Gagosian Open takes art outside the white cube
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With 19 galleries in seven countries, bricks and mortar are hardly an issue for Larry Gagosian. So when the US dealer decided to close his Britannia Street space in north London this summer after 20 years and let developers take over the site, instead of finding another building, his team came up with something altogether less permanent — and potentially far more exciting.
Under the banner Gagosian Open, the mega-gallery will operate more like an off-site project space, hosting temporary exhibitions in empty buildings and outdoor locations. The nimble approach means Gagosian can cater to more ambitious proposals that don’t fit the white-cube mould. “Rather than squeezing artists’ ideas into our footprint or a given schedule, this allows for greater freedom,” says Stefan Ratibor, a senior director at the gallery.
An old Home Office building in Vauxhall, a former Joe & the Juice in a brutalist building in the City and an abandoned factory in north London were among the buildings Ratibor and his team surveyed before settling on a Grade II-listed Georgian house in Spitalfields, east London, for the first show. Now owned by the Truman Brewery, 4 Princelet Street was originally constructed in 1723, home to Huguenot refugees, and has since housed migrant families from Ireland, Poland and Russia. In recent years, Jewish immigrants have given way to Spitalfields’ Bangladeshi community.
It was this history that prompted the gallery to approach the estate of Christo, an artist who himself identified as an outsider, having escaped communist-ruled Bulgaria in 1956, first travelling to Prague before being smuggled on a train to Vienna. From there he went to Geneva and then Paris before eventually settling in New York where he took American citizenship in the early 1970s.
“Christo was stateless for 17 years,” says Vladimir Yavachev, the artist’s nephew and a project director for the foundation that has managed the estate since Christo’s death in 2020. “This idea of the eternal wanderer, or l’étranger, stayed with him his whole life.”
The exhibition is arranged over four floors of the house, whose peeling dusky pink exterior is a popular photography spot with tourists. Inside, the building is equally ungentrified. “The house has been frozen in time,” says Elena Geuna, the curator of the show, who was also behind Damien Hirst’s ambitious Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable, held at François Pinault’s two Venice palazzos in 2017.
Around 20 of Christo’s early wrapped pieces, many of them domestic objects shrouded in fabric, canvas or plastic sheets, have been installed, appearing either as if “they’re about to depart, or have been left to quietly occupy a corner of this empty house”, Geuna says.
Dating from between 1958 — the year Christo arrived in Paris — and the late 1970s, sculptures on show include “Dolly” (1964) and “Package on a Table” (1961). The “verticality and lightness” of the latter work suggest Christo could have been inspired by a visit to Alberto Giacometti’s studio in Paris in 1959, Geuna says. On the third floor, a pair of blue shoes, wrapped in plastic, secured with twine and rubber cord and owned by Christo’s wife and life-long collaborator, Jeanne-Claude, are on show to the public for the first time.
With all the hallmarks of a show one might stumble upon at the Venice Biennale, it is still a commercial venture and works are for sale. Prices range from €120,000 to €1.6mn.
The off-site nature of the exhibition would have appealed to Christo, according to his nephew. “Christo’s commitment to art in public spaces was so important,” Yavachev says. “He loved for the audience to not be confronted with the clinical environment of a gallery or museum.” The show is open to the public without appointment, seven days a week.
Christo’s estate first worked with Gagosian last June, mounting an exhibition in the gallery’s Paris space, though Larry Gagosian’s relationship with the artist dates back to 1976, when the dealer volunteered to help erect “Running Fence”, digging holes for poles that supported a 24.5-mile wall of white fabric installed in northern California. In August this year, meanwhile, Gagosian opened a show of Christo’s sculptural works and drawings in Basel, marking 25 years since Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped 178 trees at the Fondation Beyeler in 55,000 sq m of fabric.
In keeping with Christo’s way of working, the artist’s estate is not represented exclusively by Gagosian. Such an arrangement suits Gagosian Open, Ratibor says, noting that artists outside of the gallery’s stable will be part of the programme. New commissions will also be welcomed. “It could work well for a young artist who has found it hard to get support for a complex installation or film project,” Ratibor adds. The next project is slated for London in the spring. The new venture will not be restricted to cities in which Gagosian already operates, however.
Despite excitement for the project among artists and staff alike, Ratibor stresses the importance of the traditional gallery model. “We never say never; if another bricks and mortar opportunity were to come along in London, we’d look at it,” he says. For now at least, though, Gagosian is thinking outside the box.
October 6-22, gagosian.com