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A Conversation with
Tripoli Patterson

Text by Mariah Ernst
Photography by Daniel Shea

In some ways, Tripoli Patterson’s eponymous gallery is his second act. Patterson was born in Sag Harbor, but raised in an array of the world’s best surf spots, including Bali where he honed his surf skills so sharply, that they earned him sponsorship at age thirteen. After gracing the cover of magazines and competing professionally, Patterson made his way back home to New York and opened his gallery in 2009. Since then, he’s shown works by Lisa de Kooning (his godmother), Lola Montes Schnabel, Danny Fuller, Herbie Fletcher, Roy Lichtenstein, Willem de Kooning, Bosco Sodi and an abundance of others while still managing to get stand-up barrels and land three-foot airs. It’s an impressive accomplishment for anyone, but particularly for someone who is still well under thirty. Here he tells us how he made the transition from the WQS to the New York arts scene and why he values posterity for his artists over big price tags.

Mariah Ernst: So how did you transition from surfing professionally to having a very well regarded art gallery? 

Tripoli Patterson: I did my first show in 2005, when I was twenty years old, with my friend James Cruickshank, a local kid from Southampton. Lola Montes Schnabel was in that first show. So were Angelbert Metoyer, Tin Ojeda and John Ross Rist who is a local kid. We used Silas Marder’s barn. All of these artists were friends of mine, so I was able to bring them together and curate the show in a way that felt organic. 

The turnout was huge — maybe 1000 people — and everyone loved it. I didn’t make a lot of money — I was actually owed $500 — but already I was working with artists and clients I liked. The following year I did another one on my own and I realized this is what I want to do. I started the gallery soon after. 

ME: On your website, it says you’ve “married your love for surfing with your love for fine art.” How do you tie those two seemingly disparate things together?

TP: The development of the gallery is very connected to the development of my life. It’s the direct result of the history of my life. I’ve spent so much time surfing and I’ve spent so much time in the ocean that its developed me into the person I am. The ocean teaches you a lot when you spend a lot of time in it. The ocean can be very dangerous sometimes and sometimes you’re literally making life and death decisions. In the art world, everything is very subtle but these subtle instances can change the direction of the whole gallery or even the direction of the whole business. When I feel like I’m under pressure in my gallery, having surfed helps me face those pressures and make decisions. You learn a lot wiping out in the ocean and when you wipe out, you’re like “Back to the drawing board.” In the gallery sometimes you’re in horrible wipe out situations and you’re like, “Ok what happened, what decision could I make right now that I can stand behind?” 

Also, in both surfing and the art world, I’ve learned from people who are better than me. For whatever reason, I’ve had these people giving me pointers and they’ve put me in situations I wouldn’t have been able to get in myself. I’m very fortunate to have people who have helped me.

Tripoli Gallery, installation view.
Tripoli Gallery, archive.

ME: Does does your life as a surfer also influence what kinds of work you’re showing? You had a recent show titled Water. It’s hard not to see that as directly relating to surfing. 

TP: I like things to be connected to surfing, but I don’t ever want to do a surf show. Surf art is not going in museums and it’s not really my thing. But for Water, I saw water as a physically unifying thing for these particular artists. The gallery is a physical location in Southampton, near the water. Seeing the local artists and how they were influenced by water or how water influenced their work — that was the guide for the curatorial view of the show. 

Herbie [Fletcher] is one of the only “surf artists” I represent, because his art isn’t derived from surfing. It’s more a product of surfing. When he was shaping, resin would be falling onto the floor onto his photographs and he liked the way it looked. They were like these relics — a byproduct of his everyday life. Its not like he’s using surfing visuals in a forced way. It’s just his language. 

ME: Speaking of Herbie, he does something called The Blind Girl Surf Club with Julian Schnabel and you have some of his boards. What is the club and are you surfing these or are they artworks?

TP: Herbie shapes them and takes the shaped foam to his glasser with Julian’s art as the decal. Christian and Nathan, Herbie’s sons, had the boards, then Andy and Bruce Irons had them. Danny Fuller had one, and of course Julian’s sons have them. Although some people told me they were very expensive and could be sold, I started surfing mine. I loved surfing them! I broke a couple, and Julian was like, “No problem, order another.” Now my quiver is all these boards.

Tripoli's office, with his Blind Girl Surf Club board.

ME: You have had a number of relationships with very interesting figures in the art world, including Lisa de Kooning, Willem’s daughter. Has this influenced your gallery at all?

TP: My father was a pre-Colombian art dealer. He dealt with ancient artifacts — Maya and Aztec pieces. He was also a friend of Willem de Kooning’s and they traded work — things from my father’s collection for de Koonings paintings. Besides his own work, the only other artwork de Kooning had up in his studio were these ancient relics. So he was surrounding himself with his own modern art and these ancient artifacts — not the work of his contemporaries. I’m interested in the same kinds of juxtapositions. 

ME: In what way?

TP: I like putting artists from past generations together with contemporary ones. [In the Water show] we showed works from three centuries of artists as one group. Our brains have developed to think of time as linear, ticking away like a clock. But thinking of time like this is very limiting. Time goes forever — the past and the future and the present are all very connected. So, in that show, it was great to see a painting from 1898 next to a work specifically made for this show. 

I always relate to the artifacts that cultures before us left behind. I want the work from the artists I represent to exist for a long time — to put them in places where the collection will be looked after for hundred and hundreds of years and taken care of. For me, sometimes that’s more important than making money off a sale. That’s a very important thing to me — our generation leaving artifacts for future generations. I like the idea of leaving something. Money is such a temporary thing. 

ME: That’s something I haven’t heard in a lot of conversations with people our age — a desire for immortality. So with that in mind, what’s next for you? 

TP: Well, I’m getting ready to sign a five year lease, so that’s a big step. With some of these artists, things need to be planned two years in advance. I’d love to have galleries all over the world. Maybe in the city, or in Germany, or Bali? Who knows. It would all have to happen naturally. 

Photo: James Katsipis
Photo: James Katsipis
Photo: James Katsipis

This story originally appeared in WAX Issue 5.