Gallery Chat: Jonathan Boos, Unearthing and Elevating Overlooked 20th-Century American Art Masters
By Nicole Castaldo
Rare works by Modernist luminaries Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Jacob Lawrence, and George Tooker are just a few of the treasures you might discover when entering the Upper East Side townhouse where Jonathan Boos’ gallery is located. But it is the works by the lesser-known and overlooked American artists that might truly surprise you. When you speak with Boos at the gallery, his infectious passion and deep knowledge of these under-appreciated figures will help you understand how and why he dedicates his career to bolstering their legacies. Often by placing them within the context of celebrated artists from their periods, Boos plays a vital role in cementing their place in the art historical canon—an endeavor the devoted dealer has said can take close to a decade.
Charles White—a renowned WPA-era muralist and painter—is just one example of an almost forgotten artist that Boos has tirelessly championed from his gallery. White was a preeminent Social Realist artist during his lifetime, but few would have recognized his name decades later. That is beginning to change however—MoMA is currently exhibiting White’s work alongside Leonardo da Vinci’s. Boos acquired three of White’s most significant works and placed them into important collections, including the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. These exact three works will be prominently placed in the first major museum retrospective on White’s work since 1982, which will open at The Art Institute of Chicago in Spring 2018 and then travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA).
“It was really exciting to play a small part in bringing White’s pictures back to the public. I believe in loving what I handle and the artists that I work with. Sometimes people aren’t going to buy them right away, but I love them enough to work with them, promote their work, and get them in front of the right people in the hopes that collectors will understand and believe in what I am doing,” Boos explained.
In addition to promoting overlooked artists, Boos is always trying to unearth forgotten works by icons. For example, in 2012 he presented never-before-exhibited standing mobiles by Alexander Calder from the collection of the artist’s mother’s caregiver—works that were out of the public eye for over 50 years.
Boos is currently at work on an ambitious exhibition titled The Evolution of American Modernism, which focuses on works from the 1930s to the 1970s that fall under the umbrella of Modernism. This exhibition will examine the various works produced during this period and the different styles of American Modernist art by the Stieglitz group, non-objective painters, the Abstract American Artists group, American Scene Painters, and Magic Realists. This extensively researched and tightly curated exhibition will be presented at The Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory, from February 27 to March 4, 2018.
The son of distinguished auctioneer Frank Boos, Jonathan Boos was immersed in the art world from a young age. After graduating from Michigan State University in 1989 he began working at his family business. In 1994, Boos left the auction world to become the advisor and curator for the prestigious Manoogian Collection, one of the world’s top private collections of American art.
In 2008, after 15 years of working for the Manoogian Collection, Boos opened his eponymous gallery in New York on 69th Street. The gallery is now located on 64th Street. This fall Jonathan Boos will participate in the American Art Fair and Just Off Madison showing a selection of 20th-century American masters by iconic and under-appreciated artists alike.
We chatted with Jonathan about his journey from auctioneer to private dealer, why it’s a great time to buy American art, how to develop your eye, and more.
What made you want to pursue a career in art?
As a very young child, maybe 8 or 9 years old, I started helping out at my father’s business, Frank H. Boos Gallery. I wasn’t really working for him but he would take me to the auction gallery on the weekends and would allow me to carry things that he knew I wouldn’t break—silver, rugs, and objects that weren’t too valuable. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to a lot of art, and the business and auction side in particular.
My first exposure to a great painting was in 1979, when I was about 14 or 15 years old. I was sitting with my father having breakfast, watching one of the morning shows. There was a story about an American painting that had just sold at Sotheby’s in New York. It was Frederic Edwin Church’s masterpiece The Icebergs—which is in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. The painting had realized millions of dollars at auction. I think that was the first time that an American work brought that much money at auction. My father turned to me and said, “I know that painting. I’ve appraised a study for it.” He spent days going through his files, his appointment books and his appraisals, and sure enough, a descendent of the Church family lived in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and my father did appraise the study for The Icebergs a few years earlier.
I watched the entire process as my father located the study, got ahold of the family, and brought it to the market. That was the first moment that I remember thinking, “this could be a really cool profession.”
How did you begin your career in the art world?
After graduating from Michigan State University in February 1989 with a degree in Communications, I started working with my family business. I remained with the gallery—on the auction side—until 1994. I realized I didn’t love handling all objects equally. My real passion was for paintings and sculpture and I decided to focus on that.
You worked as a curator and advisor for the distinguished Manoogian Collection of American Art for 15 years. How did you begin working with Richard Manoogian and the Masco Collection?
Richard was a client of my father’s, so I knew him from the auction house. In late 1993 I started talking to him about his collecting strategies and goals. About six months later in 1994, I left the family business and joined him as a de facto curator. I say “de facto” because I had no formal curatorial experience or education.
