Kenny Schachter: Confessions of an art hustler

He took New York by storm with his 'guerilla gallery' ventures; now Kenny Schachter has a new plan: to shake up Britain's art scene - and launch a range of high-concept cars into the bargain. Stuart Husband meets a maverick on a mission
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The Independent Online

It's a bright spring morning, and Kenny Schachter is in ebullient mood. He's pacing the floor of his garage/office, which, like his handsome west London townhouse, across the manicured garden, is stuffed full of the slightly manic modern art that he covets and collects, and in which he deals. Rearing up from a plinth is an abject-looking pink blob by the Viennese sculptor Franz West. On the wall is a framed exercise book page on which the American artist William Pope L has scored "WHITE PEOPLE ARE CRACK" in biro.

A few of Schachter's seven cars - a Mini Clubman Estate, a 1964 Sunbeam Alpine - are drawn up within stroking distance of his desk. Today, he'll drive his souped-up Renaultsport Clio 255 to Coventry to check on the progress of a prototype vehicle, the Z-Car, that he's commissioned the architect Zaha Hadid to design for him. The retro-futurist three-wheeler with a retractable Perspex canopy - like a cross between a DeLorean and a Bond Bug - is scheduled to go on show at Hadid's retrospective exhibition at New York's Guggenheim Museum in a few weeks' time. Schachter will launch a glossy car magazine to coincide with the opening.

"How would I describe myself?" he says, with a trademark grin, as he fires off a few emails. "I guess as a facilitator, though I hate that word. I love to instigate things and create things for people, and I like to have about 25 things happening at once. I believe in cross-fertilisation. As Karl Marx said: why can't you be an economist in the morning and a fisherman in the afternoon?" He has been called more vivid things - a huckster, and art activist, a moron ("a clever moron," he insists) by an art establishment struggling to make sense of his complex, contradictory multi-tasking.

Fascinated by the art world and simultaneously repelled by it, he's an American living in London. His first gallery here was in Hoxton Square, a stone's throw from Jay Jopling's YBA nerve-centre White Cube; his current operation squats in the shadow of the gargantuan Gagosian (omega) Gallery in King's Cross. His own artworks (which he unabashedly includes in his self-curated group shows) have taken the form of graphs charting the fluctuating auction prices of senior YBAs - Hirst, Lucas, Quinn - or of "saucy" doctored photos in which he gooses Jopling or peers through Tracey Emin's legs. He turns artists into architects (his New York and London galleries were designed by Vito Acconci, an Italian artist whose performances in the 1960s and 1970s were literally seminal - for Seed Bed, he lay under a temporary floor and masturbated while gallery-goers unwittingly walked over him), and turns architects into car designers. Now Schachter himself is moving into property. Baghdad-born Hadid is designing a mixed residential/retail building for him in Hoxton Square, her first permanent building in the UK, though she has lived here for three decades and achieved worldwide acclaim.

Schachter's resistance to pigeon-holing diverts some as much as it mystifies or infuriates others. It's no accident that the umbrella name for his organisation is Rove. "Kenny makes things happen," says the art PR Erica Bolton. "You'll meet him at an opening and he'll have this crazy-sounding idea - 'I'm getting Zaha to do me a car' - and, weeks later, there it is. Despite the anarchic impression, he's disciplined and tenacious."

"For a long time," says Schachter, "I had no idea art and commerce were bedfellows. I thought art had this exalted function, that it went from the realm of the mind through a studio and into a museum, ready for people to experience transcendence. Now I believe it's the opposite. The only discourse accompanying art is about money, and it's the most disgusting, sad thing. But I can't change that world in a Sisyphean way, so why not join in? I play the game, but I try to be as much of a virus as a sponge."

