In 1906, a 6-year-old girl, Edith Gregoryevna Fivoosiovitch, migrated from Kyev (then in Russia, now in Ukraine) with her family to New York City. She grew up to love art, study it and try to make it, but doesn't seem to have been very good at it herself. She therefore learned all about selling in Manhattan department stores and elsewhere.
She married a painter, Samuel Halpert, became known as Edith Gregor Halpert, and in 1926 opened in Greenwich Village what was to become known as the Downtown Gallery. The tale of this pioneering art dealer, the first to exclusively represent American moderns and American folk art, is told in absorbing detail by "Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art" at The Jewish Museum (through February 9).
The show at The Jewish Museum occupies all six galleries on the museum's second floor, and displays about 100 works of American modern and folk art.
Among them are mostly good-looking paintings and sculptures by 20th century artists including Stuart Davis, Peter Blume, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Georgia O'Keeffe, Horace Pippin, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, Elie Nadelman, William Zorach, Marguerite Zorach, O. Louis Guglielmi, Jack Levine, Marsden Hartley & Yasuo Kuniyoshi.
There are also mostly splendid prints by Louis Lozowick, José Clemente Orozco, Wanda Gág, Rockwell Kent, Paul Cadmus, Edward Hopper, Victoria Hutson Huntley, Thomas Hart Benton, Stuart Davis, Mabel Dwight & Arshile Gorky.
Finally, the show has a generous selection of work by 18th and 19th century American folk artists.
In this category we have mostly charmingly quaint paintings by or attributed to "The Gansevoort Limner," Edward Hicks, Joseph Whiting Stock, Erastus Salisbury Field, Asahel Powers, Milton William Hopkins & John Brewster, as well as picturesque metal weathervanes depicting various animals and other curious objects.
Also on view are a few "trompe l'oeil" paintings by 19th century artists who had had more formal training than the "folk" artists, William Michael Harnett & Raphaelle Peale.
All of these works are displayed in more or less chronological order, meaning that their placement corresponds partly to the order in which the work was made and partly to the order in which Halpert had most to do with it.
Thus the opening gallery would appear to commemorate the Downtown Gallery's earliest years, in the 1920s and 1930s, and therefore includes works from this period by Nadelman, the Zorachs, Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn and Charles Sheeler.
Fine. These were all artists whom Halpert represented at this time. Indeed, Davis's 1927 show of his new "Eggbeater" series, based in Synthetic Cubism, was a great success in terms of the attention it received (though Halpert failed to sell a single work from it). And here is an exquisitely hearty example of work from that show: "Egg Beater No. 1" (1927).
Shahn had also had a big success with his "Sacco and Vanzetti" series, a highlight for the Downtown Gallery in 1932, so it is only appropriate that the show includes a picture from that series.
This same gallery includes works by Marin, O'Keeffe & Hartley. They are not the greatest works by any of these artists, and during this period, all three were much more closely associated with Alfred Stieglitz, who had been showing them (along with European moderns) at his"291" gallery since before the Downtown Gallery had opened.
Still, the object labels make clear that these three pictures were sold by the Downtown Gallery, and I will say that in visual terms, they work well in relation to the other work in this first gallery, and the whole offers a most harmonious ensemble.
The second gallery, with all those mostly-marvelous prints, is also impressive. In addition to the simple fact that the work looks good, the whole pays tribute to Halpert's commitment to the modestly-priced work with which she hoped to reach less-affluent Americans and enable them, too, to enjoy fine art.
Between 1927 and 1934, it seems, Halpert staged December group shows of inexpensive prints suitable for Christmas giving, combining work from her own stable with that of "guest artists" like Orozco, Benton and Gorky
The third gallery is also very handsome, displaying as it does most of the 18th and 19th century folk art and the "trompe l'oeil" paintings. This was not modestly-priced work for the millions. Rather it's evidence of Halpert's genius at recruiting wealthy & even fabulously wealthy collectors to underwrite her own enthusiasms.
Not least among them was Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who shared Halpert's twin enthusiasms of modern American and folk art. Abby Rockefeller seems to have pretty much furnished and decorated Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia out of Halpert's storerooms, and also helped to smooth her way to placing work in the Museum of Modern Art.
Abby Rockefeller, though, was not herself responsible for Halpert's greatest coup with regard to MoMA, its acquisition of half of the 60 panels of "The Migration Series," (1940-1941) by Jacob Lawrence in 1942.
These 30 panels of tempera and gesso on board were the gift of Adele Rosenwald Levy, a Manhattan art collector and patron whose father was Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago merchant and philanthropist who had underwritten other projects benefitting African Americans.
Still, it seems likely that Lawrence was the Downtown Gallery's star performer in the 1940s, and difficult to deny that Halpert did a lot for him. The other 30 panels of "The Migration Series" were acquired by Duncan Phillips, the Washington collector, for his museum, The Phillips Collection.
So the show sold out, in addition to going on a national tour and having Fortune magazine reproduce 26 of its 60 panels in color-- and that was just Halpert's first display of Lawrence's work.
In 1943, she exhibited his "Harlem" series, which got a "three-star" rating from Howard Devree of the New York Times; five of its paintings were reproduced in color in Vogue.
In 1945, it was his "John Brown" series, consisting of 22 gouaches done in 1941. The entire show was bought before it opened by Milton & Edith Lowenthal, a prominent pair of Manhattan collectors whom I interviewed for my dissertation, around 1980.
In that dissertation I also discussed Halpert, and mentioned that she was said to be an extremely persuasive saleswoman. I think it must have been one of the Lowenthals who said so to me (the "John Brown" series is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts).
In 1947, Halpert staged Lawrence's 14-panel "War" series. This show was bought in its entirety by Roy & Marie Neuberger; he later founded the Neuberger Museum at SUNY Purchase, NY.
Sad to relate, the only work by Lawrence in the current show is four gouaches from "The Harlem Series," of which the best is "The Music Lesson." Nor was I overwhelmed by the latter part of this exhibition, in which these works are hung.
The most interesting part of that later part of the show is the small area devoted to works that were either part of a government-owned show of "Advancing American Art" assembled in 1946 or else part of a government-sponsored show staged in Moscow in 1959.
Both shows encountered vehement opposition among politicians and the conservative press for being "subversive" and "anti-American."
Halpert's gallery had contributed a quarter of the 152 works in the former show, and she herself acted as guest curator for the latter.
This is where the Guglielmi and the Levine are hung, and frankly, if you look at them today it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. While their subject matter might have seemed mildly left-wing, from a stylistic point of view they are hardly radical.
By the 1940s and 1950s, The Downtown Gallery (which had moved uptown) was no longer what today we might call "cutting edge."
True, after Stieglitz died in 1946, Halpert was able to lure Marin, O'Keeffe and the estate of Arthur B. Dove, three of Stieglitz's most iconic artists, into her stable, but by this time they had become institutions as opposed to the avant-garde.
In the 2nd floor lobby of The Jewish Museum, as you exit the elevator, there is a huge, blown-up photo of Halpert seated in her gallery and taken (for Life magazine) in 1952. Behind her are some of her younger artists, with samples of their work, and none of it is abstract enough to compete with what else must have been on view at that time.
Nevertheless, when Halper's personal art collection was auctioned off in 1973, three years after her death, it brought $3.6 million—a pretty penny for that far-off time.