Over the past four decades, Peter Nagy, whose iconic work of the 1980s is the subject of an exhibition at Jeffrey Deitch gallery in New York through August 15, has been both a successful artist and a successful commercial gallerist. Articulate about his own work and its influences, he’s also able to speak incisively about the art world of his time, especially its movements and its personalities, its palmy days and economic downturns.
Nagy’s own gallery, Nature Morte, now located in New Delhi, began in New York’s East Village in 1982, when Nagy and co-founder Alan Belcher opened on East 10th Street. The two had met while working at a Midtown print production house the year before, Nagy as a typesetter and Belcher doing paste-up and mechanicals. “The production house was on 57th Street,” Nagy told me, “and on our lunch hour we started going to galleries together. There were a lot more galleries on 57th Street in those days. That’s how our friendship started, and our tastes were similar. We were very into Piero Manzoni, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana. In 1981, nobody was looking at art by those guys, so we bonded over that.”
At the time, Nagy was living in the East Village, where a few artist-run alternative spaces—including PS 122 and Kenkeleba House, a collective directed by artist Joe Overstreet—were already ensconced. “It was a basement apartment on East 3rd Street between First and Second Avenues—the same block as the Hells Angels clubhouse,” Nagy said of his address at the time. “One of the guys who owned the building, Bill Stelling, opened FUN Gallery with the actress Patti Astor. They showed Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 and Kenny Scharf. We started going there, though we didn’t particularly relate to that work. Then one day, out of the blue, Alan said, ‘Maybe we should start a gallery.’”
Belcher was living with a boyfriend, Peter Sandy, who had a restaurant called the Paris Commune on Bleecker Street. Sandy said he’d loan the duo money, and after some searching they found a storefront on 10th Street for $500 a month. “At that point,” as Nagy tells it, “we started thinking about who we could show. I had gone to school with Steven Parrino and Joel Otterson; Alan already knew Kevin Larmon and James Brown. So there it was. We had no fucking clue what we were doing, but it was small and it was easy. By then, FUN had moved down the street, Gracie Mansion was running her gallery out of her bathroom, and Dean Savard and Alan Barrows had come along and started Civilian Warfare, which opened on the same day as Nature Morte.”
Not long after opening, a then-23-year-old Nagy told New York Times reporter Grace Glueck, “Artists are basically our audience. While the new Expressionist figuration has taken over in SoHo and on 57th Street, we look for other types of work, to show there are alternatives.” Among the artists the galley would go on to show were Gretchen Bender, Cady Noland, Haim Steinbach, Barbara Bloom, Keith Sonnier, and Louise Lawler.
As Nagy recalled recently, “No one was more surprised than me to see [the East Village art scene] mushroom the way it did. But we certainly benefited. Suddenly there were articles in the Times, a whole issue of Flash Art devoted to the East Village. At first we were the odd man out because it was all graffiti art, with Gracie Mansion’s kitsch—Rodney Alan Greenblatt and Rhonda Zwillinger—and Civilian Warfare’s punky agitprop by artists like David Wojnarowicz thrown in. Robert Pincus came in one day and we had some of David Robbins’s neo-conceptual, post-Pictures photos up. Pincus went through the show, sniffed, and told us no one was ever going to be interested in conceptual art again. We were like, ‘OK, never mind.’”
Nature Morte wasn’t an outlier for long. A small cadre of like-minded galleries soon opened, including Cash Gallery, International With Monument (whose inaugural exhibition included works by Nagy and Belcher), Piezo Electric, Pat Hearn Gallery, and Jay Gorney. Though each styled itself differently, they all specialized in coolly critical art—known by names like Neo-Conceptualism, Commodity Art, and Neo-Geo—influenced by the work of the slightly older Pictures Generation as well as consumer culture and punk rock.
By 1982, Nagy was producing work himself—punkish, media-aware appropriation art of the kind now on view at Deitch. “I had begun making art by the time I graduated from Parsons,” he said, “large-scale, black-and-white drawings influenced by Futurism. Then I started making collages of images from magazines. They were made to be Xeroxed, turned into pure information that could be endlessly reproduced and given away or published in that form. I was very influenced by the handbills for punk shows you’d see pasted up around the city. Of course I was aware of SAMO and Keith Haring, [and] though I came to their work late, I was paying attention to Barbara Kruger and Louise Lawler.”
One of Nagy’s first collages to be Xeroxed was Entertainment Erases History (1982), a timeline that used tiny pictures of famous artworks cut from his old Gardner’s Art through the Ages text book. Slowly, he started pasting Xeroxes of collages onto cardboard or wooden boxes or canvas—a move that eventually necessitated the purchase of a Xerox machine. “Before that,” he remembered, “I would make like four trips a day to Steve’s Copy Shop on Waverly.”
