A Discreet Jubilee for a Groundbreaking Chelsea Gallery

A Discreet Jubilee for a Groundbreaking Chelsea Gallery

Many dealers have influenced art history through the works they’ve bought and sold, but only a very few have done something more profound: reshape how we see art and transform what we value. In New York that dealer is Paula Cooper, whose namesake gallery — the first to open south of Houston Street — has led the charge for Minimalist and Conceptual art for 50 years now. The Paula Cooper Gallery has also been defined by an embrace of music, dance and poetry, and by a political activism uncommon in galleries of its prominence. (Ms. Cooper and her husband, the editor Jack Macrae, also own the excellent bookshop 192 Books, on 10th Avenue nearby.)

The gallery’s 50th year in business began with an awful surprise: A fire broke out in the storage area of Ms. Cooper’s longtime headquarters on West 21st Street. The flagship has since moved to a temporary home on West 26th Street, which opened its doors with “50 Years: An Anniversary,” a light-footed refashioning of the exhibition that inaugurated the gallery’s first home, on Prince Street, in 1968.

That initial show was forthrightly titled “Benefit for the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam,” and all but one of its 14 artists are back again, some with the original work they presented in 1968. The line of 28 red bricks that Carl Andre placed on the floor of the old gallery has been placed again in the new one. Sol LeWitt’s very first wall drawing, now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has also been re-executed here. It sequences horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines in various combinations across a grid; its austere precision still packs the same philosophical and visual bite. The price list for the 1968 show, which you can peruse at the front desk, indicates that LeWitt charged “per hour.” There are also two spindles of white light from Dan Flavin, and spare paintings by Robert Ryman and Jo Baer.

Yet “50 Years” reminds us as well of the breadth of talent and unity of vision in the scene Ms. Cooper helped forge. One of the great lost innovators of the late 1960s, whose work always seems on the cusp of rediscovery, is Bill Bollinger, whose “Rope Piece” (from 1969, and quite similar to one in the 1968 show) consists of a pair of strands of hemp bolted to the floor and ceiling, stretched to the extreme and clamped together: maximum tension expressed with minimal means. In Robert Murray’s “Surf” (1967), a pair of yellow aluminum zigzags nuzzle on the floor, like snakes in the grass offering a sly rejoinder to Donald Judd’s nearby matte brown aluminum box.

The show “50 Years: An Anniversary” closes this weekend after a very short run (less than a month). Ms. Cooper was clearly not eager to preen — although there are some delicious archival materials on the gallery’s website — and she has kept up regular programming at her two other Chelsea locations rather than mount a hagiographic blowout. (Around the block, in an empty lot on the corner of 11th Avenue and West 25th Street, the gallery is presenting a towering totem of red steel by Mark di Suvero, who first worked with Ms. Cooper at the artist-run Park Place Gallery in the mid-60s.)

The times are too fraught for celebration, Ms. Cooper seems to have concluded. Like its anti-Vietnam War predecessor, this show, too, has an activist stance: Gallery visitors are asked to contribute to March for Our Lives, the national movement for gun control begun by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. If Ms. Cooper’s taste has diffused throughout the world of contemporary art, her ethics and engagement have not — and what feels finest in this discreet jubilee is its vision of integrity in a mad, mad market.

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