Panero, James, New Criterion
Art galleries usually rise and fall through the personalities of their founders. Betty Cuningham, David Nolan, and Salander-O'Reilly, the three galleries featured in the chronicle last month, all owe their success to the name on the door.
Odds are that a gallery will not outlive its founder. Most galleries choose not to find out. Just look at a list of New York galleries from fifty years ago, and you will see no more than a handful in operation today.
The galleries profiled this month have therefore beat the odds. All have contended with the departure of their founding directors. Consider Knoedler & Company, the oldest gallery operating in New York, now displaying the photography of Dan Budnik. (1)
After 160 years, this gallery somehow manages to deliver modern art at its peak of perfection. Knoedler has been in the business of art since Michel Knoedler, representing Goupil & Company, a firm of Parisian engravers, hung out his shingle on Broadway and Duane Street in 1846. Since that time the gallery has sold over a hundred Cezannes, a majority of the Vermeers, and such American artists as George Bellows, Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, George Inness, and John Singer Sargent. A version of John Singleton Copley's Watson and the Shark passed through Knoedler's hands. The gallery's client list has included the families of Vanderbilt, Astor, Rockefeller, Clark, and Mellon. Add to the tycoons Henry Clay Frick, a client who bought over 225 works from the gallery--paying for some of the work in Pennsylvania Railroad stock. Given this history, it is appropriate that Knoedler today occupies its eighth home--a 1909 townhouse at Nineteen East Seventieth Street--right next to the House that Frick Built. Ten years ago, for the gallery's 150th anniversary, the Frick Collection even put out little rosettes on all of its Knoedler-purchased paintings. Like what you see? Pop over to this museum store and buy the original.
Well, not quite. "From the Hudson River School to the New York School" is how Knoedler now bills itself. These days you'd be hard pressed to find a nineteenth-century landscape on the walls. The gallery has gone through many hands. Charles Henschel, Michel Knoedler's grandson, died in 1956, so ending the family dynasty. In 1971, Armand Hammer took a controlling interest in the business, and Knoedler has evolved.
Today, Knoedler rides on the personality of Ann Freedman, its current president and director. Freedman earned her modernist stripes working with Andre Emmerich. At Knoedler, she now oversees a stable of fifteen artists and estates, including Milton Avery, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Jules Olitski, Richard Pousette-Dart, David Smith, and John Walker. Big names. Some, really big. Nevertheless, the gallery list is small by art-industry standards. What does this mean? That Knoedler can mount exhibitions with intelligence: educating gallery-goers about artists, presenting work that's a joy to discover, and encouraging conversation. In certain ways, Knoedler still behaves like a young upstart. Don't let the tony address fool you. Step up under the blue awning and you emerge into a bright, inviting space.
The latest exhibition by Dan Budnik is the right occasion to reflect on Knoedler's contemporary image. In addition to his black and white work, this photographer has unearthed a set of color transparencies he took of New York School artists--a few of them, Knoedler artists. Budnik has just now converted these slides into limited-edition prints through the nearly lost art of dye-transfer. A commercial photographer for the magazine trade, Budnik can go in for the stagey. It's the old dog-and-owner thing: Budnik sees the artist in his portraits resembling the art. Sometimes the results can be contrived. I could do without Jasper Johns among the targets looking like Lee Harvey Oswald. Or Ellsworth Kelly in profile against a color form. But Smart Davis glowing like a light bulb? …