Towering over London’s embankment this autumn is a monument to the legacy of a certain dealer that stretches far beyond the edges of the river Thames. The founder of Lisson Gallery, Mr Nicholas Logsdail commemorates the 50th anniversary of his powerhouse gallery in style with a colossal show that dominates the Strand’s Store studios. Curated by Lisson’s equally formidable Curatorial Director, Greg Hilty and Head of Content, Ossian Ward, there are 45 works of art on display across the different floors of the building by a stable of artists that have defined a generation.
Even the most fervent non-believers of contemporary art will be blown away by the ambition of this exhibition, which finds contemporary art royalty Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramovic and Anish Kapoor beside lesser known names on the public’s lips Haroon Mirza, Ryan Gander, Arthur Jafa, Wael Shawky and Cory Arcangel. It’s a veritable who’s who of the contemporary art scene and it’s hard to escape the feeling that Logsdail is the common denominator behind them all.
Arthur Jafa, Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death at Store Studios
Back in 1967, in the first years on Bell Street in London, Lisson made its name showing American conceptualists from Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre to Lawrence Weiner before turning to a generation of British sculptors for its bread and butter: Tony Cragg, Bill Woodrow and Richard Deacon. Led by Logsdail and his then wife Fiona Hildyard, it was a golden age when Lisson’s artists were being handed Turner Prizes by the armful. It was even Logsdail that reportedly managed to get young Charles Saatchi onto conceptual buying.
It all started as you might expect with a privileged upbringing in rural Buckinghamshire with studies at Bryanston (a boarding school with a naughty, but creative reputation) and the Slade. In fact Logsdail was asked to leave the Slade because he spent far too much time lauding other people’s work and organising exhibitions instead of touting his own. He first caught the art bug from his uncle Roald Dahl who would take young Nicholas on buying expeditions to Cork Street and return him to his parents with a Francis Bacon in the boot.
Haroon Mirza, A Chamber for Horwitz; Sonakinatography Transcriptions in Surround Sound (2015) at Store Studios
When it came time to set up his own gallery, Logsdail turned his back on the movers and shakers of Mayfair and headed to the run-down side of Marylebone; separating himself from the old guard of traditional art dealers. Of course this was before the age of YBAs and Tate supremacy when contemporary art became mainstream. Logsdail was one of the first to keep his eyes firmly on the future and nurtured a roster of living artists. It was even Logsdail that orchestrated the sale of Carl Andre’s scandalous pile of bricks to Tate in 1972.
The question is, however, in the battle for art dealer supremacy, who would you rather have fighting your corner – Nicholas Logsdail or the Jay Joplings of the world? Crucially Logsdail has kept Lisson from becoming a mega-gallery (like a vortex sucking in all of the mid-sized and young galleries around it) along the lines of White Cube, Gagosian or even Hauser & Wirth by refusing to define his business purely in monetary terms. He does not make any old sale or expand his brand just anywhere – he carefully navigates the art market to leave them wanting more.
Of course now he’s got an OBE to his name and his son Alex as heir to the Lisson empire. The original gallery has gone and in it’s place seven properties on Bell Street have sprung as well as outposts in Milan (2011) and New York (2016). While he might not make as much of a song and dance about scandalous front page stories, Logsdail is quietly the rebel of his time. And this birthday party for the ages is like a flashing neon sign remind us all of that.