Editor’s note: The distinguished art dealer André Emmerich was an urbane and civilizing force in the New York art world from 1954, when he opened his first gallery in his apartment, until 1998, when he retired from his gallery on Fifty-seventh Street. Among the many important artists he represented were William Bailey, Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Morris Louis, and Ben Nicholson. The following vignettes about the critic Clement Greenberg and the color-field painter Helen Frankenthaler are taken from My Life with Art, Mr. Emmerich’s nearly completed memoir.
Much paper has been consumed by writing that falls into the category of art criticism. In my experience, the only critic who exerted an influence on artists was Clement Greenberg. He developed close relationships with painters and sculptors whose work he admired and championed in his writings and conversations. In turn, many of these artists highly valued his exceptional eye and his critique of their work. Many artists asked Greenberg to help them install their gallery shows.
For some, Greenberg became a one-man audience whose reaction to their new work was crucial to them. In the 1960s, word of mouth that an artist was well-regarded by Clement Greenberg often translated into commercial success. The world remembered that Greenberg had spotted Jackson Pollock early on as the great new master when he was still little understood, widely ignored, even ridiculed. Collectors, eager not to miss the next wave and to acquire work by a still unrecognized master before it became expensive, looked to him as an oracle, the Warren Buffett of the art world.
I had come to know Greenberg early in the 1950s when the world of contemporary art was still so small that everyone seemed to know everyone. Later on, my gallery came to represent artists whose work interested him, among them the painters Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Friedel Dzubas, and the sculptors Anthony Caro, Michael Steiner, and Anne Truitt. At the same time, the gallery also represented noted artists whose work did not have Greenberg’s particular support, such as David Hockney, Sam Francis, Al Held, Beverly Pepper, and Pierre Alechinsky. Notwithstanding the gallery’s broad spectrum, which reflected my own taste and interests, there were jealous tongues that claimed to know that, based on no evidence at all, I had financially subsidized Greenberg. From what I know of Greenberg, it would have been totally out of character for him to accept compensation from any dealer, although he did not disdain gifts of art from artists. As for me, I never gave him anything of value beyond including his name on the list of friends to whom I sent some decent red wine at Christmas.
In the wake of Morris Louis’s death in September 1962, I began to work with Clement Greenberg in his role as art advisor to the Louis estate. Louis had left close to five hundred large paintings, all carefully rolled and stored in the basement of his and wife’s small house in Washington, D.C. As dealer for the estate, I was present when the paintings were unrolled and catalogued. Later on, after the canvases had been shipped to a New York warehouse, they needed to be looked at again periodically to select works for my gallery as well as galleries in other cities and abroad, and for museum exhibitions. Greenberg was present at these occasions and his critical comments were always carefully noted for future reference. It was fascinating to observe his perceptive, insightful eye at work.
Like many New York intellectuals of the time, Greenberg lived comfortably but modestly in a rent-controlled apartment on the then unfashionable Upper West Side. Greenberg liked to receive, much as in a nineteenth-century salon, the steady stream of visitors from all over the country and the globe, including artists, collectors, dealers, writers, and acolytes that clustered around him at the frequent cocktail hour gatherings at his apartment. It was from here that his ideas were first discussed and debated, and—during the later years of his life—from where they spread across the United States, Canada, England, and the Continent. These events included devoted old friends along with new pilgrims eager to meet the master. The visitors to this modern salon were treated to an aspect of Greenberg that could not come across in his writings, his exceptional charm.
But for all his brilliance, there was an aspect of Greenberg’s personality that also drove away friends and followers, as well as some artists who owed much of their success to his embrace of their work. I made a deliberate effort to remain on good personal terms with him. At the same time, I kept a certain distance to avoid the possibility of a bitter break, as I witnessed happening to so many others. Greenberg’s ideas as well as his acid tongue provoked a great deal of hostility, some of which was deflected onto the artists who were seen as his protégés and followers. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, his positive words about an artist’s work translated rapidly into sales, but in the 1970s and 1980s his attention could easily turn into a handicap. The term “formalism” had become a pejorative and Greenberg’s ideas were derided. Things had reached such a point that, after his death, when his friends wanted to organize a memorial service, no New York museum claimed to be able to make available a suitable locale for what had been the leading art critic of his generation. In the end, I arranged for appropriate space at the Century Association.
It is only now that a new generation, which never knew the man, but only his writing, is rediscovering his books and essays, and reading them with appreciation. I don’t think it is a coincidence that, at the same time, there is a revival of interest in Color Field painting. I always suspected that Greenberg would find his proper place in the front rank of American art critics only after the generation which included the many he had alienated had largely left the stage.
In retrospect, it is remarkable how Greenberg achieved his status as the most influential and most discussed art critic of his time without a position of power and influence. He did not hold a professorship at any university or a curatorship at any museum. In 1939 his landmark essay “Avant Garde and Kitsch” was published, and it lifted him from obscurity. From 1939 until 1942 he was an editor at Partisan Review and art critic for The Nation from 1942 to 1949. From 1959 to 1960 he served as consultant to the short-lived contemporary New York gallery, French & Co. He had no other formal affiliations. His fame was uniquely due to the force and persuasiveness of his ideas and his writing.
