09. Michael Pepi On 50 Years At Pace

After fifty years, Arne Glimcher, who founded The Pace Gallery in 1960 in a modest space in Boston, is regretful of one thing. When he and his wife Milly started out, they were happily working in the art world — an innocent community of artists, discovery, and quiet passion. A half-century later, quite by accident, Arne Glimcher and his Pace Gallery are undeniably major fixtures in a wholly different beast: the art market.

This is the theme of Glimcher’s introduction to the catalogue of 50 Years at Pace, the sprawling retrospective of a gallery that has been at or near the center of contemporary art almost from its inception. Glimcher got into the business by following his honest passion, and as a result, many of his comments about the prosperity of the last 50 years reads like an apologia to every high-minded purist who ever lived. Looking back on the storied career of Glimcher and the art and artists who came through his galleries, we find a man continually astounded that one could make an attractive living as (in the words of longtime friend of the dealer Agnes Martin) a “toiler in the art field.”

Many of the artists on view at the gallery’s four Manhattan locations did not start out exhibiting with Pace. Instead they began with gallerists such as Sidney Janis, Betty Parsons and, most notably, Leo Castelli. Even without a cutting-edge imprimatur, Pace evolved into a post-war power gallery by alternate means. Most of the artists came through Pace in their second stages: On several notable occasions, the gallery scooped up individuals who already enjoyed well-established careers. The hundreds of works in the anniversary exhibition are evidence of the gallery’s eminent position, yet they also speak to what might be interpreted as Arne Glimcher’s personal aesthetic philosophy. A simple formula, an honest eye, and good timing resulted in a half century of first-rate art.

Throughout its history, Pace excelled less at identifying talent and launching careers than it did at serving as a keen barometer of the times, often coming in years after and “anthologizing” a particular movement, usually to the tune of a finely organized, seductively-themed mini-retrospective. In the early Boston and New York years, Pace’s stable of living artists stubbornly refused to catch fire, with a few noted exceptions. Pace’s Sven Lukin, Ernest Trova, Barrie McDowell, and Michael Todd are certainly not on par with Castelli’s early circle. In fact, one is tasked with finding a career that Pace could rightly lay claim to have launched, though several strong cases can be made.

Glimcher trained as a visual artist, though admits that as a young man he became more interested in art history than the art itself. This is a subtle yet incredibly revelatory distinction. For him, the gallery would be a conscious actor, a historiographical co-conspirator, in the process of art history. This is not necessarily the same way that we often caricaturize the post-war dealer. The gallery’s direction was bound up with his tenacious apprehension of the avant-gardes and schools that meandered through SoHo, and later Chelsea, after the closing of the heroic age of the abstract expressionists. Glimcher sailed triumphantly on the sort of sanguine, charmed hype that another species of dealer created, not through front line activity but rather by secondarily working with what was judged to be field’s most exceptional work. In assessing a dealer’s prowess, this might be interpreted as a slight, though only if you expect that the dealer must constantly chase down the next big thing to be considered relevant. Glimcher, even in a fractious and brisk environment, was steadier in his respect for the craft: He knew that he was in the midst of truly peerless work, and that a perennial stream of buyers would bite. That Glimcher did not feel compelled to cynically push in new directions simply in search of a new market is a testament to his deep-seated faith in the inherent value of art.

Louise Nevelson was one of Glimcher’s exceptions: a notable living artist who worked with the gallery almost from the beginning. Two fine examples of the artist’s iconic jet-black forms, First Personage (1956) and Sky Cathedral – Moon Garden + One (1960), are on view in the 25th street location. Nevelson was already well on her way to immortality before she joined Pace after leaving Sidney Janis Gallery sometime around 1963. By then, her work was lauded throughout the world: She had been included in Dorothy Miller’s seminal Sixteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 1957, First Personage was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum.

Ernest Trova, another one of Glimcher’s early artists, is represented in the show by the inclusion of Model for Venice Landscape (1966), a polished bronze sculptural arrangement with a De Chirico-like composition of post-human mannequins. His involvement with Pace is an interesting case study: Trova had his first show at the gallery in 1963 and by 1965, the Museum of Modern Art, as well as the Whitney, acquired iterations of his Falling Man series. Hilton Kramer called his work at Pace “futurist,” and others, like John Cannaday, counted him among the most sincere of the Pop artists of the 1960s. Although he enjoyed a considerable amount of critical attention during the 1960s, his relative obscurity has been chalked up to his leaving Pace in the 1980s to work with a smaller dealer based in his native Missouri.

If Glimcher did not cultivate stars as prodigiously as his downtown forebears, he was quite adept at procuring the material of many already-distinguished artists. Pace was the fortuitous recipient of the Mark Rothko estate, which was swept up in the wake of his children’s rather acrimonious suit against the executors of his will and the Marlborough Gallery. The litigation ended in 1975, and within a few seasons, the prices for the deceased Rothko would double. As Pace evolved, the living talent piled up, in addition to the successful themed exhibitions and artists’ estates. By the 1980s Glimcher had accrued an impressive roster, including Lee Krasner, Cy Twombly, Chuck Close and many others who showed their work with him regularly. Still, the trove of significant painting and sculpture from the “museum sensibility” gallery exhibitions dominates the retrospective. Once organized under the curatorial guise of a shoot-from-the-hip academicism, today, the highlighted exhibitions stand as emblems of major moments in American art.

