In her first exhibition at the Paula Cooper Gallery in Chelsea, the painter Cecily Brown showed a large triptych: “A Day! Help! Help! Another Day! “(2016). The 33-foot-wide work, the title of which is taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson, was an energetic field of colorful markings typical of Brown’s expressionist style.
According to their usual preference, it was placed relatively high on the wall. However, the process was rerouted by Cooper himself, a veteran of the art world who has had her own gallery for 53 years.
Paula came in and said, ‘No, no, it has to go deeper. You have to immerse yourself in the painting, ”recalls Brown. “She was so right. Now I’m going to hang it lower so you can step inside. “
Cooper’s eye – and her ability to convince others that she is right and that she is guarding artists along the way – is one of the reasons Brown signed up to work with Cooper after a stint at Gagosian and a brief hiatus with no dealers She called a “female legend”.
The legend turned 83 in March, and this month Cooper announces four new partners in their gallery: Steve Henry, its director, has won as a senior partner; her son Lucas Cooper, a former record manager who will be a managing partner; and two longtime associates, Alexis Johnson and Anthony Allen.
At the same time, the gallery intends to turn a seasonal pop-up in Palm Beach, Florida, into a year-round branch that would be the first outside of New York at a time when some galleries have many branches. The expansion shows the influence of Henry who led the project.
Last month, Cooper was relaxed and frank as she discussed these decisions in a back room of her temporary gallery on West 26th Street. She has two permanent spaces on West 21st Street: her flagship, established in 1996, which is currently closed for construction, and another that has reopened after a fire.
“I’m tired and I’ve never loved the social part,” said Cooper, emphasizing that she is stepping back but not pulling back. “I gradually stopped doing certain things.” She added that the partnership’s evolution was “organic,” a natural evolution from the way she has worked with these four people for years.
Although she had a mild bout of Covid in December, which she said she mostly “slept through,” Cooper added that she was now in good health and had received a vaccine. So does her husband, the editor and publisher Jack Macrae. (The couple opened a bookstore on 10th Avenue in Chelsea in 2003 with 192 books.)
From here she has two interests: “Working with artists and installing.” She added, “Installing shows is my big love.” She prefers to let the works have some air around her – no crowding on the walls.
Few dealers have been around for so long. Cooper opened the first gallery in SoHo in 1968, making it the iconic art district of the 1970s and 1980s. then she did the same with Chelsea in the mid-1990s.
Now Cooper has decided to make a carefully considered handover rather than just calling it complete. The direction of their gallery, which is not mega big but big, is a telling data point for the state of the art, especially given Metro Pictures’ recent announcement on West 24th Street that it would close after more than 40 years.
“I’m very sorry that Metro is closing,” said Cooper. “They were such a beautiful, strong, straight gallery – no fooling around. It’s the end of an era. “
Cooper has a reputation for not suffering fools. “I’m so judgmental,” she said with a laugh. Her son Lucas, who came to the gallery in 2013, put it this way, “I don’t know if it’s tough.” He stopped. “But I wouldn’t mess with her.”
The shutdown of Metro Pictures, according to Cooper, raises questions about the future of the “medium-sized gallery that could thrive.”
From the start, “I didn’t want to be a big company,” she said. “The long-term strategy was to remain ‘a gentleman art dealer’. “The mega gallery was never their role model. “If I wanted to be a mega-thing, I wouldn’t go for art,” she said, noting that she was toying with opening a Paris office around 1980 but decided against it because of the challenging logistics.
Cooper made a name for herself by showing and selling minimalist and conceptual art as well as those movements were just getting underway. She was one of the pioneers in teaching collectors that the idea for a work – like a set of Sol LeWitt’s instructions for his wall drawings done by someone else – had value, not just the physical object. It revolutionized art in the 1960s and 1970s.
Your now more varied roster still has a heavy conceptual burden. Adam D. Weinberg, the director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said Ms. Cooper’s cast is “cerebral, but not dry”.
These include Christian Marclay, famous for his 24-hour film montage “The Clock”, the sculptor Carl Andre and the goods from LeWitt and the photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, known for their strict water tower pictures.
“I think we’re showing hard stuff,” said Cooper. “That means people have to take their time and think about it.” The show “No More Than Three Other Times”, which opened on April 24, features three generations of conceptual artists: Douglas Huebler, Sherrie Levine and Walid Raad.
