It’s a bit chilly in the air-conditioned exhibition room at The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA, but the temperature isn’t what’s giving Rebecca Schoenthal goosebumps. It’s the art.
Specifically, it’s William Baziotes’ cool-toned, blue-hued “Night Form” and Adolph Gottlieb’s earth-toned pictograph, “The Sorceress,” hanging on a Fralin gallery wall, together for the first time since 1947. “Individually, they’re phenomenal works,” says Schoenthal, a mid-century American art expert and curator of exhibitions at The Fralin, explaining that Gottlieb’s pictograph series in particular was crucial to the advent of the Abstract Expressionist movement, which put American art on the map in the 20th century.
Together, the two works open a portal to the past, to September 1947, when UVA alumnus and lawyer-turned-crime-novelist-turned-art-critic-turned-art-dealer Samuel Kootz mounted an exhibition titled “Women” at his eponymous art gallery. “Women” was revolutionary in many ways, from the show’s subject matter to its catalog, for which Kootz enlisted writers like William Carlos Williams and Charles Baudelaire to respond to the paintings on view.
Much of what Kootz did throughout his career was revolutionary, and “Dealer’s Choice: The Samuel Kootz Gallery 1945-1966,” the exhibition currently on view at The Fralin through December 17, aims to shake up the art historical narrative by showing how art dealers—not just artists and critics—influence the art world.
“Dealer’s Choice” is largely based on a set of paintings that Kootz gave to The Fralin in the mid-1970s. Schoenthal’s curatorial challenge was figuring out how to present the scope of Kootz’s life’s work as an art dealer and writer in The Fralin’s space, via a narrative that viewers could absorb.
She decided to show only artists that Kootz himself exhibited and represented, like Pablo Picasso (yes, the Picasso), Robert Motherwell, Hans Hoffman and others (though there are a couple of exceptions to that rule), and to show only pieces that can be traced back directly to Kootz’s own hands, from the first painting he ever sold (Stuart Davis’ “Barber Shop,” bought by Roy Neuberger in 1942) to the Baziotes and Gottliebs that hung in Kootz’s gallery and eventually ended up in world-class museums. “Every picture that is in those rooms, I can tell you exactly when and why [Kootz] had it,” Schoenthal says.
After World War II destroyed many European cultural centers, American artists were poised to fill the void left in the art world, and Kootz enabled them to do so both intellectually and financially. He encouraged artists to explore and challenge abstraction and expressionism in the vein of the pre-war European De Stijl and Surrealist movements, respectively, and offered the artists signed to his gallery a monthly stipend in exchange for a certain number of pieces.
This gave Kootz Gallery artists like Gottlieb, Baziotes, Motherwell and others the chance to explore psychic automatism—an expression of an unfettered thought through painting or drawing—as a mode of creation that could lead to the exploration of new forms. These artists, along with like-minded artists Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, cultivated the Abstract Expressionist movement.
Dealers like Kootz are often left out of the art historical narrative, Schoenthal says, and Kootz had a long career that hasn’t been very well-studied. She hopes “Dealer’s Choice” will prompt scholars to study not just Kootz, but the dealer-artist relationship, says Schoenthal. “I want future scholars to see this and come up with all the millions of exhibitions that could spin off…to run with all the work that can be done, because it’s so rich.”
A dealer can “sometimes give collectors this nudge, and the collector becomes so important that it has this whole aftereffect,” Schoenthal says.
Take, for example, the painting that started it all: Davis’ “Barber Shop.” Neuberger, a stockbroker and art collector with bold taste, bought it from Kootz in 1942 for $250. Neuberger liked the piece and bought another piece from Kootz, then another and another, eventually amassing one of the largest, most significant modern American art collections —with Kootz’s help. Neuberger later left his collection to the State University of New York at Purchase to establish the Neuberger Museum of Art, the 10th-largest university art museum in the United States. Visitors to the museum—artists, art history students and scholars—find inspiration in the art, which then shows up in their own paintings or scholarly papers. The Kootz effect is tangible.
“I know we’ve had some pretty amazing things in the past,” Schoenthal says of The Fralin’s exhibitions, but not since the museum exhibited Bartolo di Fredi’s “The Adoration of the Magi,” a 14th-century Sienese altarpiece, in 2012 has Schoenthal been truly in awe of an exhibition. World-class institutions like the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art lent “really significant” works to The Fralin for this show, Schoenthal says, and Kootz’s wife even loaned some from her own collection.
“I am still dumbfounded that these paintings are here,” Schoenthal says, slowly shaking her head and looking at the Gottlieb and Baziotes with wide eyes, as though the paintings will disappear if she blinks. “It blows my mind.”