Curatorial director of the Lisson Gallery on seeking out talent, the end of artistic ‘generations’ and the single-minded nature of artists

Interview: Emily Jupp
Portrait: Christopher L Proctor

How long have you worked at the Lisson Gallery?
It’s been 10 years. I started in 2008. Immediately before that I was an independent curator, developing projects from outside the art world—I founded Plus Equals in 2005 with the University of the Arts London, which set out to develop artistic initiatives across different disciplines and industries. Before that I was at the Arts Council England and before that, I was senior curator at the Hayward Gallery.

How did your interest in curation begin?
I studied history and then art history, and then took a leap of faith into contemporary art. In 1983, I began working at Riverside Studios, which was rare in that it had international programmes and performing arts programmes. London was quite parochial back then, but Riverside Studios was a powerhouse of the arts and I was lucky to be brought into this dynamic space. It was before ‘curator’ was really a recognised job title, but I would try to work with artists to find out where they wanted to go, then I would try to realise their dreams and bring them to as great an audience as possible.

You celebrated 50 years of the Lisson Gallery in 2017. The gallery has been at the forefront of developments in contemporary art and in recent years has championed some of the most exciting artists emerging internationally. How do you feel the gallery has changed and developed over the past half century?
It actually changed a lot around the time of the anniversary. We opened a space in New York three years ago and then another two years ago, and that makes a big difference. We are now a big global gallery, we show at art fairs everywhere and have a big programme in China at the moment. It’s breathtaking what is happening there—there are many museums opening and we hope to work with artists and collectors there. But I think Marylebone remains at the core and the heart of the gallery. We are also looking for all the cultural opportunities the world offers, which are almost infinite, and that gives us a chance to become both broader and richer.

Under founder Nicholas Logsdail, the gallery showed very early exhibitions by emerging talent. It helped establish the careers of Sol LeWitt and Dan Graham and then Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Tony Cragg, Ryan Gander and Haroon Mirza. Is the gallery always looking out for new talent?
Of course. People look at the Lisson as an institution, and in a way it is, in that we have a history and track record, we have a big archive, but it has always been important not to let it stand still and not become ossified. It is always reinventing itself.

And how has the practice of being a curator changed?
When Nicholas Logsdail founded the gallery in 1967, you looked at generations of artists. Sol LeWitt and the conceptual artists all lived around each other. Anish Kapoor, Shirazeh Houshiary and Richard Deacon—the New British Sculpture artists—lived and exhibited around each other. But now, we look for artists everywhere: Pakistan, Iran, China. Laure Prouvost and Ryan Gander, two of our current artists, have a real affinity with each other and get on well, but they come from very different places and so the way they surface is different. But if you talk to artists who you work with, that leads you to other artists—artists are very good at assessing integrity and authenticity.

Two Blues and Light Blue, 2017, by Peter Joseph

Two Blues and Light Blue, 2017, by Peter Joseph

What can we expect from the upcoming Peter Joseph exhibition (25th January—2nd March)?
Peter Joseph was one of the first ever artists to be shown at Lisson. He has just turned 90 and has had many shows with the gallery. He began as a conceptual artist and then became a visual artist—moving with a more formal focus in the eighties and nineties. He is known for making beautiful abstract works of a frame within a frame. Then, 10 years ago, his style developed again and it became more evidently influenced by the landscape. He insisted on only showing his newest works at this exhibition. As a gallery we are always helping artists with the next stage in their development, whatever that may be, whether they be 20 or 90.

Liu Xiaodong is also exhibiting at the Lisson’s Bell Street gallery at the same time. Tell us about him.
He is a realist painter from China. Considering the Lisson became famous for conceptual art, realist painting was never on the agenda—but then Richard and I saw his work in Beijing back in 2010. He was using the realist style that was taught in communist China, but the way he selected his subjects and how he used the method alongside video and writing changed it, and so it became a revolutionary and politicised way of viewing the world.

Three years ago, we asked Liu Xiaodong if he would like to work in new media. Working with a team in Shanghai, he developed a painting machine that is linked to a webcam and robotic arms. He is making a painting in Trafalgar Square at the moment, capturing the movement at the scene using a live feed, streaming data and imagery so the robot can create a realistic painting of the moving scenes there.

You’ve met and cultivated relationships with amazing artists like Anish Kapoor and you wrote a book on Ai Weiwei. What’s it like for you to work with some of the greatest creative minds of our time?
The sculptor Tony Cragg is someone we work closely with and I have always admired him, but I didn’t get to meet him until recently. You are always in awe of these figures. They don’t get their reputation for nothing. We always work with them to find their vision, but these artists are always dynamic and changing. You have to have faith and follow that and give a critical response—but sensitively.

Do you come across any difficult or eccentric characters?
You have to be very single-minded to be a great artist, and I believe that is why they like working in a dynamic gallery like ours; one that is always shifting context and bringing something new to the room. What we look for from our artists is clarity of aesthetic. It is not just technical approach—they want to change the way they and we look at the world. Artists can be demanding, but I don’t work with any artists who are less demanding on themselves than on anyone else.

Do you have a favourite artist?
Contemporary artist? That I am not going to answer, partly because I can’t, but also because your feelings about art change with time and experience and mood. Historically, I would choose Eugène Delacroix, the Romantic artist. There happens to be a big show of his at the Met in New York now, but I got to know his work and his writing well as a student. I like him because he represented this continuous battle between passion and intellect.

What other artforms are you passionate about?
Some of my best cultural memories have been in the theatre—and some of my worst as well. You can have a direct personal relationship with art and it allows multiple forms of engagement. The same goes for contemporary dance, which I was introduced to at Riverside. We also work with Wayne McGregor, who is the choreographer of The Royal Ballet. He has collaborated with Julian Opie and other artists we work with. Dance is about the individual and the body and fluid movement, so to place dance alongside something static and iconic is fascinating to me.