Sean Kelly Gallery

Since opening in 1991 Sean Kelly Gallery quietly became one of the most respected galleries in New York City. And regardless of its location, the gallery’s distinct sensibility – both intellectually and aesthetically rigorous – has made it a destination on the typical weekend art tour. The gallery’s previous identity was designed by Joseph Kosuth, one of the more influential contemporary artists and a personal hero. Known as a founding figure in conceptual art, Kosuth’s language-based work has recently been executed in an idiosyncratic approach to typography where letterforms are artificially compressed in an attempt to visually “raise the volume.” This typographic style extended into the previous gallery identity, so besides legibility and production issues, there was an inherent problem in using one artist’s style to present others. Typography aside, there was still value in Kosuth’s tendencies towards philosophical inquiry, subtle humor, and strict color palettes. The process began with the basic question of “what do we know?”

We knew the stable of artists, including: Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, James Casebere, Antony Gormley, Ann Hamilton, Rebecca Horn, Callum Innes, The Estate of Seydou Keïta, Robert Mapplethorpe, Anthony McCall, Gavin Turk, and of course, Joseph Kosuth.

We knew the gallery’s history of museum-quality exhibitions:

Primitivism Revisited: After the End of an Idea
Marina Abramovic: Seven Easy Pieces at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
Mapplethorpe Neoclassicism
The Furniture of Poul Kjaerholm and Selected Art Work
Remarks On Color
Man Ray/Duchamp: Fifty Years of Alchemy
Chantal Akerman: Selfportrait/Autobiography: a work in progress

We knew the color grey.

Sean Kelly Gallery facade, with Joseph Kosuth installation in neon, 2007.

We knew something about the typical Sean Kelly show:

Serious (but not dull).
A destination.

We knew the gallery’s character.


We knew things about Sean Kelly.

He was born on Bloomsday.
He collects James Joyce & Marcel Duchamp.

We knew that a gallery’s point of view establishes their exhibition program, which then colors how following exhibits are perceived. For example, Marina Abramovic’s “Balkan Erotic Epic” would have been a different exhibit at Mary Boone than what was shown at Sean Kelly. Therefore, the system needed to acknowledge both Sean Kelly’s and the gallery’s personality, and acknowledge their role as tastemaker and curator; as frame and stage. And given the explosive growth of the art world – with ever-increasing numbers of artists, galleries, art fairs, and collectors – the system needed to stand out from its graphically-saturated environment. It had to be bold and it had to be different. And since there’s a surfeit of earnest and serious brands in the art world, there was room to have a bit of fun as well. Four rules were established for the project:

Be simple.
Be playful.
Be rigorous.
Use language over images and shapes – because much of the work represented is “linguistic” in some way or another.

The first step was selecting a typeface which was legible, conveyed a certain classicism and confidence, and had a personal connection to Sean.

James Joyce, Ulysses; 1922; Paris; Shakespeare and Company

Ulysses, first printed by Maurice Darantière in Dijon, used an Elsevir which was approximated in Berling, developed from 1951–58 by the noted Swedish designer Karl-Erik Forsberg, and based on fifteenth-century Venetian faces by Aldus Manutius. Even though Berling premiered twenty-nine years after Ulysses was published, it had an appropriate fidelity to Darantière’s first edition and was affordably priced for use in a medium-sized gallery.
Then, following the four rules of the project, the identity came together rather quickly.

Since the block of type resembled the kind of label one would see on a museum wall, the advertising came together quickly too. And that correspondence further enhanced the gallery’s reputation for museum-level exhibitions.

Wolfgang Laib advertisement in Artfourm


Antony Gormley advertisement in Artfourm


Second Antony Gormley advertisement in Artfourm


Poul Kjaerholm advertisement in Artforum, in collaboration with R Gallery


Los Carpinteros advertisement in Art+Auction


Rebecca Horn advertisement in Art+Auction

While convenient to think that creative work appears fully-formed from the mind of the designer/artist/musician/etc., the reality is that ideas tend to float around in a gossamer haze, as raw material to be fleshed out into existence. Perhaps a receptive predisposition allows us to encounter things as we need them. Still, it was a nice confirmation to read Herbert Muschamp in The New York Times during the creative process. It helped reconcile the play between“classicism” and bold minimalism inherent in this identity.

(Robert) Rosenblum argued that neo-Classicism was not, as it had once typically been characterized, simply a matter of historical revival, the first of the many period recyclings that extended through the 19th century. Rather, like the Modern movement of the early 20th century, it reflected the desire to purge the visual environment of stylistic ostentation and restore it to an imagined state of simplicity. In this sense, neo-Classicism prefigured Minimalism, two centuries before the term was coined. More than that, neo-Classical art was the first wave in an extended surfin’ safari of -isms that the modern mind has been riding ever since. Every wave offered a new way of seeing the world, another wipe of the slate. And why shouldn’t this theme be introduced by Cupid? As the flower children were neither the first nor the last generation to grasp, love is a potent incentive to see everything afresh. Yet there was continuity to these shifts in taste. That was the book’s underlying message, as it was with almost all of Mr. Rosenblum’s subsequent publications. The desire to wipe the slate clean is a natural instinct of modern life. The task of the postmodern mind, as Mr. Rosenblum performed it, is to repair the collateral damage. — Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times

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