In the Greek myth, Tiresias one day came upon two snakes in amorous embrace. He struck the female snake with his staff. The goddess Hera was so furious at this act that she transformed Tiresias from male to female. For seven years, Tiresias lived as a woman, even giving birth to a child. Once again encountering two coupling snakes, Tiresias deployed his staff, but this time with a purpose, and was transformed back into a man.
Zeus and Hera were having an argument about who derived the most pleasure from sex – and they went to the only person they knew who could definitively resolve the issue. Knowing what happens to a mortal who offends the gods, Tiresias was reluctant to give an answer. Prodded by the two deities, he sided with Zeus – that women are the luckier gender in this regard. A poor loser, Hera rewarded Tiresias for his umpire skills by blinding him. Zeus tried to compensate by giving him the gift of prophecy.
Most people of a certain age in East-Central Europe have seen both sides of the major split of the 20th century. They grew up under Communism, and then after a certain point they suddenly were living under capitalism. It was as if, in 1989, the gods had effected a great transformation not of one person but of many.
The art gallery owner and curator Stephan Stoyanov knows perhaps better than anyone about this transformation. At this point, he has lived exactly half his life under Communism and half under capitalism. More importantly, he has experienced the most intense versions of the two.
As a young man, he studied at the Karl Marx Higher Institute of Economics in Sofia, the academic nerve center of Communism. He was majoring in accounting, a field he didn’t like very much, and expected to work as an accountant for a state-owned firm back in his hometown.
Then 1989 happened, and Stoyanov seized the opportunity to leave Bulgaria and follow his dream of studying art history. He ended up in New York City where he worked on Wall Street as a stockbroker for 18 months. Finally, though, he was able to break into the art world. Now he runs his own gallery, located on the Lower East Side, where I recently interviewed him during an exhibition of Renata Poljak’s work on the conflicting memories of the Communist and post-Communist periods.
“You should see this particular document that Renata Poljak did, Staging Actors, Staging Beliefs,” he told me in between chatting up visitors and potential buyers and several visiting artists including Renata Poljak herself. “When I watched it, I have to confess that I started dying inside because it was so much me in many ways. Back then there were some great things — free education, free medical system. And the education was far superior than today. It was also very safe. I could walk through the parks. Now I can’t. People had jobs. Yes, our basic needs were barely satisfied. But you don’t need much actually. This whole madness of consuming endlessly, it’s not good either. It’s another extreme. Before, under Communism, people were judged by who they are and by their deeds. Now, more and more, particularly in Bulgaria, people are judged by what they own. And this is very wrong.”
But because he has seen both sides now — “from up and down and still somehow” as Joni Mitchell crooned — Stoyanov added, “There were amazing things about the system and awful things about the system. We couldn’t say what we think. We couldn’t leave when we wanted to. We couldn’t move from town to town freely. All creativity was controlled. So there are pros and cons to both systems.”
Where were you and what were you thinking when you hard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was catching a train from Nis in former Yugoslavia to Sofia. I was a student at the time, and I was visiting my family. My family had been split between former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. It felt super-exciting. I was all alone so I couldn’t share it with anyone. But I know I had the cheesiest smile on my face. Something big was happening. I was 23 at the time. And what do you know at the age of 23?
Did someone tell you about it or you saw it on TV?
In the station people started speaking about it. It was mostly local people. Thank god I could speak the language. At the time I didn’t really understand the implications. I went home to Sofia and turned on the TV.
Right after that was the removal of Todor Zhivkov.
It was done very smoothly. And thank god, he was not killed like Ceausescu. Now, in retrospect, I don’t think such a public execution was necessary, no matter how bad these people were.
One night I received a phone call from a colleague at the university. My university was the bastion of Communism at the time. It was called the Karl Marx Higher Institute of Economics. My colleague asked me if I wanted to join them. They were about to block the entire university and start a strike. It’s funny that I’m curating a show called Uncertain Memories. With time we forget, no matter what. I believe that the strike at Sofia University had already started, and we were a day behind. But I could be wrong. Anyway, I was in my pajamas and I said sure. I made my roommate at the time get dressed and we both went. I thought there would be hundreds of students. But there were only 14. Over the following days the number grew.
