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Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Carl André, Darby Bannard, Will Barnet, Robert Berlind, Nell Blaine, Stanley Boxer, Rudy Burckhardt, Helen Frankenthaler, Jane Freilicher, Robert Goodnough, Ron Gorchov, Red Grooms, Grace Hartigan, Joyce Kozloff, Alfred Leslie, Fairfield Porter, Archie Rand, Peter Reginato, Larry Rivers, Horacio Torres, Neil Welliver--and many, many more. The list of artists who exhibited at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery during the half century that has elapsed since its opening in the winter of 1950 reads like the inventory of a good, serious museum of contemporary American art, or perhaps a better analogy would be the index of a wide-ranging, independent-minded book about the history of the New York art world, post-1950--an impressive cross-section of important American artists of the second half of the 20th century. Add the names of the writers and poets associated with the gallery--such as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, and Frank O'Hara--and it becomes more impressive still.

After its sheer length, the most remarkable thing about the alumni roster of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery is the staggering variety of generations, media, approaches, and even fundamental conceptions of what a work of art can be that the list comprises. That variety is perhaps the inevitable result of the gallery's long life--a graph of shifts of emphasis and subtle realignments of taste during the passage of five decades--but the startling breadth of points of view the list catalogues is also a reflection of a consistent attitude during the entire course of the gallery's notable lifespan: a sense of open-mindedness, a commitment to eclecticism, and an eager desire to embrace excellence, in whatever form or medium it may present itself.

Over the past fifty years, the gallery's character has mutated many times in response to the shifting character of the ever-expanding New York art world, to changes in staff, and to the unstable desiderata of any given period--which is not to say that the gallery has ever followed fashion or catered to trend; on the contrary, its most memorable shows have often seemed (at least in retrospect) like cultural bellwethersthat helped to determine just what the desiderata of a particular moment consisted of. When the gallery first opened, under the direction of John Bernard Myers and Tibor de Nagy, the number of art dealers in New York was infinitely smaller than it is today and of these, only a fraction--a handful of established vanguardists who included Sam Kootz, Sidney Janis, Betty Parsons, Richard Egan, and their colleagues--regularly exhibited adventurous new art in their galleries, in the form of the work of the first generation of Abstract Expressionists. The Tibor de Nagy Gallery, in the John Myers years, was one of the first, along with such now-legendary institutions as the Stable Gallery and the Hansa Gallery, to show work by a younger group of progressive artists. "Suddenly there was a new ripple," Helen Frankenthaler recalls, "--the New York School Second Generation. The gallery was lively and inventive, taking chances. There was a strong feeling of comradery and energy, experimentation."1

Today's Tibor de Nagy Gallery, continued by Andrew Arnot and Eric Brown, the founder's chosen heirs, is defined less by association with a particular generation than with a particular approach. The present stable includes a number of artists associated with the gallery from the beginning (some of them, as vivid evidence of a continuing tradition, now represented by their estates), along with a mix of active younger--and sometimes not so young--practitioners, a selection unified, broadly speaking, by a certain emphasis on modernist, painterly representation: witness the work of Fairfield Porter, Nell Blaine, Neil Welliver, Jane Freilicher, Susanna Coffey, and Robert Berlind, among others. But as was true of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery from its inception, the present directors have no parti pris; their choices belie no sharp distinction between figuration and abstraction, no predictable "house" position. Quite the opposite. In its elegant space on the top floor of 724 Fifth Avenue, the gallery seems more securely established and somewhat more sedate than it did in any of its previous locations. It is certainly very different from the rather improvised quarters of its first incarnation in a cold-water flat in a tenement near the Third Avenue El on East 53rd Street. But the spirit of freewheeling eclecticism that informed the gallery from the start is still intact, revealing itself in exhibitions of photography and of works by such pioneer American modernists as John Marin, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Alfred Maurer or in shows of seldom-seen abstractions by Will Barnet, best known for his "minimalist" version of figuration, of Joe Brainard's quirky postcard inventions, of Edwin Dickinson's melting dreamscapes, or of Donald Evans's records of the philately of mythical countries.

 

 

Interior photo of Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 724 Fifth Avenue, exhibiting Fairfield Porter, Selected Paintings and Selected American Modernists, April 1997. Photo by William Taylor

During the half century between the gallery's heady youthful years and its dignified maturity, there have been, not surprisingly, bumpy intervals and moments of apparent weakening of focus during (happily) more extended periods of sustained energy and clearheadedness--evidence not of loss of direction along the way, but rather of a necessary evolution, of change born of a willingness to relinquish entrenched habits that is essential to the good healthof any institution, however idiosyncratic or informal, that wants to avoid becoming ossified. For some, both those who pride themselves on their lack of illusions and those who are nostalgic for a now near-mythical period in the history of American art, the first two decades of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery (when it was run by its founders, Myers and de Nagy) will always seem to have been its golden age, as the moment when a group of young, energetic artists and writers were making, exhibiting, and commenting on works that now seem to define an entire era. For others, bewildered by the present day art world's embrace of sensationalism, high-powered marketing, technology, and trend--often, it seems, at the expense of aesthetic values--and still more bewildered by Post-modernism's rejection or repudiation of the art of the recent past, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery remains an oasis, a place where painting, both past and present, is taken seriously and treated with respect.

Helen Frankenthaler, who speaks from the perspective of a participant in the gallery's presumed "golden age"--she exhibited with Tibor de Nagy from its initial year until 1958--believes that this sense of seamlessness with what came before is part of what defines the gallery. "The fact that Tibor's gallery continues posthumously is a credit in large part to the spirit of Tibor's perseverance," she says. "Something I admire is its sense of continuity; keeping up and reviving some valuable names from the early days. There are only a handful of galleries who honor the past as well as the new; continuing to strive for quality in painting."

A current member of Tibor de Nagy's stable, Robert Berlind, an articulate critic as well as a fine painter who joined the gallery in 1994, has a similar response:

As painting comes to seem increasingly arcane and apparently beyond comprehension to so many younger artists, critics, dealers, and even curators, the special importance of Tibor de Nagy is the gallery's continuing commitment to the ongoing practice of painting. The other galleries that feature mainly representational imagery seem to have little understanding of the difference between painting and illustration and because of this often show serious artists followed by hackneyed, descriptive literalists. The concept of realism in these galleries is undiscriminating, categorical and ultimately commercial. Andy and Eric, on the other hand, have a genuine enthusiasm for the art and artists they support, along with what it takes to work effectively in a high-stakes game. The gallery's future looks bright to me.

 

That the Tibor de Nagy Gallery ever came to exist seems, in retrospect, faintly improbable. The story has been told frequently, if not always entirely accurately: how an impoverished, cultivated Hungarian aristocrat who had lost everything in the carnage of World War II teamed up with a flamboyant, self-invented aesthete from Buffalo who had amassed enormous cultural capital in New York's fringe world of art, dance, literature, and theater of the 1940s. De Nagy, who came from a wealthy, sophisticated family, was knowledgeable about the arts--his stepfather collected contemporary Hungarian artists and, according to de Nagy's close friend, the editor and collector Roland Pease, "dragged Tibor and [his sister] Lilly to galleries, museums, artists' studios" and "did his best to teach the children about painting, opera, literature, the love of art and the love of books."2 With degrees in economics from Cambridge and Basel, de Nagy had been highly placed at the National Bank of Hungary in Budapest before World War II, specializing in international finance. In 1944, he was arrested as an anti-Nazi, managing to escape from the cattle train transporting him to a German prison camp, only to be arrested by Russian liberation forces as a spy. Offered a choice of confessing and being sent to Moscow or Siberia, or maintaining his innocence and being shot, de Nagy managed to escape again and after enormous hardships, return to Budapest and rejoin his wife and daughter, to find that his home had been totally destroyed. Re-arrested, imprisoned, and brutally interrogated by the Russians, he was finally released and eventually made his way to the U.S., arriving virtually penniless. (A further blow awaited. De Nagy and his wife had divorced after his return to Budapest, so that she could marry a Danish friend and escape from Hungary to America, with their child; on joining her in New York, de Nagy discovered that she wanted to stay married to the Dane.)

