Art galleries usually rise and fall through the personalities of their founders. Betty Cuningham, David Nolan, and Salander-O’Reilly, the three galleries featured in the chronicle last month, all owe their success to the name on the door.

Odds are that a gallery will not outlive its founder. Most galleries choose not to find out. Just look at a list of New York galleries from fifty years ago, and you will see no more than a handful in operation today.

The galleries profiled this month have therefore beat the odds. All have contended with the departure of their founding directors. Consider Knoedler & Company, the oldest gallery operating in New York, now displaying the photography of Dan Budnik.[1]

After 160 years, this gallery somehow manages to deliver modern art at its peak of perfection. Knoedler has been in the business of art since Michel Knoedler, representing Goupil & Company, a firm of Parisian engravers, hung out his shingle on Broadway and Duane Street in 1846. Since that time the gallery has sold over a hundred Cézannes, a majority of the Vermeers, and such American artists as George Bellows, Frederick Church, Winslow Homer, George Inness, and John Singer Sargent. A version of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark passed through Knoedler’s hands. The gallery’s client list has included the families of Vanderbilt, Astor, Rockefeller, Clark, and Mellon. Add to the tycoons Henry Clay Frick, a client who bought over 225 works from the gallery—paying for some of the work in Pennsylvania Railroad stock. Given this history, it is appropriate that Knoedler today occupies its eighth home—a 1909 townhouse at Nineteen East Seventieth Street—right next to the House that Frick Built. Ten years ago, for the gallery’s 150th anniversary, the Frick Collection even put out little rosettes on all of its Knoedler- purchased paintings. Like what you see? Pop over to this museum store and buy the original.

Well, not quite. “From the Hudson River School to the New York School” is how Knoedler now bills itself. These days you’d be hard pressed to find a nineteenth-century landscape on the walls. The gallery has gone through many hands. Charles Henschel, Michel Knoedler’s grandson, died in 1956, so ending the family dynasty. In 1971, Armand Hammer took a controlling interest in the business, and Knoedler has evolved.

Today, Knoedler rides on the personality of Ann Freedman, its current president and director. Freedman earned her modernist stripes working with André Emmerich. At Knoedler, she now oversees a stable of fifteen artists and estates, including Milton Avery, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, Jules Olitski, Richard Pousette-Dart, David Smith, and John Walker. Big names. Some, really big. Nevertheless, the gallery list is small by art-industry standards. What does this mean? That Knoedler can mount exhibitions with intelligence: educating gallery-goers about artists, presenting work that’s a joy to discover, and encouraging conversation. In certain ways, Knoedler still behaves like a young upstart. Don’t let the tony address fool you. Step up under the blue awning and you emerge into a bright, inviting space.

The latest exhibition by Dan Budnik is the right occasion to reflect on Knoedler’s contemporary image. In addition to his black and white work, this photographer has unearthed a set of color transparencies he took of New York School artists—a few of them, Knoedler artists. Budnik has just now converted these slides into limited-edition prints through the nearly lost art of dye-transfer. A commercial photographer for the magazine trade, Budnik can go in for the stagey. It’s the old dog-and-owner thing: Budnik sees the artist in his portraits resembling the art. Sometimes the results can be contrived. I could do without Jasper Johns among the targets looking like Lee Harvey Oswald. Or Ellsworth Kelly in profile against a color form. But Stuart Davis glowing like a light bulb? Alexander Calder seemingly suspended by his hair? Roy Lichtenstein staring out through a Benday screen as the ultimate square-jawed comic-book creep? Sometimes the results work just fine.

Through his partnership with the master printer Nino Mondhe, Budnik has reproduced colors that are as brilliant as the day he captured them. One-hundred-sixty-years young: to its great credit, Knoedler & Company also hasn’t faded a bit.

If Knoedler is out to establish the new, Hirschl & Adler Galleries is out to renew the establishment, often with interesting results. Founded in 1952 by Norman S. Hirschl and Abraham M. Adler, the gallery is now overseen by Stuart P. Feld, who joined as a partner in 1967. Located next door to Knoedler, H&A is a world apart from Knoedler’s singular white-walled vision. By its own description, H&A operates as a fine-arts emporium. The gallery lists dozens of artists. They range from nineteenth-century American portraitists, to decorative artists, to hard-edged modernists such as Josef Albers and Fred Sandback, to contemporary realists and classicists such as Alexander Creswell and Jacob Collins. In its European art department, the gallery also boasts one of the more interesting personalities on the scene: Gregory Hedberg. The former director of the New York Academy of Art, Hedberg is the insider guiding the emergence of classical realism, the revival movement I wrote about last September.

The gallery’s latest exhibition, featuring still lifes and landscapes by John Morra, assembled by the director Shelley Farmer, certainly fits this profile.[2] Morra is a graduate of the New York Academy. He taught there for two years, and another year at Jacob Collins’s Water Street Atelier. He has exhibited at the John Pence Gallery, the classical realist hangout, in San Francisco.

