Modern art in American didn’t begin in the 1940s with Abstract Expressionism. Before Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, artists in the United States were experimenting, successfully, with the movements coming out of Europe and developing their own. Artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis and Jacob Lawrence.
Artists championed by Edith Halpert (1900-1970).
Through February 9, 2020, The Jewish Museum in New York, New York presents Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art, the first exhibition to explore the influential American art dealer and founder of the Downtown Gallery in New York City.
Born to a Jewish family in Odessa, Russia (now Ukraine), Halpert opened her gallery in 1926 at 26-years-old. It was the first commercial art space in bohemian Greenwich Village.
An outsider herself, she deliberately promoted a diverse group of living American artists, fundamentally shifting the public’s opinion of whose voices mattered in the art world.
“Keenly aware of her own second-class status as an immigrant, a woman and a Jew, she gave a platform to artistic voices that had not been thought to matter in contemporary society and asserted that they did,” Rebecca Shaykin, Associate Curator, The Jewish Museum and curator of the Edith Halpert exhibition, said. “She believed ardently that American art, like America itself, was pluralistic.”
The exhibit showcases that pluralism featuring 100 works of Modern and Folk art including paintings, sculptures and prints by artists such as Davis, Lawrence and O’Keeffe along with Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Elie Nadelman.
Halpert’s Downtown Gallery was the first mainstream art space in New York to consistently promote the work of African-American artists including Lawrence and Horace Pippin.
When the Japanese-American painter Yasuo Kuniyoshi was classified as an enemy alien during World War II, she mounted a defiant exhibition of his paintings in 1942.
Along with major artworks exhibited at and sold through her Downtown Gallery, works from Halpert’s acclaimed personal collection, reassembled for the first time since its landmark sale in 1973, will be on view.
In addition to fighting personal stereotypes as a woman, a Jew and an immigrant, the work she was selling had its own stereotypes to overcome. Few collectors and fewer museums were interested in American art produced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“The prevailing sentiment was that American Modern art was second-rate to, or derivative of, the European avant-garde,” Shaykin said. “Throughout the Gilded Age and into the years following World War I, most American museums and collectors preferred European old masters whose grandiose portraits and pious biblical scenes provided an instantaneous veneer of prestige and good taste.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art didn’t open an American Wing until 1924, at that time exclusively displaying decorative arts from before roughly 1840.
“The dominant narrative is that the most exciting advancements in Modern art were taking place in Europe, and specifically in Paris, until WWII forced a mass migration of artistic talent to the United States–it was only at this point that America became a cultural superpower, fueled largely by the invention of emigres and exiles,” Shaykin said. “It’s a tidy story arc, and one that certainly has truth in it, but it discounts what Halpert already knew to be true about American art and culture in the decades before the war: that artists were already making groundbreaking, ambitious work in the United States, they just did not have an appreciative audience for it yet.”
Not only was Halpert an “outsider” dealer selling “outsider” art from an “outsider” location, she was cultivating an “outsider” clientele.
“Rather than competing with the gilt-edged galleries in midtown, which catered exclusively to the elite, Halpert wanted to sell work to middle-class and even working-class people,” Shaykin said. “She saw this not only as a potential new and lucrative market, but also as a way of expanding culture into the thriving immigrant and middle-class communities of New York.”
Drawing on her extensive retail background–throughout her teens she worked at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s–Halpert set affordable prices, advertised Christmas sales and pioneered the use of installment plans, all of which was unheard-of in the art world.
“Halpert, who had begun her career working in New York City department stores, understood the importance of sales techniques that would appeal to housewives, laymen, office workers, young married couples—the full panoply of the middle class,” Shaykin said.
She refused to perpetuate the snob appeal of collecting.
Halpert was equally as influential placing her artists in museum collections as she was private homes.
The number of museums whose founding collections of Modern art were shaped or influenced by her private clients includes New York’s Museum of Modern Art via MoMA co-founder Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. The list adds Duncan Phillips, founder of what is now the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Robert Tannahill, donor to the Detroit Institute of Arts, William H. Lane, a modern art enthusiast whose collection is now housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Edith and Milton Lowenthal, whose collection was split between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum and Joseph Hirshhorn, founder of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington.
Halpert was equally influential in the realm of Folk art.
“Here again, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller was her biggest client; her Folk art collection was later donated to Colonial Williamsburg, where it became the basis of the first public collection dedicated to the genre,” Shaykin said. “Later, Halpert counted among her folk art patrons Edgar and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, major donors to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., among many other museums, Maxim Karolik, benefactor to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and especially Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont.”
Here, her influence has been completely obscured.
“Her legacy, like that of other influential dealers, is largely invisible, supplanted by the celebrated public philanthropy of the clients whose collections she was instrumental in creating,” Shaykin said.
From public institutions to private collections, “American art, she believed, belonged to the American people,” says Shakin.
Today, a great amount of it does. Thank you for that Edith Halpert.
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