These days, with the conversation around art having shifted so dramatically towards the market, it can be a challenge to remember that dealers and their galleries aren’t just there to sell pieces. Throughout art history, the legendary dealers—Pierre Matisse, Ambroise Vollard, and Leo Castelli come to mind—have been just as involved in the nourishing of their artists’ creative spirit as they have in purveying the products of it.
When Claude Simard, longtime partner in New York’s Jack Shainman gallery, passed away last month of a heart attack at age 58, his memorial service at Frank E. Campbell was packed with the artists whose careers he had fostered over the years. Nick Cave, the Chicago-based artist known for his elaborate “Sound Suit” sculptures and, more recently, for his lively “Heard NY” performance in Grand Central Station, delivered a eulogy in which he recalled the artist/dealer relationship he had with Simard, who was a practicing artist himself.
Earlier this month, ARTnews Co-Executive Editor Barbara MacAdam spoke with Cave over the phone from his studio.
Jack Shainman Gallery will exhibit new work by Nick Cave from September 4 through October 11. The show, which had a kind of preview in the form of eight pieces displayed at the opening of Shainman’s private museum in a former school in Kinderhook, New York, three months ago, is, Cave says, dedicated to the memory of Simard. “When I was in New York for his memorial, I felt lost in this city because he would be the first person I would make contact with when I was there.”
ARTnews: What was that first studio visit like with Claude, some 20 years ago, before the gallery represented you?
Nick Cave: We had a very good conversation about art and art-making and commitment and representation and was I with anybody and why. He was getting an understanding of where I was. He called with an opportunity to present the work. The thing that’s amazing to me is he asked me what this was going to be. What was my career path?
AN: When you told him, how did he respond?
Cave: He said, “We’ll do what we can to get you there.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Wow, here’s an opportunity.” …Claude’s generosity was amazing. We had an amazing friendship. We called each other every day. Sometimes, it was about absolutely nothing. Sometimes, it was about art. Sometimes, it was about what was going on, politically, in the world. We would have these heavy, heavy debates about issues. Sometimes, it was very personal—about health. Just being concerned and very, very honest with someone that was a dear friend. A lot of times, it was really, really hard. It was hard to sometimes talk about the role of the artist and the gallerist. Sometimes, that was really difficult, but at the end of the day, at the end of the call, he would say, “I love you,” and I knew that was genuine. You know, with him, my relationship was very, very real. And I knew that line between the artist and the dealer. I knew the fluctuation there. I knew where it could be organic, where it could bend, and where it couldn’t, just based on talking about things like, “What do you feel is the point where the dealer has to separate himself from the artist?” That was a very candid conversation because it really brought light to the understanding of what and how those relationships work.
AN: How would you characterize him, as a gallerist?
NC: For me, Claude was a visionary gallerist. He came to my studio, and the next day, he was flying to Africa, flying to India, to Europe, Asia in search of the next artist. He traveled the world looking for the next artist and turned that gallery into this international cultural hub. The diversity in terms of bringing this collective group of artists from all sorts of nationalities, from all different parts of the world, is so incredibly important … Dealers want to have humanitarian attributes in terms of what you want the gallery to look like and what is your mission. Claude really paid a lot of attention to that as one who was curious, as one who went for years just looking into just how the approach was taken, how it was handled. I literally watched the gallery shift.
AN: And the two of you found common ground?
NC: I don’t think I’m an artist. I think I’m a messenger. I think of what is my civic responsibility as an artist. He thought of those things, too. “What is my civic responsibility as a dealer? How can I use this venue as an international, global hub?” …Claude has that “It” factor. I can only compare it to ball players. All the other players are amazing, but my Claude had that “It” factor. He had that extra thing that you’re just gifted with.
AN: How did he influence your work?
NC: One thing he told me was, “It’s important [to have] one person that you look up to, that you can trust, that can come into your studio and tell you point blank what the work is about, what’s going on, whether it is good work.” He challenged me to step up to the plate. His other expectation was more important to me. He took the place of my mentor, who was my professor at Cranbrook. He knew that I could do it, but he would also challenge me. He allowed me the independence and freedom to be and to conquer. But I think he, and this is hard for me to say, knew that I have to deal with race, and this is a reality. …I knew that I have to take charge of my life, and to use art as a medium for change. I know, based on my relationship with him, what to do with carrying on his legacy. I know what to do with myself now because of my relationship with him. I know how to trust myself. I know how to deliver, I know what it takes, I know what I like to do based on him being upfront and clear with me.
AN: Did you know Claude’s work at all?
NC: I did. There were a lot of similarities in terms of sensibilities with my work.
AN: Your career really started to take off in the mid to late 1990s, just before you began working with the gallery.
NC: My first big show, the one that the gallery encountered, was at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1996. They came to the show. I was like, “Oh my God! These galleries are coming! Ahhhh, crazy!” They sold probably 20 pieces from that show without having it shown in New York. That was how the relationship started. It all happened so quickly, and I became sort of overwhelmed in the beginning because they were calling, demanding this, demanding that. I reached a point where I didn’t have a handle on the magnitude of what this could be. I had to come to New York to meet with them and tell them, “I’m not ready. I don’t feel ready for what you need from me.” I had to grow up quickly. Sometimes, you have to grow up before you’re ready, and your feet are on the ground and your head is clear because it’s happening so quickly. Thank God they were so understanding and compassionate about all of that. My work, I couldn’t produce it in a day. My relationship started, and the next thing I knew, I needed to hire five full-time assistants. Prior to that, I was doing interns. It was an adjustment.
“We are here, we’re here to support you,” [Claude and Jack told me]. “We’ll talk you through it.” They massaged my understanding of how an artist’s practice becomes more professional.
AN: Success, at the beginning, can result in a dramatic shift for an artist.
NC: There were moments where it was really, really, really tough for me, just trying to accept what is happening. Thank God, I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, because there were moments where I didn’t think I could handle it. Being quiet and talking with them helped me get a handle on it. …They were the catalysts, the ones who helped me establish and identify what my career path would look like. So I miss Claude with all my heart. As I said at the memorial, Claude is an angel that sits upon our shoulders.