1. How did you come to open your own business?
I was working for Glenn Horowitz managing his East Hampton rare book store for five years, commuting from the city back and forth every week. I eventually realized that my clientele were all based in New York City. Also, I wasn’t terribly well suited for the regular public interaction that a retail store demands. We opened Roth Horowitz on east 70th street in early 1999. In 2004, I bought the business from Horowitz and it became simply ROTH.
2. Why open a gallery on the Upper East Side? What service does your space provide there?
We are on the Upper East Side because, first: it is closer to where my collectors live. Second: it is a discrete address, more like a private home than a public space; and third: it fell into my lap. Previously, our space was occupied by the renowned rare book business X-Libris, owned by Elaine Lustig Cohen and her husband, Arthur Cohen. Elaine was about to retire and she was looking for a tenant. It was a place I knew and loved. It needed a good bit of renovation, but essentially, there wasn’t and still isn’t any place in the city quite like it. We are on the ground floor of a brownstone with a large picture window looking onto a well-maintained patio and garden. My office has sliding doors onto the patio. It is a perfect setting for relaxed meetings with clients but also acts as an intimate, alternative gallery for artist projects. Since I publish books, deal in rare artist and photography books and make exhibitions, this is an ideal hybrid space for me.
3. What makes a collectible book?
The important feature of a “collectible” book would be the thing itself: condition; rarity; whether it has any meaningful provenance or inscription; and how it has been assimilated and promoted in the market as a critically important object.
4. What was the first job you ever had?
How about the first job I had after art school (1978), which was incidentally my worst. I drove a truck from 4 AM–10 AM in NYC delivering croissant to hotels and patisseries. That job came to a screeching halt the day my truck was stolen, fully loaded with croissants.
5. Why books? Why now?
Because books as we know them are disappearing? Because of the glut of bad, generic books, and desire to isolate those with merit, and those that share qualities with art? Even the most precious of rare books is affordable to a collector accustomed to paying significantly more for a notable work of art by the same artist. The rare art book market is still well undervalued. And for whatever the reason, books have become a favored medium among contemporary artists, more often those under 40, but not exclusively. There’s an abundance of vitrines around Chelsea these days.
6. What’s the most important project which you’ve been involved with?
I’d have to say “Witness: Photographs of Lynchings from the Collection of James Allen and John Littlefield.” I opened the show at the turn of the millennium, coinciding and the publication of a book of the works, Without Sanctuary (Twin Palms Press).
John Littlefield had been looking for a museum to mount an exhibition of his collection of photographs, which spanned 1880–1960. No institution would take the risk; I offered to mount the show. We had a private opening on a wintry Thursday evening, filled primarily with scholarly men and women and the collector’s friends. Earlier in the week Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz came to preview the material. I had no idea what to expect but they were both confident that the show would turn more than a few heads. Friday morning The New York Times published a full-page review by Smith of the photographs and the book; simultaneously, her piece was printed on the back page of the International Herald Tribune. From the moment we opened the doors on Friday morning, there was a flood of visitors.
And the phone didn’t stop ringing. Fire department code allows only twenty people in my gallery at once; we put security at the door, and issued tickets to visitors who waited on lines in the bitter cold, down the block and around the corner. All day. And the cross-section of types was unfathomable for a New York gallery: from the predictable Upper East Side Lady in fur with shopping bags to an African-American subway conductor. The gallery was the only place you could buy the book. We sold 1000 copies in 30 days. We had 4000 visitors. The last person to enter, after the show had closed to the public, was Stevie Wonder. Littlefield was in the gallery; he walked Wonder through the exhibition describing the photographs and the stories behind them, while one of Wonder’s bodyguards recorded it on a small digital recorder. He planned to print it out later in braille. Maybe he had it bound.
Andrew Roth is located at 160A East 70th Street, New York. In February he presents the work of Ray Johnsn.