Art Market

Vito Schnabel on His Old-School Approach to Art Dealing

The Canvas
May 12, 2021 2:55PM

Exterior of Vito Schnabel Gallery, St. Moritz. Photo by Romano Salis. Courtesy of Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Portrait of Vito Schnabel by Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Vito Schnabel Gallery.

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Do not, under any circumstance, underestimate Vito Schnabel. Yes, his boyish good looks, his art-world-famous last name, and his innate charm can all contribute to his being a regular presence in Page Six. But don’t kid yourself. Ever since he was a kid, running around downtown and making the scene, Schnabel has been organizing serious exhibitions, evincing an earnest and resolute belief in the art he shows and earning the trust of some of the most thoughtful and astute collectors in the game. He becomes emotional when speaking about the art and artists he loves. He can’t resist the opportunity to expound on an individual painting. And he possesses that rare quality that the best dealers and specialists all have that enables them to speak passionately about the art, placing it in the broader context of the art historical canon, while simultaneously emphasizing its investment potential.

Though Schnabel counts Bruno Bischofberger (who also happens to be his godfather) and Arne Glimcher as gallerists he’s long admired, by no means is he interested in following their footsteps in the pursuit of art world domination. The program at his eponymous gallery consists of a core group of painters whose gravitational pull he simply couldn’t resist. Mainly of an earlier generation, it’s a cohort that includes names like Ron Gorchov, Pat Steir, Francesco Clemente, and, yes, his father, Julian Schnabel. Recently, however, the 34-year-old Schnabel has begun taking on the representation of younger artists such as Ariana Papademetropoulos and Robert Nava; the latter’s show of angel paintings inaugurated Schnabel’s new gallery space on West 19th Street in February.

The Chelsea location’s opening marks Schnabel’s third gallery, the others being the more boutique-sized 43 Clarkson Street at the intersection of the West Village, SoHo, and Tribeca; as well as his gallery in St. Moritz—the glitzy Alpine resort town—which he took over from Bischofberger in 2015. Bischofberger, of course, was the first dealer to open a gallery in the cloistered ski town back in 1963, and his space took on a legendary status in the art world over the years. But for over a century, St. Moritz has been a destination for a clubby group of top-tier artists, collectors, and curators alike.

In a way, Schnabel harks back to an art world of old; to an era when dealers and collectors traveled in tight-knit social circles, rubbing elbows poolside in the Hamptons in the summer, on the ski slopes in the Alps in late December, and at dinner parties in New York and London throughout the year. They relied on their eyes, their instincts, and, yes, their rolodexes far more than their ears or the latest buzz on Instagram. It was a time when the art world was less professionalized, less of an industry, and was instead more of a social community in which the artists and collectors you surrounded yourself with said more about who you were than the size of your bank account.

Robert Nava, installation view of “Robert Nava: Angels” at Vito Schnabel Gallery, New York, 2021. © Robert Nava. Photo by Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Robert Nava and Vito Schnabel Gallery.


Sitting high above Tenth Avenue, in an empty apartment unit in the building in which his gallery occupies the ground floor, Schnabel and I sat for a couple of hours discussing how he approaches being a dealer in an increasingly industrialized art world, and what this third location portends for the future of his namesake gallery. We talk about everything from his early years in a post-9/11 New York art world, to the dynamics surrounding the market for Nava’s works, to why NBA players make such thoughtful collectors. And he shares what’s next for his gallery as he plans to take on the representation of more young artists while doubling down on his commitment to secondary-market shows like “Man Ray & Picabia,” a historical exhibition on view through Saturday that brings together seminal works by the two early modern masters.

The Canvas: Of course, you grew up in the art world, Vito. But as I was preparing for this interview, I read somewhere that as a child, you were always more interested in sports than in art. In fact, I heard that up until a few years ago, when asked by people what career you would have chosen had you not become an art dealer, your answer was a basketball player. I’m curious when that first moment was when you realized that you actually wanted to work in the art world. As a kid, I imagine you must have been asked over and over again if you’d end up following your father’s career path…

Vito Schnabel: Funnily enough, I did get that question quite often. I obviously grew up surrounded by art. I would go to galleries with my father, but they weren’t particularly enjoyable experiences because there were always so many people around. In fact, it was actually my sister, Lola, and her group of friends who really sparked my interest in art and made me think about it in a different way.

