to participate in fairs?
For the visibility of the gallery, not really. Financially it is always hit and miss. Now it’s a matter of choosing which one or two fairs to participate in the future. We wouldn’t want to do more. With such high costs, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to make it financially worth our while.
Have you participated in the satellite fairs like NADA?
That’s the way we started.
I want to end by asking you about your own work. How did the show of your early photographic work at Cleopatra’s come about?
It really all began back in 2007 when Matthew Higgs (who is an artist of the gallery) asked to see what I had done as an art student. He then included some of my photographs in a group show he co-curated with Marilyn Minter and Fabienne Stephan at White Columns—Early Work—with gallerists who had once been artists: Gavin Brown, Maureen Paley, Jeffrey Deitch, Pat Hearn, and Konrad Lueg (aka Fischer!).
And that led to?
Then he gave me a White Room solo show at White Columns. The Metropolitan Museum acquired a photograph and showed it in the exhibition Photography on Photography, which inaugurated the new contemporary photography gallery in 2008. Over the years the work has been shown at The Apartment in Vancouver and in group shows. When Cleopatra’s called to ask if I would like to have a solo show there, I was delighted! It’s been such a great experience working with these young women who are running such a smart curatorial program as well as working full-time in other galleries; in Bridget Donahue’s case in her own gallery. Cleopatra’s is in Greenpoint where many young artists live. It was fun to show in such a lively young context.
And it was a big success. Do you plan to continue showing your early work or to commence taking photographs again?
I recently printed photographs from old negs of mine I had never printed before. There are still some works from that time I would like to revisit (The Apartment, a gallery in Vancouver, showed some of the work at NADA, New York). I do want to pick up the camera again.