[Welcome to the second part of “Gres Gallery,” my account of the history of the small modern-art gallery in Washington, D.C., of which my parents were part-owners in the late 1950s and early 1960s. (I strongly recommend that ROTters who haven’t read Part 1, posted on 7 July, go back and catch up before proceeding to Part 2 below.) The account picks up right were I left off at the end of the first half, beginning here with the start of 1959, the middle of Gres Gallery’s first season under the new ownership that included my folks. You’ll see that things heated up a little for the gallery almost right away because of international politics and world affairs.]
Gres’s first show of 1959, Matta, opened on 22 January as an effective celebration of Gres’s reincorporation under its new directorship and with its new group of shareholders. Portner declared the first show of the new year “an excellent selection of Matta’s work over the years, showing not only the continuing development of this extraordinary painter but also each period at its best.” The show of Roberto Matta’s surrealistic paintings ran until 18 February, but on 16 February Washington held its first Jazz Jubilee, the patrons for which were First Lady Mamie Eisenhower and the wives of several other high-ranking federal officials. The musical fête was held at Washington’s Sheraton-Park Hotel, the largest hotel in the Nation’s Capital, and was accompanied around town by various other cultural events tied to the theme of jazz music one way or another—a lecture, a memorabilia exhibition, and Gres Gallery’s Rhythm in Form and Music, an exhibit of African sculpture and woodcarving from 12 to 31 March (including a week’s extension).
The art show was “accompanied by taped music of African rhythms and modern jazz counterparts . . . .” The exhibit “attempts to show the close interrelation between music and visual art . . . .” The director of the Library of Congress’s Music Division, Harold Spivacke, selected the recordings and Post art critic Leslie Judd Ahlander (formerly Portner; the review-writer married the Swedish cultural attaché, Björn Ahlander, in January) assured readers, “The impact of sight and sound will be an unforgettable experience.” (I don’t remember this exhibit at all, and I don’t remember hearing either of my parents talk about it in later years even though after returning to Washington in the late ’60s, my dad went to work as the volunteer director of development for the private Museum of African Art, the predecessor to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on the Mall; see my post on 19 January 2015. I’ve always thought that MAA was our introduction to the art of Africa, but it turns out that Gres Gallery mounted this show eight years earlier.)
From 8 February through 8 March, meanwhile, the Baltimore Museum mounted a show of paintings from the Gres, a selection of contemporary works. Such an invitation to a private gallery rather than another museum or an individual is “a rare honor,” said Perry. The Gres artists on loan were Botero, Bermudez, Marie Tuiccillo Kelly, and Anna Walinska, as well as Wilfredo Lam, a Cuban-born painter and sculptor who lived and worked in Paris, and British painter William Scott. The Baltimore reviewer, however, wasn’t quite so impressed. Of the Gres exhibit, the Sun’s art critic, Kenneth B. Sawyer, complained that “the work included, with one significant exception, seems thin indeed . . . .” The exception was Scott, “regarded by some as England’s best younger painter,” who “dominates the exhibition.” All the others, Sawyer dismisses pretty thoroughly, concluding “that the company offers him little competition . . . .” (“The Latin Americans, Botero, Lam, and Bermudez[,] suffer from the current European debility of manner,” he proclaimed.) Sawyer led off by cautioning that “the Gres has provided its quotient of excitement,” but “I, among others, would have been quick to praise brave efforts had I but been convinced of their staying power.” (Such a loan occurred again in January 1960 when the 20th Century Gallery in Williamsburg, Virginia, an affiliate of Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Art, borrowed the works of a group of contemporary artists from Gres.)
Also in February of 1959, Gres Gallery got itself somewhat embroiled in a small political controversy. The backstory was the Cuban Revolution that had just ended. On 1 January, Fidel Castro’s Marxist revolutionary 26th of July Movement ousted right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista from the island nation’s presidency and established a socialist state. Members of the old regime were jailed, fled, or sought asylum in countries like the U.S. or Spain (which was still governed at the time by its own totalitarian dictator, Generalissimo Francisco Franco) and members of the new order came out of hiding to assume public profiles.