What were the demands?
As far as I remember, we basically demanded the removal of the government. After so many years, I’ve tried to erase all of this, to be honest with you. I remember moving tons of furniture so that we could block the different entrances to the building. We were sleeping very little. We were rotating: you had a one-hour break and you slept on the benches. There was a picture that appeared on the cover of Rabotnichesko Delo of a student sleeping on a bench. I’m sure that it wasn’t me. But my father, who was a devoted Communist, well, he basically didn’t speak to me for about a year. He was convinced that it was me. He was laughed at and criticized because his son was a radical.
Where was he working at the time?
At the time he was working in an agrarian organization in the countryside in a small town. I grew up in a small town not far from the Danube River. At the time it had close to 20,000 inhabitants. Now it’s closer to 6,000. Many people emigrated abroad or to the big cities in search of jobs.
My father and I didn’t speak for a year. But we always had different viewpoints. I was trained at the English language school, which allowed me obviously to read books of fiction and non-fiction in English. That wasn’t necessarily something that happened to all Bulgarians during Communism.
Which English-language school was it?
Sofia. I went to the most prestigious one.
And what motivated you to go to the Higher Institute of Economics?
I was always creative, and I wanted to study either art history or acting. My parents were telling me that I could use these talents for something more realistic. They are intelligent human beings and I trusted their judgments. But quite honestly those were lost years for me.
You were studying Marxist economics?
I actually studied accounting, which I’m terrible at. I never enjoyed those classes. I was good at math but I was never interested in those classes.
What did you imagine you would do with the degree?
If Communism had continued, I was expected to return to my hometown, unless I got married to a girl in Sofia or another big city. We couldn’t move that freely to the big cities. I would have worked as an accountant for one of the big companies in my hometown — but a different type that required foreign languages. As a teenager, I worked in the summers as an interpreter for one of those factories, because there were many factories and industrial facilities exporting to various places. I would have had, if Communism continued, a sheltered, quiet, safe life.
So you’re happy that Communism collapsed, if only for personal reasons.
Yes, for my own personal development. But I also feel that several generations in my country were completely devastated, destroyed. I lost my father. He committed suicide. He was a devoted Communist, and he couldn’t cope with the new system and the new rules and the new values. In retrospect, now that I’m getting older and I see how the world functions, I see certain positive aspects of the old system. In the mecca of the Big Apple, the empire, I see certain positive aspects of Communism. But at that time I was so anti-communist.
How long did that strike at the university last?
About a week. Really, I’ve erased so much of that time. I so rarely speak about it. I’m not ashamed. On the contrary I think it’s not a bad thing at all to believe in the romantic idea that you can change the world. But I just moved on. And it’s just part of my personal history that I don’t dwell on because it was a long time ago.
At what point did you come to the realization that you wanted to leave Bulgaria?
I always wanted to. I started reading very early as a child. Thanks to cousins and my mom who was an avid reader, I read a lot of French literature. I always dreamt of those distant places. I studied English, but I emigrated to France because I had a fascination with French culture. In my life I’ve made a lot of irrational decisions. But they have their own logic, so they’re rational for me. I speak very good French. I still love Paris. And I don’t regret at all making this detour for about five years.
You left how soon after the end of the strike?
A couple of months, if not less.
You never finished your degree?
No, I couldn’t care less. I was not happy as a student there. It was not what I wanted. I remember that I had a couple interesting professors. But the rest was pure propaganda. The most interesting professor taught the history of the Bulgarian Communist Party. He made us think, and he was pushing the envelope with his lectures. These were lectures that I attended quite frequently and truly enjoyed. And I really read for the subject. There’s another factor. The English language school was an important school, very tough, very competitive and it was spectacular in terms of the way we were educated. Anything after that felt like a step down. I hate to say it but the level of the Higher University of Economics was bad. Also I shared very little with my fellow students. I didn’t make too many friends in university, which is the place you’re supposed to make friends, and I see very few of them when I go back to Bulgaria. I see my friends from the English language school. We bonded. We grew up together, we loved each other, and we still share fascinating conversations late into the night.
