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goodbye, mr. emmerich
by Stewart Waltzer  
 


Andre Emmerich,
then . . .




. . . and now
  Andre Emmerich Gallery is closing its doors. Gone, like the dew, quietly and unnoticed. No grieving angels in the lobby of the Fuller Building, no cosmological supernova, only a door on worn hinges closing on an era. It is like experiencing a death. The first phase is denial.

In its time the Emmerich Gallery was almost a force of nature -- the spiritual heir of Lord Duveen and Durand-Ruel. It gave the lie to other galleries who philosophically pandered to the moment. It purveyed eternity. It held the esthetic high ground. If Duveen had Berenson, Emmerich had Greenberg. Each the intellectual champion who defined a movement. The gallery's moral posture, however, was not sufficient to preserve it and it fell victim, not so much to changing values as to their absence altogether.

Cut to the Century Club a year ago. It is the last gathering of the clan, the memorial service for Clement Greenberg, the breaking of the rice bowl from whence all present had eaten at one time or another. The small auditorium is standing room only though many have already fallen away. Present, in person or spirit, are David Smith, Hans Hofmann, Anthony Caro, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Helen Frankenthaler, Freidel Dzubas, Ann Truitt, Michael Steiner, Dan Christensen, Kikuo Saito, Bill Noland, James Walsh, and some 50 other artists of high seriousness, plus dealers, museum curators and critics of like mind.

This was the demise of the intellectual epicenter. If camaraderie remained, it was at best nostalgic. No one could escape the plain fact that the audience had left. There was no longer a touchstone, a litmus test for good art. The struggle had unraveled. Go home and make your way as best you can. Can't help you here.

If Greenberg held church, Emmerich was the secular arm. He brought in the curators. He brought in the journalists. He brought in the Parrish-Hadley's, the MacMillans and every small dealer from across the world who wanted to be part of the mission. He brought in the oil millionaires and the socialites and all who aspired to the culture that he spread about like a veneer. He made it pay. He set a standard by which his artists learned to live. He made it seem as if this would go on forever -- that art of intellectual vigor, that art of the correct moral suasion would somehow endure with the purpose and seriousness of the Bank of England.

Artists who had made the leap to Zen satori would be rewarded by money and fame, marching into history in a parade of angels. They were the heirs of Monet, Renoir and Pissarro, of Newman, Pollock, Rothko and Still. There would be historical vindication, the market might fluctuate, but Emmerich dealt in the long term. "If you are here to invest, I'll introduce you to my broker." Emmerich dealt in art. The paradigm of an esthetically driven dealer.

Rudyard Kipling tells the story in The Day's Work of the British engineer who builds a bridge across Mother Ganges. The monsoon comes unexpectedly early and the engineer is swept away as he fortifies the bridge against the coming flood. Washed downstream onto an island, half-conscious, he witnesses the convocation of the gods of India. The gods are incensed that the "feringue," or foreigner, has tampered with the sacred river and move to destroy the bridge. But slowly reason prevails and the gods recognize that the bridge will permit more pilgrims to worship at their shrines, and that they will grow more powerful. But Krishna intercedes and points out that in their travels the pilgrims will also become worldlier, and soon all the gods will be forgotten and that is the way of all things.

The legacy of Rothko and Still, the great leap beyond Pollock, beyond Cubism, into the ethereal absoluteness of the canvas surface, the essential mystery of the faith as manifested by the école de Greenberg, from the highest to the lowest, are all gone, not a memory, not even an abandoned shrine at a provincial museum. Krishna was right.

Juggernaut is an Indian word, a title of Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, an idol dragged through the streets of Orissa on an enormous cart. Devotees are said to have thrown themselves under the great wheels in fatal ecstasy. At a time when the juggernaut was inevitable, when the temple was intact, Emmerich consisted of three galleries. Andre always said that a dealer had galleries in three sorts of places. One, where rich people lived, hence the HQ on 57th Street. Two, where they banked their funds, hence the version on something strasse in Zurich. And three, where artists made art, thus the farm team gallery at 600 West Broadway in SoHo.

