Here is a simple question I would want to ask anyone considering a career in the art trade: what are the personal qualities and character traits necessary to become a successful art dealer? The correct reply? In primis, and lacking a better term, a “prehensile eye.” It is best described as the compulsion to hungrily grasp an object’s image in all its varied particulars. This data, to be useful, must then be processed through the equivalent of a total-recall “hard drive”—nothing less than the combined visual information gathered over years of seeing, comparing, judging, and learning. It is a precious talent, not otherwise acquired but God-given. There are, to be sure, further imperatives: courage, ambition, steadfastness, patience, and a healthy dose of impertinence. Honesty, despite popular skepticism, is also a must. The above is not an easy combination of requisites, and that is the principal reason why “many are called but few are chosen.”
Richard L. Feigen, who died on January 29, was undeniably one of the “chosen.” Of a well-to-do Chicago Jewish family, Richard excelled at Yale. There, the young man was soon attracted to the visual arts, thanks to that university’s outstanding museum and academic programs, but more importantly as a result of a year spent abroad. In Paris, together with his roommate and lifelong friend John Loeb, Jr., Richard assiduously haunted the city’s numberless galleries and artists’ studios. Uninterested in and unsatisfied with his brief encounter with the business world after graduation, Feigen possessed both the means and the competence to embark on his chosen career. After initial stints in more modest locations, while still in his mid-thirties Feigen audaciously established a commanding footprint in New York by commissioning Hans Hollein to renovate a townhouse on East Seventy-ninth Street in 1970. The new Feigen Gallery was a shocking addition to the neighborhood’s sober streetscape. Glaringly white and dominated by a huge, two-story, glistening chrome column, the building soon became an admired (or deplored) New York landmark. To the dismay (or glee) of many, the house has, long since, reacquired its staid, well-behaved façade.
Actually, the Feigen Gallery’s stock-in-trade was even more interesting and surprising than its premises. An innovative presence that began appearing there by the early 1960s was modern German art. For obvious reasons, American collectors and museums had never overly embraced it. It was, after all, the expression of a nation that had remained a fierce adversary throughout most of the twentieth century. Despite this, the gallery regularly exhibited works by then-little-known artists such as Emil Nolde, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. They were part of the “German Expressionist” school, an artistic movement that had flourished in the early decades of the last century before being extinguished by Hitler’s regime. Feigen was particularly fond of the painter Max Beckmann, a German artist who had fled Nazi Germany in 1937 and arrived in America, via Holland, in 1948. These artists were the masters of the so-called “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivity), who for the first time were revealed to the American public, an event that would, in itself, have assured for the gallery a place in the art historical firmament.
Remarkably, “the Germans” also occasionally made room on those sleek, modernist walls for “the Italians.” These were generally large, Baroque compositions of explicitly religious subjects, thematically and stylistically a world apart from the likes of Beckmann. The artists’ names were, if possible, then even less familiar than the Germans: Luca Giordano, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (“Guercino”), and Orazio Gentileschi; it made for an exciting and provocative mixture. The presence of many German Expressionist and Italian Baroque masterworks in American museums today would not have been possible without their appearing first at the Feigen Gallery. Not content with what has been (somewhat dismissively) called the “secondary market,” Richard, in association with his longtime associate Frances Beatty, also represented scores of contemporary artists, among them Roy Lichtenstein, Joseph Cornell, John Baldessari, and James Rosenquist. The gallery is entitled to further bragging rights for having given Francis Bacon and Joseph Beuys their first New York shows.
By any measure, Richard was a handsome and commanding figure. Tall, always carefully turned out, and forcefully assertive, he inevitably sucked all the air out of any room he entered. This, as much as his undeniable success, scarcely endeared him to his colleagues. And yet, with Richard, you got what you saw: he never affected those precious mannerisms and inflections prevalent in the art world. While he drove a hard bargain with clients and colleagues, no one ever accused him of skulduggery in his affairs. He never refused to partner with other dealers, as long as he trusted them, adhering always to appropriate etiquette in these relationships. In so many ways, he was invariably the foursquare, plain-dealing American businessman. As such, he was able to engage many of his clients and associates on an even footing; financiers, industrialists, top-tier art world professionals, and Richard always understood each other because they spoke the same language.
This was the man that I met in 1970 when I first returned to New York to continue my pursuit as a painting conservator in private practice. Not surprisingly, I was awed by Richard’s prestige and the grandeur of his gallery. At the same time, Richard, being a card-carrying Italophile, may have been somewhat more amenable to engaging professionally with this visitor from Florence. It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship that made my further activity in New York possible. I now recognize how valuable his trust in me was at this crucial juncture of my career. Eventually, we became good friends and I was able to assess better his genuine passion for things artistic, a passion that could actually cause him occasional reverses and losses. It also became the driving force of his life as a collector. Richard’s “prehensile eye” was, above all, aggressively acquisitive.
