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Barbara Krakow’s Kunsthalle

By Samuel J. Shapiro, Contributing Writer

Barbara Krakow Gallery doesn’t need you. Like Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry, and many of the other commercial establishments on Newbury Street, it is a luxury retailer. But unlike those businesses, Barbara Krakow Gallery neither desires foot traffic nor relies on in-store, local, or even domestic sales.

A contemporary art dealer since 1964, Krakow initially opened a gallery at 7 Newbury Street (the current residence of the Nespresso store) but felt stifled by the high rate of foot traffic. Most commercial galleries, including those I wrote about in my last column, covet foot traffic, hoping to promote the gallery’s name, its artists, and its exhibitions to boost recognition and revenue. Barbara Krakow Gallery, however, represents “blue-chip” artists like Chuck Close, Ellsworth Kelly, and Richard Serra, whose well-known names need no promotion and whose prices (pieces by each of these artists have sold for more than $4 million at auction) place their works beyond the budget of most casual window shoppers. As a result, while some of Krakow’s buyers hail from Massachusetts, much of her clientele are serious art collectors living in New York, California, and outside the U.S. who first interact with the artwork through the gallery’s website. According to the gallery’s associate director, Ryan Cross, Krakow was able to build up a “huge international following” because she was one of the first gallerists to use the Internet. Thus unburdened of the need to lure potential clients off the street, Krakow moved her gallery to its current location in 1983.

Though just across the street from its former conspicuous location, Barbara Krakow Gallery at 10 Newbury St. #5 is only accessed by those who are looking for it—and that’s the point. The space is marked on the street by only one of six small placards next to the door, such that guests hoping to see Krakow’s exhibitions must first wind through a narrow corridor and ride a tight elevator to the fifth floor. As a result of its relative seclusion, the gallery ensures that all of its visitors have come specifically to see the works on display, and it rewards them with personal attention from the self-described gallery “educators.” Generously sacrificing aesthetics, the gallery installed carpeting so that any work in any medium can be brought onto the gallery floor at any time. With this accomodation in place, they offer every visitor the opportunity to see any work in storage on demand, encouraging a comprehensive education on its artists’ practices.

But the real fruits of Barbara Krakow Gallery’s independence from in-store retail come in the form of experimental and innovative curating. Cross describes the curatorial freedom as liberating, saying, “You can really delve into things and explore.” Currently featured in its central space is “Head to Head,” an exhibition centered on “Double Bill (Part 2):…and Sander,” a lithograph of two images silkscreened by John Baldessari, an artist whom Krakow represents. That work fuses two gelatin silver photographs—one by the 20th century German photographer August Sander and one by the celebrated photographic artist Diane Arbus—resulting in a composite image that looks remarkably similar to Arbus’s iconic picture “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967.” The exhibition pamphlet suggests that Baldessari draws comparisons between the two photographers, questioning their relationship and probing into why Arbus achieved prominence while Sander remains much less acclaimed. Inspired by Baldessari’s work, the Barbara Krakow Gallery decided to design a show that placed his work in physical dialogue with the two older, now deceased artists, hanging Baldessari’s picture next to several of their photographs. Given Baldessari’s established position in the contemporary canon, the gallery doesn’t need to justify his work but is instead able to engage with it on a conceptual level.

Adjacent to “Head to Head” is “Segments,” an eclectic three-work curatorial exploration into the relationship of parts to a whole. This exhibition includes “Complex Forms,” an optical goldmine of three progressively denser etchings by Sol LeWitt, Giulio Paolini’s “Phoenix,” a difficult nine-part work playing on the idea of one-point perspective in which—as the pamphlet aptly points out—“Things don’t quite make sense,” and a seemingly light hearted sculptural work that places four “found objects”—a miniature bear, two bocce balls, and a chew toy—on a beautifully veneered plywood shelf by Haim Steinbach. The extreme diversity of the works heightens the show’s thematic effectiveness as each work examines the concept of segmental relationships both individually and collectively, forming a “whole” exhibition.

Both shows cast Barbara Krakow Gallery as a kunsthalle, the German term for a non-collecting museum that mounts temporary exhibitions. Because selling artwork is not the main consideration in curating their shows, Krakow and her team are regularly able to put on thoughtful exhibitions of rewarding conceptual and minimalist works, showcasing the high caliber of Krakow’s stable without sacrificing intellectual rigor. The gallery also veers towards the kunsthalle in its social functions, choosing to host regular talks instead of the typical commercial gallery exhibition opening parties. As Cross describes it, “We don’t have your traditional bad wine and traditional spread of cheese that most places have.”

Importantly, the gallery marks itself as an established institution by engaging Boston museums in its exhibitions. In 2012, when the Museum of Fine Arts showed a retrospective of the American figurative painter Alex Katz, Barbara Krakow Gallery exhibited “Alex Katz: 35 Years of Portraits,” setting up a intra-city artistic dialogue. It would be naive to view such a curatorial decision as purely selfless, as it likely boosted the gallery’s prestige and strengthened Katz’s market. But regardless of motivation, it was a thoughtful gift to art-minded Bostonians. Unsurprisingly, the gallery was named Best Art Gallery that year by Best of Boston.

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