The maverick art collector talks to us about breaking into the art world as an outsider, his personal influences and our limited edition poster.
Kenny Schachter doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he’s deathly serious about art. The art dealer, artist, curator and critic built his career on challenging the elitist rubric of the contemporary art world, making sure all-the-while to have a good time. Schachter, who grew up in the suburbs on Long Island, made his name in the late 1980s in New York with his guerilla galleries, or as he referred to it, “pop-up shows before the term ‘pop-up’ existed.” He then moved to London and plopped into the middle of art scene there, becoming a critic for Art Net News where he writes piercing critiques on topics such as art-fair despair, Bansky’s shredding stunt and gaming the art system.
To date, dichotomies have defined Shachter’s relationship with art. He deftly occupies the role of both insider and outsider. He brought all of this frenzied energy to a recent project with Avante Arte when we teamed up to release a quintessential Schachter piece, a limited-edition poster featuring a Larry Gagosian quote about sickness, death and the enduring legacy of a person’s art collection.
We recently caught up with Shachter at his home in London and talked to him about his artistic influences, how to start an art collection and what he thinks of Larry Gagosian. Below is an excerpt of the conversation.
Can you tell us how you got into art in the first place?
I grew up in a very isolated environment in the suburbs. Even though it was only 17 miles outside of New York City, it could have been 17 million miles because I was so alienated. I didn’t have a social circle, there was no internet. I was overweight and stuttered. It was pretty grim. I spent those formative years internalizing all this solitude. I defined my life in this negative fashion where I decided I wasn’t going to do the same thing every day. I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I had no notion of what I did want to do.
Then in 1988, I saw an estate sale of Andy Warhol at Sotheby’s. I had no interest in Warhols’ work, a friend had asked me to join him. I went there expecting just a load of Warhols, but it was Warhols’ art collection that was being sold. There were works by the great artists of the time: Twombly, Rauschenberg, Basquiat, David Hockney and Jasper Johns. There were mega Basquiats going for between 15 and 20 thousand dollars.
I was a 25-year-old kid and didn’t know that art was something for sale. I had never been exposed to anyone involved in the trade of art, so I naively thought that art went from the artist to the museum and that was the end of the deal. After I went to this auction, I took out an unsecured loan of $10,000, went to an art gallery and bought some Twombly works. That’s how my whole career started.
From the start, I became this idiot savant, a dealer-to-dealer dealer. I came from outside of the system and I had no idea of how it functioned. So my entire career, to this very day, has been analyzing the commercial dissemination of art.
The painter and sculptor Paul Thek had a big impact on you. Can you tell us about that?
My mother passed away from cancer when I was 13. She had a year-long degenerative disease. Paul Thek had this vulnerability in his work. He took the starkness of a Donald Judd piece and he created something very formal with the underpinnings of a sculpture, but in the middle of it was this fake flesh. Fake meat that’s so realistic and rendered with wax and bits of plastic. Having seen somebody subject to a disease that ultimately took their life so prematurely, seeing this very machismo, foreboding structure was very moving.
When you’re living your life, when you’re young and burning the candle at both ends, you rarely think about what’s going on inside. You don’t think about the vulnerability of your organs and just how we’re ticking along with this kind of miracle of life. It’s that fragility that Thek captured. To depict this line between life and death in such a jarring and visceral way, it touched me in such a deep and personal way that I was just drawn to it.
Vito Acconci was also a major artistic influence.
They’re two wildly different artists. Thek, even though he made some very controversial and aggressive pieces, he was much more of a traditional hands-on craftsman type of artist. Vito Acconci was the opposite. What he’s most known for is masturbating under the floor in a gallery in 1972 in a piece called “Seedbed”.
For outsiders, do you think there are barriers to accessing the art world?
When I saw “Seedbed”, I just felt like if masturbation counts as art, I may have found my calling. This could be the career that I’ve been looking for, for 25 years. He also said if it wasn’t for the Yellow Pages, which is to say that if it wasn’t for a way to find people to make stuff for him, then he would never be an artist because he was never a maker. He had a very extreme notion. What he did was he dematerialized art in a way. He was like an intellectual terrorist.
When I started, the barriers were 100% present. There was no way in literally. Back then, if you wanted to communicate what you were doing, you had to be in New York. In LA, there was no scene. You’d have to be present there and you’d have to have relationships with people.
Today, there are more opportunities in the art world than ever before – since the first drawing came off the wall of a cave. People talk about “bubbles” and how it’s going to collapse, but nothing will ever dampen the human capacity to buy, adsorb and collect art and be surrounded by it.
How has technology changed this?
At the start of my career, there were no cameras on your phones. You’d have to get a camera or you’d have to get a photographer. Then you would have to format the standardized way of communicating artwork, which at the time was through slides.
The iPhone has destroyed the hierarchies of fine art. For me, Instagram has been one of the most explosive paradigmatic democratizing shifts. You can communicate with a universe of influential people in the fine art world with the press of a button from Vietnam, Cambodia, anywhere.
We’re releasing a limited edition poster with you. It’s a quote from Larry Gagosian, who started his career selling posters before he dominated the fine art world. What do you think makes Gagosian so successful and do you think his story is possible today?
Larry Gagosian got where he is because he fucking loves art. He has the flexibility, the dexterity, the wherewithal to do things that museums in this day and age can only dream of.
The poster with Gagosian’s quote is about many of the underlying issues that we’re talking about today. The most important thing, though, is that it’s a joke. This is a joke about the art world; not just about the art world, but about the most contemporary aspects of the art world.
When I started there was literally 25 people that constituted the audience for contemporary art. This art piece wouldn’t have had an audience 15 years ago. This is indicative of how art has expanded and become more mainstream.
The art world painted itself into a corner. Historically, it was always about trying to say, “This is not for you, you can’t understand it.” It’s very esoteric and erudite. That’s why it’s 27 thousand dollars because it’s something not for the normal person. Art today has become something else. The art world has really become something completely different than it was 15 years ago. Art is not just a little insular club for six families. Art now is funny. Art is known. People get the joke, which means a hell of a lot more than the joke itself.