Meet the Dealer: Friedrich Petzel

Friedrich Petzel

Friedrich Petzel

by Gloria Maria Cappelletti and Fabrizio Meris

The Collector Tribune introduces a new feature, in which art dealers answer questions about their lives, thoughts, values and experiences. Starting with NYC-based Friedrich Petzel of the Friedrich Petzel Gallery.

An experiment in collective memory, ‘NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star’ is a group show currently on view at New York’s New Museum. The title refers to the place (NYC) and year (1993) that the first incarnation of the Petzel Gallery opened on Wooster Street, SoHo.

Collector Tribune: What was it like being a young art entrepreneur back in 1993?

Friedrich Petzel: I wouldn’t have called myself an entrepreneur, more of ‘fan’ of contemporary art at that time. I tried to come to terms with showing a few of the most interesting artists of my own generation after having worked with Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Christopher Wool, first in Cologne in the 1980s, then for Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley in NY at Metro Pictures in the early 1990s. Jorge Pardo became a close friend of mine; Keith Edmier and Charline von Heyl gave me confidence that now it was time for us to ‘show up’.

TCT: What is your most vivid memory of the artistic and intellectual milieu of the SoHo art scene of the early 1990s?

FP: I remember the dialogues among artists as very much driven by anti-commodity, anti-1980s statements. There was a renewed sense for various activist agendas addressing the AIDS crisis, more diversity in the art world, Institutional Critique, Reaganomics, crime and the first of the Bush wars. Jeff Koons had become a kind of pariah; Longo was driven out of town as a representative of a bygone era. The exhibitions in the early 1990s were often driven by a rather specific polemic, which doesn’t make for very good art. But a certain urgency could be felt and that alone kept me from going back to Europe.

TCT: What was the greatest impact you felt back then when you visited the studio of a young artist?

FP: I remember visiting Sean Landers and John Currin`s studio on my way home to the LES. These guys had an intense dialogue with each other and their peers as if they were to almost ready to ‘own’ this world one day. It was hilarious and so different from anything else I saw then. They represented a new wave of Institutional Critique, an interest in how to make smart pictures without falling into the tired rhetoric of late Conceptualism.

TCT: What’s the greatest impact now?

FP: I’m still surprised by the artists I represent. After so many years I often think I know what each one is up to but then I revisit an artist’s work, such as Thomas Eggerer´s latest paintings, and I’m totally surprised. They keep me on my toes, so to speak, and their work is constantly evolving. I don’t do too many studio visits with artists other than my gallery artists.

TCT: How has the NYC art scene changed over the last two decades?

FP: We dealers learned the trade from our successful predecessors of the 1980s; we then turned it even more into a real sustainable business model, for better or worse. The art world is not a bohemian utopia anymore; it changed the same way the fashion, publishing and music industries changed. I guess I would be a hypocrite if I publicly regretted this development since I’m very much a part of this very system. Artists are treated like rock stars, some with revenues as high as mid-level businesses. As such, I run my gallery like a company; we are accountable for what and how we do things. Those who think that the world was a better, utopian place before should speak to artists that never got paid by their dealers and had no recourse. Also talk to artists from the 1960s or before that were NOT white, male and heterosexual.

TCT: Do you think artists are still interested in themes like politics and social concerns?

FP: Sure they are and an ongoing challenge is how to weave these interests into a narrative that is compelling and fresh and able to be expressed in their art. The drumming of propaganda slogans never generated much exciting art; Immendorff is obviously one of several exceptions to the rule.

TCT: For a long time NYC was widely regarded as the center of the art world. Would you say that is still true today in the context of a global, ever-moving art community?

FP: This place is where the trade happens; artists can live and work anywhere in this world as long as they have one good NY gallery.

TCT: What is your personal relationship with the internet and digital media? How do you think it is changing the way people approaching art-related matters?

FP: I don’t have a `personal’ relationship with the internet, only with my family and my friends. The question doesn’t make sense to me but I guess what it means is whether digital media are changing the way the art world works. In the early years communication was limited to phones, faxes and art fairs. So in this regard I do see digital media as a mechanism to enhance communication and to help galleries reach a broader audience with more frequency. With the inception of online art-selling platforms like paddle 8, Artspace and Artsy, we’re testing the limits of how art can be consumed. Only time will tell if these new ventures will survive.

TCT: In 2008 you opened a new venture in Berlin in partnership with Cologne-based dealer Gisela Capitain. Capitain Petzel Gallery is on one of the city´s historical landmarks, Karl Marx Allee. In your opinion what is a contemporary art dealer’s commitment to the past?

FP: I have a lot of respect for the artists of past decades and for colleagues and writers who make interesting contributions to understanding the present. I don’t, however, have a nostalgic bone in my body. Gisela and I developed a program that can hopefully inject a certain urgency into this town. The exhibition with Robert Longo on Karl Marx Allee was a personal triumph for me, coming full circle, especially in respect of the opening paragraphs of this interview.

Petzel Gallery
456 W 18th Street
New York, New York 10011

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