In its heyday, Marlborough Fine Art was at the cutting edge of British painting. Founded in 1946 by Viennese émigrés Frank Lloyd and Harry Fischer, the London gallery represented Francis Bacon for much of his working life and, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, staged important shows of artists such as Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and RB Kitaj as well as sculptors Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, among many others. It also organised exhibitions of new work by European artists such as Egon Schiele and brought American Abstract Expressionists including Jackson Pollock to London.
But the continued growth and internationalisation of the art market led to tough competition, and today Marlborough Fine Art has a reputation for a conservative and somewhat staid exhibition programme.
All this is set to change as the gallery prepares to launch a new contemporary wing that will get its own display space on the first floor of the Mayfair building that Marlborough Fine Art has called home since 1971. The peripatetic curator and academic Andrew Renton has been hired as director of the new gallery, called Marlborough Contemporary, which opens in October.
“There is a recognition that when it comes to truly contemporary art, that’s not been the focus of Marlborough Fine Art. It’s not their strength and in a way it shouldn’t be,” says Renton. “Marlborough Fine Art is an incredibly successful business and has this incredible history so why throw the baby out with the bath water?” he asks, explaining that the two galleries will operate side by side with entirely distinct programmes.
At Art Basel next week half of the Marlborough Fine Art stand will be given over to Marlborough Contemporary and Renton will unveil the first six artists he has signed up for the new stable. They include the Portuguese conceptualist João Onofre, whose best-known sculpture, “Box Sized DIE”, was shown in 2008 at Art Unlimited, Art Basel’s display of oversized art which is staged in a hangar-like hall.
The work consists of a cube that appears at first glance as “a pure, first-generation take on minimalism”, says Renton. But one of the structure’s sides opens to reveal a sound-proofed space inside: a death metal band enters and then performs with the door securely shut until the oxygen runs out. From outside the music can not be heard but the instruments causes the cube to rumble and vibrate which makes viewers “scrutinise it intensely”, according to Renton.
Onofre’s work will be shown at Art Basel alongside that of Angela Ferreira, who represented Portugal at the Venice Biennale in 2007 with a reconstruction of French designer Jean Prouvé’s “Maison Tropicale”, a 1940s prefabricated house that was intended to be mass produced for the French colonies in Africa; and work by the British installation and video artist Adam Chotzko, as well as painters Jason Brookes and Ian Whittlesea, both British, and Koen van den Broek from Belgium.
These six artists, whose work ranges in price from £15,000 to £50,000, will have to withstand comparison to the modern masters on display in Marlborough’s half of the booth. There, the highlight is a 1954 untitled yellow and orange canvas by Mark Rothko measuring nearly six feet by seven. The gallery says it expects to sell this painting “for around the same amount” as the artist’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” from 1961 which made nearly $87m at Christie’s in New York in May, surpassing the previous auction record for the artist by more than $15m.
So how will Marlborough Contemporary’s artists hold up against the Rothko, as well as a Kurt Schwitters collage and a 1967 Picasso? “It’s an experiment, it may not be right for us,” says Renton. “It might make more sense to have Marlborough Contemporary go to other fairs on its own as a new, young gallery.”
Is he worried about selling art? Renton has had a long and varied career in the art world: he has curated shows for 20 years, notably the first edition of the itinerant contemporary art biennial Manifesta in 1996; he has helped collectors such as Freddy and Muriel Salem in London and the Government Art Collection build up their holdings; his numerous advisory roles include a stint on the Turner Prize jury in 1996, and he has taught at Goldsmith’s College since 2002, earning the title of Professor of Curating earlier this year. But he has never worked for a commercial gallery.
“I’ve not sold art before but I’ve bought it. In a strange kind of way, buying is a form of selling when you’re advising people to make sure they understand what it is they’re buying or what they may potentially miss … you’ve really got to try and communicate why the work is important. As I’ve started selling, I’ve come to realise, it’s easy if you believe in the art,” he says.
And this is the key point for the curator turned gallerist. The six artists he has already asked to join Marlborough Contemporary are ones he’s had relationships with for years but have yet to be properly recognised in Britain. For example, Angela Ferreira, who will be the first to show in the Mayfair gallery, is an “artist who has been in every major biennial over the last 10 years yet has never had a solo show in London.”
The Marlborough Contemporary stable will continue to expand until it encompasses 15 to 20 artists. “A gallerist who’s run her own space for 20 years recently warned me: ‘It’s really easy to ask an artist to be in your gallery; it’s really hard to unask them.’ We’re going to grow very, very slowly,” Renton says.