(I have particular reason to recall this development, even though I had only just passed my 12th birthday, because I had a classmate—this would be 6th grade—who was the son of the Cuban ambassador under Batista, Nicolás Arroyo y Márquez. When Castro overthrew his father’s government, he disappeared from school, obviously in hiding with his family. They were holed up in a hotel, it turns out. Some weeks later, his father had gotten political asylum in the United States and my classmate returned to school. All the boys in his grade were pulled aside and the Middle School principal, Frank Barger, explained the situation to us and then asked us to keep an eye on the boy when we where on the playground at recess or athletic field for gym and report any strangers we saw hanging around. Of course, he had a security guard—we were used to this because I went to school with then-Vice President Richard Nixon’s daughters, so there were Secret Servicemen around all the time—but we were supposed to be another set of watchful eyes. Nothing ever happened, and the ambassador’s son didn’t stay at school after that year ended.)
After Castro’s victory, President Dwight Eisenhower tried to keep relations with the new Cuban government normal and Castro visited the United States on 15-26 April 1959, meeting with Vice President Nixon. But relations quickly soured as Castro moved swiftly into the camp of the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev. By the time President John F. Kennedy took office on 20 January 1961, the U.S. had broken diplomatic ties with Cuba (3 January 1961) and relations with the island reached a nadir on 17 April 1961 when U.S.-backed Cuban exiles invaded Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But in February 1959, relations between the two countries were stiff and wary, but not yet inimical.
On 19 February, Gres opened an exhibit of the paintings of Luis Martínez Pedro, a Cuban artist and Castro supporter; the show ran through 11 March. The 20 February issue of the Washington Post carried two articles on the exhibit, one in the front news section entitled “Cuban Revolt Depicted In Paintings Shown Here” and the other, in the “women’s” section, provocatively headlined “Like Artist Exhibiting Them: Paintings Are Pro-Castro.” (There was also a regular review from Leslie Judd Ahlander on 22 February in which she described the paintings as “cleancut and intellectual.”) In the first article, the unidentified journalist declared in his opening sentence: “Cuba’s victorious ‘26th of July’ movement, which culminated in the overthrow of the Batista regime, is the theme of a series of abstract paintings on display at the Gres Art Gallery . . . .” The reporter described the paintings of Martínez Pedro, “one of Cuba’s outstanding artists,” as “stark and severe geometrical compositions in black, red and gray, the colors of Fidel Castro.” This was the artist’s first exhibition for his work as during the final years of the Batista regime, he and his fellow artists and intellectuals didn’t create any work, he explained, in order to show their opposition to the dictator. Martínez Pedro stated “with enthusiasm”: “Cuba is now a new world. It is a renaissance. Cuba under Castro is returning to itself.”
In the second article, reporter Frances Rowan quoted Martínez Pedro at the opening of the Gres show: “Before there was no such thing as freedom. You couldn’t open your mouth. Now, everything is wonderful. Castro loves Cuba above everything.” Rowan asserted, “The spirit of the Cuban revolution is evident in several of the artist’s paintings with the revolutionary colors of red, white and black predominating” and reported that Martínez Pedro predicted, “United States-Cuban relations will be as ‘good as ever,’” while decrying the U.S. government’s silence on “what was going on” under Batista. The artist reiterated, “I painted these behind closed doors.” Attending the opening, featuring 18 oil painting and five wood constructions, were Castro’s new Chargé d’Affairs in Washington, Dr. Emilio Prando, and the director of the Cuban Bank for Industrial Agricultural Development, “another Castro man.” (The article also noted that my parents would be giving a cocktail party for Martínez Pedro that afternoon while another Gres couple would be hosting the painter at a dinner party. Chances are, I was on the periphery of that cocktail party doing my usual butler-waiter routine!)
