Ahead of Her L.A. Gallery Launch, Dealer Emma Fernberger Tells Us Why ‘Art Should Speak for Itself’

The gallery will open its doors in Los Angeles on January 26 with a solo show of paintings by Nicole Wittenberg.

Photograph by Gus Aronson. Courtesy of Emma Fernberger.

Emma Fernberger seems to have been fated to open a gallery of her own—and in this new year, that destiny is coming to fruition. A long-time director at Bortolami and a beloved fixture in the New York art scene, Fernberger grew up outside the city, the daughter of filmmakers who immersed her in the world of art. The passion for the creative life was multigenerational, too; both of her grandmothers owned galleries at different points in their lives. Now, Fernberger takes up that mantle with her own gallery in Los Angeles. Named Fernberger, the gallery will debut a solo exhibition of dreamy landscape paintings by American artist Nicole Wittenberg on January 26, 2024.  

For Fernberger, this moment is the long and extremely exciting culmination of a career marked by kismet and tenacity. While still an undergraduate at Bard College studying art history and critical theory, she took an internship at Bortolami—a small decision that marked the beginning of an important professional relationship with Stefania Bortolami. After college, Fernberger learned the ropes across the pond, taking a position with Hotel, a small gallery in London, known for launching the careers of many young artists while also showing the likes of Joyce Pensato and Carol Bove.

Returning to New York a few years later, Fernberger joined Team Gallery back in New York, under José Freire. She’d ultimately find her way back to Bortolami as a director, where she grew her reputation with artists and in sales for another seven years (this tenure was punctuated by a year in Los Angeles). In this role, Fernberger established the Artist/City program, in which an artist is selected to create a site-responsive project paired with an American city (projects included Tom Burr/New Haven and Paul Pfeiffer/Washington D.C). After Bortolami, she moved to Ross+Kramer, working with artists including Nicole Wittenberg and Federico de Francesco.

Now back on the West Coast, Fernberger is in the crunch moments before opening day. She’s navigating the lead-up along with her beloved chihuahua, Howard, with the expert talents of her hair stylist, and with a sentimental stack of gold rings given to her by her grandmother. 

Recently we caught up with Fernberger to find out what she values in art and life—and why.  

What is the last thing that you splurged on? 

An ERCO lighting system. 

What is something that you’re saving up for? 

Gallery expansion. 

Alina Perkins, Didi à Gogo (2022). Photograph by Nik Massey. Courtesy of the artist and Fernberger, Los Angeles

Alina Perkins, Didi à Gogo (2022). Photograph by Nik Massey. Courtesy of the artist and Fernberger, Los Angeles

What would you buy if you found $100? 

A nice little lunch for me and a friend.

What makes you feel like a million bucks? 

Hitting send on an invoice or when my hair is freshly done by Ashley Javier. Going to him is a soul-altering experience. 

What do you think is your greatest asset? 

Vision plus a lack of risk aversion.

What do you most value in a work of art? 

Something similar to what Roland Barthes called “punctum”—it’s a quality in a work of art that most people can recognize instantly. It’s a gut-punch or a pinprick. All good work has it. 

Who is an emerging artist worthy of everyone’s attention? 

Alina Perkins is an Argentine painter based in L.A. who will have a show at the gallery in March, her first solo exhibition! She makes paintings that are representational but teeter on the edge of Surrealism. She recently studied in Frankfurt at Städelschule with Monika Baer (whose work I love) and I think you can see Monika’s influence on her approach to the canvas. Alina’s painting is deliberate and skillful, while the content is loose and associative—like she reached into a dream dictionary, which creates a tension I’m interested in. She used a 1961 Argentine film called La Fiaca as her point of departure for the upcoming March show. It’s a film about a middle class man who wakes up one day and decides that he won’t go to work, he’s just going to stay in bed. It’s a simple gesture that throws off the entire natural order of things to such a degree that his whole ecosystem descends into a state of pure chaos. I like the idea of idleness as an act of rebellion or an agent of chaos.

Vicky Colombet, <i>Plis et Paysage Serie #1323</i> (2015). Photograph by Christian Koopmans. Courtesy of the artist and Fernberger, Los Angeles

Vicky Colombet, Plis et Paysage Serie #1323 (2015). Photograph by Christian Koopmans. Courtesy of the artist and Fernberger, Los Angeles

Who is an overlooked artist who hasn’t yet gotten their due? 

I remain shocked that most people have yet to hear of the painter Vicky Colombet. She’s magnificent. I look at her canvases and think that they could hold their own beautifully next to any major painter of our time. Her abstract paintings look as though they are made with some sort of printed or photographic process, when in reality they are meticulously painted by hand, using traditional materials—raw pigments, mineral spirits and oil. She has an incredible amount of control over her media, even though she appears to have willed them onto canvas by some miracle. She’s 70, French, was part of an elite Parisian intelligentsia in the 1970s that included Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Delphine Seyrig, and then studied Buddhism with Thích Nhất Hạnh before she started painting in her 30s. I don’t know if I’ve ever met someone more interesting or just plain talented who isn’t widely known. She’s still working and she’s on fire. Her show is in September at Fernberger and we’re also putting together a presentation of her work at Felix alongside the sculptures of Loup Sarion. 

What, in your estimation, is the most overrated thing in the art world? 

Hyper-specificity. Esoteric work that speaks only to very small groups of people or that requires an extensive amount of explanation to engage with. More and more I think about the balance between alienating an audience and inviting them in. I don’t think this has to preclude complexity, and I’m not pro-populism. I just hate giving time to something, and then feeling like, “Ok, so what?” That misses the mark for me. Art has to speak for itself.

What is your most treasured possession? 

My late grandmother gave me a stack of gold rings when I was 16 and they’ve barely come off my hand since then. They feel more like an appendage than a possession at this point. I would be beyond devastated if anything were to happen to them. That being said, I’m not really a “thing” person (I do like nice things, there’s just nothing I would jump into a burning building for). I think to be a gallerist, you have to fall in love with things and let them go all the time. That’s just the nature of the business, so I tend not to get too attached to stuff. 

What’s been your best investment? 

Opening my own gallery, Fernberger, on January 26 with a solo exhibition by Nicole Wittenberg. I’ve truly never been more excited for anything in my life. I feel like a broken record at this point just repeating how excited I am, but I don’t know how else to describe how I feel right now. I really am so excited! 

Emma Fernberger's beloved chihuahua Howard.

Emma Fernberger and her beloved chihuahua Howard.

What is something small that means the world to you? 

Howard, my rescue chihuahua. He is small and perfect.

What’s not worth the hype? 

Airpods. They will rot our brains. 

What do you believe is a worthy cause? 

World peace. 

What do you aspire to?

A legacy of championing and nurturing artists. A life filled with joy, grace and ease.

 

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