Atemporal Art


Five years ago, there were 71 galleries that called the Lower East Side home. As of this month, there are 132. Needless to say, the Lower Manhattan neighborhood is a rising hotspot for contemporary art, and the newest addition to the list is D&F, a two-floor space on Delancey Street. Co-owned by Jonathan D’Agostino, 31, and Beth Fiore, 30, D&F officially opened this past weekend, but has been hosting unofficial events during renovations, which began last June. Attendees at events have included the likes of Genesis P-Orridge, Matthew Barney, Elizabeth Peyton, and members of bands like MGMT and Iceage. With plans to continue performances as well as hanging exhibitions, D’Agostino and Fiore aim to make their gallery a space dedicated to the old and new, intermixing movements and generations.

Although both owners are hardly over the age of 30, they’ve been immersed within the art world their entire lives and are well equipped. D’Agostino was born into a family of art collectors and enthusiasts, grew up in New York amongst Picasso’s grandchildren, and obtained his art handlers license at the young age of 15. Fiore, who comes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, consistently read art books, often taking road trips to museums in Philadelphia, D.C., and New York. In her first year as a private art dealer, she dropped out of her MFA program at SVA and sold more than $1 million worth of art—a rare figure even for some established dealers, let alone a first-year dealer in her 20s.

D&F’s inaugural exhibition, “Bad Presidents Make Good Art,” explores the history of experimental galleries, artist-run spaces, and DIY venues, showcasing artists such as Sally Webster, Mark Flood, Jonas Wood, and Richard Aldrich. Before the opening, we spoke with Fiore and D’Agostino about the space.

EMILY MCDERMOTT: So how did you first find this space?

D’AGOSTINO: This was a lingerie and panties shop—five dollars for the panties and five dollars for the stockings, or $7.50 for two together. [laughs] It was maroon inside and looked horrible—yellow walls with the little slating—[but] it ended up having the best walls for art, because everything has two inches of compact wood behind the sheetrock. You can drill a car into the wall and it’ll stay. [laughs] So I white walled it, made it a white box, and then Beth made it a home. It was very cold and you made it feel like a very comfortable place to come and hang out.

MCDERMOTT: How did you decide you wanted to open a gallery? That’s a pretty big endeavor.

FIORE: I had a space upstate. I was doing private art dealing and art advising—those are almost synonymous in my mind—and I thought of John when I thought about growth. I reached out to him and was like, “We should try to do something together.” John has a great track record in the art world with his history, and he’s a financial guy, so it’s a good partnership.

MCDERMOTT: How did you first meet each other?

D’AGOSTINO: I’m thinking it was something at The Hole…

FIORE: There was a Kembra Pfahler show at The Hole a few years ago. That’s when we really started talking about the artists that we both like and things that we have in common.

MCDERMOTT: Who are some of the artists that brought you together?

FIORE: Older ones, actually—Warhols and Picassos. My background is in impressionist and modern, and Jonathan’s background with his family is also that with some—

D’AGOSTINO: —art deco and a little bit of old masters. I like art deco and impressionism. My house is filled with the modernist, ’50s to ’70s, and all that. Beth and I found our common ground, and we started spinning, and the next thing you know, we’re talking super emerging. [For the gallery,] we kind of walked through the entire art world in a matter of six months and decided that there’s room for all of it. I’m a believer that you can put art deco next to 1950s Italian modern and it still looks really cool. As long as it’s your style and that’s the way you go for it, then why not?

FIORE: I think an atemporal approach is really important in this internet era. People are on Artsy and it’s like a Wikipedia of art—you’re looking at a Picasso, and then you’ll somehow navigate to a Dürer print. You can do a lot more in collecting than you ever could before, because the information is there, it’s all online.

I think it’s silly to put yourself in a niche or category, even based on demographic. We’re in the Lower East Side, but sometimes we might behave like a Chelsea or Upper East Side Gallery, and sometimes we might behave like a Berlin gallery.

D’AGOSTINO: It’s definitely an interesting dynamic, because the walls can give you an aesthetic, but what you put inside and the people who show up and the understanding, that’s really what changes four walls into something fun.

MCDERMOTT: Who are doing this for?

D’AGOSTINO: For me. She’s doing it for herself, too.

FIORE: Yeah. Also the clients made me go younger and younger. Because I am young, they were like, “This is wonderful to do a single sale with you, but you’re in your 20s, so can you find me the young hot artists?” There’s a little bit of an ageism, where people want to buy from you what you look like, your peer group. I was like, “I have no idea who you’re talking about.” People would ask me for Wade Guyton, before Wade was Wade. It made me educate myself in a different direction. This is a way of doing shows that [my clients] will anticipate, and also for myself by putting on shows that people don’t ask for, but I want to do.

MCDERMOTT: Growing up, John, for you, art was with your family, but is there an artist you both were infatuated with when you were younger?

