Two years ago, New York Times co-chief art critic Holland Cotter lamented that in 2014 “we lost two of our most imaginative New York gallerists: Hudson, founder of Feature Inc., and Claude Simard, co-director of Shainman Gallery.” Both of them were artists in addition to being gallerists, and it was through Claude that I first heard of Hudson. I worked at Shainman as a college student in the mid-1990s, when the recession of that time still held many New York galleries in its grip, and I remember Claude coming in one afternoon with a Tom of Finland drawing. He’d bought it on his way to the gallery, he said, “to save Hudson.”
Claude bought many different kinds of art for a variety of reasons, not the least of them being generosity. And underscoring them, always, was the basic fact: Claude was a collector, and collectors acquire things because they can’t not do so. Here is how I imagine Claude may have rationalized the Tom of Finland purchase: He liked the drawing, and he liked and admired Hudson, whose gallery was struggling. Surely, he realized the sale of one drawing wouldn’t be enough to save Feature (which did end up surviving that recession), but the idea that he might be helping was probably sufficient justification for Claude to buy it, especially at a time when few art dealers were financially flush, least of all himself.
This spring, Claude’s wide-ranging collection is the subject of an exhibition at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College, in Saratoga, New York. The show’s curator, Tang director Ian Berry, hopes it will create discussion and debate around collecting: How do collectors collect? How do works enter collections? Claude collected African art, and a key piece in the show, for Berry, is Radcliffe Bailey’s 2012 mixed-media work Western Currents, which shows a boat stuffed with African sculptures traversing a roiling sea. What effect does the method of display have on viewers’ understanding of the objects on exhibit? Berry also intends the show as a portrait—and celebration—of a colleague. He is interested in how Claude’s sensibility influenced the artists he worked with at the gallery. He wants to expose Skidmore students to “examples of ways to be in the world that are full of curiosity, generosity, openness, and hard work.”
The show is made up of several strands of work. There are late 19th-century tantric drawings from India; Indian shawls that Claude had stretched out on supports, like paintings; photographs by Malik Sidibé that he and his business partner in the gallery, Jack Shainman, brought back from Sidibé’s studio in Mali; flags from Ghana; African sculptures in wood and terra-cotta, some figurative, others abstract and patterned (a Boli figure, Lobi statuettes, Bura tombstones); Claude’s “Black Panther archive” of ephemera related to the history of the Panthers and the civil rights movement more broadly, including posters, fliers, and photographs by Stephen Shames. There are pieces by artists the gallery works with (Kerry James Marshall, Nick Cave, Bailey) and others, both historical and contemporary (Jean Dubuffet, Roberto Matta, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, Jessica Stockholder, Gabriel Orozco).
At the time I spoke with him, Berry was not planning to separate these works into a maze of small rooms, but rather to show them as Claude might have: in an open space where they could all breathe the same air. A Nick Cave soundsuit, for example, may appear shoulder-to-shoulder with Indian textiles; a Matthew Barney photograph could abut a Marcel Duchamp Monte Carlo Bond; and the Sidibé photographs, hung salon-style in an oval configuration, could share a wall with a painting by Brad Kahlhamer.
Berry’s exhibition represents just a small portion of a collection the Tang director had long been wanting to see for himself. Berry had met Claude in the late 1990s, when he was beginning his curatorial career and would make the rounds of New York galleries. By that time, Claude was taking regular trips to Africa and South India. He would tell Berry about these trips, about his collecting, about working with artists at the gallery, about one artist, Phil Frost, who traveled with him and came back with objects to incorporate into his own artworks. Claude would promise to take Berry someday to the off-site storage facility where he kept his holdings, so that he could view the works. But he never did.
