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2014.02.17 Monday, 文 /
Interview with gallerist Simon Lee


One of London’s leading contemporary art gallerists, Simon Lee opened his eponymous gallery in 2002 and fortuitously expanded to Hong Kong in 2012, where the gallery has quickly gained a reputation for rigorously curated exhibitions of leading international artists including Cindy Sherman, Angela Bulloch and Hans Peter Feldmann. A showroom office will open in New York this spring. randian 燃点 spoke to Simon by telephone about the history of the gallery and the new Hong Kong show, “Walk the Line“.

Chris Moore: How did you become an art dealer and gallerist?

Simon Lee: I had grandparents who were collectors, publishers and printers, who were interested not necessarily in contemporary art, but in books and pictures. I guess I inherited a taste for art from them. I studied art history at university, first in Australia and then in Paris. Subsequently, I worked for the French Ministry of Culture as an archeologist, though my thesis was on Pop and Conceptual art. Later I worked for the Guggenheim in Venice briefly, before finally coming to London in the late ’80s to work for Christie’s and ended up working for Gimpel Fils gallery, which showed 20th Century art and represented a lot of historical British artists. (1) After cutting my teeth with them, I became a director of Anthony d’Offay Gallery (2), and then I started my own in the mid-to-late ‘90s.

Simon Lee with “Untitled (S171)” 2004 by Christopher Wool
(image courtesy of Kit Min Lee Photos)

Who are the gallerists who have influenced you, whether historical or friends?

SL: Anthony d’Offay influenced me the most in terms of my work ethic as well as the treatment of and engagement with artists. He was exemplary and quite revolutionary in the level of attention he devoted to [the representation of] artists and their careers. As a result, at that particular time, he had carte blanche in London. He was also a brilliant teacher—you just have to look at [former] directors of the gallery who have gone on successfully to run their own galleries.

And Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007) was very influential as well. I had quite a lot of contact with her via Anthony and Gilbert & George, who I looked after in the gallery. And when I left Anthony, she was very supportive of me in terms of introductions to her artists, and very encouraging.

They are the beacons in what I aspire to achieve.

Why did you open an exhibition space in Hong Kong?

The idea evolved from a very strong relationship with Katherine Schaefer, who worked closely with me in London and had to relocate to Hong Kong with her husband. I was so upset that she was leaving that I suggested we carry on working together, with Katherine as my representative in that part of the world. After a couple of years it was just a natural progression to open an exhibition space. It was organic, and that’s probably the best way to expand anyway. Since the opening of the gallery in May 2011, my artists are excited to visit and present their works in Hong Kong, and I believe the gallery has benefited globally through this interaction with Asia.

Toby Ziegler “‘60s Emissions” 2013 (image courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery)

(Toby Ziegler solo show at Simon Lee Hong Kong opening Tuesday, 13 May)

Bernard Frize “Palter” 2012 (image courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery)

Do galleries really need to have a physical space anymore, when most business is conducted at art fairs, on the phone or by email?

Galleries do need a physical space—most art is still physical and object-based—most!

I certainly still have an overwhelming desire to help to produce exhibitions with my artists that will have a deeper and more lasting impact than presenting a work at an art fair or on a website. Ultimately, artists still enjoy having their work experienced at first hand by the public in a context which is more within their control than, say, in an art fair situation for presenting work.

It can be extremely frustrating as a gallerist because the art world has become very event-driven—auctions, fairs and parties—but we are still the last free-show in town. My artists still consider art fairs as a necessary evil, but it is by far from a satisfactory means of presenting work and interacting with a public. And one doesn’t want to lose sight of the fact that it’s not just about sales for the artists; it’s about communication and platforms for disseminating ideas. Certainly, the world is a smaller place, and information travels much quicker because of email and telephone and electronic media, but there is still no substitute for direct engagement with a work of art. And people still like to experience it at first hand, rather than via a mediated image.

Who is the most recent artist to join your gallery and why did you choose him?

Hugh Scott-Douglas. He’s also the youngest—25 years old. I am overwhelmed by his maturity and intelligence, and I chose him on that basis. He’s very introspective in the sense that he poses himself a lot of questions about his own work and quite fundamental systems of communication and addresses fairly universal issues, albeit in a very specific manner. And the new exhibition in Hong Kong is the first public presentation of his work. I’m delighted to include his work in the show, which is really a portrait of the gallery, showing its sensibility across generations.

Hugh Scott-Douglas (image courtesy of Kit Min Lee Photos)

Tell us about your group exhibition in Hong Kong—why is it entitled “Walk the Line” and what links these diverse artists?

We were trying to think about concerns that link this group of more or less conceptual painters. I think a lot of them, although their work is largely abstract, are concerned with the image. So “Walk The Line” doesn’t refer to the meandering line of Paul Klee, for instance, but walking between the image and abstraction and the process that goes into the making and conceiving of works of art…And of course we all love Johnny Cash! I know it sounds a bit flippant, but the Johnny Cash aesthetic and ethos seems weirdly appropriate to this group of artists – to their attitudes towards making art. Johnny Cash’s way of making music involved putting highly complex and emotional themes together but with quite simple musical constructs. So it does link diverse artists together but there are points of communion between them about how they make their work—repetition and alteration are features of all their work, which are brought to bare and feed off each other when placed together in a show.