TOP: De Nagy at Lake Windermere, England, on vacation from Cambridge, 1928

BOTTOM: John bernard Myers in the gallery. Seen in background is a work by Dwight Ripley. January 1954. Photo by Tony DeVito.

Myers's background could not have been more different. In the introduction to his memoir, Tracking the Marvelous, he describes himself as "a person who had to invent a self from a nobody and then become a plausible somebody without the aid of money, social connections or even a credible education."3 In the same year that de Nagy was arrested by the Germans, Myers moved to New York to work for the vanguard Surrealist magazine View, founded by Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler. He had become enthralled by Surrealism while still in Buffalo, immersing himself in all available publications; in New York he seized the opportunities for contact with the real thing--the artists and writers who contributed to View, many of them, including André Breton, Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp, European members of the so-called "Artists in Exile." Since Myers's duties included soliciting advertising for the magazine, he was also in frequent contact with the galleries that exhibited advanced art, especially Surrealism, most notably, perhaps, Peggy Guggenheim's "Art of this Century."

 

But Myers's circle was not limited to Surrealist-sympathizers. The New York world of adventurous art in any discipline--painting, sculpture, dance, literature, or criticism--was minute in the 1940s, and while Surrealist ideas about responding to the promptings of the unconscious were enormously stimulating to young American artists of many different stripes, the city's avant garde was anything but exclusive in its propensities. In dance, Balanchine was beginning to forge a radical modernist version of traditional Russian Classicism (sometimes suffocated by Surrealist-designed costumes and decors arranged by his New York supporters), while Jerome Robbins was testing the possibilities of an All-American vernacular. In painting and sculpture, the nascent Abstract Expressionists were conflating Surrealist notions about self-expression with Cubist conceptions of structure, with a helpful admixture of Joan Miró's ideas about space and form. In literature and criticism, William Phillips's Partisan Review presented vital new voices, informed equally by progressive politics, the New Criticism, and individual predilections. Myers was soon connected to all of these interconnected circles, which overlapped, as well, with the most aesthetically and intellectually rigorous levels of New York's homosexual and lesbian subculture, all of which contributed to his New York education in the arts, an education expanded by Meyer Schapiro's legendary lectures on art history at the New School and visits to the studios of emerging painters such as Adolph Gottlieb, or Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner. The result was that when Tibor de Nagy and John Myers's paths crossed, the "nobody" from Buffalo was already becoming a "somebody" in the city's tiny, closely connected, self-contained cultural avant garde--a community that the aristocratic Hungarian had just begun to frequent.

 

The future partners met in 1948, not long after de Nagy's arrival in New York at the end of 1947, at a performance of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein's newly founded New York City Ballet.4 View was winding down, victim of a combination of precarious finances and the fact that most of the well-known "Artists in Exile" who had provided the magazine with material had returned to Europe. About to lose his job, Myers was looking for financial help to establish a new venture: an itinerant puppet theater to perform original plays by inventive young writers. (The idea wasn't as far-fetched as it seems; he had done something similar, quite successfully, earlier, with puppets designed by the Surrealist painter Kurt Seligman and his wife, scripts by Parker Tyler and Jane Bowles, and songs by Paul Bowles.) De Nagy, for his part, was seeking citizenship and a way of supporting himself; since he was not allowed to take a job until he reached the first level of his application for naturalization, he was eager to find what might be called "alternative" employment. Why not a puppet theater?

 

According to Myers, his own role in the enterprise was to provide "technical and artistic experience";5 de Nagy was to be business manager and lend his exotic name. The Tibor Nagy Marionette Company, formed "in the hope of elevating the standard of artistic taste of the average child," according to its first press release, "assembled a group of artists, musicians, and writers to design sets, arrange and compose music, and write intelligent and entertaining scripts."6 The first play performed, inspired by Max Ernst's collection of Kachina dolls and loosely based on Pueblo Indian tales, had music by Ned Rorem.7 Myers routinely took several roles in each performance, while de Nagy served as stage manager, and executed lighting and special effects.8

The puppeteers' imaginative performances were well-received and soon were booked everywhere from New York City public schools to neighborhood settlement houses to--a regular weekend venue--the ballroom of the Sherry Netherland Hotel. Supporters and fans included, according to de Nagy's recollections, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Franz Kline, Peggy Osborne (who was close to Arshile Gorky and, at the time, supporting him), Lionel Abel, Harold Rosenberg and his wife, and Cecil Beaton.9 The troop's art world connections were close enough that a special performance was arranged for the now-legendary informal Eighth Street institution known as "The Artists' Club." Myers recalled that his first visit to Willem de Kooning's studio took place after this performance,10 while de Nagy's early friendships with New York writers and artists--which had led to his meeting with Myers in the first place--continued to widen, through his association with his partner and the puppet theater's afficionados.

Despite its initial (relative) success, the Tibor Nagy Marionette Theater disbanded after two years because of the difficulties of arranging bookings, the rigors of traveling, and--most important--the realities of dwindling income, especially after a polio epidemic made anything involving groups of children undesirable. By then, however, de Nagy had obtained the papers he needed to apply to become a U.S. citizen and could go back to banking, which had, after all, been his profession, no matter how deeply engaged he was by the New York art world. But at the same time, another player entered the scene, Dwight Ripley, a remarkable polymath with an upper-class British background, whom de Nagy described as "a genius, a painter, poet, a linguist, a botanist, a collector, a pianist, an alcoholic, a millionaire."11

TOP: De Nagy and Myers with marionettes, 1949

MIDDLE: Pueblo Indian marionette, 1949

BOTTOM: Dwight Ripley, c. 1939

Born in England, the son of an immensely wealthy American father and an Anglo-Irish mother, Ripley was educated at Harrow and Oxford, and moved to the U.S. in 1939 with his lifetime companion, the taxonomist Rupert Barneby.12 Settling first in California, they became part of the circle of British expatriates that included Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and Cyril Connolly. Ripley entered the world of vanguard New York art in 1942, when he was introduced to Clement Greenberg by Connolly's American wife, Jean, who had moved to New York and was involved with the art critic. The following year, she introduced Ripley and Greenberg to Peggy Guggenheim. Greenberg became a friend who advised Ripley on purchases for his art collection; Guggenheim became a mentor and sometime lover who connected Ripley with the artists she showed at "Art of this Century" and, shortly before she closed the gallery in 1947 and moved to Europe, exhibited Ripley's idiosyncratic works. Ripley's collection seems to have reflected the influence of both of his well-informed friends: works by Joseph Cornell, Max Ernst, Miró, Matta, and--what is perhaps most interesting--Jackson Pollock; the British-born aesthete was one of the painter's early supporters.

