An Interview with Rebecca Shaykin: The Jewish Museum's Associate Curator on the groundbreaking Edith Halpert exhibition
By Margie Fuchs
Do you know Edith Halpert? A pioneering art dealer and the first significant female gallerist in the United States, Halpert shaped the trajectory of American art from her Downtown Gallery in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. She propelled American modernists, including Jacob Lawrence, Stuart Davis and Arthur Dove, into the spotlight while advocating for diversity and accessibility in American art. Despite all this, American audiences are still largely unfamiliar with Halpert’s influence on modern art.
Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art is the first exhibition to explore the revolutionary career of Halpert, who came to the United States as a Russian Jewish immigrant, and her resounding impact on modern art. On view through February 2020, the show features 100 works of American modern and folk art that were exhibited or sold through Halpert’s Downtown Gallery, American Folk Art Gallery or were part of her personal collection.
To celebrate the opening of the exhibition, we spoke with the Jewish Museum’s Associate Curator Rebecca Shaykin, who curated Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art.
Congratulations on your first major show at the Jewish Museum! How did you first get involved in the art world?
What can I say, art really chose me. My very first day of college, I attended an art history lecture, and I just knew that this was what I was going to do with my life. My grandmother was an artist, my parents collected art and my brother is a graphic designer, so there is a creative stream that runs in my family. Landing in the art world almost seemed predestined.
How did you first learn about Edith Halpert?
I learned about Edith Halpert quite late. Right before I started working at the Jewish Museum, in 2010, I saw Lindsay Pollock’s biography on Halpert, The Girl with the Gallery, in a bookshop, and it piqued my interest. I had concentrated on American art, and on issues of gender and identity, in graduate school, but I found I was still craving stories about women who had made a difference in the art world. I couldn’t believe what I was reading and that, even after all my coursework, I had never heard of Halpert. On a personal level, I also identified with her story – my family is Russian Jewish as well, so I felt an immediate connection there. It’s funny — I loved reading about Halpert so much, I must have given every one of my friends a copy of Pollock’s biography. I just wanted everyone to know about her!
What role did Halpert play in the Jewish Museum’s collection?
She had a hand in shaping the Jewish Museum’s collection, but it was on a more modest level, I would say, than she did with many other institutions in the United States. Figuring out her exact role required a lot of digging. It was only after going through Halpert’s archives – her correspondence and sales receipts — that I found that some interesting connections. Vera List, who was a major benefactor to the Jewish Museum in the 1960s, was also a Downtown Gallery client. Although Vera and her husband, Albert, are well-known as Pop art collectors, I found that Vera had contacted Halpert about her interest in the artist Ben Shahn, especially his pieces featuring Hebrew script. Many of these purchases were later donated to the Jewish Museum. A couple of other early board members of the Museum were clients of Halpert’s and were also specifically interested in the Jewish artists she represented, such as Jack Levine. Halpert was also a lender (and something of a self-appointed advisor) to a 1954 exhibition of “Biblical Themes in American Folk Art” at the Jewish Museum; she then gave the Museum a nineteenth-century watercolor of an Old Testament scene as a gift.
Jonathan Boos previously worked with Marsden Hartley’s painting "The Seashell" (1929). Could you tell us about how this came to be featured in the exhibition?
I was excited to make the connection between Edith Halpert and The Seashell through Valerie Stanos, Jonathan Boos’ gallery director. There was some wonderful correspondence between Marsden Hartley and Halpert when she took over his affairs from Alfred Stieglitz briefly in the 1930s. Halpert did a big solo show of Hartley’s work in 1932, but this was the Depression era and no one wanted to buy. Halpert softened the blow with her wry sense of humor. “Everyone is so down and out,” she wrote to Hartley, “that all pictures over $300 seem to throw them in a faint. We are seriously considering opening a soup kitchen for poor millionaires.” In going through Halpert’s sales receipts, I found that she did finally sell a Hartley painting called The Seashell to Abby Rockefeller a few years later. I then discovered that one of Hartley’s seashell paintings had recently been on view at Jonathan Boos, so I called up the gallery and Valerie helped to confirm the provenance of the painting. She was able to connect me to the current owner, who agreed to lend to the show.
