Peter Zellner – American/Australian Artist, Architect, Author and Teacher


Peter Zellner

This week we present you a very unique Frank Talk with Peter Zellner, who is an American/Australian artist, architect, author and teacher based in Los Angeles. In the fall of 2016, Zellner founded the Free School of Architecture, a tuition and salary free, not-for-profit organization. He has designed many of the country’s beloved contemporary art galleries, and now he is pursuing his own career as an artist. Please enjoy Peter’s Frank Talk here! 

What was your first job in the Arts?

My first job in the Arts was “Gallery Architect.” Christian Haye hired me in 2003 to design and build a space for the Project on Venice Boulevard near La Cienega as a complement to his gallery in Harlem. It launched in 2004, eventually morphing into MCKunst, a collaboration with gallerist Michele Maccarone. The Project was one of the earliest galleries to open in the Culver City Arts District. That commission was followed by 5 more galleries in the area: LA><Art, Walter Maciel, Kinkead Contemporary, Susanne Vielmetter, and Mark Moore. A few year later I designed Maccarone in New York as well as HarrisLieberman, Wallspace, CRG and Zach Feuer.

What was the most useful or important thing you learned at that job?

After a decade or more of designing galleries I didn’t want to only make spaces, I also wanted to make art. The last gallery I designed was Night Gallery in 2013, I finished that about a year after I completed the Matthew Marks Los Angeles Gallery. It took me about another 4-5 years to realize that I wanted to make paintings and sculptures and not only just spaces for showing art. I suppose my next step, eventually, might be to figure out how the unify those practices. I am still trying to figure that out because being a multi-disciplinary artist is not so easy.

Tell us a little more about yourself. When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in this industry?

I was born into an artistic family. My mother is a classically trained soprano, originally from Nicaragua. She sang with the New York City Opera after studying and performing in Mexico City and all over Europe. My late father was also an immigrant to the US. He was a German-Hungarian from Romania, a refugee who came to New York via Australia, then Los Angeles (where he worked as designer for Ray and Charles Eames and Neutra) and Toronto.  When I was born he was working as an exhibition designer at the Metropolitan. I grew up with museum catalogues in the house instead of normal things like comic books and games.  My parents were pretty consumed by classical music, painting, Carl Jung, Sartre and Marx- basically all the clichés of mid-20th century bohemian life, quite irresponsibly- none of it connected very well to growing up as kid surfing and skateboarding around San Diego in the 80s. So, I became an architect because it seemed like a responsible way to be creative. I have been making paintings now for the last year. Painting is something I have to pursue and I have been lucky enough to place a work in a good collection in New York and have some upcoming shows – so it seems to be working!

What do you do now?

Well I used to say architecture but that has changed.  Three years ago, I walked away from a corporate leadership job in a large engineering and architecture firm against a lot of better advice. In the intervening years I pursued a few “passion” projects that I had been itching to realize.

In 2016 I founded and established a tuition free and participant led school, the Free School of Architecture. The school is now in its second year having “matriculated” over 60 students over the course of 6 weeks in the summers of 2017 and 2018, respectively. The school was something of a crucible to bear for me. It has roots in things like the Mountain School of Art and other participant led education experiments, notably the original Southern California Institute of Architecture as established by Ray Kappe and others. Initially it stirred up some controversy amongst local academics but it is now thriving under the leadership of four really remarkable women: Karina Andreeva, Lili Carr, Elisha Cohen, and Tessa Forde.

After a year of setting up the school I started painting. I had my first solo show in December of that year. This year I have been working towards another show in LA and hopefully one in Guadalajara in February of 2019.

I still teach part time at the USC School of Architecture and I continue to occasionally consult to commercial developers as an architect and a planner.

Where are you from?  

I am not exactly sure. These days, I usually say that I’m from LA but I was born in Manhattan in 1969. My family moved to LA in the early 70s when my Dad took a job at LACMA. I lived in Melbourne, Australia, from 1988 until 1997. I completed my undergraduate degree there in Architecture and taught for three years at RMIT. I then went to Boston and graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1999. I did my thesis there with Rem Koolhaas. Afterwards, I moved to LA in 1999 to teach at SCI-Arc. In 2001 I moved back to New York and worked there as an architect for a few years. I’ve been back in LA since 2003/4 so I guess you can say I am from there!

What is the arts community like there?

Great. Schizophrenic. It’s here and it isn’t. Art certainly isn’t the Ur-culture for this city, that would still be Hollywood and I suppose now tech has also claimed LA as its home. The art world here is pretty small; however, it continues to be one of the world’s great centers for art even though it sometimes looks to New York for approval. There’s something about LA’s immaturity that continues to produce a sort of parochialism that can be charming and inventive. I can’t imagine working anywhere else really.

Has where you come from shaped what you do in the arts today?

