Life & Culture

The woman who championed a distinct American art

An exhibition at New York's Jewish museum celebrates the contribution of Edith Halpert, a gallery owner who defined a new American art


There is a fascinating work in a new exhibition at New York’s Jewish Museum, Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art, which features a Star of David in one corner and an image of Abraham Lincoln in another. Jewishness and a great American icon come together. This perfectly captures the story of Edith Halpert, a Jewish immigrant who transformed American art in the mid-20th century.

She was the first important female gallery owner in the US. The New York Times recently called her “arguably New York’s most powerful dealer of contemporary art” from the early ‘30s to the mid ‘50s.

In 1926 she opened the Downtown Gallery, the first commercial art space in New York’s bohemian Greenwich Village. She was a classic outsider: a woman, an immigrant and a Jew. She regularly exhibited work by women, Jews and immigrants, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Ben Shahn, who later became household names, but also by a new generation of black artists, including Jacob Lawrence and Horace Pippin. She championed modern American art at a time when the New York art world was looking to Europe, especially Paris.

Born Edith Gregoryevna Fivoosiovitch in Odessa in 1900, she came to New York City with her mother and sister in 1906 (her father had recently died of TB). When she was just seventeen she met the artist Samuel Halpert, another Russian immigrant, and they married the following year. She worked at Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s to support him, while he painted at home, but they divorced in 1930 just before he died, still in his 40s.

In 1926 she had opened Our Gallery in Greenwich Village, renamed the Downtown Gallery the following year. Most galleries then were in Midtown, which was much more fashionable. The Village was where many artists lived. Gertrude Whitney founded the Whitney Studio Club at on 8th Street which in the 1930s became the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1936, Hans Hofmann moved his famous art school to W9th Street. America’s first racially integrated night club was in the Village; performers included Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Paul Robeson. In 1940, Halpert moved her gallery to midtown, near MOMA.

The Downtown Gallery exhibited a new generation of young American artists, many, like Stuart Davis, Peggy Bacon, Ben Shahn, only in their 20s and 30s. Like Alpert, many of them were outsiders. Some were Jewish immigrants, part of that great wave of the late 19th century and early 20th century: the sculptor, Elie Nadelman, born in Warsaw; the painter Max Weber, from Białystok; Ben Shahn, from Lithuania; Jack Levine was the son of Lithuanian immigrants, William Steig the son of Polish immigrants.

Unusually for that time, many were women artists: Nadelman, Marguerite Zorach, Peggy Bacon and, most famous of all, Georgia O’Keeffe. This exhibition features two striking flower pieces by O’Keeffe and two beautiful sculptures by Nadelman.

Perhaps, most radical of all, Halpert exhibited black American artists. In 1941, she had an exhibition that included 41 black artists. Before then a black artist had never been represented by a New York Gallery. Jacob Lawrence’s painting, The Music Lesson, stands out for its bright colours. What made Helpert so distinctive was her radically inclusive sense of American art.

This exhibition brings together 90 works from her personal collection for the first time since it was sold off at auction in 1973. One of the first striking pieces is Seated Woman, a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, which was shown at the first exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in November 1926. It is one of a number of impressive representations of women. There is also a portrait of Edith Halpert (1928) by her husband and Circus Girl Resting (1925) by the Japanese-American artist, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who was later interned during the war as an enemy alien.

The range of work is striking from the detailed realism of Charles Sheeler’s interiors to the early abstract works of Stuart Davis (represented here by Egg Beater No. 1, 1927). He first exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in 1927 and these paintings already anticipate his jazz-influenced, proto-pop art paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, bold, brash, and colourful. He had nine solo shows with Halpert. There are landscapes by the great Marsden Hartley and powerful political works by Ben Shahn, including Hunger (1926) and one of a series of gouaches dedicated to the trial of two famous Italian-American anarchists, and a searing satire of the military elite by Jack Levine (Welcome Home, 1946).

In addition there are photographs, a room full of prints by major artists including Orozco, Arshile Gorky and Edward Hopper, and metal weather vanes from Halpert’s folk art collection. In 1931 she launched the American Folk Art Gallery on the first floor of her brownstone.

Perhaps most striking of all is how original this work is. It’s as if Cubism and Abstract Expressionism had never happened. None of the artists here attempt to copy Picasso or Matisse. They have gone their own way and the range of voices is astonishing. Some of these artists, all very different, became famous. Others have not received their due recognition in the mainstream histories of modern American art. They became marginalised in the big stories of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and larger Post-Modernism.

Why? One can’t help but feel that there’s a political story here. Too many outsiders, like Halpert herself, for a generation of art historians and critics keen to champion white men from Pollock to Warhol. But gathered in New York’s Jewish Museum they feel fresh and will speak to a new audience. A Jewish female immigrant may have found her moment.

Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art is at New York’s Jewish Museum until February 9.

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