Stefania Bortolami has been part of New York’s art scene for years: first, as an artist liaison for Larry Gagosian—after a successful stint with the legendary London dealer Anthony d’Offay; then co-owning a Chelsea gallery with Amalia Dayan and finally, on her own, as the founder of an eponymous gallery five blocks down the street from the previous space. This May, Bortolami relocated again, this time to Tribeca, joining the likes of Team Gallery, The Drawing Center and Alexander and Bonin in gradually forming yet another art neighborhood in the dynamic Downtown New York.
Sun & Stripes
On the sunny morning of our interview in Bortolami’s new space, I take a pause on the pavement across the street from the gallery, on the spot that offers the best view of the neoclassical columns decorating its façade, each covered in vertical black-and-white stripes. Daniel Buren, the French grand maître for years gracing Bortolami’s artist roster, transformed the columns as part of his solo show inaugurating the new gallery. The stripes may well become the hallmark of the building, as Stefania has received a permit to preserve them until 2021.
Bortolami is fashionably late. No wonder—she must still be in the habit of taking a short walk to her former space, located near her Chelsea loft. I take this opportunity to see what the show looks like inside. A row of colorful columns flanks each side of the long hallway leading into the main space of the gallery—a spacious room completely filled with the same square columns, colored blue, red and yellow on each facet, except for the one that faces the back wall. The columns’ back side bears Buren’s signature 8.7-centimeter vertical stripes, alternating in white and black. I walk to the very back and then look up at the only window in the room—an expansive skylight bearing a sequence of multicolored filters applied by Buren, in a manner similar to his decorations on Frank Gehry’s Louis Vuitton Foundation building in Paris. Despite the pure joy projected by this radiant color, I can’t get rid of a murky feeling produced by the view below. When you look back to the room, all the colors completely vanish. All that’s left is a black-and-white wall of striped columns, leading back to the entrance, as if one walked into a jewel box and is forced to leave through a prison gate
Bortolami arrives soon after and lights up the room with her disarming smile. With minimal makeup, wearing a neutral silk T-shirt, black pants and a pair of sneakers, she projects an air of ease and friendliness. But the spotless gallery, punctual and tending employees, and her own serene yet very present gaze attests to a willful hand that governs these quarters. Bortolami’s husky voice and relaxed but assertive tone command immediate attention.
I start off with mentioning her seven-year sojourn on West 20th Street. She promptly corrects me, “I actually have been in Chelsea for 16 years,” proceeding to list her previous affiliations in the neighborhood. She decided to move because her former building was going to be turned into condominiums and found a new space almost instantly, falling in love with it on paper first, sight unseen. After years in Chelsea’s “white boxes,” she is ready for some Tribeca charm, and the Lower East Side has more difficult spaces and already feels overcrowded.
Asked why artist Cecily Brown once called her “a female Larry,” alluding to her former employer Larry Gagosian, who is known for his aggressive ways of driving the business, Bortolami answers, with a smile, that she hopes Brown meant it as a compliment: “It was a different me. And Larry was not the Larry he is today.” She stresses that being a female gallerist means providing support and guidance to your artists, allowing them to grow, rather than acting as a hardliner. She mentions this approach as one of the reasons for her move from Chelsea, where the shows are becoming more and more ambitious, often gargantuan in scale: “An artist does not do a show in one of those humongous spaces to experiment.” She hopes that her gallery can provide more freedom of experimentation, perhaps even room for mistakes—indeed a truly caring attitude in today’s results-driven world of commercial galleries.
The Stripe Guy
I wonder about the origin of Daniel Buren’s nickname—“the Stripe Guy.” Bortolami recounts how in the early sixties—“for some maybe psychological reason, I am not going to analyze”—Buren, an artist coming from a poor Jewish family in Paris, started buying sheets from the market, covering them with stripes and painting on top of them. He did that for a couple of years, until one day he went to the market to buy his sheets and fell on a piece of awning material covered with 8.7-cm stripes. Bingo! He did not need to paint the stripes any more. He could just paint on top of the fabric. “And that was December 1965,” she finishes. “Since then he has never done one work without the stripe.” Taking this industrial motive gave Buren freedom to abandon painting altogether and make architectural interventions. “He can do anything. As long as there is an 8.7-cm stripe, it is a Daniel Buren.” Bortolami defines it as “freedom through constraint.”
Shivers go down my spine. A Jewish man growing up in France after the Second World War obsessively paints vertical stripes, mostly white-and-blue, two decades after the Holocaust and then for the next sixty years? Back at home, I would google “concentration camp uniform” and the shivers would return: various garments with blue-and-white vertical stripes of equal length appear on the screen. I knew that Buren had erected hundreds of site-specific installations all over the world using his signature contrasting-colored-stripe pattern—from the Parisian Palais-Royal to Gibbs Farm in New Zealand to the Guggenheim Museum in New York—with critics emphasizing the conceptual nature of his practice aimed at “visually relating art to its situation.” Only during the interview did I realize that there may be even more to it.
