The New York outpost of Simon Lee Gallery, which opens its inaugural show tonight, is in Tillinghast House, a Queen Anne-style terra cotta building on the Upper East Side that was built for Met trustee William H. Tillinghast in 1882. It seems an appropriate spot for the veteran dealer, who has decades of gallery experience in London under his belt, plus a space in Hong Kong. But as the elevator opens on the second floor, the sight is somewhat unexpected. It’s a portrait show with a salon-style hang, younger artists rubbing elbows with roster artists such as George Condo and Jim Shaw.
“We needed more energy really,” Lee said earlier this week during a visit to the gallery. “This is the first relaunch, and it’s pretty fun actually. It’s a very sort of zeitgeist-y sort of show.”
Lee was sitting back on a sofa in the gallery’s lounge-slash-office, which is set essentially inside the viewing space, right beside a lovely terrace. A burgeoning bar with a bottle or two is set nearby, and for a table there’s a new one designed by Simon Lee Gallery artist Sarah Crowner, who will unveil a piece in the Guggenheim’s Wright restaurant next week. It’s got a clubhouse vibe, refreshing for such stuffy environs, and much welcome. The gallery’s new director, James Michael Shaeffer, was sitting next to him.
“It’s cajj!” Lee said, as in short for “casual.” “And I like that, you know—when we don’t have a project or a show, there will always be incredible things here. I want it to be a place where people feel comfortable to just come and hang out. I had it anyway, and I just decided that the M.O. would be different from now on. It’s very nice to have a presence in New York.”
Lee originally snapped up the landmarked space in 2014, with a ten-year lease, running it as a private show room—a way to be closer to New York–based artists on his roster, like Condo, Mel Bochner, and others, as well as Jeff Elrod and Christopher Wool, who both split their time between New York and Marfa, Texas. He also represents the young New York artists Eric Mack and Hugh Scott-Douglas.
Noting the number of New York artists he shows, Lee said, “I thought it would be very good to have a foothold.”
It was a long time coming. Lee has spent nearly 30 years as a dealer in London. In the late 1990s, he was director of Anthony d’Offay Gallery, the powerhouse enterprise that closed in 2001 after giving a start to a murderer’s row of future gallerists: Sadie Coles, Matthew Marks, Tanya Bondaker, Gavin Brown, Stefania Bortolami, Dominique Lévy, Peter Freeman, James Cohan, and many more. (Damien Hirst once worked there as an art handler three days a week.) In 2002, he opened Simon Lee Gallery in a former London car showroom, and moved to Mayfair in 2006. In 2012, he expanded to Hong Kong, opening a space in the Pedder Building alongside Gagosian, Lehmann Maupin, and Massimo de Carlo.
And while it is now a full-fledged gallery, that doesn’t mean its namesake will be around all that often—he does still live in London. And so Lee hired Shaeffer, formerly the director of James Fuentes Gallery, to run the space, and imbue it with the same verve that he brought to shows that he curated at that Lower East Side mainstay.
“It’s James’s baby at the moment,” Lee said. “He’s exactly what I wanted to find for this situation. I think it’s perfect, and I think it’s great for him—he might think it’s not as great as I think it is.”
“I think it’s great!” Shaeffer chimed in.
“I want him to feel proprietorial about it,” Lee went on. “I’m not intending to spend more time in New York, I have to be in Hong Kong a lot, and London. I have kids and a family and I’m not giving that up either. I’m just glad he’s bringing a fresh perspective and new eye to the whole thing.”
In its first exhibition Lee is showing artists that previously had no relationship with the gallery, from a large swath of the market landscape. “We have an identity, and it will extend the identity in a slightly different direction,” he said. “Here, we do have Paulina Olowska and Jim Shaw and George [Condo] and one or two other things that are closer to our core program, but the idea is to use this to extend that range.”
“The program is a lot more diverse than other galleries its size,” Shaeffer said. “Looking at some of the other galleries that represent the artists, it can range from David Zwirner to Reena Spaulings. And so with this space we’re really able to exhibit that.”
The first show, which is called “An Uncanny Likeness,” was handled by Franklin Melendez, a writer and curator who has organized shows at Galerie Andreas Huber in Vienna and other spaces, and Romain Duriac, also a writer, who has worked with the Paris gallery Balice Hertling. (A Google search reveals that Duriac was married to the actress Scarlett Johansson for two years. They announced their divorce this week.) The salon-style hang emphasizes playful juxtaposition—a Martin Wong Bruce Lee painting here, a Jill Mulleady spectral portrait over there.
“Franklin did a great show for us in Hong Kong, with this young mix of artists,” Lee said. “In a way, this show binds the three spaces together quite coherently, even if we don’t represent the artists in the show.”
And it clearly reflects Shaeffer’s sense for contextualizing younger artists within art history, which was on display in shows he curated at James Fuentes Gallery and its project space, Allen & Eldridge.
“One of the things that I’ve told people about my goals for the artists that I work with is that I can do so much more for them here than if I were to be doing independent projects on the Lower East Side,” Shaeffer said. “Here, you have someone like Justin John Green or Van Hanos, who a lot of people are talking about but this might be the first time that they are exhibiting with Martin Wong or Jim Shaw. And you’re contextualizing them in a way that for a lot of artists would take years, if not decades.”
“We can do that pretty easily,” Lee added. “And if we have to bring in a heavy duty, um, Magritte—which we could almost put in this weird show!—we can do it. We want to exploit all our resources and just pump it in here.”
One potential snag that comes to mind when looking at the Simon Lee Gallery roster: many of these artists already have New York representation. But, not to worry.
“The complexion of the whole gallery system is changing at the moment and artists call their own shots,” Lee said. “It used to be so rigid, and artists would never show with someone else. You know, you can be very polite, and you find that your colleagues aren’t really that sensitive.”
As for now, Lee is gearing up for its next show, which will be curated by Shaeffer and open when everyone is in town for the Armory Show, NADA, and Independent in March. And then there’s a sculpture show, also curated by Duriac and Melendez. They didn’t have many details, but the work-in-progress name seems appropriate for the times.
“We have a title for it already,” Lee said. “‘Apocalyptic,’ is it?”