 

A recent study of Ripley's papers suggests that he played an important role in the creation of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery. Like many of Peggy Guggenheim's circle--which included Tibor Nagy Marionette Theater's fans--he seems to have found that the closing of "Art of this Century" left a void. Nothing generated the same excitement and there was no comparable place for young, promising artists to exhibit. Myers, in his memoir, says that "encouraged by Clement Greenberg and the Pollocks," he had begun thinking about opening a gallery for "the new, up-and-coming talent to whose studios I had begun to go."13 De Nagy's version of the story, as told to his friend Pease, was that "gradually there seemed to be a concerted voice from all these friends, urging us to fill the vacuum created by Peggy Guggenheim's move to Venice."14 (De Nagy also told an interviewer for an oral history project at Columbia University that these friends "persuaded us--especially me--to give up the marionettes and start a new contemporary gallery, to replace Peggy Guggenheim's.")15 The author of a study of Ripley's art has constructed (and corroborated) a chronology that suggests that Ripley may well have been instrumental in making the idea a reality--in contrast to Myers's version, in which Ripley is said to have merely encouraged Myers to "go ahead with [his] plan to open a gallery,"16 during a bibulous lunch in January 1951. (This date is clearly wrong since the gallery's first show opened in late 1950 and ran through January 12, 1951; the first month's rent for the gallery's space on East 53rd Street was paid for November 1950.)17 Ripley's diaries document that he met with Greenberg on January 12, 1950 and then with Myers three days later. He brought the two men together in Greenberg's apartment on January 23, "to consult," as Greenberg's biographer recounts the meeting, "about a non-commercial gallery that Ripley would finance as a silent backer and Myers would run."18 Greenberg suggested a list of talented young artists to be shown, corresponding largely to the group that he and Meyer Schapiro had chosen for the Kootz Gallery's New Talent 1950, planned for later that year: Franz Kline, Larry Rivers, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Harry Jackson, Alfred Leslie, Robert Goodnough, and, as a later addition, Helen Frankenthaler.19

 

Frankenthaler's recollections suggest either a different sequence or the instability of memory or both. "I met John Myers through Clement Greenberg one night in late summer, early fall of 1950, when Clem and I were eating in an Italian bistro in the Village," Frankenthaler says. "John sidled into our booth and explained to Clem that he was starting a gallery in a space not far from 'the El' in a brownstone above an ice store just off Third Avenue. His first show was to be lace draperies that had been saturated in a fluorescent solution. The idea was to turn the lights on and off during the opening; then one would see that these laces were self-illuminating. Clem was not very excited about the idea but did say that there were several young painters around who were gallery-less and he listed some of them for John. I think many of these names he knew through Hofmann's school. Thank goodness I was not included. I was not yet ready to show my work."

The opening exhibition, held at the end of 1950 in a stylishly but minimally renovated space at 206 East 53rd Street, was of sand sculptures by Constantino Nivola. Is Frankenthaler mistaken about the date of the dinner or could she have been thinking of the gallery's exhibition in March of its inaugural year, a "glow-in-the-dark" installation by an amateur painter who was close to Ripley? Myers had decided that he should cultivate her, to please his backer. ("I need not have, I later discovered," he writes in his memoir, "but such is the nature of paranoia.")20 The editor and writer Joe LeSueur remembers the show as one that "did not bode well for the success of the gallery. The artist was a madcap, gargantuan woman named Marie Menken. Known as 'The Body' at Time magazine, where she was employed in some capacity or other, she was a dilettante who also dabbled in pretentious home movies that were passed off as 'experimental.' Now she was making her debut as a painter.

TOP: Clement Greenberg at Jackson Pollock's studio, Springs, East Hampton, New york, 1951. Photo by Hans Namuth.

BOTTOM: Hanging the first Helen Frankenthaler exhibition, November 1951. from left to right: Alfred Leslie, Clement Greenberg, Frankenthaler, Myers. Frankenthaler's The Sightseers, 1951, seen in background. Photo by Jerry Cooke.

"'Come after six to the opening,' she urged me, 'because that's when the fun begins.' She went on to explain that it would be nightfall by then, so that her phosphorescent paintings--some were attached to the ceiling, as I recall--would glow in the dark when John Myers turned off the lights. Well, she was right; it was a lot of fun. For one thing, there were untoward goings-on in the dark and much giggling. Eventually, two policemen arrived to break up the party.

"Excited by the prospect of a gallery that would be devoted to what she called 'fun in art,' Marie was full of big plans that night for the gallery's future, plans, as it turned out, that came to naught when John and Tibor promptly began exhibiting the likes of Rivers, Frankenthaler, and Freilicher."

Whatever the sequence of suggestions and ideas, there is no doubt that Ripley was the invaluable main supporter of the gallery in its initial, precarious years. (Jean Flagler Matthews, granddaughter of Henry M. Flagler, was another major sponsor, with a group of far more modest subscribers who included Tibor de Nagy, John Myers, Alfonso Ossorio, Jeanne Reynal, William Lieberman, and Roland Pease.)21 Once again, the elegant de Nagy name was attached to the enterprise. The new gallery's mission statement, signed by "John Myers" and "Tibor de Nagy" is worth quoting in its entirety:

We want, and will do our best to make, a gallery that will be unique because it is a spot where people will come a little out of their way because something must be seen. This is our idea: beckoning vision. If it is good vision, new vision, vision that intrigues, art will take care of itself. Poets have called the world an hallucination. Certainly mankind has made the world, at times, beautiful enough and terrible enough to seem fleeting, intangible. But a gallery is real, tangible. The gallery is designed for the special tangibility that is the love of looking. However small the open treasure, looking will magnify it as it magnifies all gift for the eyes. Not only will painting and sculpture be here but also anything that an astonished or adoring eye might select instantaneously from the cinema of life...profoundly useless things, things unseen before, things to stay with a while or forever. Even if, like Blake's lost children, our visitors lose the world transiently to come here, they will surely find and be found. They will be objets trouvés among objets trouvés, beheld by one another in joy. It was Hegel who said of the Greek statue that it looks back at you with the eye of its whole body. Our gallery means to do that, to be a unit. That is why we are putting our whole soul into it."

TOP: The gallery's inaugural exhibition, Constantino Nivola's sand sculptures, December 1950.

BOTTOM: De Nagy and daughter, Marianne, at the gallery during Marie Menken's exhibition of fluorescent paintings, March 1951.

Stripped of its Surrealist-inspired rhetoric, the mission statement remains a fairly accurate description of the passionate broad-mindedness that characterized the gallery. Jane Freilicher, who began to show her paintings at what came to be known as "Tibor's" in 1952, describes the gallery's "main raison d'etre" more straightforwardly: "presenting an audacious and varied schedule of new and untested talent."

In his memoir, Myers rather dismissively assigns to de Nagy the exclusive role of "perfect keeper of the exchequer,"22 a necessity, he says, since he himself had been "declared subnormal" at arithmetic while still a schoolboy.23 It's worth remembering, in this context, that Myers was never celebrated for his veracity and that Tracking the Marvelous was written after his partnership with de Nagy dissolved acrimoniously. The artists who showed at the gallery have quite different perceptions of the two men's respective roles. Everyone agrees that Myers was the gallery's vivid public persona, its conspicuous link to the art world, yet Frankenthaler recalls that de Nagy "appeared regularly at the gallery on Saturdays. He got to know all the artists and all the traffic associated with gallery-going. He appeared polished, suave, dapper and smiling. Tibor participated in gallery events and goings-on. In a Marxian vein (that is, Groucho Marx), I'll never forget his kissing my hand when we first met. There I was, this young, jeans-clad painter, ready to shake hands, but no, it was kissed! I wanted both to shrink back and lunge forward...How old world, glamorous!"

Freilicher describes Myers as "a flamboyant, extremely creative and entertaining figure" and de Nagy as "the steady hand on the tiller, [who] really came into his own after they parted company." Jane Wilson, who had her first exhibition with the gallery in 1960, confirms Freilicher's opinion. Wilson sees the partnership as a delicate balance between Myers as the visible, sometimes irrational driving force (as most concur) and de Nagy as the voice of reason. She recalls that by the time the gallery opened, Myers was "becoming a unique figure and a known quantity in the New York art world, both uptown and downtown. John never missed a young art world party, a gallery or a museum opening. He was outrageously entertaining, witty, intelligent and well-informed--not just about art, but all the arts. We were all drawn to his charismatic personality--not a little modelled on Oscar Wilde. Poets, musicians, dancers, actors as well as painters, sculptors, an architect or two, curators, literary editors and a growing collection of collectors made up his ever-widening circle."

TOP: De Nagy seated in the gallery, 1952

BOTTOM: Jane Wilson with husband John Gruen and de Nagy during her exhibition at the gallery's 72nd Street location, 1963.

