In the years since Otto Kallir, founder of Galerie St. Etienne, died in 1978, we have periodically reminded our visitors of the gallery’s lengthy history. Our most noteworthy efforts in this vein were the Kallir memorial exhibitions mounted in the early 1980s (loan shows on a scale that, given subsequent increases in values, could never be duplicated today) and our fiftieth-anniversary series in 1989. This year’s fifty-fifth anniversary happens to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Otto Kallir’s birth, and the present exhibition is therefore dedicated to his achievements.
Kallir was one of a generation of art dealers who transformed the New York art world in the period immediately preceding and following World War II. When he came to New York in 1939--having been driven from his native Austria a year earlier by the Nazi Anschluss--the American art scene was still surprisingly provincial. The 1913 Armory show and the First World War had occasioned fleeting contact with European modernism, but interest on this side of the Atlantic was confined to a relatively small minority. It would take the mass exodus of European intellectuals spurred by Hitler’s cultural policies, and the subsequent rise of the United States as a global super-power, to make America a full-fledged partner in the modernist enterprise.
Most early champions of the avant-garde--here and in Europe--approached their task with a missionary zeal that was sharpened by the often hostile responses of an uninformed public, but Kallir was unusual in the breadth and eclecticism of his enthusiasms. For one thing, he was almost naively optimistic about the potential of the twentieth century. Modern art was just one facet along a wide progressive continuum encompassing a host of allied cultural and scientific advances. (His collection of aeronautica, a mere sideline to his multiple professional pursuits, won awards in many nations.) Kallir was no dealer in the narrow, conventional sense. He was a publisher of original graphics by such artists as Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele, and of literature by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He was an organizer of exhibitions on a monumental scale, bringing the work of Lovis Corinth, Käthe Kollwitz, Edvard Munch, Auguste Renoir, Paul Signac, and Vincent van Gogh to Vienna, and that of Gustav Klimt, Kokoschka, Kubin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Schiele to the United States. And he was an erudite scholar who believed passionately in documenting the work of the artists he represented: he published no fewer than three catalogues raisonnés on the work of Schiele, as well as cataloguing the oeuvres of Richard Gerstl and Grandma Moses.
It was perhaps the diversity of his interests that provided Kallir--forty-five years old at the time of his immigration--with the stamina to start over in a new and very different country. In Vienna, he had supported his predilection for avant-garde artists such as Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel, Klimt, Kokoschka, Kubin, Oskar Laske and Schiele by also exhibiting the decidedly more lucrative work of nineteenth-century painters like Anton Romako, August von Pettenkofen and Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. In the United States, they were all equally unknown. The Galerie St. Etienne’s inaugural show of “Austrian Masters” was a disaster. In a special room, Kallir displayed a “picture of the month”: Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne, today in the Sao Paulo Museum of Art. But no one would believe that this humble refugee, who at the time barely spoke English, could legitimately offer such a major piece, and the Van Gogh went unsold, as did a subsequent, equally monumental “picture of the month,” the famous self-portrait Yo, Picasso. To help make ends meet, Kallir started a subsidiary enterprise publishing photographic postcards of American landmarks, for he was convinced that there should be an alternative to the tacky dime-store images then prevalent in this country. Unfortunately, he had no conception of how to establish an effective distribution network in a nation as large as the United States, and the postcard business foundered, along with his attempt to continue his Austrian book and print publishing venture, the Johannes Presse.
