Chicago Artist' News, February, 1997
A CLOSER LOOK
by John Brunetti
Klein Art Works
For the past fifteen years, Klein Art Works has been a champion of contemporary abstract art in Chicago. Presenting challenging exhibitions that display the vitality and range of a diverse stable of local and international artists, Klein Art Works consistently provides Chicago audiences with an opportunity to experience the strongest examples of abstract painting and sculpture. Recently, A Closer Look spoke with owner Paul Klein on the development of his vision for his gallery and the unique relationship between gallery, artist, and audience.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN THIS BUSINESS? WHAT WERE YOUR REASONS FOR GOING INTO THE ARTS?
Paul Klein: Everything is a long story. I grew up as one of five kids. I was the oldest and by the time the last kid got into school my mother needed something to do and she started making art. Ultimately, my mother became a sculptor and when I was starting high school, my mother taught me how to weld. After graduating from college I decided that I wanted to do different jobs for three years at a time. My initial plan was to teach high school for at least three years, which I did, then have an art gallery for three years, then get a master's degree, and then get into politics or city government. But what ultimately happened was that in 1973 I opened an art gallery in San Francisco Bay area, and the three years aren't up yet.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO MOVE YOUR GALLERY TO CHICAGO AND WHAT FACTORS PROMPTED YOU TO SELECT CHICAGO?
I had this gallery in the suburbs of San Francisco for eight years, and I felt like because it was a suburban gallery, and because it was California, there wasn't a focus. We would show some Mexican artists one month, art nouveau posters the next month, and a local artist the third month. That was nice, but basically, I feel like my gallery is my art form, and I wanted to focus. I wanted to make more of a statement. So in 1981, I figured I had to get out of the suburban situation. In '79 or '80, I participated in the art fair at Navy Pier and I was impressed by what was going on in Chicago. I received a much higher level of response than I found in the suburban California situation that I was existing in.
I had been raised in the Chicago area as a little kid- my family left when I was ten or twelve. I felt comfortable coming back here. I sort of thought that there were people who were parents of friends, and friends I had as a little kid, who might provide some support structure when I opened a gallery. That's how I ended up coming to Chicago.
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THE AESTHETIC FOCUS YOU WERE SEARCHING FOR WHEN YOU MOVED TO CHICAGO?
The truth is, when I moved here I wanted to focus on abstraction and Mexican art, but quickly realized that the two were so disparate that I had to pick one or the other. I liked a lot of the relationships I had with the Mexican artists, many of whom were incredibly important. But I didn't feel like I could do both, and I wanted to focus on abstraction.
Initially the gallery was probably mostly abstract. I'm also interested in the differences between two and three dimensions, so that while not all the work was abstract, a lot of it had subtle tactile qualities. The gallery I had in River North was destroyed by fire in 1989. For a while I thought about not re-opening, but ultimately I felt that I didn't have a choice: I had to do it. This is what I do. So when I re-opened the gallery here at 400 North Morgan, I decided to focus even more, and at that point the gallery focus became almost exclusively abstraction.
HOW DID YOU FIND THE ARTISTS YOU WANTED TO REPRESENT WHEN YOU MOVED TO CHICAGO?
I brought a lot of people from California. I think now that California is pretty different from the rest of the U.S., and you can look at those folks as having different values. But when I came here I sort of thought that the values and aesthetic I had in California were pretty much universal, so I brought people with me that I liked. But it quickly became clear to me that wasn't a brilliant idea, as I don't think Chicagoans particularly respond to that aesthetic. So I moderated my vision after being here and in the process began taking on Chicago artists.
I think I have a strong desire to make my community - what I perceive that to be - stronger. I don't think you do that without participating in the community. You don't just bring in outside stuff. So that over time the vision changes and I am really happy with my vision and what I'm doing today. It's working for me, and I expect it to keep growing, knowing that in time that vision will be somewhat different again.
HOW CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE CRITICAL RESPONSE TO THE GALLERY?
It always surprises me. I think this gallery has a good reputation. I aspire to it. I hope to be as good as my reputation. I don't know how one goes about creating a reputation. I think that what we try to convey is that we care about people, we want to take care of people, which means we want to take care of our artists and our collectors and we give a damn about art. My attitude is that if someone likes art I am going to talk to them. They don't have to be interested in buying it. They just have to be interested in it.
