Rachel Uffner in Situ

By
Photography Frank Sun

Published March 5, 2014

ABOVE: RACHEL UFFNER IN HER GALLERY. PHOTO BY FRANK SUN

In 1989, a gallerist disclosed her rationale for moving from the East Village to Soho: “Larger, cheaper, and in a better location,” she told The New York Times. A later move to Chelsea would situate her among the neighborhood’s oligarchs.

A quarter-century later, the gallery space shuffle, which in its lust for prime real estate resembles a complex game of Monopoly, hasn’t changed. And Rachel Uffner bodes a similar ascent to her gallerist antecedent: a recent upgrade finds Uffner with two stories of open white walls at 170 Suffolk. Right off Houston, she’s well within the peripheries of the Lower East Side, where she began half a mile to the southwest.

The 36-year-old gallerist emerged on the scene in 2008–not exactly the most oppurtune year to launch a business. More fortunate, or perhaps by sharp instinct, was that she set up shop on Orchard Street, a little below Grand, amid rickety tenement buildings and Chinatown offshoots. Soon, others followed, condos cropped up, and suddenly Uffner was being hailed as a front-runner of the resurging LES art scene.

A Christie’s alum, Uffner found her calling in galleries when she started as a receptionist at the now defunct D’Amelio Terras in Chelsea, working her way up to director. She explains that, though she likes the business side, it’s the tangles of artists, curators and gallerists, all collaborating in a steadily escalating beat, that intrigues her. In the last five years, she has built an impressive selection of artists, mostly women, whom she trusts to conceive interesting, original shows, and who in turn trust her feedback and judgment on their work. Two, Sara Greenberger Rafferty and Pam Lins, are featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial. 

In Uffner’s new space, natural light floods in from a recently renovated skylight. Distressed wood rafters, preserved on the upstairs ceiling, speak to the area’s history as they break from the crisp white walls. During the interview, Joanne Greenbaum swung by to discuss how she’ll install her show, which opens downstairs on Saturday with a group show of Strauss Bourque-LaFrance, Caitlin Keogh, Pam Lins, and Sean Raspet upstairs.

Meanwhile, as we spoke with her, we sensed more and more that Uffner’s good fortune had little to do with luck.

RACHEL UFFNER: I had a five-year lease on the last space, and I stayed until the end. It’s hard to find good spaces anywhere, so, it took a little while for me to find this. But I didn’t want to just go anywhere.

RACHEL SMALL: You are here for the long haul. [pointing at the skylight] Was the skylight here before?

UFFNER: The skylight had a security grate on it. The skylight shows a little more, and when it’s sunny it would cast light on the walls. It was like its own artwork. I don’t think anyone’s going to James Bond-style come down through the sunroof. How long have you been at Interview for?

SMALL: About a year and a half. I love that I’m able to write about art in conjunction with other pop culture things, like fashion and music.

UFFNER: That’s happening more. You’ll see in the Biennial too, there’s so much crossover with everything.

SMALL: Yeah! Like Kevin Beasley’s sound sculptures. Speaking of, what about the two artists you have in the Whitney Biennial?

UFFNER: Sara Greenberger Rafferty is cross-disciplinary, but she’s mostly known for her photographic work. She was asked to make a film. She shot it in the Whitney. Her work deals a lot with standup and comedy, having to do with gender identity and various [similar themes]. It started with an interest in how comedians are up there, very raw, with a glass of water and a microphone, and a lot of them are revealing very intimate, almost self-deprecating things about themselves. She has a particular affinity towards people like Phyllis Diller and Madeline Kahn. She incorporates it in to an interest in mass media and how we view images, and how we view people through technology. It’s all evolved. [For the video] she hired an actress to play the part of a stand up comic. She’s actually taking excerpts from various people’s routines. She’s a female and she’s dressed like a male. And there’s an empty audience. Again, her interest in isolation, gender politics, and all these things come up within these routines, which are sort of funny, but dark, goes back and forth.

The other artist is an artist named Pam Lins, collaborating with a painter, Amy Sillman. Pam is mostly a sculptor. That’s their collaboration—it’s basically a painting-sculpture piece that went back and forth between their two studios. It was also a specific request on the part of the curator [Michelle Grabner] who wanted this collaboration between two people who have been in dialogue for so long.

SMALL: You have a great roster of artists. How have you gathered this group over the years?

UFFNER: I was at D’Amelio Terras. I became their first director, and started to bring artists into the program. I developed a lot of strong relationships. When I left, a lot of the people that I started working with were colleagues or friends of people that I had worked with at the previous gallery. They understood where I was coming from, and knew that we would be able to do good things together. For instance, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, who I think is an incredibly strong artist, was good friends with Matt Keegan and Sara VanDerBeek. The best relationships have been the ones where the dialogue continues to grow and deepen. And the artists are challenging themselves, and then challenging me, and vice versa. Once you work with an artist for long enough, you know that, even if the idea doesn’t seem totally concrete when you’re first talking about it, they always pull through.

SMALL: I know you started off at Christie’s. What did you learn there that’s helped you out at each stage of your career?

UFFNER: I was an intern in the contemporary art department. I don’t know how I got in there, because it was me and two other interns who were Belgian and children of collectors. I was nothing in that realm. I was an art history major, and the art market is a very different thing. I’ve always loved the Christie’s catalogs, I used to go to the library where I grew up and buy dollar catalogs, because they’re great! So, part of my internship was cutting images and information out of the catalogs and posting them on cardboard for these files. I got to spend a lot of time knowing what was selling, what was popular. Basquiat was mentioned in art-history class, but I was like “Oh, Basquiat’s really popular with art buyers!” And lots of Cindy Sherman.

