Michele Maccarone is the former director of big-time gallery Luhring Augustine. In 2001, she opened her own gallery, Maccarone, in a rickety building on Canal Street in Chinatown, back when nobody had galleries down there.
Nov 1 2010, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY AMY KELLNER
PORTRAIT BY HANNA LIDEN
All images courtesy of Maccarone Gallery, New York.
Michele Maccarone is the former director of big-time gallery Luhring Augustine. In 2001, she opened her own gallery, Maccarone, in a rickety building on Canal Street in Chinatown, back when nobody had galleries down there. The gallery quickly gained a reputation for being “edgy” and “notorious” and all those words you use to describe great, exciting stuff that you don’t get to see in a typical white cube in Chelsea. For example: Maccarone’s inaugural show by Christoph Büchel required that you sign a waiver before you could crawl on hands and knees through a small ragged hole in the wall and then shimmy your way up and down into tiny, scary rooms filled with God knows what. One review called it a “junkyard/funhouse version of Chutes & Ladders.”
In 2007, the gallery moved to a bigger, more conventional space in the West Village, but the shows remained just as ambitious. The first show there, by Paul McCarthy, made fun of the commerciality of art galleries by turning the space into an elaborate, fully functional chocolate factory that produced thousands of ten-inch chocolate figurines shaped like Santa holding a giant butt-plug. (They cost $100, and they were delicious.)
I met Michele in college in the mid-90s. She was a year ahead of me. Though still in school, she was already established in the art world and had this funny frankness and energetic confidence that were thrilling and intimidating as hell. I always admired her, so I was happy to have the chance to interview her for this very special art issue of Vice.
Vice: I remember when we were at Barnard you were already working at galleries.
Michele Maccarone: I worked at two places. I ran the educational program at Dia Center for the Arts. Dia at one point had more money than God and they didn’t know what to do with it, so they made up this educational department. And I worked at Daniel Newburg Gallery, which doesn’t exist anymore. The director had been one of the Warhol Factory people, so I’d go to work and get sexually harassed. Apparently Warhol played these games called “Look and Lick” and “Peek and Pull.” I don’t know if it’s true or not, but the director would play these games with me. So that was my first entrée into the art world.
I remember my first show there. I had to make this Hans Haacke piece. Such a funny story. It was for a show called “1969.” It was like a dirt mound with grass, but instead of using all dirt we went and got old air conditioners and garbage off the street, and we just put the dirt on top of it and planted the grass. That was in September of my freshman year at Barnard. So right away I started working in the art world.
How did you get started so early?
I just went to the stupid internships office, and there were binders filled with postings for different gallery internships, and it was within the first month of me being in school that I was having this crazy SoHo experience. When I was in high school, I skipped school a bunch of times to go to the West Broadway galleries. I was obsessed with Mary Boone and Leo Castelli and Sonnabend.
Are you from New York?
No, I’m from New Jersey. But I used to spend all my time at Lucky Strike. They would serve you back then because it was lawless. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, New York was lawless, and people smoked pot on the street, and it was amazing. I was working in galleries and I was so seduced by all of it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
Even in high school?
Yeah, I remember becoming interested in contemporary art my sophomore year in high school. I wrote a paper about degenerate art. I was obsessed. I don’t know why. I went to a crazy private school in the woods in Princeton, New Jersey, called Stuart Country Day School. It was an all-girl Catholic school, and somehow I’m writing a 40-page paper about degenerate art and becoming obsessed with Kathe Kollwitz and Otto Dix, who’s still one of my favorite artists.
Were your parents into art?
No! My dad was a hairdresser and my mother worked at, like, I don’t know, she’s a secretary. My father barely speaks English. It came out of—I don’t even know where it came from. Out of nowhere.
You started working at Luhring Augustine while you were in college too, right? And you eventually became the director.
Yeah, I was their intern extraordinaire. They used to pay for my lunch, which I do now, I pay for my interns’ lunches. I learned that by working at Luhring Augustine. Except that there was a $5 cap on lunch when I worked there. We don’t have that $5 cap. We have like $60 lunches here. Our lunches are expensive! But imagine, what could we get for $5? I would get a yogurt and a hardboiled egg on a piece of toast and a soda, and that was $5 at the deli on Thompson Street.