HOW HAVE YOU GONE ABOUT EDUCATING YOUR DIFFERENT AUDIENCES OVER THE YEARS?
I don't know about specific things. For me it's like an attitude. I used to teach, and what I learned when I was teaching was that what kids do the best, and respond to the best, is the stuff the teacher is most enthused about. I show people work I like. Once I like it, I show the work to Judith Simon, the director of the gallery, who sells more art here than I do. It is important that she feels enthusiastic about it. If we both feel enthusiastic about it, the relationship has the possibility of growing.
I am always open to looking at slides. I like artists to send me slides and a self addressed stamped envelope. I look all the time. If you don't look you don't see it. When artists send me slides I am only interested in looking at a limited number of images, less than a page, current stuff, that they can be proud of. I don't want to see old stuff. I'm not interested in that. I want to see what's going on now.
For me, I see the artist/gallery relationship as being similar to dating. I see it as a courtship. I don't think you walk up to a dealer or an artist and say 'let's do it - tonight!' I think it's a process. Most importantly, you have to respond to and like the artwork. I've got to anticipate liking what the artist is going to do for the next ten years. Then I've still got to like the person and Judith has got to like the person, and we've got to anticipate having a ten year relationship with the person and the artwork. Obviously, it doesn't always last ten years, and there are some artists we have worked with over ten years. But that is the kind of mind set that happens.
WHEN THE GALLERY ENTERS INTO A RELATIONSHIP WITH AN ARTIST, WHAT ROLE DOES THE GALLERY PLAY IN GUIDING THAT ARTIST?
I think that the relationship with a young artist is different from a relationship with an artist that has a track record and who's established. I think that once an artist is established their strategy tends to be in place .You can have discussions about changing and tweaking it, or modifying it slightly. It is important for me to say that I see the relationship between the gallery and our artists as a team operation.
By definition most of the younger artists tend to be local, and we do a lot with younger local artists. We try to have them in the gallery more often and have them try to talk to other artists with whom we work, create some areas where we can invite them to talk to collectors or introduce them to other folks, so that they can get the kind of knowledge they didn't get in school. We try to give them a greater sense of the big picture and just be supportive.
IS THERE A COMMON MISCONCEPTION YOUNG ARTISTS HAVE OF THE PROFESSIONAL ASPECTS OF THEIR CAREER?
John Neff, who used to be the director of the MCA, gave a lecture once where he said that being an artist is like running a marathon, and you've got to look at the big picture and the long run. I think many artists don't realize that. They seem to think they better have it all figured out at 25 years old.
I think it frequently takes two years from the time an artist is out of school till one can feel pretty confident that they are making their own work as opposed to responding to various stimuli and/or assignments that they had in school. I think that many artists who come out of graduate school, or college, feel like they are ready to make a difference. In many cases I think that is a rushed judgment. Frequently, they need to have more time in service, more time making art , more time focusing on their stuff so someone looking at their art feels like they are going to keep doing it. Some young artists I see are ready, in my mind. They're focused. They've been making what I think is their own art in school, and have benefited from their the school experience. They've made their art, not somebody else's.
Many of the artists I think are ready aren't, and many of the artists I think are ready think they aren't. It's a delicate timing. The conclusion is that regardless of whether you are ready or not for a gallery, or are ready or not to focus on your career, the important objective is to make art, to find yourself and your vision, and not worry about getting into the marketplace.
I think nothing is more difficult than being an artist. I think to be a successful artist you need to be honest with yourself, and be willing to be vulnerable. You need to put your soul, and your heart, and your body into your artwork. As a result of that, you need to say what it is you need to say. You don't need to go out and contrive a statement that hasn't been made. Ostensibly, most anything that someone can say in art has been said by now. Therefore, you have the freedom to be yourself, to be vulnerable and really look at yourself and put that into your work. If you are capable of doing that honestly, people are moved by that. That will facilitate their enjoyment and appreciation of the artwork.
For an artist, they have got to have that kind of honesty and vulnerability, and I think it takes some time to be willing to do that.
John Brunetti is an artist and writer living in Chicago.