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01 Magazine
New York
Bianca Bova
Tayler Smith for Argos & Artemis
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Lauren Wittels, Partner & Director at Luhring Augustine

Art World

Bianca: Thanks for making the time to talk with me Lauren. I really admire Luhring Augustine, and you have such an interesting history with the gallery. You started there in the 1980's, yes? And then left and struck out on your own, and came back fifteen years later as a director and partner, a trajectory I think most people wouldn't even consider an option.

Lauren: Right, I know. The first time I worked for them I was an undergrad at Columbia and a grad student told me about two galleries that were looking to hire a front desk person. I was planning on taking a year off before grad school--I wanted to be a professor--so I was just looking for something temporary. The other gallery was Pat Hearn. So I wrote letters to both of them, and mailed them (this is pre-internet) and I never heard from Pat Hearn. But Luhring Augustine called me and I interviewed and one of the owners, Lawrence Luhring and this lovely woman, Fran Siegel, who was the director, they hired me. I hadn't met Roland. That whole first year, I was studying for my GRE's. I studied northern Renaissance painting, I was really not studying modern art. People didn't study contemporary art back then like they do now. I was applying to graduate school, I was really focused, but suddenly I had this new love of working in a public space and working with living artists. I had no understanding about what artists did or how they learned and made things. I was really new to it. I was completely an art historical geek. At the end of the year, I was accepted to Columbia for graduate school, and I stayed at Luhring Augustine all through grad school part time. You know, I didn't want to take my foot out of that camp. Then the professor I was working closely with went on sabbatical during my third year. And it was like--you know that expression, the scales fell off you eyes?--it was like that, suddenly I could see everyone else there was super uninteresting and so I left. I had finished my Master's by then, so I came back to the gallery full time. They made me director at like, twenty-six or something. I mean, it was a small staff. There were three of us, plus Roland and Lawrence. So two full-timers and one part-timer. It was really a different scale of business.

B: How long did that last?

L: I did that for a few years, and at the same time, I started doing shows in my house. I would work at the gallery Tuesday through Saturday, and then my house gallery was open Sunday and Monday. So it was galleries seven days a week. Then I moved my house gallery out into a real space, on Broadway, in Soho, and that gallery was open Saturday, Sunday, Monday, so I had to get an intern to cover Saturdays. Actually, it was Michele Maccarone, you remember her?

B: Yeah, of course. Michele Maccarone was seriously your first intern?

L: Yes, really! Just on Saturdays. I was in Sundays and Mondays. I really had no plans to go full time, at all. I've never had a plan, ever. In Thirty-two years in this business, I've never had any plan past a month.

B: That strategy seems to have served you well.

L: I guess so. I just think you should be open. So anyway, I went out to lunch with Roland and Lawrence one day, and they said, "We know you're going to leave, so stay as long as you want, and when you're ready to leave, just let us know." So I said, "I guess I'll leave." That was it. I decided at lunch that I was going to go full time. I mean I really was an idiot. I had a tiny bit of money, and I quit my job, and I went full time as a dealer. And I hated it. I hated it.

B: Really!?

L: Hated it. I like having a boss, it seems. I like working with a team as well. I was all alone, and suddenly all my colleagues in these other galleries, who had always been so friendly became exceptionally competitive, because I was a full time dealer. I wasn't enjoying the experience at all. I did some great shows though, I did this wonderful--really a historical show, now--with Michael Smith, the performance and video artist from Chicago. A lot of it was acquired by the Walker, and a lot of it was included in his retrospective that toured around in the early aughts. So I did some great shows, but I hated, absolutely hated going to work every day. So when I ran out of money in June of 1997, I closed. I literally just ran down to almost-zero in my bank account, so that was the end of the gallery. And that was fine by me.

B: What did you do after that? You didn't go right back to Luhring Augustine, I know.

L: I did a whole bunch of things. I worked at Citi Bank Art Advisory Service, as a contemporary art advisor for the high net worth individual clients of the private bank, that was really trippy. I was there for the internet boom, so all of my clients were like, twenty-three years old. And I was there for the internet bust, when there were suicides and bankruptcies, and everything was really, totally, fucked up. After that I did a brief stint at Barbara Gladstone Gallery that I can't talk about without breaking into hives.

B: We can skip that part.

