José Freire is at the top of his game. He has ridden the waves of the fluctuating fortunes of the art market since opening his first gallery in 1987. Tonight, he launches a second space in SoHo, around the corner from his 83 Grand Street gallery, after decamping from Chelsea six years ago.
Art in America spoke to Freire a week before the opening of 47 Wooster Street, which debuts with a show of paintings by David Ratcliff, half of which were already sold. Speaking in his new 5,000-square-foot gallery, Freire could serve as a case study in how to survive as a dealer.
It's evident he hasn't forgotten the lean years when he asserts, "I have a really successful gallery. It's been open 14 years. I've discovered a group of artists and have developed their careers and stuck with them."
The new gallery occupies a building that in recent years housed the original Gourmet Garage and then, following a $2.6 million build-out, Marithé + François Girbaud. Thanks to the French clothing company, the building boasts a welcoming glass facade. We weren't inside the gallery for a minute before two curious passersby tried to enter. "We've never had such a street presence," marveled Freire, whose Chelsea location was decidedly underground, in both senses of the word.
With two spaces so close together, Freire imagines that the new gallery, which has more floor space, will lend itself to sculptural installations and video works. The gallery at 83 Grand Street has more running wall feet and better accommodates 2-D work. But, he says, "I think any rule I make, I'll break, probably immediately."
Freire isn't quite doubling his programming. His shows will be up for seven or eight weeks instead of five, making for 12 exhibitions a year between the galleries. The September show on Wooster will be work from 1974 by Greek Arte Povera artist Vlassis Caniardis, who passed away earlier this year. The next one, titled "Cory Arcangel vs. Pierre Bismuth," reveals the potential complementary programming the two spaces could provide. Each artist will have one of the galleries and the show will somehow be staged as a competition or, as he calls it, an "un-collaborative collaborative." That will be followed by Slater Bradley, another Team star, who is producing a three-channel video piece with Hollywood cinematographer Ed Lachman.
Born in Santiago de Compostelo, Spain, Freire moved to the Bronx when he was six and then to Newark, N.J. His first gallery job was working for Phyllis Kind for three years beginning in 1983, followed by a stint at Paulo Salvador Gallery in the East Village.
He struck out on his own in the East Village when he opened fiction/nonfiction, just as the once hot scene was migrating to SoHo. Eighteen months later he moved his gallery, renamed Jose Freire Fine Art, to locations on Mercer and then Prince Streets in SoHo during the neighborhood's heyday. He showed such artists as Deborah Kass, Jane Hammond, Rona Pondick, John Wesley, Larry Mantello, Marilyn Minter (who showed historic paintings with him in April) and Tam Ochiai (who continues to show with Freire).
The art world was still reeling from the recession of the early 1990s, and numerous galleries closed. Unlike many dealers, Freire is refreshingly forthcoming about his travails. "I went completely bust at 130 Prince," he recalls with a kind of survivor's pride. "I owed a lot of money, most of it in taxes." He points out that he showed the same artists from the time he opened fiction/nonfiction in 1987 at 155 Ave. B through the demise of José Freire Fine Art at 130 Prince St.
By necessity and with fortitude, he moved into a small space on an upper floor of a building on Broadway "to try to sell art and pay off my debts," much of it work from his personal collection. His ambition was undeterred. "I did great shows there," says Freire. "I'm proud of what I did in that room." Among the more memorable exhibitions was a room-filling installation by Drew Dominick in which three power grinders moved back and forth on cables, ricocheting off the walls and floor, which were blackened and gouged by the show's end.
In 1996, he resurfaced as Team gallery in a basement space on 26th Street in Chelsea. There he steadily rebuilt his roster with star players like Cory Arcangel, Banks Violette and Ryan McGinley, often snatched up right out of art school.
What drew Freire back to SoHo? "I showed Steven Parrino for 8 years and sold two paintings," he said. Team mounted the artist's final show before he died on New Year's Day 2005 following a motorcycle accident. (Gagosian now represents the estate.) Freire recalls, "There were four black shaped canvases and people would walk in, spin around and walk out. People would spend less than three minutes in the gallery, because there are so many galleries to go to." He concluded, "I don't have the program for that place. I did when we first opened and there were fewer galleries," he said, so "I thought, I really ought to move out of this neighborhood."
Freire e-mailed Jeffrey Deitch, who then had two SoHo spaces and enthusiastically encouraged him to relocate. But it took a year of failed negotiations in Chelsea before Freire made the move.
"It was my gut instinct to come back but I thought I had to be responsible," because so much art business happens in Chelsea. "I like SoHo, it's civilized," Freire says, "Chelsea is ugly and mean-spirited and I never liked it." Luck was on Freire's side again when Deitch was appointed director of L.A. MOCA. Deitch had been in negotiations for the Wooster Street space after his Grand Street location was condemned, so the building became available.
Freire emphasizes that his former gallery and Team are not one and the same. "The programs are radically different," he says. "I might've been more concerned in the past with how people worked as opposed to why they work. I was concerned with how things were made and now I'm not. I'm more committed to this program because I toughed it out longer." And, he adds, he's showing European artists now too, including Santiago Sierra, Pierre Bismuth, Massimo Grimaldi and Gardar Eide Einarsson.
How have things changed since Freire's been around? "I don't think Leo Castelli had more than five people on staff. Three working in a gallery was a lot of people," says Freire, who has a staff of six. "If you took a painting down, you took out the screw, and patched and painted the hole. This thing with painting the whole wall, nobody did it," he says, "and everyone smoked in their galleries, so the walls were all yellow and the floors were made of wood and they creaked. Looking back, they were filthy."
The pull of nostalgia is great on Freire. "I'm on the same block where Pat Hearn and Colin de Land had galleries, and both spaces are available. I want to rent them and redo their shows in their spaces." Ever enterprising, he adds, "So if any rich collector reads this and wants to give money, please do!"
ABOVE LEFT: PORTRAIT OF FREIRE BY RYAN MCGINLEY.