Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2001
Malcolm Goldstein Landscape with Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States Oxford University Press, 2000. 370 pp. Cloth (019513673X)

The art market has become headline news: Masterpiece paintings regularly achieve prices in the tens of millions of dollars, prominent museum curators appear on television broadcasts, and glossy magazines feature New York art dealers on their covers. Various publications and exhibitions have examined certain periods in the development of the fine art market and commercial galleries in the United States, including, most notably, Linda Henefield Skalet’s “The Market for American Painting in New York: 1870-1915” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins, 1980), the Zabriskie Gallery’s Charles Daniel and The Daniel Gallery 1913-1932 (New York: Zabriskie Gallery, 1993), and Sarah Greenough’s exhibition at the National Gallery and its accompanying catalogue, Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 2000). In spite of this interest, no single analysis of the history of art dealing in the U.S. from colonial times to the present has been written. It is a fascinating story, for the question is not only how the art market evolved in the U.S., but how America—and more specifically New York—emerged as the center of both the international art market and the contemporary art scene.

Malcolm Goldstein attempts to address this lack in Landscape with Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States. In his estimation, this is a subject of great popular appeal, for the “increased attendance at museums since the Second World War by all but the least sophisticated members of American Society provides unquestionable evidence of the hold that art has gained on the consciousness of the nation” (xii). Unlike Raymonde Moulin’s groundbreaking study of the state-sponsored French system, The French Art Market: A Sociological View (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), Goldstein’s book is not intended to be a scholarly and sophisticated analysis of the interplay between economic and cultural forces in the art market, nor an investigation of the more arcane manipulations by dealers, collectors, and auction houses to develop a market for an artist or an artistic style. His aim is to chart the growth of American art galleries through a look at the personalities of key players in the fields of American and European art, centered primarily, but not exclusively, in New York. The view is biographical and the audience is the museum-going, culture-seeking general public.

Goldstein’s account is even-handed and congenial. Beginning with the development of the colonial art market from the itinerant portraitists and the cabinetmakers, framers, and other artisans who hung pictures on the walls of shops devoted to their principal trades, he focuses on the early New York picture enthusiast Michael Paff. In 1812, “Old Paff,” as he was known, proposed to “enlighten the public” though the study of works—including those by Benjamin West, Gilbert Stuart, and Thomas Sully—in his vast picture gallery (7). Paff offered this education through an admission fee or annual subscription charge, establishing methods of generating funds that continued throughout the early years of the century at artists’ open studios and at the American Art Union. By the 1850s, dealers had opened shops where prospective clients were sold paintings in luxurious surroundings, thus creating the first art galleries in the U.S. Two representatives from the French firm of Goupil & Company, Michael Knoedler and William Schaus, along with New Yorkers Samuel Avery and John Snedecor, began presenting contemporary European and American art in the new world. A rapid expansion in the taste for French and Italian paintings following the Civil War caused European firms such as Duveen Brothers and Durand-Ruel to establish New York branches. Soon, E. Gimpel and Wildenstein would follow suit. William Macbeth created the first gallery devoted exclusively to the promotion of American art in 1892. The success of men like Macbeth and Newman E. Montross—along with additional factors, including congressional trade policies, fairs and international expositions, art organizations, individual collectors, and auctions—contributed to the emergence of a substantial market for American art by the early years of the twentieth century. (Skalet concluded that the prices for American paintings equaled those for European art by 1915.)

Goldstein’s interpretation of the rise of modernism—with episodic looks at the careers of Alfred Stieglitz, Peggy Guggenheim, and Edith Halpert, and then the pioneering postwar art dealers Samuel Kootz, Betty Parsons, and Sidney Janis—progresses toward the pinnacle of success, Leo Castelli. Indeed, his history of art dealing in America is a prologue to the inauguration of the Castelli Gallery in 1957, for “it took a long succession of sellers of art to create the environment into which such a super salesman as Leo Castelli stepped when he opened his gallery” (xii). The small galleries and influential personalities that emerged in the New York’s East Village during the closing decades of the twentieth century are a postscript to Castelli’s achievement.

Goldstein’s book is a synthesis of previously published materials, offering little original research and new sources. What is of some interest is Goldstein’s charting of who worked for whom—indicating how small the art world actually was—and of how art dealers emerged from other art dealers. We are repeatedly informed about Max Ernst’s religion or Peggy Guggenheim’s refashioning of her nose, but her commissioning of an apartment mural from Jackson Pollock, considered the breakthrough moment in his career, is recorded without sufficient analysis. A reference to Clara Davidge omits mention of her standing as the first female art dealer in New York, which is discussed in an article by Christine Oaklander (Archives of American Art Journal 36, no. 3/4 1996: 20-37). At times, Goldstein’s grasp of the creative process seems plainly naive. For example, his suggestion that Jasper Johns’s sculpture with two Ballantine beer cans, Painted Bronze (1960), was nothing more than a speedy response to an off-handed challenge implicit in Willem de Kooning’s remark, “That sonofabitch Castelli could sell anything, even a pair of beer cans,” fails to address the iconography of commonplace images in Johns’s work (288).

The book could have benefited from a good copy editor. Several typographic mistakes appear, including the inversion of Gilbert Stuart’s name (8) and the recurring footnote citation AoAA for the Archives of American Art, when the commonly used abbreviation AAA is established earlier on (326, n. 20).

For a publication on the visual arts, requisite high quality photographic material is disappointedly lacking here. Some of the illustrations, though, are fun. Joseph Cornell’s inclusion of the face of Julian Levy in a collage, or the more acerbic Portrait of Sidney Janis Selling Portrait of Sidney Janis by Marisol, hint at the complex attitudes artists develop towards their dealers. A photograph of the Surrealist gallery at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century has been reproduced innumerable times, as has the group portrait of the artists known as the Irascibles. Certainly, a search through the photographic collections of the Museum of the City of New York or the Archives of American Art could have yielded more unusual and rewarding results.

Mary Lublin
New York