New Worlds Upstate: An Interview with Jayne Johnson, founder/director of the Ice House, a gallery in Garrison, New York
by Jonathan Goodman
Jayne Johnson is an energetic gallerist and curator of The Ice House, located in Garrison, New York. The space is an actual former ice house she has renovated and used as the site of her innovative art programming. Many people in the art world in New York, especially during the ongoing pandemic, have been speaking of the move by galleries and artists upstate. Leaving New York also appears to have been fostered by the increasingly expensive cost of space in New York, making it hard for young people to set up--especially downtown, traditionally home to the arts in the city. As the interview makes clear, Johnson had an active and successful career in New York before heading north to establish The Ice House. At the time I visited the gallery, I saw the show of Susan Weil, the former wife of Robert Rauschenberg, who works in an improvisatory, modernist manner. Johnson’s curating is lively and also politically aware, making her gallery one to keep aware of. The space itself, with its high, dark wood walls inside and out, and its tall ceilings, make it a place highly advantageous for the viewing of art. The interview describes Johnson’s work experience and comments on art life upstate in a particularly interesting fashion. --Jonathan Goodman
Jonathan Goodman: Please describe your younger life in light of a career in the art world. What did you study in college? What were your art-world jobs in New York City?
Jayne Johnson: I went to NYU and studied art history and economics. I took a lot of studio art classes but more for fun than anything else. At the beginning of my junior year, I got an internship at PS1 in the finance department, which after about a week turned into a nearly full time job as the finance assistant. This was the early days of PS1’s affiliation with MoMA — before it was known as MoMA PS1.
There was definitely a wild atmosphere that I very much appreciated as a 20-year-old! A financial position at an upstart institution like PS1 was an exhilarating experience that required a lot of creative problem solving: how to finish installing a show on a dwindling budget? It was a very collaborative place with a lot of hard-working, energetic people, and it made a tremendous impact on me.
I worked at PS1 for about two years, in the finance department and especially on Warm Up, their annual summer fundraiser parties. From there I went on to work in the Finance department at The Drawing Center, an incredible institution that occupies a special place in New York’s cultural landscape. From there, I went on to work as a studio manager for the artist Peter Halley, and after that moved on to galleries: Elizabeth Dee, Lehmann Maupin, and Peter Freeman. Concurrent with my time at Elizabeth Dee, I was the co-Director of the art fair Independent for its first five years, when it was in the former Dia Chelsea building on 22nd Street.
JG: Why did you leave New York to start your space, The Ice House, upstate in Garrison?
JJ: I was interested in opening a different kind of space — one that offered a breath of fresh air, quite literally, to people who visit, and to artists. I thought about some of my most memorable art experiences, and they often involved nature, so I wanted to incorporate that into my plan. Lastly, I knew I wanted a space with character, with interesting details rather than a white box. When I found the Ice House, I felt so lucky—I couldn’t have dreamed up a better place. For being outside of the city, it’s quite easy to get there from NY too—just 5 minutes’ drive from the Metro North Garrison station, and even closer to the Manitou stop, which is close enough to walk to the gallery.
JG:. Please describe the transformation of your gallery from an actual ice house to an art space? When will the space also become the home of an artist's residency?
JJ: The Ice House--and the cluster of buildings around it--was built in 1911. The property existed as an agro-industrial compound for about 30 years before it became a dude ranch for a few decades, later becoming a private residence in the 1970s. I wanted to keep the space as true to its existing state as it was when I saw it, so I made a few minimal interventions: adding white walls and extra lighting, but otherwise keeping it unchanged. Since there is a full bathroom and kitchen, I plan eventually to create an artist residency space.
JG:. Anecdotally, one increasingly hears of galleries and artists leaving New York to set up north of the city. Why do you think this is happening?
JJ: I think the Hudson Valley offers a sense of possibility that feels difficult to achieve in New York--different kinds of buildings, the feeling of space itself, a connection to nature and the outside world.
JG:. Can the art being made north of New York be characterized in a general fashion? Does it differ, do you think, from the work being made in the city? Or has work become so eclectic as to resist any geographical generalities of this sort?
JJ: I don’t think there is any real generality to be made by artists working in the Hudson Valley--and the fact is, there are many artists working on an international level that are located here. For example, I doubt many people think of Frank Stella as a regional artist, although his studio has been here for two decades!
6. Please name two or three galleries in your area that are doing excellent work. What kind of art are they showing?
Mother Gallery in Beacon is doing great work and is developing a dynamic exhibition program. I think Parts & Labor, also in Beacon, has a fantastic program. They organize intergenerational exhibitions, often showing the work of two artists together in a totally unexpected yet wonderful combination.
JG: You are currently showing Susan Weil, who was married for three years to Robert Rauschenberg. How did you find her? What kind of art does she make, now at the age of 91?
JJ: I met Susan a few years ago though another artist I work with, Athena LaTocha. Susan is one of the most inspiring and vibrant artists I’ve had the pleasure to work with. She approaches the world with a tremendous sense of delight and curiosity that comes across in everything she does. At 91 years old, she’s still in the studio several days a week!
JG:. Who is the next artist you will be showing? What kind of work does he or she make? When will the show take place?
JJ: I just opened an exhibition with Noel W. Anderson, a tremendously talented artist who is originally from Louisville, KY, and is based in NY, where he is a printmaking professor at NYU. The exhibition features his recent tapestries, which explore the formation of Black identity as socially constructed by images appropriated from American media. Each starts with a found image which he digitally manipulates—mirroring, inverting, cropping or otherwise distorting it before it is reproduced as a tapestry with a digital jacquard loom. The fabric is then physically altered—bleached, dyed, stained, picked apart thread by thread, until the representational aspects of each work are nearly obliterated. The exhibition is on view until the end of June.
JG:. Are most of your art contacts still in New York City, or are they also, increasingly, upstate and further north? The question includes collectors.
JJ: Historically, my network has been from NY and the international art community; however, there are so many interesting people in the area — including collectors — and I am thrilled to be meeting more new people all the time.
JG:. What does the artist gain by leaving New York, where there is a ready audience, publications, curators, and fellow artists? Is the landscape itself an attraction?
JJ: Certainly the landscape, but also the physical and mental space and clarity that can be accessed when you leave the frenetic pace of the city behind. These qualities are a big draw to artists, but also to collectors, writers, curators, and anyone who is looking for a fresh perspective and a change of scenery.
JG: Is the movement north a momentary change, or do you think it has permanent implications? Isn't this move occurring, in no small way, because New York has become so expensive as to discourage young artists?
JJ: I think the interest in spending time outside of the city will last, but I also think New York will have a post-Covid resurgence. Rents are lower, and the city will be in recovery mode, but that will create new opportunities for artists that may have felt out of reach beforehand.
JG: What do you want to do in the next five years with your space? Do you see it entirely as a gallery, or do you want to turn it into a cultural center for the Lower Hudson Valley?
JJ: The Ice House is such a special place and I look forward to continuing to share it with artists and the public. I will likely start an artist residency program to some extent which could give artists from out of town a unique opportunity to live and work in a tremendously inspiring place.