The students I was studying with at university were not so interesting. They hadn’t read as much. We had fewer topics in common. Some of them were actively pursuing money exchange on the black market. I found that intriguing. But that’s where my communication with them stopped. I cheated: I helped a few of them take their tests. I pretended I was them. We had an alcoholic professor in English. They begged me to do it. Otherwise they would have failed. Sometimes I’m Mother Theresa, often reckless. Sometimes my heart gets in the way. I’ve been told the same thing here in the art world.
Were you aware of being part of a wave leaving Bulgaria?
Yes, absolutely. From my school and from my immediate group of friends, quite a few left. The majority went to South Africa, England. Some I heard are even in China. I’m sure that there are many of us here as well. A couple friends from university emigrated to France as well.
When did you first get involved in the art world?
I was 17. The English language school is centrally located. Our secret smoking section was on the way to the Union of Bulgarian Artists, so I was always going there. I had read a few years before a fantastic book about a historical art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, who was responsible for supporting some of the most important artists. I started dreaming of being in this world.
I grew up surrounded by paintings. My mother surrounded us with artwork — nothing fancy but just local painters that she commissioned to do particular works that she loved. And we always had art books from the Tretyakovsky, the Hermitage, which were allowed under Communism. As a child I flipped through those amazing books, looking at a Renaissance paintings. I was a bit of a dreamer, and these were my formative years.
Then I got involved in art immediately when I emigrated. I had to pay my dues and work all sorts of random jobs. But I never ever left my dreams behind. I met as many locals as possible from the artistic world. I curated my first show when I was 25 in Paris.
What was the subject of the exhibition?
Bulgarian contemporary art. I actually got a grant from the university where I was accepted. It wasn’t a huge grant. I used it to transport the paintings to the Paris. I supposedly had a French partner, but nothing was on paper that would legalize my stay in France. Originally I was accepted as an applicant for political asylum, which I denounced. I remember it was a shocking day for everyone at the prefecture because they rarely had such cases and didn’t know what to do with me. But I couldn’t stand leaving a country that you couldn’t leave for so many years and saying I cannot return. The whole notion of “cannot” did not sit well with me. After a year of that, I said, “Hell no, I’m smarter than this.” I chose a rather slippery path in many ways, a risky path. But I don’t regret it. I’m very free as a person.
So it took a while to resolve your status.
Eventually I was on a student visa, because I was studying at the American University in Paris. I never gave up on my education. I studied business administration, but I took as many electives as possible in the art history department. And I realized that I knew more than the art history majors. All the girls wanted to study with me — there were more girls and only a few boys – because I could always date the slides in the tests, identify the artist, explain why the piece was important. I had a feeling that I had some talent, but I was afraid to admit it.
How did you choose the pieces for your show?
First I went on my own and looked through a lot of studios, gathered a lot of material, spent sleepless nights looking at slides and books. Then obviously with my French partner, who was an unofficial partner because the company we were going to start never happened, we were two people who had two different tastes, so we had to negotiate between us.
When you think back, how representative was that art of the Bulgarian art at the time?
There were some great artists! Of course there also were some mistakes. It was all in the eye of the beholder. And there were two us, neither of us classically trained. We didn’t do anything revolutionary. This was 1991. It was very early. After that, a slightly younger generation of artists began doing much more intriguing and rebellious works. It takes time. Under Communism, the rules were very strict. Artists lived better under Communism – certain artists — because they were supported well by the state. This practice continues, which I am very opposed to. Also, some of that new generation of artists left the country.
Like Daniel Bozhkov.
I didn’t know him. He’s around my age. I’m a huge fan of his work. And I’m very happy that he’s doing well.
Did you have video art in that show?
No. Video art work didn’t really exist at that time. Even photography was not considered a medium. It was primarily drawing, prints, paintings, and sculpture. That’s how the system functioned.