D’AGOSTINO: When I was a kid, my mother was starting her collection and looking into art deco, an area that wasn’t very popular then. I liked the pretty aesthetic of it, to sound stupid. [laughs] But I liked the way it looked. Then my godfather, who passed about 10 years ago, was a famous French artist named Arman and was a contemporary of Warhol. His contemporary base was dying off, and he was hanging out with older guys, Uncle Arman was older. [laughs] It just seemed like art was art.

You know, Baskin Robbins makes 36 flavors for a reason, but they’re all based off the same formulation—you’re trying to give somebody a treat, something they want, and art kind of took that on. It made people happy. People enjoy it. It’s a fun conversation topic. That matriculated into wanting to do something for the art community, in a non-financial type of way, where you’re not trying to buy. You’re trying to do something that the community might need, which is help young artists get established and go to the next level. Hopefully when we’re old, it’ll be the same artists running around and it will be fun! [laughs]

FIORE: For me, my father would bring a lot of art books home. We went to museums when I was a kid. In my mind it was in the Allentown [Art] MuseumI think it actually exists in the Philadelphia museum—but there’s a Duchamp piece [Étant donnés] that you look through a hole and there’s a woman in a landscape. That was so confusing to me that it was art, because it was kind of science-y. It’s three-dimensional and it’s like a sculpture. So I knew there was something beyond what my dad was showing me—Picasso and Matisse and Calder—because this was such a radical departure. So I would read about Felix Gonzalez Torres, and be like, “Why is that art?” It was so cool, like a candy spill, and it was really touching, what seemed to be possible to say through art. In the ’80s, it was so much more true to life, than something like Picasso. Art has become a lot more personal. It drew me in.

MCDERMOTT: Have either of you ever considered becoming an artist?

D’AGOSTINO: Yeah, one day when I want to do something a little different. I can’t draw straight lines and I can’t make squiggles that I look at again and don’t want to erase, so hopefully, one day, I’d like to make furniture. Furniture, to me, I feel I can bring the life out of the wood. But I can’t put the life onto a blank piece of paper. I just can’t.

FIORE: I went to art school. I studied art history and fine art at Pratt, so I went through all the motions. I think it’s only enhanced my ability to discern what’s good and what isn’t in an artist. You know in a more intimate way the decisions that the artist is making and how they’re working through their process. So I enjoy it, but I like immediate results. I thought I could make more of an impact if I became an art dealer and worked in galleries. I like the immediate ways that I can make X and Y happen.

MCDERMOTT:  What’s one of the biggest struggles that you faced in opening the gallery?

FIORE: I think the biggest struggle is bigger than opening a gallery. It’s being in the art world. It’s so hard, and there is no regulation, and you can waste a lot of time with some really bullshit people. [laughs]

MCDERMOTT: How do you deal with that?

D’AGOSTINO: You have to be above it. You have to differentiate yourself. The art world is a very difficult place—my mother is a collector and we’ve had people approach me to sell [me] works that are already sitting in her home. The easiest part is doing 3,000 square-foot renovations in seven days. That’s what we did to open up. We brought in 24-hour crews, and that was the easiest part!

MCDERMOTT: How do you discover new artists?

FIORE: [laughs] I don’t know, Instagram?

D’AGOSTINO: Back in the day, it was very much that one person would introduce you, an artist would get bought by a collector or brought in by a collector, and there will be an unveiling. Now, artists are everywhere. There’s an artist in everyone, and because the markets are so hot right now, and because the economy is both kind of slow and unemployment is still a big weight over everyone’s head, you see a lot of people going more creative. Not necessarily looking for the six-figure job, but looking to do something they love and live a different lifestyle. Some are good and some are bad, but we’re in a society now that we accept artists. Fifty or 60 years ago, we didn’t understand the artists, so only a few could become great.

FIORE: That’s actually a good point. I was reading Duchamp’s interviews, and he said, “Yeah, I never thought I would get married because I never thought that anyone would marry an artist. That’s just not something I thought anyone would do.”

D’AGOSTINO: You’re an outlier. You were not a normal member of society. But now, you’re very much—

FIORE: —Celebrated.

MCDERMOTT: What’s the first piece of art that one of you ever sold?

D’AGOSTINO: I grew up as a child going to flea markets in Virginia Beach. In there is where I would do all my trading. I would show up at 5am and leave by 8:30 in the morning, but I would have everything that I wanted. I’d go to one guy, buy a little sculpture for $5, come back to that guy, trade for comic books, and go to the next guy and get the collectable mugs that I really wanted, which I couldn’t afford because they were $15 a piece. I’d run through there in an hour and a half and get all the trades, and then I’d walk out! I’d spend my $5, but I’d get $30 worth of stuff and I was the happiest 8-year-old you’d ever met. Since then, if it’s not nailed to the floor, I’ve been pretty open to trying to trade, sell, and collect.