(What’s missing here, and could be significant, is coverage by the Evening Star, Washington’s long-ago afternoon paper. It was a politically more conservative paper than the Post, but it’s not digitized—I don’t even think there’s an index—so I’d have to sit in the library for days combing through microfilms. The New York Public Library holds the Star and one day, I may do that just to see what it reveals, especially about this “commie art”!)
Having acquired the rest of its two-story building on Northwest 20th Street, the Gres Gallery expanded its exhibit space over the summer of 1959. (The gallery was closed except by appointment in June, July, and August.) On 12 October, Gres opened a second-floor gallery for work priced at $200 or less. Using the summer hiatus to renovate the new space, a garden exhibition area for sculpture was in the works as well. In conjunction with an exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art of French paintings, Fifteen Painters from Paris (10 October-8 November), Gres’s first show in the new gallery was a collection of small oil paintings, etchings, lithographs, and drawings by some of the same artists showing at the Corcoran (Jean René Bazaine, Jean Dubuffet, Bernard Dufour, Hans Hartung, Paul Kallos, Andre Lanskoy, Charles Lapicque, Serge Poliakoff, Pierre Soulages, Nicolas de Staël, Tal Coat [aka: Pierre Jacob], Raoul Ubac, Victor Vasarely, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, Wols [aka: Wolfgang Schulze]).
From 28 October through 18 November, Gres mounted a particularly interesting show. The artist was Italian Franco Assetto (who went professionally by only his last name). It’s really not accurate to call his work at this time “paintings” because his pigment wasn’t paint; it wasn’t even the new acrylic paint that would become widespread in the ’60s. It was a chemical compound called aluminum gel; the coloration was caused by different chemicals added to the gel. Having started out as a pharmaceutical chemist, Assetto developed the gel through extensive research. He made it by whipping aluminum salts together with a coagulant, “like making mayonnaise,” he said. (I never checked this out, but I’ve always suspected that this was either the same basic chemical compound or some variation of the chemical process that’s used to make artificial gems. An artificial ruby, say, is differentiated from an artificial emerald by the impurities introduced into the aluminum compound.)
The aluminum gel creates such a durable paint-like medium that the artwork is impervious to both weather—some Assetto pieces are made free-standing for display outdoors like sculptures—and assaults by a hammer. As a Post reporter put it, “If Assetto the artist had his way, all his paintings would bear the sign: ‘Please do touch.” The artist himself proclaimed, “I want none of those ‘Please do not touch’ signs. If one likes something, one should be able to touch it. It’s part of loving.” In all other respects, the art is essentially three-dimensional Abstract Expressionism. (The artist worked in other styles and with other media at different points in his career.) The pigments, explained Leslie Judd Ahlander, the Post art review-writer, were “troweled on with a plasterer’s tool in high relief which catches the light . . . .” (I have a large canvas, 40½″ x 29″, called Ossidiana VI, a dark terracotta background with conjoined-twin swoops of rust in the lower half, from this show, the artist’s first one-man exhibit. I’ve never tested it with a hammer, though.)
On 23 May, the gallery opened an exhibit of Young British Painters, a circulating project of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. (This was the first time that the Smithsonian sent an exhibit to a commercial gallery for sale to the public.) What was remarkable about this show wasn’t so much the artists or the art on display, but one group that came to see it. In the week that the show opened, Kenneth M. Scollon, art teacher at Eastern Junior High School (now Eastern Middle School) in Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland, brought his 9th-grade art students to view the contemporary works. Having visited the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection to see Impressionist art, Washington’s Union Station to see how modern architecture had adapted the design of an ancient Roman bath, and the National Cathedral to study Gothic architecture, the teacher thought the members of his survey course on the history of painting, sculpture, and architecture “were ready for these extreme cases” of contemporary art.
