Tales from the Art Crypt (Richard Feigen)



  There was a breed of man, born around the turn of the century to families made affluent in the aftermath of the Civil War, Yankee or German Jewish, educated at Harvard in the humanities and connoisseurship. They were neither brought up nor educated to make money, which their families had in greater or lesser abundance. They became educators, publishers, museum directors, art collectors and dealers, but also scholars and, above all, gentlemen. The glorious and lamented brigade included the likes of Wright Ludington, Joseph Pulitzer, Edward Warburg, Lincoln Kirstein, Henry McIlhenny, Henry Clifford--and Julien Levy.

Julien Levy was around my father's age, and in a sense he was a surrogate father, that is to say a friend, of the previous generation, with whom I could have a dialogue over shared interests. I had come back to Chicago in 1957 to open a gallery. I found the city a hotbed of collecting, either with an affinity for the imagism native to Chicago--German expressionism and, most particularly, surrealism--or New York abstract expressionism. Julien had closed his own gallery nine years earlier, after Arshile Gorky's suicide, and was living with his wife, Jean, in the Berkshire foothills of Bridgewater, Connecticut. Looking back forty years, it seems incredible that all the seminal figures, of whom Julien was certainly central, were then still in their fifties. Many of the former expatriates, like the Levys, and many of the European artists in flight from the Nazis had fled from Paris to Litchfield County: Joan Miré, Alexander Calder, Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage, Robert Penn Warren, and Malcolm Cowley.

Julien was an eloquent link to those romantic Paris years of the twenties, and as my commitment to surrealism intensified, it took me little time to locate him. The more time I spent up there with Jean and Julien, the more I mourned the failure in 1946 and 1947 of my boarding school, the Gunnery, in nearby Washington, to introduce us to this local excitement, when all the artists and writers were in their forties and in full feather. What lectures they could have given us, Julien in particular, and what studio visits we could have made....

A generation separated us, but Julien was my spiritual contemporary. Julien lived and died a naughty kid. The downstairs toilet in Bridgewater was plastered with erotica. There was never anything new, no young artist, too far-out for Julien.

There were evenings in Paris in the late fifties and early sixties that would progress from Jean's and Julien's tiny Left Bank entresol, in which I could barely stand up straight, to a Chinese restaurant behind Saint-Germain-des-Pres, and thence to Julie and Man Ray's studio-bedroom behind Saint-Sulpice, and whereas Man Ray bemoaned his yesterdays, Julien always talked about tomorrow.

His own gallery having closed in 1949, and with no source of income, from time to time Julien had to sell one of the objects salvaged from his inventory, hanging in Bridgewater, a trove of surrealist treasure, and he made me his agent. My commission was 1O percent. My New York branch opened in 1963 and I began to split my time between Chicago and New York. When I married and moved to New York in 1966 I needed a Chicago gallery director, and Julien suggested his own gallery secretary until 1941, Lotte Drew-Bear. From that point on, our representation of Julien intensified to the point where Lotte and our Chicago gallery became a veritable reincarnation of the old Julien Levy gallery. Lotte regarded its artists and program as the gospel, believing not only in Joseph Cornell, whom I had shown since 1958, and Gorky but in artists like Leonid, Berman, Tchelitchew, and Leon Kelly, none of whom had ever caught on, and whom she continued to support.

As the values of some of Julien's paintings began to climb in the sixties, he became concerned about the flammability of the frame Bridgewater house, and he shipped much of the collection for safekeeping to the Yale University Art Gallery. Although they were not for sale, in 1971 I suggested that several of the major works--including Max Ernst's Vox Angelica and Gorky's Love of a New Gun--be shipped to us for loan to museums that specifically needed them. I suggested the Ernst be lent to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Gorky to the Cleveland Museum, to which Julien enthusiastically agreed.