* * *
The early 1960s were the period of serial painting. There seemed to be a need for artists to develop and explore a dominant signature image. One artist who chose not to follow this supposed critical requirement was Helen Frankenthaler. At the time, this was held against her, the prevailing opinion being that work that did not stick to serial imagery was inconsistent. An iconic image was presumably necessary. At the same time, collectors of her work requested that Frankenthaler sign paintings on the front of the pictures rather than on the back, so that her work would be more readily identifiable by the collectors and their friends. With the perspective of decades, it has of course become clear that Frankenthaler’s paintings do not need either an iconic image or a visible signature in order to allow us to identify her works as hers, suffused as they are by her combination of style, techniques, and stained colors.
Helen has been courageous in the making of her art. For many years, when she was still little known, she insisted on painting on large-scale canvases even though there was little chance of selling them in a world which was not yet willing to commit important wall spaces to her art. She was certainly aware that small- and medium-scale pictures sold much more easily. Nonetheless, the bulk of her work, and certainly the paintings shown in her annual solo exhibitions, were sizable canvases. She recognized that her best work was on a scale that seemed large in the 1960s; seen with today’s eyes, they no longer loom so large.
In 1963 Helen and her husband, Robert Motherwell, spent the summer in Provincetown. For her studio, Helen rented a fisherman’s loft, originally constructed for the drying and repairing of sails and nets. As usual, she painted most of her work on the floor. At the end of the summer, reviewing her work prior to stretching it, Helen decided that the too-brilliant hues she had employed did not really satisfy her. Instead, she decided that the soaked-through reverse of each canvas was in fact what she preferred. That, with some additions, is how she created the muted, lyrical images that were exhibited the following season. In some passages, one can still see the pattern made by the floor boards of the loft.
Frankenthaler was one of a number of women artists I represented during the life of the gallery. I showed their work notwithstanding the bias that perceived women artists by definition as minor. Interestingly, this prejudice remained particularly strong in Europe. For many years I struggled in vain to interest European dealers, curators, and critics in Frankenthaler’s work. The tide did not really begin to change until the 1990s.
The list of woman artists I represented is a long one and included, among others, Nancy Graves, Guitou Knoop, Pat Lipsky, Beverly Pepper, Judy Pfaff, Germaine Richier, Dorothea Rockburne, Anne Ryan, Miriam Schapiro, Sylvia Stone, and Anne Truitt. Of these artists, the one who had by far the most exhibitions in my gallery was Helen Frankenthaler. Today she is seen as a major painter, a fountainhead of Color Field painting. The literature on her work is extensive, fills volumes large and small, and is constantly being added to. In the once-feared auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, records continue to be achieved by her work. Many museums own her paintings and display them prominently—in contrast to earlier years when her work was often kept in the museums’ storage. It was only slowly, show by annual show, that her work began to be appreciated for its lyricism and strength. It took years for it to overcome the all-too-frequent categorization as “feminine” or “decorative.” For all the breakthrough influence Frankenthaler’s celebrated 1952 painting Mountains and Sea had on Noland and Louis, with its pioneering technique of staining, she continued to be regarded as a woman painter and therefore not quite in the same league as the male heavy hitters of her generation.
An important milestone for Frankenthaler was her retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1969. The totality of her achievement could for the first time be seen under one roof. The exhibition was a revelation to many. Seeing two decades of work as a moving and impressive whole, I myself gained a new insight on Helen’s stature. The retrospective traveled to the Whitechapel Gallery in London, at that time the leading venue for vanguard art in Britain. Afterwards, the show continued to Germany, where it was shown in Hannover and West Berlin. Eugene Goossen, who had curated the exhibition, and I joined Frankenthaler on a memorable trip to attend this opening of the show. It was the height of the Cold War, and the obligatory passage through Checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin’s great museums was a truly chilling experience. Because Frankenthaler, Goossen, and I were considered V.I.P.s, the State Department arranged for us to visit East Berlin in one of their long Cadillac limousines, complete with a junior U.S. official as our guide and a small Stars and Stripes on the fender. Once we arrived at Checkpoint Charlie, our guide and limousine could drive right through the still new Berlin Wall.
The East Germans considered us ordinary tourists, so we had to pass on foot through what looked like the setting of a B-grade spy movie. The guards wore uniforms highly reminiscent of those of the SS, with a Kalashnikov slung over the shoulder. They never spoke in an ordinary conversational tone of voice, but barked and bellowed orders. Our passports were studied as if they were forgeries. The sense of unease was acute, perhaps most of all for me, as I speak German and understood all too well what their tone and behavior implied about their brutality, barely restrained. We were happy to pick up our State Department limousine and guide after the checkpoint, to proceed to the glories of the East Berlin museums, and then to head to the previously assigned restaurant. It was clearly one of a restricted few where visitors were allowed to eat. A junior maître d’ seated us at a table surrounded by others in the middle of the floor. We were hardly seated when a senior maître d’ rushed over, shouted at his junior, and took us over to another table situated next to a plywood wall. Each of the three of us had the distinct feeling that that was a location featuring pre-installed microphones, the better to overhear the conversation of dangerous foreigners. Our sense of liberation after returning safely to West Berlin was like waking from a nightmare.
In the years that followed, there were many more trips across the map to Helen Frankenthaler exhibition openings. While she may have been a slow starter in the public eye, she has more than caught up. Her work has been celebrated with more museum exhibitions than any other American artist represented by my gallery, more books and articles, and an avalanche of honorary doctorates. With it all, Helen has also managed to have more fun than most other artists do. A great party-giver, she helped me celebrate innumerable birthdays in her studio. There was always music to match, mostly Sinatra, to which she danced for hours with great style and enthusiasm.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 4, on page 29
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com