The New York Times
March 2, 2003

By Mia Fineman

A Gallery Hater and His New Gallery:
A Foe of Galleries Takes One on Using 15 Tons of Steel

“The last thing I ever wanted to do was to open a gallery," Kenny Schachter said the other day from behind an enormous, swooping steel desk in his six-month-old gallery in Greenwich Village. Fast-talking and opinionated, with a tendency to hold forth on the sorry state of the art world, Mr. Schachter, 41, made his name in the 90's as an itinerant art dealer, staging sprawling, temporary group shows of emerging artists' work in vacant storefront spaces.

Seated across from him was Vito Acconci, the performance-artist-turned-architect who designed Mr. Schachter's new gallery space. Mr. Acconci, 62, dressed from head to toe in black and smelling faintly of cigarettes, was going over the plans for Mr. Schachter's booth at the Armory Show, an annual four-day contemporary-art fair that starts on Friday on two Hudson River piers.

Although Mr. Acconci has been designing structures that fall somewhere between sculpture and architecture for 20 years, he is reluctant to be pigeonholed and — for the moment at least — remains outside the architectural establishment. Mr. Schachter, who has been organizing exhibitions and selling art for the past decade, describes himself as an "anti-art-dealer and anti-gallerist."

Similarly unorthodox in outlook, the two men share a chameleonlike ability to invent themselves anew. Before he became an art dealer, Mr. Schachter worked variously as a lawyer, a stockbroker and a traveling tie salesman. Mr. Acconci began his career as a poet, then became well known in the 70's as a performance and video artist before abandoning fine art for architecture. Like Mr. Schachter, he is critical of the ways in which contemporary art is seen and disseminated.

"It's not art as an activity that bothers me," Mr. Acconci explained, "it's maybe art as a career or something. But art as an activity is kind of incredible. When people move into a house and put curtains on the windows, that's probably the first impulse toward art. They want to change something. Something was there, but they want to make it a little different than it was."

Two years ago, Mr. Schachter approached Mr. Acconci with a "theoretical idea" for a gallery. "Actually, my idea was of what I didn't want," he said. "I didn't want white walls. I didn't want one of those intimidating, exclusionary spaces with a polished concrete floor and a high desk that visitors can't see behind." After searching unsuccessfully for a street-level space, Mr. Schachter grew impatient and decided to carve out 1,200 feet of exhibition space in the back of the 19th-century carriage house where he lives with his wife, the artist Ilona Rich, and their four sons.

The entrance to the gallery is on Charles Lane, a cobblestone alleyway near the Hudson River — a place even a native New Yorker would be challenged to find. The space is long and narrow, with an imposing steel front door that tilts into the front room and gracefully morphs into the reception desk. Along the walls are modular steel-mesh screens that flip up to become seats or display shelves; in the back, part of the ceiling swings down to become a video projection screen.

The overall feel of the gallery, which Mr. Schachter calls conTEMPorary, is curvy, fluid and metallic, like Frank Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim turned inside-out. "Design-wise, the space has succeeded beyond my wildest expectations," Mr. Schachter said, "though it grew into some monster it wasn't supposed to be. It was meant to be a temporary thing and then it turned into 30,000 pounds of steel, which is probably going to outlast the house itself."

For Mr. Schachter, the gallery's only real flaw is its obscure location. "Ideally it would have been in a very high-trafficked area," he said, "preferably outside the West Chelsea gallery district, which is inaccessible to public transportation and inaccessible to a mainstream audience."

Since the early 90's, Mr. Schachter has been trying to attract viewers who may be unfamiliar with contemporary art by presenting work in a less intimidating context. (Abstract paintings and sculpture by Robert Reynolds are currently on view.) "When I did shows in temporary storefronts, I never put a sign that said `gallery' on the wall," he said, "because that would automatically turn away 99 percent of the population. I would always keep the doors open, stay open extra hours, stay open on Sundays. I mean, not one gallery in Chelsea is open on Sunday," he said somewhat hyperbolically. "And you wonder, why would these galleries be closed on the one day ordinary people have time to go look at art?"

Similarly, in many of his early performance-art pieces, Mr. Acconci tried to take art out of the sterile white cube of the gallery space and into the streets. "At some point in the mid-70's," he said, "I started to realize that I'm more interested in the casual passer-by, in the person who doesn't stop at something because it's called art, but stops because for some reason, this thing interests this person for a little while."

"What drew me to architecture," he continued, "is that it's the art that everybody knows, whether they realize it or not, because everybody's walked through a doorway, everybody's climbed a stairway. But at the same time, maybe they know architecture because they've been oppressed by it. The doorway's been too narrow, the ceiling's been too low — but at least they know it by means of their bodies."

In the early 80's, Mr. Acconci began designing architectural structures, like "Instant House," a phone-booth-size cabinet with collapsible walls emblazoned with American and Soviet flags, which he generally presented in museums and galleries. Then 10 years ago, he officially stopped making art and established the Acconci Studio, near the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn, where he works with half a dozen young architects on projects that range from an elementary school courtyard to a floating island in the middle of the Mur River in Austria. "Do I think I'm an architect?" he asked. "I think we do architecture." Mr. Schachter's gallery was the studio's first private commission and first built interior.

In planning his exhibitions, Mr. Schachter has tried to make the content as fluid and mutable as the walls themselves. "An integral part of my program is to work outside the confines of the art world, to cross-pollinate with architects, fashion designers, dance groups and musicians," he explained. "For me, this gallery is like a small incubator for nurturing ideas, for working with disparate groups of people. And I remain so hopeful that contemporary art could speak to people and become an integral part of people's lives if it's presented in a human way." 

  Mia Fineman is the author, with Maria Morris Hambourg, of "Richard Avedon: Portraits" (Abrams, 2002).

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