One episode is still legendary: the “Feigen–Simon face-off” over the purchase of Reclining Danaë (ca. 1622), a rare and magnificent work by Orazio Gentileschi owned by Tommy Grange, an English dealer. Norton Simon was the wildly successful California financier who had parlayed a tomato-canning business into a huge corporate conglomerate that included brands as diverse as Canada Dry, Avis, and Republic Steel. Simon had also made a noisy debut in the art world by purchasing Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Boy (Titus?) (ca. 1655–60) in a 1965 London auction. It was an event that catapulted the hitherto obscure Californian into the art world stratosphere. Simon, inexperienced but shrewd, had worked out with Christie’s a complicated set of “secret” signals to transmit his intentions to the podium during the sale. He had been too clever by half: the bidding for the painting got terribly muddled and generated an unprecedented and unseemly bagarre. Simon at last prevailed and, for the next two decades, went on to become the world’s most voracious collector.
Feigen had long admired the Danaë and, in 1979, came to an agreement with Grange for its sale. The problem was, Simon believed he, too, had bought the painting. Despite the fact that Feigen counted Simon among his best clients, he did not relent in the tug-of-war that ensued. Unmoved by threats of lawsuits, Feigen held fast and, finally, prevailed: proof that steadfastness is, often, a dealer’s most precious virtue. I was privileged to have been able to enjoy the sumptuous and sexy nude on many occasions as she hung in the upstairs drawing room of Richard’s elegant Fifth Avenue duplex. Nearby, in the hall, was Beckmann’s stark, monumental The Bark (1926), a sort of “Ship of Fools.” What an astonishing juxtaposition—impossible to find in any museum! In the expansive ground-floor dining room were rows of precious fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italian panels—yet another, though somewhat later, pursuit of Richard’s collecting career. As always, his sense for quality and unerring taste guided him in a field where “names” mean little and historical connections are generally lost.
There is simply no period or region of Western European art that did not attract Richard’s “prehensile eye.” While “the eye” was trained on art, it never strayed too far from other targets of opportunity—potential clients. A number of years ago, I was in Jamaica with my family in the vicinity of Port Antonio, and we happened to cross paths with Richard on an enchanted, but somewhat crowded, spot called Frenchman’s Cove. The area is undoubtedly one of the island’s highest rent districts, sprinkled with lovely villas and exclusive clubs. We tried to lure Richard to nearby San-San, a magical and almost deserted beach. Nothing doing: he was ensconced front and center, ready to intercept any and all nabobs who ventured to the water’s edge. Clearly, he was engaged in a very special kind of “fishing” and wanted no distraction.
Once a year, in conjunction with important sales or exhibitions, Richard and his wife Isabelle hosted a lavish “Chinese buffet.” It soon became a tradition, and every dealer, scholar, or collector in town would gather, as if at a convention, to gossip, conspire, and collude. I often thought that it was a real-life manifestation of the “Ship of Fools” metaphor in the next room. But, of course, Richard was no fool. He was the greatest dealer of his generation, whose only rival was Eugene Thaw. “Gene,” unlike Richard, was from the “wrong side of the tracks”: a Jewish boy from Brooklyn who started with a modest print dealership off the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel and progressed to a discreet “maisonette” on Park Avenue and Seventy-first Street. This small, conventionally appointed apartment became a destination for every serious collector, scholar, and art professional—a stop that would inevitably alternate with one to Seventy-ninth Street. For several decades starting in the mid-1960s, E. V. Thaw & Co. and the R. L. Feigen Gallery became two irreplaceable fulcrums of New York’s art establishment. Visiting each of them was an experience that could not have been more different: high-volume flamboyance uptown and hushed intimacy at Gene’s eight blocks down. As a dealer, Thaw was brilliant but took few risks, preferring to collaborate with experienced connoisseurs such as David Carritt in London and Rudolph Heinemann in New York. He also looked for advice from the conservators, specifically Mario Modestini and me. A shy and complicated person, Gene remained steadfastly closed-off and always spoke in a low-key, slightly halting manner that emphasized his conviction and sincerity. I worked with Gene on many projects and admired the mastery of his presentations. He was simply the best salesman I have ever encountered. Although Richard and Gene naturally knew each other, they rarely cooperated on joint projects. I happen to have been privy to a few of Richard’s hilarious tantrums when Gene’s occasionally sanctimonious posturing got the best of him.
An enterprise such as the Feigen Gallery can have no successor; its existence is wholly intertwined and dependent on the personality and character of its founder. Richard remained active in the trade and dynamic in his personal life until recently. A measure of his wisdom is that, when the time came, he knew how to take a step back, in effect ending a brilliant run spanning well over six decades. Perhaps it was just in time. It is difficult to imagine that an imaginative, courageous dealer like Richard Feigen could survive, let alone thrive, in this contemporary world of instant connectivity, wiki-knowledge, relentless “branding,” and fame-mongering. New York, and the greater art world, are certain to be far less interesting places without him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 78
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