The Borgenicht Legacy, the Glory of the 50’s

The passing of Grace Borgenicht, the art dealer who died on

July 19 at the age of 86, has set me to thinking about one of the

least-remarked-upon features of the New York art scene in the 1950’s, when the

city first emerged as the art capital of the Western world and an extraordinary

number of women dealers presided over the galleries devoted, either wholly or

in part, to the work of living American artists.

Grace (as I shall refer to her here) opened the Grace Borgenicht

Gallery in 1951, when 57th Street was still the nerve center of the New York

art scene, and when dealing in contemporary American art-especially art of an

avant-garde persuasion-was a high-risk enterprise. For in those days, the

prices commanded by such art were (by today’s standards) unbelievably modest,

collectors of new American art were scarce (and not reluctant to drive hard

bargains), the museums mostly indifferent and the mainstream press largely

hostile.

Under these chancy circumstances, Grace undertook to

represent the work of Milton Avery, the senior artist in her stable, as well as

Ilya Bolotowsky, Jimmy Ernst, Wolf Kahn, Gabor Peterdi, Leonard Baskin, Edward

Corbett and Ralston Crawford. All but Avery and Crawford were little-known at

the time. She closed her gallery in 1995, by which time the New York gallery

scene-following its exodus first to Soho and then to Chelsea-had become as much

a real-estate phenomenon as an art development, and a good deal of the American

art that was spurned in the 1950’s could be seen in the museums as modern

classics.

It remains to be explained why so many women were involved

in this risky business-was it because so many other opportunities in the arts

were denied to them?-but their number and importance were certainly

astonishing. Besides Grace, the names that come immediately to mind are Betty

Parsons, Marion Willard, Rose Fried, Antoinette Kraushaar, Martha Jackson,

Edith Halpert, Catherine Viviano, Virginia Zabriskie, Marilyn Fischbach,

Colette Roberts, Bella Fishko, Bertha Schaefer, Eleanor Ward and Eleanor

Poindexter. An impressive roster, and no doubt an incomplete one, owing to my

own sometimes faulty memory.

Bear in mind, too, that the New York art world was then far

smaller than it is today. There were fewer artists, fewer galleries, fewer

reviews and many fewer collectors of new American art. If you attended gallery

openings, which were usually held on Tuesday evenings, you were likely to see

the same two dozen or so people-mostly artists and their friends-week after

week. There was rarely any talk about money, none about real estate or the

Hamptons, but a lot of tough-minded talk about the art. Most of the American

artists whose new work one saw in the galleries were living a hand-to-mouth

existence (as, of course, many still do).

Not all of the dealers I’ve mentioned dealt exclusively in

American art, to be sure. Rose Fried specialized in Constructivism and

geometrical abstraction, most of it European, but she always represented a few

American painters-among them, Ralph Rosenborg, an artist now unjustly

forgotten. Catherine Viviano dealt largely in contemporary Italian art, but

likewise included American artists-among them, Joseph Glasco, another

undeservedly forgotten painter. But most of these dealers represented more than

a single generation of American artists.

Betty Parsons represented a good many first-generation

Abstract Expressionist painters-Jackson Pollock, Richard Pousette-Dart, Mark

Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, among others. Marion Willard exhibited

the paintings of Mark Tobey and the sculpture of David Smith. Virginia

Zabriskie introduced the work of Lester Johnson and Pat Adams. Colette Roberts

(at Grand Central Moderns) launched Louise Nevelson in the mid-1950’s, and it

was at Eli Poindexter’s gallery that I first saw the paintings of Richard

Diebenkorn. At Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery, the annual exhibitions of

contemporary American art were often of far greater artistic interest than the

annual or biennial surveys at the Whitney Museum.

This is not to say that there were no significant male

dealers in contemporary American art. Charles Egan was the first to give solo

exhibitions to Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and also exhibited, among

many others, Joseph Cornell, Herman Rose, Arnold Friedman and Reuben Nakian.

Sam Kootz showed Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Hans Hofmann. And it

was at Lou Pollock’s Peridot Gallery that I first saw the paintings of Weldon

Kees. And it was also the case that many of the dealers who specialized in the

work of the European avant-garde also exhibited American art. Pierre Matisse

showed the work of Loren MacIver, Curt Valentin exhibited David Smith and even

the august Paul Rosenberg & Co. showed Karl Knaths and Marsden Hartley, as well

as some of the younger American artists.

I am prompted to mention all this because of a very

misleading line in Roberta Smith’s otherwise exemplary obituary of Grace in The New York Times of July 21. In that

obituary, Ms. Smith spoke of her as “one of a handful of New York art dealers

to represent living American artists when most collectors were buying European

art.” A “handful” is not, of course, a high-precision term, but in the

circumstances it is woefully incorrect. It is certainly true that the allegedly

“smart” money in the New York art world in the 1950’s was buying mostly

European art-and not always the best European art. (Who, today, cares a hoot

about the paintings of such once-esteemed Parisian talents as Jean Bazaine,

Alfred Manessier or Roger Bissière?) But this preference for European-and

especially Parisian-art had more to do with cultural snobbery and financial

investment than with any lack of galleries dealing in contemporary American

art.

In the 1950’s, you could acquire a better understanding of

what was going on in American art by attending gallery exhibitions than by

going to the museums, and Grace Borgenicht’s was certainly one of the galleries

that contributed much to that understanding. Clement Greenberg once described

Betty Parsons’ gallery as more like a seminar in contemporary aesthetics than a

commercial establishment, and the same might be said of Grace’s gallery and

some of the others I have mentioned. Even Grace’s long-term support of Milton

Avery was far more audacious than it might seem now, for Avery was still a

seriously underrated artist when she began to show his work. It wasn’t until

the 1960’s that the first, albeit modest, monograph was devoted to his work. I

know, because I wrote it, and as far as I can remember, it never received a

single review.

Well, there is a lot

about the New York art world in the 1950’s that is either misremembered or

remains unacknowledged, and the important work of dealers like Grace Borgenicht

is part of that unwritten history.