Hauser & Wirth raises the stakes

London’s largest commercial gallery space to date will open its doors for the first time on October 13, with a major show of work by Louise Bourgeois, the artist who filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with her super-size spider sculptures in 2000 and who died in May aged 98. The new space, belonging to Hauser & Wirth, is on the ground floor of a crisp new Eric Parry-designed building at 23 Savile Row, and covers 15,000 sq ft, while upstairs, offices, archives and a library sprawl over a further 7,000 sq ft. Considering that its closest competitors – Gagosian in Kings Cross and White Cube in St James – have galleries measuring 15,000 sq ft and 12,500 sq ft respectively, it seems that Hauser & Wirth, a gallery known for promoting courageous and large-scale art with a roster including US heavyweight Paul McCarthy, has taken the stakes just that bit higher.

If this seems like a flamboyant gesture in recessionary times, it’s partly the recession that’s made such scale possible. Co-director Iwan Wirth, a London-based Swiss, had been looking for a new space since 2007, and last year found himself able to rent, on a 20-year lease, the sort of 15,000 sq ft of column-free space in the middle of Mayfair that he’d previously only dreamed of. At the beginning of this year, the New York-based architect Annabelle Selldorf started drawing up plans for the ground floor, which initially would also house the office and library. She has worked with Wirth since 1993 on a range of projects including the gallery’s first London premises at 196 Piccadilly (a renovated Midland bank built by Lutyens in 1923) and his Holland Park house shared with Manuela Hauser.

“It was already a hair-raising schedule,” says the German-born Selldorf, who started designing for the art world early in her career – she was just 30 when she created a SoHo gallery for New York dealer David Zwirner in the early 1990s. “Then, in the summer, Wirth suddenly decided to rent the first-floor space, too. That changed everything. I mean, it was a brilliant solution, but the extra space made it pretty tough. It wasn’t like Frieze was going to delay itself for two months while we finished our building. So you can imagine, I’m just thrilled it’s complete in time, and that it’s opening with what is definitely going to be one of the most remarkable shows in London in this period.”

Four Louise Bourgeois sculptures and around 70 textiles pieces – collages created in the past decade from clothing, napkins and tablecloths and bedclothes accumulated by this artist with a penchant for hoarding – are arranged throughout the two principal gallery spaces. The North gallery, with its polished concrete floor and soaring dimensions, is gritty and hard, while the South gallery, with smooth oak floors and a fancy glass ceiling providing lighting, is more refined and makes a direct connection to the elegant wood-panelled tailors of Savile Row.

The Louise Bourgeois show is a museum-class exhibition, and the size of Hauser & Wirth’s new gallery suggests that there will be more to come. The same could be said of Gagosian’s Picasso show in London this summer, focusing on the artist’s Mediterranean years, which received rave reviews.

“Everyone is getting so much more sophisticated,” says Selldorf, who also designed the Picasso show. “The degree of seriousness is 10-fold what it was; the stakes are higher; the spaces are bigger. It’s like cars, they just get better. You can’t stay the same or go backwards.”

The Scottish artist and 2001 Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, who works from his kitchen table in his flat in Barbican, central London, is now contemplating how to use 23 Savile Row, where he is showing in January 2011.

“For the North gallery I’m planning something really big – a huge kinetic neon sculpture that will be suspended from the ceiling and monumental; it’s a monument to mothers,” he says. “It’s certainly a reaction to the possibilities of the space.”

Hauser & Wirth has made headlines before. At Frieze two years ago, the gallery sold a 1927 Henry Moore sculpture for £2m and two editions of a Subodh Gupta skull at £800,000 a piece. Its autumn 2009 show of new work by Paul McCarthy at the gallery’s New York space at 32 East 69th Street sold out in days. But the gallery is taking a long view, based on a love of art and the artists it represents, and not seeking a quick fix. “They’re really ambitious and they don’t do things by halves,” says Creed. “I think they take the view that you only live once.”

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