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When I began working at Zabriskie Gallery in 1985, my knowledge of 20th-century art and the mechanisms of the market was wholly informal, the product of time spent in museums and galleries and in the company of artists. When I left the gallery four years later, I had a contract for a book on avant-garde art exhibitions and was able to support that project as a private dealer. My education, and transformation, was the result of time spent with Virginia Zabriskie, who passed away at her home in New York on May 7. One of the many important, and undersung, women art dealers of the post-war period, she had created and run two galleries over close to 60 years, one in New York (1954–2010) and the other in Paris (1977–1998).
An event critical to my education occurred soon after I arrived at her gallery on Fifth Avenue just below 57th Street. I was speaking with a client about a watercolor by William Zorach, unaware that Virginia was listening. Just after the client left, she pulled me aside and emphatically stated that she never again wanted to hear me talk about a work that I did not fully know about. And by ‘know’ Virginia meant really knowing — knowledge of the artist and the art historical period, and about that particular piece, its role within the artist’s oeuvre, its provenance, its medium and condition, and its artistic interest. She emphasized the importance of research and of serious thought, reconnecting me with the academic life that I had left a few years before. Of course this same attitude also applied to exhibitions, most notably the significant historical shows that were the product of so much of the gallery’s collective effort. For Virginia, it was important that every exhibition in the gallery should be based on a coherent and worthwhile idea, not merely an assembling of objects united by a superficial theme.
Surveying the gallery’s history, it is noteworthy just how much it was driven by Virginia’s developing interests and distinctive sensibility, rather than by the exigencies of the market. Beginning in 1954 with exhibitions of contemporary artists such as Pat Adams and Lester Johnson, by 1957 she also was showing important historical material, with an emerging focus on American modernism. Exhibitions of sculpture began to appear more frequently in the ’60s, with the gallery program continuing to combine the contemporary and the historical, works by Mary Frank and Richard Stankiewicz being shown alongside those of Elie Nadelman and Alexander Archipenko. With the opening of the Paris gallery in 1977, Virginia’s interest in contemporary and modernist photography became a major focus of her activity, eventually leading her to Surrealist photographs. She discovered Man Ray, who united the American modernism from which she had come and the French avant-garde to which she had moved. And from Surrealist objects by Man Ray and others she was led to Nouveau Réalisme. But Virginia did not jettison the old as she developed these new interests, for the gallery’s business and its exhibition program were cumulative, and things hung together in a striking way.
Virginia’s discerning eye yielded beautiful exhibitions. It was impressive to see her install a show, orchestrating the display according to both immediate response and lessons learned over many years (“always place the biggest piece first”). In a period of larger and larger galleries Virginia found herself increasingly drawn to small spaces, like the room she built at 724 Fifth Avenue in the mid-’80s. She used to say that in her old age she wanted a gallery just that size, which could change from a warm but austere setting for Nadelman’s “The Four Seasons” to a jewel box holding Ruth Nivola’s delicate adornments.
When I first came to Zabriskie I was perplexed by the range of art in the gallery, from Ken Snelson sculptures to Brassai photographs to drawings by Yasuo Kuniyoshi. But after living with exhibition after exhibition, and ferrying things in and out of the back room, I came to see that this disparate work made sense as gathered together by a unique sensibility. Virginia’s sensibility was difficult to characterize, but the works to which she was drawn seemed to exemplify a kind of romantic conceptualism — some more romantic and some more conceptual — in which flights of aesthetic fancy emerge from a base of substantial ideation. The perfect place to see this was in Virginia’s art-filled apartment, which so elegantly condensed the history of the gallery and of her own life in art.
Walking through Virginia’s home was to see much more than a series of gallery moments, for it was to experience a gathering of people who formed a kind of family. From youthful work to historical gems by George Ault or Theodore Roszak, so much of this art was connected to people still to be found at gallery openings or parties at the apartment, where dinner companions might include Gordon Parks or Lucas Samaras. And those of us who had become part of this group — artists, collectors, writers, friends from student years or Art Table meetings, former employees — would happily run into one another at other galleries or museums or art fairs.
Visiting museums with Virginia was unforgettable, and most notable were our trips to the Art Institute of Chicago, a mandatory stop each year when we attended — but never exhibited at — the Chicago Art Fair. (Virginia disliked art fairs, but she would relent when the Art Dealers Association began its own fair at the Park Avenue Armory.) Although she often had been to the Art Institute, each visit was like going there with her for the first time, so alive was she to the work, so engaged and observant. And I always was struck by just how appreciative Virginia was of these experiences, and how aware of the gift that it is to have your life revolve around art and artists. She once told me that the most important reason to purchase art is to support living artists, despite so much of her business depending on historical works. When Virginia said that art is long, she was not speaking as a conservative bemoaning the fast take and ephemeral artist-of-the-moment, but as someone who truly felt the connection between current artistic practice and what had gone before.
It was at the Chicago Art Fair that a chain of events began that was among the most interesting of my years with the gallery. In Carl Solway’s booth we came upon a piece by Allan Kaprow consisting of a display of neckties from which you were invited to take one away. Virginia mentioned that she was a college friend of Allan’s, and I suggested that we do a show with him. So when she ran into him at the Venice Biennale, she asked him to speak with me about an exhibition. In that subsequent conversation Allan said that he did not exhibit objects anymore, but he offered a more exciting possibility. He proposed to come work for us for a while — as he put it, as a “stock boy” — being paid the going rate and doing everything that someone in that position ordinarily would do. So, for some weeks in the fall of 1986, Allan Kaprow was our gallery assistant and backroom helper, manning the front desk and getting lunch, moving sculpture and hanging shows. Of course there were major double-takes as people came in and realized who was sitting at the reception desk. And as we installed an exhibition, we talked about his own artistic practice, and about happenings and Fluxus and the ideas of John Cage, whose New School class on experimental composition he had attended. Allan prompted my own writing on Cage and Fluxus, and it has continued to inform my research. (I also should note that Allan was an extraordinarily efficient gallery assistant, brilliant in retrieving our lunch and dispensing exact change.)
I mention these experiences because they are so characteristic of what being at Zabriskie meant for me, from the interaction with the fascinating people who turned up all of the time, to the way in which working at the gallery stimulated my own development. It was amazing to speak regularly with curators, critics, collectors, and artists about the work they visited Zabriskie to see, from stunning exhibitions like Surrealism 1936 to an individual Arp sculpture or Claude Cahun object. And as a result of those conversations I gained the confidence to write about art. As important as anything were my discussions with Virginia herself, who despite her extensive knowledge always claimed that she was not a scholar and needed others to read for her. Since I often was her designated reader we talked frequently about her developing interests, such as Nouveau Réalisme, or about new research on old concerns. It became increasingly clear to me that Virginia’s métier was ideas, or, more accurately, the visual realization of ideas.
Virginia often mentioned that she had to succeed as an art dealer because with her disabilities she could not get any other job. (She suffered from dystonia, a neurological disorder that troubled her speech and dexterity.) While it is unlikely that a woman of her will and intelligence would fail in anything she set out to do, there was some truth to her remark. For it is difficult to imagine Virginia having done anything else. Her passion for art and for artists, her tenacity in pursuit of particular works, and the pleasure that she took in conceptualizing and mounting exhibitions, all of this was as essential to Virginia as was her formidable energy. Rooted in the gallery practice of an earlier era, this remarkable woman prefigured in a unique way central features of our current art world, producing curatorially driven exhibitions and combining the historical and the contemporary in an international gallery program.