L: It was really bad. So bad. There's a whole alumni group of people who spent anywhere between two weeks and twenty years working there, and we need some kind of support group.

B: Were you closer to the two week mark yourself?

L: I stayed five months. As my ex-husband always said, "You worked there for five months and you dreamed about it for five years." Apparently it traumatized me.

B: What came next?

L: After that, I'd had some health issues, and the gallery had closed, and other things happened, and I found myself at thirty-six, having just had a baby and unemployed. I had done some advising on the side, which is totally unsatisfying. Like, who cares? But then we sold our apartment, and had this little bit of cash. And my ex-husband--who's a painter, actually--he said, "You should take this and do what you really want. You've always been working, why don't you invest in something you really love." So I took my little fifteen thousand, and started making books.

B: This is the start of Regency Arts Press, yes?

L: Yes. So I started by making these three little books. Amy Sillman, Michelle Segre, and Bill Adams. It was great, it was so fun. I had never done anything more fun, more satisfying, and more creative in my life. They were really collaborative. The thing that linked them was that they were all works on paper. It was this idea that works on paper are the most experimental medium in the studio, so let's try and harness some of that experimentation. So we made these three, adorable little books. Then for my next project, I wanted to work with Sean Landers. And he had done this great, really important series of legal paper drawings in the early '90s, which had really cemented his footing in the art world. So he said, "Instead of doing a little book, let's make it the same dimensions, but let's do all of them." So then I had to raise some money, because that was going to be expensive, and the only money I had was from selling the little books. I didn't have any other income. I managed to get some money from a collector, and we made the same dimension book, but like 230 pages, all the legal pad drawings. And then DAP picks it up, which was really exciting. So suddenly it's becoming something else.

B: What came after that?

L: Well next I wanted to do the same dimensions and page count again, because I was trying to keep everything templated. So I asked Michael Smith to do it, and--you know, artists are always so ambitious. Sean got me to make that jump, and then Michael said, "Why don't we do the same page count, but make it much bigger." And he scanned all of these sketchbooks and things he had, and we made this fantastic book of works going all the way back to childhood. There was work that his mom kept, it was so great. They were scanned so beautifully. You could see the back of the page of the sketchbook through the sketch, and then when you turned the page of the book, and would expect to see that drawing, but it would be something else. For that project, I went to one of my advisory collectors, someone I worked with at Citi Bank, and said, "Mike has no collectors, I need money to do this." And he said, "I like you, I trust you, I'll give it to you." And that's when I thought, this should be a 501(c)3. Because these people we're working with--Sean even, at that point, wasn't a market artist. None of these people made money selling their work. So I wanted to develop it into a cycle that will feed artists that are outside the marketplace, and give them the same opportunities to make books that more market-successful artists have. Because everyone wants to make a book with, like, Ugo Rondinone, but who wants to make a book with Mike Smith? I mean, I did. But nobody. So I got a lawyer from the volunteer lawyers for the arts, and he helped me apply for 501(c)3 status, and we got it, and it was great! Suddenly I could fundraise, and people could get tax breaks, and the artists were making multiples for me to sell, so we could raise more money, to make more books. We ended up making twenty-one books. They got more and more ambitious. We ended up with really three series. First, the works on paper series continued, then these monograph books, like a hybrid between a monograph and an artist book. Kay Rosen is a great example of that. Kathe Burkhart, we did all of her Liz Taylor paintings for twenty-five years. And now finally Kathe is starting to get some attention, there's been a piece of hers hanging in the Art Institute for the last year, but before that, for twenty years, no one wanted to buy her work. Now the Whitney recently bought a painting. So we were really ahead of the game. Charles Atlas is another one in that series. And the way we kept them as artist books, was there was no one contextualizing the work but the artist. But we kept it broad, like a monograph. You didn't have someone else's context though, someone's opinion or analysis of the work. Just the artist. It was neat, it was like a new form of a book. I started a collaborative book series after that. I only did one before I ran out of money. We also did programming and events. We did these art book swaps at museums--at the Art Institute, at MoMA, at LACMA, it was the best. I loved running the press. It was so much fun, and if I were rich, and didn't have to worry about a job, I would go right back to it, start Regency up again.

B: At what point did you decide it was time to stop?

