In a 1988 article in Connoisseur Magazine, I was described as “an occidental orientalist” for being the first to open a New York gallery presenting a totally new phenomenon – Chinese contemporary art. I was perceived as a cultural explorer into the unknown. Chinese and contemporary — to most people the very idea oxymoronic. To them Chinese art was something frozen into strict genres — classical landscapes, folkloric apple-cheeked children, social realism. So the early part of my career I had to work extra hard to open the eyes of Americans to the power, conviction, and originality of Chinese contemporary art.
Later, in the early 2000s, I found myself pioneering in much the same way when I began to introduce Chinese art talent to Miami. But there was a difference. I wasn’t operating in a vacuum striving to educate the impervious. Everyone was coming to Miami in December to be educated and to see and buy art. By its very nature, Miami offered a much more concentrated and expansive vehicle for introducing a whole new concept. In that hothouse of rubbing shoulders with international collectors and artists, ideas could spread quickly. I matured as an art dealer during the early growth years of the satellite art fairs that accompanied Art Basel Miami Beach. I found myself being educated and challenged as a curator and businessman.
I was born into a family of Sinophiles, my father, Jerome A. Cohen, is a Professor of Chinese Law at New York University now and formerly at Harvard Law School for 25 years. He was the first Western lawyer to be accredited in the People’s Republic of China. My mother, Joan Lebold Cohen, art historian, art critic, and photographer, was the first American art historian to lecture on modern and contemporary art in China after the Cultural Revolution in 1979. My own voyage of discovery began back in 1980 when I first met the Beijing avant-garde art group “Star Stars,” featuring groundbreaking artists, many of whom became legendary figures (such as Ai Weiwei, Wang Keping, Ma Desheng, et al). The experience left a profound impression on me. I witnessed firsthand the plight of artists struggling for their freedoms. I was nineteen years old. I’d just completed my freshman year at Harvard College. My mother, Joan, invited me to join her as she interviewed the leading contemporary art group in Beijing. We went to a pre-agreed location to meet up with the “Star Stars,” but we thought we had been duped because after an hour of waiting on a street corner, no one appeared! Frustrated, we got back into our car. Just as we were leaving, a person came up to our window and gave us another address. There, at the second address, the avant-garde group was waiting. Why so much mystery? The police were looking for these young radical artists to stop them from making and showing their own art and sharing ideas with foreigners. This struck me profoundly. Difficult enough, I thought, to be an artist in New York, Miami, or London, but infinitely harder when your government is trying to repress your freedom of expression and exposure. The injustice of it astounded me and made me want to share it with the world. I became a true believer in their struggle.
In 2003, I traveled to Miami to show in the newly launched Scope Art Fair. In those days there were only four December art fairs in Miami — Art Basel, Art Miami, Scope, and NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance). Art dealers were invited to convert hotel bedrooms to galleries in the Townhouse Hotel on 18th and Collins, a stone’s throw from Art Basel Miami Beach in the Miami Beach Convention Center. Costs were low and the challenge to show contemporary art in a hotel room sounded fun and innovative. I enjoyed the puzzle of crafting ingenious ways to show art in unconventional configurations. I showed art everywhere in the suite: projections from the ceiling over the bathtub, projections onto the window shades, installations in the cabinets, on the bed, wherever space could be utilized.
That year collectors came and looked, but sales were slim. However, to a young art dealer, it was a critical moment because all the top collectors would make the effort to come look at each gallery’s display. Trying to get many of these collectors into my gallery in New York during the year was a struggle; but in Miami, they had time to relax in beautiful tropical weather, and after browsing through Art Basel, continue on to the satellite fairs. A stark contrast from today’s 28 plus fairs during the Art Basel Miami Beach marathon. In 2003, most collectors in America still did not know the importance of artists like Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Qiu Zhijie, Fang lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhu Ming, Zhang Dali, Zhang Huang, Chen Zhen, Gu Dexin, Lin Tianmiao, Lan Zhenghui, Qin Feng, Li Songsong, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, and Yang Fudong — now internationally celebrated.