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Harold Stevenson
"Death in Key West"
installation at
Mitchell Algus

Robert Mallary
Jouster, 1960

Harold Stevenson
installation view of
The New Adam, 1962

Venetian Lagoon

Larry Zox
Diagonal Series VI,
1966 and Edwin
Ruda, Metro I
, 1966

Wojciech Fangor
M 28, 1968

Edward Avedisian
Untitled, 1962

Edward Avedisian
The Mondey Children

Stanley Twardowicz
#8, 1966 and
B.G.P.R., 1970

Walter Redinger
Untitled, 1969

Don Bonham

mitchell algus: 

by Mary K. Weatherford
My first encounter with Mitchell Algus and his gallery was in the fall of 1994. The painter Glenn Goldberg introduced me. "Do you know this guy Mitchell Algus? He's pretty interesting." "Never heard of him," I replied. A half hour later, I was a convert. Mitchell Algus, high school science teacher by day, SoHo art dealer by night. Mitchell Algus Gallery, the place frequented by the real New York art cognoscenti. Mitchell is always there, and he's usually engaged in a conversation or debate with someone I know, or someone I'd like to know. Mary K. Weatherford: You opened the gallery in November 1992. How did that come about? Mitchell Algus: A friend of mine, Leecha Jimenez, was running a gallery in Williamsburg. I had shown paintings there along with works by a friend, Marc Travanti, and when Leecha said she was looking for someone to help her run the gallery, I said, that looks like fun. So we started doing that around 1989. MKW: When did you realize that it might be possible to go back to old art magazines and use them to track down artists? MA: I was always looking through this stuff in terms of my own art. When I was in graduate school in geology and was supposed to be doing my science, I'd spend all of my time in the art library just looking through the old art magazines. You could find Art International, for instance, going way back. And I saw work in the magazines that I thought seemed really interesting, but I never saw it in the museums, even though apparently the museums had at one time collected work by these artists. So when I started doing the gallery with Leecha in Williamsburg, I finally had a reason to see if I could actually find this work. MKW: Who was the first artist that you tracked down? MA: Robert Mallary. In the late 1950s and early '60s he had made assemblages, going out and finding materials like old cardboard boxes in the street. He would arrange them, and epoxy-resin them. They looked like hunks of garbage, but they were compositionally very classical--formally they were very elegant. He was in the "16 Americans" show at the Modern in 1959, and in the "Art of Assemblage" show there in 1961. The Whitney owns pieces of his, he was written about extensively in the early 1960s, and he was an important influence on other artists. I called Allan Stone, the last person he showed with in 1966, and found out that he was teaching at the University of Massachusetts. I called him and went up there, and it was amazing. He had moved to Conway, Mass., in 1967, and he had just put everything in a truck. We opened up the barn he has, and there were all the pieces I had seen in the Modern catalogues. Philip Johnson had commissioned a piece from him for the 1964 World's Fair, and there it was sitting in the barn. He was excited, I guess, that somebody had sought him out and that his work still existed in some way out in the world. He's doing computer art now, which he pioneered in the late 1960s, he has this whole other career. So Mallary was the first person I started to work with. We brought pieces back and showed them in Brooklyn in 1989. MKW: What was going on here in New York at that time? MA: A lot of process-oriented painting, I guess, like your work, and that of Carl Ostendarp, John Zinsser and Gail Fitzgerald. That work was a reaction against expressionism, I think. Even five or six years earlier I had been interested in Neo-Dada and European stuff that wasn't being shown here--Manzoni, Fontana, the French Nouveaux Réalistes--a kind of "realist" art that was anti-expressionist. If the "authenticity" of expressionist work was no longer possible, then the question for the artist was: how do you continue to do things which have that same visual interest yet don't reflect personal subjectivity. It seemed to me that a lot of the process-oriented art around 1990 was also about finding a way to distance yourself from the work, to make something that was surprising, that looked different, that was new. MKW: Who were some of the artists you showed following Robert Mallary? MA: I opened the Thompson Street gallery with work of Harold Stevenson, who had shown with Iris Clert in Paris from the late 1950s on. He was doing huge homoerotic paintings; his work was associated with Pop art, but it really had its roots elsewhere. He showed with Alexandre Iolas and the Tchelitschew circle. Harold was much more original than any of those guys, but his work never found a context. He was supposed to have been included in a Guggenheim show in 1963 organized by Lawrence Alloway, but Alloway wrote to Harold saying that in the end he just couldn't show The New Adam--a 40-foot-long nude portrait of Sal Mineo-- because it would create an "imbalance" in the exhibition (laughter). Harold