One afternoon in early July, just hours before the opening of his new gallery in Manhattan, the German art dealer Daniel Buchholz—tan, in a crisp white shirt and jeans—could be found in the ground-floor space on the Upper East Side putting the finishing touches on its inaugural show, which is devoted to Raymond Roussel, the wealthy, indefatigable, and pretty much impossible-to-define French writer, dramatist, and eccentric who lived from 1877 to 1933.
Buchholz’s New York space isn’t especially big, but his arrival in the city is significant. He’s been in business in Cologne for nearly 30 years, he’s a regular at the major art fairs like Art Basel and Frieze, and his artist roster is stacked with favorites of critics and curators, like Lutz Bacher, Jutta Koether, Michael Krebber, Danh Vo, Simon Denny, and the late Martin Wong. One of his two Cologne spaces is hidden behind his late father’s antiquarian bookshop, which he’s kept going. These days it has become almost commonplace for galleries to have branches in different parts of the world, but Buchholz was holding out for the right circumstances, and found them on East 82nd Street, between Fifth and Madison, a stone’s throw from the Met. “It was always a dream for us to have a space in New York,” he said, “and also on the Upper East Side.”
“It happened that Alex was free,” he continued. “We said, ‘Okay, if we find a space, let’s reunite the family again. Peter will be in Berlin, Alex will be here.”
That would be Alex Zachary, whom Buchholz hired to run his New York gallery, and Peter Currie, his Berlin-based director, whom he’s moving to New York to work with Zachary. The Upper East Side is a homecoming for both men. Back in 2010, Zachary opened an eponymous gallery on East 77th Street and Currie joined up shortly thereafter as a name partner. There they hosted shows by excellent, fast-rising artists like Ken Okiishi, Jordan Wolfson, and Karl Holmqvist. They shuttered it two years later. Zachary became a director at the Chelsea gallery Greene Naftali; Currie went to work for Buchholz. Since they closed up shop, the neighborhood has, somewhat improbably, become a destination for prime contemporary art, with new venues like Venus Over Manhattan and Higher Pictures.
Zachary found Buchholz’s space, which was previously a doctor’s office. “It was announced, believe it or not, in the New York Times,” Buchholz said. “He read it in the morning, called immediately, and an hour later he met here the landlord. I came here and looked at it. And then I saw the Metropolitan right there, and I said, ‘You guys, we have to get that.’”
The inaugural show, which runs through August 29, is a dreamy affair—a dense display of letters, books, manuscripts, and artifacts by and about Roussel. Its checklist, with detailed annotations for many of the objects, is 56 pages long, rich with strange connections and stories. It amounts to a strange, thrilling journey through the underworld of early 20th-century art. Buchholz called over François Piron, a Roussel scholar who helped organize the show, and we embarked on a tour.
It hasn’t been easy to obtain the Roussel material, since his belongings were scattered after his suicide in 1933, and his relatives didn’t want much to do with his legacy. “I think Roussel was a shame for his family,” Piron said. “He was a drug addict, he was a homosexual, he was an unsuccessful writer.”
Which is to say, he was unsuccessful by any conventional measure, but not in the eyes of the avant-garde. Picabia, Duchamp, and Apollinaire were all Roussel fans, and went to see his self-financed theater production Impressions of Africa in 1912. It was “a revelation for the three of us,” Duchamp writes in a letter nearly four decades later, which is in Buchholz’s show. Duchamp credited Roussel with helping to inform his groundbreaking piece The Large Glass (1915–23), and he adds in that letter: “To this day, I consider Raymond Roussel all the more important for not having built up a following.”
Indeed, except for a few artists, no one really knew what to make of Roussel, who used his family fortune to print his wildly imaginative books. He’d give them away to friends, occasionally updating the layout so that a book appeared to be in its second run, which he hoped might attract attention. “He just kept on printing,” Piron said. And writing. In a letter to Roussel, Marcel Proust—not exactly a succinct author—paid him this backhanded compliment: “You write, without losing breath, a hundred verses as another writes ten lines.”
Among the relics in the show is a small star–shaped metal box that Roussel made to hold a cookie that is still largely intact—a souvenir from a lunch he had with one of his heroes, the astronomer and author Camille Flammarion, in 1923. After his death, the renegade Surrealist Georges Bataille found it at a flea market and gave it to Dora Maar. Eventually it was auctioned, and it ended up in a private collection, which lent it to Buchholz.
Much of the show comes from Buchholz’s own Roussel holdings, but another major lender is the poet John Ashbery, who was largely responsible for bringing Roussel to America in the 1960s. Ashbery’s Ph.D. project back then brought him in contact with Charlotte Dufrène, whom Roussel’s mother hired to serve, in effect, as Roussel’s beard in society. A photo of the couple hangs near the front of the show, a gash running down the middle; Dufrène had torn it in half, originally giving Ashbery only the part with Roussel.
The surprises just keep coming. The show includes illustrations that Henri-Achille Zo made in 1932 for Roussel without even realizing it, because Roussel hired a private detective to deliver notes for things for him to draw—a kind of conceptual art avant la lettre. (Zo was apparently not amused by the gesture.) And there are photographs of a motorized camping van that Roussel invented so that he could travel and remain working in the same environs, and which he tried to market to a broader public. There are also works by contemporary artists inspired by, or in various ways related to, Roussel, like Sigmar Polke, Michael Krebber, Vincent Fecteau, and more. And there are witty photographs that a 12-year-old Roussel took of his family and home after receiving a camera as a gift. “The family must have been very bourgeois,” Buchholz said, “but also very playful.”