When Casey Kaplan opened his namesake art gallery in his hometown New York, he was not far removed from menial work for some of the city’s premier dealers and flush with connections less to artists of note than to their assistants. One of his first exhibitions showcased Joe Letitia, whose day job at the time was in the studio of Chuck Close, and others focused on young upstarts he managed to find while on the prowl around alternative spaces and art schools.
Now, 25 years later, Kaplan is more than a little established—and moving into a new phase. “I’m doubling down on New York, my home,” he said a couple weeks ago in his spacious gallery on West 27th Street. “I’m not interested in having a gallery somewhere else. I am a big believer in focusing, and I can focus by not being in London and Paris and Milan and Los Angeles. I can do my job well when I’m paying attention to what I need to pay attention to here.”
Kaplan will soon have more to focus on thanks to plans to expand his base in the city’s Flower District, close in certain ways but also pointedly distanced from the Chelsea gallery district. He currently occupies 10,000 square feet, and to that he’ll be adding 6,500 square feet next door in September. After construction is complete (to transform a former boxing gym into an environment more amenable to showing art), the combined spaces will open with an expansive exhibition by Kevin Beasley. Afterward, the enlarged gallery will be home to solo shows and dual-artist programs drawing from a roster of 25 artists, including many who have been with Kaplan for more than a decade (Jason Dodge, Geoffrey Farmer, Liam Gillick, Jonathan Monk, Simon Starling, and several others) plus some young ones (Kevin Beasley, Jordan Casteel) very much in the midst of an ascendant rise.
The next move marks the fifth expansion since Kaplan started out in a small space in SoHo and then slowly, over the course of a quarter of a century, moved his way uptown, first to 14th Street and later to Chelsea and then his current home. Throughout it all, the city has remained a muse. “I always just wanted to be a New York mom-and-pop shop,” he said.
Growing up in Manhattan, Kaplan was exposed to art early on but in no more than a pedestrian manner. His family would take him to museums and galleries every so often, but his interest was kindled more intensely by a distant relative: his great aunt Ethel Scull. “I was first exposed to her when I was young, around 10 years old,” Kaplan said of the storied collector who—with her taxi-cab tycoon husband, Robert Scull—famously amassed one of the 20th century’s most notable collections of contemporary art. “There was something clearly different about her than anyone else in my family. The older I got, the more time I spent with her. But initially there was something radically different, beyond the fact that she was in Page Six and things like that.”
After he went away and studied art history, Kaplan spent more time in the city with Scull and started making the scene. “I went to the Basquiat retrospective [at the Whitney Museum in 1992] as her date and sat at a table with Rene Ricard, George Condo, Francesco Clemente, Philip Taaffe, and Diego Cortez.” As a young man, he came away with memories: “Rene Ricard was dismantling the flower centerpiece and putting it into his hair. I was so overwhelmed by it all, I got really, really trashed. But I made some sort of impression on Clemente and Cortez because, after that, they started inviting me to things. I got invited to an event for William Burroughs—I got to meet Burroughs and have this extreme experience at 22 years old.”
With Scull’s recommendation, Kaplan took an internship with Paula Cooper Gallery and, shortly after, a job as an archivist at Pace. “The first show there for me was Robert Irwin, and I got to spend time with him. During the two years that I worked there, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin had their last shows while they were alive. I got to spend time with them along with Robert Ryman, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain. I spent a fair amount of time with Chamberlain—he was so intense that they only wanted certain types of people around him.”
While meeting heroes decades into successful careers was grand, Kaplan also wondered about his place in the art world’s ranks. “I felt very displaced from my own generation, from my peers,” he said. Then, on a lunch break in 1994, he stumbled upon a show in the then-new David Zwirner gallery by the emerging installation artist Jason Rhodes. “It blew my mind,” Kaplan said, “and made me feel absolutely convinced that I was on the wrong path and needed to be with artists of my own generation.”
