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Clean, Well-Lighted Places: On Our Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Art Dealing

From left, Virginia Dwan with Hedy Lamarr and Larry Rivers at Rivers’s 1961 exhibition at Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles. COLLECTION OF VIRGINIA DWAN/COURTESY THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

From left, Virginia Dwan with Hedy Lamarr and Larry Rivers at Rivers’s 1961 exhibition at Dwan Gallery, Los Angeles.

COLLECTION OF VIRGINIA DWAN/COURTESY THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART

The notion that collectors sit atop the hierarchy of today’s art world is axiomatic. They build private museums and control the boards of traditional ones. Through their acquisitions, they determine the fates of artists, and often overshadow curators, historians, and critics—all those ink-stained intellectuals who used to play a larger role in determining art’s value.

And yet, one must not discount the supplier. On the primary market—the placement of new work straight from artists’ studios—art dealers often shape collectors’ tastes. On both the primary and secondary, or resale, markets, they shepherd artworks onto collectors’ walls (or, as the case may be, into their freeport storage spaces in Geneva or Singapore). In a recent profile of David Zwirner in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that “one prominent collector referred to Zwirner as his top ‘go-get guy.’ To go and get, you have to know who owns what, how he or his heirs feel about it, how desperately they may need money.” Certain dealers are now celebrities. “Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums,” rapped Jay-Z, an art collector himself, and one of Gagosian’s high-profile clients.

But even as the world’s most powerful art dealers become household names, there is a pervasive sense that some of them have lost their aesthetic compass, if they ever had one, that they’ve abandoned the idea of taking an aesthetic position in favor of global domination. Today’s so-called mega-galleries have outposts in all the world’s major cities (16 shops and, quite possibly, counting, in Gagosian’s case); by necessity, they have taken on dozens of artists, being perhaps more concerned about having available product than a coherent program. “Now, they’re department stores,” as critic Dave Hickey put it ten years ago, when the mega-gallery phenomenon was ramping up. “Stables of artists once embodied the taste of the gallerist. Now everybody has one of each: your Iranian minimalist photographer, your elegant object maker, your Berlin pornographer.”

It should come as no surprise that this has led to nostalgia for the great art dealers of the past, as a raft of recent books and exhibitions demonstrates. Published this past summer, Judith E. Stein’s Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art looks at the inscrutable man behind New York’s Green Gallery, a venue that opened in 1960 and appears near the bottom of many great artists’ CVs, from Dan Flavin to Robert Morris to Mark di Suvero. This fall, Virginia Dwan is getting the star treatment from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” a show tied to the donation of much of Dwan’s formidable collection of Minimal, Conceptual, Pop, and Land Art to the museum. And Skira is publishing a book about Dwan by curator and art historian Germano Celant.

Stein’s Bellamy is the ideal contemporary art dealer: resolutely principled, endlessly curious, a creative force in his own right. He turned down the sale of a work by Tadaaki Kuwayama to collector Larry Aldrich, explaining to the artist, “he’s not good enough to have your artwork,” only to add, “if you really need money, you can sell it, but not through me.”

Backed by taxi fleet tycoon and art collector Robert Scull, the Green Gallery was located on 57th Street, at the center of what was then New York’s dominant gallery district. All of this makes it sound like a more professional operation than it was—Bellamy was often drunk and not particularly disciplined in courting collectors. Still, the gallery has cast a long shadow, and as early as 1972 was the subject of nostalgic praise. That year, Hofstra University in New York eulogized the Green’s five-year run with an exhibition of the work Bellamy had shown there.

Part of the newfound interest in these dealers, I suspect, has to do with the mystique that surrounds the job. “I never knew what it was to run a gallery, or how to sell the work,” Bellamy, who died in 1998, once said of his first gallery job, running the Hansa co-op in the 1950s. “My title, ‘gallery director,’ always amused me.” What, besides the obvious, does an art dealer do? How do you become one? What, at a bare minimum, do you need in order to run your business? Hickey, the critic and an art dealer himself in the late 1960s, answered the latter question with the name of his Austin gallery, cribbed from Hemingway: A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. (Visit New York’s Lower East Side today, however, and you will find that those two qualities are no longer exactly requirements.)

The roster at Virginia Dwan’s galleries in Los Angeles (open 1959–1967) and, later, New York (1965–1971), overlapped somewhat with the Green’s. They both showed Dan Flavin and Robert Morris, among others. In the National Gallery’s exhibition catalogue, curator James Meyer makes a convincing argument that the rise of airline travel played a role in internationalizing the art world and spreading ideas. The catalogue is peppered with glamorous photos of Dwan, such as one of her surrounded by Warhols, smoking languidly.

