I started out by finding temporary spaces and organizing rogue, guerrilla-style exhibitions. But in 2015, when the opportunity in St. Moritz came up and I realized I could have a platform to exhibit artists in Europe, I couldn’t pass that up. The space belonged to Bruno and has an amazing history. He called me up and told me that he was going to close it in order to focus on Zürich. He knew that I was looking at different cities for a space that would allow me to work with artists who I couldn’t as easily show in New York. He said he needed to know within two days, and I called him back three hours later and said, “I’ll take it.”
The Canvas: How about this new space that we’re currently sitting above? You have to admit, it’s a bit of an odd time to be opening a second gallery space in New York City. What drove that decision?
I knew this space was being built for the past four years. The developer is a collector from Lebanon with whom I’m close, and he told me about this project and that the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation
used to be here. So this has been brewing for a while as we kept on kicking the can down the road until the time came when we needed to make the decision. I loved that they were able to keep the ceilings really high and that no gallery had occupied this space previously.
In terms of the timing, luckily things have been going well for the gallery. I was 17 when I had that first show with Ron Gorchov, who was 76 at the time. But his work was new to me and I was able to show it to the world as if he was a young artist. Now, I’m working with some really exciting younger artists like Robert and Ariana. There have been a lot of shows that I wasn’t able to do on Clarkson Street and, to be honest, I just began to get overwhelmed and frustrated with the fact that I didn’t have enough space.
Look, everything I do is very personal. I have a special love for the man who built this building. We’ve been friends for over a decade. And it just felt right. The space is absolutely beautiful. I love that it’s like a church when you walk in with this skylight shining the back wall with a glow of natural light. It’s almost like an altar.
The Canvas: In a way, it then makes perfect sense that the first show that will happen in the space features Robert Nava’s angel paintings. Robert has obviously—for better or for worse—gotten a lot of attention this past year. He’s found himself included in this cohort of young artists whose prices have risen precipitously fast in a short amount of time. How did you first get introduced to his work? What drove your decision to open this space with a show of his paintings? What attracts you to his work aside from his use of black and red in a number of his paintings (colors for which I’ve heard you have a particular affinity)? And where do you see his market heading in the next couple of years?
V.S.: I was introduced to Robert’s work a couple of years ago by someone who works with the gallery. I wrote him a message on Instagram, and he invited me over to his studio. There was something nostalgic and childlike about his work that immediately attracted me. That seemingly casual irreverence exhibited in his paintings clearly had a very intentional quality to it. Here was someone who was clearly very well trained, who could make a photorealist painting if he wanted to, but instead chose to go back into his childhood and play with the imagery that makes up his world. I loved it.
Painting is the only thing that Robert wants to do and knows how to do in order to make himself happy. There’s a truth in that which I respect and love, which I guess is another common denominator among the artists with whom I work. We talked about his influences and his background in Indiana driving a truck and moving furniture. I told him, “Usually when I start getting involved with an artist, I like to buy some work first to live with it and to support what you’re doing. And then maybe there will be a project we can do together down the road.” I continued visiting him at his studio, and then about 18 months ago, he still hadn’t had a solo show in New York, and I suggested doing an exhibition together.
And when we announced the gallery’s upcoming schedule of shows in August, I think that lit a fire under some of the people who were in his circle. I suggested doing a show of a single body of work and I felt his angel paintings encapsulated a lot of his mark-making and were perfectly suited for the time we’re living in.
The Canvas: I want to stop you right there, Vito, and unpack that for a second. There is significant power in the ability to announce a show with a young artist in six months’ time and watch the market for his works rise accordingly. How do you come to terms with the responsibilities that come with that kind of power?
V.S.: Luckily, the gallery has had a really great group of collectors who have followed the program over the years, and for whatever reason, the things that we’ve shown have had success from a market perspective. But at the end of the day, it really is always about putting the art first. I never think about the short-term opportunity of what a painting might be worth in six months after I announce a show with an artist. For me, I’m motivated by the excitement of showing something which I don’t think anybody’s looking at, seeing, or appreciating in the way that they should.
You see these 30-inch-by-22-inch drawings of Robert’s that he might have sold for $400 a few years ago come up for auction and be worth $8,000. God bless the people who bought these works because they liked it. They didn’t know how much they would be worth now. And look, everybody’s got a family to feed, and I understand where they’re coming from. That little drawing could get them through the next six months of rent. But when those kinds of market dynamics come into play, you have to deal with them. You can’t be naïve and bury your head in the sand. There needs to be a gatekeeper or a team in place whose job it is to protect the artist. But look, as the art world grows, I think we all need to accept that there will be more opportunistic people who are driven by this idea of a quick flip and treating paintings like stocks.
The Canvas: Do you plan to show more young artists like Nava and Papademetropoulos going forward?