MAUREEN PALEY: London Borough of Tower Hamlets

There is something attractive about the year 1984. For one, the Orwellian year of doom is irresistible to musicians. David Bowie sang about it in 1974, in a song that Tina Turner saw fit to cover on Private Dancer a decade later. Both the Eurythmics and Van Halen sang about 1984 in 1984 also. Later, the obsession continued into more obscure realms – an Agnostic Front side project named an album after it in 2005. Such is the musical je ne sais quoi of the year of the Macintosh, the year of my birth, and the year that the New York-born gallerist MAUREEN PALEY founded Interim Arts in London’s East End, in a derelict building on Beck Road.

It’s an utterly false notion, and one that has passed the lips of more than a few of my fellow expatriates, that the best Americans are the ones living “over here.” But what is true is that the best of them profess a certain internationalism – not to be confused with cosmopolitanism, a distinction easily forgotten in the hustle and bustle of a worldwide art world. Being cosmopolitan is the easy part – it means you’ve traveled widely, lived in global capitals and may get by in more than one continental language. Internationalism is something extra. It’s a celebration not only of our famous “melting pot,” but of the diversity and energy of its ingredients, pre- and post-melt. It’s not just being cultured, it’s being curious – hungry, even. Maureen Paley is a rare example of both – a cosmopolitan criticality with an international hunger, and a side of genuineness: the stuff the original pioneers were made of. It might be that very attitude that has gotten both gallerist and gallery, now simply known as Maureen Paley, and located in a former light factory on Herald Street, through more than one paradigm shift. The East End has changed dramatically, the art economy as we know it has seemingly completed its first life cycle, coming into being and returning to dust within a few decades, and all this Paley has watched from her gallery door – or has she rather in part propelled it? Regardless, there is no doubt that in the hands of people like Paley – and her inspiring roster of artists, names that invoke a rare balance of youthfulness, iconoclasm and rigor – a phoenix-like resurrection of the glowing geist of the art world may well be possible in this century.


Donald Urquhart, PaleyWOOD, 2006. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

VICTORIA CAMBLIN: What ever led a young American to the East End 30 years ago?

MAUREEN PALEY: Well, I had gotten into some British and European artists in college – Joseph Beuys, Richard Hamilton, Gilbert & George, things that were considered European esoterica at the time. So in 1977, I left the States and came for what I thought was going to be one year in Europe, traveling around with my then husband. At the very start of coming here, I went to Fournier Street – Gilbert & George would stamp their Fournier Street address all over their work, and I went there because I wanted to see what their house looked like. I was literally this little ex-student, standing on Fournier Street in the East End, just off Brick Lane. Art had led me to this neighborhood.

What made you stay beyond that first year?

The punk scene was very active at that time, and I was really interested in music, in the club life, in all of the activities around what was considered to be punk in those days. I was fascinated by John Peel’s sessions with musicians. You had to go and see every concert that the Clash did, Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, or the Sex Pistols! So I thought it would be great to go to the Royal College of Art, study a little bit longer, and get my MA. At the same time I was given, what I thought was going to be a short-life house, this derelict space in the East End – which is where I eventually first set up my gallery in 1984. I then had this experience of never having come here to set up a gallery, not having worked in a gallery in New York, never having thought of things in terms of “the art world,” but simply being interested in art – looking at everything you could possibly see, taking trips to see art in Cologne, in Paris – and feeling that I was just immersing myself in something other than the New York art world. Which, because of all the activity that I’d grown up around, seemed to be the center of the universe. But I was actually discovering that there were other universes, even then. And having immersed myself in the culture and being very involved in the opening of nearly every club, going to every event, I wasn’t really an outsider when I set up my space. I was only a “face” – I wasn’t a “name,” I didn’t do anything – but I did immerse myself.

To what extent was this sort of punk interest present in the gallery, initially?

I wasn’t really reflecting any of that in what the gallery was doing, interestingly. I was approaching well-known artists from the beginning, and really having a huge success rate – because I had had this classical training in the States on the one hand, and because I was competing with no other galleries doing that in the East End, or even all of London. I mean, now you have a whole scene, but then, it was sort of just me and the Whitechapel. I was not considered to be commercial, and I was very excited about that because the sky was the limit in terms of people I could ask to show. A lot of the early exhibitions were really very dynamic, often group shows with many different people.

So you were operating a transatlantic platform of sorts?

Not only transatlantic, also trans-European. There was a sense of trying to integrate people working here, with people who were abroad. And not only did I show the work, I really brought people over, made sure they were coming to London. I was quite excited about this sense of introducing the material, of pioneering and taking a risk. And there were things that I brought over – like Fischli & Weiss’ black rubber objects – which still interest people today.

It just seems so rare for a born and bred New Yorker to want to permanently leave New York – I’ve seen people become physically ill from staying away from the city for more than a week or so. What makes you different?