Freilicher remembers Myers as "a great spinner and connoisseur of gossip or 'dish'" and remembers, too, that at Myers's memorial (he died in 1987), Hilton Kramer called him "the Arthur Rubenstein of the telephone." But this extravagant character could be also volatile and unpredictable. "Along with his obvious love and enthusiasm for his artists--some of it verging on the obsessive--" Wilson says, "John Myers could be a painful provocateur. Along with his hard work, he could be fiercely quixotic and foster chaos, contention, and jealousy out of pure mischief. The balancing factor was Tibor de Nagy, himself. Quiet, aristocratic, elegantly understated, he anchored the business and Myers's need for non-stop theatricality. I always found him to be genuinely supportive and very sensitive to the artist's inner person. If John was adept at turning things upside-down, Tibor was equally adept at turning things right-side-up. He was the pivotal ameliorator--and without him, there would have been no sustaining center."

The sometimes stormy alliance between these wildly dissimilar individuals lasted twenty years; the break came in 1970. Myers opened his own gallery, John Bernard Myers, while de Nagy remained in charge of the institution that bore his name. The artists who joined "Tibor's" during this phase of its existence have enthusiastic recollections of de Nagy in a more hands-on role. Darryl Hughto, who showed at the gallery in the 1970s, remembers that "as time went on, I realized Tibor hung his favorite painting of an exhibition on the wall opposite his desk. His clients either realized it, too, or concurred with his assessment, for this was the best-selling wall in the gallery. Perhaps this is evidence of Tibor's eye at work. He was the sole arbiter of what hung there. Whether motivated by his eye for aesthetic quality, or his eye for the market, he had a very good batting average." Hughto, a raw rookie when he came to the gallery, has also expressed his gratitude for de Nagy's tactful instruction in how to present himself and how to behave toward potential collectors.

Larry Rivers (b. 1923), Portrait of John Myers, 1953.
Oil on canvas, 16 1/4 x 14 inches

The sculptor Peter Reginato, who joined the gallery about the same time as Hughto, describes de Nagy as being a unique figure, unequalled in today's art world. "He had a manner I really miss," Reginato says. "Very few dealers and perhaps very few people, have the patience that Tibor had. He had the patience to let work develop; he had the patience to just deal with people. And of course, he could be a little scary sometimes when he became an 'arm-twister.' Tibor knew everybody and everybody knew who Tibor was. Again, there really isn't an equivalent person right now."

Despite such momentary aberrations as the Marie Menken extravaganza, some flashy celebrity portrait drawings, and an unexpectedly successful exhibition of antique-non-fluorescent-lace, the artists whom Greenberg proposed to Myers and Ripley when they discussed the idea of a vanguard gallery formed the essential core of Tibor de Nagy's early stable; of the original list, only Franz Kline was not included. But Greenberg was not the only voice Myers and de Nagy listened to. Hartigan recalls that when, in 1951, she received a phone call from "a wildly enthusiastic man identifying himself as John Myers, who was starting a gallery," he told her that she had been recommended to him by "Clem Greenberg and Jackson Pollock." (Many sources, including Myers himself, also credit Lee Krasner with having influenced the gallery's initial roster.) The second exhibition on 53rd Street was a solo show by Hartigan--calling herself "George," rather than "Grace"--followed soon after by "The New Generation": Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Jackson, Leslie, and Goodnough. ("A group of young abstract artists," Lawrence Campbell wrote in Art News, "offer unusual, diverting paintings in which each has sought to find the visual equivalents for irrationalized sensations of time, place and mood.")24

TOP: De Nagy and Peter Reginato, early 1970s.

BOTTOM: Lace exhibition, installation designed by Alfred Leslie, 1951.

Over the next twelve months the gallery mounted one-person exhibitions by all of "The New Generation," plus Larry Rivers, and before 1953 was out, by Jane Freilicher, Michael Goldberg, Fairfield Porter, and Nell Blaine; Elaine de Kooning joined them in 1957. These exciting exhibitions, often debuts, by formidable young artists during their formative years were the mainstays of the young gallery's existence during its formative years. The shows included pictures that have become icons of the history of recent New York painting including, in 1953, both Frankenthaler's celebrated Mountains and Sea, and Rivers's equally well known Washington Crossing the Delaware. These widely divergent works make it evident that, from the start, the gallery's aesthetic encompassed a stimulating mix of approaches--quite apart from occasional seemingly inexplicable shows born out of momentary enthusiasms or (very rarely) ulterior motives.

 

Helen Frankenthaler (b. 1928), The Sightseers, 1951. Mixed media on paper mounted on board, 61 1/4 x 67 1/8 inches. Collection of the artist. Exhibited November 1951.

Mountains and Sea and Washington Crossing the Delaware are, in a sense, polar opposites. Frankenthaler's luminous assembly of looping lines and floating shapes, her bold deployment of clear pools of color, signalled the beginning of a new, expansive kind of abstraction, based on the evocative radiance of transparent hues, with only the most fleeting allusion to the natural world. Rivers's cheeky updating of a near-sacred, heroic image of the American Revolution was a deliberate challenge not only to the familiar and the hackneyed, but also to abstraction, a suggestion that traditional figuration (and even traditional subject matter in the form of history painting) might be infused with new, contemporary life if they were filtered through a hip, modern sensibility. Yet for all their differences, Frankenthaler's and Rivers's loose, washy paint handling announced their common resistance to what could be termed the norms of advanced painting of the period: the thick, brushy, wet-into-wet version of Abstract Expressionism, exemplified by de Kooning's work of the late 1940s, redolent of infinite possibilities, and anxiety-laden alternatives. During the Tibor de Nagy Gallery's first years, in the early 1950s, de Kooning-style gestural abstraction set the standard. Pollock's diaphanous webs and robust skeins, like the thinly painted, atmospheric paintings of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, or Adolph Gottlieb, were admired, but imitated less frequently, while de Kooning's own recent work of the period, the lushly stroked "Women," was hotly debated because of its unmistakable, albeit oblique reference to the female figure; Pollock's return to recognizable, if detached, images in 1953 was similarly controversial.

 

The "New Generation" demonstrated its debt to the preceding generation by the audacity, freedom, and generously scaled marks of their work, and by its emphasis on materiality, but they substituted ambiguity for the painterly histrionics of Abstract Expressionism, and often, proffered delicate expanses and transparent, fluid paint handling in place of dragged brushwork and loaded surfaces. Like their immediate predecessors, "The New Generation" were highly individual, essentially abstract painters, but what separated most of these younger artists from the previous generation was their receptiveness to allusive imagery, whether willed or unwilled, explicit or covert. The main exception was Goodnough, whose works, in the first few years of his association with the gallery, were uncompromisingly "paintings about painting," as Fairfield Porter wrote in Art News.25 Hartigan was more typical of the group. Reviewing her 1954 de Nagy show, Frank O'Hara wrote, "in these new paintings, [Hartigan] brings dramatic intensity to traditional subjects--still-life, self-portrait with flowers, matador--while retaining compositional openness and handling which is emphatically abstract."26 O'Hara sensed a related, but slightly different emphasis in Frankenthaler's exhibition later the same year; noting even subtler overtones of reference, he commented that she "refuses to abandon her sensitivity to nature or to any other force external to the act of painting. Although there is a vague feeling of landscape about many of her new pictures, she goes no further towards representation than her experience leads her."27

Almost immediately, Tibor de Nagy Gallery became known as a place to see "things that must be seen," a place where the work of new artists to be reckoned with could be viewed. This kind of succès d'estime was not the same as financial success, which made the contribution of Ripley and his colleagues all the more important. (Goodnough recalls that his selling a picture for $300 from a group show in 1951 was exceptional; many artists recall with gratitude that Myers and de Nagy remained enthusiastic about their work in the face of zero sales.) Nonetheless, curators and museum professionals began to take notice and the occasional important connection was made. Hartigan remembers her delight, in 1953, when Dorothy Miller and Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art visited the gallery and left with one of her paintings, in a cab, for the museum: "Frank O'Hara was selling tickets at the front desk and he called me in great excitement to tell me that Dorothy and Alfred were struggling to get the painting through the revolving doors and finally got it through the side door."