Did you ever want to be an artist?
No. For a second I was interested in performance. I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, and I did these performance pieces where I wrote abstract poetry and I would read it and act it out. I don’t even want to get into details, it was so insipid. But now when I look back at it, I actually had one good idea for a video that I made: I went hiking in high heels and I videotaped myself wearing the high heels until the tape died. But it was stupid because the tape died after two hours, and two hours isn’t that long to wear high heels hiking.
So you wanted to be in charge of art rather than making it.
Yeah, I was even curating the little gallery in my high school. But the thing that really changed my life is when I was a freshman and I went to see Jeff Koons speak. After that I knew for sure that I wanted to be involved with contemporary art. Before that I was like, “I want to be a professor! I want to teach Roman Baroque art at Wellesley.” For some reason I just wanted to teach at an all-girls school somewhere in the Northeast, and I had this romantic idea about teaching and being a scholar. And then I remember after that Jeff Koons talk… I was obsessed with him. When he talked about La Cicciolina’s ass being about generosity, I was like, “Oh my God, you had me at ass.”
How do you keep in touch with what’s going on in the art world now?
I’m so out of it. I feel sucky because I’m turning 37 and when I was 21, 22, I was reading, writing, and involved. And now I don’t even pick up Artforum. I just flip through the ads and I’m like, “They’re showing that person? They left that gallery?” And the language of art becomes really dumbed-down. Even talking to collectors, I don’t feel like my discourse is anything more than, “Oh my God, he’s fantastic! He’s doing well, he’s going to have a show at the ICA in London!”
Oh, you’re exaggerating.
Honestly, there’s so much crap that goes on here. This is a very hands-on gallery. We’re extremely short-staffed for the level of gallery that we are. A gallery is all smoke and mirrors. It seems big and fancy, but it’s a constant struggle. To appear to be what you are, and to support your programs, you’re running a negative balance constantly. So I’m struggling to work really hard and try to be at the gallery every day, and I don’t get around. Plus we’re in the West Village, so it’s not like if I was in Chelsea and I’d just take a walk and go see something. I’m down here, so I go over to Gavin [Brown]’s to see what he’s doing and then go home.
Installation shot of Christoph Büchel’s show at Maccarone Gallery, 2001.
You mentioned the collectors; tell me more about the kind of language you use with them. Like, are collectors actually interested in critical theory?
Well, to some degree you describe the work and where the ideas come from, and that really comes out of the artist’s mouth. I go to the artist’s studio, I have a conversation with them, and then it’s regurgitated to the collectors. At the level we’re at, the gallery already has its own brand. So you’re coming in here and you know what you’re getting; you’re getting a Maccarone artist who is x, y, and z, and that connotes, hopefully, some kind of up-and-coming artist. I think that variable is already predetermined, so I really don’t get into that kind of theoretical language. I kind of avoid that.
I knew it! I knew academia was completely inconsequential.
It’s trash, it’s garbage. I don’t think one academic thing comes out of my mouth. [Turns to Ellen Langan, the gallery director:] Do we ever talk about that stuff? We don’t ever. A little bit. Every once in a while.
Collectors are the most mysterious part of the art world to me. Who are these people? Where do they come from? How do you find them?
The way it works a lot is, you know, it’s like a store, and people are interested in certain things that you have. So people call and say, “Oh, I’m really interested in Nate Lowman.” And you’re like, “Who are you?” And then you find out, you call another gallery.
They need references? To be a collector, you can’t just be like, “Oh, here, take my check for $100,000 please?”
No. I get wary. You want the artwork to go to someone who’s going to take care of it. I know most of the collectors who buy here are repeat offenders. They come back for more abuse. And for more artwork.
I know artists sometimes hang out with their collectors. It seems like a weird relationship. Are the collectors kind of buying entry into a social scene?