I think I was young enough! I hadn’t yet become entrenched in New York, or begun to feel that was the benchmark. Plus there was some synergy between my age then and the scene, something specific about what was going on that really interested me – something about the edge over here. And I always used to say that I preferred the Pistols to the Ramones.

Shelly Duvall & Steve Rubell at Studio 54

Shelley Duvall & Steve Rubell at Studio 54

But New York at the time was pretty happening, too, no?

By all rights I should have gone straight back to New York and set up there. Of course I had gone back to visit – I saw Madonna at Danceteria, I saw Shelley Duvall at Studio 54. I would go to the galleries on the Lower East Side; I would go to Pat Hearn’s space, Colin de Land’s space, and Jay Gorney’s space – and I thought, well maybe I’ll bring some of that energy back to London. I never imagined I would do anything for more than a year here, two years there. Then it becomes a lifetime, although it wasn’t planned that way.

What’s your family’s background, if I may ask – have they been in the US for ages? When did they come over?

They’re actually first-generation American. Their parents were part of a whole migration from Russia/Poland before WWI, and they grew up, were brilliant, and did what they could to bring up children who then went on to Ivy League schools.

These are the incredible people running New York.

And who are traveling the world and communicating and doing things. My parents spoke English straight away, kind of dismissed their early roots, and had nothing to do with their parents who couldn’t speak English. They were out there learning, soaking up as much energy as they could. The world was their oyster and they could do anything, even though they grew up out of hardship. So for this to be possible, and for them to be so positive, is also part of why I can be a pioneer. I come from pioneering stock.

To what extent did you actually feel like a “pioneer” at the time?

“The East End has always been the East End – it’s always had its character.

Well, the East End has always been the East End – it’s always had its character. As an art outpost it tended to be a place where artists found studios, but it didn’t really have the sense that there would be loads of galleries here. Still, there was tremendous possibility in this area; there was something about it that was hard to define that appealed to me. I would walk around saying, “I think Rivington Street is interesting; I like Curtain Road; I think St. John street is kind of great”— sort of starting outside Smithfi eld Market and moving down towards Spitalfields Market. It’s like having an invisible dousing rod, a divining spirit, but you don’t even realize you do, and picking streets you wager are going to become gold, if not platinum.

It seems that this theme of a kind of energetic attraction to places and buildings is reflected in the work of some of your artists – like Lars Laumann, who has a show opening here in June, and whose piece at the Berlin Biennial last year – a film about the woman who fell in love with and married the Berlin Wall – was on some level about the different ways people relate to objects, to architecture —

It’s interesting – when you bring energy to a place, you generate a whole new energy. And I like that our area here has that. I think that Hotel and Herald Street are doing good work, and there’s all the activity of Vyner Street – people don’t come to only see me … Success is in some ways measured by the consensus on what you’re doing. What’s nice is when there’s a collective energy that comes to something, and that energy is understood by other people, not just yourself. And in many ways I’ve been following the energy of my artists. I have had some synergy with them, and we are in turn able to feel some partnership, that we’re bringing something into the world together. Lars Laumann was a great success at the Berlin Biennial. He just was unknown at that time but I had al ready picked him up, and I remember people’s jaws dropping in Berlin when I said, “Oh no, I’ve actually seen him already. I showed him in my show called ‘The Hidden’!”

Okay, so here come the chicken and the egg  – is it you, or the activities of the gallery generating this energy, or is that energy the reason you are here?

I think literally a half-and-half mixture. Every person who opens a gallery is putting it all out there and saying, “This is here for you to look at, and for you to think about.” If it had not been successful I wouldn’t have kept doing it – if nobody had had any interest, then it just would have imploded or collapsed. And it was always very precarious. It’s a very fragile thing, and many, many people do not succeed. They certainly don’t all endure for 25 years doing it. For me, though, it’s not a career – it never was. It’s a life’s work. It’s something where you’ve been given a path that you must follow, where you don’t know what else you would do. Once you see this, many things appear that indicate the way forward for you.

You say there are many reasons things could have imploded for you – but your gallery seems to have a unique strength about it, and I’m curious about what makes it that way.

Well, I’m very interested in what art contributes to our society – more than what other things contribute. So much is imploding right now, and that has made me value more than ever building and maintaining things of cultural importance. When we look back at societies as they go into decline – societies that are plundered, and pillaged – we look at their cultural contributions. We want to see what that culture was poetically, what it was emotionally thinking about and engaging with. Most of us are less interested in who died in what war or knowing what caused the collapse of that culture – it’s more about seeing what we can salvage in that decline. And I’m really interested in trying to surface some of those things today.

So certain places too have their role in the Zeitgeist, their contributions to make to contemporary culture?