Many of the artists are renowned as painters, at a time when many leading curators are relatively unschooled in its current intellectual debates—witness the disastrous “Painting Forever” shows in Berlin last year. Why is painting still relevant? What for you are the key artistic debates involving the discipline of painting?

Well, we can revisit the “painting is dead discussion” and look at artists like Christopher Wool, with his recent show at the Guggenheim in New York—he’s born out of that moment. There are ways of drawing on historical constructs and knowledge, so you can make a new type of abstract painting. And all of these artists do it in their own way, maybe in a referential way to history or techniques or by introducing new ways of making what we call, in quotation marks, “painting”. I don’t think painting should be considered a medium, as much as a forum or arena, nowadays—I’ve also picked up paintings from manufacturers, where the artist hasn’t even touched them. I think all these artists are able to broaden our notion of what painting actually is.

Heimo Zobernig “Untitled” 2013 (image courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery)

Donald Judd died in 1994 and you first showed his work in 2009. What are the complexities of representing an estate and how is the issue of posthumous editions managed?

The first Judd show I did in my gallery was in 2003; I actually opened the gallery in the current premises with a Judd show curated by Peter Valentine. The complexities of representing an estate and the issue of posthumous editions, is not a real issue with Donald Judd – perhaps more of an issue with another artist. It is a discussion that needs to be had with specific artists in mind. I sometimes think a posthumous Brancusi edition might be a problematic to handle because his work was predicated on the hand finishing of the surface, which posthumously can’t be recreated. While the work of other artists can lend itself to posthumous editions, where there is a more industrial manufacturing aspect to the work. For instance, with Dan Flavin, there is no issue with posthumous editions so long as they were proven and conceived in his lifetime. Those two artists represent both sides of the coin, really. We’re not talking about paintings, but generally about three-dimensional objects. Though I suppose posthumous prints of paintings could be editioned. It is perhaps more easy in terms of contemporary art, with certain work not necessarily needing the hand of the artist being engaged. It needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis and depends on how important we consider the hand of the artist is in the finishing of the object.

History will be the gravest test of that.

In the digital age, how important is it for you to publish paper books or catalogs about your artists?

I’m still obsessed with it and I alluded to that before. I love books. I love the material contained in them. I love reading. I still produce beautiful cards and invitations for our exhibitions, even though many galleries no longer produce cards. But I still like the idea of receiving something through the post that someone has gone to the difficulty of designing.

I was always impressed by Anthony d’Offay—who is a great bibliophile—[and who produced many art books]. I see it as a key tool for getting the artists’ ideas out into the world. And there is something extremely seductive about a beautifully produced book, beautifully printed and bound. It’s not the same if something just flicks across the screen—ironic that I’m saying this to you. Maybe it’s the frustrated artist in me speaking.

Mattias Faldbbaken “Untitled (Sack 7)” 2013 (image courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery)

What are the exhibitions you are looking forward to in 2014?

Firstly, “Matisse Cut Outs” at Tate Modern and MoMA in New York.

Then the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate, MoMA and Museum Ludwig in Cologne. It is being curated by Mark Godfrey [Curator of International Art, Tate Modern]. I’m a big admirer, and have always been a massive Polke acolyte.

And also the Whitney Biennial—It’s always a watershed moment for art. I think it’s very, very difficult to make a good exhibition on that scale in terms of representing the Zeitgeist, but the Whitney is always full of surprises and discovery, and it never disappoints me.


1. Charles Gimpel (1913-1973) and Peter Gimpel (1915-2005) established Gimpel Fils in 1946 in homage to their father, René Gimpel (1881-1945), famed Parisian art dealer and a French Resistance fighter who died in Neuengamme concentration camp. René was married to the youngest of Joseph Duveen’s (1869-1939) thirteen children. In the first half of the 20th century, Duveen had been the most famous and influential art dealer in England, with clients including Henry Clay Frick, William Randolph Hearst, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon and John D. Rockefeller.

2. Anthony d’Offay (b.1940) operated his gallery from 1965-2001. It was the most successful and influential contemporary art gallery in London during this period, holding exhibitions for many leading artists, including Carl Andre, Joseph Beuys, Maurizio Cattelan, Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud, Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Jannis Kounellis, Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Long, Agnes Martin, Ron Mueck, Bruce Nauman, Brice Marden, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Bill Viola, Andy Warhol, Lawrence Weiner and Rachel Whiteread. Early in their careers, artists Damien Hirst and Martin Creed worked there, and besides Simon Lee, gallerist alumni include Matthew Marks, James Cohan, Lorcan O’Neill, Sadie Coles, Tanya Bonakdar and Gavin Brown.

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Hugh Scott-Douglas “Torn Cheques, Chopped Bill” 2013 (image courtesy the artist and Simon Lee Gallery)