He is even more merciless about himself. He offhandedly describes his ventures as "ridiculous" and delights in what he calls "self-sabotage". When he was "bounced" from showing his wares at a bunch of art fairs last year, he wrote about his humiliation in Art Review for all his peers to read. "I suppose you could say that I cultivate a kind of contrarian position," he says merrily, and he likes to tell a story that underlines his self-image as an art world Buster Keaton. A few years ago, he exhibited a maze-sculpture made of live electric fencing material. He was demonstrating it to a collector and absent-mindedly reached out and touched it. "The volts shot through my hand and I practically lifted off the ground," he recalls. "It felt mortifying. But it also felt good."

A youthful 44, Schachter is tall, slim and dark, with cropped hair which still looks somehow unruly. The puckishness of his broad face is accentuated by a prominent scar in his upper lip. His clothes often look as though they're being pulled in several directions at once, perhaps in sympathy with his lateral thinking. He's generally wired and fidgety, which, in his more expansive moments, he'll put down to Attention Deficit Disorder. At illustrious art-world bashes, he'll be the one doing the get-me-out-of-here semaphore. "He's a big kid, really," says friend and New York gallerist Tony Shafrazi, "so it's hard to remember that he's a husband and father himself." He smiles. "I actually think he forgets it sometimes."

Schachter is married to the artist Ilona Malka, a dark, vibrant, stoical woman. She's the daughter of Marc Rich, the billionaire commodities trader who fled the US 20 years ago for Switzerland to avoid charges of tax evasion, and was controversially pardoned by Bill Clinton, in one of his last acts before leaving office. The couple have four sons under 10, and Malka's face is an amalgam of all the joy and forbearance that this implies. But she reserves some of her most intense count-to-10 looks for Schachter. "I would imagine I'm quite difficult to live with," he concedes. "I take everything personally. Outwardly I'm kind of smiling, inside I'm one great rash."

Schachter is offering this elucidation on the way to Coventry. He's a nippy but careful driver, though the boy racer isn't buried so deep; he's just come back from racing cars across ice floes in Finland, and, he says, the first thing he looks at in a car is its horsepower. "I hate inertia," he says. "My childhood was characterised by inactivity, just flailing around in a hole."

The "hole" was Long Island, where he spent his "practically catatonic" formative years. "My most intimate relationship was with frozen pizzas." The middle child of three, he was "regularly beaten up and completely alienated". His father ran a carpet-fitting business, while his mother was a home-maker and what he calls a "hobby artist - I have this vision of her painting some kind of mural in the basement." His interests at that point ran to setting a building on fire with a magnifying glass, and pasting his bedroom with images of lithe young bodies culled from magazines. When he was 13, his mother died from a brain tumour. "My dad was very harsh and controlling," he recalls. "I don't mean to be sappy, but kids have to be encouraged, and I was in an utterly non-nurturing environment. I feel like my life started much later than most."

Starting meant losing weight at the end of high school and fleeing Long Island to study philosophy and political science at George Washington University before going on to law school in New York. He still had no formal interest in art until, one day in 1988, he wandered into Sotheby's on a furlough from law exams, to check out the "fire sale" of Andy Warhol's hoarded possessions: everything from the work of his peers to his Rolexes and cookie jars. It came as an epiphany for Schachter. Here, in the buff, was the commercial art world that mediates between the studios and the museums or collectors - the world that mesmerises and infuriates him to this day. The mesmerism came first. A few months after that sale, he bought his first print, a Cy Twombly, took an unsecured loan for $10,000, and started dealing in art "like some kind of idiot savant". Even now, the visceral response matters more to him than art-historical evaluation. His art education has been a matter simply of looking.

He soon made a name as smart, stubborn and enterprising - he would sometimes barter his legal skills in return for artworks - and he happened to touch down in the New York art world at a time when the atmosphere was as mercurial as his own sensibility. The Schnabel-Koons Big Bang of the 1980s was over, and the artists Schachter promoted in his earliest exhibitions, such as Andrea Zittel, Christian Schumann and Charles Spurrier, worked with low-rent materials such as soap, chocolate, dirt, and chewed bubble-gum, blurring paintings into collage. Many have since graduated to Whitney Biennials and more-than-respectable prices.

