Hauser Wirth & Schimmel’s Ambitious New Gallery

Sonia Gomes / Courtesy Mendes Wood DM, Sao Paulo, Brazil

A behind-the-scenes look at L.A.’s next contemporary art hot spot.

Looking comfortable and relaxed in a cardigan, Iwan Wirth approaches with a warm, if weary, smile and an outstretched hand. He’s refreshingly amiable for being one half of the art world’s reigning “it” couple along with his wife and partner, Manuela Hauser. (The Swiss duo runs five influential galleries across Zurich, London, and New York.) Wirth carries himself more like a joyfully earnest college professor who holds seminars in his backyard over barbeque and beer. Today, that “backyard” whirs with the hammering of sculpture being installed on 100,000 square feet of converted mill for the imminent opening of the couple’s sixth and perhaps most ambitious branch: Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, located in downtown Los Angeles, planned by their new vice-president and partner Paul Schimmel, the former curator of MOCA who helped put L.A. art on the map.

We’re downtown in the Arts District, L.A.’s current trendiest neighborhood. (Sorry, Venice; when the techies moved in, the cool kids moved out.) Across the street new lofts are under construction; two film crews are shooting in parallel at opposite ends of Third Street; and, the surest sign of a new power locus in Los Angeles, there’s no street parking available at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday. For all that, the truly creative energy seems to emanate from the renovated Globe Mills complex as it prepares for its next life as a comprehensive art space pushing the boundaries of what a gallery can be.

“At some point in your life, you kind of know what you want to do and what you enjoy doing and how to make it all connect,” Wirth explains, describing the impetus behind their latest projects. The duo's last gallery to launch, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, was an overnight sensation: The converted 18th-century farm attracted over 130,000 visitors in its first year despite its location two hours (by train) outside London. Now with Schimmel’s curatorial prowess given room to play in a vast, repurposed warehouse, Iwan and Manuela have translated their unique vision to Los Angeles, hoping to take advantage of its abundant space and vibrant, artist-rich milieu. “When we had the opportunity to get this building, we realized it allows us to do almost a mirror [of Somerset] in an urban environment,” Wirth explains. “I’m a localist! I believe this first and foremost must work for the local community. In Somerset we never worried about the international art scene. They will find it sooner or later.”

That may well be sooner rather than later. This Sunday Hauser Wirth & Schimmel opens its inaugural exhibition Revolution in the Making: Abstract Sculpture by Women 1947-2016. The museum-caliber survey, co-curated by Schimmel and University of California Santa Barbara professor Jenni Sorkin, features Hauser-Wirth standards like Louise Bourgeois, Phyllida Barlow, Isa Genzken, Yayoi Kusama, and many more. It’s got the art world—and the city—seriously buzzing.

Beneath the shade of Jackie Winsor’s monumental sculpture 30-1 Bound Trees in the newly de-roofed central courtyard, Wirth points out where the restaurant, named for his wife, will eventually be: “People can come and visit the same show, before a drink, after a drink, sober and drunk, hungry then well fed. It will be part of the community.” The courtyard, like much of the complex, will be open to the public, intended to draw passers-by in as a place of retreat and discovery. “It’s great because it’s really what artists want; you’re not entering a fridge.”

Next we pass by Pacifica, a massive wall painting from Mary Heilmann, in a breezeway that connects Second and Third Streets—a logistical boon in a district whose serpentine roads weren’t designed with Sunday strolls in mind. At the moment, the breezeway leads towards a room piled high with art tomes that will become a new arts and culture bookstore run by ArtBook of MoMA PS1 fame (and which will also carry Hauser & Wirth’s own long catalogue of publications.) But for now Wirth directs us into a renovated gallery where Louise Bourgeois sculptures sprout from the floor while Lee Bontecou armatures vie for attention from the wall. We double back to a former storage space with high, wood-beamed ceilings and onto more climate controlled rooms filled with work by Eva Hesse—where we also pass by an exhausted Paul Schimmel as he contemplates the proper placement of a fiber sculpture by Sheila Hicks.

Wending around the meticulously curated space it’s easy to forget that this is a commercial gallery and not a museum. “Either you’re advising people on simply an advisory level,” Wirth explains. “Or you put your money where your mouth is…and give the people an experience and inspire them and take them somewhere in a commercial environment that is exciting to them.”

While he appreciates the compliment of being likened to a museum, Wirth also stresses the differences: “Museums have a way more complicated job: exhibiting is one job, art education is another. Then it’s scholarship, research, preservation, building a collection. From the outside, yes, [we] may look like a museum… it’s only on the surface. We are more a torpedo, putting up exhibitions and placing works.”

Still, Wirth quickly and excitedly begins to talk about museum-like public engagement programs: lectures, screenings, artist talks, and maybe even residencies one day. That’s not to mention the possibility of working with L.A.’s plentiful art and design schools like SCI-Arc or Cal Arts—and the inevitable collaborations with the Hammer Museum, MOCA, or the newly opened Broad just up the hill on Grand Avenue. Besides, there’s plenty of space in the complex that has yet to be fully realized, making Hauser Wirth & Schimmel essentially a big blank canvas on which their artists may present work.

There are big dreams at work, but the Hauser & Wirth empire has the resources to make them happen: The back-of-house-private offices are filled with an army of helper elves flown out from their London, New York, and Zurich galleries to launch this latest, most precocious sibling. “While I was skeptical whether it was going to work in Somerset, I’m pretty sure it’s going to work here because this is the home of more artists than anywhere in the world,” Wirth admits as he lets his optimism bubble over. “The great thing about L.A. and the possibilities we have here is you can allow yourself to wait and see what happens.”

Opening March 13, 2016. 901 E. Third St.; 213-537-0858; hauserwirthschimmel.com.

Image Credit: Daniel Han; The Falkenstein Foundation