Defending Artistic Freedom

Book cover
The Girl With the Galleryby Lindsay Pollock

Public Affairs. 464p $30

Do not be misled by this book’s title. The use of girl here hints at a touch of innocence and naïveté that assuredly does not apply to the book’s subject.

The art journalist Lindsay Pollock’s The Girl With the Gallery reconstructs the life of a groundbreaking and largely overlooked woman who served as the midwife for the emergence of the modern art market in America. Working from gallery records and other personal material donated by Edith Halpert to the Archives of American Art (part of the Smithsonian Institution), Pollock has puzzled together the people and events that tell the story of a most remarkable individual.

From the time she opened her first gallery in 1926 while still in her 20’s, until she passed away 44 years later, Edith Gregor Halpert combined a savvy sense of merchandising with a shrewd eye for artistic talent. Though people called her many things during her lifetime, few, if any, of those who knew her well would label Edith Halpert naïve.

Even after aspiring to be a painter but told she had no talent, the young Russian-born girl continued to associate with members of the art community. A month after she turned 18, Edith’s involvement reached a new level when she married the artist Sam Halpert. The marriage would eventually end in divorce, but by that time Edith’s life had taken a new direction, which placed her at the center of New York’s art world.

Throughout her life Halpert was no stranger to setbacks and hardship. Referring to an unpleasant incident from her youth, she wrote, I stopped crying at the age of six. I never cried thereafter. Adopting this stoic attitude enabled Halpert, throughout her life, to weather personal and financial storms that would have blown other individuals off course.

Accepting the fact she could not create brilliant canvasses herself, Edith elected to provide a venue where the works of her friends could be viewed and purchased. First dubbed Our Galleryeventually changed to the Downtown GalleryHalpert’s venture on West 13th Street became one of the first New York galleries to showcase American moderns.

Her intuitive understanding of promotion enabled the young gallery owner to create a wider audience for such artists as her husband, Sam Halpert, Stuart Davis, William Zorach, Robert Laurent, Jacob Lawrence, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Ben Shahn and Georgia O’Keeffe.

In a sense, the Downtown Gallery became Edith Halpert’s canvas and the artists she represented her brush. The picture that took form, a collage of modern American artists, eventually garnered the attention of collectors from New York to San Francisco.

Supported by patrons like Mrs. John D. Rockefeller and other members of her family, the gallery created a buzz that helped contemporary American artists break the stranglehold Paris had on the art market in the first part of the 1900’s. The painters and sculptures Halpert represented were focused on creating a modern American vernacular, and it was Edith’s job to sell it to the public.

Although she was quite protective of her artists and willing to provide financial handouts when necessary, the gallery owner was also a shrewd businesswoman. Portrayed as an underdog throughout much of her career as a gallery owner, Halpert, Pollock stresses, had been forced to fight for everything.

From the very beginning, Halpert espoused the philosophy that artwork should be affordable. Hoping to appeal to a wider audience than many other galleries, her strategy was to sell minor pictures for low prices to young collectors who did not have much money.

Conversely, the owner of the Downtown Gallery recommended holding back the A pictures to offer to serious collectors for high prices. Finally, Halpert felt a painter’s finest or A plus work should be reserved and sold only to such art institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art.

Pollock does not shy away from the less attractive aspects of her subject’s personality, but she does not dwell on them either. Considered by some of her peers and clients to be pushy, brash and opportunistic, Halpert was not averse to displays of temper, especially in her later years. Those who knew her sometimes described her as a woman who could be quite difficult; but even taking her personal peccadilloes into account, Halpert earned the begrudging respect of those around her.

Since the author relied heavily on her subject’s own stories while writing this biography, Pollock occasionally uses qualifying terminology when she feels that Halpert’s words need to be taken with a bit of skepticism. In some passages, for instance, the words claimed or version convey to the reader that this particular material was difficult (if not impossible) to corroborate. On other occasions Pollock warns that Halpert likely embellished an account of a particular event.

Late in her life Halpert began writing her autobiography, but in the 1960’s a brain tumor led to her rapid deterioration. Eventually declared incompetent and hospitalized, she died at the age of 70 without finishing the work.

Fortunately, Lindsay Pollock found Edith Halpert mentioned on a simple wall label at a retrospective of Jacob Lawrence at the Whitney Museum in 2001. Wondering who this woman was and why she had never heard of her, Pollock did some digging. The rest, as they say, is history.

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