Nostalgia for the Golden Age of Art Dealing

Mike Berg at Stremmel Gallery.

Mike Berg at Stremmel Gallery.

The notion that collectors sit atop the hierarchy of today’s art world is axiomatic. They build private museums and control the boards of traditional ones. Through their acquisitions, they determine the fates of artists, and often overshadow curators, historians, and critics—all those ink-stained intellectuals who used to play a larger role in determining art’s value.

And yet, one must not discount the supplier. On the primary market—the placement of new work straight from artists’ studios—art dealers often shape collectors’ tastes. On both the primary and secondary, or resale, markets, they shepherd artworks onto collectors’ walls (or, as the case may be, into their freeport storage spaces in Geneva or Singapore). In a recent profile of David Zwirner in the New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten wrote that “one prominent collector referred to Zwirner as his top ‘go-get guy.’ To go and get, you have to know who owns what, how he or his heirs feel about it, how desperately they may need money.” Certain dealers are now celebrities. “Call Larry Gagosian, you belong in museums,” rapped Jay-Z, an art collector himself, and one of Gagosian’s high-profile clients.

But even as the world’s most powerful art dealers become household names, there is a pervasive sense that some of them have lost their aesthetic compass, if they ever had one, that they’ve abandoned the idea of taking an aesthetic position in favor of global domination. Today’s so-called mega-galleries have outposts in all the world’s major cities (16 shops and, quite possibly, counting, in Gagosian’s case); by necessity, they have taken on dozens of artists, being perhaps more concerned about having available product than a coherent program. “Now, they’re department stores,” as critic Dave Hickey put it ten years ago, when the mega-gallery phenomenon was ramping up. “Stables of artists once embodied the taste of the gallerist. Now everybody has one of each: your Iranian minimalist photographer, your elegant object maker, your Berlin pornographer.”

It should come as no surprise that this has led to nostalgia for the great art dealers of the past, as a raft of recent books and exhibitions demonstrates. Published this past summer, Judith E. Stein’s Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art looks at the inscrutable man behind New York’s Green Gallery, a venue that opened in 1960 and appears near the bottom of many great artists’ CVs, from Dan Flavin to Robert Morris to Mark di Suvero. This fall, Virginia Dwan is getting the star treatment from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., with “Los Angeles to New York: Dwan Gallery 1959–1971,” a show tied to the donation of much of Dwan’s formidable collection of Minimal, Conceptual, Pop, and Land Art to the museum. And Skira is publishing a book about Dwan by curator and art historian Germano Celant.

Stein’s Bellamy is the ideal contemporary art dealer: resolutely principled, endlessly curious, a creative force in his own right. He turned down the sale of a work by Tadaaki Kuwayama to collector Larry Aldrich, explaining to the artist, “he’s not good enough to have your artwork,” only to add, “if you really need money, you can sell it, but not through me.”

Backed by taxi fleet tycoon and art collector Robert Scull, the Green Gallery was located on 57th Street, at the center of what was then New York’s dominant gallery district. All of this makes it sound like a more professional operation than it was—Bellamy was often drunk and not particularly disciplined in courting collectors. Still, the gallery has cast a long shadow, and as early as 1972 was the subject of nostalgic praise. That year, Hofstra University in New York eulogized the Green’s five-year run with an exhibition of the work Bellamy had shown there.

To read more from ARTNEWS, click here.