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London, UK 15.07.2012Features

Illustration by ALASTAIR GRAHAM

King of the Road

The Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea’s King’s Road is now a world class exhibition venue. Photography is an integral part of the programming and Out of Focus gives space to 38 artists currently subverting the medium. ï»¿

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: The Saatchi Gallery, London

Just prior to the Great War, a bluff American appeared at the cutting edge of the Paris art world – then indisputably the epicentre of modern painting. Albert Barnes had made his fortune out of medicine and pharmaceuticals but, in his early 30’s, dedicated himself to his real passion – art. Having serious money and a natural eye, and with plenty of attitude, Barnes mingled amongst fellow ex-pats in the French capital, notably Gertrude and Leo Stein, with whom he met Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Later, the art dealer Paul Guillaume would introduce Barnes to the work of Giorgio de Chirico, Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani, amongst other embryonic giants of 20th century painting. Barnes subsequently acquired 69 Cézannes, 60 Matisse works, 44 Picassos and 181 Renoir pictures. Eventually, the 2,500 items in his collection would include major pieces by Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Seurat, Degas and van Gogh. Today the Barnes collection is valued at 20 to 30 billion US dollars.

Famously ‘shy’ and irascible, in 1925 Barnes formed a foundation and private gallery which encouraged ordinary people and students in to view the works – then considered very avant-garde – whilst combating antagonism and ridicule from the US art establishment. He personally hung the galleries and specified the configuration of each room in detail. Local steelworkers were allowed easy access, but those he considered from the self serving art ‘establishment’ fared less well. TS Eliot’s request for admission was famously rebuffed with one word: Nuts.

It is difficult to think of the Barnes Foundation and its idiosyncratic founder without Charles Saatchi springing to mind. Both men, highly creative personalities with a true passion for painting and the notion of art as a redeeming human process, have similar life trajectories. 

Unlike Barnes, Saatchi came from a wealthy family – of Iraqi entrepreneurs who relocated as refugees to North London in 1947, when Charles was only four. Fast forward to the mid-60’s and Charles was a fledgling copywriter in the London advertising business – an exciting Pop Art world where the Mad Men ethos was still prevalent. Here he met his future wife, Doris Lockhart, an American credited by some with igniting his latent passion for art – which Saatchi himself declares was awakened by seeing a Jackson Pollock painting in New York. Doris has been described as ‘a sophisticated woman who spoke several languages, knew a great deal about art and a graduate of the Sorbonne’. They married in 1973 after five years together. Lockhart had a particular penchant for Minimalism at this time and the first acquisitions the pair made were from this school, sourced primarily from the Lisson Gallery. Charles’ own first purchase was reputedly by Sol LeWitt, a very minimal minimalist.

Paying the Piper
By 1970 and at only 27 years old, Saatchi, along with brother Maurice, was running his own agency, one that was to be regarded as epitomising the new international culture of media manipulation: Saatchi & Saatchi. Charles Saatchi was a gifted copy-writer and still retains a practised skill with words and language, his recent publications are wonderfully droll and amusing – also highly incisive and informed.(1)  Back then Saatchi was no marathon lunch man. Ad-guru, John Hegarty, remembers his tireless drive for success: ‘Charles was completely manic,’ he says. ‘At CDP they were writing great ads and then disappearing for a three-hour lunch. If you did that at Saatchi you were thrown out. We worked with a fantastic intensity.’

Being fiercely competitive is a trait Saatchi shares with the aforementioned Dr. Barnes (who boxed, and played semi-professional baseball). Saatchi plays tennis, races go-carts and you beat him at table tennis at your peril. And as with Barnes, the famous ‘shy’ act is no more than a convenient way to avoid dealing with people he is neither interested in, or respects. Also like Barnes, Saatchi is involved in every detail of an exhibition his gallery presents, hanging each show with a professional confidence and sure eye (‘...if I didn’t have the pleasure of planning and installing shows, and doing it better than anyone else, I would have stopped buying art many years ago’).

