Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd: Running a Picture Gallery
CHELSEA space, London

Art Monthly 398, July-Aug 2016

The timing of this CHELSEA space exhibition celebrating the operations of the Nigel Greenwood Gallery - considered to be one of the most important spaces operating in London in the 1970s and early 80s - is resonant, as it overlaps with the programme of events, sponsored by Uniqlo, that celebrate the opening to the public of the vast new ten storey extension of Tate Modern. This makes peering at the modest black and white prints and mimeographed type-written letters that constitute much of this show feel akin to looking at images from the Hubble Space telescope: we are seeing images of a genesis back in time, before these distant celestial lights expanded inexorably into great gaseous masses that now seem to fill the universe. Richard Tuttle - one of the many innovative American artists who were championed by Greenwood, is represented here in a vitrine with a work "untitled 9 pieces of rope", which is exactly that: nine short lengths of what might be woven washing line, poignant, and infinitesimally smaller than the vast billowing installation of fabrics that filled the Turbine Hall at Tate in 2015. Gilbert and George not with giant billboards but ghostly vinyls on the gallery window frozen performing Underneath the Arches' in the 'Singing Sculpture' and a bent wine glass and flattened gin bottle languishing in a case. The exhibition beautifully gives a sense of the intimate scale of the world of experimental art at that time. Photographs of a gallery installation by Broodthaers show not only the work we recognise from later catalogues and museum displays but the skirting boards and moulded ceiling of the domestic space that the works occupied: After all the site of these exhibitions, 41 Sloane Gardens, was a home. According to the catalogue "Anne Gallagher now director of British Collections at Tate, remembers that even in the 1980s they always had a pot of cold tea and tea cups hidden under the desk so that if the landlord came around they could whip them out and act like they were friends who had dropped by for a chat". In an interview between Nigel Greenwood and Catherine Butcher, reproduced here, Greenwood talks of how “we all overlapped...there were five collectors, three museum directors, two young curators......if you wrote it down there were a maximum of 150 people involved in the whole enterprise worldwide." Gilbert and George say of the gallery "It was totally international. But it was a family, a small, small family."

Exhibitions at Sloane Gardens between 1971 and 1979 (the period that this exhibition focusses on) brought to the UK work by Jack Goldstein, Carl Andre, Bruce Nauman, Keith Sonnier and Pierre Manzoni, Bernd and Hilda Becher, Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle and Marcel Broodthaers, alongside Gilbert and George, Richard Hamilton, Joel Fisher, Marc Chaimowicz, David Tremlett and John Stezaker who were based here. Although formally different they were linked by a questioning of what might be considered art, and an interest in ideas and concepts. These approaches were energetically promoted by Greenwood who also played an important role in the development of artists books, innovating new means of production and distribution for practice. As he said “Ideas for me don't have to be on the gallery wall, it can be in book form.” The calendar of activity demonstrates a particular and ongoing relationship and dialogue between the space and the artist, with artists returning to make projects and show works. Gilbert and George had six exhibitions in a four year period, Joel Fisher staged the third exhibition in 1971 and was part of the penultimate show in 1979 (with Mark Chaimowicz, who himself had three exhibitions in 77/78). Fisher is represented with a new work too, a beautiful tessellated wall drawing in graphite 'Apograph' 2016. The exhibition communicates a strong feeling of a shared enterprise, with the gallery an active agent in pushing forms and possibilities out into an, as yet, unprepared world. Phoebe Greenwood recalls, in a conversation with Gilbert and George about 'Gordon's makes us Drunk' - shown at the gallery in 1972 - "The Tate bought the pieces and then complained about the quality." They reply “Your father was the first gallery to show video film in the world! How would they even know about it. How could the Tate even know what it was meant to look like!"

For all the innovative practices represented, this list of exhibitions also demonstrates limits to the models of progressive practice that Greenwood was interested in. It is a very masculine world. Of the 89 exhibitions staged in this period, only three of them are by women, with only Rita Donagh having had more than a single exhibition.

The sense of social intimacy is amplified through reading the exhibited letters to artists. Greenwood writes to Joel Fisher in 1976 that “David Tremlett's show is beautiful, a sceptical British public kept away and those who came are happily surprised." But the letters also suggest another side of the operations of the gallery, one where the Greenwood Gallery was also an innovator, that of finding ways of translating innovative new forms into money. Greenwood's letter to Fischer started with “I hope that you actually got paid by Lia Rumma in dollars..". Ruscha writes suggesting a (what seems very reasonable) price for the works he's just sent over. A nicotine coloured cutting from The Evening Standard from 14.10.71 reads “In view of the desperate lack of dealers who are willing to house a radical young artist in West End premises, the advent of a superb new exhibition space dedicated to the avant-garde at 29-30 Old Burlington Street should be warmly welcomed..(the work) by Barry Le Va using flour could never be sold in the ordinary sense of the word”. Little did the writer know how fast this would change, that through the pioneering efforts of Nigel Greenwood, and others, we would reach a stage where anything could be sold, (in all senses of the word), for vast sums of money.

The exhibition and publication allows, for a fleeting moment, the opportunity for the viewer to imagine how these practices felt, how they resonated, what they meant, in an earlier smaller galaxy, and what an important position Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd played in shaping and mapping that space. It also inevitably, invites us to reflect on how much has been gained, and how much has been lost, in its subsequent explosion and expansion.