L: Sadly, in 2008, when the market collapsed. My husband was doing really well as an artist, so I didn't need a salary in those years, but after 2008 his income started to drop. And I had never taken a penny as a salary from Regency. All the money went straight back into making more books. So I needed to get a job.

B: So this is what precipitated your return to Luhring Augustine?

L: Well, I wrote to a few dealers--including Roland and Lawrence--and said I was looking for a job. And in one hour, I had a job offer. But not from Roland and Lawrence! In one hour. Which, I had been out of the gallery business for a long time now at that point, so I thought that was impressive. So I met with them that day, and, they're lovely people--I won't say who this was--but their program was so awful. I literally couldn't find one artist who I thought was good in their program. So Roland and Lawrence wrote me a day or two later and said, let's meet, let's see what you're looking for. So we met up a week or so later, and they offered me a job, right there, just sitting around together in their office. It was so weird. I've known them my entire adult life, since I was twenty-two. And I used to have these dreams that I was working for them again. For years I had these dreams. I remember having one where I was telling them, in the dream, "Oh it's so strange to work for you again." And then it really happened! They offered me this job, and how do you say no? It was like coming home. I love them.

B: What was it like once you finally returned?

L: I returned to an entirely different business. There were twenty-five employees, the artists were a huge roster. There was internet! When I left there was no internet. The gallery was hugely successful, but it was a totally different business than I had stepped away from. I mean, I used to label slides with a typewriter. It was so weird and unsettling at first, it was just not the same business. But I adjusted, and I brought in some artists. Since I've been back I've brought in five or six artists, but the first was Charles Atlas.

B: How did that come about?

L: We had started working on a major book together through Regency. I got his email from Lia Gangitano at Participant, I had never even met him. I wrote to him, and he wrote me back in like an hour, saying, "Why don't you come over on Thursday?" and I just thought, "Oh god I don't want to go, I'm so scared!" I just loved his work so much. But of course I did meet with him, and in 2007 when Regency was still up and running I told him, "You're the book I'm going to focus on for the next year or two, whatever it takes." it was going to be all about this book. And then he had a lot of delays on his end, we couldn't really work on it for about a year, he had too many shows, he was busy. So it was slow. Incremental, but we did find a designer, and a writer to help him, but it was a process. And then I had to stop Regency, and it seemed like the book was just going to die. Then when they hired me back here, my first thought was, "I'm going to get them to represent Charlie, and I'm going to get them to pay for this damn book." Of course, they did pick him up--it was instant, as soon as they met him and did a visit, it was like, book him, now--but with the book, in the end, I wanted it to come out with a real press, I didn't want it to be a gallery project. So Prestel published it. It took seven years, but it did come out. I told a friend once--actually it was Jason Pickleman, I think--that it's the thing I am most proud of in my entire life, hands down, except for my kid, it's this book. It's still the book that everyone goes to when they have questions about his work, it's so exciting.

B: I've seen the book, it's incredible and so authoritative. I can easily believe it took seven years to complete. It really is a great resource, I was in and out of it all the time when I was working for the Society for Contemporary Art, at the Art Institute, when Charles Atlas was supposed to come for a lecture back in, I think it was March, before the shut down. I was so, so disappointed the day I had to call and cancel his flight.

L: Yeah, I know, I remember being at the Vaginal Davis SCA program in February, and thinking, "This is so great, in a month I'll be back with Charlie!" Of course, we know how that worked out, and I know he's rescheduled for next March, but it was still a bummer.

B: Exactly. But back to the book…

L: So the funny thing about the book was we interviewed book designers. And, do you know Miko McGinty at all?

B: Only in name.

L: She's a designer, she's done all of MoMA's books, the Guggenheim's books, like, crème de la crème. And she wanted to do this project, so we hired her. And then we had to fire her. And I think it's the only time she's been fired. It wasn't in a bad way, she just didn't understand, she kept saying, "Just send me all the material, and I'll design the book." Charlie had never made a book before, he basically needed someone to be collaborative and help design every page with him. And she basically said, "No, no, no, just send it all and I'll handle it." So we had to let her go. She got it, but the thing was, this wasn't a monograph. It was one of these hybrid artist books, and it was very personal. So we hired a design firm we've worked with a million times before and since. But it was a really special project. And now Charles is with Luhring Augustine, which is great, and when you bring an artist into a gallery, you get to work with them, which is great.

