The Girl With the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the making of the modern art market
By Lindsay Pollock
PublicAffairs, 368 pages, $30.
This past November 6, on a mild autumn evening, some 150 people gathered in Manhattan at the Spain Restaurant on West 13th Street to toast the publication of Lindsay Pollock’s “The Girl With the Gallery.” It was 80 years to the day since Edith Gregor Halpert, the subject of Pollock’s first book, opened her historic Downtown Gallery in that spot, promoting American modernists when their European counterparts overshadowed them. The bohemian Greenwich Village of the day, with its bootleggers, brothels, smoky tea rooms and long-haired artists, would be unrecognizable to the eatery’s loyal patrons and staff, none of whom even knew of Halpert until Pollock started frequenting the place.
Over the next two weeks, uptown at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the art world was astounded as more than $1 billion changed hands in record-breaking modern and contemporary auctions. Here, too, the landscape has transformed dramatically. New York is now the capital of a frenzied international market, but even in these circles Halpert isn’t well known.
Pollock, a reporter for Bloomberg News, first encountered her subject at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2001 retrospective of African American artist Jacob Lawrence, whom Halpert had plucked from obscurity. Delving into microfilm archives that were thankfully digitized by the time she landed a book deal in 2003, Pollock discovered how this Jewish immigrant — “a little girl from Odessa,” as she would say, “with her hands on her hips and a shimmy” — shaped the modern art market: mounting themed exhibitions with catalogs, presenting the latest work in sleek settings, brilliantly marketing her artists and carefully building important collections. But her once avant-garde stable was eclipsed by the sexier abstract expressionists and pop artists, though Pollock insists that “postwar American art couldn’t have taken off without her.”
Much as it is a story of the nascence of New York’s art market by an art journalist, the thoroughly researched book is a broader history, embellished with rich anecdotes about a bygone New York from prohibition through the Great Depression and World War II. A section on the 1934 construction of Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall primarily illustrates how Halpert jockeyed for her artists to win commissions, but also conveys how this “massive futuristic skyscraper city transform[ed] five blocks of ragtag tenements into world-class office space.”
The biography is also a classic tale of the penniless immigrant who fulfilled the American dream without a college degree but with ingenuity to spare. Born Ginda Fivoosiovitch in 1900, she immigrated to Harlem in 1906, among hundreds of thousands of Jews escaping discrimination and violence. Culturally Jewish but not religious — Halpert boasted that she served her mother’s borscht recipe to her longtime client Abby Aldrich Rockefeller — her family quickly dropped Yiddish and shortened their name. (Gregor was her late father’s name; Halpert came from her faltering marriage to American painter Samuel Halpert.)
Young Edith boosts business at her moth-er’s corner store by blowing air into peanut sacks to make the packages more enticing. Although she has only the fuzziest idea what a comptometer is (a precursor to the calculator), she lands a job as an accountant at Bloomingdale’s and then as a clerk at Macy’s, where she wins over the store’s head, Jesse Isidor Straus, when she complains about conditions in the cafeteria. Picking up on the growing demand for “systematizers” — today’s management consultants — Halpert becomes a wildly successful “efficiency expert.”
But art was her passion, and while her own artistic ambitions were quashed, she applied the same talent and daring to chart a new path as one of the first women dealers. Her blend of vision and chutzpah achieved great results, whether she was marching into Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s office with a proposal for “saving American art” or driving around in her flapper-era Hupmobile searching for folk art treasures. (She is credited with creating the market for unschooled artists.) From corporate collections to collaborations with department stores, she thought of it long before anyone else. Apparently, the use of an “exhibidor” — a device that rotated pictures — was her invention.
If entrepreneurship is the quintessential American trait, Halpert also embodied another hallmark of Jewish immigrants in particular: She was progressive, equally committed to avant-garde expression and social equality. At 17, Halpert was elected treasurer of the People’s Art Guild, established by Eastern European Jewish immigrants concerned about the “prevailing art conditions in our ghetto.” The guild organized dozens of exhibitions, including one at the Forward’s headquarters so popular that the police were called in to control crowds.
Halpert mounted the first major show of African American artists and put together a Yasuo Kuniyoshi retrospective in 1942, when the Japanese native was classified as “an enemy alien.” During the Red Scare, as modern art by the likes of Stuart Davis and Ben Shahn was increasingly attacked as un-American, Halpert helped form the Progressive Citizens of America and compared critiques by magazine publisher William Randolph Hearst of paintings from “an alien culture” rooted in a “European sickness” to Hitler’s tirades against works he deemed “enemies of civilization and culture.”
So it is especially surprising that she wasn’t outspoken against the escalating genocide of her fellow Jews. “I read everything and only saw one reference,” Pollock said, noting Halpert’s distressful recollection of a report from Alfred H. Barr Jr., director of the Museum of Modern Art, that the Nazis were stripping art from museum walls. The book includes only one mention of Halpert directly confronting antisemitism, and she does so with humor. As she recounts: “[Edsel Ford] was terribly ashamed about his [father, Henry’s] labor fights, the goons and the anti-Semitic publications. I was on the verge of becoming anti-labor and anti-Semitic to cheer him up.”
Indeed, there is some recognition that, in her single-minded devotion to her artists, Halpert may have missed the boat, especially as her faculties faltered and tastes changed radically. She turned down the opportunity to represent Jackson Pollock and lamented Andy Warhol’s “most vulgarized version of commercial art.” But you get the sense that, overall, the author feels Halpert was genuinely disturbed by a growing “emphasis on money and profits,” and that her artists have been given short shrift. While Halpert shied away from snobbery, the question remains to what extent her egalitarianism was fueled by pragmatism, given the unpopularity of modern American art and the scarcity of funds.
The book’s final scene, at Sotheby’s 1973 auction of Halpert’s collection, leaves no doubt that she left an indelible mark. Then the largest trove of its kind ever to go on the auction block, it brought $3.6 million, putting the field of American paintings on the map. (The latest round of these now biannual sales brought more than $82 million at Sotheby’s, and an additional $38.2 million at Christie’s, where the blue-chip offerings included a bone painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, with Downtown Gallery provenance, that sold for $553,000.) In the pages leading up to that finale, Pollock makes the compelling case that Halpert deserves credit for the very presence of a brisk homegrown market and, in countless ways, raised the bar in the presentation of art so that even when you’re not aware of it, her influence is everywhere.
Jeannie Rosenfeld, a former editor of Art + Auction magazine, is a writer based in New York. She specializes in fine and decorative arts and design.