Kallir was also initially disappointed in his desire to find compelling contemporary American artists, for by comparison with Europe, the aesthetic orientation here in the late 1930s seemed to him backward and derivative. However, like many modernist pioneers, Kallir had a keenly developed appreciation of self-taught and folk art. In Vienna, he had shown and collected votive paintings (originally brought to wider attention by Wassily Kandinsky in the Blaue Reiter almanac), and one of Kallir’s first excursions into his newly adopted land took him to New Mexico, where he filled his car with Santos and Native American crafts. Hearing of Kallir’s interest in folk art, a fellow emigré by the name of Louis J. Caldor brought him an array of amateur paintings that he had collected on his travels in upstate New York. Among this material was a small group of pictures by Anna Mary Robertson Moses, which Caldor had picked up at a drugstore in Hoosick Falls. Kallir opened the exhibition “What a Farmwife Painted” in the autumn of 1940, and by the end of the year, “Grandma” Moses had been discovered by the national press. It took some time before Moses was firmly ensconced in the public’s imagination, but once there she remained a popular celebrity (the first art-world personality to be perceived as such) until her death in 1961 at the age of 101. Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the Galerie St. Etienne was one of the foremost specialists in self-taught art, showing both nineteenth-century material and the work of such living painters as Morris Hirshfield, Abraham Levin and Israel Litwak. But Grandma Moses far outshone the others, and in a very real sense helped make it financially possible for Kallir to indulge his passion for Austrian Expressionism.
Of the Austrian artists whose work Kallir had brought to the United States (Expressionism, banned by Hitler as “degenerate,” could be freely exported), only Kokoschka had an international reputation. The Galerie St. Etienne mounted Schiele exhibitions in 1941 (his first in the United States) and 1948, and featured the artist in a number of group shows, but the work at first was sold mainly to refugee dealers: in one such bulk sale, twelve drawings went for less than $300, total. Klimt, whose posters are today a fixture in college dorms from coast to coast, did not even have his first American exhibition, at this gallery, until 1959. Here, as elsewhere, it was Kallir’s skill, not exactly as salesman but as proselytizer, that paved the way. To get Klimt and Schiele into American museums, he sold at bargain prices or, when need be, literally gave away their work to such institutions as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Fogg Art Museum, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art. By 1957, he was able to mount his first truly successful Schiele exhibition, and in 1960, collaborating with Thomas M. Messer, he organized the first traveling museum showing of Schiele’s work in this country. In 1965, with Messer now at the Guggenheim, Kallir initiated a major Klimt/Schiele exhibition--to this day the largest assemblage of works by both artists ever seen in the United States.
Kallir lived to see the beginnings of the “Vienna 1900” boom in the 1970s: the publication of the first truly popular monographs on Klimt and Schiele by Alessandra Comini, and the first significant interdisciplinary study of the field, Wittgenstein’s Vienna, by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin. However, it was left to Kallir’s successors at the Galerie St. Etienne to carry the torch into the 1980s. In the last fifteen years, we have greatly expanded the practice of organizing museum-level exhibitions, both on our own premises and for outside institutions. The gallery has hosted landmark loan shows of Lovis Corinth, Richard Gerstl, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Egon Schiele, the Wiener Werkstätte and many others. We are perhaps proudest of the exhibitions that we organized for the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien in 1986, documenting Kallir’s activities; for the Österreichische Galerie in 1990, on the occasion of Schiele’s 100th birthday; and of the current Schiele traveling show, which just closed at the National Gallery of Art and may be seen at the Indianapolis Museum of Art through August 7, and at the San Diego Museum of Art from August 27 to October 30. Our commitment to self-taught art has also grown in recent years. In 1984, we added the estate of John Kane to our roster, and more recently we have organized broad surveys of so-called outsider art that included paintings by Europeans and Haitians as well as Americans. In the mid 1980s, we sent a John Kane retrospective to five museums, and in the past decade, we circulated three different Grandma Moses exhibitions to museums across the United States and in Japan. The gallery has also been responsible for an increasing number of scholarly publications, most notably the first comprehensive Schiele catalogue raisonné, published by Harry N. Abrams in 1990.
Although many of the Galerie St. Etienne’s most spectacular exhibition and publication projects are of fairly recent vintage, the fact is that the dealer’s educational role has been severely eroded since the 1940s and ‘50s. The financial stakes today are much higher, and there is accordingly much less incentive to cater to a broad-based public. The focus has become more narrowly commercial, with the emphasis on auctions and art fairs geared almost exclusively to active collectors. In part, this is an outgrowth of the general economic retrenchment characteristic of the 1990s, but we need to remind ourselves that such trends can become permanent. For those of us who value the educational mission of the public gallery, the present may well prove to be a watershed era. Now, more than ever, it is important to commemorate and appreciate the accomplishments and spirit of impresarios such as Otto Kallir.