Lola is five years older than I am, and we attended St. Ann’s in Brooklyn Heights growing up. When I was 12, I went to the Met for the first time with my friend, Stefan Bondell, and I remember that being an eye-opening experience. By then Lola was going to Cooper Union to study painting, and she would take me around to the studios of some of her friends. This was post-9/11, and it was a really interesting time in the city. I began meeting people like Dash Snow, Tauba Auerbach, Dan Colen, and Rashid Johnson, and they became my friends.

The Canvas: I once heard a story that when you were 16, you wanted to do a show with Dan Colen (who was 30 at the time), but Dan told you that while you could buy one of his paintings, you’d have to wait until you were 30 yourself to actually organize a show with him.

V.S.: That’s true. I was 15 when I bought my first painting of Dan’s. It was one of his bird shit paintings. He told me that we couldn’t do a show, but that he loved that I appreciated his work, and he would let me buy a painting that he hadn’t finished yet. I paid him in installments and I still have that painting today.

The Canvas: Did your father actively encourage or discourage you from a career in the art world? I ask because my own father is a lawyer, but he always told my siblings and me that under no circumstances should we follow in his footsteps and become lawyers.

V.S.: Honestly, my father was shocked when I told him I wanted to become a dealer, open a gallery, and work in the art world in some capacity. “Are you crazy? You hate art,” I remember him saying at the time. I told him that I didn’t hate art, I just didn’t like looking at it with him. And that was actually a turning point in our relationship when we became a lot closer, because we now had this mutual passion that we could share.

Portrait of Vito Schnabel and Ron Gorchov at the opening of “Ron Gorchov: Works from the 1970s” at Vito Schnabel Gallery, New York, 2016. Photo by Tiffany Sage. Courtesy of BFA.

The first show I organized was called “Incubator,” as a reference to this growing passion inside of me that was then coming into focus. And he was very encouraging throughout that process. It felt like there was this beautiful new dialogue that we were able to share.

The Canvas: So, that first exhibition was really a bonding experience for the two of you?

V.S.: Exactly. But I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into at the time. I knew I wanted to organize a show, but I don’t think I fully realized that people might actually want to buy the works. My idea was to get the space, put the art in it, and then I thought my role was done. But then there was this whole afterlife of the exhibition that really took me some time to get up to speed on. In fact, it was actually my mother who would help me prepare the invoices and who helped me with a lot of the business side of things.

I didn’t go to college right out of high school, and my parents weren’t happy about that. As crazy as it may sound, I felt like I was going to miss the boat if I left New York. I wanted to show my family that I was serious about becoming a dealer. So as a kid, I remember just trying to fill up my calendar every day with as many meetings and studio visits as possible. To be honest, I was having a really hard time.

But after “Incubator,” I met Ron Gorchov, who was teaching at Hunter, and we developed this beautiful relationship. Eventually I asked him if I could make an exhibition of his work, and he agreed. He hadn’t shown his work in over 30 years and had pretty much stopped making his curved paintings because they were so expensive to produce. He had quite a lot of work just sitting in his studio, and I just immediately gravitated towards these saddle-like structures. And then, between him and Rene Ricard, I began to develop my own kind of mini program at the time.

The Canvas: I wanted to ask you about how you’d classify your program. In an interview you gave to Vanity Fair ahead of “White Collar Crimes,” the group show you organized in 2013 at Acquavella, you said, “I love painting; I really do. I’m just a painting junkie.” Looking at the gallery’s program now, it includes artists like Ron, Pat Steir, Rene Ricard, Robert Nava, and your father. How would you describe the ethos or narrative thread of the gallery? Is there one beyond a singular focus on painting?

