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Chicago Journal

April 29, 2004

“End of an epicenter”

After three decades in the art biz, Paul Klein calls it quits


If there are two terms Paul Klein epitomizes, they are "pioneering" and "no bullshit."

His first words when I phone him for an interview are, "I never know how honest to be with people like you." When I laugh he adds, "But you probably hear that from guys all the time."

Oddly enough, for a successful veteran art dealer, Klein seems almost devoid of guile, and that's made him a bit of a go-to guy for other art professionals when they need someone to tell them the unadorned truth. His willingness to help underdogs and upstarts has at times been a gauntlet thrown before his colleagues. The Klein Art Works Web site, in existence since 1995, includes a section where he trades ideas and advice with young artists and the websurfing public. His online bio reads, "In the gallery business since 1973. This is fun. Living with art, working with artists. Nothing could be better." He serves pancake breakfasts in his gallery on select weekend mornings. People thought he was crazy 14 years ago when he opened up shop in the West Loop, now the acknowledged epicenter of Chicago's gallery scene.

And if that scene has an elder statesman, Klein is probably it.

Considering his history of risk-taking, it's surprising that it came as a surprise to anyone when Klein decided last year to change his gallery's focus--from reliable, attractive, mostly abstract painting and sculpture, to the conceptual, new-media work that had come to interest him more. He knew he was stepping off a precipice, but he felt confident he could convince his clients of the new work's value and desirability. Alas, unbecoming though it may be for a field that more or less invented the avant-garde, the art world, like most industries, fears change.

The young audiences that have flocked to Klein's new-media shows, and to other neighborhood galleries showing cutting-edge work, are a group wholly distinct from the moneyed collectors who keep galleries in business. The art industry's commercial engines thrive on the sort of beautiful, straightforward objects Klein established himself selling--while a few have tried, most collectors still hesitate to buy ideas or complicated machines requiring tech-savvy installation.

"Art has to embrace new technology and keep moving forward," Klein insists.

Yet his clientele's reluctance to ride that train with him has been a major factor in his decision to close at the end of this season. The gallerist is characteristically sanguine about this.

"I have no regrets about closing," he says, "or shifting gears, or any of the things I've done that have led up to this point--even though some of them were probably really stupid."

Klein's transition started with the decision last June to sell his building. The airy, sky-lit space is ill-suited for most new media work, which tends to prefer things dark and cozy (one of the best pieces in Klein's final show, Scott Roberts's multimedia metaphor for the brain titled "Storage," is installed in the supply closet). The asymmetrical Klein Art Works gallery--which resembles a Modernist home and (sculpture) garden more than a standard white-cube exhibition space--is still something of an outpost. Situated several blocks north of Randolph Street on Morgan, the stand-alone brick building is surrounded by factories and freight cars rather than cafes and boutiques.

Located in River North until the 1989 fire that claimed a gallery building there, Klein moved into his present space years before the West Loop had ever heard the term "urban renewal." His frontiersmanship over a decade ago probably deserves a large chunk of the credit for what the West Loop is today. In selling, Klein had hoped to cash in on the hot real estate his spot has become and find a smaller, cheaper space. Then, come year's end, he looked at the books and realized money had not kept pace with his artistic passions. Thus did Paul Klein come to embody both of those usually opposed art-world extremes: the successful merchant and the misunderstood visionary.

It is richly, deeply, ridiculously appropriate that Klein's farewell show, "Tart," should take irony as its theme. If curatorial choices had the power to perform sympathetic magic, Klein and guest curator Sabrina Raaf (also an artist in Klein's stable) might be dealing the art world a welcome mercy killing with this parting gesture. Said world has long since become those two kids from "The Simpsons": One asks, "Are you being ironic?" to which the other laments, "I don't even know anymore." Yet despite the tiresome archness such a theme might seem to promise, Klein's show is full of delightful jokes that are for the most part universally accessible, if just as uncommodifiable as the sort of contemporary work that comes with academic prerequisites. These two proverbial art camps--those who want art to be marketable, and those who want it to be metaconscious and highbrow--still haven't figured out that they need each other, despite tireless efforts by the likes of Paul Klein to convince them.

Klein's final opening took place on a warmish, windy night in late March. Eschewing the aloof, stick-to-the-desk pose of most gallerists at their openings, he moved easily through the crowd like any host receiving guests. People struck up chats with strangers. It felt even more like a cocktail party with notable décor than most openings--probably a testament in part to the collision of Klein's old friends come to say goodbye and the young alternos his recent thematic shift has drawn.

