Towards a Foothold in New York

Absolutely nothing: that’s how much I knew about the art world when I left graduate school (Ph.D. unfinished) in the early 1960s and moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York. Having studied the early stages of modernism, I wanted to know what happened next. I’d been intrigued by skeptical write-ups in Life magazine and elsewhere about the new art coming out of New York. Then I saw the traveling Ab-Ex show The New American Painting when it stopped in Paris. I was there on a Fulbright hoping to be enlightened by current French art. That didn’t happen, but the Americans looked shockingly good. Back at school, art-history curriculum of the late-’50s at Harvard furnished next to nothing on the subject of American contemporaries; the basement of the Fogg Museum’s library, however, held a trove of brochures from the few U.S. institutions where such work could be seen. From these I put together a research trip for a term paper required by the Fogg’s museum course.

At the end of Christmas vacation, I showed up, unannounced, at museums in Toledo, Cleveland, Oberlin, Buffalo, and Baltimore and asked if the directors could spare a minute to meet with me. This approach was naïve and presumptuous, but mention of the museum course run by the Fogg’s director, John Coolidge, got me in. Several of the directors politely agreed to lead me through the galleries and into their storage; I was allowed to inspect some Rothkos in Toledo, and in Buffalo, an array of Pollocks, Gorkys, de Koonings and Clyfford Stills. In Baltimore, the Cone collection effaced memories of whatever else I saw, but the director was a voluble contemporary-art enthusiast. At Oberlin, the forward-looking director took me around a show of Frank Stella’s black stripe paintings (not yet seen in New York).

The Fogg’s museum course was a superb source of real-world information; it was also very much of its time. Professor Coolidge made it clear that women (there were several of us in his class) were not likely to lead the institutions we discussed. As it happened, however, the museum heads with whom I’d had stimulating visits were Otto Wittmann (Toledo), Gordon Smith (Buffalo), Adelyn Breeskin (Baltimore) and Ellen Johnson (Oberlin). So the male/female ratio did not look so bad. Those encounters encouraged me to leave school, go to New York, and find work.

For this account, I’ll jump over two years of teaching in the Boston area to my frustrating hunt for employment in New York. Museums had no use for me, since I had no experience or art-world contacts; nor were teaching positions an option, since I lacked a doctorate. After stopgap gigs (tutoring, freelance proofreading, Bloomingdale’s basement), I found a job at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Mrs. Jackson’s secretary had left; I was to replace her. Thus I came upon my first non-academic “persons of interest:” Martha Jackson and her gallery director, John Weber.

Martha was never a mentor; she had zero interest in me. But I was plenty interested in her. An eccentric, middle-aged powerhouse, she came from wealth (the Kellogg’s cornflakes fortune) and, very early, had bought strategically from de Kooning and his confreres as their work developed. Her personal collection was outstanding. And she’d established one of the city’s leading contemporary galleries. Many galleries were run by women dealers (Elinor Ward, Betty Parsons, Rose Fried, Eleanor Poindexter, Jill Kornblee, Marilyn Fischbach, Bertha Schaefer, and others); I valued my insider’s perspective on this particular one.

Martha was actively involved in the changes of the early ’60s. I had missed her New Forms, New Media show by a year or two, but her ongoing exhibition program was equally adventurous. New work, both U.S. and European, came and went through her back room. The gallery files I explored in spare moments furnished a more concrete education than I could have gotten in any contemporary-art seminar. Like many in those years, she was something of a drinker. She lived upstairs from the gallery, slept late, and emerged towards noon, obviously hung-over, to grumpily observe what the morning had brought. Then she lunched with artists, collectors, or her current boyfriend (the artist John Hultberg) at the nearby Chez Madison restaurant. Restored by lunch and libation, she returned for concentrated work sessions that often stretched into the evening. She introduced me to the intricacies of the art business, the complexities of running a gallery, and above all, the amount of will, competitiveness, and sheer effort involved.

Young, knowledgeable, easy-going, and much nicer, John Weber introduced me to art-world goings-on. I saw early shows by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Oldenburg, and the rest; attended Happenings; learned about Tenth Street and the downtown artist community; and amassed a headful of useful gossip. I soon knew who “everyone” was. John was a teacher by temperament and generous with his time and information. I was learning a lot. But I was not a good secretary, nor did I excel as a lunchtime substitute salesperson. Martha fired me after six months. I was out in the cold again, but off to a good start. I resumed the job search—maybe something to do with publishing, I thought.

Hooked on the galleries after the Martha Jackson stint, I prowled Madison Avenue and 57th Street and wrote reviews under an assumed name for a community newspaper. I answered endless classified ads for publishing jobs, to no avail. Then, two strokes of luck: I was hired at a small periodical called Design News, and over several months I discovered how a magazine was put together. It was interesting work and I liked it there. Then came a phone call when one of my job applications found its way to ARTnews.

Thomas Hess, ARTnews’s second-in-command editor and a prolific, controversial critic, was seeking an assistant editor. The magazine’s principal focus was historical art; Hess’s expanding domain there was everything contemporary. At the end of our lively conversation about art old and new, I expressed hesitation about leaving Design News. He said to me, “With your background, you’re a fool if you don’t take this job.” So I did. I worked for him for ten years. He taught me how to edit and how to write, and I slowly absorbed the subtleties of running a magazine, the most rewarding aspect of which was learning how to work with writers. The story of Tom Hess and ARTnews in the turbulent ’60s is long and multifaceted—but it’s one for another day.

Contributor

Elizabeth C. Baker

ELIZABETH C. BAKER is a writer and editor. She edited Art in America for thirty-four years.

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