Scollon had prepared his students for this stage by tracing aspects of abstraction through the various periods of art they’d seen in their previous tours. How well had he made out? One student confessed, “It’s a little confusing, but if you attend and look at it . . . .” (He still declared, “I think that’s cool.”) Another young art critic wondered, “I’d like to know what they’re trying to get across. I guess if you know more about it, it helps.” A third 9th-grader offered, “That one over there with the bright colors says, ‘Look at me.’” (The artists in the group show, running through 11 June, were William Scott, Sandra Blow, Louis Le Brocquy, Bryan Wynter, Donald Hamilton Fraser, Robyn Denny, and Peter Lanyon. Leslie Judd Ahlander said they “subscribe to the international trends in art today that are making one country out of the artistic world. More intellectual and cool than American abstract expressionist counterparts, they nevertheless are concerned with the same problems and solutions that engross artists all over the world.”)
On 15 October, Gres opened a group show of Six Painters of Japan, representing artists all working in modern Western styles (called Yōga) rather than the traditional Nihonga, or “Japanese-style painting.” Among these artists was Yayoi Kusama who became something of a cultural and social phenomenon both in this country, where she lived and worked from December 1957 until 1973, and in Japan. (She had a solo show at Gres from 19 April to 14 May 1960. I’ve blogged on her before on 18 May 2017) The other five painters in the group show were Minoru Kawabata, Kenzo Okada, Toshinobu Onosato, Takeo Yamaguchi, and Yukiko Katsura, The work of all six is what would be labeled “avant-garde” and “at first glance,” observed Washington Post reporter William McPherson, “appear to have little relationship with the Japanese tradition.” Painter Katsura pointed out, “I see space all around me, but the space inside me—that is Japanese. That space we all paint.” McPherson went on to explain: “Minoru Kawabata’s paintings show the influence of Japanese calligraphy, Toshinobu Onosato’s resemble the textiles of his district,” Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture, a silk textile center.
These artists weren’t unknown in the West, despite the non-traditional nature of their work. Several, like Okada, had an international renown; Yamaguchi won the third Guggenheim International Award in 1958. Others, like Onosato, had a reputation in Japan but hadn’t exhibited in the U.S. In any case, the Western-style art these painters created was less well known here than the more traditional work of their countrymen, even though there were a few avid American collectors. Gres’s Six Painters was, by this measure, a stroke of acumen that attracted considerable attention around Washington and the American art world. Leslie Judd Ahlander pronounced Six Painters of Japan, which was scheduled to close on 17 December but was extended to the 23rd to accommodate the addition of the pieces by Yamaguchi which had been delayed in transit from Japan, “a fine show and not to be missed.” (I have always thought that this exhibit went in toto to New York for mounting at MoMA, but I can’t find any confirmation of that. Like the exhibit of Contemporary Polish Paintings in 1961, discussed below, the art of several of the painters Gres displayed were later shown at MoMA, but my recollection was that the entire show was borrowed. Either that memory is wrong, or I just haven’t found the confirmation yet.)
Skipping briefly ahead in time a few months to Gres’s opener for the 1960-61 season, the gallery exhibited the paintings of Aleksander Kobzdej, a Polish artist of Abstract work (although he doesn’t like the label) from 26 September to 5 October 1960. The one-man show, Kobzdej’s first in the U.S., I believe (Abstract art, indeed any modern work, was not officially sanctioned in Poland or anywhere in the Soviet Bloc where the only recognized style was Socialist Realism), even though the artist had a long list of international exhibits in his résumé, including the Venice and São Paolo Biennials (and won a prize in the 1959 Brazil show). Aside from Kobzdej’s art (one of which, Biblique, also entitled Biblical, is in my parents’ collection, purchased from this Gres exhibit), however, what’s significant in terms of Gres’s history is that Aleksander Kobzdej of Poland was a precursor to one of Gres’s most significant events, a break-through in not only the District of Columbia, but the art scene of the United States.