It’s interesting, because I do think there are collectors who are completely passionate and love art and are obsessed with it and they’re on every museum board and they support it and spend money and blah blah blah. But then I think there are collectors who are having a midlife crisis and are like, “I want to party with artists.” I don’t party with collectors, usually. I’m not a big collector hanger-outer. Knock on wood, we have a very dignified group of museum-level collectors, who are extremely supportive and who I adore and have intelligent conversations with and don’t have to go to a titty bar with.
After being at Luhring Augustine, did you know you wanted to open up your own gallery?
No. When I left Luhring Augustine I did not want to open up a gallery. I wanted to curate the Carnegie International. And I’d gone around and told people that’s what I wanted to do. Roland [Augustine] was good friends with Richard Armstrong [then director of the Carnegie Museum of Art], and I was hoping he would talk to Richard and tell him that I wanted to do it. But I was a gallery director at a commercial gallery—and I still talk about wanting to curate the Carnegie International every time it comes up. I’m always like, “Who’s the curator? I wanna do it!” I don’t know why it stuck in my head as the big thing. So basically I spent a year wearing pajamas and walking my dog. And the way I came upon the Canal Street space was quite by accident. I found the building, and the building determined my idea of what I wanted to do. As opposed to setting out and looking for space, getting a backer, etc.
You were just walking down the street?
I was just walking down the street and saw this stupid building that said “Kunst” [German for “art”] on it.
I always wondered if the awning originally said that or if you painted that on.
It was already there. Yeah, it was the building that really determined it for me. My first show was Christoph Büchel, which was a historical show.
Right, I kick myself for not going to that.
It was an interesting way of starting a gallery, by doing this really ambitious show, and at the same time it was kind of a stupid idea because it set the pace for the gallery. Everyone thought that the work was very challenging and noncommercial for a commercial gallery. So I’d set this reputation, and it wasn’t until last year that I finally was able to untwine—is that a word?
I feel like the gallery had this history of being like, “Ooh, crazy Michele! With that crazy gallery! With the crazy artists! With those crazy installations that cost so much money!”
Isn’t that good in a way? The flip side of crazy is exciting.
It was good and bad. But it was big and crazy, so nobody wanted to buy it. It was almost like I was philanthropically showing this really difficult work that was unsellable so that the New York art world could see these things they wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. So it was like, “Oh my God, you’re so crazy! You’re doing such a great job!” But then at the end people weren’t buying these large-scale installations.
Well, how do you actually sell something like the Büchel installation?
To be honest, very few of his large-scale installations have sold, and they’ve sold on the institutional level. There are smaller works of his that he makes that are editioned and are more accessible, which sort of float the larger projects.
Installation shot of Paul McCarthy’s chocolate factory at Maccarone Gallery, 2007.
Looking back through all the shows you’ve done, it seems like you’re really interested in art that crumbles and destroys a gallery space.
Yeah, I love it. Love to mess up the space, love to go broke, love to work with artists who work on a level that’s very poetic or ethereal or unconcrete. I’m drawn to that kind of work, and I can’t explain it. I can look at a young artist and decide quickly whether or not it’s interesting to me, and I can dismiss things just as easily. For me it’s absolutely a gut reaction. It’s not labor-intensive thinking; it’s very immediate. It’s the Barbara Novak experience. She changed my world. Did you take her class?
No, unfortunately I missed it.
She taught a class, which I know a lot of people in the art world took, called “The Literature of Art.” And the first book you would read was Delacroix’s journals. The first day of class she would show the famous Bierstadt painting that’s at the Met; I forget the title of it. She would look at it and start crying because it was about sublimity. She wrote these books about Luminism and sublimity in the American landscape, and I was obsessed with her. She’s like, “You have to feel the art.”
So you form opinions instantaneously?
