In the mid 1960s, Nicholas Logsdail, age 19, was unceremoniously kicked out of the Slade School of Fine Art in London, but maintained his art practice in a small studio on Bell Street, in Lisson Grove. Logsdail needed the studio space to make work, and because he was otherwise living in a treehouse and occasionally sleeping on benches.
He began staging exhibitions there. He showed his friends and called it Lisson Gallery, and in 1967, its first year, the participating artists included Derek Jarman, Mira Schendel, and Lygia Clark. That year, Fluxus artist Yoko Ono staged a performance, and the program noted that it was financed by John Lennon, who at the time was 27 years old and one of the most famous men alive. According to a biography of the Beatle, Lennon’s wife Cynthia asked him why he was sponsoring a show by an artist named Yoko Ono at Lisson Gallery. He said, “She’s another nutter wanting money for all that avant-garde bullshit.”
Such was the embryonic era of London’s contemporary gallery scene, a scene Lisson Gallery helped invent. It was, at least by Logsdail’s account, a pretty swell time.
“It was just a place to live—I was working as an artist, and I was intended to use the ground floor as a studio, ” said Logsdail, who was being piped in via Skype from London last week as I sat with his son, Lisson director Alex Logsdail, in a back office in one of Lisson’s New York galleries, the one located beneath the High Line in Chelsea.
“But I never actually got around to that,” the elder Logsdail continued. “Because a gallery space is not so different than a studio space.”
Lisson is one of the few major modern and contemporary art outfits that can rightfully be called a family-run gallery, with the reins being passed from one generation to the next; the handful of others include Pace and Acquavella. Nicholas oversees the London galleries and Alex runs the New York ones, which opened in quick succession: under the High Line in May 2016, and on Tenth Avenue in February 2017.
This year marks Lisson’s 50th anniversary, a significant marker in the narrative of the art world in London, and in that city during Frieze Week, it’s being feted accordingly. There’s a quite fat book, ARTIST | WORK | LISSON, being published for the occasion, as well as a show, “Everything at Once,” opening tomorrow at the Store Studios building in London, that looks back on Lisson’s history while not wallowing in nostalgia.
I took a tour of the show today, and it’s massive, spanning four stories of the reclaimed building on the Strand, with Anish Kapoor’s giant UFO at the Edge of the World II (1998) just around the corner from Dan Graham’s elegant, understated Two V’s Entrance-Way (2016). Lawrence Weiner’s WHOLE CLOTH STRETCHED TO THE LIMIT runs up the stairwell. There’s a classic Nintendo hack by Cory Arcangel and color-popped new paintings by Stanley Whitney. A whole room is given over to Ryan Gander, who is presenting a mirror work and an enigmatic white-lit staircase built into the wall.
The show is a testament to the gallery’s history, starting from that modest studio-turned-gallery on Bell Street in Lisson Grove.
“When we opened we were one of only about three contemporary galleries that actually existed in London of any significance,” Nicholas Logsdail said. “Marlborough was very strong at that point, Waddington was strong at that point, but the cutting-edge galleries had pretty much all closed. There weren’t clients for this kind of art at that time, or very few.”
After exhausting the list of local artists he wanted to show, Nicholas looked to New York, where he convinced minimalists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt to have their first European shows at the space, and to Germany, where the postwar boom in cultural offerings created a heap of artists itching for more places to exhibit their work.
“It was very clear to me that many cities were more interesting than London,” Nicholas said. “My first mission was to get to New York, and my experience going to Germany, it really surprised me how much I enjoyed it. It made a much faster recovery after the war, because they had the Marshall Plan—there were a lot of bomb sites in London when we opened.”
The outreach made Lisson a hot shop, and the model of providing non-British artists a home in London provided a blueprint for how to actually make money selling conceptual art.
“In a way we’re the original gallery of the ’60s era that grew,” Nicholas said. “And we were the model for many of the galleries. When other galleries opened, we were the working model because we succeeded, we made it work.”
In the late ’80s, the city’s upward-moving economy spurred growth in a variety of sectors, and in 2000, the Tate Modern opened and quickly became one of the world’s foremost centers of contemporary art. This trickled down into the gallery scene, and soon outfits from New York and elsewhere—Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, Zwirner—saw the need to establish an outpost to expose their own artist roster to collectors and curators residing in the United Kingdom. And hence the staggering list of exhibitions on everyone’s must-see list in London during the current Frieze Week.
“Now, probably there are a dozen significant foreign galleries here,” Nicholas said.
“Which is good,” he added, “it brings more people here.”
Lisson has done its own fair share of expanding beyond London. In addition to the two spaces in the capital city, a Milan space opened in 2011 (though it just closed last summer) and they have the galleries in New York that are run by Alex Logsdail. The primary gallery under the High Line came about only once the younger Logsdail decided to join the family business, which wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. He had little interest in the trade until he met some Artforum staffers during a trip with his dad to Basel, and had such a blast he asked for an internship. That led to work at a few galleries, until he established Lisson’s first stateside presence with an office on the Lower East Side that opened in 2012. The plans for a full Chelsea gallery were announced in 2014, and Alex took the helm.
“I tried to open in New York the early ’80s, but it didn’t work, because there wasn’t two of me,” Nicholas said.
“I saw it very clearly necessary to live here in order to have the gallery here,” Alex said. “We couldn’t do it if I was in London.”
But despite a handful of galleries on both coasts, and artists on the roster who are pop-culture figures internationally (Marina Abramovic, Ai Weiwei, Anish Kapoor), Nicholas said, flatly, “We are not a mega-gallery, in my view.”
“We are a large gallery, but we’re not going to have a gallery in every city, like a sailor who has a friend in every port,” Nicholas said.
“You and I both feel that it’s necessary to be personally involved with all the artists,” Alex said, “and at a certain point, if you’re too big, that becomes impossible.”
And it’s even harder to do that in an art world that’s constantly expanding, in terms of its global reach, cultural importance, and monetary power.
“The art business has become a multibillion industry—it’s much bigger than 50 years ago, it’s much more than 50 times bigger,” Nicholas said.
“One way is to see it as an overload, but this massive expansion of the art world as a whole, maybe it’s because there’s maybe something for everyone,” Alex said.
“Regardless, it’s not going to blow away or become irrelevant” Nicholas said. “It’s part of the fabric of our daily life and 50 years ago, it was seriously unfashionable. When you went to a smart dinner party, you tried to avoid telling people what you did because you would be stirring up a hornet’s nest. Today, people are amused and fascinated to know about contemporary art.”