(And a Look at Sixty Years of Art Dealing)
Once again, it is time for the Galerie St. Etienne's annual summer survey of recent acquisitions, and with it, our synopsis of recent art-world trends. This year is unusual in two respects. First of all, it is the last year in most people's visceral reckoning of the current millennium. On a more personal note, 1999 also marks the 60th anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne's founding. We will be celebrating our anniversary in November/December with a major loan exhibition. Titled "Saved from Europe," this forthcoming show will attempt to reconstruct the gallery's early history, in the process documenting the impact which the Hitler's cultural policies had on the development of the New York art scene. However, the present moment provides an apt occasion to look back in a more general manner and to review the ways in which art dealing has changed in the last sixty years.
In 1939, when Otto Kallir established the Galerie St. Etienne, the New York art world was a much smaller, more casual place. With the "blockbuster" exhibition still decades in the future, the public for art--particularly for modern art--was minuscule by today's standards. Prices, too, were comparatively diminutive, yet while we may long for the days when it was possible to buy a Schiele watercolor for $100 (or __- for $---, according to one of the gallery's old invoices), we must remember that it was also much more difficult to make money selling art. The dealers who championed modern art, starting around the turn of the century, were evangelists and proselytizers. They had to be, for most people found the new art trends alien and forbidding. When Nazi persecution drove European artists, scholars and dealers (including Kallir) to Manhattan's shores, these refugees colonized a territory that was on the whole even more provincial than that which they had been forced to abandon.
It is against this background that the tradition of the scholar-dealer (which the Galerie St. Etienne still upholds) developed. In the 1940s and '50s, dealers established a crucial link between modern artists and the broader public. It was generally the dealer's role to entice critics and curators, and to educate everyone. Exhibitions were geared to the uninitiated as well as the seasoned collector. With close ties to artists and their estates, and constant experience dodging fakes in the marketplace, the dealer was also in many cases the logical authority and source of the definitive catalogue raisonné. Émigré dealers from Europe often had deeper knowledge of the artists they represented than did anyone in America. And this was particularly true of dealers like Kallir, who introduced the Austrian Expressionists at a time when they were totally unknown in this country.
The changes that have swept the art market in the last twenty or so years can in large part be attributed to the success of Kallir's generation of dealers and art historians. The sort of broad-based educational programming that dealers routinely pursued no longer seems as essential as it once did. Yet while general knowledge of art may be on the upswing, genuine expertise is as rare as ever--perhaps rarer than when the art world consisted of an intimate coterie of like-minded individuals who pursued art with a dedication more strictly aesthetic than financial. On the one hand, the commodification of art has certainly made people more diligent: matters such as authenticity and good title naturally assume more importance as values rise into the six figures and beyond. On the other hand, however, such high values can easily become ends in themselves, blinding viewers to the true worth of the art in question. One may ask, did the Van Gogh (or the Cézanne or the Picasso) bring fifty million dollars because it is a great painting, or is it a great painting because it brought fifty million dollars?
It is, of course, the job of the responsible dealer to answer these questions--that is, to judge an art work in terms of its overall quality and condition, its place in the artist's oeuvre and in the current market--and then (and only then), in view of all these factors, to determine the work's proper price. The market, though elusive, is real--the result of a myriad shifting forces that can better be evaluated by a professional in daily contact with those forces than by the collector who spends most of his or her time elsewhere. At any given moment, there can be dips and surges in the market--the opportunity for a steal or the opportunity to be robbed. The myth of auction is that one can make a killing selling and get a bargain buying, but logic dictates that both propositions cannot be simultaneously valid. For every winner in this equation, there must be a loser. The "true" price of a work of art is more likely to be that set by an experienced dealer.
Unfortunately, volatile market forces have to a degree served to undermine the dealer's authority. The scholar-dealer who cultivates a narrow field of expertise sometimes seems to be a dying breed, since many secondary-market dealers and all auctioneers find it more practical to cast a wider net. Yet these relative generalists cannot possibly know as much as the old-fashioned dealer who concentrates on a handful of artists. Moreover, whereas the traditional scholar-dealer is committed to an artist's entire oeuvre, rather than merely the alleged masterpieces, the newer dealers and auctioneers prefer to nurture the high end. It is a given that the profit on a $500,000 painting is substantially greater than that on a $500 print, but this top-heavy approach is disastrous for novice and low-to-mid-level collectors, who are increasingly left to their own devices.
The other side of the coin is that two decades of aggressive auction-house publicity and now the Internet have led many people to believe that they can go it alone in the art market. However, this assumption is based on two very dubious premises: first of all, that auction prices invariably reflect the true values of the works being sold, and second, that anyone, armed with an auction price history, can use these often erratic figures to evaluate a specific work of art. Like much about the present economic order, these premises may seem to empower the individual, but they actually place him or her at a grave disadvantage. Although fair market value is defined as the price agreed to by a willing buyer and seller, the fact is that unless both buyer and seller are knowledgeable, one party is likely to be cheated. The dealer's role is to serve as the intermediary between these two parties and to ensure that the price paid is fair to both.
The present trend is to treat art as just another commodity in the global economy, yet there is something about art that inherently resists commodification. Collecting is a quirky passion, and those who have fared best economically over the years have been those who followed their hearts and developed their eyes, rather than those who bought consciously for investment. Art-works provide visceral pleasure; they need to be seen and sometimes even touched, and cannot so easily be purchased long distance. The knowledge that is required to buy intelligently also must be developed in face-to-face conversations, and the conversations that are likely to be most productive are those with someone who has both an aesthetic and a market sense--that is to say, with an expert dealer. Much has changed about the world in the last sixty years, but art remains essentially the same, and on the eve of the millennium, the scholar-dealer is if anything more necessary than ever before.
The Galerie St. Etienne's summer survey of recent acquisitions, as is traditional, follows the themes developed in the previous season's exhibitions. And, as usual, the list of artists includes many old, familiar names and a few new ones. Although the pictures of Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler (whom we introduced in tandem with a showing of works by her better known colleague George Grosz) had to go back to Germany for a major museum tour, we are pleased to have kept one extremely strong portrait here in New York. That portrait makes an interesting comparison with a just-received collection of drawings by Jeanne Mammen, a German woman artist of the same era whom we first featured in an exhibition several years ago. Our presentation last fall examining Käthe Kollwitz's influences shed new light on someone who has long been a Galerie St. Etienne favorite, and we are extremely pleased to have obtained a substantial new inventory of works from an important Kollwitz collector. We were also fortunate this past year to have assumed the exclusive East Coast representation of Henry Darger, in our opinion one of the most significant "outsider" artists discovered within the past three decades. Also included in our summer show are a seminal Schiele self-portrait, a selection of rare, early pieces by Michel Nedjar, a new group of works by the Gugging artists, and recently acquired items by Sue Coe, Otto Dix, Grosz, Erich Heckel, Max Klinger, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, Lawrence Lebduska, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Grandma Moses and a number of other gallery artists.