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Gavin Brown closes his gallery and joins forces with Barbara Gladstone
Artist Hope Atherton, second from right, and Gavin Brown, right, at the Proenza Schouler store opening on Madison Avenue. Robert Wright/The New York Times.

by Jason Farago

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, one of the most consistently provocative contemporary art galleries in Manhattan, will close after 26 years. Its founder, British artist-turned-dealer Gavin Brown, will become a partner in Gladstone Gallery, which announced the merger.

Gladstone will also represent 10 artists who showed with Brown’s gallery.

The closing of Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, known as GBE, represents the most significant upheaval to the New York art market since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in shuttered art spaces, cratered sales and calamitous job losses.

The gallery, closed to the public since March, has presented art in online viewing rooms and at digital fairs, but those measures could not offset substantial declines in revenue. By this summer, with no recovery in sight, Brown decided to close his gallery, which forged the careers of artists like Peter Doig, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Elizabeth Peyton, and which flaunted a certain rebelliousness even as it became one of the more established names in the global art world.

The partnership between Brown and Gladstone Gallery, founded by Barbara Gladstone, was first reported by Artnet News.

“It’s been a very rapid process,” Brown said in an interview. “Barbara is someone I’ve held in esteem for three decades. I remember, vividly, seeing the Matthew Barney show on Greene Street,” he said, alluding to the New York debut of that American artist, which Gladstone presented in 1991. “She follows artists, is led by artists; she leads an artist-centered gallery.”

Brown said he and Gladstone “have a mutual disillusionment with the art world as it stands at the moment.”

“So it was natural,” he added, “to be in that conversation with her, and when COVID hit, that situation sharpened.”

Their talks accelerated, Brown said, after Art Basel canceled its principal art fair in Switzerland in June. “It was clear that the economy of the art world was so different, and that conversation became very concrete,” he said.

Gladstone, whose gallery has three locations in New York and one in Brussels, echoed Brown’s contention that the art market was at a turning point.

“I think that this moment in history is an important time to think of new possibilities in the art world,” she said in a statement. “This new alliance with Gavin feels natural, evolutionary and auspicious.”

The 10 artists joining Brown at Gladstone are performance art trailblazer Joan Jonas; video artists Ed Atkins, Arthur Jafa and Rachel Rose; photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier; painters Kerstin Brätsch, Alex Katz and Frances Stark; and Tiravanija and Marc Leckey, both unclassifiable polymaths.

They constitute only a small fraction of the artists on the GBE roster. Many others, including Los Angeles painter Laura Owens and Belgian provocateurs Jos de Gruyter and Harald Thys, will not be going along to the Gladstone Gallery.

Brown, 52, trained as an artist at the Chelsea College of Arts in London. In 1988 he came to New York, where he enrolled in the Whitney Independent Study Program, worked at 303 Gallery and staged pop-up exhibitions everywhere from his Upper West Side living room to the Chelsea Hotel.

He opened Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in 1994 in a minuscule storefront near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, where he staged exhibitions by Catherine Opie, Steven Pippin and Tiravanija, who would offer free soup to gallerygoers.

GBE later moved to a warehouse on Greenwich Street, and as the gallery grew it began to work with more established artists, such as Katz and Arte Povera pioneer Jannis Kounellis.

When Brown lost the lease on his space on Greenwich Street, he used the occasion to restage one of Kounellis’ most renowned artworks: “12 Horses,” from 1969, featuring the horses munching hay.

Brown also ran a small artists’ bar, Passerby, with a light-up dance floor designed by Polish artist Piotr Uklanski, which became a stamping ground for artists, curators and writers in the late 1990s and 2000s. The bar itself hosted exhibitions in an adjacent room; one memorable group show there was “Drunk vs. Stoned,” which matched participants to either of those two forms of intoxication.

The GBE ethos, at once professional and scruffy, endured when the gallery moved in 2016 to a huge four-story space in Harlem — a relocation that felt like a pointed rebuke of the Chelsea art world. In November 2016, a week after the election of President Donald Trump, the gallery premiered Jafa’s “Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death,” an arrhythmic video collage of Black American joy and violence, which drew lines around the block.

Brown’s gallery, while adventurous, was no punk endeavor: It was a regular participant at fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, and presented big-ticket painting alongside uncollectable experiments. But midsize dealerships like GBE were already being squeezed in recent years, as the art market has grown into a global sales network and a handful of major galleries have taken a greater percentage of total market share.

The closing of GBE solidifies a tendency in the art world — sometimes called “grow or go” — that has left midtier spaces ever more endangered and has required even well-established dealers like Gladstone to expand to keep pace.

Brown is skeptical whether the art market’s frenetic pace can or should resume once the pandemic subsides, and he is carrying his doubts with him to Gladstone.

“I think we both know that there needs to be something more, or something else, especially now,” he said. “To imagine we can all start again with business as usual is a collective delusion.

“In that sense, I think that perhaps the timing of this is good,” he said. “The challenge is the general anxiety about the state of this country, politically and socially and spiritually. There’s a wish for things to shift. I think there’s a hunger, in contrast to everyone’s current lived experience, to be connected. Or to live inside a more visceral, present reality.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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