Let’s Get Small: The Elusive Water McBeer Shows His Coveted Collection at Jeffrey Deitch

Water McBeer with the artist Brian Belott.


“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But Water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield,” the collector and gallerist Water McBeer told me recently over email. “As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”

In the eight years that he has run his eponymous miniature gallery, the enigmatic McBeer has gained cult status. The collector has thrown tiny-scale exhibitions for artists ranging from Jamian Juliano-Villani to Andy Warhol, and the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist once staged a version of his famous “Nanomuseum” at the tiny roving space. Beyond the gallery, over the decades, McBeer has been photographed with luminaries including President Bill Clinton and Jean-Michel Basquiat, although no one has gone on record saying that they can recall meeting the man. This Saturday, Jeffrey Deitch’s space at 76 Grand Street in Manhattan will open “The Private Collection of Water McBeer,” a survey of McBeer’s art holdings, which are expansive in scope but small in stature.

The exhibition features over 40 artists, many of whom have shown at the gallery in the past. It is the first time McBeer’s full collection will be made available to the public. “I feel that it’s time to share the things that I love with people who love them,” the collector told me over email. “I am a lonely man and have all this art and no one to share it with. If a painting hangs in a collector’s home and there are no friends or loved ones to see it, does it still resonate?”

According McBeer, he got his start in Northern California in the 1960s, when he inherited what he called “the lofty burden of collecting art.” In our interview, he was somewhat elusive about his family history. “I didn’t choose this path, it chose me, and let me tell you: it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it,” he said.

The gallery is solidly bi-coastal, though its current base is in New York. Over the years, McBeer has presented a vast and varied program that has included such highlights as a stacked Brian Belott–curated group exhibition at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and a 2012 exhibition by the artist Marisa Takal that was filled with a series of memorable text-based works. In 2016, McBeer curated his first international show, at Loyal in Stockholm. Throughout all of this, the gallery’s scale has remained small.

“Nobody looks at anything IRL anymore anyways,” McBeer said, as a way to explain the size of his gallery. “It keeps my overhead low and profits high.” The collector said that the exhibitions are constructed to exist in the online sphere, where certain realities can be easily readjusted. “The perception of art through digital media is something that has severely distorted my view of reality,” he said. “The thing I realized when I started is that reality isn’t important to me anymore. It’s simply something to manipulate and play with, or at least your perception of it is.”

As for his curatorial style, McBeer called his process “intuitive” and “free from the constraints of space and time,” comparing it to the mating habits of the rhinoceros. “When a rhinoceros is ready to mate, she will spray urine on dung piles to alert males that she is in estrus,” he explained. “Males come and urinate on the female’s urine to ward off potential competition. The alpha male will then dominate his competitors and copulation will take place. The programming selection is based on whatever compels me on an animal instinctual level. I have a deep bond with my artists, one built on mutual trust and understanding.”

As for the future of his gallery after the Detich show, McBeer was at once open-ended and optimistic. “I don’t expect anything from the future, this way I’m never disappointed,” he said. “Success is inevitable.”

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