B: Who else have you brought in?

L: Let's see….Charlie, Richard Rezac, Christina Forrer....there's more, I'm sorry, I can't remember off the top of my head everyone.

B: How did you come to bring Richard Rezac on board?

L: Oh god, Richard! So I saw his show at the Renaissance Society, and I knew his work from a long time ago, and honestly, I had forgotten about it. So then I saw this show, and oh my god, it just knocked me out. A couple days later, I was at a dinner at the Art Institute, and there was this guy sitting across the way, and a whole bunch of people, so I was asking my date, "Who's this person? Who's that person?" and he's telling me, and then I said, "Who was the guy with the glasses and the tweed jacket?" and he said, "Oh, that was Richard Reszac." And I thought, ok, I have to meet this man. So I got his email, and wrote to him--and as you know, up until the pandemic, I've been in Chicago at least twice a month for over a year. I'm always there. For a while people would see me at things, and say, "What are you doing here?" and then I started getting invitations to people's birthday parties and things, because they knew I'd be around, I was getting to be a local. So I was hosting a dinner when I went back a few weeks later; a few curators, a few collectors, a few artists. And I invited Richard and his wife to join us. She couldn't come, but he came. And at the dinner, I seated him next to me, and I said, "You know, I'd really love to visit your studio sometime." So he invited me to his studio on my next visit a few weeks later, and once you set foot in that studio, it's undeniable. He's the kind of artist, where the work is so fantastic, but it only gets more fantastic once you meet him and see how he makes things. So I came home and told Roland and Lawrence, we have to, have to, absolutely have to pick him up. At first they said, "Ok, yeah, I like the work, whatever, we can talk about it in a few months." But then Lawrence was going to Chicago, and I said, "Please, just go to the studio." And he said, "Sure, I'm happy to go." And then he called me from outside the studio, and said, "Offer him a show right now." Just like that. You can't help but be enthralled by him, he's just wonderful. But that's how I got him, I just, I hunted him down.

B: Well that's the best way, if you ask me.

L: He really does fit in wonderfully with our program, too. He overlaps with so many artists we show, like Rachel Whiteread and Christopher Wool--in terms of form, in terms of how they make things. He's a great addition. And you know, his show is the one that didn't open, because of the pandemic.

B: I remember that, I looked at the online viewing version of it, and it looked great, but obviously, not the same as seeing it.

L: Well, we did open it July 8th, and ran it for two months. But that was...I mean, I can deal with almost anything. Pretty well. I could deal with the coronavirus shutting the galleries down, working from home, whatever. But I went through those four stages of grief you always hear about, I really did, over that show. At first, just total denial. I refused to accept it, and then anger, and then finally the acceptance phase. It really broke my heart, because we worked on it for a year. Richard made three visits to look at the space, and the lighting, and he's thoughtful and so considered. It felt so unfair. But in the end, we did sell a bunch of works, and I know we'll continue to, and also, now we represent him, so I know we'll have more opportunities to do good things with Richard.

B: With that in mind, can we go back and talk a bit about when you were first at Luhring, and when you started the gallery out of your home? What was the point of entry with your gallery? What first made you decide to do shows on your own, in your free time? Who were you working with then?

L: When I finished graduate school, I already had a lot of friends who were artists. I started doing studio visits, and I was seeing a lot of great work. But it just didn't make any sense for Luhring Augustine, the artists were too young, they just weren't the right fit. So I thought, I had just moved into this apartment, and I didn't own any furniture, really, so the living room became a de facto gallery space. I have to tell you, Huma Bhabha was in a show in my house in 1994.

B: Wow, really?