Over the summer of 1960, Beati Perry made an art tour of Europe, focusing on Poland—where, as I suggested earlier, contemporary work like that of Aleksander Kobzdej (his last name is pronounced KOBZ-day) wasn’t exhibited to the public in Poland; it wasn’t even officially recognized. She collected the work of several Polish painters and Gres followed the fall Kobzdej one-man show with a spring group show, Contemporary Polish Painters which turned out to be quite a coup. Perry spent June in Warsaw, known as the Paris of the East, making the rounds of the galleries and artists’ studios, personally selecting several dozen paintings representing “the diversity of interest and exploration taking place in Poland today” to bring home to Washington. (As it happens, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was also thinking along the same lines and there was something of a competition for who would put the United States’ initial show of Polish contemporary art together first. The small, private Gres Gallery turned out to be swifter and more maneuverable than the large institutional establishment with a board of directors and copious curators and advisers.)
This was after Poland’s communist leader, Władysław Gomułka, initiated the Polish October, also known as Gomulka’s Thaw, in 1956—with Moscow’s tacit agreement, of course, unlike the ill-fated Prague Spring in 1968 (or the disastrous Hungarian Revolution in ’56)—and began a liberalization policy in the Soviet satellite that, though it only lasted until the end of the year, left an aftermath of a somewhat freer society that affected the arts in particular (note, for example, the blossoming of Polish cinema in the early 1960s). Artists like Kobzdej and Wojciech Fangor had taken advantage of the liberalization to paint in a non-representative style that, reporter Stephen S. Rosenfeld of the Washington Post quipped, was “as far from the official Soviet ‘socialist realism’ as Picasso is from ‘The Happy Milkmaid.’” While Perry was in Warsaw, the Polish government decreed that museums could not buy any more art—but it was unclear if that order also applied to commercial galleries like Gres.
In any case, Perry returned to the Capital with 50 works representing 10 painters and two sculptors; among the artists on exhibit at Gres that spring were Kobzdej, Fangor, Marian Bogusz, and Rajmund Ziemski, all painters, and sculptor Alina Szapocznikow. Contemporary Polish Paintings opened at Gres Gallery on 11 April 1961 and ran until 13 May (extended from the 6th) and the Post dubbed it “a very important first in this country.” (Fifteen Polish Painters at MoMA ran from 1 August until 1 October with some pieces borrowed from Gres.) The Gres Gallery show (as was the MoMA exhibit as well) was only semi-officially recognized by the People’s Republic of Poland. The artists themselves were not allowed to come to the States to attend the exhibit and the Polish ambassador didn’t come to the opening; the embassy sent some mid-level official, however, so it wasn’t entirely ignored. (For a later show that featured Kobzdej, Gres Artists at the Carnegie International Exhibit, the Polish embassy’s First Secretary and an attaché attended the preview. My parents finally managed to meet Kobzdej in Germany when we were living there. It took two attempts to make contact because, as was common, his schedule kept being changed by his government minders. Biblique, which appeared with the artist in a photo accompanying one of the Post articles on this event, was one of the works of art that my folks took with them to Germany.)
Aside from the remarkable Contemporary Polish Paintings, there followed a number of interesting shows after Aleksander Kobzdej of Poland (26 September-5 October 1960), Six Painters of Japan (15 October-23 December 1960), and the second Botero show (18 October-12 November 1960), including Karel Appel of Holland (16 January-11 February 1961), a one-man show of paintings and gouaches by the 1960 Guggenheim International Award-winning artist; a second Antoni Tàpies exhibit (16 March-13 April 1961), where the art “kept conversation going the rest of the evening,” reported the Post’s Marie McNair, and the artist became “the most talked about young man in art circles in Washington”; Architects’ Choice (16 May-10 June 1961), a show of paintings and sculptures selected by eight District architects, a concept that Leslie Judd Ahlander dubbed “a new idea in exhibitions”; Group Show: Selections for Young Collectors (July through September 1961), “a group show of artists regularly shown here in a potpourri of names and techniques . . . for young collectors . . . with one gallery devoted to works under $100”; and the mounting of Gres Artists at the Carnegie (26 September-6 November 1961), a preview of the work of the 10 artists Gres sent to the Pittsburgh exhibit (27 October 1961-7 January 1962) that Ahlander called “one of the three most important exhibitions in the world” (with the Venice and São Paolo Biennials). Only one artist from Washington had ever been invited to the Carnegie International until 1961, when four, including one frequenter of Gres (José Bermudez), were included. (The other three D.C. artists were handled by the Jefferson Place: Kenneth Noland, Howard Mehring, and William Calfee) The Post art journalist asserted this was “an extraordinary tribute not only to the quality of local artists but also to the devoted spadework done by” Gres and the Jefferson Place Galleries.
