Saturday, January 6, 2024

the last book I ever read (The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever, excerpt eight)

from The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer:

In the midst of Kelly’s period of self-doubt, another Paris transplant was searching for a way forward. Some eight years earlier, the artist Betty Parsons had decided to start a gallery in New York. It opened in September 1946 at 15 East Fifty-seventh Street, the city’s original gallery neighborhood, in a small, brightly lit space stripped of all its decorative features and rugs, painted white, with big leaded-glass windows that looked out on a maze of fire escapes. As she later claimed, “The gallery was the first to be painted white and the first to show really big pictures when Pollock broke away from easel painting.”

Parsons’s timing was fortuitous; another enterprising heiress, Peggy Guggenheim, had decided to close her gallery, Art of This Century, and return to Europe, and Parsons inherited many of her artists, including Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and Clyfford Still. As the gallerist Leo Castelli once said, “It was the beginning of a great moment in American art that started there at Betty Parsons’s. For the first time a great original art movement took place in America.” Parsons wasn’t shy about her eye, which she also attributed to her own lifelong practice as an artist: “I was born with a gift for falling in love with the unfamiliar. Actually, being an artist gave me a jump on other dealers—I saw things before they did.” She had great self-confidence, part of which came from class. She grew up wealthy (even if it was precarious and lost in the stock market crash), attended finishing school, got married to a man a decade older, got a divorce in Paris (the same city where she had honeymooned) two years later but kept his name, and spent the rest of the decade there. Brancusi cooked her eggs, decades before Kelly and Youngerman’s studio visits, and Berenice Abbott photographed her; a brief stint in California included a job selecting wine (a skill honed in Paris) and parties with Marlene Dietrich. But after divorcing, she was disinherited. She lived with women for the rest of her life. Parsons once told Youngerman, without vanity, as if stating a historic fact: “All [my] sisters were beautiful, but I was the most beautiful.” She enjoyed being mistaken for Greta Garbo, a friend and tennis partner, on the street. She had a deep voice, a thing for berets and pearls, and an aversion to makeup. She carried her watercolors, pens, a vial of corked water, and notebooks everywhere in a little wicker basket, and was constantly drawing or jotting notes or lines of poetry—even in the car. Well into her seventies, she would go skinny-dipping in the ocean on the North Fork of Long Island.

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