Published: May 3, 2007
On Madison Avenue, between 78th and 79th Streets, the sidewalk erupts in a panoply of black and white terrazzo. A field of horizontal rectangles gives way to undulating crescents that in turn make way for a sunburst. The Alexander Calder-designed sidewalk outside the building occupied by James Graham & Sons is as much a billboard for the gallery it fronts as it is pure art.
It could also be interpreted as allegory for the ever-changing relationships that exist between artists and dealers, and between dealers and their clients. Or, as Robert C. “Robin” Graham Jr, chairman of James Graham & Sons, surmised recently when recalling his introduction to the family business in 1963, there are few rules in this business that are set in stone.
“There was no such thing as a standard deal,” he said. “Every time you started something, you were starting something new. Each thing or person, each sale or consignment, or each arrangement you made to represent an artist, was reinventing the wheel.” Nothing that Graham had learned in school had prepared him for the business side of the art business. It was, however, a paradigm that four generations of Graham men before him had confronted and conquered, and it is something the current chairman has mastered as well.
What began in 1857 as Samuel Graham’s modest furniture shop on lower Third Avenue quickly evolved into a thriving decorative arts business. With each subsequent generation adding its own personal flair and expertise to the eclectic mix of offerings, the phrase “I found it at Graham’s” became the buzz among affluent New Yorkers and serious collectors from across the country.
It is a buzz still heard today, although somewhat more amplified this spring season, as the gallery prepares to present the inimitable exhibition “James Graham & Sons: A Century and a Half in the Art Business.”
The 150-year anniversary celebration, opening May 9, is as much about the gallery’s hallowed history and the artists that the owners have befriended as it is about their relationships with clients past and present. American master painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Everett Shinn and N.C., Andrew and Jamie Wyeth rank high on their short list. Names such as Garvan, du Pont, Norton, Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge and Henry Ford were but a few that filled out their client list. Major institutions, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, have also benefited from relationships with the gallery.
To mark the occasion, James Graham & Sons is hosting a compelling exhibition of 150 works by a variety of the artists that have been represented by the Graham Gallery over the years. Paintings, works on paper, sculpture, contemporary art and photographs from 1880 to the present make this an exciting and insightful event, yet a deeper look into the exhibition reveals how the development of collecting trends has been so closely associated with one gallery. Most of the works on view are rarely seen, many on loan from private collections and even more from museums across the country.
When, in the early part of the Twentieth Century, the shop began offering a selection of paintings and prints, the foundation was laid for what would eventually become one of the nation’s foremost art galleries. As the gallery began to focus on sculpture, Western art and American paintings, collectors turned to James Graham & Sons for guidance in building collections that would eventually endow such institutions as Winterthur, the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, the Mabel Brady Garvan Collection at Yale University Art Gallery and the Hirshhorn Collection of the Smithsonian Institution. Today, a sophisticated clientele, as knowledgeable as any that has come before them, still turns to James Graham & Sons seeking advice in regard to acquiring works by both revealed masters and contemporary artists.
It is quite remarkable that James Graham & Sons has successfully weathered the changes in aesthetics and economy. It is one of only five remaining New York galleries with roots in the Nineteenth Century. It is the oldest gallery in New York City that has remained in the original family.
In the beginning, the shop featured a range of decorative arts, “Turkey rugs” to aesthetic furniture, advertising the inventory to a public hungry for the latest in home décor. The addition of an auction aspect led to a relationship with the estates trade. A constantly revitalized inventory †sculptures such as “Young Faun with Heron” and “Bacchante and Infant Faun” by Fredrick MacMonnies one month, Georgian silver the next and a distinctive line of Christmas gifts †kept collectors stopping by to browse and to buy.
Between 1880 and the Depression, newly rich Americans favored formal gardens modeled on European examples. They were magnificent settings for works of original sculpture, and the Grahams understood that market, offering graceful bronzes and figural sculpture.
When third-generation James A. Graham entered the business around 1900, the gallery began to focus on certain categories of merchandise. Graham had a discerning eye for rare silver, authored the privately printed book Early American Silver Marks and built a collection that included items by Tobias Stoutenburgh, Paul Revere and Jacob Hurd of Boston, as well as Anthony Rasch of Philadelphia.
