Lisa Spellman founded 303 Gallery in New York City in 1984. She’s launched the careers of numerous major artists such as Doug Aitken, Karen Kilimnik, Hans Peter Feldmann and Collier Schorr. Her current stable includes Stephen Shore, Kim Gordon and Larry Johnson. She showed Richard Prince, Vito Acconci, Robert Gober and Christopher Wool in the 80s. She was a pioneer in Chelsea, the current center of the art world, in the 90s. She is also a consummate New York surfer. “I like to put myself in harsh conditions,” says Spellman. “That’s why I started surfing in the winter. I saw there was ice covering the jetty and it was 20 below zero with the wind chill. The water was 37 and I could see ice forming in the ocean. I thought, ‘Wow, I’d like to see what that’s like.’ It was fun.”
Spellman began surfing in 2009, but had a house at Ditch Plains, in Montauk since 1995 where she would bodysurf for hours. Her work as a gallerist has always come first and for the most part Spellman sees very little interplay between surfing and art. “For me they are schizophrenically different,” she says. “Other than bumping into people I know in the line-up, there is barely any [overlap].” This separation has allowed each interest to renew her perspective on the other. “Surfing is the most aesthetic experience that you can have,” she says. “It’s total aesthetic immersion. And so I think people who have both experiences look at art in really unique ways.”
In 1984, Spellman opened her gallery while she was still a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. One early show with Allen Ruppersburg and Jeff Koons is particularly illustrative the way in which aesthetic instincts drive her work as a gallerist. Koons had some of his two-ball and three-ball “Equilibrium” tanks on display. “It took me six months to convince a collector to buy these tanks for $3500,” says Spellman. “I was such a bad salesperson. The collector who bought them gave me this cassette tape of ‘How to Sell Anything.’ So I listened to all the tapes. I don’t know how much I learned from it. But, really, how hard should it have been? You just looked at the Jeff Koons tank and you knew then, ‘Come on, this artist is important.’”
In the fall, Spellman was showing American photographer Stephen Shore’s work in conflict zones. Years ago, when she first started working with Shore, he was being shown in a photography gallery, even though he had influenced a number European artists in different mediums. “It’s this forensic, historic dialogue work that I’m really interested in,” Spellman explains. “Who influences who? Who was looking at what? And how does that make sense for artists I’m already committed to?” Spellman has an ability to make narrative of what appears chaotic. And while her passions for surfing and art may remain distinct for the most part, the rare moments when they do merge are some of the most exhilarating. Spellman offered the example of her relationship with 303 Gallery artist Mary Heilmann, whose painting “Surfing on Acid” was influenced by West Coast surf culture of the 60s and 70s. “Talking to artists about things like that—I would say that’s the primary joy for me—where surf and art connect.
from Surfer's Journal issue 24.3