When most of New York’s art galleries were anchored uptown in the 1920s, Edith Halpert opened her gallery in Greenwich Village, close to where many artists and musicians were at work. She was also singular in New York’s art world at the time as a young woman, a Jew, an immigrant and a novice collector with an interest in art made by American artists.
“Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art,” just opened at The Jewish Museum and the first exhibition dedicated to her more than 40-year career, is compelling for what it reveals about Halpert’s life and trailblazing accomplishments. Her eye for striking and significant art is seen through 100 paintings, sculptures and prints by artists she represented including Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Ben Shahn, Elie Nadelman, Jack Levine and Georgia O’Keefe and folk art objects and portraits by artists known and unknown.
Halpert was a force of nature and is, unfortunately largely forgotten. She was savvy, creative and determined and she thought big. Many said she was way ahead of her time, in her recognition of artists outside of the mainstream and in the way she did business, expanding the audience for original art. To her artists and collectors, she was an advisor, advocate, master marketer, mentor, visionary, artistic matchmaker and, as one collector called her, a fairy godmother. A museum director described her in the 1960s as the “Dean of dealers in 20th century art.”
Her gallery on West 13th Street, The Downtown Gallery, opened in 1926 in a modest brownstone, and she lived upstairs. Then 26, she created space for artists and collectors to meet, and in the early years she presided at a salon every evening. When she moved to West 51st Street in 1940, she kept the gallery’s name and still lived on an upper floor.
Rebecca Shaykin, who curated the show and wrote the excellent accompanying illustrated volume (Yale University Press), tells The Jewish Week that Halpert had “a radically inclusive definition of American art still in use today.” Shaykin, the museum’s associate curator, writes that Halpert “upended long-held assumptions about American visual culture. She firmly believed in the quality of the American art of her era; her aim was to teach her fellow citizens to value the art of their own country, in their own time.”
Halpert was born in 1900 in Odessa, where her father had a successful grain business but died young. Soon after, she, along with her mother and sister, left for America, where they had relatives. When they arrived in 1906, they had some money and were able to settle in a Jewish neighborhood in West Harlem. But when her mother lost their savings in bad investments, she opened a stationery and candy store below their apartment, and she learned her first lessons about marketing there, at age 12, the year she began high school.
During high school she took art classes at the National Academy of Design (at 14 she pretended to be 16 to enroll). She also took sketching classes at the Whitney Studio Club and at the People’s Art Guild where she formed many friendships with artists and met her husband. Samuel Halpert was twice her age and a successful artist showing his work in New York and Paris. According to family lore, she saw one of his paintings in a gallery window and declared that she would marry the painter — they married within a year, when she was 18. Later she said, “I married with the feeling that I married American art.”
Soon after, she abandoned her own aspirations to be an artist and worked in department stores, writing ads and doing illustrations, and then consulted for an investment bank. In a year-long sojourn in France, the couple met painters and Edith learned about the French gallery system. After moving back to New York, she opened her own gallery. Her marriage didn’t last, but her career flourished. The beginning of the exhibition features a 1928 portrait of her by Samuel Halpert; she has a steady gaze ahead.
Unlike the uptown gallerists, she saw art in democratic terms, and was interested in selling art to middle class and working-class people. Throughout, she stood by her artists, regardless of profitability, and supported their rights of expression. After specializing in contemporary art, she expanded to feature folk art and established the American Folk Art Gallery in 1931, on the second floor.
During the Depression years, she managed to sell art and got valuable commissions for some artists with the new Radio City Music Hall in 1932. That same year, Halpert organized a show of Ben Shahn’s paintings on the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, which helped establish his reputation as a great social realist painter. Several Shahn works are featured in the exhibition.
At a time when art by African-American artists was rarely seen in U.S. museums and galleries, Halpert organized a large show in 1941, “American Negro Art,” with work by more than 50 artists. She helped launch the career of Jacob Lawrence (selections of his “Harlem Series” are on view).
A 1948 article in Look Magazine listed the top artists in America, and all were members of the Downtown Gallery — John Marin, Max Weber, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Stuart Davis, Ben Shahn. When she (successfully) tried to lure Marin, an early champion of modern art, to join the Gallery, she wrote him, “I know the other side of the canvas, or as it is commonly known — the art world, the museum people, the critics, the collectors, and the public, and where the two elements meet. I know something about timing, when and where to show, when and where not to. … A combination of enthusiasm, observation and experience must add up, after all.”
The current exhibition brings together pieces from museums and private collections; the final gallery includes pieces from Halpert’s own extensive collection, many of which were sold in auction after her death in 1970 and reassembled here for the first time. A setting of chairs for viewers suggests a Halpert gathering or salon.
This is the first show curated by Shaykin. She recalls being inspired by the 2007 biography, “The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the New York Art Market” by Lindsay Pollock before she started to work at the Museum, and filing it away as a subject of interest. After working on the 2014 Jewish Museum exhibition, “Helena Rubinstein: Beauty is Power,” focused on anther female cultural figure who was a collector, she thought again of Halpert.
Shaykin explains that while Halpert maintained extensive records of her exhibitions – she kept carbon copies of letters she sent and received – there are few documents showing how the art was exhibited. One pairing of objects Shaykin is pleased about — a wood and iron sculpture by Elie Nadelman, “Seated Woman,” (c. 1919-1925) and a 1917 tapestry by Marguerite Zorach, “Memories of a Summer in the White Mountains” – were shown together in the Downtown Gallery’s premiere exhibition, as seen in a rare photo.
Viewers will have a chance to see some spectacular works not ordinarily shown at The Jewish Museum, like Georgia O’Keefe’s “Poppies” (1950), Horace Pippin’s “Sunday Morning Breakfast” (1943), an anonymous cow weathervane, John Marin’s “From the Bridge, N.Y.C” (1933) and much more, perhaps sensing Halpert’s spirit.
“Her insistence that we support free expression and diversity of opinion, and that these are the defining features of American art and culture,” Shaykin writes, “has never been more timely or more relevant.”
“Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art” is on view through Feb. 9, 2020 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., thejewishmuseum.org.