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In the 1980s, certain New York art dealers revved up the hype machine so powerfully that its sheer volume made their sales pitches impossible to ignore. Their marketing strategy seemed to be: Shout — or boast — loudly enough about your merchandise, and the broader art world will sit up and take notice. Its legacy can be found today in the hyperventilating hyperbole that still dominates many a gallery’s press release.
By contrast, a long-established venue like Manhattan’s Galerie St. Etienne has quietly weathered years of critical storms and avoided the fickleness and fad-chasing that often numb the art world’s collective consciousness. Instead, it has insisted almost stubbornly on a way of thinking about, presenting, and promoting art that puts an understanding of its aesthetic value — and pointedly not its monetary worth — first, supporting its exhibitions with diligent research and an appreciation of old-fashioned connoisseurship. It’s an approach that might seem downright alien in some precincts of today’s marketing-driven art world.
Still, the gallery’s managers must have been doing something right, for it is now celebrating eight decades of continuous operation with Looking for America, an exhibition that will remain on view through July 3. Featuring works by, among others, John Kane, Edward Hicks, Morris Hirshfield, Henry Darger, and Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses, it is the first of a series of presentations Galerie St. Etienne will mount this year to commemorate its 80th anniversary. There is an emphasis in this group show on artists who were self-taught.
Over the course of its history, the gallery has exhibited everything from the modernist paintings, drawings, and prints of such European artists as Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele, and Käthe Kollwitz (German-Austrian Expressionism has been one of its specialties), to the New England folk art of Grandma Moses, the outsider art of Darger, and the unabashedly political drawings and prints of the British-American contemporary artist Sue Coe.
“On August 22, 1939, my grandfather, Otto Kallir, landed in New York, along with my grandmother, father, and aunt,” Jane Kallir, the gallery’s current director, writes in the exhibition pamphlet that accompanies Looking for America. Otto and his family, she adds, “had made it out of their native Austria a mere three months after the Nazi Anschluss [annexation of Austria] in 1938.” By November 1939, Otto opened his new Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan, the successor to the original Neue Galerie he had earlier founded in Vienna.
She continues, “Galerie St. Etienne’s opening exhibition, Austrian Masters, was dismissed as ‘quaint’ by the New York press,” whose estimation of the works of Klimt and Schiele was discouraging.” Conversely, Kallir writes, New York’s contemporary-art scene struck her grandfather as being “impossibly provincial,” prompting him to remark, “It reminds me of Berlin in 1918, with all the speculative snobbism and lack of understanding.”
Still, Otto Kallir persevered. “My grandfather had very eclectic tastes,” Jane Kallir told me during an interview at the gallery, which is now located on West 57th Street. She noted, “One time, he even presented a show of cacti.”
One of Otto’s interests was what was known in the early decades of the 20th century as “primitive” art. In early 1940, after a collector showed him some of the works by untrained artists he had discovered around the Northeast, Kallir was especially attracted to the paintings of Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961), which vividly depicted rural life. Later that year, he gave the self-taught artist a solo show, What a Farmwife Painted.
One review noted that the painter was known in Eagle Bridge, her upstate New York hometown, as “Grandma Moses,” and the moniker became her indelible nom d’artiste. Kallir wrote the first book about Moses, who would go on to become the best-known American folk artist ever; it was published in 1946. In the early 1970s, his catalogue raisonné of her oeuvre appeared.
Otto Kallir died in 1978, and granddaughter Jane took over running the gallery as a co-director with Hildegard Bachert, his longtime “secretary” (in fact, her role had long encompassed much more than her job title suggested). It was Bachert, whose family also had fled the Nazis in the 1930s, to whom Grandma Moses dictated the reminiscences that became the painter’s autobiography, My Life’s History (1952). Bachert also contributed substantially to the Moses catalogue raisonné.
Jane Kallir studied art history and studio art at Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, and also took art courses at the Rhode Island School of Design. “When I became co-director,” she recalled, “after having worked at the gallery since the previous year as a ‘junior secretary,’ it was at a point of near-dormancy that had coincided with the decline of Otto’s health. By that time, its main commercial activity seemed to be selling its old exhibition catalogs.”