V.S.: Yes, well they are all painters. But in my mind, there is definitely a lineage among all of those artists. When I think of Pat, I think of Ron. And when I think of Ron, I think of my father. And when I think of my father, I think of Francesco Clemente. And when I think of Francesco, I think back to Pat. Each approaches painting in a way that felt new to me in the sense that they’re the only artists who can do what they do and make what they make.

Take someone like Ariana Papademetropoulos, for instance. The show that we had at the gallery’s Clarkson Street space—her first show in New York—featured this entire world that she created in her imagination. She transformed the gallery with orange carpeting and these sculptural floor cushions. It became a physical manifestation of her larger vision, which can also be seen in the interiors she depicts in her paintings. There’s this mysticism and dreamlike sensibility that is very specific to her.

Ariana Papademetropoulos, installation view of “Ariana Papademetropoulos: Unweave a Rainbow” at Vito Schnabel Gallery, New York, 2020. © Ariana Papademetropoulos. Photo by Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Ariana Papademetropoulos and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

So, at the end of the day, I’m just looking for the new. Imi Knoebel once told me that Blinky Palermo said that about his own work: He’s just looking for the new. I guess I do that instinctively, based on where my own personal taste guides me, and what my eyes are telling me, mixed with the history of art as I understand it. Every artist is influenced by other artists and movements, but it’s really about what they create and make their own that transcends their original influences. In a way, it’s like cooking. Whatever the ingredients start out as, they are transformed into this finished product which can only be attributable to the chef.

The Canvas: I came across this quote of yours where you said, “I have always admired the way in which Arne Glimcher transcended the role of gallerist. His relationship with his artists is based not only on his recognition of their genius, but also on mutual respect and deep friendship. This is something I strive towards.” From my perspective, Vito Schnabel—both the gallery and the person—harks back to an earlier era of dealers when the art world was less professionalized, less of an industry, and more of a social community in which the artists and collectors you surrounded yourself with were tied together by their interpersonal relationships. Would you agree with that take?

V.S.: First, I would definitely put Bruno Bischofberger in that category of gallerists who I really admire, as well. But you know, everybody’s going to do their thing in terms of the way they operate their galleries, and I respect that. I happen to be influenced by the way guys like Arne or Bruno, who I guess you could describe as being a bit more “old school,” run their galleries. As I was growing up and thinking about opening my own gallery, I just always looked to those two as prime examples of how I would want to run my gallery and how I would hope to interact with artists.

The Canvas: I spoke to a number of people leading up to this interview, and they all said that, theoretically, you have what it takes to go out and build a gallery empire if you wanted to, but that you never would because that type of business dominance doesn’t interest you.

V.S.: I eat and breathe the art world. I love what I do at the scale that I do it. And I think the gallery has grown over the years in a natural, organic way. I have the smaller space on Clarkson Street which isn’t particularly large, but it allows me to organize shows in a contained environment that I can control. It allowed me to have a space in the city that people could come and visit and see what I’m interested in at the given time. But it wasn’t operating as a traditional gallery, in the sense that I wasn’t having a show every six weeks. And frankly, the reason I didn’t open a gallery space earlier in my career is because I didn’t have enough art that I felt comfortable showing and that I could truly stand behind.

Robert Nava, installation view of “Robert Nava: Angels” at Vito Schnabel Gallery, New York, 2021. © Robert Nava. Photo by Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Robert Nava and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Robert Nava, Volcanic Angel, 2020. © Robert Nava. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

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?

V.S.: 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?

Robert Nava, Night Storm Angel, 2021. © Robert Nava. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Robert Nava, Cloud Rider Angel, 2020. © Robert Nava. Courtesy of the artist and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

V.S.: Yes. I met Ariana and Robert around the same time, and in their own unique way, they each have a sort of mystical, fairytale quality to their work which really resonates with me. Ariana is 31, Robert is 35, and I’m 34, so perhaps it’s a generational thing. But yes, I definitely plan to show more young artists going forward.

The Canvas: At the same time, though, you’re also continuing to stage historical secondary-market shows, correct?

V.S.: Correct. The next show that we’ll do is a historical show devoted to paintings by Man Ray and Francis Picabia. This is genuinely a dream come true for me, as I’ve been putting this show together for a few years, and some of these paintings haven’t been seen in public in over 50 years.