My sense when I came here was that the East End had historically contributed some thing to London life and had always been a very colorful place filled with extraordinary people. But I thought that the legacy of the art world could find itself within that. The places we took up were often properties that were going to be knocked down – we weren’t displacing families at that time, they were really considered to be derelict. Ironically, proving, 30 years later, that they were absolutely worth saving. We brought regeneration to the area and found that art really is a valuable cultural export, and something that then allows other things to exist. I mean, now Broadway Market is this mecca right next door to where my gallery used to be. If you had told me this would happen when I got started, I wouldn’t have believed it. But the spillover that art brings to a place – and it always does – is people’s creative ability to transform. That is the one thing that makes us special. It doesn’t even require a huge amount of funds.

“There was a sense of possibility along with all the angst.”

That’s extremely encouraging.

I began my gallery on the heels of the 1981 recession. It gave us this “no future” kind of attitude – you can do anything, get in there, what does it matter, you have nothing to lose. We had a fighting spirit because of it. A lot of creativity was not based on people being unusually wealthy, and it was fantastic to see what people could do. You could record something in your living room and send the tape – because it was all about tape in those days – to John Peel and he would put it on the radio that week and you’d get a hit within a month. There was a sense of possibility along with all the angst. And I did start the gallery out of that kind of energy. I went along and then experienced the recession of 1991 – a very difficult moment. But because again, I truly loved art, I was able to rebuild from those ashes, and pick up people like Gillian Wearing and Wolfgang Tillmans. So by ’93–’94, I was completely redefining the gallery, and putting an emphasis on new people after all the importing that I’d been doing in the mid- to late ’80s. Then I re-built and re-built until this point now, and we have to see what happens. But it was very interesting that the gallery has, in certain respects, experienced three dramatic peaks and troughs.

Once a decade, basically … so you’re a veteran, what do you foresee? Does it feel the same this time?

No – it’s very unpredictable and of course, this is huge. This is more than just a recession. This is the change of a millennium. Think about the change from the industrial revolution – there comes a point where certain things are obsolete. It doesn’t mean that everything will go – but it does put most things in jeopardy. You have to keep re-defining. If people keep redefining, re-thinking, re-experiencing, and re-positioning themselves, then there’s a chance to survive in all this. Sometimes people cling to the wreckage, or they become reactionary. If you’re stuck or rooted in the past, or in some way not able to really see that we’re going forward despite it all … we are going forward.

Perhaps we rarely know whether a crisis is going to bring out the best or the worst in people until it’s too late.

That’s something we’re always battling with: dark forces and light forces. We’re constantly dealing with these forces that are around us – these forms of energy – trying to understand and illuminate darkness. Because we’re always in the shadows, or we’re always denying the shadow. And the shadow is actually emerging right now. The banking scandal is truly our society’s shadow rearing its ugly head and showing itself to us. It’s very awful to see the shadow.

“I’ve always thought of art as part magic.”

I’m curious about the spiritual dimensions of it all.

Well I’ve always thought of art as part magic. I’m fascinated by the idea that a person can go into the world, take an object, and make a mark – the object becomes a talisman, a totem. And that then changes how we experience things.

Humans can imbue an object with power and meaning … and that’s what artists do?

Right, and there’s an energy that comes from it. All the time in England, I was always aware of how sensitive the English are to Celtic forces, of mythic England. I had gone to visit the standing stones, all the White Horses and Silbury Hill. You know, there’s a Roman road very near to here, and Roman roads were meant to run perpendicular to ley lines. In fact, the old gallery was on a ley line, which comes right through this gallery. And these ley lines all give a kind of en ergy, and inform of how people feel about streets and places. They don’t even know what they’re getting from the energy that is coming up to them. I’m innately aware of all these things that are part of where we are in our unconscious mind, part of why we are affected by certain places and things. There is something like an alchemy that informs why art is meaningful to us.

This approach is partly about the cosmological – but it’s also a contemporary archaeology in a way. Not simply about looking at the past but about mobilizing that into an understanding of what’s happening now.

There’s art that’s been rewarded by wealth, but that does not make it good art. It dazzles only because of the wealth that is associated with it. And that is exactly what the Salon des Refusés was horrified by. Last century, artists wanted to detach themselves from these collective institutions and to horrify the bourgeoisie with the abject. But now art is back intertwined with this Salon culture which has been reinstated in this century. There has been a lot of hurling of the gauntlet, throwing down of the gauntlet, but then still picking it up.

Or trying to pick it up.

Or trying to. But we have to navigate around a kind of reinstated Salon.

Are we going to experience there that cliché about financial hardship sparking creativity and radicalism in the arts? Now, where would it happen?