Larry Rivers (b. 1923), O'Hara Nude with Boots, 1954. Oil on canvas, 97 X 53 inches. Collection of the artist. Exhibited December 1954.

Some of the excitement generated by the gallery must have been generated by its making clear, from the first, that "things that must be seen" took many forms--as the mission statement promised. Shows by "The New Generation" signalled new possibilities for abstraction. Rivers's pictures made a case for a kind of high-style, dreamy figuration, while exhibitions by Freilicher, Porter, Blaine, Rivers, and Paul Georges announced that "things that must be seen" included the work of artists profoundly committed to a kind of modernist naturalism based on a dialogue between eye and hand. This may have been, in part, a calculated effort to broaden the gallery's appeal or attract collectors, but certainly was not a rejection of abstraction, except for the pieties of "orthodox" Abstract Expressionism, a position that had already been indicated by "The New Generation." Yet Porter's vigorous, thoughtful images of the unremarkable and the everyday, for example, were evidence not merely of a repudiation of current art world mores--however much the painter disliked them--but, more importantly, of faith that the particulars of the observable world could be as absorbing and moving as any interior landscape. Acute eyes approved. Porter's brand of broad, unmediated realism with its faultless, intuitively adjusted tonalities won high praise from O'Hara. Porter, O'Hara wrote, "has moved into an area of positive feeling for the painting where the ideas, the passions, the subjects do nothing other than identify his work, like handwriting--they have little to do with his main project, which is apparently the perfect painting. And he is very close, at least, to his object."28

Freilicher and Blaine, more recent converts to perceptual painting, were no less engaged by the pleasures of responding to the seen, without, however, altogether relinquishing the freedom of their Abstract Expressionist roots. Writing in 1954 of Freilicher's new paintings, O'Hara observed happily that her artless-seeming interiors with window-views "place you specifically without any great attention to realism or tightness of detail." He added that Freilicher "seems not to struggle with the pictures, but to identify with them in a gentle, unassuming way--the way Matisse does."29 In a slightly more measured review of Blaine's show, later the same year, Parker Tyler noted that her best work "demonstrates that she can make very casual treatment and a very conventional subject hang together and look important."30

TOP: Left to right: Grace Hartigan, Joe LeSueur, de Nagy, and Larry Rivers, 1954.

MIDDLE: Fairfield Porter with The Garden Road at the gallery's 72nd Street location, 1963.

BOTTOM: Jane Freilicher and John Ashbery at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, 1952. Photo by Walter Silver.

Despite this early demonstration of responsiveness to figuration in the broadest sense, from fleeting allusion to forthright naturalism, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery's primary allegiance remained to young, fresh talent, rather than to any single idea of what painting could be. Tough-minded, wholly non-referential abstraction was also a constant and important element in the exhibition program. Witness Goodnough's pictures up to about 1955 (after that, covert imagery began to assert itself in his overlapping planes for some time). In these early works, Porter wrote, Goodnough used "broken texture and color to make no image of any object, but an image that stands by itself."31 The gallery's enthusiasm for "pure" abstraction was firmly declared in the 1950s by exhibitions of artists such as Paul Feeley, Kenneth Noland and in the 1960s, Ron Gorchov, Ralph Humphrey, Darby Bannard, and--astonishingly--Carl André. In 1959 a seminal group show, Selections, included Frank Stella's Club Onyx, a painting from his early Black series, and the first time Stella exhibited professionally. Bannard remembers the gallery during the time he showed there, with nostalgic fondness, "as wide-open and fast-moving with freshness and discovery always in the air." That openness and fast-movingness (and what seems to have been a remarkable casualness about how decisions about what to show were made) redounded to Bannard's benefit in the fall of 1965.

An exhibition of Bannard's lean, early, minimalist work--his first--had been scheduled at Leo Castelli's gallery by his assistant, Ivan Karp, but when Castelli saw the young painter's slightly more complex new pictures, he told Bannard that he "just couldn't show them, they 'weren't right.'" Bannard continues: "People came to see my 'show' at Castelli (I think some newspaper ads appeared and there was word of mouth) and there was no show. It was kind of embarrassing, but at least I could call myself a pioneering conceptualist. Soon afterward, I got a call from Johnny Myers. He said Ron Gorchov was scheduled to have a show and had no paintings to put in it, and, apologizing for the short notice, said he had heard about me from several people and knew about the Leo incident and asked me if there was any possibility I would have enough work to have a show right away with Tibor de Nagy. I may have asked if not-quite-100%-minimalism was OK with them, but of course said yes."

Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), Still Life with Calendulas, 1955. Oil on canvas, 65 1/2 x 49 1/2 inches. Collection of Elizabeth Hazan. Exhibited October 1956.

What is also worth noting is that from the start--and throughout its history--the gallery represented a large number of artists who were women, something doubly remarkable during the 1950s and '60s, and still impressive. It's evidence, once again, of the gallery's long-standing open-mindedness, its interest in excellence, no matter what its origins, or the proclivities, sex, or aesthetic persuasions of its author.

 

It is clear from the recollections of the participants that the first decades of the gallery's existence were a marvelous period of cross-fertilization and youthful energy, a time when "Tibor's" was a place not only for the display (and even, occasionally, the sale) of art, but also a center for invigorating exchanges of all kinds. "It was a place to be, to show (if you painted), to have a book (if you were a poet)," Kenneth Koch remembers. "It was a competitive, friendly, inspiring, intense, generally exciting ambience--some place from quite outside our lives (on the Upper East Side and a place where things were shown and sold) where we friends could be together again in some new, odd way." Freilicher recalls that "the gallery also functioned as a kind of salon where John and Tibor held court with many of the most interesting people of the day. Among those who were regular visitors were people like Meyer Schapiro, Alfred Barr, Dorothy Miller, Harold Rosenberg, Paul Goodman and many other figures in the New York literary and art world."

Poets and writers were part of the mix from the beginning; John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara are supposed to have met James Schuyler for the first time at a Tibor de Nagy party, after the opening of Larry Rivers's first exhibition at the gallery, in the fall of 1951.32 The tight-knit nature of the small '50s vanguard, of course, accounted for other connections. "In New York in the '50s," Barbara Guest remembers, "poets and painters formed friendships, shared the same bars, the same friends, and locations in the city downtown, and later on Long Island." These bonds were reinforced (and perhaps sometimes tested) because the editor of Art News of the period, Thomas B. Hess, routinely hired poets--including O'Hara, Schuyler, and Guest--to review exhibitions. "Hess believed in the instinct of poets to define a painting, no matter how untrained in the formal aesthetics of art," Guest recalls. "In this, Hess, as we were happily aware, was following a generation of poets in France ruled by Apollinaire, who had instinctively spotted painters of promise, such as Picasso." (Never mind that Braque described Apollinaire as "a great poet and a man to whom I was very attached, but he couldn't tell the difference between a Raphael and a Rubens."33

TOP: Kenneth Noland (b. 1924), Untitled, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 23 inches diameter. Courtesy of Ameringer/Howard Fine Art. Exhibited October 1958.

BOTTOM: Darby Barnard (b. 1934), Seasons #1, 1965, 67 X 63 inches. Exhibited January 1966.