For these shows, Schachter became one of New York's first "guerilla gallerists", taking short leases on abandoned SoHo stores to mount ad-hoc group shows with titles like The Death of the Death of Painting. "Kenny was really a catalyst for a lot of people," says Steve Gorman, an artist whose collages of astronauts and anti-depressant logos caught Schachter's eye. "Even though the art world was in the bust cycle, it was still hard to find a way in. Kenny was really approachable and he drummed up huge interest. He was a brilliant promoter. Walking into his spaces felt very democratic - more like a party than a gallery."

Schachter was refining his taste for art made with childlike and often morbid intensity. Today, every square inch of wall in his London house is crammed with paintings of cartoon sperm or drawings of figures in various states of extremis. One room is filled by a cardboard tree-house, inside which dolls with elongated torsos and banshee hair watch a video-loop of themselves conversing in Japanese. "I'm into good bad art," he says. "Picasso said that anyone can learn to draw, but it takes a lifetime to learn to draw like a child. I love the primitive, non-calculated approach. One of the first shows I ever did was called Unlearning. And I love decay, entropy and oxidation. Watching my mother die before my eyes as a child colours everything I see, and art manifests these bigger questions about life, death and decay. Duchamp said that art has a shelf-life, that it's not necessarily for eternity, it's part of everyday reality. I live with the work I collect, I stand in front of it and read it like a book."

Up in Coventry, at the kit-car manufacturers GTM Cars, Schachter listens somewhat absent-mindedly as the (omega) designers list the modifications that'll be needed if the Z-Car is ever to be roadworthy. Does the canopy have to lift up? Won't it hit the max headroom barriers at car parks? Could one maybe leap in from the front without injury? Later, he is philosophical to the point of indifference. "Roadworthiness is less important than getting it made at all. I look on the car and the building I'm doing with Zaha as sculptures. Hopefully, we can produce a few cars like art editions with the minimum of compromise, but if not, the process has still been cool."

A couple of weeks later, he is showing his Hoxton Square building to a friend and potential investor. Slouching in the background, he lets Dillon Lin from Hadid's office elaborate on the square footage, the wave design that will adorn the roof, and the five offers for the whole building that have already come in. "I'm ill at ease in a selling situation," he mumbles. "I even hate to sell art to private collectors. I prefer to sell to dealers because you don't have to explain the premise or raison d'être and try to put a price on it."

He wanders off down Shoreditch High Street, the site of his first temporary London gallery in 2000. Wanting to turn the business of art into a kind of ongoing performance piece, Schachter, who was manning the show himself, installed a live webcam. Viewers got more than they bargained for one afternoon when two men lured Schachter into the back room to ask about a video projection. As he launched into his spiel they threw him down a flight of stairs and made off with his computer and video equipment. The experience didn't put him off moving to London four years later, which he calls "one of the best things I ever did".

The latest show at his gallery, Between A Rock And A Hard Place: The Stone in Art (with renderings of boulders by Gustav Courbet, Damien Hirst and Richard Long) was curated by Danny Moynihan. "I think it's easier for Kenny to play the art world maverick here," he says. "The New York art scene is a bit of a ghetto. There are only a few people who go to galleries or openings, whereas here the art world is mainstream: the latest Damien Hirst creation will feature on the front page of the tabloids. Plus, we're less inclined to box people in and we actively embrace eccentricity."

Since arriving in London, Schachter has opened a permanent gallery. "I know I said I never would, because galleries were so numbingly dreadful and uniform," he shrugs; "but then I thought, why not reinvigorate the concept? To me, inconsistency is logical." He's also become a secondary dealer, instead of collecting the younger artists he once sought out. In the past couple of years, his turnover has increased "about two thousand per cent", and he isn't at all ambivalent about the money that's brought in. "I'm one of the most materialistic people you'll ever meet," he says, "but I'd throw it all in the bin to go after some foolhardy idea. The more money I have, the more my projects increase in scope. I'm always running to catch up with myself." He smirks. "That sounds rather masturbatory, doesn't it?"

