A Chat with A Dealer
Virginia Zabriskie’s 50 Years as a Friend of Art and Artists
“If you’re coming in to talk to Virginia, you might as well have lunch.”
My mind’s eye raced to wild salmon carpaccio sent up from Le Bernadin—something fitting for the fiftieth anniversary of a major architect of the American art world, a woman of stunning achievement on two continents. Could I take notes and negotiate a vintage Coteaux du Layon at the same time? The gallery assistant read my hesitation and clarified: “She always sends out for chicken salad. You can share half a sandwich.”
|Elie Nadelman, Female Head, c. 1908-09
It was a lively lunch with an engaging, unpretentious woman whose remarkable odyssey began in 1954 when she put one dollar down to take over the lease of the Korman Gallery, a small uptown space between a lamp shade vendor and a hairdresser. A cooperative established by a fellow graduate student at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, its members included painters Pat Adams, Lester Johnson, Clinton Hill and Vincent Longo who formed the initial core of Zabriskie Gallery.
Pat Adams, down from her Vermont studio with her husband, was in the gallery while I was there and joined the conversation. A familial tag team, she and Ms. Zabriskie enlivened the gallery’s history in ways more subtle than the public record allows. The relationship between these two women—a mix of intimacy, hard-headedness, enduring respect and gratitude—suggests the special character of the gallery itself and Ms. Zabriskie’s unique contribution to American art in the second half of the 20th century.
Without financial backers or a client list, Virginia Zabriskie entered the art world with only a $1,000 bequest from her grandmother, her own optimism and a passion for art. At the outset, all she could offer her artists was a dividend if the gallery netted more than $800 at the end of the year. As Ms. Adams recounts, there was no profit: “No one expected to live from the sale of paintings; one hoped to make strong art.” Sales were sparse in the beginning. Robert Schoelkopf, later to open a prominent gallery under his own name, became a partner for a few of those early years. Asked how that relationship began, Ms. Zabriskie laughed: “He was my only client!”
But not for long. By the 1980s, Zabriskie Gallery held three spaces, two in New York (paintings featured at 724 Fifth Avenue, sculpture at the West 57th Street address) and one in Paris. Galerie Zabriskie/Paris, devoted to photography as a collectible (not simply an adjunct to printing), opened in 1977 at the same time as the Pompidou Center. It was the first gallery of its kind to combine exhibition space with a book shop dedicated to the medium’s history and soon became a gathering place for photographers themselves.
Ms. Zabriskie promoted French photography in Paris, organizing landmark exhibitions of work by such 19th century figures as Eugène Atget and Nadar, at a time when there was little interest in it among Europeans: “Putting on shows was the most important way for me to develop a market for photography.” Artistic exchange became the keynote of the trans-Atlantic venture, introducing American photographers (Diane Arbus, Alfred Stieglitz, Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott, others) to Europeans and giving artists such as Brassai, Brancusi, Claude Cahun and Georges Hugnet their first American exposure.
When it closed after 22 years, the Paris gallery had set precedents and created markets for work where none had existed, earning Ms. Zabriskie the Medaille de la Ville de Paris in 1999. Organizing over 800 exhibitions here and abroad, she has been crucial in expanding acquaintance with Dada, Surrealism and early modernist American painting and sculpture no less than photography. Asked what factors (apart from losing her Paris apartment) led to her decision to close the gallery, Ms. Zabriskie had her answer ready: “My grandmother always said, ‘When the party is good, go home.’” It is a charming response whether or not it tells the whole story.
The progress of Zabriskie Gallery coincided with unparalleled, post-war American prosperity. Can today’s young dealers achieve as much with no financial support behind them? “I doubt it,” she said. Her answer hinged on the evaporating pool of older, unappreciated but significant work and, with it, opportunities for what she calls “archeology”: digging for historically interesting but neglected collections ( as she did with Elie Nadelman, Arnold Friedman, Abraham Walkowitz) or dramatic finds (40 original Stieglitz prints that turned up in a Saks Fifth Avenue box). These permitted her to finance her own commitment to living artists.
