“I don’t think it’s a good idea to think too much about how others SEE you. What’s to be achieved by that? Nothing” ANNA SCHWARTZ
What you see is what you get with Anna Schwartz, the indefatigable Melbourne gallerist who holistically inhabits the here and now of her contemporary art holdings. She is direct, dresses almost exclusively in the conceptual creativity of Junya Watanabe, derides murky nostalgia — “the story of my journey to art has so often been told” — and doesn’t like to self-describe but does love the rigour of Denton Corker Marshall (DCM), the architects of both her home in the inner suburb of Carlton and her Flinders Lane headquarters.
“I just do what I want to do,” she says, dismissing all hackneyed descriptions of her as a function of the gallery domain. “I think it is a good idea to live an introspective life and to examine your ideas; I don’t think it’s a good idea to think too much about how others see you. What’s to be achieved by that? Nothing.”
In an art world sodden with hype, such response is refreshing but reveals little of the instincts and impulses that for three decades have sustained Schwartz’s position at the top of Australia’s volatile contemporary arts pyre. She is every bit the enigma outside art world circles; Schwartz and her publisher husband, Morry, titan of quality periodicals (The Monthly, The Saturday Paper, Quarterly Essay and more), are inscrutably family-focused. But those invited into the sculpted folds of their home, an old bakery cooked into Bondvillain lair by Barrie Marshall and John Denton of DCM, know that behind closed doors, the so-called power couple mollify into an endearingly homey pair, albeit one who could pass as performance artists, fully present in their own exhibit. On this particular Monday at midday, Anna, a bubbling confection of curls and Commes des Garçons, preps a bowl of chicken soup in a zinc-clad kitchen that funnels to a wide proscenium of zinc stair. At the far end of this galley space, a long ‘cityscape’ of multiscaled cabinets, Morry waits for his ‘Jewish penicillin’, perching patiently at a bench that cantilevers signature DCM blade into a living space set with a like ‘town planning’ of pieces.
In this mutely detailed open room, expansively scaled for the arty party — Anna famously hosts her artists at an indulgent end-of-year bash — colour shouts with a blocked vibrancy from Gaetano Pesce’s La Michetta sofa and glows from the neon ontology created by the grandee of conceptualism, Joseph Kosuth. His wall-hung installation #1149. (On Color/Multi #3) (1991) illuminates an interrogation into the nature of being that reverberates in the wider DCM architecture. Limiting their house commissions to few (and leveraging them for the prototyping of idea), the architects have visibly weighed in to the ‘why’ of Kosuth’s questioning and not the hoary old ‘how’ that fizzes up much contemporary Melbourne practice. They have meshed old industry with new interior in a stealth-bomber bulk that pivots, in discrete part, to provide access to private areas and a garden given floating platforms and plane trees by Tract Consultants. DCM’s sly subversion of predictability presents in the ceiling plane. Terminally neglected by design, it punctuates spatial content in the upstairs library with a linear patterning of projecting fluorescents, and spikes with random chaos on the ground floor above the prickling commentary of Emily Floyd’s text piece, A Strategy to Infiltrate the Homes of the Bourgeoisie (2003). For the powerful essentialism of their execution, DCM received a national architecture award from the Australian Institute of Architects in 2011.
“It’s all about the artists,” says Anna of this moment to promote her starry stable. It is a cohort of stayers and new players whose wide-ranging practices push the proposition of what art can be, as per artist Mike Parr’s recent three-day burial alive under a Hobart road as part of Tasmania’s Dark Mofo solstice festival. “I just have around me what I believe in and like, but I do consider it my responsibility to make the work and ideas accessible to people — to give them a pathway to its meaning and final enjoyment.” While that pathway to pleasure may be a decade-long slow dance with collectors hostile to the prospect of having giant balls of heat-gunned plastic lolling about their living rooms — à la Mikala Dwyer’s game of giving shape to thought in the Schwartzes’ entry salon — Anna will ultimately have them embracing its materialist position and espousing its meaning with pride. Great artists can turn the tide of taste in their direction, but great gallerists can shift the waters of perception, and this is the intangible prestige of Anna. She brings the attitude, the architecture, the near-religious act of faith in her artistic flock and the unquantifiable aura that adds value to art. “But the gallery is not a shop,” she says, quashing any suggestion that value equates to money. “It is an institution that is open to the public. Of the thousands that come through every exhibition, maybe four will buy something. The truth is that the purchase of a major work enables the gallery to stay open.” So what admits an artist into her aura? “I’m not looking for anything particular; there is no formula,” she says. “All gallerists are aware of their specific cultural domain and will select artists in terms of a language and their cultural mix. I am interested in the ones who are charting new territory and thinking in new ways — but in the end, it’s all just instinct, and you can choose to analyse what that is or not.” Guessing that it is equal parts experience, inclination, knowledge and terror, Anna shorthands the equation to “a lightning strike” — a veritable bolt out of the blue that rips through the ether with an indeterminate randomness. But all insinuation of chance aside, this storm-weathered gallerist presides over a field of flashing luminaries who debunk the myth that lightning never strikes twice.