Virginia Zabriskie: Her Paris Adventure Showed Atget, Abbott

It’s one of the functions of anniversary celebrations to evoke happy memories, and on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Zabriskie Gallery in New York, I want to recall an event from the spring of 1979. To do so, however, requires a bit of history-specifically, the remarkable history of Virginia Zabriskie’s Paris adventure.

Ms. Zabriskie founded the gallery that bears her name in 1954, and over the course of half a century, the gallery has mounted some 800 exhibitions. Not all of them have been in New York, for in 1977 Ms. Zabriskie added to her domain by establishing a Galerie Zabriskie in Paris. Its opening at 29 Rue Aubry le Boucher, adjacent to the Plateau Beaubourg, was timed to coincide with the inauguration of Beaubourg’s Centre National d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, and this had the felicitous effect of placing the Galerie Zabriskie at the center of the Paris art scene.

TheGalerie Zabriskie was not to be a mere replica of the New York gallery. At the latter, Ms. Zabriskie featured a roster of both younger and well-establishedAmerican artists: Pat Adams, Clinton Hill and Lester Johnson, among the painters, and Mary Frank, Elie NadelmanandRichard Stankiewicz, among the sculptors. The Galerie Zabriskie had a different agenda: It concentrated on photography, not only with exhibitions of French and American photographersbut with a bookshop dedicated to the literature of photography. This was something new for Paris, where even the great French photographer Eugène Atget was a neglected figure. It was, in fact, at the Galerie Zabriskie that Atget’s photographs were first exhibited in a commercial gallery.

It was, moreover, another American admirer of Atget-the photographer Berenice Abbott-who rescued his photographic oeuvre from an uncertain fate. Berenice, who hailed from Ohio, had lived and worked in Paris in the 1920’s, and while pursuing her own artistic endeavors-which were then focused mainly on portraits of writers-she also devoted a good deal of time and effort to preserving Atget’s work for posterity. When I met her some years later, she occupied a huge studio space in Greenwich Village where almost every flat surface, including much of the ample floor space, was covered with Atget prints that she was attempting to put in some kind of order.

The event I want to recall here is the 1979 exhibition that the Galerie Zabriskie devoted to Berenice Abbott’s portraits of writers-among them, James Joyce, Jean Cocteau, André Gide and Djuna Barnes. As I happened to be in Paris at the time, I was invited to attend the opening of this exhibition, which turned out to be more of a spectacle than anyone-Virginia Zabriskie and Berenice Abbott included-had expected. What looked like the entire younger generation of French photographers and writers turned up for the opening. Few of them could have been acquainted with Berenice’s work; it was enough that she belonged to the same generation as the famous writers she had photographed. They were soon crowding around to ask questions and talk to her about their own work, and as the time passed from late afternoon to early evening, they showed no sign of departing the gallery.

With Berenice enthusiastically responding to their questions in her perfect French, they were enchanted. Berenice was then about 80 years old, and when at last she began to tire from all the talk and excitement, I was assigned to rescue her from her newly won crowd of admirers and escort her to a nearby restaurant, where a few of us were to have a quiet dinner.

The point I want to make is that from the outset of her career in the art world, Virginia Zabriskie brought an amazing artistic command to her exhibition programs, both here and abroad, often to a degree that went beyond what the museums were attempting in the same period. She wasn’t the only art dealer to do so, of course, but her Paris adventure remains, if not unique, certainly unusual. Alas, the Galerie Zabriskie closed in 1998 with an exhibition of American photographers aptly called Au Revoir Paris.

Here in New York, however, the Zabriskie Gallery is very much alive on its 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, the gallery is featuring Pat Adams Paintings: 1954-2004, honoring one of the painters who’s been represented by the gallery since its founding. The exhibition remains on view at 41 East 57th Street through March 5. And an elegant hardcover book, Zabriskie: Fifty Years, has been published by the Ruder Finn Press.