Given Saatchi’s driven nature it must have been a serious blow when in 1994 the brothers, surfing on a wave of some 20 years of industry adulation, were forced out of Saatchi & Saatchi in a shareholders coup. Their 1987 attempt to take over Midland Bank had ignominiously failed, but it’s pretty sure that what didn’t fail was Charles Saatchi’s harsh lesson in what happens when the ‘establishment’ decides some upstart needs taking down a peg or two. Bureaucracy in England is passive aggressive in nature and overweeningly incompetent in practise. It detests enterprise and success unless sanctioned by the few for the few. However, it was a lesson well learned for when the British art ‘establishment’ tried the same tactics sometime later, Saatchi outmanoeuvred it with ease. With typical brio the brothers were up and running within the year, at M&C Saatchi, generating new industry legends (hiring an empty office block for the day and filling it with actors as ‘employees’ to impress British Airways) and taking some of the former S&S brands with them. The rest is ad-land history and the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List conservatively estimated the brother’s wealth at £130 million.

Collector? Dealer? Patron? Philanthropist?
But Charles Saatchi has maintained a parallel career since the 1970’s. Once the real cash began to roll in, he was able to do what most of us would love to do – buy the art we like and acquire multiple examples of the artist’s work. Saatchi did this on an industrial scale from the late 1970’s onwards. By 1985 he had enough to fill a stadium gallery space – and so he created one. The Saatchi Gallery opened in Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, London, a former paint factory of some 30,000 square feet. The launch exhibition was held that March and featured American minimalist Donald Judd, painters Brice Marden and Cy Twombly – and Andy Warhol. Reportedly, a UK first for Twombly and Marden. Subsequent exhibitions were equally visionary and bravura performances. Legend has it that the Richard Serra exhibition sculptures were so large that the caretaker’s flat was demolished to make room for them. The gallery also enabled Richard Wilson to find a home for his piece 20:50, a room entirely filled with sump oil, which has since become a permanent, shrine-like feature of the Saatchi collection.

The Boundary Road gallery was a stunning space and the public were welcomed in free of charge to experience the works. Boundary Road successfully fulfilled the criteria of any art gallery worthy of the title: to elucidate, educate and facilitate – and it did not cost the taxpayer a cent.(2) 

As with Howard Hughes, Greta Garbo and Randolph Hearst, Saatchi’s personal inaccessibility to the media and public microscope has resulted in him taking on mythical status. It’s a clever schtick that has served him well. But his considerable achievements and repeated public-spirited generosity (in sharp contrast to his wheeler-dealer nature) are there for all to see.(3)

Young British Artists
Saatchi was allegedly one of the very few visitors to the now mythical Freeze exhibition staged by artist/friends from Goldsmith’s College (Steven Adamson; Angela Bulloch; Mat Collishaw; Ian Davenport; Angus Fairhurst; Anya Gallaccio; Damien Hirst; Gary Hume; Michael Landy; Abigail Lane; Sarah Lucas; Lala Meredith-Vula; Richard Patterson; Simon Patterson; Stephen Park; and Fiona Rae). Collishaw showed the now famous outsize photo of a gunshot wound to the head (actually little more than a direct rip-off from Austin Gresham’s Forensic Pathology handbook and, in fact, a knife wound). What struck Saatchi about the YBAs then was the attitude and indefinable essence of ‘now’. His subsequent support of this teen spirit has become the stuff of art history. It leap-frogged Damien Hirst to star status when Charles funded and purchased Hirst’s outline concept, sketched on the back of a beer mat, for a huge killer shark swimming in a vitrine of formaldehyde.

In 1997, Saatchi’s YBA collection became a block-buster Royal Academy exhibition entitled Sensation. With the benefit of hindsight it was possible to see, encapsulated in this single word, just how percipient Saatchi-as-curator had become as contemporary art morphed decisively into a branch of the entertainment industry.

The Slow Road to Chelsea
But Charles Saatchi is not infallible. The drive and ambition for his ideas to become manifest, seasoned with that old refugee cliché of always feeling the outsider (particularly acute in class-obsessed Britain) has led to errors of judgement. In April 2003, the Saatchi Gallery moved to County Hall on the South Bank. One can only imagine the joy of sticking it to the apparatchiks from the very core of the establishment heartland – and, coincidentally, slap between the two Tate galleries. A great location – but totally useless as a gallery space – with endless dark wood panelling and stultifying lease conditions. A lengthy, fractious battle with the landlords (Shirayama Shokusan Co. and Cadogan Leisure Investments) ended in a court defeat for Saatchi’s operating company and a glare of unwelcome, invasive publicity. And the School of Saatchi (BBC2), a sort of Opportunity Knocks (they preferred X-Factor) for wannabe artists – despite being fronted by Charles’ elegant muse, Rebecca Wilson, who graciously lowered her sights considerably – rapidly turned into a pantomime.(4) 