They’re usually very strong. It’s weird because I’m a Libra so I can’t go to the deli to pick out a beverage to save my life. Do I want an iced tea, do I want a soda? Maybe I want a flavored water, maybe I want a Gatorade. I’ll spend 20 minutes deciding. But I see a piece of art and I know immediately whether or not I think it’s good. Which is hard with my gallery artists, because I’ve chosen this artist to support and stand by, and sometimes they come to me with these projects and I want to say, “Ooof!” That’s the hardest part of my job. I’ve gotten better at it because I used to have this idea that I’ve chosen you, you’re my artist, do whatever you want, and I’ll support it. Now I’ve grown up, and when I get a proposal, I really challenge it. I’ll say, “I won’t be able to sell that. I think the production puts you in a difficult position, it puts me in a difficult position, and everyone has to make a living, so grow up. We can’t do this.” I just started saying that.
I’m sure the artists are grateful for that honesty.
I think yes, very much so. Everyone’s picked up on it, and I think the gallery is functioning better. I’m turning it into a gallery where before it was kind of a free-for-all.
How do you find artists that you want to represent?
I see a lot before I take on an artist, except for Oscar Tuazon, who is the only artist I took on without ever seeing a piece of his artwork. Our first meeting we had, his computer was broken, so we sat for three hours in his apartment and just talked. I remember we went for a walk and I said, “I don’t know, just do whatever you want to do. I’ll give you a show, here’s the slot.” Then in September of 2008 he did this mind-blowing project here.
Do you have a favorite show, or is it like, “They’re all my babies”?
It’s hard because everyone’s going to get mad, but Oscar’s 2008 show here I felt so strongly about. It was the show that made me react the strongest emotionally, to the point where I couldn’t stop talking about it in therapy and I had to bring my therapist to the gallery and have her look at the piece with me. It’s the only time she’s ever been to the gallery, and I felt really strongly that she had to see this specific artwork.
Which one? Do you have a picture?
It’s actually in Artforum this month. It might end up being his most important work to date because it’s so heavily discussed and it was well documented. [Shows me the photo in the magazine] God, I almost want to cry when I talk about it. See, this is steel and concrete, and it was all held up with winches, and he dropped the structure so that it stopped in its collapse. It seized, so these hard materials and these soft materials ended up being suspended in their failure. I was so overwhelmed with this idea that you can exist forever without collapsing but somehow be among a wreckage. That, to me, was the most important thing. And that was the only time I ever forced my therapist to come down here. I’m in Gestalt therapy.
I’ve heard of that, but I’m not sure what it entails.
It’s not analysis; you deal with your specific emotions at a specific time. You do something called chair work, where you do conflict resolution with yourself and you take on the persona of your conflict, and you sit in different chairs talking out the issue. So I did that from the point of view of this sculpture.
Wow, I love that.
I get teary-eyed when I think about it.
How do you judge if a show is a success?
Whether or not I can meet my overhead. I’m not kidding. No, I’m kidding, to an extent. I mean, we’ve had shows that I thought were so great, like the Oscar Tuazon show, that didn’t get reviews at all. Come 2010, he’s got the cover of Artforum, but when we did this piece there wasn’t a peep about it. I was aggravated and shocked that nobody picked up that it was the best work of art of that time.
I don’t want to forget to ask you about your old Canal Street space. Whenever I mention it you scrunch your face up in disgust. Why is that?
We were in the Lower East Side, coming over the Williamsburg Bridge today, and we stopped to get juice at this juice place. And I was like, “I fucking hate the Lower East Side, it fucking sucks, god-fucking-damn it, I hate it.”
Oscar Tuazon, Tonapah, 2008. Wood, steel, metal, winches, cement.
When you opened the gallery in 2001, there weren’t any galleries down there. Was Rivington Arms even there?
No, they opened after me. I was the first asshole who opened on the Lower East Side. I take complete responsibility for boug-ing up that neighborhood.
But why do you have such a negative reaction to the old gallery?
That building was falling down. And I was so broke that I had to actually live there. I lived in that building with no hot water, no shower, and no heat. My life was so derelict, I would shower at the Dolphin gym on Avenue B. And it smelled like dead rats. It was so raw.
Terence Koh lives there now and has his gallery there.
He fixed it up and put a lot of money into it and made it livable. But back then, I remember one time leaning on a window, and the entire facade of the building went like this [sways to the side], like it was going to fall over. At a certain point, I was like, I can’t show artists in this crazy, fucked-up space.
But that’s what people loved, right?
