When I sit down for breakfast with Paul Schimmel, he asks the first question, as if he’s conducting the interview and I’m the renowned curator who has recently joined up with one of the world’s three or four truly global, powerhouse galleries, and got the original owners to add my name to the shingle – Hauser Wirth & Schimmel – to boot. We’re at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, not far from the Norton Simon Museum or from where Schimmel lives, and once a regular breakfast spot for him and Richard Koshalek, most recently of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, DC, but once Schimmel’s boss at LA MOCA. I’m in great company. So that question?
“What shows have you seen?”
I’m not surprised. Schimmel lives for making shows. He’s been doing it since the 1970s, before arriving at the Newport Harbor Art Museum (now the Orange County Museum of Art) in 1978 from the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston, where he was responsible for American Narrative/Story Art: 1967–77 (1977), which included John Baldessari, Eleanor Antin, William T. Wiley, Ed Ruscha and Allen Ruppersberg, among other artists of, as Schimmel describes them, the “narrative conceptualist” persuasion. That show travelled west, to UC Berkeley and Santa Barbara, and apparently Baldessari was there each step of the way. “John treated me like a curator,” Schimmel says. “[He] went to every venue and helped me to get the very best work.” And after a stint back in New York at the Institute of Fine Arts and a master’s degree, Schimmel said to his wife, “You watch. My first job will be in California.” That was Newport, where the museum’s holdings of postwar California art grew by a reported 300 percent during Schimmel’s tenure.
His second job in California? LA MOCA, which is where, from 1989 until the middle of last year, Schimmel not only mastered the craft of the substantial historical survey – his last show for the museum, which opened in October 2012, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949–1962, is a case in point – but also shifted the artworld’s (to that point rather moribund) thinking on the history and value – intellectual, aesthetic, commercial – of postwar California art with Under the Big Black Sun: California Art 1974–81 (2011), which tackled the prehistory of 1992’s Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s, in many ways that era’s and perhaps Schimmel’s career-defining exhibition (if such a narrowing of lens is possible).
Why California and why LA? For the art, and the artists. Within months of arriving at Newport, Schimmel met Mike Kelley. His reaction? “I was like, ‘Yes! Thank God I don’t have to figure out how to invent this person.’ This person is here. When you find someone in your own generation who embodies the same kinds of interests, well, I knew this was where I was going to be. And there was no question that doing work deeply committed to the region but with international implications was doable.” There’s little question that he did it, either. And there’s little question that he was able to do it because of his commitment to the community of artists that included Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy, and of course Kelley and others.
When I asked Schimmel whether he thought about quitting LA after MOCA’s board forced him out (presumably because he and then-new but now-former MOCA Director Jeffrey Deitch didn’t mix well, but Schimmel wouldn’t say, and no one else is talking either), and following Kelley’s death in 2012, he said yes, he did. He considered New York, and Europe, but in the end he couldn’t leave, “not so much because of my own generation”, but because of the “younger artists, people like Mark Grotjahn and Thomas Houseago and Sterling Ruby and Laura Owens”, and because of that “languorous sense of community” that comes from a “place where you can both make something and show something”. “More than anything else,” Schimmel said, “it was that sense of being part of a community of younger artists who both believe in and appreciate their community and my place in it.”
Someone else appreciated Schimmel’s place in that community as well. A few days before we spoke, Schimmel opened Re-View: Onnasch Collection – a survey of Reinhard Onnasch’s nearly unparalleled collection of postwar art from the 1950s to the 1970s (including a number of important works by Edward Kienholz from 1960 to 61) – at Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly and Savile Row spaces in London. As Schimmel tells me, “Iwan [Wirth] was very clever. Long before I joined the staff,” – this is one of Schimmel’s great gifts: the ability to be modest and self-aggrandising at once – “he put together a list of four or five potential people to work on the show, which he’d been trying to do for a long time. My name was on the list without me knowing it, and Mrs Onnasch said – and I’d worked with the Onnasches on the Out of Actions show, and for the Rauschenberg Combines show, and for Hand-Painted Pop; so at three different times over the last 20 years I’d worked with them; I’m a known quantity – and Mrs Onnasch said, ‘Oh yes, that would be good, but I don’t think he would do it’. And Iwan says he looked at her and said, ‘Oh, you never know’.” Indeed you don’t, unless you’ve had the following exchange, as Schimmel told me:
I was opening Under the Big Black Sun and Iwan calls me and asks, “Paul, are you at the Geffen?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I’m going to be there in five minutes. I want to pick you up.” I said, “I’m in the middle of an installation.” And he says, “No, no, no. It’s just right in the neighbourhood. I want to show you something.” I said, “OK, the break’s at eleven. So pick me up at eleven.” He takes me three, four blocks away, and shows me just a beautiful warehouse space. And he says, “What do you think?” And I say, “I think it’s beautiful.” And says, “No, really, what do you think?” And I said, “Iwan, no. No. I’m not thinking about it.” He says, “OK, what do you think we could do here? What would make sense here?” I said, “Well, things should be very different than the kind of programme you would have in New York and there should be fewer things, bigger, richer, deeper; and don’t think about it in terms of how much stuff you can sell here as how much stuff can enter into Hauser & Wirth.” And he says, “Exactly.”
Of his new partner Schimmel says that, yes, “there is that sort of inscrutable quality of the Swiss, but it’s also combined with an overwhelming joy and enthusiasm for things. He’s sort of like a California kid”, but one who learned about California from Jason Rhoades and Paul McCarthy, figures who embody what Schimmel appreciates most about California artists, their fiercely independent and ambitious “can-do spirit”, which he traces back to Ed Kienholz himself, one of a generation of artists who were going to write their own history and “were going to control not just what you see but how you see it”.
“Ultimately”, Schimmel says, Hauser Wirth & Schimmel “was the only opportunity to make something from the ground up in Los Angeles, with a community of artists with whom I felt completely comfortable. And I believe it’s more than just the opportunities I’ll have as a curator, but also the opportunity to bring in what I think are still woefully undervalued players in the artworld, which are art historians and curators. There’s a bigger role for these people. Parties are nice; scholarship is the foundation. For me this is the great attraction. Ursula [Hauser] and Iwan have a real sense of the importance of serious scholarship – taking a more scientific and less a celebratory approach to the work.”
It’s not clear when or exactly where Hauser Wirth & Schimmel will open its doors. “Downtown is the focus,” Schimmel told me. He has a clear idea of what he wants. A compound of buildings, of different spaces, indoor and outdoor, that afford some creative restrictions rather than the ever-looming tabula rasa of a 4,000sqm warehouse-cum-kunsthalle, plus some amenities that will make it a destination. “LA is very a funny place,” Schimmel admits. “The classic Gertrude Stein line, ‘There is no there there’, really is true.” So it will be important that visitors to the new space will value the time and, as Schimmel says, “give it over”, because “if you put on a great show, tons of people will come”, But, he continued, “you have to make it rich enough and comfortable enough”, which most Angelenos know really distils down to two things – “Good parking. Good parking.”
This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of ArtReview.