David Gordon

05.25.11

Left: Cover of Architect for Art: Max Gordon (2011). Right: View of Andy Warhol’s work in Saatchi Gallery, Boundary Road, London. (Photo: Doris Lockhart Saatchi)


Trained in architecture at Cambridge University, at the Architectural Association, and at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Max Gordon worked under Gordon Bunshaft at Skidmore Owings & Merrill in New York before returning to London, where he eventually formed his own practice at the age of fifty. His prolific career designing innovative spaces for contemporary art—the Saatchi Gallery at Boundary Road in London and the Fisher Landau Center for Art in Long Island City, New York, among others—was cut short by his untimely death in 1990. In his new book, David Gordon, Max’s brother, celebrates this central figure of the contemporary art world of the 1970s and ’80s.

MAX WAS ONE OF THE PIONEERS OF THINKING ABOUT HOW TO SHOW CONTEMPORARY ART, and how to make the art, rather than the architecture, the focus of attention. I can’t say that he invented the white box art space, but he was a major force in shaping this aesthetic. He was interested in quiet spaces where architecture could be the servant of art. In many cases where we see star architects creating galleries, there is a conflict between the art and the architecture, Max’s architecture was in harmony with the art; his contribution was, perhaps, to show that the ingenuity of the architect could be to make something that was the most simple, the most quiet, the most fluid space for viewing art.

Max was, above all else, extremely practical. Some see him as a minimalist. I see him as simplicitist. He did the minimum necessary to create space, light, and proportion. He hid fluorescent tube fixtures in window casements and covered them with Synskin, a flexible fiberglass, creating a scrim that filtered and evened light such that there was no conflict between the artificial and natural light.

His friendship with Doris and Charles Saatchi led them to ask him to examine the space they had found to house their own collection of contemporary art. He said, This is terrific, it’s large, it’s got wonderful top light, but the walls are not high enough to show large-scale contemporary art. They excavated four feet down and thereby created a space that was magnificent and revolutionary, and art lovers from all around the world came to see it. It had a deep influence on the scale of ambition of British artists, and that, along with the movement of taking industrial sites and turning them into spaces for the showing of contemporary art, culminated in London, after Max’s death, in the Tate Modern.

The art world of the 1970s and ’80s was much smaller than it is now. It’s hard to think back to a time when there were a handful of contemporary art galleries. Now there are thousands. Max was one of a very small number of British collectors and was one of a group in London who formed the Patrons of New Art, a ginger group to persuade the Tate Gallery to be more courageous in buying the work of contemporary artists rather than waiting until their careers had been established. It was at a committee meeting that Max suggested an annual prize for a living artist. That, of course, became the Turner Prize.

When Max died in 1990, I was the chief executive of The Economist. As a direct result of my genetic connection with Max, I was asked to become the chairman of the Contemporary Art Society. The person who asked me to do it said, “We need someone who loves art and is an experienced person—and you’re Max’s brother!” Exactly the same phrase was used when I was asked by Norman Rosenthal to become secretary of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1996. So, after his death, Max guided me into being an arts administrator in London, and then director of the Milwaukee Art Museum. The book is a way of expressing my thanks to him. Max was someone I was very close to and he died prematurely—he was only fifty-nine. Max has been gone for twenty-one years. The book serves as a reminder of spaces that are no longer there and an inspiration for those that might be.

Architect for Art: Max Gordon was recently published by Marquand Books.

— As told to Sondra Fein