L: Yeah, and when I saw her retrospective at ICA Boston, the earliest works were made like six months after she showed with me! I was so proud of that. Eva Lundsager was in a show at my house, and...gee, I'd have to go back and look at the old invites. Some were artists you don't hear about so much anymore. Sarah Cain, but not the Sarah Cain you're thinking of. I did a solo show with this kooky guy, Rudy Maleczech, an Austrian fashion photographer/artist, who was just around, downtown. Everyone knew Rudy. It was really fun. But getting a taste for something always gives you a taste for something more. And I had this idea that four women, including myself were going to open a cooperative gallery. Then we could each do two shows a year, eight shows total, and pool all our money. These were women who were my friends, so there was me, Catherine Morris, who is now a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, Andrea Scott, now an editor and critic at the New Yorker, and Michelle Reyes who is the studio manager for Sean Landers. So we found a space, and we were all going to pool our tiny bits of money, and open a gallery. Then one by one, they each dropped out. They didn't have the time, or the money anymore, or whatever. And at the time, I was just like, fuck all of you, then I'm taking the space myself. And I did. That became my weekend gallery outside the house. And the artists I showed there, there were a lot. Like Phyllis Baldino, who isn't really so visible anymore, she's a video artist. Wayne Gonzalez, who I wound up marrying, I showed him there. Michelle Segre, Steve DiBenedetto, Barbara Gallucci. A lot of people I had been doing visits with for years, who just didn't click with Luhring Augustine.

B: At what point in all of this did you go full time?

L: After about two years, Casey Kaplan moved into my building, and we were the only two in there. We decided to try and find a bigger space when I was ready to go full time. And we found a space on Green Street, and moved, and split the space, did construction, had galleries next to each other on the fourth floor. That was when I really began to hate it. Like hate. Suddenly I was a full time dealer and it just wasn't any fun anymore.

B: What changed about that in returning to Luhring Augustine?

L: Well, my motivations are always for the artists. I found these great artists, and what did I do? I brought them into my living room. I had people in my home sixteen hours a week. Then making books, which was super creatively challenging for me, but was also about giving the artists an opportunity to make a book when most presses wouldn't invite them, because they weren't market sellers. Always artist motivated. And that's what it was about coming back to Luhring, who can I bring in, that I can offer this service for, and get to work with myself. I'm lucky that I've been able to bring in as many as I have.

B: You mentioned in the context of Regency, the idea of allowing the artists to take the lead in what they visualize these books and projects as being. Is that part of being artist-motivated for you? Also being, at times, artist-led?

L: I'd like to say that it was anything they wanted, but it couldn't be. And it really can't be in a gallery show either. I've learned since Regency, that your responsibility is to help them bridge the gap between the studio and the outside world. The studio, that's their domain. They should make whatever they want in there, however dumb you might think it is, or whatever. Whatever they feel they need to make, they should. But, when it comes to curating a show, they need your input, that's your responsibility, right? Bridging their work and the public. It's the same with a book. There was one artist once that I had a big argument with over their book cover. What she wanted for the cover was just not going to work at all. Even DAP was just like, we're not going to take this book with this cover. And that happened once before, but with a great cover! The cover did work, and I wanted it, and the artist wanted it, and at that point you just say, well, fuck you, then you don't get the book. But sometimes it's just a terrible idea, and so this first artist, she was never happy with the cover of her book. It was much, much more successful than what she wanted to do. Even with Charlie's book, Prestel said, "We want a picture of him on the cover." Which, I thought, was a stupid idea. But we worked it out. There's a picture of him--the back of his tshirt anyway--on the back cover. There are ways to work things out, and that's the job. You help the artist build that bridge to the public. It can't be whatever the artist wants. But it can be collaborative. I never rejected a book idea outright from an artist though. Never just said, "No, not interested, not doing that."

B: Did the artists you made books with tend to have an idea going in, then, of what the focus should be?

L: Well I remember with the little Amy Sillman, the chapbook, she said, "I have this series of drawings, I don't know what to do with them, it's called Visiting Artist. I think I might want to do something with that." And I had no preconceived ideas, I just knew I wanted it to be about works on paper. So I said, ok, let's see them, let's meet for coffee and take a look. And when she brought these drawings out, I remember, I saw them and then I couldn't lift my head off the table, I was laughing so hard. And she's looking at me and---you know when someone's laughing so hard, and you don't know why, and you're bewildered at first, but then you kind of start laughing? It was that--but I just couldn't breathe. They were so perfect. And she had just saved this gem, I felt so grateful, that I was the one who got to give her the right opportunity for that work. And it was a book. And books matter. So much. I hate digital books, hate them, I don't even call them books. Vile. Not the same. But that's the formula for working with an artist: you leave their space alone, and then when it comes to bringing them into the light of day, you take their hand and go with them.

B: Collaborative intent makes all the difference.