I had, incidentally, sold Julien's Gorky Days, Etc. in 1965 to a Chicago collector (for $35,000), who consigned it back to us in 1971, at which point, hoping for Julien's sake and mine to place it in a public collection, I sent it to the National Gallery for purchase consideration at the owner's price of $55,000; it was turned down and returned to us. Chicago had been the international vortex of surrealist patronage in the 1950s and 1960s, but the Art Institute had little surrealism to show for it. Not only was surrealism considered "contemporary art," but its Chicago patrons were Jewish, and the museum didn't harbor much affection for either one. The loan of Ernst's Vox Angelica plugged a major surrealist hole in the museum's collection.

It was this contact with Chicago, reinforced by my sale to the Art Institute in 1963 of Julien's great 1943 colored Gorky drawing (for $9,000), that led to the museum's first purchase from Julien in 1975 of works from his seminal photographic collection and his subsequent donation of the balance. A valuable alliance had, in effect, been forged between Julien and the Art Institute. It could have been even more valuable.

In December 1972 Julien finally decided to sell Vox Angelica. The price he set was a not unreasonable $27,000, which included our $25,000 commission. Both Julien and I wanted it to go to the Art Institute, where it had been hanging on loan, and where it would do much to permanently plug that hole that had been gaping even throughout Chicago's banquet surrealist years. Even Leigh Block, self-promoted dictator of museum policy and, despite a powder room full of little Mirés, no fan of surrealism, had acknowledged the need for an Ernst. No greater Ernst existed than Vox Angelica. I felt certain the painting would stay in Chicago. But I didn't count on Jim Speyer, the part-time amateur curator of contemporary art. He countered with an offer of $250,000. I told him Julien wouldn't sell it for less, that I had already given a lot to the museum, including a Nolde painting, and wasn't going to relinquish my commission. I said, "Jim, you're going to let Vox Angelica go for $25,000?" Well, he did, and off it went into a private European collection.

I considered my relationship with Jean and Julien rock solid. I had been Julien's acolyte, doing what I could to see that he was accorded the respect due him during the years when surrealism, although acknowledged in Chicago, was internationally in the shadows. In 1965, I had arranged an exhibition in my Chicago gallery in homage to Julien and borrowed back many works he had sold in the old days. I flew Jean and Julien out to Chicago for the opening and put them up at the Ambassador East Hotel near the gallery on Division Street. Among the paintings I borrowed was a masterpiece from my old friend and client Wright Ludington, Dalís The Accommodations of Desire. Julien had sold it to Wright in 1941. I had, over the years, handled many important pictures for Ludington, and I certainly intended, during the exhibition, to see if he would let me sell the Dalí. Jean and Julien walked over to see the exhibition in the afternoon before the opening, and when they came back that evening, Jean rather defensively announced that Julien now owned the Dalí, that he had phoned Ludington from the hotel, obviously at her urging, and had bought it, and that "Julien was entitled to it." Julien was, after all, much more the artist than the businessman, and Jean the artist's wife, a breed with which I had long experience.

Julien died in 1981. After years of commitment to the man and to his achievement, I expected to be at least consulted on the liquidation of his collection. Perhaps he had left it to a museum. I had no idea. But I was not even among the first to learn that Jean was consigning it for sale to Sotheby's. I wanted to make a case for a large-scale memorial exhibition, possibly in my gallery and perhaps continuing on a museum tour. When I phoned, I was diverted to a lawyer, who told me brusquely that "dealers" should submit their proposals in writing, and that in any event it was all going to Sotheby's. Being treated like a commercant by my old friend's widow, artist's wife though I considered her, was painful. But when I reread Julien's Memoir of an Art Gallery, finally published in 1977 after the manuscript was lost for years under a flowerpot in the Paris entresol, I always stop where Julien says, "[Lotte] was until recently an important executive in the Chicago and New York galleries of my friend Richard Feigen--the man who did much for the Surrealists, giving them shows and stimulating the interest of Chicago collectors in the late fifties," and all is well.

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Excerpted from Tales from the Art Crypt by Richard Feigen. Copyright © 2000 by Richard Feigen. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.