From the Horse’s Mouth: Betty Parsons

Airport time is reading time for me, and so this past weekend was a chance for me to delve into The Art Dealers, a book profiling 42 art dealers that is surprisingly interesting. Based on interviews done in the 80s, the dealers speak about art and the artists they have worked with in a personal, knowledgeable way. These people shaped much of the art scene as we know it today, and Betty Parsons is a great example of how.

Betty Parsons opened her eponymous gallery in 1946 on 57th Street where she showed early Abstract Expressionists and championed many artists who had “The New Spirit” until her death in 1982. She is mainly remembered for showing Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt and other New York school painters. The quotes of her below really struck me, from the beginning of white box galleries to vandalism (!) to women as dealers.

“I was the first to put up plain white walls in a gallery. Why? Well, showing these great big pictures of Abstract Expressionists, I got to thinking about the look of the gallery itself. In those days galleries mostly had velvet walls and very Victorian decoration. I decided to hell with all that, and the artists agreed. When you’re showing a large painting by Jackson Pollack, the last thing the work needs is a plush velvet wall behind it. The white was very severe; I wanted nothing else in the gallery, no furniture, except maybe one chair of bench. That was the idea, to have it as simple as possible, and it did catch on.”

“The worst thing was vandalism. People would come in, and when they left I would notice four letter words scribbled across Pollack paintings, Newman pictures. They would try to cut the paintings too.”

“When I started my gallery, nearly all art dealers were women: people like Marian Willard and Martha Jackson. It’s surprising how many women there were given the creative push to contemporary art, the pioneering and promoting. And there still are: Virginia Zabriskie is terrific, Paula Cooper has a beautiful gallery full of good artists. I think women are more creatively oriented than the male dealers, who are all money, money, money. That’s the first male consideration. My first thought is: Is the artist any good? If he’s good, and he doesn’t sell, that doesn’t change my faith in him.”

9 thoughts on “From the Horse’s Mouth: Betty Parsons

  1. Ed Winkleman suggested that I read The Art Dealers. He said it was a secret he didn’t tell everyone (he’s since told everyone) but thought artists could learn a great deal from the book.

    It took a lot for me to track down a copy. The good thing is I eventually signed up for the online Bergen County Cooperative Library System which means I can now order just about any book I’m interested in and the helpful staff of one of Bergen County’s many libraries will deliver it to my local library where I can pick it up and, later, return it.

    So I finally got the book through the library and, while I can say it was an interesting read, I cannot say I gained any insight at all into how art dealer brains work.

    Maybe I’m especially dense.

  2. It is nice to write glowingly about women as art dealers now ,however, one of the reasons why women artists are not appropriately represented in the museums and art galleries today is because of those women art dealers who dominated the art world and ‘made’ the market we are struggling with now. These dealers were more attracted to and seduced by the artists of the masculine gender than the money. The list of artists womanizing reputations mentioned here, substantiates this.

    It is now known to be true at that time many excellent women artists’ work was greatly under-rated, not exhibited, and NOW are missing from many art historical institutions’ permanent collections i.e. MoMA. It is unfortunate… however…”change is the only constant”
    so there is Hope!

  3. Chris, I’m dense too, because I don’t what you are supposed to take away from it as an artist.

    ArtChick, I’m not sure that a female dealer preference for male artists is the sole reason we have such disparity today; they were part of a generation and a system that was woman-blind.

    It’s a good point to note though– the number of female art dealers is odd compared to the rest of the field. I wonder why that is the case?

  4. One of the big things for any artist is finding a dealer to represent them. It’s really challenging. Ed was trying to give me advice on understanding art dealers. The idea is, I guess, I could read The Art Dealers and learn from that how best to approach dealers with my work, knowing now how their minds operate.

    I did not get that from the book. All I got was that art dealers think they’re hot shit, which I pretty much could’ve guessed. I also learned that art dealers go out of business a lot.

    Not very helpful.

  5. As far as women dealers and men artists and whatnot, every self-declared feminist thinks they have an explanation for why there appear to be fewer female artists in galleries and museums and so forth. It’s the patriarchy, or it’s that women undercut each other when competing, or it’s that women dealers fifty years ago liked hunky Abstract Expressionists. Whatever. Everyone knows the answer and yet somehow the world rolls on.

  6. Perhaps you could use this female dealer thing as a plan of attack: only approach women art dealers and then bat your eyes seductively? : )

    Agreed it is important to find a dealer (and I did notice the way some of the dealers in the book deplored artists being discovered ‘too soon’, which may or may not be the case but is hardly the way an artist would think of it), and I think that was one thing nobody really talked about.

    But at least you read an interesting book…?

  7. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I read it and it was a good book, an enjoyable read. I even got a couple of quotes for my site out of it (“Art has no words. Words have nothing to do with art, absolutely nothing. That’s the wonderful thing about it, the magic of it.” from Alexandre Iolas and “I got rid of the desire to possess: seeing is reward enough for me now.” from Tibor de Nagy).

    I just didn’t learn anything about how to find an art dealer.

    I’ve tried the eye-batting thing — out of four dealers I’ve been friendly with, three of them were women — and it didn’t work. I’m just not hunky enough. I’m more bulky. When I bat my eyes I look less like a smoldering love god and more like a dyspeptic hippo.

  8. Chris, people are staring at me because you made me laugh so hard about the hippo image.

    Thank you!

    –I liked the Iolas quote as well.

  9. Hall, Lee (1991). Betty Parsons: artist, dealer, collector. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated. ISBN 0-8109-3712-3 From cover: Betty Parsons at her gallery, 1979. Work by artists she represent. Painting by Mino Argento, Ruth Vollmer wooden sculpture. (Among others). Photograph by Lisl Steiner.

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