L: It does. And you know, I think I have one talent. And I never knew I had this talent until I started doing this. I'm really good at looking at art and conceiving the physical form in a book, how it should be presented in that format. Which is something you don't know if you can do until you try and do it. I realize that's the only thing I'm really good at. That's what I've got.

B: That is a talent though. I'm not sure you can learn it as a skill. You have to have the right kind of eye.

L: I guess so, it's some kind of sensitivity at least. I realized that I would meet with an artist, and they would start talking about what they wanted, and I would start talking about the physical form of the book, and they would always say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's it, that's just what I want." Not a marketable skill by any means, but something fun to play with for a while. I hope I get to do it again some day.

B: Has that sensibility served you particularly well these last six months, with no choice but to find usually digital, often suboptimal alternative ways of viewing art, since we can't be in the space with it?  

L: Oh god. You know when I went to MoMA last week, I cried. In the last six months, I don't think I looked at any art. I looked at all the books in my apartment, sure, all the big giant heavy Renaissance books, that have like six thousand pages, those are thrilling in their own way. But when I got to look at art again, which--apart from Richard's show--was really just at MoMA the other day for the first time, I literally cried. It is apples and oranges, this whole digital thing. It serves a purpose to let us continue our business, but it should never count as art viewing. I don't even use the language they insist we use--"online exhibition" or "online viewing rooms" it's all bullshit!

B: Websites, I hate that, they're all just websites.

L: I can't tell you how much I hate it! But! It's enabling us to keep our doors open. The real problem is, there's only one kind of work that looks good online. And I'm afraid galleries will only be drawn to showing that kind of work as long as this is an income strain. And let me tell you, it's not sculpture. It's not abstraction. It's graphic, figurative, two-dimensional work. Which is fine, but it can't be all that. I was looking at a gallery's programming for the Fall--I don't want to say who, but they have two spaces, so four shows--and it was all, all four shows, exactly that. Figurative, hard-edged, easily legible painters. Now maybe those shows were all put in place before the pandemic, but that's the work that sells online. And that really bums me out, if that's all we're supposed to show. But don't kid yourself, that's not looking at art. Don't you agree?

B: Completely. It is, as you said, something everyone on the business side has gotten on board with out of necessity. But on the side of viewership, I think a lot of people, myself included, got on board in the beginning as a desperate attempt to fill that void, to satisfy the need to look at art. But no matter how badly you want it to, it just doesn't work. And I found I have a low tolerance. I can spend literally all day in a museum, but looking at art online, my attention span expires after about thirty minutes.

L: One hundred percent, it's like, last year, I had something happen. You know I'm on instagram, and I like having a life on instagram, but I was holding up my phone to photograph a painting, and I pulled my phone down and looked at the painting and reaized, holy fuck, that looks like an entirely different painting. That's when I decided, I'm not posting art ever again. I only do it now for things like, "Come see the Richard Rezac show," but I don't go through museums clicking pictures of art. It's like night and day. The picture on your phone is not art, it's not the painting you photographed. Still, I didn't realize how much I needed to see objects again, until I went back to the museum.

B: That's funny, I have a bad habit with photographing art. By nature, I tend to be kind of an obsessive record-keeper, and whenever I see work I really like, or a traveling exhibition, or work at an art fair I know will probably go into a private collection, and I'll never see it again, I always, always, photograph it. And I revisited a lot of that for the first time during the pandemic. And while I'm still glad to have it as a record, I was surprised by how unsatisfying looking at it was. You're right, the thing you actually want to photograph is never the thing in the picture.

L: Plus, the experience walking through a museum when you're not allowed to take photos--it's always better. The record keeping thing I get--but you're losing the wandering aspect. It's like, with MoMA right now, you can make the connections across the room. You can see everything, it's so empty. I haven't been able to do that at MoMA in years. I mean, I took a picture of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, just to prove I could. I was joyous, those three hours flew by. I looked at everything in the museum. At the same time, I fear for the artists that don't make work that is internet savvy, and I do think some of it is here to stay.

B: In what way?

L: Our expectations for what should be on a website are much higher now. People want the virtual walk through, they expect presentations and videos, people talking about the work. Galleries have to keep that high bar for documentation online, we have to. People have gotten used to it. So that's fine. But the online art fairs, those make me want to put a nail gun to my head. I hate the entire idea.

B: You're far from being alone in that.

L: I know, I know no one likes this. But we want to keep the doors open, we need to sell.