They loved it! It was punk rock for a while, but once you turn, like, 30, I was just like, “I can’t be punk rock anymore.” These are real lives, these are real artists with careers who have families and need to make money. I can’t live in a squat. This is just disrespectful across the board. So I had to up the ante and change the level of the space. And also, as a human being, going there and working there—during the summer we’d be sweating; in the winter the pipes would burst. That place was no joke. So just when you think the life of a gallerist is super-glamorous, let me tell you. Let me break it down for you.
Was it more glamorous when you were at Luhring Augustine?
No, I always felt like a schlepper. I felt like I was constantly grabbing big boxes of Jack Pierson prints and pulling them out and showing them to people. I always had the idea that you work really hard in the art world, because no one makes any money and you have to struggle. I always had this sense of struggle from the beginning. I was going to get air conditioners to build up a mound of dirt, and I was on the phone with the carpet people for Rudy Stingel’s first show at Danny Newburg (it was the wall-to-wall orange carpet). So I already had this image of the art world as being schlep work. I understood that the art world was glamorous, but what pulled me to it was that sort of hands-on approach, working with artists and doing research.
These kids today who come to the art world and are all glamorous and it’s all money—that was 2007, people. There were a couple of years there that maybe it was glamorous. I didn’t feel it, but whatever. When I started in the art world, people were paying rent with paintings, and paychecks bounced, and I worked 18 hours a day. It’s hard work, and it’s a labor of love.
It’s a good trick, though, because as a casual gallerygoer, you can’t tell. The end result is so polished.
Smoke and mirrors.
Do you get to travel a lot?
Yeah, I do. To go to nonsense. I wish I was joking. Like, nonsense.
What, like art fairs?
Visiting artists who live abroad and exhibitions that the artists are in and biennials, crap like that. I hate traveling. Hate it. Don’t find it glamorous, hate being in a crappy airplane seat for eight hours, schlepping my bags. Talk about unglamorous. Sitting on a United coach seat for eight frickin’ hours watching some crapass movie with Drew Barrymore, then getting off the plane with your crappy rolly. Not fun. And it’s not like I’ve got a car waiting for me at the Vienna airport. I’ve got to get on mass transit. I’m at Charles de Gaulle trying to get a train ticket with Japanese people in line and no one can figure out how to use the machines, and I finally get a ticket, and then they don’t even come and collect it. That’s what traveling’s like.
I guess it’s better if someone’s sending you.
Yeah, I ain’t Larry Gagosian. How much is he making a year? Forty million?
Who is your favorite artist, and who do you think is the most overrated?
Paul McCarthy, I’d have to say, is my favorite artist. An overrated artist? Well, I don’t think Cy Twombly is overrated exactly, but I’m working on a bit about him. I’m going to do stand-up comedy at Rob Pruitt’s art awards in December, so I’m doing bits about Cy Twombly right now.
Ooh, tell me a Cy Twombly bit.
“What’s the deal with Cy Twombly? Is he a grumpy old man or is he just crazy? Oops, I was talking about Dan Graham.” That’s the punch line! The punch line is Dan Graham. That’s pretty good, right?
Umm… I’m embarrassed, but I don’t get it. I mean, I know who Cy Twombly and Dan Graham are, but maybe I don’t know enough about them to get the punch line?
Cy Twombly is very diva-ish. He does crazy shit where he just leaves in the middle of a party because he didn’t like where he was sitting. And Dan does the same thing, where they just abruptly get up and leave. I remember being at a dinner with Colin de Land and Dan Graham, at a collector’s house with Roni Horn and Dara Birnbaum and all these fancy artists. It’s this really interesting dinner, and Dan starts eating his food and he bangs his fists on the table, going, “I want to eat at Blimpie right now because this food is too salty!” And he just got up and left.
That’s what I’m saying. That’s my Cy Twombly-slash-Dan Graham joke. Are they grumpy old men or just crazy?
I can’t tell if you’re kidding. Are you really doing stand-up?
Yeah, I’ve got to work on it.
Do you have any other jokes?
No, that’s my big one right now. I think it might be a really bad idea.