Meanwhile, elements of Claude’s collection made their way into exhibitions at Shainman. African tribal pieces figured in the 1997 group show “Curiosity Room: Cross-Cultural Art and Artifacts.” The tantric drawings were the subject of an exhibition in 2001. Selections from the Black Panther archive figured in “The Whole World Is Rotten,” a show Claude curated in 2005 that included pieces by artists he would visit on his trips to Africa, like Philip Kwame Apagya, Zwelethu Mthethwa, and Sidibé; elaborate coffins he commissioned from Ghanaian artist Paa Joe that re-created slave holding pens; and pieces by artists like Joseph Beuys, David Hammons, Barkley Hendricks, and Carrie Mae Weems.
After Claude died, Berry made a point of going to see his collection in its new storage facility, a classroom in the School, Shainman Gallery’s three-year-old branch in Kinderhook, New York. Seeing it, he decided to do the show.
In December, I met Berry at the School, where Claude’s cabinet of curiosities was arrayed on shelves and on the floor: Indian temple fragments propped against walls; antique nativity figures; boxes, as yet unpacked and undocumented, marked “pair of iron warrior figures” and “Claude’s box.” Over coffee in a downstairs office, under the gaze of a bust of Claude by South African artist Claudette Schreuders, Berry told me about the portrait of Claude that he hoped his show would craft. In assembling it, Berry had pondered, was Claude Simard a dealer? An artist? He reflected that “he was more than both; he was an artist, a gallerist, a collector, a producer, a counselor, a bit of a wanderer—a seeker, in the spiritual sense. Which one of those parts of him was the driver when he purchased some of these objects? Which was talking loudest? Who knows? Like all of us, he was a combination of different ways of being.”
I can imagine the conversations Berry had with Claude, having myself had similar ones. Claude’s passion for art was contagious. There’s a phrase I associate with him that may sound banal outside the context of his worldview, but which often comes back to me when I’m at a gallery, or an art fair, or even at a museum: “I would have it in my house,” he used to say of certain artworks, designating them as belonging to a subset of works that he viewed as a collector, distinguishing them from pieces he had to have, but didn’t necessarily want to live with—the ones he tended not to rotate from storage to wall. Then there were artworks he loved but didn’t covet; I recall certain colder, conceptual things falling into that category.
Though he was often to be found brooding behind the gallery’s front desk—and was considered by some visitors to be aloof—he was, in his way, a true evangelist for art. That evangelism came across in the way he counseled the gallery’s artists. After Claude’s death, Nick Cave, in an interview on ARTnews.com, called him a “visionary gallerist” who challenged and mentored him. In a eulogy on artcritical.com, painter Leslie Wayne praised his “connoisseurship, generosity, and passion,” and shared that, “if he knew you were developing a new idea or direction in your work, he would send you a book or give you a piece of art from one of his travels that he thought would inspire you.”
His evangelism was also evident in the meticulousness with which he curated. Critic Jerry Saltz captured this quality in his Village Voice review of that 2001 show of tantric drawings. “Fortunately,” Saltz wrote, “Simard—who’s practically messianic about these things—organized this exhibition not along academic lines, but whimsically, according to aesthetic idiosyncrasies, stylistic similarities, compositional ticks, and quirks of coloring.”
Academic lines were anathema to Claude; he curated like the artist he was, and artists, the poet Robert Frost suggested in his essay “The Figure a Poem Makes,” differ from scholars in the way they come by their knowledge. “Scholars,” according to Frost, “get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Claude ranged widely across many fields; he made you want to pick their burrs from his coat and affix them to your own.
Claude’s meandering journey began in Larouche, the remote northern Quebec village where he was born in 1956. After his studies, he traveled in Europe—he’d tell me about his time there, as an acolyte of Joseph Beuys. In the mid-1980s, he moved to New York and attended the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, after which he and Shainman, a gallery director he’d met in Provincetown, Massachusetts, opened a gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1986 they moved it to New York.
The gallery grew, going from the East Village to SoHo to Chelsea, with Claude playing a pivotal role in scouting artists. But even as he participated in the international art world as both a seller and a creator, his provincial upbringing seems to have left him with an enduring sense of foreignness. “[B]y his own account, he felt very much an outsider in his adopted culture,” Cotter wrote in his review of “The Whole World Is Rotten,” so “he took a particular interest in the past of others who had been kept on the outside.”