On one occasion, automobile mogul Henry Ford stopped in to see James Graham’s substantial private collection of silver and asked, “How much do you want for it?” When Graham replied that he had never thought of selling it, that he was collecting it because he liked it, Ford snorted: “You can’t do that. Unless you put a price on it and sell it, I’ll never come into your gallery again.”
Taken aback, Graham realized that a “dealer shouldn’t have anything,” and subsequently Ford drove away with the silver.
While the gallery experienced some reverses during the Depression, the truism that one collector’s loss is another’s gain prevailed. Fifth Avenue’s Gilded Age mansions and nearby country “cottages” yielded entire collections.
During one period of slowdown, a client relationship saved the day for the Grahams. Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge purchased much of her collection, more than 2,000 bronzes, 40 by Malvinia Hoffman, from the gallery. When James A. Graham confided to her at that the gallery was behind in the rent, had just one prospective sale on the horizon and no inventory to meet it, Dodge consigned a group of sculptures. Her terms were generous: “Set any price you want and take a good commission.”
As the Twentieth Century progressed, fourth-generation brothers James and Robert Graham entered the business. James R. “Jimmy” had inherited his father’s appreciation of Western art. He also loved sculpture and was an expert in the Hudson River School of painting. Robert C. “Bob” Graham Sr displayed a preference for contemporary art, as well as the company of artists.
The brothers’ specialties melded with a midcentury public eager for both the classic and the contemporary.
In 1950, the gallery moved to its present space at 1014 Madison Avenue. With the local auction houses nearby and great museums within walking distance, it could not have been more perfectly located. While a mix of decorative arts and fine art continued to define the gallery, further transitions began to take shape.
In the area of sculpture, the gallery’s sphere encompassed both Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American and European sculpture, with figurative and animal bronzes a specialty. While the gallery had a long and illustrious history with sculpture, Jimmy expanded its strength. In 1973, the gallery conducted a retrospective of works by Herbert Haseltine as a benefit for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.
The collector Arthur Rubloff came to know the gallery late in his life, but nevertheless had Jimmy travel for him to London and throughout the United States to acquire pieces such as “A Chief of the Multnomah Tribe,” 1905, by Herman Atkins MacNeil, “Equestrian Group of a Steeplechase” by Jules Isidore Bonheur, as well as “On the War Path” and “Shooting ‘Em Up” by Cyrus Dallin.
While the sculpture department had an international flavor, the philosophy of the paintings department focused on reexamining significant works by American painters whose popularity had waned over the years. Exhibitions drew favorable response and as a result, many once forgotten or overlooked artists have enjoyed renewed respect and admiration.
John La Farge (1835‱910) was one whose work was reassessed. In 1966, the gallery presented an exhibition of 60 of his paintings and drawings, most not seen for at least 30 years and drawn primarily from private collections. La Farge’s earlier career had centered on mural paintings and stained glass, yet his easel paintings were considered to be fairly rare.
The exhibition was widely regarded as a success, focusing a new round of attention on the artist. The National Gallery of Art acquired “Entrance to the Tautira River, Tahiti, Fisherman Spearing a Fish,” and Rita and Daniel Fraad, who only ten years earlier had begun their outstanding collection, purchased “Portrait of Faase, the Taupo of Fagaloa Bay, Samoa,” 1891.
Similarly, a reappraisal of Walter Gay, an artist whose work evoked the spirit of American novelist Edith Wharton, was conducted in 1974. In the years since, the artist has been the subject of significant museum shows and monographs.
Among the Modernists, James Graham & Sons was also responsible for reestablishing the reputation of Oscar Bluemner (1867‱938). Interestingly, Bluemner’s last solo show prior to his death had been conducted in 1935, and by midcentury, his work and that of other first-generation American avant-garde artists had virtually been forgotten. In 1956, the Graham Gallery presented an exhibition of his work, which was greeted with widespread acclaim, once again solidifying Bluemner’s reputation. In 1960, Graham made a gift of Bluemner’s “The Eye of Fate” and “Sun Storm,” both 1927, and a series of watercolors from the “Suns and Moons” to the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA is lending them for the Graham anniversary exhibition.
James Graham & Sons continued the revival of other artists of Bluemner’s generation with a double show of Shinn and Arthur B. Davies in 1958. Davies’ work linked The Eight with the Moderns.
