Retrieved by Gallery: Two Lost Americans Saved by Collectors

There are times when we need to be reminded of the crucial role played by commercial galleries and private collectors in correcting the errors-especially errors of omission and indifference-of our leading museums. This is not a new problem on the New York art scene. It was the problem that Alfred Stieglitz addressed nearly a century ago when he exhibited American modernists like Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove along with European masters like Cézanne, Matisse and Brancusi at his “291” gallery. For at the time, no New York museum had any interest in exhibiting-never mind acquiring-the work of these modernist masters.

Now that these and many other modernists are securely represented in our museum collections, we often make the mistake of believing that all the errors of the past have been corrected, but this is by no means the case. To this day, two American painters in whose work I have long had an interest, Alfred Maurer (1868-1932) and Arnold Friedman (1879-1946), have never been accorded the distinction of full-scale retrospective exhibitions in any New York museum. This is all the more amazing-not to say scandalous-when you think of some of the stuff that our museums have been touting in recent years.

So, once again, it has been left to a collaboration between private collectors and a commercial gallery to right some of the egregious wrongs of the past. In the exhibition called High Notes of American Modernism: Selections from the Tommy and Gill LiPuma Collection , which has now come to the Berry-Hill Galleries, Alfred Maurer and Arnold Friedman are the featured artists. While this fine exhibition is certainly no substitute for the full-scale retrospectives that are needed, there’s quite enough-nine paintings by Friedman and 22 by Maurer-to serve as an introduction, or reintroduction, to their special qualities. And this selection of paintings by Friedman and Maurer has the additional interest of being seen in the company of splendid examples of some better-known American modernists-among them, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Walt Kuhn and Joseph Stella.

Exactly why Friedman has remained virtually unknown and unappreciated by our museums is something of a mystery. Perhaps there’s a partial explanation to be found in what Clement Greenberg wrote in his obituary notice for Friedman in The Nation in January 1947. Greenberg, who greatly admired this painter, spoke of the absence of a “shock effect” in his art, and that lack was as much a liability then as it is today. Greenberg went on to say of Friedman’s great late paintings that “they are too solid and complete to be ‘brilliant,’ and therefore his art may have to wait a long time before it receives its just recognition in this country. But I have enough confidence to add his name right now to those of Eakins, Ryder, Homer, Blakelock, Cole, Bellows, Eilshemius, and Hartley.”

Quite an endorsement. But more than half a century later, we are still waiting for Arnold Friedman to receive that “just recognition” in the museums.

Maurer’s case is somewhat more complicated. If Friedman was too original to be easily understood in his day, it may be that Maurer was thought to be too familiar to be taken for a true master. My own guess about his continued neglect by the museums has a lot to do with his virtuosity as a colorist. This won him a certain reputation as an American “Fauve,” and that, in turn, left an impression in some quarters that he was a mere imitator of

Matisse. Alas, Milton Avery had to endure a similar case of mistaken artistic identity before his stellar qualities came to be recognized.

Both Friedman and Maurer have certainly received just recognition in the splendid collection assembled in recent years by Tommy LiPuma and his wife, Gill. The sheer level of quality in this selection of pictures from their collection would be a credit to any museum-an oblique indictment of the museums that have shied away from giving these painters their due. I have a vivid memory of a lunch meeting I attended some years ago with several museum directors, one of them a former director of the Whitney. The subject of neglected American artists came up, and I mentioned Arnold Friedman. None of the museum directors even knew the name. When I mentioned Greenberg’s assessment of Friedman’s importance and reminded them that the Charles Egan Gallery-which gave both Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline their first solo exhibitions in New York-had also been a staunch supporter of Friedman’s work, they remained unmoved and resolutely incurious. I knew then that the museums would be closed to Friedman for some time to come.

Mr. LiPuma’s response to my own high critical assessment of Friedman was quite different. As he recounts in an interview for the catalog of the current show, he “discovered Arnold Friedman, in 1980, on a trip to New York. Hilton Kramer was at The New York Times then, and he had given this show by Friedman, at Zabriskie Gallery, a rave review …. The show was all landscapes, and I ended up buying two of them. That was the beginning of my love for Arnold Friedman.” Well, as I say, we must often rely on the galleries and the collectors to correct the errors of the museums.

High Notes of American Modernism: Selections from the Tommy and Gill LiPuma Collection remains on view at the Berry-Hill Galleries, 11 East 70th Street, through Dec. 31.