Paula Cooper is 74—she was the first gallerist in Soho, way back in 1968, and then a pioneer in Chelsea, in 1996—but she runs her operation with the alacrity of someone half her age, deeply loyal and deeply adventurous and without any evident interest in retiring up the food chain. In 2011, there were lines down West 21st Street to see Christian Marclay’s 24-hour mesmeric mash-up The Clock—all the more surprising since Cooper doesn’t go out of her way for that sort of blockbuster-y crowd-pleaser. (“I’ve still not seen from two to seven in the morning,” she confesses, sensibly. She’ll have another chance when it screens New Year’s Eve at MoMA.) And while her gallery is hardly small (there’s a second space across the street, and she and her husband also own a bookstore), it’s less commercial in vibe than some of the Chelsea megaspaces. “At some point, artists and collectors started wearing the same clothes and eating the same food and driving the same cars,” she says with amused disdain. And then, naughtily: “Doesn’t Gagosian [Gallery] look a little bit like a Costco?”
She’s wearing a delicate black cashmere cardigan, her hair pulled back, and there’s no computer on her small desk, just neat little piles of papers, notes, and books she straightens and restraightens. Her one window looks not out to the street but down into the high main gallery space, which is occupied by a Carl Andre piece from the seventies consisting of a series of low parallel walls made of blocks of wood (the whole place smells like lumber) standing mutely on end. Andre was in her first show on Prince Street—it was an antiwar fund-raiser; Cooper’s always been an activist—and she is now helping to stage a career-reviving retrospective of his work next year at Dia. She’s always been known for her stubborn, non-market-driven taste (“I have the things that I’m interested in, and I do what I’m interested in”) and for her desire to help the artist who needs help. “You worry about the individual artist,” she explains. “Sometimes it takes a long time for something to happen. Especially if you don’t have an advertising firm or a PR company working for you.”
When Cooper started out, Soho, she says, was a community of peers, like Donald Judd—who made her desk and chairs: “I’ll show you!” she says, and with surprising bravado for such a small, elegant woman, she picks up the chair next to me. On the bottom, it says: For Paula, Don. Eventually, he left her gallery, but there are always interesting new artists, like Tauba Auerbach, or the eight whose work she’s showing just across the street. She met one of them, Justin Matherly, while he did art handling for her. Younger gallerists never ask her advice, she says—“They probably think, That old fogy”—but she views them, delightfully, with much the same skepticism. “It’s boring, this area,” she says of Chelsea, adding that maybe she’ll move.