Yes, absolutely. I’m both compelled and repelled in some ways by my autobiography vis-a-vis making art and architecture. I suppose that tension is productive. In terms of where I live, I have the pleasure of being able to paint in my garden and in the alley behind my cottage, en plein air but in traffic too. It’s very LA. 

What is the best piece of advice you can give about working in the art world?

Get a day job and be prepared to have to radically reinvent yourself all the time. This is important if you plan on staying relevant, or at least honest to yourself about your interests, aspirations and potential. 

What is one of your greatest accomplishments in your career so far?

Working with the Matthew Marks Gallery in collaboration with Ellsworth Kelly and Peter Carlson’s team, on their Los Angeles gallery. This was a highpoint of my career as an architect. It was a remarkable experience.

Ellsworth Kelly was generous enough to spend an afternoon with me in his studio in Spencertown. He walked me through his studio and shared several public art projects that he was undertaking at the time, many of them large scale sculptures. He also showed me several works on canvas in progress in the studio and historical works on paper. That afternoon remains a touchstone for me, especially in my career as a painter.

What has been a challenge for you?

There are always the more predictable problems of walking away from a well-paying corporate job, so predictably, as an academic and emerging artist, my finances can be a little challenging from time to time.

I suspect the larger philosophical or professional challenge is fearing not being taken seriously as an artist. Many architects have made art but usually that art is seen as having a novelty value only. Tony Smith made the leap but it could be argued that Zaha Hadid’s or Le Corbusier’s or Richard Meier’s artworks are only just tolerable as art. They seem to be distractions from the rest of their creative efforts.  Strangely many artists have made legitimately good architecture. Andrea Zittel and Ai Wei Wei come to mind but there are many others.  I haven’t quite put my finger on it but as a rule artists seem to make good architects. Better than architects who try to make art.

What is something you do every day at work?

Check my email. Clean my brushes, try to gesso a new surface to work on once a day if possible. These days I have been painting a lot on packing box cardboard. I played around with painting on birch board this summer and continue to paint on canvas but I really like working on cardboard. There is something very immediate about it.  I like having to find the boxes in my neighborhood, usually they are from Amazon prime shipments. Sometimes I find big boxes and sometimes I assemble larger works out of smaller surfaces. I also have been painting on paper backed bubble wrap. I have always admired John Outterbridge’s works and although I don’t use found objects in my work I do love the idea of recycling something meant as a utility package for another object into an artwork. So, looking for cardboard is a nearly daily activity.

What is one of the weirdest things you have had to do on the job in your career?

I recently had a client, the son of a billionaire, who insisted on getting very high in the middle of a discussion about my fees. The weirdest thing to do on the job is negotiate your fee under those circumstances. I suspect it was a tactic to pay me less but who knows.

What defines a good employee? What defines a good boss?

That’s tough when you work alone. I think I could be a better boss and a better employee.

What do you think makes a person hirable?

What would make a person hirable, at least in order to work with me as an architect, would be if they could not only tolerate my creative idiosyncrasies but maybe offset and improve them. 

What is your advice to making yourself stand out in your workplace?

The usual. Do “good” work. Be reliable. Be honest and be dedicated without being self-sacrificing. Be of service to others. But also, don’t forget to promote your own agenda. 

What are things you can do proactively boost your CV?

As an artist or an architect: again do “good” or better than good work, consistently. Have great clients or in the case of art, have great patrons. Show up in the right publications and exhibitions. Take every opportunity to promote the work or yourself or both without acting cynically.

Are there any tips you can give people entering the workforce?

Ask for as much money as you can reasonably earn. Establishing a record of economic self-worth can only help you over the course of your creative life. Underselling and underestimating the value of your work or yourself isn’t romantic, it’s just dumb. I’ve done that too often and I am still trying to lose those habits. 

In your experience, what are things to do and things to avoid during an interview?

I don’t think sharing personal matters ever works in an interview but that hasn’t stopped me from doing so which is why I think I mostly work alone these days.

If you’re an acquired taste you need to at least know that before you speak your mind, make it an asset. 

Any other anecdotes about your experience in the art world that you would like to share?

Sure. Right after graduation I participated, via Harvard, in a group show curated by Hans Ulrich Obrest at the Villa Medici in 1999. It was entitled La Ville, Le Jardin et La Memoire. City, Garden and Memory. I was maybe 29 or 30. Daniel Buren, Maurizio Catalan, Yutaka Sone and others were in the show. I lived at the Villa Medici for a few weeks while we installed work from Rem’s Harvard Project on the City, a group thesis. Looking back on it now my recollection is how much more interesting the art part of it all seemed than the architecture part. In retrospect it seems like I’ve spent most of my professional career as an architect looking into the art world as an observer. For now, perhaps foolishly, I’ve tried to shed that role. 

What is the best exhibition you have seen in the last year?

Mimi Lauter at Blum and Poe last summer.  

If you could own a work by 5 different artists, who would be in your collection?

Lynda Benglis

Mark Bradford

Jose Davila

Mary Heilmann

Mary Weatherford


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