But the situation has changed. “It’s all been bought up by large institutions, the museums,” she explained. “Today’s dealers have to sell what’s on the wall; there are fewer alternatives.” Besides, rents were more affordable then and “costs closer to your life situation.” And with fewer galleries—and more newspapers— it was much easier to get a review.
Do reviews still have weight? Hasn’t art criticism been compromised and enfeebled by having become a form of publicity? Ms. Zabriskie was emphatic: “It doesn’t matter. You still need the reviews.”
What other differences are there between the art world that Virginia Zabriskie entered—and helped create—and the one evolving now? Pat Adams seized the ground on that issue, skeptical toward the effect of art’s supporting institutions: the museums and universities. Both promote a careerist attitude that interferes with a response of “high joy” to the artist’s own gifts and, she insists, result in reducing art to “a product.”
Few artists of Ms. Adams’ generation had advanced university degrees in art; by contrast, today’s young artists all brandish an M. A., a credential intended to insure a career path. “The M.A. student feels significant and entitled” (to recognition). The ability to work in the dark pursuing a personal vision is hampered by an increasing tendency to “yield vision to curators” and to the aims of museums, kunsthalles, prize committees and arts agencies. In sum, Ms. Adams’ objection—seconded by Ms. Zabriskie—was aimed at the growing bureaucratization of the arts which displaces individual sensibility and conviction with mechanical gestures.
At one point, Ms. Zabriskie left the room, returning in minutes with a bulging folder stuffed with a half century’s correspondence from Ms. Adams, some of it typed on fragile, browned onion-skin, some penned with hand-embellished margins. “I keep every letter my artists send me.” She turned notes over with a protective pride that signaled more than affection. It was the mark of someone who understands the humane value of preserving the present as patrimony for the future.
The woman who cherishes her artists’ correspondence is the same one who, in 1993, chose the University of Delaware as the major repository for over 1,400 works—mostly on paper (including several hundred studies of Isadora Duncan)— by Abraham Walkowitz (1878-1965), the Russian-born American modernist. Over the years, she held multiple Walkowitz shows and purchased many works from his estate; much of that personal collection was donated to the University archive.
Her ambition to conserve is characteristic. Ms. Zabriskie has never been a dealer—a merchandiser—in the usual sense. “Although the gallery relies on making sales, it has never dictated my choices. I depend solely on what I feel about the artwork.” When the art world was in thrall to Abstract Expressionism, she went her own way, preferring artists who evaded stylistic categories. Admirers of Elie Nadelman (1882-1946), only one of the early modernists she has rescued from neglect, owe recent resurgence of interest in him, in part, to Ms. Zabriskie’s critical intelligence and adventurousness. (Using clients’ money, she purchased four Nadelman sculptures at $18,000 each from Helena Rubenstein’s estate but needed to borrow a quarter to make the fare home.)
Coaxing sensibilities and exercising discernment, both scholarly and aesthetic, is a vocation before it is anything else. Her entrepreneurial acumen serves a strong sense of responsibility: for art of the recent past and for all work she chooses to exhibit. Asked how the concept of artistic conscience might be applied to dealers, she described herself as having been “a handmaiden to the arts.” It is a gracious term, one that fits. Ms. Zabriskie’s instinct for stewardship, not market moves, has distinguished the gallery from its inception.
“Sometimes I wish I had responded more to market trends. What money I have came from those Stieglitz prints.” It was not stated as a regret, simply an acknowledgment of economic realities. What plans exist for the gallery after Ms. Zabriskie retires? She dropped both palms decisively onto the desk: “I have no plans to retire. I’ve given myself anniversaries before. I’ll give myself another. This is not the last.”
Lunch over, we joined in that universal female ritual of clearing the table. Carrying paper plates and aluminum foil to a work sink, I confessed my initial luncheon fantasy. Response was quick: “You have no idea how much art gets bought and sold over lunch and a few drinks in this town.” She gestured to Pat Adams’ paintings and added, “But everything I’m selling is right here on the wall.”
In other words, Virginia Zabriskie is not selling borrowed glamour or anything you can not see. And everything visible is an object of love.
Zabriskie Gallery, 41 East 57th Street (212.752.1223).
This story was first published in The New York Sun, March 10, 2005.
Copyright 2005 Maureen Mullarkey