Did you sell works?
I personally thought that I did. I never got paid. Because I was on a tourist visa. When everything went sour with my French partner, I went back to the super emigrant path working every possible job and trying to rebuild.
Did you continue to curate shows?
No. I applied to galleries to be an unpaid intern, and no one ever responded. It was rather sad. Some of these people are now my friends. One of them actually is representing an artist that I discovered. It’s funny how things go around in life. I always joke with a couple of them: You missed a great intern! I also fell in love. I was engaged. My fiancée was very opposed to my irrational desire to curate. She wanted me to be in finance.
Well, you were studying in that school!
Was one of the reasons you came to the United States to curate art here?
No, to be honest, I came for love. Which didn’t last very long after my arrival. I was devastated. I still tried. I was accepted on Wall Street in my first interview at a big brokerage firm. I was utterly unhappy. I was pulled back to the intellectual level of the Bulgarian army, it was that bad. I remember days and days when I was under the shower every morning, saying, “God, I want to quit.” Little by little, I found out that Wall Street was just lies. Certain events happened in my private life to open my eyes, including reading Love in the Time of Cholera. I’m not a quitter. I never call in sick. I drag myself in even in the worst environment. But that’s a thick book. I couldn’t finish it in one night, so I called in sick. That was what led me to my resignation. And I became a waiter again.
How long were you at the job on Wall Street?
Almost 18 months. I was not a bad stockbroker. I passed all the tests. But my heart was not it.
You’re like Tiresias who had the experience of being male and female. You had the experience of being in the most doctrinaire communist school and the most doctrinaire capitalist environment.
I’m a Libra, so the extremes meet.
Those were also the go-go days of capitalism in the 1990s. Big parties.
I was crazy! But I was miserable. Because I had to go to these parties, go to strip clubs with clients. All the crap that went on was just appalling. I don’t regret that I left that.
How long did it take to break into the art world here?
It took me a long time. There are periods of my life that I try to erase. I was a waiter for several years and earned my living honestly. But it was for other reasons that I’ve erased that period. That was the time when I lost my father. And that was actually a very liberating factor in my life. I don’t owe anything to anyone, and I don’t have to live according to other people’s standards. I had to lie to my mom for years that I was an accountant. I did help a friend with accounting because I remembered a few things from the courses. I did it just for my sanity because I didn’t want another person in my family to commit suicide. I was the bright child who always succeeded, the top student. There were all of these expectations.
Your mother is still in your hometown?
Yes, she is still there.
She can give you the update on the population loss. Is it similar to other places in Bulgaria where the library has closed down?
No. There’s a friend from my teenage years, her name is Iskra. She’s someone who now tries to make things happen. She’s the head of the local chitalishta. She even invited me to participate to do a show and it was very touching. But because of financial restraints I couldn’t do it.
There’s a project to revive these cultural centers, the chitalishta.
I think it’s successful. She’s done a good job. She’s making things happen.
She’s living up to her name. [Iskra means “spark” in Bulgarian]
How did you break into the art world here?
I rented a big railroad apartment on 8th Avenue and 44th street for about eight months. I was hopping around depending on my financial situation. And I was sharing this apartment with a dear Bulgarian friend of mine, a super-sophisticated person. I started to do my salons. I invited artists and did shows. Some really interesting people came to the first and second ones.
I got an interview at a gallery. I was the least likely candidate to get the job. But I got the job after five or six interviews. It was a very grueling process because Chelsea was just starting and I didn’t have a degree and I came from Eastern Europe. The owner of the gallery was Italian so the stigma was even worse. But I got the job. And that was my official entry.
I did not lose a moment to catch up with everything I missed over the years. I had a wonderful reputation as one of the best gallery directors at the time. I stayed there for 10 months. Because of bigger pay and more responsibilities, I went to a less interesting gallery that I tried to revamp, which was quite a challenging experience. Sometimes people on the outside think that it’s very glamorous to own a gallery. They see that we’re in the press, we’re invited to the best parties. We take wonderful visits to the most desired places on earth. Some of us, not all of us! It’s part of show business in a way, and that’s very annoying. But people think it’s easy. A lot of people who want to socially climb open galleries. It’s the wrong approach. I worked for some of those people as well.
