Art for Everyday People

The Jewish Museum celebrates Russian-immigrant gallerist, Edith Halpert, promoter of American art

07 Nov 2019 | 12:50

New York art dealer Edith Halpert (1900-1970) may have zero name recognition, but the names of the artists she represented in her more than four-decade career are eminently recognizable: Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Elie Nadelman, Jacob Lawrence and so many more. She opened the Downtown Gallery in free-spirited Greenwich Village in 1926, when she was only 26, and made it a showcase for contemporary American art—and just that—the first art space of its kind.

One of the city’s original female gallerists, she had a simple, very American formula: democratize art and make it accessible to everyday people. Take it off the pedestal and offer it up at affordable prices, on the installment plan. “Before she came along, art collecting, and even going to museums, was a fairly exclusive activity,” curator Rebecca Shaykin told us. “She really did a lot to make art popular and keep her gallery welcoming and unintimidating ... She encouraged people to buy and feel like anybody could be an art collector if you love art and you want to live with it.”

New Ideas, Great Art

Halpert, who had a background in retail, held print sales in December to encourage purchases of art for the holidays, and advertised end-of-season markdowns to lure buyers. “You had to attract [clients] with ideas ... nobody ever dreamed of giving a work of art for Christmas," the exhibit catalog quotes her. "That was a new idea. They’d come in, they’d look around, and they’d see a print, a lithograph, or something, and for twenty-five bucks they could give somebody a gift and prove that they were very cultured people."

She located her gallery in a townhouse at 113 West 13th Street, near artists’ studios and far from the swank galleries in Midtown. Her story is the story of a self-made Russian-Jewish immigrant who had a knack for business and a major hand “in helping to shape and define what American art is—somebody who had a very inclusive vision of what American art and culture could be,” Shaykin said.

As the show here demonstrates, she not only identified many of the major modern artists of the 20th century, but she also took pains to seek out a range of talent—women, African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews—practicing in a range of styles. She guided collectors like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Duncan Phillips, whose holdings were subsequently donated to major public institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

The exhibit of some 100 items is replete with abstract beauties by Stuart Davis (“Egg Beater No. 1,” 1927), precisionist works by Charles Sheeler (“Americana,” 1931), social realist works by Ben Shahn (“Hunger,” 1946), boldly colored paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s Harlem Series (“This is Harlem, 1943), plus prints, sculpture and folk art.

Trailblazing, and Controversy

Because Halpert’s embrace of American art had one foot in the present but another foot in the past. She saw the aesthetic value of naïve portraits and quintessentially American objects like weather vanes, trade signs and Shaker boxes, and founded a second gallery, the American Folk Art Gallery, on the second floor of her establishment to showcase these “American ancestors.” (The Downtown Gallery eventually migrated uptown to East 51st Street in 1940, but kept its name.)

As Lithuanian-born artist William Zorach, part of her roster, put it: “[She] did not take the easy way of promoting and selling European art where the path was clear and well trodden. She ... realized that if this country was ever to have an American art, it had to come out of American artists.”

A savvy businesswoman, she never shied away from controversy; in fact, she turned it to her advantage. One of the most dramatic items on view here is Zorach’s “Spirit of the Dance” (1932), a bronze sculpture of a nude female dancer, captured at the moment her performance ends. The artist was commissioned to produce a figurative piece for the lower lounge of the brand-new Radio City Music Hall, then the largest theater in the world. But the nude he presented, cast in polished aluminum, shocked Radio City’s owner, “Roxy” Rothafel, and was removed shortly before the theater’s scheduled opening, to the consternation of many in the art world and beyond.

Enter Edith Halpert, who took the original plaster iteration and exhibited it with great fanfare at her Downtown Gallery, just hours before the curtain rose at Radio City on opening night, December 27, 1932. The stunt worked, and the result was a stream of favorable press. The New York Times enthused that “Spirit” was “one of the most significant pieces of plastic art ever produced in America.” Radio City caved, and the censored sculpture was ultimately returned to the music hall where it belonged, and where it can now be seen in the Grand Lounge.

Halpert’s promotion of modern American artists at the expense of the European avant-garde is but one of her lasting contributions, of course. As a woman in art who was “kind of a one-woman band,” Shaykin said, she was also “an incredible inspiration to the next generation—to gallerists and curators and the collectors who came up under her guidance.”

IF YOU GO

What: “Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art”

Where: The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave at 92nd St

When: Through February 9, 2020.

thejewishmuseum.org