He remained interested in the art of his home country. In 2006 he collaborated with art historian Penny Cousineau-Levine on the gallery’s exhibition “Faking Death: Canadian Art Photography and the Canadian Imagination.” The Tang exhibition will include a painting by Quebecois painter Claude Tousignant. One of Claude’s interests was the Quebecois outsider painter Arthur Villeneuve, who had lived in Chicoutimi, a city in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region that includes Larouche, a half-hour drive away. Villeneuve was self-taught, a barber by profession who had a mystical epiphany in 1957 and covered the walls—both interior and exterior—of his house with figurative paintings, in a style somewhere between Jean Dubuffet and Bill Traylor. In 1959 Villeneuve and his wife opened the house, which they continued to live in, as a museum, where she collected the 75-cent admission fee and he gave tours. After his death in 1990, Villeneuve’s house went from curiosity to official local attraction. The entire house now constitutes a permanent exhibit, “Arthur Villeneuve: Far from Naïve!,” in the Musée du Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean that includes a movie-set-like projection of sky above the house, audio recordings of Villeneuve’s interviews on Radio-Canada, and a video game.
Villeneuve’s art is about the people of the Saguenay and their surroundings. So, in a way, is Claude’s. In the mid-’90s, for instance, Claude made a piece that spelled out, in cloth letters, the names of all 6,000 people who’d ever resided in Larouche. He wrote in Performing Arts Journal in 1996, “[W]hile I personally would be happy to expunge my childhood memories, with all their traumas, my childhood will simply not go away. And to some extent my art is a series of devices I construct to appease a rather spoiled inner child. . . . You can’t escape memory. No more than my art can escape some distant relationship with the folk art I grew up with. I have tried to expunge memories, mock them, and reinterpret them, but they will not disappear.”
Eventually, Larouche, where many of Claude’s family members still lived, drew him back. In 2005 he opened an exhibition space there, in a former presbytery built in 1927. He called it Le Centre International D’Exposition de Larouche, its acronym the French word for “sky.” CIEL’s inaugural show was “The Whole World Is Rotten,” fresh off its run at Shainman, in New York. Subsequent exhibitions included “Focus on India”—South Indian artworks, crafts, and furniture from the 17th to 19th centuries—kinetic pieces by Canadian artist Jean-Pierre Gauthier, and a show of Claude’s own work.
Claude had larger ambitions for Larouche. He intended to ship there 14 buildings dating from the 16th to 18th centuries—including a mosque, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and two private homes—from Southern India, where he’d purchased them. The setting he envisioned for these structures was a wooded area of Larouche near a lake. He opened Margot, a restaurant hung with artworks by the likes of Michael Snow. He wanted to create what he called a “Village-Musée” called the William Larouche Project, after Larouche’s founder. At its heart was his multifaceted collection. “I was born a collector,” he told the Canadian magazine The Walrus in 2006. “In the back of my mind, I have known for a long time that I had to do something with everything I own. At the same time, I wanted to give back to the community I came from. This was a good solution.”
The Village-Musée was not to be. Claude ran afoul of the Canada Revenue Agency. Still, we can imagine it: Zooming in on Google Earth, spotting a Hindu temple, set down like a spacecraft in northern Canada. Poets, per Don Quixote, sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been.
If the Larouche Project were to have been realized, what would it be? A place bent to an artist’s vision, like Villeneuve’s house? Or Donald Judd’s Chinati? Or Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau? Or Edward Krasinski’s Warsaw apartment? Last November, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston opened an exhibition called “The Artist’s Museum,” about artists whose works incorporate art and artifacts created by others, often from the past—artists who produce meaning through assembling collections.
One hopes the Tang exhibition, which is titled “If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day” after the words on a Kerry James Marshall painting that figures in it, will raise deeper questions: How is a collecting sensibility formed? What role does memory play in its formation? What role does place play? Can a person’s spirit live on through a collection? Ars longa, after all, vita brevis.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 42 under the title “A Portrait of the Artist as a Collector.”