Gallery Charm

We often read that art galleries are intimidating, that they do not welcome people of the “wrong” class or ethnicity. Certainly not all galleries welcome everyone, but good dealers know that potential high spending patrons can look informal—that’s a euphemism—when they choose to. So, unlike many salespeople in expensive but far less sophisticated commodity stores, they rarely rebuff a visitor. This is not just a question of immediate sales. Forward thinking dealers want to cultivate the interest of students, however impoverished, for who can say where they will end up? The best dealers quietly welcome just about anyone. They do so partly as a matter of pride, and partly because who knows who that guy with the dreadlocks and shades really is?

M. Knoedler & Co. (interior.) C. 1860, albumen print.

The intimidation that many gallery visitors feel has a more subtle cause—the discomfort of the unfamiliar. Unfamiliarity gives any gallery an advantage, which is presumably why galleries cultivate it. A gallery must project values that, if different from those of the visitor, are unquestionably superior. This lends the authority that undergirds the very viability of the gallery. The gallery must embody the best taste, and imply that it controls the most accurate knowledge of what it offers, particularly attribution and provenance. No gallery can afford to imply that the visitor’s opinion is as good as its own, or that the taste it exemplifies is equaled anywhere in town. The need for authority underlies an intimidation factor that is fully removed from any class or ethnic distrust. It is subtle and fascinating—even seductive—because it can find expression not only in coldness or hostility, but also through charm.

In the fall of 2011, I visited the Knoedler Gallery in New York to see a contemporary art exhibition. Knoedler had long been known for dealing in the very finest Old Masters. Henry Clay Frick bought many of the great paintings on view at the Frick Collection from Knoedler. The company handled the sale by the Soviet Government of major paintings from the State Hermitage Museum in 1929, selling many to Andrew Mellon who then gave them to the National Gallery of Art. For decades, Knoedler vied with Duveen Brothers and Wildenstein for international top art dealer status. All had galleries in London, Paris, and New York. The calculated mystique of Knoedler may not have been as overt as that of its rivals, but the building it had occupied since 1909, 19 East 70th Street, was a landmark of the art world.

Having seen the show, I was chatting with the receptionist when a dapper elderly man in a neat cloth cap came up and joined the conversation. I soon learned from him that he’d arrived in the United States in 1962 and was originally from Ecuador. He introduced himself, and his name prompted an initially unsuccessful attempt at recollection—but then I remembered. I had seen photographs of this man from the early 1960s, a brilliantly handsome young fellow with a wide, bright smile, in the company of Lois Orswell, the reclusive collector of David Smith’s work. His presence in these photos, often with Orswell and her sculptures , seemed to glow with exuberant confidence and youthful charm. He innocently dominated each image in which he appeared. That charm over 50 years later was undiminished. I felt as though a delicate filament linking precious and particular moments of relationships among artworks and enthusiasts, caught momentarily on photographic emulsion, had been extended to me by his presence that morning in the Knoedler Gallery.

This was no coincidence. Before her death in 1998, Lois Orswell had given her collection to the Harvard University Art Museums, which organized an exhibition shown not only in Cambridge, but at the Knoedler Gallery in 2003-4.  I knew the photographs of Orswell with Jaime Andrade—the man whom I met that day—from the catalogue. Andrade had been an assistant, and subsequently an associate, at Knoedler for over 40 years.

Jaime—I think of him as Jaime, for he was so effortlessly friendly—offered to show me behind the scenes. I followed him into a small elevator that took us to the two-story library. It resembled the balconied reading room of a university, museum or research institute library. We all too readily forget that galleries are sites of scholarship as well as commerce, and the long-established ones have art libraries second to none. But all around were signs of care postponed and arrested attempts at sorting prior to an imminent departure. No one would research among these shelves of dusty volumes again. The library and the other private spaces had an air of abandonment, of neglect, of an era ending.

We stepped out of the gloom onto a brilliantly sunlit rooftop terrace. The view of East 70th Street was dizzyingly spectacular. Jaime reminisced about his long association with a place he clearly loved. Tinged with nostalgia, we descended to the grand lobby and parted warmly. Beset by accusations of having sold forgeries of 20th-century paintings, Knoedler succumbed a few weeks later, closing its doors at the end of November 2011. The building has since been sold.

I do not know what has become of Jaime Andrade. He was undoubtedly the genius loci of 19 East 70th Street. If Knoedler intimidated, it did so not only by grandeur, and the reputation of its inventory, but through charm. That charm was in large part due to Jaime Andrade. That such charm need not always be interpreted as beneficent is suggested by Jaime having been named in at least one of the lawsuits resulting from the forgery allegations. When visiting an art gallery, prepare not to be intimidated by harsh looks, so much as to be charmed. By all means, be charmed—but not suborned.

Contributor

Ivan Gaskell

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