Before Paula Cooper, SoHo didn’t exist: when the New York legend opened her space in the now-iconic art neighborhood in 1968, she was the first gallerist to venture there. Back then, Cooper was 30, a mother of two, and had no long-term plan. But she did have faith in artists who since have dominated the contemporary discourse, including Sol LeWitt, who produced his first wall drawing for her inaugural show. To celebrate the gallery’s 50th anniversary, that exhibition – which also featured works by Carl Andre, Jo Baer, Dan Flavin, and Donald Judd – was recreated in Paula Cooper Gallery’s new temporary base on 26th Street.
From the start, Paula Cooper Gallery has been defined by a commitment to activism: The gallerist donated proceeds from her first show to the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and sales from the current show benefit the March for Our Lives campaign against gun violence. Her program, meanwhile, has expanded from an initial focus on Minimalism to incorporate younger artists such as Tauba Auerbach and Liz Glynn .
‘What sets Paula apart is her integrity of program and vision’, says the gallery’s senior director, Steve Henry, who has worked with Cooper for more than 20 years. ‘She is forthright, determined, passionate, courageous, and honest.’
For these reasons, Cooper is revered by successive generations of gallerists, but with a starting rent of just USD300 a month in SoHo, she has accomplished something that few could replicate under today’s conditions. The best advice she can offer, she says, is to ‘encourage artists.’ Art Basel caught up with the gallerist during the installation of the gallery’s anniversary show. In this exclusive interview, she revisits her storied career.