Rusty at schmoozing and feeling socially awkward, I stood staring into Tiffany Holmes's cute "Fishbowl," a piece about privacy and paranoia in which four surveillance cameras are submerged in an aquarium. As I scribbled notes, an older woman came up and asked quite earnestly whether I was writing a message to the lone, bubbly headed goldfish, who clung to the edges of the tank like a convenience-store thief ducking the security cameras. Afraid I might truly look 5 years old to this woman, I had no idea how to answer.

In her brief curator's essay, Raaf stresses the importance of humor both as a tool of seduction and a coping mechanism. But effective irony requires a particular, elusive balance between comedy and tragedy. In keeping with Klein's recent interests, all the work here is by new-media artists, and as such tends to employ an irrepressible playfulness in prodding the everyday horror of life in the mechanical age. For example, Heidi Kumao creates mechanical legs clothed in old-fashioned girl's shoes, which protrude from the wall and kick and stomp in loud, twitchy temper tantrums. Some of Kumao's kinetic sculptures are voice-activated by viewers, who meanwhile must use their cell phones to see Fernando Orellana's "(614) 220-DUCK" in action. After dialing and following some automated commands, one waits a few minutes for one's wireless signal to travel through the necessary networks and reach an electronic pager mounted on the wall, which in turn triggers a small lever, causing an abstracted wood duck to rock back and forth.

If Klein and Raaf intended this show to convey a message, it might be "Look what you'll be missing." While it offers a few inevitable duds, "Tart" also contains some of the funniest, smartest, most inventive work I've seen in a while. No wonder the gallery's folding.

So, is Klein's closing just another way the cookie crumbles in a tight and competitive industry, or does it signal a sea change of some sort for the Chicago art world? His West Loop neighbors and colleagues seem to view change as a constant in their field--dealers move or go out of business all the time, and new, young galleries crop up to take their places. According to Rhona Hoffman, another of Chicago's most established and visible commercial gallerists, it's "always a shame when a gallery closes," especially one of the city's relatively few venues for contemporary art. With the more experimental work Klein's been showing recently, his closing will limit "what the community is able to see," says Hoffman.

By contrast, as a representative of the gallery world's younger generation, Bodybuilder & Sportsman proprietor Tony Wight (whose second-floor space sits across Peoria Street from Hoffman's storefront) didn't know Klein well before his stylistic change of the past year--but is just as "sad to see him go." Klein was a "strong supporter of young talent--at least he was starting to be," says Wight.

Hoffman and Wight agree that the biggest loss will be borne by the artists Klein represented, particularly young new-media experimenters who might lack a broad base of representation. With the closing in recent years of other West Loop exhibit spaces, and with extant galleries already supporting full dockets of artists, there's a slow flood of artists in search of a dealer. Wight insists there is always room for new upstart spaces, but Hoffman admits it's uncertain where some of these young artists will land. But then, this is the art world, and the future is always uncertain.

Klein agrees, and like his colleagues refuses to speculate on what the scene will be like when he's gone. He doesn't expect any sort of earth-shaking change to register with this ever-shifting field. In any case, he plans to remain an art professional, and in Chicago, close to his 10-year-old son and the community he loves.

"I really like it here, and I want to be involved," Klein insists.

Lately, Klein says, he's had to serve himself a helping of the advice he's always given young artists and his own kids: "You've got to do what you believe in." For him, that remains art.

At the "Tart" opening, the big loading doors behind the beverage table were thrown open on the spacious garden, letting the first wet notes of spring drift in and a few hearty gallery-goers drift out. The monumental, minimal denizens of Klein's sculpture garden stood in stalwart, unapologetically High Modernist testament to his not-so-distant stylistic past. The darkened patch of lawn between old factory walls, dotted with a few smokers and a couple whispering in the corner, seemed somehow unbearably poignant.

As if on cue, a small child in a bright blue raincoat jumped into the center of a serpentine metal sculpture and shouted, "What is this thing? Move, snake, move!" Were this moment a snapshot taken by the Universe, the caption would read, "See? Modernist abstraction still has the power to delight and baffle some of us. And is that really such a bad thing?"

KLEIN ART WORKS    400 North Morgan Chicago, IL 60622    (312) 243-0400