Francis Picabia and Man Ray are two of my all-time favorite artists. I’ve never seen a Francis Picabia that I didn’t like, and I don’t know how many artists I can actually say that about. And Man Ray being Brooklyn-born and one of the only American artists to be accepted in Paris in the 1920s really fascinates me. He made one of the greatest Surrealist works ever created, but he’s not really a Surrealist. He was one of the early pioneers of photography, but he had this tremendously contemporary sensibility about him. And yet somehow, he’s never been given a solo museum show in the United States. So I’m just really excited about the opportunity to help recontextualize his work.

I can’t wait to finally see these paintings in a room together. I conceptualized it as a garden that you walk through, experiencing the different colors blooming from one painting to the next, in dialogue with one another, and the only method to the madness is just how beautiful it all is together. It’s a very personal show to me and, in its way, it’s just kind of a love story.

The Canvas: What can you tell me about where you sourced the works from?

V.S.: They came from Europe, Asia, and truly all over the world. We have this 1948 Man Ray painting called The Tempest which will be next to this transparency that’s the same size by Francis Picabia from 1930. There’s this incredible painting that is on loan from Francesco Clemente, which is one of the great Picabias left in private hands. One of the paintings belonged to David Bowie. Another belonged to Andy Warhol, who lived with it in his bedroom. Two of the Man Ray works were bought directly from Juliet Man Ray in 1976 and have never been shown before. So they all come from these incredibly special places tucked away all over the world.

The Canvas: I just have a couple more questions before we wrap up here. What have the past 12 months been like for you running the gallery in the midst of a pandemic?

V.S.: One of my biggest fears is that time moves so quickly that I don’t always get to stop and be present in the moment. That’s really hard to do when you’re always planning and looking toward the next thing on the calendar. Keep in mind that before COVID, I was getting on a plane every other week. I’m someone who gets excited by new information and I was trying to be everywhere at once.

Robert Nava, installation view of “Robert Nava: Angels” at Vito Schnabel Gallery, New York, 2021. © Robert Nava. Photo by Argenis Apolinario. Courtesy of Robert Nava and Vito Schnabel Gallery.

Since last March, though, I think I’ve only left New York twice. That’s really allowed me to think about how I want to live my life going forward, and how much I can accomplish without necessarily having to get on a plane. I think this new world has established that it might be okay to do a Zoom call and people will be open to that.

The Canvas: Practically speaking, what’s kept the gallery going this past year? Am I correct in assuming that most of the business has been fueled by secondary-market deals?

V.S.: To an extent. I sold an incredibly beautiful 1984 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Red Car Rusting in Kuau, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit. It’s six by eight feet, and Basquiat made it in Hawaii while he was trying to get sober. I had it for a while but was able to sell it in March at the beginning of COVID.

But somehow things kept on moving, and I was able to keep everybody on payroll while the gallery remained shut. We’ve made a couple of catalogs in the interim, and I’ve been busy organizing this big show I have planned for Rene Ricard and for Ron Gorchov. I don’t know how, but I’ve just kept things going.

The Canvas: This will be the last question, and I know it’s a bit out of left field, but you’re such a big basketball fan that I figured I’d bring it up. Over the past few years, a number of NBA players have really gotten into collecting. I was wondering whether you had any thoughts on why that’s become such a trend?

V.S.: Well, they’re artists in their own right, and I think that the art world has just expanded so much over the past 10 years that we’re seeing people from all kinds of industries and communities express an interest in what we do. Basquiat became quite big in the music world and everyone is friends, so when they go to each other’s houses and see a painting hanging on the wall, there’s a certain power that those paintings have that affects you.

A few years ago I sold LeBron [James] his first paintings, which were by Rashid Johnson. These guys all talk and live very busy lives. If they can wake up and catch a brief glimpse of a painting they love hanging on their wall, then that might shine a light onto their day for that moment in time. It’s a visceral feeling, like listening to a song that really gets you pumped up. Art has that effect, as well. It keeps on giving throughout your day.

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