Significant connections were created and cultivated by the gallery. "What was more rare was that along with the artists of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery were books by poets published by the gallery," Guest says. "And those books were embellished with artwork by the gallery painters. John Bernard Myers and Tibor de Nagy showed an instinctive ability to select painters and poets whose art was congenial and stimulating to one another." The list of these collaborative efforts is as long and impressive as the list of artists associated with the gallery. It ranges from mimeographed booklets of poems, each with a unique oil sketch cover by a gallery artist--such as the twenty-four copies of O'Hara's collection, Oranges, issued in 1953 with covers painted by Hartigan--to full-scale, albeit modest, theatrical productions. In 1956, an exhibition was mounted of stage sets "by gallery members for plays written, directed, and acted by the Artists' Theater"--an institution described as "chamber theater" and "an extension of the gallery's activities," by an Art News reviewer. It was, in fact, the descendant of the Harvard-spawned Poets' Theater of Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York productions were often directed by Myers's partner, Herbert Machiz. The pairings of artist and writer included Rivers and O'Hara, Hartigan and Koch, Elaine de Kooning and Schuyler. (O'Hara's play, Try, Try, had originally been presented by the Poets' Theater with sets by the poet's Harvard roommate, Edward Gorey;34 that Rivers's sets replaced them is an indication of the close alliance of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and the Artists' Theater.)

"We were all living in the young, lively nucleus of an 'art family,'" Frankenthaler remembers. "I think the luckiest thing at that moment for me was to be in my early twenties with a group that I could really talk and argue pictures about."35 This sense of family took the form of complex personal relationships linking what seems to have been just about everyone associated with the gallery, a network of close, intense friendships, some of them more intimate than others. Reading the reviews of the period emphasizes the slightly incestuous quality of this world, even allowing for the fact that the New York art scene of the 1950s was not much larger than it had been a decade earlier, when the first generation of Abstract Expressionists was beginning to attract attention and everyone knew everyone. In the first ten years or so of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery's existence, well into the 1960s, when a new crop of eager young critics appeared, the same names recur in any group of reviews: a handful of familiar players--artists, critics, and poets--changing caps as necessary. These names reveal the reviewers' deep connections with the people they write about, a cat's cradle of cross-ties woven among colleagues, friends, lovers, spouses (current and ex-), and supporters of various kinds. Their relationships were both intricate and varied, ranging from correct professional overlaps to romantic obsessions to full-blown love affairs-and everything in between.

TOP: Poems by Kenneth Koch; Prints by Nell Blaine, 1953 (edition of 300). Tibor de Nagy Editions.

MIDDLE: Oranges, 12 pastorals by Frank O'Hara, original cover by Grace Hartigan, 1953. Tibor de Nagy Editions.

BOTTOM: Frank O'Hara and Jane Freilicher in the gallery, 1952.

Robert Goodnough and Fairfield Porter, both represented by Tibor de Nagy Gallery, regularly reviewed the work of other artists represented there. So did Parker Tyler, who as a founder of View was Myers's former employer and an old friend. So did James Schuyler, who lived for an extended period with Porter and his family. Frank O'Hara and Larry Rivers had a checkered history. And so on. All of them were writing about the work of their closest friends, people with whom they had collaborated or for whom they had posed, whom they had gone to bed with or hoped to go to bed with. What is remarkable is that much of the criticism of the period is insightful and seemingly objective. An occasional effort goes right over the top, such as the usually perceptive, temperate Porter's review of a Rivers show in 1954, but such effusions are exceptions: "Rivers has already served notice that, in the serious sense, he is countercurrent to the age, and it is now clear that he has found in human contacts a touchstone by which to project his admiration for the traditional nude...But on the bared planes of flesh, lyric amplitude gambols, and in the passivities of the posed figure there is the majesty of a sweet passion resting. Where will Rivers' deeply moved reverence take him? Let us hope that in the deepening shadows of these bodies there lurks a new highway to some new heroism of our aesthetic age."36

 

Over the first two decades of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery's life, the artists who exhibited there gradually changed. Some of the original group left, sometimes amicably, sometimes not, most often to show elsewhere, in the growing New York scene. Unfortunately, many of these departures coincided with the artist's finally achieving some recognition and success, putting the gallery in the unhappy position of having invested time and money in establishing a painter's reputation, without benefiting from the results of those efforts. Jane Freilicher suggests that Myers's restless energy, in part, fueled this exodus. "John's manifold talents and impressarial ambitions," she suggests, "led eventually to a sense of distractedness or inattentiveness to what was the central purpose of the gallery and gradually led to a defection in the ranks of those whose careers he had launched."

Yet throughout these upheavals--and the sometimes tempestuous relationship of the partners--the character of the gallery remained more or less constant, with its distinctive mix of perceptual realists and ambitious abstract painters of various persuasions. Of the early stable, Porter, Goodnough, Freilicher, and Wilson still exhibited regularly, along with new recruits who represented the gallery's interest in the work of emerging artists. During the 1960s, "Tibor's" remained remarkably alert to new voices, showing everything from young, austere, abstract painters such as Darby Bannard, Ron Gorchov, Ralph Humphrey, and Patricia Johanson (before she began working with plants in the landscape) to abstract sculptors with up-to-the-minute materials and attitudes such as Carl André or Sylvia Stone, from energetic modern realists such as Neil Welliver, to rambunctious, hard-to-classify types such as Red Grooms, John Altoon, and a little later, Archie Rand.

Neil Welliver (b. 1929), Red Slips, 1967. Oil on canvas, 71 13/16 X 67 13/16 inches. Collection Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, anonymous gift, in memory of Betsy Mudge Wilson, class of 1956. Exhibited November 1967.

Rand, who showed with the gallery for eighteen years--1966 to 1984--remembers the second half of the 1960s as a period of upheaval: "When I joined the gallery John Myers was director. The extravagant Myers was friendly enough to me but I was really not one of his priorities. There was real friction in the gallery [and it] was smarting from losing Rivers to Marlborough and maybe tens of other fine artists over those recent years to other galleries. The big guns when I joined were Fairfield Porter and Neil Welliver. Porter was kind to me. He had a clear, simple, and lovely approach when discussing paintings."

Rand's affiliation with Tibor de Nagy, in fact, turned out to have been a direct result of the friction. De Nagy recruited the young painter himself, on the recommendation of a classmate at the Art Students League. After an unpromising beginning--Rand thought the call was a hoax--"Tibor asked me to bring some work up," he recalls. "I did and he immediately hung the paintings in the small side room of his 57th Street gallery. I was sixteen years old." The connection endured. "I had real respect and affection for Tibor de Nagy," Rand says. "I admired him. I was aware of his history and was honored to be with him, but he truly had a deep, deep passion for art." In the early 1980s, though, in a conversation with another gallery artist, Joyce Kozloff, Rand learned more about how he had been asked to join the gallery. The two artists were debating who had been with Tibor longer. Rand failed to understand what Kozloff meant when she said that he was "the first" and she "the second," and he remembers his informant's explaining to him that:

"Tibor and John had been slowly boiling a huge fight. That after twenty years of fronting the gallery and having no input, Tibor wanted to pick some artists. And Johnny said that if Tibor dared to pick one artist that Johnny would walk out the door and set up his own gallery (which he later did). And Tibor said something like 'Oh yeah? Well, the next artist that walks in that door I'm going to sign!' and Joyce concluded, 'so you were the first and I was the second.'

"I was instantly humbled. I knew that Larry Poons had supported my entrance into the gallery, although the scenario Joyce had just told me--so unmuddled and so logical--did make more sense to me than my thinking that Tibor considered me a teen genius."

TOP: Left to right: Joan Mitchell, Frankenthaler, and Hartigan at Frankenthaler's opening, February 1957. Seen in background is Frankenthaler's Planetarium, 1956. Photo by burt Glinn, Magnum Photos, Inc.

MIDDLE: Carl André (b. 1935), Equivalents I-VIII, 1966. Sand-lime bricks, 2 1/2 X 4 1/2 X 9 inches each. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery. Installation at 29 West 57 Street location, March 1966.

BOTTOM: Red Grooms (b. 1937), with fragment for set of Tappy Toes, 1966. Exhibited Janurary 1967.