showed The New Adam at Richard Feigen Gallery in the early '60s and at Iris Clert in Paris; then it got rolled up and put away. So when I got in contact with Harold, he was thrilled. We showed The New Adam, which filled the whole gallery. The exhibition got some attention: Brooks Adams came, and Lisa Liebmann wrote a review saying that it looked like Alan Turner's work, that it looked like all of the body-obsessed work that was going on in the early 1990s. That was the real point: to show work dealing with contemporary issues that looked as good as, if not better than, it had looked at the time it was made. Part of the interest of the work is that when you drag it out, people are very confused about when it was done and what it means. MKW: One of my many jobs in New York was to move an entire artist's studio in Union Square into storage. And you know what happens when you don't pay your storage bill: the work just gets thrown out. MA: There's another artist that I've shown, named Leonid; he was the brother of Eugene Berman, and he was a Neo-Romantic painter who did dreamy, romantic seascapes. He moved to the U.S. after World War II and died here in 1976. He had shown with Julien Levy in the 1930s and was collected by James Thrall Soby at the Modern. Today he's practically unknown. Leonid is chi-chi New York painting at its height. His paintings steer clear of modernism, they're very elegant. Maybe they're what Modernism might have been if Picasso had never painted or Duchamp had never made the Fountain. Today Leonid's works look almost like motel paintings, but they're so hyper- sophisticated they're really interesting. MKW: When you showed those to me I imagined them in a Park Avenue living room in the 1950s, or in a Hitchcock movie, with a woman in a big dress sitting on a piece of Knoll furniture in front of them. MA: After his death, Leonid's estate was divided between two very wealthy patrons. Half of the estate now sits in a basement on Fifth Avenue, and the other half sits in a storage facility in Pennsylvania. MKW: Most of the people that you're showing are artists whose work looks really fresh today, in terms of the contemporary context, but at the time it appeared no one knew quite what to make of it. Do these artists share any kind of common career trajectory? MA: For a lot of the abstract painters, especially, the early 1970s were devastating. People like Edward Avedisian, Larry Zox, Nick Krushenick and Wojciech Fangor had big careers in the 1960s: Zox had a retrospective at the Whitney, Fangor had a retrospective at the Guggenheim. Then by the early '70s things just hit a brick wall. Those few artists who had a powerful gallery and retained their recognized style--like Robert Ryman and Robert Mangold--didn't appear to be affected by the doubt that struck a lot of other artists. Artists like Avedisian and Zox had to try to push beyond the kind of art they had been doing, because they were facing an end-game: they lost gallery support, and support for painting in general was disintegrating in the early '70s. MKW: When you say end-game, do you mean in terms of the market or in terms of having reached the end of what they could do as artists within a certain style? MA: Both. At the time that Minimalism began to be codified in the mid-1960s, many artists realized that it was an end-game, that you couldn't push much beyond this. I'm thinking in particular of a sculptor like Gary Kuehn, whose work I'm going to show. In the mid-1960s he did white Minimalist cubes that seem to disintegrate into an ooze or blob. Edward Avedisian was doing paintings that straddled the territory between Color Field, Pop and geometric abstraction. They were smart and totally insouciant, much more playful than Stella's. Those works look contemporary now because artists today know that these are the stylistic limits and art trying to move beyond them. My previous show, of sprayed acrylic "target" paintings done by Stanley Twardowicz between 1966 and 1970, is a good example of work that looks as if it had been made last week. The quality of the painting--the craft--is incredible. Again, Twardowicz has work in the Modern's collection, he was a close friend of Franz Kline and Kerouac, but now his work is unknown. As with Avedisian or Zox or Fangor, younger painters are just amazed when they see it. MKW: That's why it was shocking to see Kuehn doing, say, Judd meets Oldenburg in the mid-'60s. Today, so many young artists --like Charles Long, for example--are trying to work out bizarre hybrids of classic styles like Pop and Minimalism. And you're demonstrating that when artists tried to do the same thing 30 years ago, no one knew what to do with the work. MA: It's the same with the show I just did, featuring work by three Canadian sculptors--Walter Redlinger, Don Bonham and Ed Zelnek--who worked in London, Ontario, in the late 1960s. They were trying to take beautiful Minimalist form and make it very sensual and psychological. At the time in New York, that stuff didn't play. But now it's exactly what younger artists are trying to do. MKW: It also sounds as if you're saying that many of these artists got to a certain point and said, "I've done as much as I can in this style, I've got to do something else." MA: Yes, but I think the culture changes, too. When these artists were working in the 1960s, art was the cutting edge of visual culture, and they were helping to define it. And the excitement generated within the culture supported what they were doing. Then, I think, the culture changed. By the mid-1970s, the ideals of formalist abstraction, or Minimalism, or Conceptual art, were no longer pertinent to the culture. This has been a problem for art ever since. There isn't a collective cultural desire which is being articulated by artists in defining the visual look of the times. Also, the mid-1970s was the time when nostalgia began to be a major cultural force and the current situation of perpetual stylistic recycling was born. In a way, I think that what I'm doing with the gallery is important in terms of freeing younger artists to do their own work. It's a way of saying to them, "You don't have to make that kind of painting--it's already been done." MKW: What kind of audience are you finding for the work you're showing? MA: The audience from the beginning has been artists. The gallery is oriented toward work that looks interesting in terms of making art now. The audience consists of people who are doing their own work in the studio and who find these paintings or sculptures pertinent to what they're doing. MKW: Who are your regulars? MA: You are! And painters like David Reed, Carl Ostendarp and Philip Taaffe have come regularly. Critics like Raphael Rubinstein and Brooks Adams have also been really supportive, as was Stuart Servetar when he was at the New York Press. MKW: Do the collectors who are buying younger contemporary art show any interest in buying work of the kind you're showing here, work that might provide some historical continuity in their collections? MA: Collectors, it seems, are interested either in what's new or in what has already been certified as blue-chip. With the work that I show here, which has passed through a period of being ignored, it's very difficult to reestablish value for it. In a market that looks with its ears, or looks at auction prices rather than at the art itself, it's very hard to get people to reassess this work. The people who are reevaluating it are the ones who are engaged in making art. MKW: It seems that one artist who has made that jump in recent years has been John Wesley. I think that owed a lot to Donald Judd's support. MA: It's also interesting to see what's happened recently to the work of Yayoi Kasuma. But when you have powerful galleries like Ron Feldman or Paula Cooper or Robert Miller involved, they're able to present the work in a way that thrusts it into the mainstream. Without that kind of machine behind you, it's very hard for an artist to gain recognition. MKW: Where, in the best of all possible worlds, would the work you're showing find a home today? MA: There are lots of museums that have grown up in the last 20 years that could use this work. It's relatively inexpensive. For the same amount that it costs to buy an $80,000 Frank Stella drawing, you could get eight major paintings by his contemporaries. It seems to me with all of the Abstract Expressionist work now raked over, it's this work from the late 1960s and early 1970s that should be the cutting edge of historical collecting. MKW: I read an article on the "mortality of art" that said that 99.9 percent of all artworks ever made cease to exist physically within 100 years of the time they're made. What will happen to this work if it doesn't find buyers? MA: When the artists die, unless their work is perceived to be of value, estates won't be set up to take care of it. It will be divided among relatives . . . or thrown away. MKW: How do you go about creating a market for this work today? MA: I wish I knew. You'd think there would be people out there who would be genuinely interested in work of this quality, people who buy contemporary art but would also want to flesh out a historical context for it. And this is the obvious historical work to be collecting. Certainly there's work being sold today, but it's by a few artists from a few galleries. I think one thing that makes it different today is the lack of an intellectual middle class. Thirty years ago, many of the people who bought contemporary art were middle-class people, and they had a kind of intellectual involvement with the work that doesn't really exist anymore. Art has always had a social function, I suppose, but today it seems to have only a social function. And, of course, if you're going out to conspicuously consume, what you want is a more expensive version of the same thing that everyone else has. The work I'm showing, on the other hand, falls into a gray area; the history hasn't really been written yet. And so it takes a lot of understanding, insight and passion on the part of the people who buy it. The few people who have bought work here have been people who really knew--people who were involved in the art world, or those few artists who were successful. MKW: So it's successful artists who buy work here? MA: And ex-critics who now have university jobs. People who know the work, and know that it's good, and that it's really cheap. MARY K. WEATHERFORD is a New York- based painter who is currently teaching at Princeton.