Morra represents the best and worst qualities of this movement: supreme technique, airless execution. Compare Morra’s chock-a-block still lifes to the Apollonian work of William Bailey. His landscapes? I wouldn’t venture far down Newton Hook Beach (2006) without supplemental oxygen.

And there are moments when Hirschl & Adler itself could use some fresh air. The gallery relocated to its present location on Seventieth Street in 1977, and has yet to update the travertine and shag crash-pad look that came with it. The gallery also insists on meeting visitors with a uniformed guard. You have to check your bags upon arrival. No other gallery I know does this. Finally, gallery employees have their own departments to manage. There may be many fine artists on view, but I get the sense at Hirschl & Adler that the big picture sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. Case in point: in preparing this review, I asked the gallery for a checklist of works on display. The real secret of art reviewing is to get the names right, and this is a pretty standard request. Yet I was given a look like I had just asked for the nuclear codes. This quickly escalated: my inquiry was telephoned up to a higher office; I was reported to be “irritated”; the boss didn’t want to talk to me. I was just wondering … but now I know: Go to Hisrchl & Adler for the art. Go to Knoedler to talk about it.

The slogan of Tibor de Nagy Gallery might just as well be “present at the creation.” This is a gallery that within a year of opening in 1950 was exhibiting Grace Hartigan and Helen Frankenthaler. Tibor de Nagy and John Bernard Myers, odd-couple gallery partners for several decades, found a strange way to get into the New York Schoolyard. They began by touring a show called “The Tibor Nagy Marionette Company.” Then, as de Nagy remembered it, friends “persuaded us—especially me—to give up the marionettes and start a new contemporary gallery, to replace Peggy Guggenheim’s.” It’s a story you can’t make up. For the gallery’s fiftieth anniversary, Karen Wilkin wrote the definitive history. Her essay, “The First Fifty Years,” is now reproduced on the gallery’s website.

Before his death in 1993, de Nagy named two of his colleagues, Andrew Arnot and Eric Brown, to succeed him at the helm. Here they have kept the gallery moving forward without deviating from its original course. De Nagy went in for painterly modernism, and built up a roster of artists that came to include a high preponderance of representational female painters. Except perhaps when Grace Hartigan insisted on calling herself George, de Nagy never made a fuss about this. He did not take credit as a feminist crusader, nor does the gallery make a thing of it now. This gallery still chooses art over politics.

The tradition continues with its latest exhibition by Nell Blaine.[3] Always a joy to see, Blaine was an abstract painter who, around 1950, made the move back to representation. This show focuses on this transition, and on the hard-edged, shimmering, brushy surfaces that she experimented with throughout. The exhibition has also reunited a domestic scene, Harbor and Green Cloth II (1968), borrowed from the vaults of the Whitney Museum, with an india ink on paper composition of the same subject matter—Tables and Chairs (1958). The connection was made by the gallery directors.

Thanks to the enduring legacy of its founder, and the stewardship of its new directors, this is a gallery that will continue to makes discoveries well into the future.

This chronicle ends with sad news and a gallery in transition. Allan Stone, the founder of the Allan Stone Gallery, died in late December, 2006. An art world magpie with a taste for the eccentric, Stone built up an obsessive personal collection of his beloved artists, and starting in the 1960s he obsessively championed them through his gallery. He collected everything from Bugatti roadsters to (reportedly) shrunken heads. He found succor in the nuttiness of John Graham and Joseph Cornell, and the merriment of Wayne Thiebaud. A recent exhibition of warm, whimsical landscapes by Al Pounders served as a fitting requiem to his vision.[4] The houses are still filled to the brim. His latest gallery space on Ninetieth Street extends well into the upper floors. Want to see it? One of Allan’s Angels (his daughters and granddaughters) is always happy to take you. His daughter Claudia took over gallery operations a decade ago, and his daughter Olympia recently completed a documentary about her father’s habits called, of course, The Collector. Allan Stone was able to view it just before he died.

Here is a gallery where life goes on. And that’s a joy to see.

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  1. “Picturing Artists (1950s–1960s): Photographs by Dan Budnik” opened at Knoedler & Company, New York, on January 25 and remains on view through March 10, 2007. Go back to the text.
  2. “John Morra: Recent Paintings” opened at Hirschl & Adler Galleries, New York, on February 15 and remains on view through March 17, 2007. Go back to the text.
  3. “Nell Blaine: Image and Abstraction; Paintings and Drawings (1944–1959)” opened at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York, on February 8 and remains on view through March 10, 2007. Go back to the text.
  4. “Al Pounders: Recent Work” was on view at Allan Stone Gallery, New York, from January 13 through February 24, 2007. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 7, on page 49
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