B: It's a functional mechanism in that way.

L: It's a prompt, is what it is. When art advisors started writings a few days before, and said, "Hi, can we have your preview?" I just kept thinking, this makes no sense. There is no preview to a website! Yes, here, you can have the fair. There is no "preview" to a website. You're not waiting at the gates and you want a sneak peek. I can just send you the files. It's so funny. It's like we're all on the Titanic, and it's going down, and the orchestra is still playing. We're still sticking to these rituals even though the format is totally different. But it's a prompt for people to buy, and people have bought. But they bought things that were cheap, they bought things that were new, and they bought things that were two dimensional. That's it. I'm not selling any Richard Rezac's at Basel Online.

B: I hear you, in a way, I'm not sure we should still be allowed to call them art fairs.

L: I know, it's so dumb, but we'll see what happens. I think that's a business, unfortunately, that like the black and white television repairman, might be outdated fairly soon. I think everything we're experiencing is antithetical to the idea of an art fair. They're going to have to be nimble, they're going to have to pivot, you know, and come up with something else, because, this isn't enough.

B: Oh god, don't say that. You're right, but I don't want to think about losing art fairs for good.

L: Me too, I love going to art fairs. I love working in the booth, I love walking around talking to people, I love planning my outfits, going to the dinners, I love all of it. But art fairs are expensive motherfuckers. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars doing fairs, which is guaranteed output, with no guaranteed return. You know. It's never cheaper to go to Basel than it was the year before. And you run the risk that you could only make half the money back, or nothing. It's a crazy business.

B: True, everytime, it's a risk. But I miss it, I really miss working in that environment. Not having Expo Chicago this year is killing me.

L: I love Expo, it's actually my favorite fair. I just saw it on my calendar, when I went to check what time you and I were talking. But see, with Expo, Tony gets it, he pivots. He'll be fine.

B: He does, it seems like it's handled. But I still miss--and this conversation keeps happening with everyone I have seen lately--what I always call the summer camp effect, the people who I only see at art fairs, that I only get to see a few times a year. And looking at art together and going to all the parties, the whole thing.

L: Yeah, I know what you mean, I have lots of friends like that. Dealers who work in other cities, who I only see at art fairs. I'm sure there's some romance story--not that I have one--of people who are only together once a year, every Basel! I'm sure of it. Which is part of this community, that's always been so reliable and now it's just gone. And with Miami Basel finally cancelling last week--and now they're asking us for money for Basel Hong Kong!

B: You're kidding!

L: No! Really, it's like, you really need to all talk to each other, because clearly this is not happening. I'm just hopeful that we don't all end up scrabbling for the same figurative painter, you know? That this gives us freedom instead of constriction. I felt like in the early '90s at Luhring and then at my own place, when no one was buying anything, the great thing was, you could show whatever you wanted, because you knew you weren't going to sell anything anyway. There's such beautiful freedom in that. And I'm not saying we're in the same place as the market was then. Then, the market had really flatlined, but it lets you follow your gut and do what you love. And I just hope people move forward doing more of that, and that this digital thing doesn't keep us all strapped to the same kind of work. It would just be devastating, so I guess we'll see. And it's not like the market is dead yet, you can still sell a number of things. It's about how the dealers see their responsibility to their artists. And if they stick with the artists that are almost impossible to sell digitally, and they still give them shows, and they still give them opportunities. That's what I'm holding out for. Fingers crossed.

01 Magazine
New York
Bianca Bova
June Newton
SpotifyApple Podcasts

Interview with Photographer George Holz

George Holz, Heather Graham at the Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles, 1998

B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?

G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career

one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.

B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?

G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.  

B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?

G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.

B: What made you start work on that series?

G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.

B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.

G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.

B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.

G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.

B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?

G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.

B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.

G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.

B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?

George Holz, Joaquin Phoenix, New York, 1996

G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.

B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?

G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.

B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.

G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.

B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?

G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.

B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?

G: Yes, around forty years.

B: Companion volumes.

G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.

George Holz, Kadijah in the shower at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 2002

B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.

G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.

B: What else is on deck for you?

G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.

B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.

G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.

B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.

G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.

B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.

G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.

George Holz, Tenley with peaches, Woodland Valley, 2010

Follow George Holz on Instagram and through his website.



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