Lorenzo Benedetti: The first time I visited your gallery was a dark autumn night in 2007. It struck me as an area that art people didn’t frequent; except for Art center Le Plateau there was nothing much to see, and I was wondering how you’d ended up there. But now, after fifteen years, Belleville is a gentrified neighborhood full of galleries and cultural activities.
Jocelyn Wolff: When I looked for a location in Paris to start my gallery, I was at first thinking about Rue Louise Weiss, the latest gallery neighborhood that had coalesced in the city. But that was a 1990s story, not mine, and I didn’t want to be the last one to develop a gallery there, like a follower. I did not have many options. But Belleville was very Parisian, not touristic, affordable, quite central in the city, and very lively. It felt like a place for me to start my own story.
LB: Cinema Divisible with Clemens von Wedemeyer was the first exhibition at your gallery, which was located at that time on Rue Rebeval. It was also the artist’s first gallery show. You’ve since frequently shown young artists who aren’t yet represented by a gallery.
JW: Clemens von Wedemeyer was the very first artist who became part of our gallery program. I remember in Berlin, when he asked me who my other artists were, and I replied that he was the first. A contemporary art gallery should take risks, as it means that you accept—or try to accept—to be proven wrong in the future. Every great artist started someplace, sometime. And to accompany an artist at the very beginning of his or her parcours is very rewarding, very exciting. No one knows the future; one only knows that the future will correspond to what you are presently building. The future is dissolved in your present actions; so is the oeuvre in construction. It is vertiginous and fascinating to witness, and indeed participate in, an oeuvre blossoming.
LB: All the while, you have also shown an older generation of artists who had an important role in the conceptual years of the late 1960s and 1970s, like Franz Erhard Walther and William Anastasi. This historical perspective creates a compelling relationship with the younger artists in the gallery, especially around the topic of sculpture. When did you start to think that the past could play a role in your program?
JW: I met Franz Erhard Walther at the STUK in Leuven, Belgium, where the curator Pierre Bal-Blanc had developed a chapter of his exhibition series La Monnaie vivante. Prinz Gholam were performing, as was Walther. Seeing him perform for the first time after seeing so many of his works in museums was like witnessing static automatons starting to move. I offered him a show that very day, and a fascinating conversation ensued. Out of this conversation, I naturally felt the need to contextualize, to do research, to have a better understanding of the aesthetic challenges and values of a different generation.
I came to William Anastasi out of working with the art critic Erik Verhagen on a show on “proto-conceptualism.” And for Colette Brunschwig it is yet another story—my conversation with her started in the mid-1990s.
LB: The curatorial aspect is very present in your program, from the roster of artists to the exhibition installations to your booth at the fairs. Many of the visitors are curators, and as you were mentioning, you have intense exchanges with them. Your activities are often focused on producing artworks and promoting artists in public institutions. Before opening the gallery you worked in an art center. How much is a gallery a curatorial experience?
JW: Actually I have never recognized clear boundaries between “gallerism” and curatorial practice. There is a souplesse d’intervention connected to the fact that our first interlocutor is the artist, who necessarily changes the way we perceive the space and use artworks. On another level, one must use his or her own sensibility to deal with artworks.
LB: From curating to art history: I always wonder about gallery archives. Because galleries concentrate on a few artists and follow their careers very intensely, they often have the most complete documentation on them, especially concerning installations, performances, and exhibition protocols. These archives are of enormous value and sometimes underestimated, but crucial in the long term from an art historical perspective. What can you tell me about your archives?
JW: We are constantly taking care of our archive and documentation. The fact that many documents are digital does not make the work easier—rather the opposite! We are dealing with an enormous amount of information and documentation, and we try to do a proper editing since the disease of our times is to have the same material duplicated and more, far beyond is necessary. We do preserve everything with artistic content. For instance, when Franz Erhard Walther had his first solo exhibition ten years ago, he showed a large series of drawings from his diary (his “drawn novel”). After the show, the drawings changed, but we have a full archive of each different version. To me it’s very interesting if you wish to follow how Walther decided to change his own work.
LB: You often have strong presentations in your booths at art fairs around the world. Solo exhibitions or complex artworks don’t seem to be a barrier for you. What is the role of art fairs for a gallery like yours?
JW: The art fair is very much the medium of the gallery, while the gallery space is that of the artist. For gallery exhibitions, artists receive—if necessary—the curatorial support of the gallery. For art fairs, gallerists receive—when necessary—the curatorial support of the artists. This is an introductory frame for the conversation. I use art fairs not only to show the art I love, and not only as a platform to demonstrate the gallery’s visual language and aesthetic ambitions, but also to develop knowledge and expertise surrounding the works. While showing works with a very limited time for installation, in a space saturated with other proposals by other galleries, one can “challenge” some works in a different context. It is very interesting and always inspiring. I nevertheless agree that some categories of artworks are almost impossible to show at art fairs, which is a pity.
LB: Speaking of works that are difficult to show at art fairs, for its twenty-fifth anniversary in November Artissima will launch the new section Sound, in which you will be participating. Artissima has always welcomed challenging presentations and a curatorial approach. How do you feel the public responds? And how will you approach this new section?
JW: This initiative reflects the laboratory-like approach of Artissima. For us it will be an opportunity to show a sculpture by Franz Erhard Walther accompanied by a sound recording of performative instructions. It is another aspect of the artist’s practice. I have no idea what the public response will be, but am very curious.
LB: You are on the Artissima selection committee. Is possible to compare the selection of galleries for an art fair to the selection of artists for an exhibition?
JW: I wouldn’t compare the two. An art fair committee considers criteria such as the artistic quality of the gallery, the quality of its relationship with the art community (artists, curators, collectors, other galleries), its history and background, its location, and its local role. Artissima is a very “prospective” fair, and the challenge is to look at applications with emerging artists, from emerging galleries. It’s also true that the selection is limited to galleries that apply for the fair.
LB: At the beginning of this year you sent a Decalogue as a New Year’s greeting. In this list you stated that you can run a great gallery with a strong international program without necessarily driving new cars, flying first class, and spending one’s nights in luxury hotels. A successful gallery can follow its own path and not necessarily go with the main flow.
JW: There was some humor in the message. I try to work seriously for my artists without taking myself too seriously. I also think it’s dangerous for the art world to always be associated with the world of luxury goods. Artworks simply are not luxury objects, even if they are sometimes very expensive. It was a kind of statement in this sense.