Monday, August 20, 2007

Same As It Ever Was

[T]hese guys these days, these youngsters, get up in the morning, they paint a picture, they hang it up in an exhibition and the Ford Foundation gives them a prize.... They have their [well-known collectors] who stand there and catch the next picture that comes off the easel.
----Edith Gregor Halpert, early 1960s

It takes me forever to read biographies. I'll spend months savoring one, taking it in bit by bit, stopping to read up on something or someone it had introduced me to before I go back for more. I feel that's fine though. It takes years to research and write one and, clearly, someone's whole life to inspire one.

I note this mostly to explain to Lindsay Pollock, in case she's reading, why I've just finished her thoroughly engrossing, incredibly well-written book, The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market. She was kind enough to sign it for me a while back, but I only just read the final pages tonight.

The Times reviewer praised the book (and gives a good summary of the details of Halpert's life and times, so I won't here, except to note for reference sake that she opened her gallery in the West Village in 1926), but he thought Pollock is "perhaps too enamored of her subject’s plucky spirit." I can't say. I fall into that category of reader the Times reviewer meant when he wrote: "Historians of the American folk art market, created in part by her salesmanship, will find plenty of details to chew on." And chew I did. [update: OK, so I just re-read that and need to clarify that I don't mean to imply I'm a historian, and certainly not of the American folk art market, but merely someone who was absorbed by the details of Halpert's life.] The number of innovations that Halpert introduced that contemporary gallerists still use to market and sell art is impressive, and I made plenty of mental notes about things I'll have to try.

As, um, wonderful as it was to learn that artist-dealer and artist-collector relations haven't really changed all that much, it was really surprising to see how little the market factors have changed over the decades, even though each generation assumes the good ole days were better and it's all gone to hell under their watch. In the early 60's Edith wrote to a client [any typos mine]:

A great change has taken place in the art world with two new classifications among collectors--THE INVESTOR and THE RICH MAN WHO IS BORED. The first buys names and the second buys erotica, happenings etc. concentrating on sensationalism exclusively. [She waged a] one-man battle against the new 'investment' buyers. We have been turning them down wholesale and are getting a bad reputation but I am really adamant on the subject as you know.
The one thing that Halpert remained impressively true to throughout her 36 years as a gallerist was her unyielding faith in the art she sold. Her business had survived the Great Depression, WWII, and the ever-evolving tastes of the critics, curators, and collectors who saw the craze for old masters, European Modernism, Abstract Expressionism, and Pop art, to name but a few, come and go. She was a true believer in the idea that art is for everyone (introducing payment plans to encourage those without millionaires' budgets to collect) and had little patience for those who didn't spend the time to understand why what she was selling was important. Her thoughts on the market were always impressive for someone who made her fortune selling art. When, in the 1960s Americans were buying American art with a vengeance, a lot of it from her, she stuck to her guns:

"When the crash comes and it's in the making right now and has been for some time, it will drive out, I hope, all the investors--now they come in and say 'Is it a good investment?'" Edith had her answer ready for these new buyers. "I'm sorry," went her line. "I can't sell anything to you. I don't have a brokerage license and I may not sell securities."
There are only a handful of people in the art world I know with that much integrity on the subject. I imagine Edith is up there, watching the market today, a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other, shaking her head. Thanks for the portrait, Lindsay. I loved it.

Labels: art market,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i haven't read a good artist bio since the de kooning book. or, maybe i have, just haven't read a great one since the de kooning book.

recommendations please.

8/21/2007 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

DeKooning's bio is the last one I read as well. Kind of raised the bar a bit, didn't it?

8/21/2007 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...


Thanks for pointing out this book. A perfect example of how blogging informs me what I wouldn't have otherwise seen or followed.

I did sort of wonder about that American folk art market part... ;-)

8/21/2007 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Marc Snyder said...

It's not a new one, but if you haven't read it I'd recommend:
"Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston" by Guston's daughter Musa Mayer.

8/21/2007 02:13:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

'The Life of Isamu Noguchi; Journey without Borders' by Masayo Duus was wonderful. It might even be wonderful to someone who does NOT have complicated psycho-kinetic responses to Noguchi's sculptures.

8/21/2007 04:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay, i'll pick up the mayer book, thanks.

i'm about halfway through hoban's book on basquiat, which isn't that good, except for a few period factoids. i've put it down for now because i've become engrossed in philbrick's mayflower.

the other good one i read, i think it was immediately after the de kooning one, was tomkins book on rauschenburg. that was a good one to follow with.

what about a good one on duchamp? i think tomkins wrote something... has anyone read it, or another one?

what is mark stevens working on now, since leaving the magazine?

8/21/2007 08:31:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

I'm working my way through Patrick O'Brian's bio of Picasso. It's pretty fantastic and amazingly well researched. I particularly like the way O'Brian will happily wander off for a couple of paragraphs describing what life was like wherever Picasso fetched up. I had no idea so many different languages were spoken in Spain!

The one flaw in the book is it completely lacks illustrations. But it's not a big flaw at all, especially now that we have the Internet.

8/21/2007 08:38:00 PM  
Blogger David Cauchi said...

Maybe it doesn't strictly count as a bio, but Maria Lluisa Borras' 'Picabia' is brilliant.

I'll second the O'Brian Picasso and Mayer Guston nods as well, especially the latter. The bit where Mayer tells how, when her mother told Guston she was pregnant, he answers with something like 'What!? How could you do this to me? Don't you know I need to paint?' indicates the nature of her relationship with her father.

8/22/2007 10:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's what i'm worried about... the non-objectivity. an agenda, an ax-to-grind or need to gloss.

8/22/2007 11:42:00 PM  
Blogger Donna Dodson said...

i also read the de kooning bio for a reading group assignment and the one they were talking about was the arshille gorky bio 'black angel' but i havent read that one yet- thanks for all the good reading recommends- most recently i've read 'American muse : anthropological excursions into art and aesthetics / Richard L. Anderson while i was in court for jury duty- before that i read Francis Bacon: Commitment And Conflict by Wieland Schmied- and before that, Color : a natural history of the palette / Victoria Finlay... you know what i really want to see sometime- a retrospective of paul cadmus work- my dealer was tellig me there was a good book that came out on him???

8/24/2007 10:49:00 PM  

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