Nicholas Serota

In the early 1970s the number of galleries in London committed to showing international developments in contemporary art, and especially European art, could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd was one of the four.

Alongside the Lisson, Situation and Jack Wendler, the gallery of Nigel Greenwood, played a crucial part in introducing the work of emerging artists to the then small audience for contemporary art in London. He achieved this with verve, without significant financial backing and in a way that confounded the conventions of his own upbringing.

Greenwood was born in Devon into a naval family and, after schooling in Elstree and at Sherborne, won an exhibition to read history at Christ Church, Oxford University. Once there, he found that Oxford offered no opportunity to study the art history that had become a passion.

Sent down at the end of his first year, not least because of his inability to master Latin, he took himself to Italy as a prelude to studying art history at London’s Courtauld Institute. He spent a year in Rome improving his Italian, while teaching geography and, ironically, Latin at the English school and by playing the romantic lead in photo-romance magazines.

At the Courtauld he studied under Anthony Blunt and the abstract painter and historian of cubism John Golding, who became a lifelong friend. Greenwood graduated in 1965, but was determined that his practice should be “to make history, rather than to record it”, observing in a characteristic aside that the choice was made, “rather than dig around in dusty old archives looking for yet more laundry bills of Michelangelo”.

Golding introduced Greenwood to his own gallery, Axiom, where he served an apprenticeship as the gallery manager, promoting the work of progressive British abstract painters and artists working in the traditions of constructivism. By 1969, Greenwood was working independently, seeking less conventional spaces in which to show artists whose work was not being taken up by West End galleries.

Among his activities he assisted the Stockwell group of sculptors, including Roland Brener, Roelof Louw and Peter Hide, in realising a series of annual exhibitions in a former industrial building in south London. These established the tradition of independent exhibitions mounted by artists.

Greenwood also took over a studio space in Glebe Place where he operated as Nigel Greenwood Inc Ltd, a name deliberately chosen for its transatlantic resonance and because he could not bear the idea of being simply “limited”.

At Glebe Place he showed in quick succession the paintings of John Golding, works in mixed media by Keith Milow, the now legendary first presentation in England of Gilbert & George’s Underneath The Arches and an exhibition devoted to the books of Ed Ruscha. The range – abstract painting, a first one-man show, performance and printed books – is indicative of the programme that was to follow during the next 20 years.

At the Courtauld, Greenwood had developed a sympathy for art history based on observation rather than documents. This led to a special affection for drawing and for gestural abstract painting. Greenwood was an enthusiastic admirer of the work of John Walker, and later promoted the emerging work of Christopher Le Brun, Ian McEever and Terry Setch.

He particularly enjoyed the business of visiting the studios of younger artists, engaging in conversation, discovering talent and then presenting a first solo show followed by a regular succession of exhibitions which nurtured and promoted knowledge of the work in Britain and abroad. Keith Milow, Gilbert & George, John Stezaker, David Tremlett, Rita Donagh, Alan Johnston and later McKeever, Le Brun, Stephen Cox and Dhruva Mistry all showed first and often frequently with Greenwood early in their careers.

Greenwood was committed to what he called “introducing” the work to an audience, and his idealism encouraged him to follow the example of Ed Ruscha in publishing artists’ books in editions of 500 or 1000, rather than catalogues. He saw this as a way of placing an “original” in the hands of an audience that could not afford to purchase a unique work of art. The gallery mounted the seminal exhibition Book As Artwork in 1972 and several of his “exhibitions” were essentially the launch of an important publication, as with Gilbert & George’s books Side By Side (1972), and Dark Shadow (1976).

In 1971 Greenwood had established his gallery in the two lofty ground floor rooms of an apartment in Sloane Gardens, off Sloane Square, obliging him to live in the twilight of the basement zone. Living “below the shop” suited a character who thrived on the cut and thrust of sharp, witty debate and a regular stream of visitors. Set up in the back room, he would allow you to look first at the exhibition, then at the international collection of artists’ books which lined the entrance hall before engaging you in conversation or enthusiastically asking an assistant to show you further material. And what a talent he had for choosing and then inspiring his assistants. Lynda Morris, now director of the Norwich Gallery, Mark Francis, later at the Whitechapel, now at Gagosian via Pittsburgh, Ann Gallagher, now at the British Council, Anna Moszynska, now teaching at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, and Anthony Wilkinson, now with his own gallery, all found in Greenwood early employment, introductions and wisdom.

Given his discerning eye and commitment, the gallery rapidly gained respect, and sales to museums followed. However, selling contemporary art in London has never been easy. With very few British collectors, Greenwood found himself in competition with his German and Belgian peers in selling the work of British artists like Gilbert & George and David Tremlett to foreign collectors.

The family atmosphere at Sloane Gardens always made a visit a memorable experience, the more so after his marriage to Hester van Roijen in 1977 and the birth of his daughter Phoebe the following year, when the cries of a small baby and later the laughter of a small child would fill the gallery from one of the basement rooms. The marriage ended in 1980, but the way in which Greenwood continued to share in the upbringing of his daughter was a delight. From 1981 Greenwood’s partner was François Gilles, and together they formed a circle of close and intensely loyal friends.

In the early 1980s the nature of the art market changed. Greenwood had never had much capital, being supported by professionals, such as Brian Boylan, a director of the design consultants Wolff Olins, rather than by bankers or family money. He found himself under some pressure to relocate to a more central and grander space in which larger and more varied exhibitions could be presented to an audience which was now more interested in the experience of painting and sculpture than in conceptual art. The shows at New Burlington Street, presented in a sequence of beautiful top-lit spaces, were more conventional than those at Sloane Gardens, but were displayed to great effect by Greenwood, whose eye for hanging paintings was always sharp.

By now Greenwood was recognised as a major player in the British art world and in 1985 he was invited to select the Hayward Annual exhibition, the only dealer ever to be asked to do so. He made a personal selection of artists across several generations, and in a coup de theatre reinstalled in the tall entrance gallery the huge drawings made by Gilbert & George for the exhibition The New Art, which in 1972 had announced the arrival of a new generation, including Richard Long, Barry Flanagan, Art & Language and David Tremlett.

In 1992, following the downturn in the art market in the late 1980s, Greenwood closed his gallery, having lost the appetite for making an exhibition every month. Thereafter, he continued as a private dealer and adviser, displaying his flair in bringing together fine objects and a willingness to recognise qualities inherent in many different kinds of art across generations and periods. He also had an ability, rare in someone of such achievement and experience, to recognise the transience and capriciousness of success. He would enjoy gently mocking the pomposity of an artist, critic or curator who was taking himself too seriously, but was no less tough on himself, deflecting recognition of his own achievements. Throughout his life, Greenwood showed how to dispense with convention by doing things in his own way and with an inimitable fresh style.