Pace’s Beyond Realism show in 1965 brought together a group of proto-pop practitioners who since 1960 had been working to break down the visual boundary between art and everyday life. Notable were the robust collection of Claes Oldenburg’s soft, oversize sewn rubber food items that were central in advancing a major tenet of the Pop program — calling attention to the familiarity of items of mass culture by radically altering their texture, size and material. Oldenburg’s Giant BLT (1963), shown at Beyond Realism and now in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art, is on view and still looks fresh enough to eat. This type of work — arguably Oldenburg’s most prominent — was begun in 1961 at The Store, the artist’s rented shop space, and exhibited again the following year at the Green Gallery. Three years earlier, Glimcher corralled Oldenburg and other Pop pioneers, including Tom Wesselman, Andy Warhol and James Ronsenquist for the exhibition Stock Up for the Holidays: An Anthology of Pop Art. It was perhaps the gallery’s most formative, apposite show given the feverish developments of Pop in the early 1960s. The First International Girlie Exhibit in 1964, a collaboration with Leo Castelli that showed in both Boston and New York, likewise came during the crest of Pop’s ascendance. Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dotted Girl with Ball (1961) was shown there and has since achieved the status of one of the consummate studies in Lichtenstein’s refined fusion of high and low.

Two critical moments in post-war American art are manifested in the West 25th Street gallery. In 1980, Pace’s Eight Painters from the 60s: Selections from The Tremaine Collection, which included Rauschenberg’s Windward (1963), put the viewer face to face with the politically-charged canvases that transfixed the Europeans at the 1964 Venice Biennale. Rauschenberg’s silkscreens earned him the prestigious Grand Prize, a first for an American artist. Windward‘s pulsating color scheme and imperial iconography epitomized the Cold War optimism of the U.S. State Department, who had actually collaborated on the organization of the show. Many European critics considered it a travesty, and indeed it was a world historical re-ordering of cultural politics in the West. Hanging next to Windward is Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953), a work that was both a conceptual turning point and the centerpiece of one of the most legendary anecdotes from the New York School.

At the 57th street location we see the old guard. From a 2009 show entitled Matta: Five Decades of Painting, the Chilean artist’s Untitled (1948) challenges us to find a landscape in the dark, surrealist treatment of his favorite post-war motif: the violent movement of semi-abstract geometric forms. Difficult late Picasso and a slew of Dubuffets of irregular distinction — even for Dubuffet — round out the uptown space. Much of the work pre-dates the gallery’s founding. There are also several highlights from the perennial Pace favorite: the paired exhibition. Repeatedly, artists with tenuous biographical connections were juxtaposed primarily to amplify the later artist’s contribution and place in the pantheon of art history. This has been a familiar gambit of the gallerist, with comparable American precedents as early as Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of this Century Gallery, as well as Castelli and Janis’s practice of haphazardly juxtaposing contemporaries from Paris and New York. At Pace, even with the artists’ formal similarities in context, the paired shows that link Dubuffet/Basquiat, Bonnard/Rothko, and Mondrian/Reinhardt actively relegate the lived histories of the artists in order to supply a powerful rationale for the would-be collector: one which references the value of art history while simultaneously mocking it.

Glimcher’s claim that Pace pioneered the “Museum style” gallery exhibition, while debatable, is a bit audacious given that the Sidney Janis Gallery on 57th street had been mounting museum-like shows since its opening in 1948. Yet the current 50th anniversary show goes beyond what most museums can offer in that we see works that vary widely in style and chronology, reminding us that for all their academic and curatorial banter, the story of modern and contemporary art is told largely through the gallery. Visitors to Pace’s locations must come to terms not only with the art on display, they must consider the way in which the institution of the gallery has pre-figured and later summarized much of what we now consider the cold facts of history.

The second half of the twentieth century is a study in how art follows money, and in this sense, the Pace Gallery has not only been at the heart of transactions, but a vibrant scene that has included some of the most dynamic, powerful and creative individuals in the last five decades. For all their market shrewdness, the “museum sensibility” exhibitions — one might say rather obviously — displayed a high degree of correlation with the secondary academic narratives that we often associate with the detached rigor of humanistic inquiry. Pace’s anniversary show is the perfect laboratory for this deceptively simple reality.

Walk through Pace’s 22nd street location and peer into Lucas Samaras’ Mirrored Room (1966), James Turrell’s luminous colored projections, or the immaculate balance of Joel Shapiro’s bronze sculpture and you’ll find what wide-eyed art students, serious scholars, and wealthy financiers all have in common: the human capacity for aesthetic appreciation and a weakness for the challenging, self-abnegating persistence of the post-war avant-garde. Exploring the history of Pace through this exhibition can convert a great many idealists to the acceptance of money and the prerogative of the collector — private or museum — as a major progenitor to our sense of historical significance. The fact that Glimcher is sensitive to this balance, and has respected it during the heady period of New York’s art world dominance, is worthy of great acclaim.

17 September – 23 October