A guide for the gallery-browser: more pleasures than pitfalls

I remember walking into a rather elegant Madison Avenue gallery a few years back to ask the price of a Hopper etching that had caught my eye: 'East Side Interior.' The gallery director, obviously anxious to determine my degree of solvency, examined me carefully from head to toe.

Everything apparently met with his approval until he caught sight of my well-worn and rather scruffy walking shoes. At that point, the smile on his face froze, his attitude toward me became cool and distant, and he informed me, in the manner of a Russian grand duke speaking to a servant, that the print in question was ''very, very expensive.''

I bring this up because it represents the fears of many out-of-towners who would very much like to visit New York's numerous galleries but are intimidated by their impressive exteriors and austerely elegant interiors and are afraid they would be rebuffed and insulted if they dared to intrude into such rarified surroundings, obviously reserved for the very rich and very important.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Almost all galleries, large or small, major or minor, welcome casual visitors and will generally answer all questions courteously and fully. (My incident with the Hopper etching was so unusual that it remains my most dramatic exception to the rule.)

What is true - and this may lead to some misunderstanding on the part of visitors accustomed to friendlier or more aggressive sales personnel - is that the viewer is generally left pretty much on his own until he asks for information or help. The gallery assumes that he is there to look and to enjoy and would prefer being left alone to follow his own impulses and preferences.

The exceptions would be those establishments - one can hardly call them galleries - selling only mass-produced paintings (paintings done a dozen or so at a time, with the sky in all of them splashed on first, followed by the distant and middle areas, with the foreground painted last) - and those places dealing only in very inferior work.

In both instances the viewer is so bombarded with ''bargains,'' and with so much distorted information about the importance of the ''artists'' represented, that he is left with no choice but to buy immediately - or to flee.

I recommend fleeing - and then staying away from any ''gallery'' that advertises its paintings as ''original, hand-painted works of art,'' or as ''Fantastic Bargains!''. And, most especially, any such place that offers to throw in a ''genuine, hand-carved frame'' at half-price.

What, after all, is the point of paying good money for a painting of three pine trees in front of a forest with snow-capped mountains in the distance, a hint of a stream, some bushes and grass, and a cute little deer - if there are a dozen more exactly like it in the back room waiting only for the one in front to be sold before being moved, one after the other, into its place? The fact that it is hand-painted and ''original'' means absolutely nothing. The subject, the composition, and the painting's style were all cynically determined merely on the basis of what would sell the fastest and could be painted the quickest.

There is a way of painting a forest that can take less than 10 minutes (which means that a fast-working hack can paint six forests in an hour.) I have seen pine trees dabbed onto a dozen or so lined-up canvases at the rate of roughly one tree every 30 or 40 seconds - and a cloudy sky completed in not much more time than that. The same speedy technique is applied to other hack pictures, and to abstractions and even Dali-inspired realism.

Different as all these types of painting may be, however, they all have two important things in common: none of them is original, and none of them is art. Originality and art are relatively rare and do not result from the grinding out of one pictorial cliche after another. If anything, the genuinely original may be difficult to spot for it will often come from the direction least expected. It is for this reason that the general viewer and buyer of art is well-advised to become familiar with those reputable galleries that handle the kind of art he likes and admires. And, most especially, that he get to know those dealers whose advice he can trust. Having once decided upon this course, he will soon discover that the number of really reputable galleries is not nearly as large as the gallery listings in the phone book would indicate.

The true art dealer -- as opposed to the individual who merely makes a living selling pictures -- is a remarkable person who genuinely loves art and sees his relationship with his clients as a matter of honor and trust as well as of profit. He is generally an expert on the kind of art he sells, assumes complete responsibility for the art that leaves his gallery, and can be trusted to give objective advice on the art brought in for appraisal -- or purchased from him.

Such dealers are among the most important figures of the art world. Without Betty Parsons, Sidney Janis, Ivan Karp, and Leo Castelli, and certain others the art world would be quite different. And there are quite a few other younger dealers at this very moment who are helping to define and even to shape the art of the 1980s.

A large portion of the dealer's effectiveness stems from the fact that he is generally the one who discovers new talent and gives it its first public exposure. It is he who is bombarded daily by young artists anxious to be shown, and it is he who will often make the first decisions affecting the young artist's career. It is the dealer to whom museum curators often go for an indication of what lies over the horizon and for loans of paintings and sculptures to set up exhibitions of new and emerging talent.

But there are also the dealers who only handle art of the near or distant past. Among these are a few whose galleries resemble a cross between a museum, a library, and a temple. Here art is discussed, handled, and sold reverentially, and one soon discovers that questions of artistic quality and authenticity can take precedence over the kind of world or national affairs most people are concerned with.

Such dealers are marvelous sources of information and of insight into highly specialized areas of artistic research. They care very much about art and often give the impression that their role in life is to make certain that only the most deserving are permitted to buy the finest art.

It is with this type of dealer that the general viewer may have a bit of trouble. Not because he will be treated rudely, but because he will quickly realize how little he himself knows. All the viewer need do, however, to get the dealer's full attention and to get him to share his expertise, is to indicate genuine interest in something he is showing. Once a dealer senses such interest, he becomes as much a champion of the work and of the artist as salesman, and the issue of whether or not the viewer buys can actually be of secondary importance -- difficult as that may be to believe!

I have spent some of the most rewarding hours of my life in galleries. I have seen art there of every possible description and level of quality and have been introduced to new ideas and forms before they took the art world by storm -- or fizzled-out entirely. It is where I have met some of the most insightful and knowledgeable people on art I have ever known -- and where, over the years, I've met some of the important artists of our age.

As a result, galleries are more than just a matter of professional concern for me. They are, together with museums and artist's studios, the places where some of the most fascinating and exciting events of my life have taken -- and still are taking -- place. They are much more than commercial establishments - a fact which anyone can discover for himself by visiting them more often.

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