Kozloff attributes her own connection to the gallery to the escalating conflicts that led to the dissolution of the Myers-de Nagy partnership. "In June 1970," Kozloff says, "I took my slides around for the first time and everyone dismissed me. Tibor seemed eager to look. It turned out that John Myers had left with his whole stable of artists the previous week--and Tibor didn't know what he would show the following season! He asked when he could come to my studio and I said, 'Any time.' He replied, 'Tomorrow.' So he came and asked if I would prefer to show in September or October. I unsteadily replied, 'October, please.'"

De Nagy's faith in his young artists was vindicated by the critics who reviewed their work. "These works stand on their own in a way that one would have thought was impossible for abstract painting," wrote a reviewer for Art International about Kozloff's 1974 exhibition. "Kozloff suggests a future for abstraction as something other than a vehicle for historical rehashes or an occasion to escape into conceptualism."37 "Strange and successful works" that showed "considerable development since his exhibition at Tibor de Nagy Gallery last year,"38 was the verdict on Rand's show a couple of months before Kozloff's.

Myers's departure, with many of the gallery's artists, may have expanded opportunities for some painters and sculptors, but the gallery's reputation for supporting new talent had obviously been established long before. "Tibor's gallery had a strong reputation among young artists for taking chances and showing art by young unknowns," recalls Darryl Hughto, who showed them a roll of paintings in the spring of 1970, about a year after receiving his masters degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The works captured the gallery's interest and, on the strength of a second group of pictures he showed them some months later, Hughto was offered an exhibition the following year. During that year, Hughto's work changed considerably and the paintings that arrived for the show were his newest. "Instead of lyrical colors in stained and puddled acrylic on a raw canvas field, I was painting frenetic spiral webs of many colored skeins. Tibor was quite startled; however, the next day at the opening, he was his usual dignified self," the painter recalls.

TOP: Frank Bowling (b. 1936), Courteous Shade, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 77 X 62 inches. Exhibited November 1975.

BOTTOM: Chuck Forsman (b. 1944), Wyoming Greyhound, 1976. Oil on masonite, 48 X 32 inches. Private collection. Exhibited April 1977.

Artists from the original de Nagy stable are conspicuously absent from the gallery's exhibition lists in the 1970s and '80s, with a rare appearance of Bannard and Goodnough in group shows. In their place is a broad spectrum of new, often very young painters and sculptors. Many of them, such as Hughto, Peter Reginato, Frank Bowling, Stanley Boxer, or Rosemarie Castoro, were abstract artists concerned primarily with the inherent expressive possibilities of their medium--with color, surface inflection, the traces of gesture, the sensuousness of paint itself, or the physicality of steel or plaster--and concerned, too, with making their works reveal the history of their making; what was on top of what, how things touched or withdrew or angled away from one another were all crucial issues in their art. Others, such as Chuck Forsman or Ian Hornak, continued the gallery's tradition of naturalistic painting with what one reviewer called "highly polished realistic"39 figure paintings and landscapes based on photographic images, while others, such as Maurice Golubov, expanded the gallery's interest in geometric abstraction. And there were happy surprises, such as exhibitions of the poetic, earthy reprisals of the great tradition of Venetian figure painting that Horacio Torres made in his last years, or the animated, muscular steel constructions that the British sculptor Tim Scott made during a sojourn in the U.S.

 

Some of these choices--Torres, Scott, Hughto, for example, may owe something to Greenberg's advice--but the gallery continued to be defined, as Rand categorizes it, by "a combination of its irrationally diverse stable and the memory of its own history." Rand's view is that "Clem Greenberg took a real interest in trying to manipulate Tibor's agenda and Tibor conceded somewhat and then simultaneously countered with his own brand of pure New York unpredictability in his selections of other artists. The confluence of art-jargons and, inevitably, lack of any real approach, became its own kind of flavor for almost two decades. The man loved all manifestations of creativity."

What is undeniable is during the 1970s many of the artists who exhibited at the gallery--Stanley Boxer and Rand himself, for example--were irrepressible individualists whose work resists easy classification. Boxer, during his years at Tibor de Nagy's, was painting quirky, passionate, deceptively lyrical abstractions that proved on longer acquaintance to have unexpectedly gritty qualities, surprising rhythms, and strange, simultaneously lush and abrasive textures. His friend Rand feels that Boxer's years with the gallery were immensely beneficial to the older artist's evolution. Boxer's "love of paint and commitment to what he called 'this activity' was inspiring," Rand says. "Stanley's work developed wonderfully while he was with Tibor and Tibor responded to him with the greatest dignity." At the same time, the phenomenally talented, wildly-swinging Rand was unsystematically working his way through every image-making language known to modern man, from material-based abstraction to narrative figuration to cartoon symbolism, sometimes all at the same time, and being given the chance to exhibit the results of his research at regular intervals.

Stanley Boxer (1926-2000), Snow in October, 1972. Oil on canvas, 50 X 24 inches. Private collection. Exhibited January 1974.

Myers's departure also led to changes in the gallery's leadership: a series of directors, some with surer taste, better eyes, or just plain more ability than others, all of them young and, like the artists whose work they exhibited, at the beginning of their careers. Castoro remembers the 1970s as a time of "ever-changing" directors. "As much as I cared for them all," she says, "it was at first disconcerting to start new relationships every two years. Someone would begin as a receptionist and six months later become a director." Fortunately, many of the "interregnum" directors--Jason McCoy, Stewart Waltzer, David Kermani, John Post Lee, for example--were notably informed and capable. Rand remembers McCoy, who later opened his own interestingly eclectic gallery, as "a very kind, thoughtful, and sometimes wry person; he was a savvy, and mature young director." Waltzer, an ambitious painter and designer, as well as a persuasive salesman, later became a well-known associate of other New York dealers and still later a knowledgeable private dealer. Kozloff remembers Kermani with particular fondness. "I felt very supported," she says, "especially while David Kermani was director. I have never had that kind of total support since." Rand describes Lee as "very effective at upgrading the gallery to a more current brand of modernism," but regards Kermani's tenure in the late 1970s and early 1980s as "one of the gallery's high points in terms of both profile and activity. On David's watch the young Dan Cameron interned, John Ashbery did regular drop-ins, as did a bunch of other poets, writers and artists and the international royalty jet set paid frequent visits."

Kermani came to the gallery after abandoning graduate studies in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures. Through his partner, John Ashbery, he was already somewhat involved with the literary and art worlds. As Kermani tells the story of his recruitment: "One night in early 1977, John and I were having dinner with Aladar Marberger (co-owner and director of the Fischbach Gallery). He was telling us that Tibor's director, Stewart Waltzer, was leaving and that he--Aladar--was determined to find Tibor a suitable director (someone who understood what the gallery was all about, its history and traditions, etc.) Aladar had very definite ideas about what Tibor needed and, as he was explaining them to us, he stopped in mid-sentence, looked across the table at me, and said 'He needs someone like you!' Within days the interview was conducted and I had the job. I'm sure that Tibor must have been reluctant to take me on because of my lack of experience with the day-to-day business of running a gallery, starting in mid-season, etc., but Aladar evidently convinced Tibor, and I, terrified, began work. For starters, I was completely in awe of Tibor, this legendary character, which left me totally tongue-tied."

TOP: Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), David Kermani, 1972. Oil on masonite, 14 1/4 X 11 15/16 inches. Courtesy Hirschl & Adler Galleries.

BOTTOM: Peter Reginato (b. 1945), Loose Ends, 1978. Milled steel, 81 X 59 X 50 inches. Private Collection. Exhibited March 1979.

