Academic journal article American Jewish History

In Search of a Jewish Audience: New York's Guild Art Gallery, 1935-1937

Academic journal article American Jewish History

In Search of a Jewish Audience: New York's Guild Art Gallery, 1935-1937

Article excerpt

How did Jewishness affect the relationships among artists, galleries, artists' groups and collectors?" Scholars have scrutinized the Jewish presence in American art in the twentieth century over the last fifteen years or so in essays, monographs and surveys. Studies of Jewish artists and their works continue to proliferate, and scholars have even examined the connections between art history as a discipline and Jewishness, contributing to both the history and the sociology of art history and to the range of Jewish studies. (1) The re-evaluation of the work of artists such as Raphael Soyer, Theresa Bernstein, Jack Levine, Mark Rothko, Audrey Flack and many others in relationship to their Jewishness reveals a religious and cultural identification with Judaism as an enduring component of American modernism--both before and after WWII--in New York. This, in turn, has enriched our understanding of the interplay between modernism and ethnic and religious identity. (2) Yet scant attention has been paid to the institutional frames in which these artists expressed their connection to Judaism. (3) One such institution was the Guild Art Gallery (1935-1937). While it may not have explicitly set out to be a "Jewish" gallery, most of the artists on its roster were Jewish, as were its founders, and it mounted at least one major, extended campaign to recruit Jewish patrons. Further, the gallery made concerted efforts to market a modern Jewish masterwork by an artist associated with the School of Paris--Sigmund Menkes' enormous painting, The Torah--to an elite Jewish audience. Although the gallery closed its doors after only two years, the act of closely tracking its activities in relation to its Jewish-themed work and its campaign to shape a Jewish clientele can tell us something about the intersection of Jewishness, modernity and the art market in New York in the mid-i930s. (4)

The Gallery

Artists Margaret Lefranc (1907-1998) and Anna Walinska (1906-1997) founded and ran the Guild Art Gallery, (Figures 1, 2). Their self-portraits register their identity as modern artists in their loose handling of paint and their departures from traditional renderings of space and form---the latter style one that was featured in the art of avant-garde cubist painter Andre Lhote, with whom they both studied. Lefranc, who was born Margaret Frankel in New York, lived in Europe from the age of 13, since her father had moved the family to Germany, where she studied art, both traditional and expressionist. The family moved to Paris in 1923, where she spent a decade before returning to New York. (5) Walinska, the daughter of labor leader and Zionist Ossip Walinsky and sculptor Rosa Newman, also lived in Paris as an art student between 1926 and 1930. (6) Lefranc, whose family resources afforded her a small amount of capital and a very modest income, later recalled that although she planned to start a gallery, she lacked the social connections in the New York art world to do so because of her European upbringing. Similarly, Walinska also recounted that during her stay in Paris, she wished to launch a gallery to bring the modern art she saw there to New York. (7) Walinska's mother, who was Lefranc's neighbor, introduced the two women. When Walinska heard of Lefranc's plan, she announced that she knew "practically every working artist in New York" and could provide the contacts Lefranc needed. (8) The two young women formed a partnership in which Lefranc handled the finances and Walinska provided social connections to artists. In the late summer of 1935, they signed the lease on their fifth-floor Guild Art Gallery at 37 West 57th Street. (9)

The bare walls, sparse furniture, and generous wall space between works of art proclaimed the gallery's modernity in visual and spatial terms (Figures 3,4). The near emptiness of the gallery extended the example that had been set twenty-five years earlier by Alfred Stieglitz's Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession at 291 Fifth Avenue--known simply as "291"--and that was currently on view at the newly founded Museum of Modern Art. …

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