The criticisms levelled against Charles Saatchi are, on the whole, based on envy and resentment. He is accused of making markets with his buying policies – an integral aspect of the art trade since the Renaissance. He is accused of irresponsibly ‘de-accessioning’ works back onto the market – as opposed to disappearing them into permanent storage as most museums and municipal galleries do today. In a world where the monetary value of any single artwork is tied to its public pirouettes, it is virtually impossible to run an organisation that acquires and exhibits art without it having some effect on its perceived value. Perhaps the biggest confusion is how Saatchi is repeatedly addressed as if he were some sort of publically funded institution. In a way this is a compliment to brand Saatchi, but his adventures are always paid for by his own resources and skill – and it is this that irritates the art world’s bureaucrats, more used to absolute control though their highly selective patronage. And the fact that, historically speaking, he has consistently predicated significant new directions in contemporary art that national institutions have repeatedly failed to engage with.

Grand Old Duke of York’s
It must have been with immense satisfaction that Charles Saatchi opened the new Saatchi Gallery on King’s Road, Chelsea, in 2008. Some 70,000 square feet, in the historic Duke of York’s Headquarters building adjacent to Sloane Square; easily accessible, trending, and totally beautiful to behold. It is a triumph. The building was refurbished by architects Paul Davis + Partners and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris to provide 15 equally-proportioned exhibition spaces; each cool, light and restrained. The inaugural exhibition was typically inspiring, The Revolution Continues: New Art From China, 24 young Chinese artists in a survey of painting, sculpture and installation. And it is again free to the public, thanks to a collaboration with hot-shot auction house, Phillips de Pury & Co.

Contemporary Photography Revisited
Until 22 July, the Saatchi Gallery is presenting a survey of new directions in camera art selected by Charles Saatchi himself, with input from Rebecca Wilson. It is ten years since their last major review of trending photography, I am a Camera, itself a controversial event due to the inclusion of Tierney Gearon’s images of [her own] naked children (once a common sight on Britain’s summer beaches). 

Now, the selectors (‘curator’ is not a popular word at the SG) address the current issues of camera art – the overwhelming visual cacophony of images being force-fed to a defenceless audience; the fusion of the photo image with painting, drawing and information channels; indentifying self; making sense of tribal and cultural imperatives; and anything else that eschews the traditional concerns of photograph as documentary record. The thirty-eight artists from 13 countries seem strangely cohesive, or maybe they are linked by Charles Saatchi’s particular eye.(5) The work is disparate, but it is linked by the artists’ own desire to break rules, play with boundaries and traduce the ‘what you get is what you see’ readings of individual images. It is about indication.

In the calm confines of the Saatchi Gallery, each work has nowhere to hide and the innate qualities of the strongest (Grannan; Stezaker; Utsu; Robertson; Agbodjélou; Wermers; for example) shine through. But Out of Focus is not a matter of good or bad, it gives the opportunity for voices to be heard, to be presented as well as they are ever going to be presented. In a world of incessant visual noise these images get the chance to be considered singularly, uninterrupted. The impetus in photography today is to create an image that will grab the attention, create a frisson, have some sort of immediate impact. It’s a battle without rules. There are 38 belligerents at the Saatchi Gallery spoiling for the fight.

In June 2012, Charles Saatchi will be 69 years old, living near the Chelsea gallery, and happily married for the third time to a cook. His art business has evolved and today – through exhibitions, the truly incredible Saatchi website, and other multiple opportunities that offer young people a chance to engage with the practise of image making – is an integral part of British culture. What the gallery’s head of development, Rebecca Wilson, has described as: ‘the aim to make art more accessible to the mainstream, rather than an exclusive artworld pursuit’, has been achieved. Whatever Charles Saatchi has taken from the contemporary art business, it is self evident he has repaid it in spades. No doubt turning down a knighthood will be a pleasure yet to come.

P.S. In 2010, Saatchi announced the Chelsea Gallery would be renamed MoCA London (Museum of Contemporary Art, London) and be gifted to the nation – along with significant artworks – when he retires. To date nothing has been finalised but the news press have reported that the gallery is ‘currently in discussion with potential government departments’ and that all costs will be covered by the museum itself and by the gallery’s own sources of income, which would include private sponsorship, the restaurant and shop.

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