She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, Richard Wilson, Matt's Gallery, 1989. Photo: Edward Woodman

Robin Klassnik's Matt's Gallery was never conceived as a straightforward showing space into which he, as director, would introduce work made elsewhere for display. Instead, each show was understood as the outcome of a collaborative project between himself and an artist responding to the opportunities thrown up by the space itself. Even when the work was finished, the place remained more of a studio, perhaps even a domestic space, than a regular art venue. Visitors had to ring the bell and wait to be let in by Klassnik and accompanied through the rest of the studio block to Matt's Gallery, where they could look at and discuss the work with him before being let out of the building again. It was impossible simply to take a quick look and walk out again, and because of this one was forced, as part of a 'captive' audience, to take time with the work. In response to suggestions that Matt's was a conceptual gallery, Klassnik replied that he thought of himself as 'running a gallery that shows thinking artists'. (7)

Matt's Gallery, which opened in the autumn of 1979, was in fact modelled on a similar space run by Klassnik's friend Jaroslaw Koslowski in Poznan. Far from being a career change from artist to gallery director, he saw it as a natural extension of the work he had been doing as an artist up to that time. 'In the past,' he said, 'I often used the public to make works for me, and I don't see Matt's Gallery as being that different. I see it as part of my own creative output.' What Klassnik saw himself as having done was to introduce a 'professional attitude' to working with artists, and while Matt's Gallery received funding from what was then the Greater London Arts Association, such professionalism was not at all the same thing as functioning respectfully according to the precepts of the prevailing art world bureaucracy. The focus was entirely on realising the work, and although there was no ideological objection to selling if and when someone offered to buy, there was no thought at all given to the active soliciting of purchasers.

     

Given the consistent manner in which Klassnik has applied these principles, both at Martello Street and from 1992 in his new, larger space in Acme's Copperfield Road premises, it is interesting that the one work in Charles Saatchi's large collection of British art that is permanently installed in his north London gallery is Richard Wilson's 20:50, first shown at Matt's Gallery in 1987. It was one of a series of works Wilson made there - Sheer Fluke, 20:50, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window - each of which addressed the physical space of the gallery. She Came in through the Bathroom Window (1989) involved pulling a 16 foot section of the window that ran the length of one entire wall right into the room. The frame was attached to the opening in the wall by lengths of concertinaed white PVC so that the whole thing formed a kind of lens and bellows, turning the space into an inverted camera. Wilson's manipulation of the fabric of the building in this way continued a history of such engagements that could be traced back to the spectacular work of the American Gordon Matta Clark in the 1970s. More immediately, though, it stood in relation to the rich history of The Acme Gallery. The short life of that space - it was open for less than five years - saw, among other things, Ron Haselden use it as a dry dock in which to reconstruct a boat, Stuart Brisley break through from one floor to another, Stephen Cripps' pyrotechnic performances and Kerry Trengove tunnel out of the building altogether. The work of Cripps, who died in 1982, was a strong influence on the Bow Gamelan Ensemble, a trio that performed throughout the 1980s using drainpipes, bedsteads and assorted other found materials for instruments, and whose blowtorch-wielding members included Wilson, the performance artist Anne Bean and percussionist Paul Burwell. It should not be inferred from the brief list above, however, that The Acme Gallery was intent on the promotion of a particular kind of work. Alongside events and performances such as these in its biography one is as likely to find exhibitions of paintings by John Bellany, Bert Irvin, or Anthony Whishaw. It was Wilson who inaugurated the second of two gallery spaces in the new Matt's Gallery at Copperfield Road with his watertable (1994), an installation that at one and the same time provided both a link with the previous activities through its strategy of architectural intervention, and a confirmation of the gallery's new location in its emphasis on the building's surroundings. A section of concrete pipe set into a billiard table that had been sunk level with the floor reached down to the very shallow water table, thereby tying the gallery to the canal outside and to the gasometers that rose up out of, and sank back into the ground on the far bank.

The broad range of artistic approaches encompassed by The Acme Gallery's programme reflects the organisation's general position vis-ˆ-vis the artists it serves. Beyond evidence that one was serious and committed to some form of creative endeavour, no other guarantees have ever been required of Acme's tenants. Because its essential philosophy has been to provide as unrestricted a working environment as possible, there has never been a desire to fix the precise form in which that might be delivered.This open stance has meant that the organisation has been able to remain flexible in the face of changing economic and political circumstances, and has been able to exploit resources as and when they have become available. Thus the gradual transformation from an organisation initially concerned to provide artists with living accommodation, through the taking on of increasing numbers of studio properties since the 1980s, to the current schemes to consolidate this role by developing and selling off a portion of acquired properties as work/live units, has been achieved without compromising that fundamental aim. (8)