To Schachter, the best art and the most unassimilable artists still inhabit the realm of the sublime, but he finds the market more rapacious and corrupting than ever. "It's worse than the 1980s," he beams. "We've reached a point where people buy art simply to put in storage and base their hedge-funds on. Art isn't a branch of the stock market, it's something you live with and learn from. There's something fucked-up and retarded about buying art you never see."

Recently, Schachter's contrarian instincts have led him to seek out and collect figures overlooked by what he calls "the fickle fashion-youth-oriented art merry-go-round". People like late the 1960s American artist Paul Thek, who made some disturbingly realistic sculptures of raw meat, and the Austrian-American architect Frederick Kiesler, who also painted, designed lamps, and wrote books on the philosophy of the store-front.

But being shut out of the art fairs last year brought on a crisis of confidence that he confesses was hard to bluster his way out of. "I came as close as I ever have to actually jacking it in," he says. "I kind of hid in my garage and wound my exhibition programme down. But I've put 20 years of my life into this. I'm a sort of major-minor player now."

If he hopes his article about the rebuff will bring him endorsement from the British art establishment, he might be disappointed. "I read Kenny's piece about being 'bounced' from the fairs," says Matthew Slotover, the editor of Frieze magazine and director of the Frieze Art Fair, Britain's biggest and one of the ones that turned him down. "I thought it was great fun. He should have been around in the Cultural Revolution, he's so up for self-criticism. But the fact is his stuff simply wasn't good enough to get him in. We get three times as many galleries applying as we've room for, and, while Kenny has some amazing pieces, he's not in the league of Gagosian or White Cube. I mean, good luck to Kenny," he continues. "He's got a great feeling for art, plus passion and talent, and I'd like to see him putting it to use, maybe giving unsung artists a platform, rather than reselling his Warhols, Hirsts or Alex Katzes."

Perhaps he will. Or he may become a property developer, or do something else altogether. "I've always functioned intuitively," he says. "At the moment, I like the cars and buildings much better than art. I mean, the Hoxton Square thing is the biggest commitment I've ever made, but I think it's easier to sell a flat than a painting. A painting's so intangible. With a flat, you get square footage. And a toilet to crap in."

A few weeks later, in New York for the opening of Zaha Hadid's Guggenheim show, Schachter blitzes through the Chelsea galleries, spurning the latest, achingly trendy offerings from the Leipzig School to buy a classic portrait by Fairfield Porter, who continued to produce doggedly representational work through the explosion of Abstract Expressionism. ("Right now," he says, deflecting incipient buyer's remorse, "conservative is as radical as it gets.") Later, at the museum's dinner for Hadid, he skulks around the fringes of the soirée, doing his best to avoid the guest of honour, her fearsome reputation, and the extravagant train of her Yohji Yamamoto throw. The scaled-up car is resplendent near the top of the museum's ramp; the latest plan is to run any produced "edition" on a hydrogen cell ("I hate green cars," says Schachter, sotto voce).

Tony Shafrazi and other dealers greet him like a long-lost son; he hands invitations to his magazine's launch party to the director of the Prada Foundation and Princess von Someone-or-Other from Lichtenstein, explaining that Vito Acconci will be designing a car for the second issue, followed, with luck, by a collaboration between theatre director Robert Wilson and David Lynch for the third. The Guggenheim's director, Thomas Krens, approaches Schachter to ask his advice on raising $500,000 to realise a "sculptural intervention" by Hadid that should have been part of the show, but, as yet, somehow isn't. At this moment, Kenny Schachter is at the epicentre of the art world. He moves through the crowd toward his wife, receiving the tributes and blandishments of his peers as he goes.

"Get me out of here," he says.

'Zaha Hadid' runs at the Guggenheim Museum, New York, until October 25. 'Between A Rock And A Hard Place' runs at Rove Gallery, 17 Britannia Street, London WC1, until August 25. For more details on the Z-Car, and 'Rove' magazine: www.rovetv.net)

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