In London last month I got a preview of Charles Saatchi’s new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea, which is housed in a thoroughly gut-renovated Georgian immensity, the Duke of York headquarters, that was once a military barracks and where you could still hold a drill parade on the lawn. It’s frankly huge, 70,000 sq. ft., most of them devoted to meticulous white cube galleries. This is the third gallery that Saatchi has opened to display his ever churning collection of contemporary art. I never saw the first of them but I can say from repeated experience that the second, in a former government building near the Thames, with difficult lighting and heavy wood panelled rooms, was a lousy place to see art. Meanwhile, the exhibition spaces in his new gallery, with their prairieland dimensions and pickled floors, are frankly superior to most of the spaces at Tate Modern.
In what looks like another foray by an auction house into gallery territory, there is also a gallery in the Saatchi building operated by the auction house/dealership Phillips de Pury. The work on display in the Philips space will be for sale. (They’re opening with a show of work by Julian Schnabel — as we say, good luck with that.) Saatchi says that the fees paid to him by Phillips make it possible to keep his gallery open to the public for free. Given the potential his new place has to increase the market value of his collection, you might suppose he could mentally write off the operating costs as infrastructure investment.
Which brings us to the question — what exactly is a Saatchi Gallery? An exhibition space for his collection of course, which means that it’s also the centerpiece of a cunning market mechanism. Saatchi buys or commissions new work, exhibits it in his own space, then sells it again, having meanwhile done whatever he can to make it famous and more profitable. In the process he more or less created the phenomenon of Young British Artists in the early ’90s, promoted a few artists whose work I’ve liked — Ron Mueck, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig — and many more who leave me cold. He has an ad man’s taste for spectacle and a rich man’s sense of personal prerogative. The control he exerted over the “Sensation” show at the Brooklyn Museum nine years ago, which was drawn from his collection, was outrageous. (But let the record show that Arnold Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, allowed that to happen.) So what London has just gotten is a giant vehicle for promoting Saatchi’s interests that is also a place to see the mixed bag that his collection always is.
How mixed? Well, not surprisingly for a man who likes spectacle, Saatchi’s new passion is Chinese contemporary art, and the opening exhibition at his new gallery, “The Revolution Continues”, is a sampling of the usual suspects. In the past three weeks I’ve seen no fewer than three shows of Chinese contemporary in three museums. And?
I’ll get to that in a subsequent post.