After taking some time off to pay studio visits in art-rich locales like Brooklyn and Los Angeles, he opened the first Casey Kaplan gallery in SoHo on Broadway and, two years later, on Greene Street, in an upper-floor space across from Zwirner. “I didn’t have a whole lot of ideas—just that this was something I wanted to do and would have to figure out. I was definitely winging it. I didn’t have any assistants or employees, so I was doing everything myself: installing shows, stamping envelopes, labeling slides, choosing artists, selling work. It was a lot of late nights.”
He got a hold on attention at the beginning in part through shows organized by guest curators, including Daniel Birnbaum (who went on to co-curate the 2003 Venice Biennale) and artists including Laurie Simmons and Liam Gillick. “They opened up the gallery to a much wider audience, and from those experiences, artists came into the program,” Kaplan said. Through Birnbaum, he presented Carsten Höller’s first show in America. Via Simmons, he showed a very young Sarah Sze. Thanks to Gillick, he exhibited on-the-make German artists like Cosima von Bonin and Kai Althoff. “It exposed me to a new network of different galleries, different curators, different collectors,” Kaplan said. “It broadened the scope of the gallery immediately.”
In 2000, with SoHo “pretty much over,” Kaplan followed the migration of galleries up toward Chelsea—but stopped a few blocks short. “I couldn’t afford a storefront space in Chelsea, so 14th Street was a good option,” he said. “The space itself was really attractive to me: an old slaughterhouse with the nightclub the Cooler underneath it. I liked the whole like dirty vibe of the time, with transvestites and meat guys and blood pools all over the streets and the sidewalks.” Gavin Brown’s Enterprise was a block away, on 15th Street, and a few artists had studios nearby, among them Matthew Barney and Cecily Brown.
Chelsea was home to more action, however, and Kaplan moved there in 2005, after which point he presented shows by artists in his stable as well as group exhibitions such as a showcase of Georgian modernism titled “The Fantastic Tavern: The Tblisi Avant-Garde.” But it was Kaplan’s move away from Chelsea—in an early but prescient defection in 2015—that counts among his more fateful decisions. “It was a feeling of figuring out where the gallery could really grow and have more of a future,” he said of resolving to leave. “I never believed that that could happen in the space I was in”—a 5,000-square-foot rental that he was able to double in terms of area for half the cost by moving to upon moving to his current 10,000-square-foot location in the Flower District, on 27th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
Though just a 15-minute walk from the upper part of the heart of Chelsea, the location is effectively a world away. “I liken being here to being in Glasgow—we’re a destination,” Kaplan said. “It’s not in the center of things. It’s slightly removed. But something we try and succeed at here is creating an experience for the people who come. They tend to spend more time here, and they come with intent. They’re not just passing by.”
While Chelsea initially held out the promise of a loyal audience and abundant sales, that began to change. “At the end of the 10 years, the visitorship had drastically shrunken and the number of actual clients who were coming into the gallery had evaporated. People don’t go to galleries like they used to. And at one point, the High Line brought a lot of tourism, which is great because you’re expanding your audience. But that’s not a buying audience.”
Meanwhile, in the current location, “people come because they want to be here,” Kaplan said. “The percentage of visitorship to actual transaction is quite high. It’s very much the inverse of our experience in the latter part of our time in Chelsea. When people do come, they’re very serious about being here.”
With the gallery’s 25th anniversary year now under way, lasting relationships have come in for special consideration. The first anniversary-celebrating show opens Tuesday and focuses on Liam Gillick, who guest-curated an early group show at the gallery and joined the roster in earnest after. “We’ve done nine shows together,” Kaplan said. It’s extraordinary history to have worked with somebody that long and planned so many exhibitions and have had such varied experiences together. This show is about a relationship—it’s a collaboration, and the show is evidence of that.”
With more space to play with starting in September and a 10-year lease secured, Kaplan said he’s looking forward to adding to his roster and figuring out what awaits him as a gallerist somewhere in the middle of being young and old. “I’m much more of an interesting person in my 40s than I was in my 30s and certainly in my 20s, and I feel like I just know how to do my job better. One of the beauties of not being in Chelsea is I don’t have to face all the other outside noise. I can look more inward and examine what we’re doing here—and just try to improve.”