When did you open this gallery?
It’s been 10 long years. Not in this space. I’ve moved. I’ve been here 3.5 years. And I’m thinking that I might have an itch to move again soon. I’m a zero when it comes to building, and it freaks me out. But I’m always up for a challenge.
And the challenge is to be on the frontier?
I’ve always been a pioneer. With two partners, I opened a gallery on 57th street when Chelsea was becoming the “it” thing. Why 57th street? Because I decided we needed to go for history rather than the common trend. History in the sense that 57th street was the place where modern art started and was thriving. We chose 24 W. 57th St., the New York Gallery building. I was on the floor where de Kooning and Pollock showed in the only place that had no electricity. It was the cheapest!
There was a point when Eastern European art became the “it” thing.
It hasn’t been that hot. It’s a perception. Probably the most appreciated has been the Leipzig school among the collecting community. Now very trendy is a school from Romania. Trends come and go.
There were a couple key exhibitions like Land of Blood and Honey. But it seemed like interest peaked around that and then people went off to other parts of the world.
Yes, that’s always been part of imperial thinking, historically, as well as human nature. Here, the interest hasn’t peaked yet. There was one big show at the New Museum called Ostolgia. It was very inclusive. But there was no one from Bulgaria. I was very offended. But I was happy that there was a show about my part of the world in America. My friend Christopher Eamon also curated a show in Canada, and I helped him meet with curators and artists in certain of the countries. We had a small budget, so it was a very targeted, short trip, and we had to come up with a lot of ideas.
Do you think Ostolgia cohered as a show in terms of being more than just the sum of its parts?
There are different schools in the different countries. I’m often opposed to this kind of shows because they’re very general. They create a kind of ghetto. At the same time, because America is the empire, it’s a good way to start somewhere. So, at the end of the day, I’m pro those shows.
What stays with me is one room done by a Serbian artist who did a very obsessive and yet simple conceptual gesture, taking pages from the dictionary, erasing the meanings and putting “pain, pain, pain.” So, the whole room was covered in pain. That was the core for me, that particular piece. All the other ones I’ve forgotten.
You said that as you get older, your sensibility is veering back toward Bulgaria or Eastern Europe.
I miss my country! I miss the people that I love. I have not given a solo show to a Bulgarian artist yet. My gallery is my psychoanalyst. It’s where I’m most honest. I’m trying to be very strict with it. It hasn’t happened yet but it will happen. I’ve helped various Bulgarian artists in different ways and I’ve involved a lot of Bulgarian artists in my group shows, putting their works in a larger context. I wouldn’t do a Bulgarian show per se, because I don’t think it’s right because of what I was just saying about the ghetto thing.
When you go back to Bulgaria, what do you miss the most, other than the people?
The most banal things we don’t pay attention to: the smells, the birds. I know it sounds pathetic, but I miss the noises of the Bulgarian kitchen that remind me of my childhood: each kitchen has its own noises. The way people look at each other. The body language. I’ve noticed that with age I’ve become more touchy. We Bulgarians like to touch. Or at least that’s the way we are in my family. As you get older, you get closer to your origins in a funny way. I ran practically toward the ends of the earth to escape. And then you realize that things are all similar.
Can you imagine going back and living in Bulgaria?
That’s a biggie. I would love to. I often think about it. I think I would and I will. If I live long enough. It can happen tomorrow as well, if I’m needed. I don’t have a sense that I’m needed that much.
I have accomplished certain things. I’ve accomplished most of my dreams. I would love to lecture. And educate. And create. I know it sounds very romantic and too optimistic, but create the future galleries of Bulgaria. Even if I create just one! I’m the only one who reached a certain level internationally of gallerists. We’re very few from Eastern Europe, but historically some of the best are from Eastern Europe. A perfect example is Ileana Sonnabend, a mega dealer. Now we are two. A couple generations before me is Magda Sawon from Poland. There are others, but they are not prominently in the scene.
