The Galerie St. Etienne traditionally devotes the summer months to displaying its recent acquisitions, but the exhibition title is to some extent misleading, as these surveys represent more than a mere compilation of the latest additions to our inventory. The summer show provides an opportunity to take stock of the season just past and to present an overview of the works by those artists who are central to the gallery’s vision. Then, too, while scholarly themes dominate the exhibition schedule from autumn through spring, the Recent Acquisitions show, by virtue of its anthologizing nature, reflects more directly on the current state of the art market.
Three summers ago, as the buying frenzy of the late 1980s was reaching its apogee, our checklist essay cautioned against the commodification of art. Today, this trend has almost completely reversed itself. With the speculators largely driven from the field and prices at sensible levels, the atmosphere is far more hospitable to the true collector. In keeping with the heightened accessibility of the present art scene, the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1992-93 exhibition schedule was particularly eclectic, with offerings ranging from Art Spiegelman’s drawings for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning comic book, Maus, to an historical overview of The Dance of Death that included works from Albrecht Dürer to Otto Dix. A season that began in September with a Käthe Kollwitz retrospective, ended several weeks ago with a survey of “Outsider” art. Today, more than ever before, the academic distinctions between “high” and “low” art no longer apply; quality transcends such artificial boundaries.
The present exhibition recaps the highlights of the last ten months, while simultaneously foreshadowing major events of 1993-94. In the subsection devoted to Austrian and German art are works by Ernst Barlach, Lovis Corinth, George Grosz, Gustav Klimt, Max Klinger, Käthe Kollwitz, Alfred Kubin, Emil Nolde and Egon Schiele (who will be the subject next year of a major traveling museum exhibition, curated by our gallery). Among the nonacademic artists are not only longtime St. Etienne favorites John Kane and Grandma Moses, but also a number of important European artists, such as Camille Bombois, Dominique Lagru, Michel Nedjar, Sava Sekulic, Friedrich Schröder-Sonnenstern, Scottie Wilson and Josef Wittlich. Also represented are our two contemporary artists, Sue Coe (whose latest work will be featured at the gallery this fall) and Art Spiegelman (represented not only by a selection of Maus drawings, but also by several of his much talked about recent pieces for The New Yorker).
Diverse though the above artists may seem, they do share a common ground. The art of both Käthe Kollwitz and of Sue Coe is a call to arms, a protest against appalling social conditions. Many people are surprised to learn that Kolliwtz (who was effectively banned from working by the Nazis) never depicted the Holocaust, so poignantly does some of her work evoke Hitler’s “final solution.” Art Spiegelman, the son of Auschwitz survivors, has attempted to grapple more overtly with the horrifying reality of Nazi Germany and also with the endemic racism and divisive moral choices that still plague modern society. A gentler and more elegant sensibility is conveyed by the Austrians Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele, yet they were equally interested in troubling psychological and personal issues. As has frequently been noted, the Galerie St. Etienne’s artists are united by their concern with the human condition.
Beyond this, however, the Galerie St. Etienne has always first and foremost been guided by considerations on quality, rather than by accepted orthodoxies. We resolutely championed Austrian and German art at a time when the French view of modernism reigned supreme, and women artists long before they became politically fashionable. Maus may be the first comic book to gain widespread respectability, but St. Etienne has long believed in the legitimacy of popular artforms. It was, after all, the pioneer modernists who originally challenged the high/low dichotomy with their acceptance of nonacademic art, and the Galerie St. Etienne’s advocacy of such artists as Grandma Moses is a logical manifestation of this underlying principle. The present moment is one in which many traditional artistic prejudices are being demolished, and previously ignored or despised aesthetic phenomena are coming in for renewed attention. Some conservative critics have seen in these developments an attack on quality, but nothing could be further from the truth. Only when we abandon our arbitrarily determined preconceptions can genuine quality in art be recognized.