Barry Friedman seems to have been born buying and selling beautiful things in a quick Brooklyn staccato. Since the 1960′s, when he went into the art business, the dealer has been jumping onto trends and creating markets for new media before his competitors. When Tiffany glass was hot in the 70′s, Mr. Friedman established himself as one of the leading dealers of Art Nouveau furnishings. In the mid-80′s, he switched to photography, eventually linking up with Edwynn Houk and forming Houk Friedman, a gallery on the Upper East Side. Houk Friedman closed in 1997, not long after Mr. Friedman discovered the demand for art glass made within the last four decades–blown, cast or molded into decorative pieces you can put on your mantle–which has suddenly become collectible.
On May 21, Mr. Friedman, with his trademark beard, was manning a booth at the 1999 Sculpture, Objects and Functional Art fair–also known as SOFA–at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. The Armory was packed with small-town dealers exhibiting mostly crafts–weavings, pottery or some furniture. Just inside the entrance, Mr. Friedman’s glass menagerie reeked of New York fine art snobbery. “There is an old argument–craft versus art,” said Mr. Friedman, who claims a role in elevating the image of art glass. “I don’t get into that anymore. For me, it is contemporary decorative arts.”
Despite the crowds, the scene did not seem to attract some of the medium’s biggest collectors: gallery owners Mary Boone and Charles Cowles, actor Robin Williams and Seattle art patrons John and Mary Shirley, who underwrote the touring Chuck Close retrospective that was at the Museum of Modern Art last fall. Mr. Cowles’ interest in glass has led him to exhibit the work of Dale Chihuly, a Seattle-based artist who is considered to be the father of the art glass movement, at his New York gallery. Leo Kaplan Modern, MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum–all which have acquired a number of art glass pieces–have also helped the market to soar.
“Compared to last year, attendance was almost double,” said Douglas Heller, a co-owner of Heller Gallery who also had a booth filled with art glass at SOFA. “It never seemed like there was a lull. It was exhausting–a pleasant kind of exhaustion–but exhausting nonetheless.”
Mr. Friedman got involved with art glass about three years ago after coming across the work of Michael Glancy on a trip to Switzerland. Mr. Glancy, an American glassblower, makes richly colored vessels, many with deep patterns carved into the surfaces. “I went nuts,” Mr. Friedman said. “I went to his studio and I spent two days with him. Then I went back maybe two months later with an assistant from the gallery.” He started buying Mr. Glancy’s work and selling it through a new gallery, Barry Friedman Limited on East 67th Street.
In 1997, Mr. Friedman met Toots Zynsky, a Boston native who was living in Europe until recently and whose distinctive glassware has been collected by MoMA and the Met. Ms. Zynsky uses glass threads that have been, “fused and thermo-formed” in her pieces. Mr. Friedman started buying her work too; several of her vessels were highlighted in Mr. Friedman’s booth.
“There is great work being done right now,” said Mr. Friedman. “It is like an explosion.” Mr. Friedman prices pieces as high as $75,000.
“When we started out prices were in the hundreds,” said Mr. Heller. “Now they are in the thousands. We have sold pieces for as much as $200,000.”
Unlike the earnest galleries crowding into West Chelsea, the 20 or so that have moved into the meat-packing district are a little more relaxed. Earlier this year, Gavin Brown, a London-born painter turned dealer who opened an eponymous gallery on West 15th Street in October 1997, opened Passerby, right next door.
The bar, with 1970′s-style flashing disco lights, is not alone. There’s Hellfire, an S&M club that Painted Bird author Jerzy Kosinski used to haunt, Mother, the Cooler and Hell, all within two blocks.
“The space became available and I figured it would be an additional source of income that would provide social opportunities,” said Mr. Brown. “Some nights it is dead. Some nights it is booming.”
The proximity of gallery to nightclub has prompted the monthly meat-market crawl. According to Hal Katzen, formerly a SoHo contemporary art dealer, who joined midwesterner Robert Stein in forming Katzen-Stein last fall, an informal agreement has developed among the gallerists to stay open until 9 P.M. on the first Thursday of every month. Among them are Trans Hudson Gallery, Karen McCready Fine Art, Katzen-Stein and Tate, owned by William Tate Dougherty, a dealer who started as an assistant to Mary Boone. (In the fall, it will change to the second Thursday of the month.)
On those late nights, the dealers congregate at Hell. Even after drinking there, Mr. Katzen said, he doesn’t know why the place has such a name. “I don’t know what goes on afterwards,” said Mr. Katzen.