Massimo De Carlo teeters on a very narrow tightrope. On the one hand he’s Italy’s most prominent gallerist, a respected dealer who has two galleries in Milan, one in London and, as of the end of March, one in Hong Kong. His bristly white beard is a regular sight at art fairs from Miami to Monaco, and he’s been slowly climbing Art Review’s Power 100 list since he was first included in 2009. So far, so uncontroversial.
But then there’s De Carlo’s roster of artists. There’s a smattering of the blue-chip names that you’d expect such a celebrated gallerist to represent – among them George Condo, who designed one of Kanye West’s album covers, and Maurizio Cattelan, the conceptual sculptor famous for his use of taxidermied horses – but there are plenty of other, more divisive exhibitors. One of these is the provocative Scandinavian duo Elmgreen & Dragset, who used their last show with De Carlo to comment on HIV/Aids medication. Another is the all-male Austrian artist collective Gelitin, who once used their erect penises to shape clay sculptures that were then displayed in De Carlo’s London gallery. Just in case any visitors hadn’t fully understood the sculpting process, there was a video recording of the artists hard at work playing on a loop in the basement. It’s impossible to imagine any other gallerist on the Power 100 list showing that to collectors.
So Hongkongers were excited, and a little surprised, to hear that De Carlo would be opening a gallery in this city, which is far more conservative than either London or Milan. But he’s confident that the timing is right and, having served for several years on the selection committee of Art Basel in Hong Kong, says he has seen the city’s tastes mature.
“My time working in Asia, and my role on the committee of Art Basel in Hong Kong, have given me the pleasure of witnessing the flourishing of a vibrant cultural scene here and the possibility to research the conditions of the market,” De Carlo explains, while builders put the finishing touches to his new, eponymously named gallery in Pedder Building. “I’ve had time to plan and prepare for this move. It’s a natural evolution of the gallery I’ve developed over the last 30 years, and a significant signal of what I will concentrate on in the next 30.”
The gallery’s doors were officially opened on March 21, the night before the opening of this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong fair, and the inaugural show is an exhibition of new works by Yan Peiming. Being the best-known Chinese artist in De Carlo’s stable, Yan was perhaps an obvious choice for this European gallery’s first show in Asia.
“I’ve been working [with Yan] for over 20 years,” De Carlo reveals. “I think that his practice embodies the idea that nowadays it’s important to reflect and to be part of a continuous crossover and cultural exchange between countries and continents. For the opening exhibition of our new gallery, he prepared a new series of paintings that reflects the state in which we are now: a new presence in town, but with very solid roots.”
Yet, despite opening the gallery with a show by a Chinese star, De Carlo is adamant that artists from around the world will be exhibited in his Hong Kong space. This is at odds with the approach of the Hong Kong outposts of galleries such as Pace, which only showcases the work of Asian artists.
“The art market in Hong Kong is becoming more international, following a path that has been drawn by the global market,” De Carlo states. “So we plan to reach a local and international audience, continuing the work of the gallery in focusing on creating a dialogue between globally acknowledged contemporary artists, young and promising talents and more classical masters from the ’50s and the ’60s. We want to be consistent with our mission, showing both Asian and non-Asian art.”
But, from an outsider’s perspective, sometimes it’s hard to spot the consistency in De Carlo’s mission. “The artists I represent might seem very different from one another, I agree,” he concedes. “But these differences are positive both for the gallery and for the audience – not only is each show different from the one before, but it also allows each gallery outpost to build a personality through the show programming and to reach out to diverse audiences. Change is better than a rest.”
“Change” is clearly a bit of a buzzword for the dealer, and soon after announcing the launch of his gallery in Hong Kong he also revealed that he was opening a second space in Milan. This new gallery is slated to open in April and will be in the Italian capital’s historic centre, about half an hour’s drive from his existing space.
“It’s been a few years that I was thinking that the gallery in Milan needed a new brother, someone with the same DNA but that could speak to different people,” De Carlo says. “I found this newborn in Palazzo Belgioioso, one of the most important historical buildings of the city, designed by the architect of the Teatro alla Scala.
“My new gallery will open in the spaces of the former library in the Palazzo, on the first floor. Right in the middle of the chaos of the city, it will stand as a meditative, quiet exhibition space, where you can experience the work of artists at its best. It seemed to me exactly what the world of art needs right now.”
De Carlo is probably right, and fans will no doubt be grateful for this new contemplative space. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, De Carlo himself is not a calming figure. He’s made his name by pushing the boundaries, by celebrating renegades such as Gelitin, and by letting them bare all – in this case literally – in his galleries. Even the better-known artists he represents manage to maintain a whiff of rebelliousness, even if their works now hang in major museums. And it’s this sense of daring that De Carlo will hopefully bring to Hong Kong, as well as a willingness to shake up people’s ideas of what exactly should be shown in a commercial gallery. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but De Carlo hasn’t stumbled so far.