Bob Graham had originally met Shinn in 1945, a time when interest in The Eight and other realists who had railed against the academy in the early part of the Twentieth Century was being eclipsed by the rise of the New York School. No stranger to distrust, Shinn did not warm easily to the dealer. Graham bought a few pictures from him and gradually gained the artist’s confidence. The success of his solo show in November 1952 must have been very gratifying for the artist as when Shinn died six months later, his will stipulated that Graham be appointed to expedite the disposal of the contents of his studio.
When regionalist Thomas Hart Benton (1889‱975) was given a retrospective, the gallery worked hard to reestablish the reputation of the highly independent realist who left New York in 1935 to return to his native Missouri. The show was well received and as it closed, Graham wrote to the Bentons, “I hope you are as pleased with the results as we are here.” The artist replied, “Of course we are pleased with the results of your exhibition. It is the first showing I’ve ever had which paid its way during its course.”
In 1955, the gallery, in association with Albert Duveen, furthered its presence in the contemporary market with an exhibition featuring the works of Picasso, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Georges Roualt and Marc Chagall.
After Terry Davis joined the gallery as director of contemporary art in 1968, the works of Sol LeWitt, Eva Hesse, Nancy Graves and Alice Neel were brought to the attention of collectors.
One of Davis’s most outstanding achievements was the recognition of leading British clay artists. It was at her urging that the gallery experimented with a British ceramics show, a surprising success. Ceramics continue today to be an integral part of the department’s offering.
Bob Graham retired in 1979, Jimmy Graham followed his lead in 1987.
By then, the gallery had impressed a new generation of collectors and it only needed to hone that position to attain the stature it retains today. Graham has accomplished that task by allowing the knowledge of specialists with a forward looking bent to flourish.
Cameron M. Shay, a Nevada native, was brought on board by Jimmy Graham and shared his passion for Western art. Shay has since become expert in three-dimensional works and today Graham’s inventory reflects a commitment as much to contemporary art as past masters. In 1990, the gallery began representing Jeffery Dashwood, whose plump elegant birds give modern interpretation to earlier motifs. The gallery also represents Steve Kestrel (b 1947), whose animal sculptures are both cast bronze and carved from river stone.
Priscilla Vail Caldwell, vice president, American paintings, joined the gallery in 1996. Under her leadership, exhibitions of American paintings have become more ambitious, each supported by a full color catalog. Caldwell has continued the tradition of exhibiting works of artists with whom the gallery has had long associations, such as Guy Pène du Bois. Additionally, she continues to exhibit artists on the cusp of modernism and realism who are deserving of reevaluation. Among these are Henry Varnum Poor and Miklos Suba, both subjects of highly regarded recent exhibitions.
In 1993, Jamie Wyeth became the third generation of his family to show at James Graham & Sons. Paintings by his grandfather, N.C. Wyeth, were shown regularly during the 1960s. And most recently, the gallery has handled important paintings by Andrew Wyeth. All told, the Grahams have presented works spanning more than 100 years of Wyeth art production.
Jay Grimm, now director of the contemporary gallery, arrived in 2002. His contributions include featuring the works of Nancy Lorenz, Duncan Hannah and David Fertig. The department also presents works by artists with mature careers; included are Karel Appel and Norman Bluhm.
Strategically repositioning James Graham & Sons as specialists meant redistributing gallery space. The first floor and lower-level gallery, where furniture and the decorative arts had previously cohabitated with sculpture, is reserved solely for the presentation of three-dimensional works. The only evidence of past associations is a wooden corner cabinet, part of an English mansion that members of the family once imported. It remains to hold objéts and British ceramics. American masterworks hang on the second floor. The contemporary department holds sway on the third.
Robin Graham recounts, “It became very clear we could no longer be the type of generalist that my grandfather, and to some extent my uncle and father, were.” Modestly downplaying his role as being less dramatic than that of previous generations, Graham said, “I’ve been concerned about making sure that as the markets change, as they have enormously, we are able to adapt.”
The house that the Grahams built has indeed adapted well. Forged by five generations of Graham men, it is attractive, attentive, sturdy and selective.
The exhibition “James Graham & Sons: A Century and a Half in the Art Business” will be on display through June 29. A book has been published to commemorate this historic anniversary, James Graham & Sons: A Century and a Half in the Art Business by Betsy Fahlman, professor of art history at Arizona State University.
James Graham & Sons is at 1014 Madison Avenue. For information, 212-535-5767 or www.jamesgrahamandsons.com.
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