Douglas Walla Appears at Molly Barnes’ Salon

Distinguished Kent Gallery founder now torn between his artist brood and his own two children

Worries that Internetworked art world is losing texture, time for ripening

Art Fairs are “speed dating”

The invitation only art salon of the well connected Molly Barnes today (March 9 Fri) presented the quiet spoken, silver haired Douglas Walla, the widely respected author (Entre Chien et Loup) publisher and founder and president of the distinguished Kent Gallery, founded in 1985 and now at 541 West 25th at 11th ((212) 365-9500), reviewing his long career finding artists of distinction whose typically cerebral work treats such issues of political and social significance as “architecture of amnesia, issues of conscience, emotionally urgent subject matter (both personal as well as public in origin), and obsessive, compulsive personal undertakings”.

These include recently the remarkable Vienna Biennale project of 27 year old (in 2007, when she started it) Emily Prince to make a drawing of every one of the military fatalities of Iraq and Afghanistan, of which she has completed more than 5,500 so far. For fear of them being “torn down”, he said, only reproductions were exhibited at first, but the display this summer at the University of Chicago will be the originals.

Walla did not bring slides, but simply sat in an armchair and talked, in a voice as quiet as a soft slipper, prompted by Molly every now and then. “Tell us why you don’t like Art Fairs!” she burst out at one point, to which he replied “I don’t like speed dating. I work with people who are more socially conscious, whose work derives from a real place. I don’t think for me it is worth throwing away $30 or $50,000 to have a booth at a fair. But I do go to them as an art professional to see what my clients see. I do try to be open minded about change though I find it harder and harder as I get older! Someone told me that they like fairs because things get done faster, but I am not sure things should be done faster in the art world. Why? Think about it. I’m just an old dog, I guess. ”

The Internet certainly saved time, he allowed, but “I miss the tactile nature of being shown slides by an artist. It may be my age. The Web has been invaluable in the last two years but at the same time it is a disaster. I used to be sorry for the artists because calling up galleries and going around showing work was fundamentally demeaning, I knew. I always felt compassionate. But now one can often see that artists who point us to their Web site have never walked into my gallery and have no idea what we show.

“I think that the long time it took to become established in the old days was not a bad thing. One of our artists worked at the Met as a guard for ten years. So many are starting their career too young now. De Kooning had his first show when he was 42 years old. I remember Cindy Sherman when she had her show at the MOMA being in tears, saying ‘I really don’t deserve it!'”

Art world tough, unpredictable, so big now

“How do you keep up?” asked Molly. “I read a lot,’ said Walla. “Now I have two small children and I have to commute, and it is not so easy. At Marlborough we had hundreds of artists a month walking in with slides, and now we have Web sites, so it does go faster. But really the way it works is that I hear about people from people I respect. For example, John Brill was recommended to me. It’s really hard for an artist, I know. Some luck into becoming a brand very fast, but for most people it is hard.” The art world is so much bigger, now, he said. “When I was starting out I tried to walk into every gallery space of about 250 and get a sense of what they were about, but nowadays that would be impossible – there are so many. I have only 12 artists to deal with and even so I choke on the adequacy of doing a really good job.”

The current exhibition at Kent is by Heidi Fasnacht of her studies of “landscapes of cultural destruction” including the Nazi theft of art, which is one way of interpreting the way the Holocaust was triggered, said Walla, in that Hitler was busy “raiding the homes of Jews and stealing the art and it wasn’t going fast enough”. Her work points up calamitous episodes in the past which in the current political climate post 9/11 are rarely faced. At least one institution (Art Institute) proved unwilling to show the work in the aftermath of the Twin Towers catastrophe. It includes, for example, the Hamburg and other bombing by the Allies in World War II which resulted in epic devastation – up to 600,000 killed and four million homeless – but which has been so long out of the public eye. “Three Holocaust survivors who came up from Washington were blown away”, he said.

Clearly Walla is a supportive gallery owner. Jazz drummer and composer turned artist and teacher Charles Gaines, who lost twenty years of his work when his previous dealer went bankrupt and hid it away in a warehouse, where it could not be retrieved without receipts which the artist had never been given, was fortunate to have Walla’s encouragement to move on and produce new work.

The beauty that was Tanning’s

One remarkable painter he has long represented is the famously delightful and imaginative surrealist Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), who just died at 101. In 1942 she was visited for the first time by Max Ernst and took up playing chess with him for a week before they ended up in bed and divorced their respective spouses. Ernst’s wife was Peggy Guggenheim, the great patroness who was a prime mover in transplanting the energy of modern painting from Paris to New York in the mid 20th Century, who rescued Ernst from a French internment camp. He always felt, said Walla, that she had “blackmailed” him into marrying her.

“Max walked into Dorothea’s studio for the first time and saw Birthday on the easel,” he recounted, describing how the relationship was sparked. The barebreasted self portrait of Tanning costumed in tangled vine-wrapped skirt and sleeves and standing over a winged blackhaired gryphon/puppy as open white doors recede into the distance is now celebrated as one of Manning’s great works.

Since there were no slides those unfamiliar with this masterpiece had to find it in a small book which Walla had brought with him, the “Dorothea Tanning” by Charles Stuckey and Richard Howard, one of 40 or more art books published under the Kent gallery imprint, with a photo of Manning on the cover and other black and white photos inside, that confirmed just how beautiful she was and how gifted.

So it was a sad story that Walla told of a dealer (Lee Miller) visiting Manning later on and warming her up to the idea of a mutually beneficial relationship, but then, when she gave her assent to him buying a few paintings right there and then, he only chose works by Ernst.
(More photos at Only Good Photos)

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