Contemporary art can be shown to advantage in a variety of settings from modern to historic and two new galleries – within walking distance of each other in Mayfair, London – reinforce this, adding to the variety of international art spaces in the city, but also in their own way breaking current trends in galley design.
In October, the auction house Phillips opened its new HQ in Berkeley Square, London which includes an expansive double-height gallery space over most of the ground floor, with floor to ceiling windows that allows light into the gallery and also allows the visitor outside to be teased by the exhibition inside. Most galleries have discrete exteriors, keeping light out and maximising the amount of internal walls for display, with an entrance that reinforces the impression that visitors are entering a temple of art, whether the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square or the Saatchi in Chelsea. The constraints of Mayfair properties mean that most galleries have small street frontages, hiding deep spaces behind. In contrast, Phillips gallery space on a prominent corner of Berkeley Square breaks new ground and positively attracts visitors in; apparently in the first four days, 1000 people visited the gallery space.
The new space opened with an exhibition of contemporary sculpture; currently it is showing the photography of Steven Meisel and the space works well for both. Caroline Roux in the Daily Telegraph writes:
“We’re trying to blur the lines between being an exhibition space and an auction house here,” says Henry Allsopp, Phillips international director of contemporary and Latin American art, as he waltzes through a show of contemporary sculpture (A Very Short History of Contemporary Sculpture), curated by renowned Italian art curator Francesco Bonami, where a Charles Ray outsized figure of a small boy in powder blue shorts somehow sits comfortably between a hyper minimalist Sol Lewitt , a sensational series of Donald Judd boxes that climb up the wall and a scarily life-like delivery man by Duane Hanson. “Apparently Charles Ray once said he wanted to be in a show with Donald Judd and Duane Hanson,” announces Allsopp. “I bet he never thought it would happen.”
In contrast to this light contemporary design, 3 Grafton Street in Mayfair has a traditional discrete entrance and elaborate historic interiors. This is the antithesis of the contemporary designs of stripped pine or concrete floors with plain white walls and tracks of spotlights. Designed by Sir Robert Taylor, architect of the Bank of England, for the Duke of Grafton in 1767, the new gallery is a collaboration between de Pury de Pury and Kasia Kulczyk and will host three shows a year, the first of which is COLOUR-LIGHT-SPACE, the first major exhibition in the UK of one of Poland’s most important living artists, Wojciech Fangor. The historic interiors provide a rich setting for thirty Op Art paintings from the 1960’s and 1970’s from private collections from around the world.
“The exhibition of Fangor in a beautiful Georgian townhouse proves that the marriage between contemporary art and old architecture can be very successful, and the key is to mix quality with quality,” says Simon de Pury. “What could initially be perceived as two very contrasting things can in fact mutually enhance each other: Seeing great Old Master paintings, Renaissance bronzes, or 18th-century furniture in a white-cube environment can be equally exciting and stimulating. Seeing an artwork outside of its habitual environment makes you look at it differently and may make you appreciate it even more.”
Edwin Heathcote writing in the Financial Times highlights how the Phillips gallery is part of an international trend by auction houses to widen their remit and compete with museums and galleries, both private and public, as seen in London with the new S|2 gallery by Sotheby’s which currently has an extensive exhibition of the work of Italian artist Edoarda Emilia Maino, more commonly known as Dadamaino.
What the new gallery designs illustrate is that contemporary art can be shown in a variety of interiors, but that the sense of place or identity of the space is important to enhance the appreciation of the art, especially with competitive commercial galleries.