When Nigel Greenwood was asked to prepare an introduction to the catalogue for the Hayward Annual exhibition, “A Journey Through Contemporary Art”, that he had selected in 1985 he demurred on the basis that he wasn’t a writer. Pressed, he produced reams of intelligent, readable copy, unmistakably like his distinctive, witty voice.
The postscript began, “If you are still with me”, and continued by musing on his underlying theme of landscape (he grew up in Devon by the sea). Lamenting the British tendency to wait for history to pass judgement, he offered the public the results of several months of studio visits, a number within art colleges: “Meanwhile I am much too impatient, I will make my own way through the woods.”
The Arts Council’s invitation to take on this round of a series that began in 1977 reflected its high opinion of Greenwood’s taste and of his ability to present works with style. The installation began with the enormous drawing The Shrubberies by Gilbert and George executed for the exact same wall as part of “The New Art” exhibition of 1972, a Henry Moore sculpture and Tony Cragg’s metre-square block of rubble Stack.
Greenwood didn’t avoid artists he had been representing, equally he included works by admired stars like Francis Bacon and Bridget Riley, and one of his first discoveries, Richard Long. Trying out a few then lesser-known names, from Dhruva Mistry to Victor Willing, he stretched expectations by approaching Ann Stokes for her earthenware plates and the estate of the Australian painter Fred Williams to borrow a series of gouaches.
In part Greenwood’s self-confidence came from a serious education, at Christ Church, Oxford, reading History and, from 1962 to 1965, at the Courtauld Institute where many of his fellow students, taught by Anthony Blunt and John Golding, became the art historians and curators now in authority. Good grooming to complement good looks and an attitude of getting things done with alacrity suggested the naval background of his father, as did advice to me to order brandy and soda on a bumpy hovercraft.
He joined James Crabtree’s Axiom Gallery, who represented amongst others Michael Tyzack and Kenneth and Mary Martin. The pioneering dealer Konrad Fischer invited Greenwood to participate in the 1968 “Prospect” in Düsseldorf, where he showed Keith Milow and John Walker. That year he tried for the Whitechapel Gallery directorship, his application stating that “I have become increasing aware of the individual’s search for an art in which they are involved”. He admitted a bias towards constructivism and towards conceptual art. Looking back, he saw it as free of storytelling: “It was exceptionally pure.”
Without waiting for backers or lengthy experience, he began commercial art activities in a studio room at 60 Glebe Place, Chelsea. In the opening year, 1970, one remembers John Walker’s eloquent, shape-dominated paintings and Gilbert and George’s To Be With Art is All We Ask. The latter belonged to a chapter in their idiosyncratic and brilliant “living sculptures” that continued with Greenwood’s presenting Reclining Drunks, the 1973 version accompanied by 200 Gordon’s gin bottles flattened like ashtrays. American art, from Bruce Nauman to Ed Ruscha had a place in the programme, as did New York in Greenwood’s life, his friendship with Moma’s curator Kynaston McShine typical of long-sustained dialogues.
The address that became Greenwood’s best-known location was 41 Sloane Gardens. One entered this tall house by a buzzer and two doors. In such situations it is easy to feel wary of having to discuss work on display with the proprietor. Greenwood spoke fluently, with great resonance and gestures, from an informed but very personal point of view and as he avoided the security of dominant movements, much less trends, one didn’t worry so much oneself about ignorance, terminology or making an impulsive statement.
He responded to art whose roots were in the artist’s poetic sensibility. Marc Chaimowicz, Rita Donagh, Christopher LeBrun and Ian McKeever displayed these qualities, as did artists experimenting with projection like James Coleman. The front and back rooms had beautiful high ceilings and natural light, and below there was more space for parties and informal drinking. The stock of his and others’ publications became a bookshop in its own right.
The gallery employed his sister Judy Greenwood, the antique dealer, and several future art-world figures such as Anna Mosynska, Mark Francis, Ann Gallagher and Anthony Wilkinson. When galleries were riding on the boom in international art in 1985, Greenwood, encouraged by Brian Boylan (from Wolff Olins, and now in demand as an adviser to museums and architectural boards) and Benjamin Rhodes, converted a beautiful skylit interior space on New Burlington Street for a West End gallery. Its financial collapse in 1992 disturbed the recession-sobered art world and before Sotheby’s sold the stock other dealers expressed their respect. The wise artist Jeffery Camp commented, “What a shame that the good dealers are not always the ones with most money. He’s been least like a shopkeeper, most like an enlightened friend.”
One style of art-world behaviour, particularly in the commercial sector, is to nurture inscrutability; the other, Greenwood’s, was to share his curiosity and erudition. He insisted on plans and detours to view the real object; whether the 11th-century Church of San Piero a Grado at the mouth of the Arno or the oven-hot Arsenale at the 2003 Venice Biennale. The pinnacle of his respect was always reserved for living artists, and others listened to learn who deserved such elevation.