Weinberg recalled going to her SoHo gallery in his college days in the 1970s. “It made me fall in love with minimal and conceptual work,” said the director. “It was the first time I’ve seen Sol LeWitt’s work.”
As Weinberg put it, “She curated her followers as carefully as her shows.”
Henry has been a director since 1998 after meeting Cooper while working for Los Angeles gallery owner Margo Leavin, with whom Cooper shared artist. He said the fact that he and Johnson, two of the four new partners, are blacks is “quite significant” since “there were five blacks in the art world to begin with”.
He added, “I think it has changed remarkably since then. There is now a much stronger presence of colored people in the art world. “
Henry said he was glad Cooper “took a chance on a fresh young black kid”; They bonded from the beginning through their appreciation of the artists Marclay and Rudolf Stingel. He put his own stamp on the gallery by suggesting the inclusion of filmmaker Ja’Tovia Gary, among other things.
“The idea of the radical is in our DNA,” said Henry.
Cooper, born in Paula Johnson and raised in Massachusetts, got her first job in a New York gallery in 1959. In 1964 she briefly opened her own room, but it was short-lived. So was a first marriage. “My first husband didn’t allow me to work, so I stopped getting married,” she told the Times in 2016. (She remarried Neil Cooper, a music producer and record label founder, and they divorced in the 1980s) .
From 1965 to 1967 she had a job that embodied the loose zeitgeist and ran the Park Place Gallery, a cooperative. Her bosses were 10 artists, including the sculptors Robert Grosvenor and Mark di Suvero, who she is now both showing.
“They call it ‘taste,” said di Suvero, “but it responds to work, and Paula has a great capacity for it.”
The tenacious quality that is required for success in business was also evident. Di Suvero said, “She was able to hold this crazy group of artists together, which wasn’t easy.” In particular, she found some donors to help, as di Suvero said there was “virtually no sales”.
Finally, in 1968, Cooper opened the gallery that still bears her name on Prince Street (it later moved to Wooster Street). At the time, a trader wasn’t a unicorn – Bertha Schaefer, Martha Jackson, Betty Parsons, and Joan Washburn were active – but “people have treated you so condescendingly,” she said. “A woman couldn’t be a great trader, she was secondary.” The dealer Dick Bellamy, she recalled, “patted my head.” This despite the fact that she was 30 years old and had two children when she opened her doors.
And for those outside of the art world, gallery ownership was a socially acceptable profession for a woman. “The arts were ‘clean hands’,” she said. “Ladies could deal with such things.”
Cooper’s political stance quickly calmed the idea that she would show low-key art. Their first exhibition was specifically against Vietnam.
“I had friends who didn’t speak to me, I was so against the war,” she recalled. Nor did she take any of the income for herself and split it between the artists and the anti-war causes. She has given first or early shows to Jennifer Bartlett, Lynda Benglis, Jonathan Borofsky, Elizabeth Murray, Joel Shapiro and Robert Gober. Other traders have picked up on their successes. Cooper lost Gober and Tony Smith’s estate to Matthew Marks; and she lost Murray and Donald Judd to pace (who later saw her go elsewhere).
“Artists are only stolen when they are fine,” she said.
Cooper’s lack of interest in expanding the gallery may have been a factor in some departures, though she had “never, never” regrets about her journey.
And the losses hurt: Gober’s crotch “broke my heart,” she said, noting that she “doesn’t hold it against” the artists or the other dealers. “Sometimes they just want a different experience,” said Cooper. She added that “sometimes they come back too.”
Rachel Uffner, a younger retailer who opened her gallery in 2008, said she saw something significant in Cecily Brown and multimedia maker Tauba Auerbach joining Paula Cooper over the past decade.
“These are strong artists who seem to have sought this relationship as a kind of refuge from the market,” said Uffner.
Arne Glimcher, Pace’s founder, also 83, is perhaps the only person with similar longevity in the art business. A famous 1970 Vogue group photo showcasing emerging New York dealerships included him and Cooper, the only woman in the group.
In the long run, Glimcher praised Cooper’s adaptability after making a name for herself with minimal and conceptual work. “She was much more open to other styles in the later half of her career,” he said.
Reflecting on her own track record in the business, Cooper said, “I can’t think of any artists I’ve stolen.”
But she smiled as she added, “Maybe that will change.”