Kermani may have been inexperienced, but he brought a powerful sense of mission to the job. "I was, of course, well aware of the gallery's illustrious history in both the literary and visual arts," he says, "as well as the various personality cult and the John Bernard Myers situation, simply because many people in John Ashbery's circle were part of that group. But my awe soon turned to deep respect for Tibor's accomplishments and the integrity with which he ran the gallery and conducted his life, not to mention great fondness for Tibor himself. I came to realize that it was precisely this integrity that was the gallery's greatest asset, that it was reflected in the kinds of work we showed (and that what we showed was honest above all). I had found a new 'cause.' I firmly believed in Tibor's vision, and what I saw as his 'mission' touched a nerve within me and made me aware that I, too, might be able to participate in this venture that was about more than commerce and more than the hype and P.R. that the art world was succumbing to at the time. I wanted to help Tibor defend his vision and help it to continue to exist and thrive."

The exhibitions at the gallery during Kermani's tenure reflect his efforts to foster the careers of artists already represented there: new work by Rand, Hughto, Reginato, Kozloff, and Boxer or drawings by Porter and nudes by Torres. But at the same time, he hoped also to maintain the gallery's traditional receptiveness to emerging talent. New names appear, sometimes remaining associated for several years, sometimes figuring briefly in thematic group shows, of artists now highly respected: Richard Kalina, Garth Evans, Betty Woodman, and more, a pattern continued under John Post Lee's direction with the showing of work by Thomas Nozkowski and Jonathan Lasker.

Fortunately for the future of the gallery, this sense of mission and continuity is shared by the present leadership, who worked closely with de Nagy in the years before his death in 1993. (Andrew Arnot joined the gallery at the beginning of 1989 and Eric Brown in 1991.) The exhibition program of the 1990s, in retrospect, appears as a clear effort both to re-establish the identity of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and subtly alter it, to reaffirm its connection to its own distinguished past and declare new interests, all at once. A series of group shows, most notably perhaps Drawing on Friendship: Portraits of Painters and Poets, in January 1994, brought together the work of gallery artists from various generations, introduced new talent, and mixed pioneers of American modernism with more recent practitioners, as though reviewing the history of 20th-century American art--which includes the gallery's own history--in order to establish a context for the future of Tibor de Nagy. Typical of these exhibitions were a survey of American watercolors that set works by Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Louis Eilshemius, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Marin beside the efforts of Nell Blaine, Jane Freilicher, Fairfield Porter, and Red Grooms, or a celebration of Kenneth Koch's collaborations with gallery artists such as Blaine, Porter, Grooms, Larry Rivers, and Alfred Leslie, as well as Joe Brainard, Jim Dine, and Alex Katz. More recently, a vivid capsule history of the gallery was provided by a show of works from the collection of Roland Pease, a close friend of de Nagy's--they met when the newly widowed Pease moved to New York and took an apartment on the same block as the newly established gallery--who over the years acquired choice pieces by an astonishing cross-section of gallery artists.

TOP: De Nagy with Eric Brown (left) and Andrew Arnot, 1991.

MIDDLE: De Nagy and Roland F. Pease at Jane Freilicher and Joe Hazan's Water Mill, Long Island home.

BOTTOM: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), Sleeping Figure, undated. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 8 1/2 X 5 1/2 inches. Collection of Alice Methfessel. Exhibited December 1996.

As the 1990s progressed, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery's interest in what Robert Berlind terms "modernist, painterly representation," in relation to both its own past and the present, became more and more overt, without ever becoming predictable. The presence of Rudy Burckhardt among the gallery's artists can serve as a paradigm of "Tibor's" present identity. Burckhardt is a relatively recent addition--he began showing at the gallery in the early 1990s--but he was long associated with most of the artists, writers, and poets so closely identified with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery throughout its history, so the opportunity to see his work, both current and from the past, not only offers rewards for its own merits, but also helps to enhance our conception of the concerns of those artists and writers. Burckhardt's celebrated photographs enrich the mix in a gallery known primarily as a place to see painting, while the gallery's occasional exhibitions of his far less familiar paintings, in turn, broaden the public's understanding of a multi-talented artist. (There have even been a few evenings of Burckhardt's films.)

The present stable is an engaging combination of diverse artists from several generations, some with long histories with the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, others more recent additions, who work in a wide range of media. Many of them make unabashed reference in their art to the world around them, but as has been true of "Tibor's" shows at almost any time in the past half century, you make assumptions in advance about what you're going to see at the gallery at your peril. All you can be certain of is that whatever is on view will have been chosen on the basis of notions of excellence and integrity, rather than in response to art world fashion, and that it will be worth taking seriously. As Berlind says, "the future looks bright."

TOP: Arthur Dove (1880-1946), Tree I, 1935. Graphite, ink and watercolor, 5 X 7 inches. Private collection. Exhibited April 1997.

MIDDLE: Nell Blaine (1922-1996), Blue Sunset, 1996. Watercolor and pastel, 14 X 20 inches. Exhibited December 1998.

BOTTOM: Rudy Burckhardt (1914-1999), Birch, 1994. Oil on canvas, 14 X 12 inches. Collection of Paul Hertz and James Rauchman. Exhibited January 1995.

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NOTES

1. All uncited quotations from artists or writers are from correspondence with the author, 2000. (Apparent discrepancies in dates, etc., have been quoted verbatim.) Back to the text.

2. Roland Pease. Elsewhere, unpublished memoir, p.32. Back to the text.

3. John Bernard Myers. Tracking the Marvelous: A Life in the New York Art World (New York: Random House, 1983), p. vii. Back to the text.

4. Myers, p. 97. The fledgling company's assistant business manager-later manager-Betty Cage, was a close friend of Myers's from Buffalo who had preceded him to New York but was coopted to the staff of View soon after his arrival. Back to the text.

5. Ibid. Back to the text.

6. Pease, p.164. Back to the text.

7. Ibid., p. 167. Back to the text.

8. Myers, p. 99. Back to the text.

9. Pease, p. 168. Back to the text.

10. Myers, p. 101. Back to the text.

11. Pease, p. 169. Back to the text.

12. All information on Dwight Ripley from Douglas Crase, The Art of Dwight Ripley, unpublished manuscript, 2000. Back to the text.

13. Myers, p. 106. Back to the text.

14. Pease, p. 168. Back to the text.

15. Columbia University Oral History Research Interview by Rosa Stein, recorded June 6, 1990, session 1, p 18. Back to the text.

16. Myers, p. 114. Back to the text.

17. Crase, p. 5. Back to the text.

18. Florence Rubenfeld. Clement Greenberg: A Life (New York: Scribner, 1997), p. 155. Rubenfeld, however, cites as her source for the anecdote Myers, p. 120, which mentions simply "the list Clement Greenberg gave me," also mentioned earlier, along with lists from Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, p. 116. Back to the text.

19. Crase, p. 4. Back to the text.

20. Myers, p. 117. Ripley was persuaded to show his drawings and collages at the gallery half a dozen times between 1951 and 1962, but he was a respected, if not full-time, artist whose idiosyncratic work was well received when shown at "Art of this Century." Back to the text.

21. Crase, p. 5. Back to the text.

22. Myers, p. 114. Back to the text.

23. Ibid. Back to the text.

24. Art News, Summer 1951, p. 51. Back to the text.

25. Ibid., November 1952, p. 45. Back to the text.

26. Ibid., February 1954, p. 45. Back to the text.

27. Ibid., December 1954, p. 53. Back to the text.

28. Ibid., April 1954, p. 46. Back to the text.

29. Ibid., April 1954, p. 45. Back to the text.

30. Ibid., November 1954, p. 63. Back to the text.

31. Ibid., November 1952, p. 45. Back to the text.

32. Crase, p. 5. Back to the text.

33. Quoted by John Richardson, Georges Braque: An American Tribute (New York: Public Education Association, 1964), unpaged. Back to the text.

34. Edward Gorey in conversation with the author, 1999. Back to the text.

35. Crase, p. 5. Back to the text.

36. Art News, December 1954, p. 49. Back to the text.

37. Phyllis Derfner, Art International, February 1975, p. 43. Back to the text.

38. Jane Bell, Arts Magazine, January 1975, p. 4. Back to the text.

39. Jane Bell, Arts Magazine, November 1973, p. 63. Back to the text.

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