I think if anything, it’s not about a new place popping up; it’s more about a re-appraisal and a sharpening up of what’s already in place. An extraordinary thing is that there is a plurality: a series of centers and satellites. LA, Berlin, Tokyo, Rome, London, etc. I see it as a complete emphasis on the decentralization of the art world with no one place dominating in the way that New Yorkers always believed that it did – ever since WWII really.

Maybe this is a very Eurocentric thing to say, but don’t you feel this kind of cultural ancient-ness or rather historical weight here in European cities in a way that you don’t feel it in North American?

I’m very aware of how young the country is in many respects – when you think of how much it grew up in terms of culture since the last World War. All the displaced Europeans that you have to thank for Black Mountain College; Duchamp in New York and Walter Gropius in Chicago. Suddenly, you had all this genius that contributed to how the culture could progress – because of a crisis that created movement. And I find it quite comforting that there is such an old history in Europe, because people have lived through tremendous change. In Britain, you really feel the building and decline of an empire. Their “keep calm and carry on” approach even in the face of huge adversity is really something quite comforting.

Yes – though being half English I’m allowed to say that the stiff upper lip phenomenon is something you can really criticize the Brits for. Where’s their revolutionary spirit?

I think there’s a difference between red-hot, and white-hot. Looking back, when the Brits really care about something, they really care about it. I think there’s something in American culture that’s a little bit flighty, a little bit fly-by-night, a little bit not quite committed. It’s kind of like being attracted to the sizzle and not the steak. I think that the two cultures mix very well together when they do. But I’ve been here for 30 years and it’s really shaped me. I go back to the States quite often but people seem somehow foreign to me.

There’s also a way of feeling foreign in much of the US even though you might be, say, from New York.

Well when I went to San Francisco recently, I realized that I never fully experienced the Reagan period, and as a result the cynicism of the 1980s and the resulting “Gecko” quality just didn’t affect me. I found that earlier values had been successfully preserved in San Francisco in a way – perhaps because you have Berkeley there. I was thinking, “Oh, it still exists? It’s an oasis.” And I realized that I came to England with those 1970s principles, with those values that I had been spoon-fed through college, and I still have a lot of them intact – maybe through mod and punk filters. It’s a way of looking at things that isn’t guided by money. And I’m glad that I was able to soak all of that up, and that it wasn’t corrupted by working in an environment that was fostering those values.

And the art that grew out of the 1970s, say the work of Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta-Clark, remains productive to engage with …

I think we’re working a little bit with that delay. That period in the late 1960s and into the 70s was extraordinarily rich, and there’s still so much to unpack. When Peggy Guggenheim was asked, just before she died in 1979, what she thought was interesting in art “today” she said “nothing,” and that the only thing people should do is con serve the first half of the last century. People who are visionary are often tortured in their lifetime, because others are not always attuned to where they are, not quite up to their speed. To bring that back to the positioning of the gallery, to be able to embrace a visionary position, but with a practicality that allows us to be of our time, not ahead of it, has always been my goal. I want to be neither ahead of my time nor living in the past, but to be of my time.

Isn’t it a mark of our time that artists are celebrities? It always strikes me how the British press deals with artists. They’re so sensational about it, they’re  scandalized by these exhibitions or auctions or “antics” of artists that would never show up in the New York Post – you don’t get Pete Doherty and Damien Hirst on the same double spread anywhere else.

It’s a very interesting thing here, how art is addressed – let’s say in a more tabloid way. In a way, it’s almost as if art is divorced from youth culture in the States, whereas here, the scene began with the surge of young happening artists who have now shaped what is the new British art. This generation was all about Brit youth culture. It’s almost as if, as the music industry changed and the punk period dissipated, art found its way into a place that might have been occupied by musicians.

“I never wanted to be EMI; I always wanted to be Mute Records.”

Since we are back on music, how “punk” was your look in your early London days?

I’m sure that I was an elegant version even then. But I did cut off all my hair; I was very Sinead O’Connor at the time. But for me, the punk aesthetic is one of the reasons I think the gallery has survived. I never wanted to be EMI; I always wanted to be Mute Records. I’m the indie label that’s fi rst about principles, and handles important artists that go to number one. My artists don’t want to be mainstream. They like that they can be with a label that promotes the same values they do and hasn’t sold them out.

When does an artist become “sold out”?

Well, it’s when you know that you’re only satisfying the market with what you do. I think it’s hugely important that the artists showing with me are never criticized for being “stuck.” They’re always doing new work, they’re taking risks, they’re being described as innovators as opposed to re-hashing what they did before. You’re only as good as your latest hit record, to continue the analogy. You don’t just rest on your laurels. The artists could just decide to make as much money as they can, to make bigger works – because bigger is still better – or to make work with higher production value. But really they are interested in talking about the work and the issues in the work. Making it on a grand scale, perhaps, but with consideration, respect of their peers and critical interest in what they do. They haven’t just become massive relics of the past – and that’s how you stay vital.


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