In viewing the exhibition, we saw that you’ve worked with institutions and private collections across the country to borrow pieces that Halpert dealt with for the show. Could you tell us about the process of tracking down these works?
We have about 60 lenders to the exhibition – that’s a huge number! Putting this exhibition together has been four years in the making, and a large part of that involved the support and expertise of my colleagues in the field. In addition to working with many of the major American modern art dealers today, I also reached out to museums with American art collections across the country. My colleagues at these museums and galleries generously offered to look through their databases for any reference to the Downtown Gallery, Halpert, or her American Folk Art Gallery. At the same time, I was sifting through dozens of checklists and exhibition brochures in the Downtown Gallery records, now housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Often these documents were not illustrated, or the titles of the works have long since changed, and I’d have to work to reconcile these records against the artworks that I knew to currently be in public and private collections today.
Halpert was passionate about the up-and-coming modernist scene in American art. She advocated for artists including Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis and Georgia O’Keeffe, all of whom Jonathan Boos has handled. Could you tell us a bit more about Halpert’s views on art, which were seen as fairly progressive for the time?
The main thing about Halpert was that she was interested in new trends in American art. This was already a progressive view. Most people thought European art was far superior to American art when she started her gallery in 1926. She thought it was ridiculous that there was all this talent right here in America, but these artists weren’t getting the recognition they deserved. She also wanted to make sure that she wasn’t focused on one specific school or style. Instead, she aimed to show how artists of all different backgrounds and stylistic affinities expressed themselves. She felt strongly that the American art world should reflect the diversity and plurality of American society and culture. Because of that, Halpert’s aesthetics were really eclectic. If she thought something was good, regardless of style or subject, that’s all that mattered.
In terms of selling art, Halpert had grown up working in department stores and understood the importance of mass marketing. At the time, only the very wealthy could afford to collect art and would feel comfortable in spaces like art galleries. Halpert wanted to break down those barriers and help everyone, not just the wealthy, buy art. She opened her gallery in Greenwich Village, which was very bohemian, and made the galley space homey, domestic and welcoming. She set affordable prices and, just like in department stores, offered installment plans, so people could take paintings home and pay over time. This approach scandalized people at the time, but it was a genius marketing move. In that way, she was very ahead of her time.
As an immigrant, woman and a Jew, Halpert was an outsider in many ways. How did these diverse facets of her life come to inform her approach to the bourgeoning New York gallery scene?
It’s often said that it’s immigrants who are most passionate about their adopted country. Because Halpert came from a different culture, she experienced the U.S. with fresh eyes and was able to see and appreciate it in a different way. I love the fact that she was this outsider who not only promoted American art but worked to define it and push its boundaries. You see this story of the contributions of immigrants come up quite a bit in the making of modern American culture, and Halpert certainly shaped how we think about American modern art today.
Why, when Halpert was so influential in American art during her lifetime, is she little known today?
There are countless women in history who have been completely ignored or overshadowed by their male counterparts. Halpert, for example, is often glossed over in favor of Alfred Stieglitz. His legacy – that he brought modernism to America – has been codified in the art historical canon. But Halpert was doing something radically different from Stieglitz. When he turned his attention to American modernism, he mainly promoted a select circle of white male artists, with one exception: his wife, Georgia O’Keeffe. Halpert had more expansive view of art and a much more diverse set of artists at her gallery. As wonderful as Stieglitz’s circle was, I think you’ll see that the art world is more informed by her spirit of inclusivity and diversity today.
Another key logistical factor was that Halpert’s name was not the name of her gallery. In calling it the “Downtown Gallery,” Halpert was already in some ways more anonymous. She also kept a tight rein over her business and had no succession plan or direct descendants. When she died in 1970, the Downtown Gallery shuttered its doors and Halpert’s incredible personal collection, which she had hoped would become a destination collection in the nation’s capital, was dispersed at auction. So it’s up to us now to keep her legacy alive.
Learn more about Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art on the Jewish Museum’s website.
Cover image: The Jewish Museum Associate Curator Rebecca Shakyin. Photo by JiaJia Fei.