February 2007

Rachel J. K. Grace

nonfiction

The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market by Lindsay Pollack

Have you heard of Georgia O’Keeffe? How about Stuart Davis? Ben Shahn? Yes, yes, yes. Edith Gregor Halpert? Um, no. Granted, Halpert was not an artist, but she certainly played an important role in the lives of many American modern artists. Indeed, she had a pivotal role in the creation of the American modern art market.

In The Girl With The Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market, Lindsay Pollock documents Halpert’s life. She was born in Odessa in 1900 to a prosperous Jewish family. They left Russia the year after the 1905 pogrom and made new lives for themselves in the United States. It was not long before Halpert showed an interest in art. In fact, she wanted to be an artist but was told in her teens that she did not have enough talent. So, she packed up her paint brushes and gave up her dream. Fortunately, she soon discovered her talents (marketing and sales) and combined them with her love of art. In 1926, Halpert opened the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village, the heart of the artist community. New York is now known as the art capital of the world, but in the 1920s most of the art world still looked to Europe (and to Paris in particular). American art was a joke, but not to Halpert.

She spent the next 40 years championing her artists, using every bit of her marketing prowess and sales expertise. She influenced the purchases of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and Duncan Phillips, among others. Not only was Halpert a leading voice in advocating for American modern art, she was also an early promoter of American folk art. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when the art that she loved and knew best was no longer avant-garde, that Halpert began to lose some of her great influence. Sales continued to pour in, but as she aged she became more controlling, inflexible, and paranoid. By the time she died in 1970, she had alienated all of her friends, artists, and buyers. A sad end for an extraordinary woman.

Pollock has written a remarkable biography. Not only because she has brought the life of an important person to light in a masterful and detailed way, but also because she has managed to depict the history of an entire era. We learn not only of Halpert and her gallery, but also of the lives of artists, dealers, buyers, and museums. She captures not only the heyday of American modern art, but also the important landmarks of the 20th century including the two World Wars, the Depression, and McCarthyism.

My only criticisms of this book, Pollock’s first, are that she too often refers to Halpert’s “hardscrabble” youth, which in fact was comfortable relative to the hand-to-mouth lives of most Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and that she sometimes does not reach deep enough into her journalist’s toolbox. Sentences like, “As Lawrence crossed oceans, Edith navigated his career with a steady hand” are forgivable in light of the book’s many strengths. While not glossing over Halpert’s imperfections, Pollock writes with an obvious admiration for her subject. In doing so, she is able to create empathy and appreciation for Halpert in her readers. In short, I am doubly pleased to have read this book because it introduced me to both Edith Gregor Halpert and to Lindsay Pollock.

The Girl with the Gallery: Edith Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market by Lindsay Pollock
Public Affairs
ISBN: 1586483021
464 pages