Reluctant Gallerist Eric Mourlot on Galleries, Commerce and His Judith Seligson Show

Henri Matisse and Fernand Mourlot in Paris in 1946.

Henri Matisse and Fernand Mourlot in Paris in 1946. Courtesy Eric Mourlot

Eric Mourlot, whose family has been part of the art world for over a century, never wanted to run a gallery. And, when you grow up doing your homework at a print shop where artists such as Joan Miró and Marc Chagall are wandering around, and your family regularly visits Chagall at his home in St. Paul de Vence, the commercial side of the American art world might seem a bit staid.

“My idea was never to have a gallery,” says Mourlot, who now runs Galerie Mourlot on the Upper East Side. “To me, the gallery is an opportunity to show artists that I love. But my idea was always to work with artists. That’s what I enjoy doing most.”

Mourlot would prefer, in fact, to go back to his family’s roots and set up his own print shop. The family printing legacy began in 1852 in Paris, when the Mourlots first began producing fine wallpapers, then labels for chocolate and wine, maps and ledgers out of their city atelier. One entrepreneurial scheme forever altered the family business. Eric’s grandfather, Fernand, and his brothers had taken over the shop after their parents died. Fernand approached a former friend who worked for the national museums and, according to Mourlot, told him that a dearth of advertising was leading to their lackluster attendance. Instead of printing small notices in the paper, Fernand advised making posters similar to those that theaters used to advertise their productions. “So the guy agreed, and they put a bid out, and my grandfather got to print posters for the national museums in France,” says Mourlot.

Fernand, who’d attended art school himself and retained creative connections, convinced artists to get involved. “They realized very quickly that this was a way for them to talk to men on the streets. They realized the power of the image, basically.” Artists’ works were no longer just sequestered in museums, but mounted in cafe windows and on walls of public buildings as well. By 1937, Fernand had transformed the shop into the world’s most reputable venue for fine art printing. The family developed deep working relationships with such artists as Alexander Calder, Pablo Picasso, and Fernand Léger—Eric Mourlot owns prints from each of the artists dedicated to him, his father and grandfather.

About a year and a half ago, Mourlot had the opportunity to start his own shop. He shipped some presses over from France (including two of the smaller hand presses on which Picasso, Calder, and Miró all worked) and bought a new etching press. He stored them in a warehouse in New Jersey. Unforeseen financial circumstances prevented him from proceeding. “Unfortunately, my divorce destroyed that opportunity, but I think I will get back there,” he says. “The idea is to find funding and partners to be able to help me do this.”

Until then, Mourlot is finding alternate ways to work with contemporary artists. He’s developed a small roster of painters and photographers whose work he shows in his gallery space. This winter, he’s exhibiting work by Judith Seligson, an abstract painter who is now, after a 44-year-long career, just beginning to get her due.

Mourlot’s unconventional gallery space (he describes it as more European than American) is particularly appropriate for these works. The two floors more resemble a comfortable townhouse than a Chelsea white cube, and Seligson’s hard-edged geometric paintings add contrast and color to this softer, more informal space. It’s easy to imagine the works in one’s own apartment, and apparently, collectors agree—about a month into the show, nearly half of the forty-some paintings had sold. After Seligson’s show closes in January, Mourlot will exhibit photographs by Mary Louise Pierson, the granddaughter of Nelson Rockefeller, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller’s grandson and former New York governor. Painter and writer Françoise Gilot—most famously Picasso’s former lover, Jonas Salk’s former wife and the mother of Paloma and Claude Picasso—introduced the pair.

Like Mourlot, Pierson is an heir to an enormous legacy and attempting to build on her family’s history in a new way. Her photographs capture the Rockefellers’ extravagant Kykuit property in the Hudson Valley. “She has a vision that only someone from the family would have,” says Mourlot. The same might be said about his own attitudes toward the art world.

The gallery’s unconventional set-up corresponds to Mourlot’s insistence that he’s not driven by commerce. “The business side of it is not something that really turns me on so much,” he says. “What’s really exciting is introducing an artist to the public.” Indeed, a recent email blast from him did enthusiastically introduce a new artist. Mourlot wrote, “I usually never write to promote anything, but this time, I will…!” He’s selling limited edition proofs of work by artist Kristin Simmons. “This artist is young, talented, clever, funny and a Columbia university graduate…I ran into her again at Miami Basel, and you should all join us next year!!!” The 8×25 inch print looks like a pastel pink American Express card and reads “AMERICAN EXPENSE.” A complicated relationship with commerce indeed.