Do you think that art from the region is represented in the major contemporary art collections in the United States?
Not at all. And that’s sad, but these institutions don’t have the funds. The institutions here are privately supported, and the individuals who support them have different agendas. That could be one reason. We’re also not so important for them.
This morning, my first conversation when I walked into the gallery was with a lady who is facilitating certain groups to go to the Venice Biennial. I was telling her about the show and how excited I was.
She said, “Sounds like an Eastern Europe show. At the last edition of Venice, if you saw one you saw them all. They all talk about the same thing, the same identity issue.”
And I said, “But isn’t that an issue that concerns us all?”
“Americans don’t care about that.”
“They probably would if they were exposed,” I said. “Empires come and go.”
And that was our conversation. It’s just an attitude and shallow thinking. I was surprised that a woman that I really respect would say that. Or maybe she didn’t want to spend so much time on the phone. But that was her observation.
You’ve been back and forth to Bulgaria. What do you think Bulgaria needs the most right now?
That’s a very tough question. Speaking of young people, they need hope. And that requires better leadership and jobs. I would love to see my country investing more into arts, culture, and sports.
If you are great physically and have an open mind, you’ll be a wizard in math. These are two parts completely forgotten by the government. I know that they are making efforts with help from the EU. A nation without culture is no longer a nation. I’m not the first one to say it. Many of our kings and visionaries have said that. I’m worried by what I see and what I hear. Concerts are a thriving industry in Bulgaria. But the stars and starlets are of questionable merit. It’s very much copying the American model. That’s why I remind my American friends that empires disappear. You can’t be sustained endlessly on fluff.
There’s been an estimate that 15-20 percent of the population in Bulgaria supports xenophobic positions.
That comes from education. If education is poor you have this kind of people. That’s why the percentage rises. In my time, there was not so much diversity. There was not so much hatred. I have nightmares that something terrible will happen in my part of the world. It gets back to the fundamental aspects of the nation: education. If a country is poorly educated, it is easily manipulated. A crazy leader can provide all the wrong decisions, as history shows. I’ve noticed that children are so uneducated.
Have you spoken to Bulgarian teenagers?
Yes, and they barely go to school or learn everything. I’m looking at my nephew and niece. They’re fantastic human beings with fantastic parents and a loving family. So they have the basics. But the school system is abominable. I’m a tough judge because I came from a very tough school. It was privileged because it was tough. This was the high echelon of communist grandchildren. But the requirements were tough and we were studying like mad. But we also had fun. So you can combine both.
You said that you ran away from everything in your early 20s, but as you get older you’ve started to appreciate elements of the old system.
You should see this particular document that Renata Poljak did, Staging Actors, Staging Beliefs. When I watched it, I have to confess that I started dying inside because it was so much me in many ways. Back then there were some great things — free education, free medical system. And the education was far superior than today. It was also very safe. I could walk through the parks. Now I can’t. People had jobs. Yes, our basic needs were barely satisfied. But you don’t need much actually. This whole madness of consuming endlessly, it’s not good either. It’s another extreme. Before, under Communism, people were judged by who they are and by their deeds. Now, more and more, particularly in Bulgaria, people are judged by what they own. And this is very wrong.
There were amazing things about the system and awful things about the system. We couldn’t say what we think. We couldn’t leave when we wanted to. We couldn’t move from town to town freely. All creativity was controlled. So there are pros and cons to both systems. I was young enough to experience both. I’ll soon be 46. So half of my life has been under Communism and the other half in the West. There’s no perfect place on earth.
Is there any way for the good aspects to be preserved at a time when the younger generation has no experience of them?
With great role models. Going back to the basics: education. Those role models need to be given prominence. Every nation has great people and geniuses. I don’t know how the Greek situation will affect Bulgaria. The Greeks have to get off their fannies, stop delegating the more difficult physical jobs to Bulgarians, Macedonians, and Albanians, and start working. Things will change, I hope for good!
New York, January 17, 2013