Jack Shainman Gallery: A Vision Beyond Borders

BY Paul Laster / Sep 29 2016 / 20:28 PM

Known for its multicultural approach and its display of art tackling challenging subjects, New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery includes artists from Africa and the Middle East among its roster. Paul Laster meets the passionate gallerist in New York

Jack Shainman Gallery: A Vision Beyond Borders
An installation view of Vibha Galhotra’s 'Absur-City-Pity-Dity' at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, 2015

One of New York’s most diverse and respected art galleries, Jack Shainman Gallery got its start in Washington, DC in 1984. Founded by the Massachusetts-born Shainman, who had worked briefly at another gallery in the city, and Canadian artist Claude Simard, the gallery exhibited work by Arnold Mesches, Jack Goldstein and Pierre Dorian, whom it still represents.

“It was tough going in Washington, DC, and we wanted the gallery to be a real contender, so in 1986 we moved it to New York City’s East Village neighbourhood, which was an epicenter for new art at the time,” Shainman recently told us by phone from his farm in Upstate New York.

Thirty years later, the gallery has proven itself to be a contender over and over again. It now has three impressive spaces and represents a stable of art stars, including El Anatsui, Nick Cave, Hayv Kahraman, Tallur L.N., Kerry James Marshall, Richard Mosse, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Malick Sidibe, Susana Solano, Hank Willis Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The gallery, however, didn’t get to this point overnight. In 1988, it relocated to the prestigious New York neighbourhood of SoHo, which was then home to the city’s leading art galleries. There, Shainman showed the celebrated Canadian artists Betty Goodwin, Micah Lexier and Michael Snow, along with such up-and-coming European artists as Guillaume Bijl and Isa Genzken.

It was also in SoHo that the gallery began exhibiting the African-American artist Kerry James Marshall, a 1997 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and started showing art from Africa  – with the first exhibition being a cabinet of curiosities, which mixed African artifacts with contemporary Western art.

An exhibition view of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York 

After ten years in SoHo, the neighbourhood had changed into a chic center for not only art, but also fashion and design, which caused the rents to soar and the ambience to seem more like a shopping mall than an oasis for art. Galleries started shifting to Chelsea and – after reluctantly considering a move – Shainman found a new space on West 20th Street, which is still the gallery’s home base.

In Chelsea, the gallery expanded its interest in African art to include contemporary work. Zwelethu Mthethwa had his first solo exhibition at Shainman in 2000; Malick Sidibe, who had made his American debut at Deitch Projects in 1999, joined the gallery in 2002; and in 2008 Shainman began representing El Anatsui, after a remarkable recommendation from the Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, who has organized countless international survey shows, including Documenta 11 in 2002 and the 56th Venice Biennale last year.

The gallery’s roster of African artists grew one-by-one, with Kay Hassan, Anton Kannemeyer, Meleko Mokgpsi, Odili Donald Odita, Toyin Ojih Odutola and Claudette Schreuders eventually joining it. “It wasn’t planned,” Shainman shared. “It was just where our hearts and minds led us. It wasn’t like we thought there was a market to tap; it was more the opposite, in that we had to familiarise people with the work before they became interested.”

The gallery’s fascination with work outside the Western canon of art soon took co-founder Claude Simard to another part of the developing art world, India. Simard, an artist who had been exhibited and collected internationally before becoming too deeply involved with the gallery, travelled to India to bring the emerging work of Vibha Galhotra, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Tallur L.N., and T.V. Santhosh to a New York audience. Shainman added The School, a 30,000 square-foot exhibition space in Upstate New York, in 2014 (just weeks before Simard’s sudden death at age 57).

Jack Shainman. Photography by Jackie Nickerson Courtesy of Jack Shainman, New York

Simultaneously, Shainman extended the galleries aesthetic reach to include the Middle East, with exhibitions by the Israeli artists Adi Nes and Nir Hod, and later the Iraqi painter and sculptor Hayv Kahraman. “You follow your heart; you follow your eye,” Shainman says,

“I always say take me to the artist that hasn’t been seen. You’re always looking, not looking; but it’s being open enough to something so that when you do see it you recognise it"

He says, “Claude and I would have preferred to have been collectors. If I feel it and want it and have to have it, that’s the key for me.”

The mega-art-collector Don Rubell introduced Shainman to the work of Kahraman. He gave the gallerist the tip at the opening of an art fair. In a busy moment he told Shainman to write down her name and when he returned to his room that night he did a Google search and was immediately attracted to her symbolic work.

A refugee of the first Gulf War, Kahraman immigrated to Sweden with her family before eventually making her way to the United States and Los Angeles, where she currently lives and works. Her first solo show in 2013 at the gallery dealt with disenfranchisement through paintings on wood panels of floor plans from houses in Baghdad, while her second exhibition with Shainman was about things she wanted to tell her new daughter about being Iraqi and her third solo outing  – currently on view at Jack Shainman Gallery’s The School in Kinderhook, New York – adds an element of sound to her paintings as a remembrance of the sirens of war that she barely escaped in her youth.

Shainman added The School, a 30,000 square-foot exhibition space in Upstate New York, in 2014. A former high school, The School is home to the gallery’s private collection and serves as a venue for special exhibitions. Renovated by the late Spanish architect Antonio Jiménez Torrecillas, who had designed two major museums in Granada, Spain.

“The School is a life dream,” Shainman reflected. “As I previously mentioned, I have always been a collector. I love buying art. I had a farm in the country, which had also been a life dream, and I wanted a place nearby to store my collection and be able to see it, install it and create relationships between the different works. Plus, many of our artists, such as El Anatsui, work on a large scale and we needed a proper space to view it.”

Like the gallery’s second Chelsea space, which it added on West 24th Street in 2012, The School gives more flexibility to the exhibition programme – allowing artists the opportunity to experiment with something new and expand their vision, and the gallery’s vision, too.  When asked about that vision, Shainman said, “We create a platform for the artists, where the artists can express themselves, express their ideas freely. I try to give my artists the support that they need so that they can realise their dreams, too.”

For further information visit Jackshainman.com

This article originally appears in the autumn 2016 issue of Harper's Bazaar Art.