Like Bellamy, Dwan, who will turn 85 in October, was more interested in aesthetic matters than commercial ones, though unlike Bellamy she didn’t really need to bother with the bottom line, being an heir to the 3M fortune. Her wealth allowed her to fund a number of important earthworks by the likes of Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson. In the decades since her gallery closed, Dwan has been a revered, somewhat cultish figure in the art world. A few years ago, former dealer David Platzker, now a MoMA curator, organized a Dwan tribute at his gallery, Specific Object, that included the distinctive posters and cards she created to promote her exhibitions.

Platzker’s show opened the year after the most famous art dealer of the postwar era finally got his biography. Despite its sometimes lackluster prose, Annie Cohen-Solal’s Leo and His Circle: The Life of Leo Castelli is compulsively readable, telling the story of the patrician émigré from Italy whose New York gallery showed Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and other giants. One has to peer through the gauzy veil of hagiography to see that he was as much shrewd businessman as refined historian. Castelli is the model for many of today’s successful dealers: discreet in his deal-making and a careful listener, he was more interested in catering to emerging tastes than he was in shaping them. As Bellamy once put it, Castelli “had a lot of resistance to some of the better artists that he has shown. He accepted the inevitable.”

As Cohen-Solal’s book reveals, Castelli served as a mentor of sorts to Larry Gagosian, the most successful art dealer in history. As it happens, Gagosian was among the first of today’s powerhouse dealers to mount a show paying tribute to a gallery from the past. In 2002 his largest New York space put on an exhibition devoted to the Ferus gallery, an L.A. outfit that had a distinctive sensibility but little commercial success, showing an L.A.-heavy roster of artists like Wallace Berman, Ed Ruscha, and Llyn Foulkes. Ferus’s short life—it was open from 1957 to 1966—has been the subject of numerous essays and a documentary film. Curator Walter Hopps, who cofounded Ferus, was as eccentric in his own way as Bellamy, and possibly even less skilled at actually selling art. It is hoped that the details of his exploits will come to light next year with Bloomsbury’s publication of a book about his life, edited by the New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman and based on interviews by Anne Doran, an editor at ARTnews.

The past few years have seen a number of gallery exhibitions extolling art dealers of the past. In 2013, Minus Space in Brooklyn examined the story of Manhattan dealer and impresario Julian Pretto. The following year, Paul Kasmin’s New York gallery paid tribute to the Surrealism dealer Alexander Iolas. Museums have also gotten in on the act. Back in 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art unveiled “Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde,” putting on view masterpieces by Henri Matisse and Vincent Van Gogh. “The star of the show is not any of the artists,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times. “It is a dealer. How apt in our flush days.” Seven years later, MoMA introduced visitors to “Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New,” which came after the gift of an impressive cache of artworks from the late dealer’s estate, including Rauschenberg’s Canyon (1959), a work that had previously hung at the Met. Last year, in London, the National Gallery celebrated Paul Durand-Ruel with “Inventing Impressionism: The Man Who Sold a Thousand Monets” and Pace Gallery toasted the freewheeling Robert Fraser in “A Strong Sweet Smell of Incense.”

There’s been some grumbling about this institutional turn toward the market, but history is history, and recent art has been defined as much by rising commercialism as by any movement or medium. Not surprisingly, it is in the city that remains the art market’s center that most of these shows have taken place. People from outside New York have told me that they find our interest in dealers odd and discomfiting. I feel sorry for those people, who are seemingly ignorant of the magic a good gallerist can conjure, betting on new talent that, once in a while, turns out to be true genius.

Today, our nostalgia is for art dealers who made their names in the 1960s, those halcyon years when a gallery owner could be content with a consistent roster of artists and modest square footage. In hindsight, we romanticize them—they radiate an aura of authenticity that many feel is now missing. And yet, even as we’ve been pining for the old days, the art world has spread so far and wide, and become so opulent, that it’s now possible for certain venturesome young gallerists to squeak by with tiny, sharply curated spaces.

What will the books and exhibitions about dealers who came up in the ’80s and beyond look like? Which is to say, what will we feel is missing in the years to come? Maybe a market contraction will lead to a different kind of nostalgia, one for high-flying lifestyles and eight-figure deals. You never know.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 46 under the title “Clean, Well-Lighted Places.”

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