Jane realized that the gallery would have to reestablish its identity but, going into the 1980s, she had neither the resources nor the inclination to play the hype game in an effort to raise its profile. Instead, she and Bachert organized a series of exhibitions that reexamined subjects with which the gallery had been deeply engaged, including German-Austrian Expressionism and the work of Grandma Moses, often borrowing back works it had sold over the decades — pieces that once had been overlooked or dismissed but now were regarded as emblematic of their genres.
“All of those memorial shows had catalogues that were co-published with major trade publishers,” Jane Kallir recalled, adding, “No gallery was doing this at that time. We also produced and sold widely distributed posters for each of those exhibitions.”
In time, Galerie St. Etienne landed representation of the estate of Henry Darger (1892–1973), the reclusive, Chicago-based autodidact who became posthumously famous for In the Realms of the Unreal, his epic narrative filled with Victorian-era girls in good-versus-evil battles, and for a large group of mixed-media pictures related to it. In the 1980s, the artist Sue Coe bought a Käthe Kollwitz print from Galerie St. Etienne and got to know its unusual exhibition program. Sometime after leaving P.P.O.W., a high-profile contemporary-art gallery in Manhattan, she asked Kallir if she could join Galerie St. Etienne’s group of artists.
“We tried to talk her out of it,” Kallir explained, for “we were focused on presenting historical material. Handling contemporary art in that 1980s atmosphere was not a game we were equipped to play!” Still, in time, Coe’s work found a comfortable home among that of her Expressionist forebears and other artists represented in the gallery’s diverse stable.
“What unites all of the art we’ve shown,” Kallir noted, “is that it all has had a very humanistic core; it’s not about trends, and although our artists all achieve a level of aesthetic quality, it’s not about aesthetics or formalism as an end in itself; it’s about using form to put forward content of some sort, content that relates to the human experience and is emotionally moving or enriching in some way.”
Looking for America features such emblematic examples of American art as Grandma Moses’ “Bringing in the Maple Sugar” (1940, oil on pressed wood), whose air of urgent communal labor is tempered by the sprightly play of two children dancing in the snow, oblivious to the busyness around them. Also on view is “John Kane and His Wife “ (circa 1928, oil on canvas), a double portrait by the Pittsburgh-based painter John Kane (1860-1934), who was born in Scotland and immigrated to the US, where he worked on the railway and in coal mines, and first started painting on cast-off boards.
“Opera Girl” (1941, oil on canvas), by the New York garment-industry worker Morris Hirshfield, aspires to some kind of elegant chic, despite the amusingly impossible proportions of its subject’s stylized hands, which clasp a luxurious red cape. Also on display are preliminary drawings whose designs Hirshfield traced or pin-pricked onto his paintings’ surfaces.
Jane Kallir writes in the exhibition’s pamphlet, “[T]he best self-taught artists work in a manner comparable to their trained colleagues.” She notes that their creations “deserve to be approached with the same degree of academic rigor” as those of their “professional” counterparts.
“Lincoln’s First Cabinet” (circa 1861, oil on cardboard) seems to prove that point. However off-kilter it might now appear, in its time, the rich detail furnished by its anonymous maker may well have helped it serve as a valuable document of an emerging, self-conscious historical moment.
In 2017, Otto Kallir’s family established the Kallir Research Institute, a non-profit foundation that continues pursuing the art-historical research for which Galerie St. Etienne’s founder was known. Among its projects: creating online catalogues raisonnés for the work of Schiele, Grandma Moses, and the Austrian painter Richard Gerstl (1883–1908), a maker of psychologically intense portraits.
For now, Looking for America, which calls attention to the diversity among a group of self-taught artists whose careers collectively spanned more than a century, also celebrates some of the variety of the gallery’s aesthetic concerns. In honoring its founder’s interests and legacy, it serves as a reminder that, sometimes, the dogged pursuit of a personal vision can be a more potent force than noisy self-promotion for expanding a modest commercial enterprise into an enduring institution.
Looking for America continues at Galerie St. Etienne (24 West 57th Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through July 3.