The Politics of Stripes
I ask Bortolami whether there is a political aspect to Buren’s art. After all, she herself included one of his works—a fan with a piece of striped fabric attached to it—into a highly political group show, “University of Disasters,” in her former Chelsea space. Stefania is skeptical about attributing any political meaning to Buren’s creations. Yes, he is a highly political being, most definitely left-leaning. Yes, right now, being cultured in this country is a political act in itself. But no, I don’t think you can describe Buren’s art political as such, not in content. In the sixties, he was rebelling against the status quo of French art, but now, to be political you have to talk about race, identity. He never talks about being Jewish.
When I bring up my impression of the room resembling a prison wall when seen from the very back (I start from afar, by insinuating that it may be an allusion to the Mexican-American border or other walls, metaphorical or real, being erected today), Bortolami reasonably points out that it is a matter of interpretation.
Banners Make Good Friends
I then move on to recall Buren’s participation in a Group Exhibition at the Guggenheim in 1971, which led to a notorious incident. For that show, Buren designed a gigantic banner that hung from the ceiling of Frank Lloyd Wright’s rotunda, eliminating a key perk of the building that normally allows for seeing artworks on various levels of the room across from the viewer. Needless to say, the banner consisted of stripes running its whole length. The work was taken down the night before the show, responding to a request by some participating artists, including Donald Judd, who objected to keeping the banner that blocked the view of their own pieces. Stefania enthusiastically recollected that another group of participants signed a counter-petition to keep the banner in place. She added that many of those who signed the petition against removing the banner later became Buren’s lifelong friends. She also made a point to correct my designation of the show as an international exhibition, asserting that Buren was the only non-American artist in it.
It turned out that Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, proponents of pure Minimalism, hermetic and without an outright connection to social issues, managed to bring their works back to view by removing the striped banner, visually inextricably related (although I may be mistaken about it) to the messy world beyond the realm of art, a possible reminder of traumatic events that happened decades ago. Whether my suggestion about the meaning of Buren’s stripes has validity or not, I would not go as far as to suggest that the two artists would have subscribed to it. Most probably, they were simply concerned about their works being blocked from view.
Stefania approves of my suggestion that the current show could be a retort to the 1971 incident: instead of an ephemeral banner, Buren now chose to erect hard-to-dismantle columns all throughout the gallery. This time the exhibition is a one-man show, with no co-participants to possibly bring up objections.
I wonder if any of the architectural features of the show will stay, perhaps the skylight’s filters. Bortolami deems it impossible due to the striking colored shadows that it casts at a certain time of the day, which would interfere with artworks in the subsequent exhibitions. She suggests that this—and some other visual effects that become apparent when visitors interact with the space—is a surprise for everyone, including the artist himself, who was not sure if sunlight would reach the gallery’s roof at this time of year. Bortolami mentions that, despite being site-specific, the whole exhibition—as well as its parts—is for sale, and it could be adjusted to the new location.
Stefania shares plans of her next project, which she dubs “nuts.” Artist Tom Burr will transform a Marcel Breuer building in Connecticut as part of her “Artist/City” initiative, through which she collaborates with artists on site-specific installations in various locations throughout the country, usually rented for a year. For the upcoming iteration of the project, Burr created a series of bulletin boards that will be shown alongside selected pieces by Andrea Zittel in a former Armstrong rubber factory that later turned into an office of the Pirelli tire company and now, owned by IKEA, stands empty. Another project with a trail of a layered past, it is scheduled to open to the public this summer.
Ending the interview, Bortolami extends an invitation to other dealers to move to her newfound home, Tribeca. “There are some empty spaces, and the spaces are beautiful.” She sounds convincing, and even more so is a visit to her airy and sleek gallery, combining historical charm with contemporary design to form a clean and inviting space.
Freedom Through Constraint
By the time the interview is over, the sun rises high enough to hit the aforementioned colored skylight, causing it to cast long, radiant shadows inside the room. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing, as if the window wrapped around the adjacent wall and spread down the floor like a gigantic striped ribbon of luminous colors. Bortolami’s words spring to my mind: she said that the effect was a surprise. Thinking of similar glass filters installed by Buren on the Frank Gehry building, I imagine how the artist was able to witness their reflections at any point in the day for the duration of the project, which lasted for almost a year. I look back down to the succession of stripes in front of me and think that for somebody who has been working with a single compositional element for the past sixty years, there must be little room for surprises in his own work, even in unfamiliar places. During the interview, Stefania called it “freedom through constraint.” Staring at the wall of striped columns, I feel like adding: “inspired by constraints on freedom.”