It was an amazing experience. In my opinion, Richard Manoogian is one of the most visionary collectors of the last 50 years. He put together one of the greatest collections of American Art that one could assemble of that period. It was an honor to work with him so closely on a daily basis.
What made you decide to start your own business?
It was a natural transition. Richard is still very involved as a collector today, but he no longer needed a full-time curator. I was coming to New York on his behalf for over 14 years to build his collections and sometimes saw works that weren’t necessarily a fit for his collection but were great pieces. So in 2008-2009, I transitioned from being a full-time curator for Manoogian to taking on an advisory role—which I still have today. He and I still work very closely together on many projects.
How did you choose your area of focus for your own gallery?
The period of art I started focusing on as a gallery is different than what I worked on with Richard. The core of the Manoogian Collection is 19th through early 20th century. I loved that art—I still do, and I still do deal in it when special pictures come up, but my real love over the years transitioned into more modern and contemporary art, and subgroups related to those periods. It was a natural progression of interest.
Were there particular works that you saw that sparked your interest, or just from seeing things in general?
I loved the Ashcan School when they were getting really gritty and modern, and that transitioned into the Alfred Stieglitz group of artists. In the 1990s I also became exposed to many African-American artists of the 20th century, like Jacob Lawrence and Norman Lewis, through great collectors like Walter and Linda Evans who turned me on to artists who were terrific but underappreciated. That led to my discovery of Magic Realism, Social Realism, American Scene Painting, and Postwar Art.
Who are some artists you helped people rediscover that excited you?
A couple of artists that come to mind that I’ve helped advance recently are Henry Koerner and Albert Bloch. Koerner is one of the great Magic Realist artists of the midcentury. He was from Pittsburg originally but was shown in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. He was not widely known but his great works from that period are some of the most iconic Magic Realist paintings out there.
We’ve also brought some great early Albert Bloch works from his Blue Rider period to the market. They are so rare and are equal to so many of the great European artists from that time but Bloch was also forgotten for a long time. Recently, I just placed a major work of this period into the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
What are you currently working on?
We are putting together an exciting exhibition called The Evolution of American Modernism. It is focused on American works from 1930 to 1970 that fall under the umbrella of Modernism. The idea came about because the word Modernism is used so much, and it covers such a broad period of time. There are so many different subsets of the movements and artists working in different styles. We are trying to show more of what was going on in those middle decades of the 20th century and to highlight the evolution and diversity of the styles of art that are all categorized as Modernist.
Who are some of the artists who will be included in the exhibition?
For years, Bertoia was considered a decorative artist so he would sell in the Decorative Art sales at the auction houses. In recent years, however, the general market finally realized that he is a terrific and original sculptor. So, his works are finally starting to get the attention they deserve as a fine art.
His great forms are bush or tree forms and what he called “Sonambients,” which are moving sculptures that create sound. They’re almost like willow or cattails. And when you touch them, they move and clang against each other, making an incredible sound that reverberates. Having grown up near Cranbrook where Bertoia studied, I saw so many great examples of his sculptures in my childhood—often at my father’s auction house. I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, I used to run my fingers along the Sonambient sculptures.
What advice would you give to an aspiring dealer?
My parents taught me at a very young age that the two most important things are your reputation and your integrity. That has been the foundation for everything I’ve done. And if you are starting out, make sure you work with dealers who have great integrity because that will help you build your foundation.
Also, I would say to deal in art you really love. You may not come to that immediately but if you take time to learn and find your passion, you will be a better dealer for it.
Advice for new collectors?
I think working with somebody who has integrity, honesty and a good reputation—which will lead to a trusting relationship—is also critical for collectors, especially in the beginning. And to work with someone who has a similar eye.
How can collectors develop their eye?
Look, look, look. Visit galleries, museums, and read. Having a library is critical. Libraries are not so en vogue. Everything is online right now but having a great library and actually looking at the books and studying them is important.
Do you have any advice for people interested in American Art specifically?
Many people around the world view American Art as secondary to European Art and that could not be further from the truth. If you look at the great American Masters of the 20th century, you realize these artists were innovators too. Marsden Hartley’s works from his German period are as good as any Modern European paintings. A Stuart Davis from the 1930s or a Jacob Lawrence from the 1940s is equal to anything else being made in other parts of the world. So many American artists were truly visionaries. And because people have focused more on other areas, there are still great opportunities to build a significant collection of American art.
Are you still looking to make new discoveries regularly?
Absolutely! Everyday I hope to find and see new things. I never stop looking, never stop learning, and never stop hoping to find another great picture. It is tough to find great historical art because so much of it is already in museums or in strong private collections but the hope and the thrill of the discovery remains a passion.
Cover image: Jonathan Boos