The first paintings based on Xeroxes were Nagy’s “Cancer” series, begun in 1984. “That was the year that both my father and my grandmother died of cancer. I started to take clip art and mash it all together. I had studied logo design in college, and the idea was to make logo-like images that were imploding, malignant.”
The “Cancer” paintings comprised Nagy’s first solo show at International With Monument gallery in 1985. Even as he continued to produce photocopies of collages like International Survey Condominiums (a collage based on floor plans), he said, “The ‘Cancer’ paintings began to morph into images based on Rococo and Baroque architecture—I was interested in the psychology of decorative art. What kind of society craves Rococo exuberance?”
With the digital age having arrived and still in its early stages, Nagy started to think of his works as coded information, variously readable or corrupted. “The irony is that they’re handmade paintings that look like they might be computer-derived,” he said. “I was interested in the degradation of the image and the information the image contained. I also thought there was additional information to be gleaned from that degradation. I was really into this idea: making copies of copies and noticing how long the original information maintained its integrity the longer I continued.”
Nagy and many of his peers were interested—presciently—in how images might be deployed in new combinations and recombinations. “We were all obsessed with that,” he recalled. “It sometimes seems to me that artists like Wade Guyton or Seth Price are our grandchildren.”
In 1988, Nagy switched representation to Jay Gorney gallery, which had just relocated to SoHo along with a number of other East Village galleries including 303, American Fine Arts, Pat Hearn, and Deborah Sharp. Now an artist with a thriving career, Nagy had three solo shows with Gorney, the last in 1992. By then however, the art market, roiled by the crash of ’87, had collapsed.
“Until you’ve lived through it a couple of times,” Nagy said, “you don’t realize how fast the art world can spin on a dime. In 1987, we were selling everything we were making, having exhibitions in Europe, buying clothes at Comme des Garçons—and thinking, ‘This is great! This will be our life!’ I remember the consultant Anne Livet introducing me at that time to older artists like Joseph Kosuth and Keith Sonnier, and those guys looking at me like, Yeah, kid, you’ll see.”
“There were a few years of rolling pennies,” Nagy recalled. He had closed Nature Morte in 1988, shifting his attentions to his own art. (Belcher, born in Toronto, had returned to Canada some time earlier.) But while he had no desire to reopen a gallery in New York, “I was still traveling a lot—to Tokyo, to Istanbul, to Paris—and thinking in the back of my head that someday I’d like to have a gallery someplace else.”
One of his trips was to India and, in 1992, knowing not a soul there, he moved to New Delhi. For the next five years, he shuttled between New York and India. “I was making color paintings,” he said. “Then I did a show with Nicole Klagsbrun in New York in 1997 of tabletop assemblages that combined my paintings with works by others. That was my last solo exhibition in New York [until the current one at Deitch].”
A few months later, he opened Nature Morte New Delhi. Nagy’s original vision for the gallery was to present an even mix of Indian and Western art. That is what he did for the first year, but the plan proved prohibitive. “I did manage it for the first season, with shows of work by Gretchen Bender, Joseph Kosuth, Stephen Mueller, Stefano Arienti, and others. How we accomplished it without email is a mystery. Email didn’t really start working in India until around 2000. Until then you were either on dialup—sitting all day while it went dink-dink-dink-dink-dink—or communicating by fax.”
By the second year, trying to incorporate Western artists into the program had proven grueling. But at that point Nagy had become more familiar with Indian contemporary art and, at the same time, a market was emerging for art from around the globe. Even so, it was a heavy lift. “Sales didn’t really kick off until the fifth or sixth year of the gallery being in business,” Nagy said. “Over the next few years, suddenly, all of these people were showing up looking for Indian contemporary art.”
By then, Nature Morte artists like Vivan Sundaram and Bharti Kher had developed an international audience, and the gallery started courting collectors at international fairs like Art Basel (where in 2006 it was the first Indian gallery to participate), the Armory Show, and FIAC. Then came the global financial crisis of 2008. “Lehman Brothers collapsed three weeks before FIAC, so it was wheee! Down the slide again.”
Running Nature Morte left Nagy little time for his own work between 2005 and 2018. But over the past two years, with the gallery’s fortunes relatively secured, he has been making art again. A show of new pieces is planned for next year in New York at Magenta Plains gallery, which now represents him (and is the co-organizer of the Deitch exhibition). “They’ll be color paintings, still diagrammatic but with a lot of decorative art motifs mashed together,” Nagy said of the new work yet to be seen. “Like the works in the current show, but put through a Bonnard blender.”