SMALL: It sounds like you got caught up to speed that way.

UFFNER: It worked so differently. Auction houses need to sell what sells. It’s a lot of flash; it’s not a lot of engagement in talking about work. It can be exciting—I don’t know if you’ve been to a viewing of a contemporary art auction that’s about to come up? It’s this interesting conglomeration of different artworks you would never [otherwise] see next to each other. It was my first introduction to people selling art. And also [how] it’s a social business, and it’s about your relationship with your clients, and the kind of faith they have in you. At an auction house, it is about history of collecting and philanthropy and those things. So I think those kind of things, the social aspects of it, the client-dealer relationships, the getting a good sense of the art market and what people are interested in, all those things I’ve taken with me. When I started a gallery, it was amazing because we were actually talking about art again. Auction house are machines, they move quick. And they’re corporate. Galleries are mom-and-pop, really small, and you talk about things.

SMALL: Obviously in the last few years, there’s been a lot of buzz about Lower East Side. How has it been finding yourself at the forefront of that?

UFFNER: What I love the most is seeing shows. A lot of gallerists will tell you they don’t have time. Just make it a priority if it’s what you like to do! When I was working in Chelsea, too, I always loved how I felt a kinship with people that do this. There are so many spaces down here. I don’t know how people who don’t spend all their time doing… this… ever figure out where to go.

SMALL: I have a few art writer and gallerist friends who hop as much as they can, but everything rotates so quickly. There’s always that one thing you didn’t hear about and you’re like “I have to see it right away!” It is so sprawling, but it’s great because there are so many new things to discover.

UFFNER: Yeah! I think it’s important for writers to remain optimistic. It’s about people’s attitudes. There is such a huge landscape, and it’s easy to be put off by it. But I think that what we all need to think about is how awesome it is that there are all these opportunities for people. It’s good! Then it’s confusing, because it’s not just the art world that’s growing so fast, it’s New York that’s growing so fast.

SMALL: And everything gets pushed around. So, what do you like about art you are attracted to? What about art you don’t like?

UFFNER: Having the art history base, I am interested in artists that are sort of knowledgeable about who their influences are, and how they are evolving, and pushing forward art. For me at least, if you go to somebody’s studio, and it looks exactly like Cy Twombly, and it’s not about looking like Cy Twombly, there’s maybe a little problem. I think what’s important is showing work that is evolving art-making in some way.

What is attractive to me, is when you are making something that looks like Cy Twombly, but you know that, and you are pushing it somewhere else. And you keep working, and you keep exploring. I [also] think it’s important for artists to be engaged with the artist world beyond art. For instance, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, her sources range from obscure comedians to current television and technology and iPhones. It’s important to integrate different ideas into your work.

SMALL: In the last few years, the art world has been linked with fashion and music, and has started to feel more integrated into everything in more of a pop-culture way. Have you noticed that at all?

UFFNER: I show a lot of artists that I consider rigorous. What I can do here is less fueled by those collaborations. I think collaborations [with brands like Louis Vuitton] are good advertisements for the art world. With this year in music, with Jay Z [rapping at Pace Gallery], and several artists that made fine arts their focus. I see what you are saying that it has become this category [alongside] fashion, music… “art!” It’s always been in the newspaper like that, but it’s always been the underdog. I think it’s good there is a broader, renewed interest in it.

SMALL: It sounds like it hasn’t really affected to you. What you do, who you work with, it’s not going to be twisted into, say, the cover of a Lady Gaga album.

UFFNER: My general philosophy is: All the more attention to art, the better, in whatever realm. I didn’t even know what a gallery was before I started working at one. I think it can get a little tricky when it comes to collecting, knowing what collectors you want to work with. Online platforms are a whole other really big thing right now. It’s a bigger world, which lets us all do this. But it can get tricky. A lot of these industries, they’ll be into art for one second, and then, you know, fishing the next! It’s just fleeting. That kind of stuff has never interested me as much.

SMALL: I feel it takes the whole art world and smashes it into this one thing: “Art! The hot thing right now.” But, as we were saying, it’s these complicated networks of neighborhoods and galleries and artists, at least in New York.

UFFNER: The art fairs are complicating everything right now, too. If you are someone who likes to see museums and gallery shows, art fairs don’t compare in that department. But there are a lot of collectors who I’ll only see at an art fair. I get a kick out of all of it. I try to think long-term, so all things that pop up just seem to come and go. A lot of times there’s a collector that will just blow onto the scene, and seem like they have just a hundred million dollars to burn. That’s also sort of frightening, because this is a pretty slow process, or, an involved process. My family will ask me, “How’s the show going, did it sell out?” Even if it did, there are so many other things we’re looking for when it comes to building long-term careers.

SMALL: How do you see your gallery as fitting in the Lower East Side art scene?

UFFNER: What I see in what I do, and what the people I respect do—it takes a lot of work—is a constant engagement with what they’re doing. Making sure that the program is stimulating. It was important for me to move to a new space, and even take a semester off to build out the space, because it’s really important for me to not phone things in. Meaning that, even though I show a lot of female artists, I’m going to always have two-person shows, or group shows, or outside-curated shows. That’s always going to be part of the rigor here. It doesn’t interest me just to say, “Oh, an artist is up, he hasn’t shown for two years.” I think it’s important to support an artist’s career, but there are a lot of ways to do that. You’ve got to love it to do it, because it’s a very weird, complicated job. I hope it shows that we’re putting a lot of thought into what we’re putting on the floors and the walls.

FOR MORE ON RACHEL UFFNER, VISIT THE GALLERY’S WEBSITE.