Though Impressionism, the longest running pop movement in history, may have endured in all its virility a mere 15 years, conceptually the Emmerich art dynasty was without end. The SoHo gallery at 600 West Broadway was born in the enthusiasm of the period, when SoHo was a cold-water section of town, but it matured as a testing ground of esthetic vision. Emmerich would grow his own. Greenberg could scout talent. Emmerich would cull it from the wild and nurture it until it blossomed economically. It generated a sense of historical imperative, of the rightness of his vision. But the experiment was not a success. The gallery was sold. West Broadway was littered with the bodies of artists who should have died beneath the wheel but didn't. And the juggernaut moved uptown gathering momentum as Reaganomics took hold of the art world.

Emmerich came by his civility the old fashioned way -- he was born into it. Once upon a time, when a gentleman spent a six-figure sum for a picture, he came with the requisite knowledge and was expected to joust intellectually with an equal before he signed the check. A young dealer once asked Andre whether it was preferable to have an intrinsic understanding of the art one sold or to be the glib "super salesman." "But you must know the art," he said.

Ultimately, he was wrong, yet the vision remained intact. Clients literally lined up at his warehouse to vie for a crack at the work of his first string. There wasn't much time to joust with intellectual equals. The clients weren't equal to it, and besides, you'd piss them off. If you had sold your company for several hundred million, spending several hundred thousand on a picture wouldn't rate an entry in the Filofax. The composite values that make men civilized, the esthetic imperative that brought them in, was replaced by a working knowledge of large number accounting and "thank you very much." The pilgrims weren't coming back.

II
The 57th street gallery is in the form of a Latin cross, with small chapels flanking the nave, and a back room hidden away like a sacristy. Andre believed in the efficacy of Catholic architecture as a sales tool. The gallery has been pared down to the austerity of a cloister. It is the visual equivalent of silence. There is something so matter of fact about its plainness that it seems not to exist.

Some 40 years of subtle refinements have added up to nothingness. Only the art remains. It is Emmerich's Zen homage to Brunelleschi -- perfection with no apparent effort. And of course it is closing. You can't sell pictures that way anymore. The clients are lost. Where's the glitter? Where's the glitz? What's the well to do's equivalent of flocked wallpaper? A Schnabel? A Fischl?

The second phase of the experience is anger. Did Emmerich stay at the party too long? The truth is hard to know because for so many years he and Castelli owned the party. They brokered the artists, and the museum shows. They called the tunes until the artists left, or twitched about in their careers or segued to other venues in the Peyton Place of contemporary art. What about love? Can you love artists? Or is it something more akin to the feeling that Mother Theresa had for lepers? Do you look for gratitude in the misbegotten? Or do you hold your love in reserve, for the gallery, which is no more than a metaphor for the art itself?

The merging of Emmerich's into Sotheby's was a late marriage that proved childless. No other suitor had come forward, and yet serendipitously it appeared that each had much to offer the other. Impressionist and modern art was no stranger to Emmerich's walls, and the staff was trained, the systems were in place. It was elegant, and well located.

If every unsold work of art from the Impressionist, modern and contemporary departments of Sotheby's found their way to 57th Street, given the present market with worse yet to come, Emmerich would have had the largest inventory on the block and been busier than a hive of bees. Markets could have been astutely reshuffled, a bit of benign despotism here and there, Emmerich gallery would have been realigned to the mercantilism of the '90s, but its presence and mythic purpose would have remained unaltered into another generation. Worth it, one would have thought, but not to be. As capriciously as the marriage had begun, it ended. Two separate families, too much baggage.

Emmerich's last exhibition was the recent work of Kenneth Noland. There is a morbid irony at work here. They're an odd couple, well matched and of an age. Sharing a long history together. Separating as frequently as reuniting, with the same curious fidelity of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Both men seemed to parse out their love slowly, one to his vision of the gallery, one to his art. Emmerich gave his swan song, his pristine, derelict masterpiece of a gallery. Noland filled it with self-effacing and exquisite pictures. After a lifetime obsession with color, Noland painted with a delicacy of judgement and directness not seen before, as if there had never been anything to prove. It was moving, the tribute of two men who had made history there. The gift of the Magi as the gallery closed.

There will not be anything to take its place. That expression of civility is gone forever and contemporary civilization is less forgiving, less civilized. The context of the art world has changed. The paradigm of an aesthetically driven dealer is archaic in the face of up-ended esthetic values. It is a hard thing to accept. One is grateful to have shared the inspiration for a time. The gallery may have closed quietly but, unlikely as it may seem, Krishna's words will reverberate on 57th Street for years to come.


STEWART WALTZER is a New York dealer.


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