Then on 24 October 1961, Gres opened a show of unique (for its day) art “that is making tongues wag all over Washington.” The artist was Reva Urban, an American painter, and her art was “literally bursting out of the rectangle of the canvas,” said Post art critic Ahlander. Reva, as she later chose to call herself, was born in Brooklyn (Coney Island), then spent most of her childhood in Pasadena, California. In 1941, at the age of 16, she came back to New York City and obtained a scholarship to the Art Students League; she began exhibiting in the U.S.and abroad in 1958. She eventually represented the United States in international art festivals and her work has become part of the collections of such institutions as MoMA, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Chicago Art Institute, among others. In the ’50s and ’60s, Reva’s paintings were essentially Abstract Expressionism.
In 1959, Reva, feeling cramped by the rigid confines of the framed canvas, began adding “appendages” to her paintings. “I felt my paintings were being stopped—choked by the straight edge of the rectangular canvas,” she said in an interview. As Post reporter Luther P. Jackson explained it:
At the height of her frustration, Mrs. Urban spotted a lumberyard near her studio . . . . Her original inspiration was to enlarge her canvas by nailing a strip of wood to it.
In the course of her carpentry, however, Mrs. Urban picked up a scrap of wood formed like one of her brush strokes that had been stopped at canvas’ edge. She carefully nailed the scrap to the canvas, giving birth to the “appendage” as an art technique—or as she put it, “a bursting form of sensuous energy.[”]
“I was free after years and years of butting against those darn hard edges,” exulted the artist. “I was like a kid finding a new world, thinking about all of the new possibilities of life.” Leslie Judd Ahlander characterized the works at Gres as having “tremendous power and vitality,” not dissimilar from the description of the curator of MoMA’s department of painting and sculpture exhibitions, Peter Selz, who said, Reva’s art is “a highly original statement of astounding force.” Ahlander observed:
Although artists in past years have tried to extend the boundaries of their work of art either by painting the frames as part of the composition, or by continuing the composition on around the sides of the canvas instead of framing it, or by panting larger and larger in a continuum without beginning or end, Reva Urban has actually added painted wood extensions onto her canvases to carry certain bush strokes beyond the rectangle into space.
The critic had some technical objections to the accomplishment of the “appendages” that limited their effectiveness, but in the end, she acknowledged that “this is not to say that the device is not an excellent and valid one—it performs a very real and vital function in extending these powerful and challenging works.” (It might be no surprise, given these particular encomia, that Reva was a staunch feminist even before the modern women’s movement began later in the decade.)
I don’t remember the Reva show, but that was most likely because I started boarding school the previous September and was still at school in New Jersey at the time. The next revelation I found in my research was even more surprising because it contradicts my understanding of subsequent years. The Washington Post reported on 26 November that Washington’s Gres Gallery had opened a branch in Chicago at 49 E. Oak Street (and later at 156 E. Ontario Street). The two Gres Galleries, the announcement said, would be working together closely and exchanging exhibits. The new gallery opened on 22 November 1961 with an exhibit of Gres Artists Selected for the Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, including pieces by Kusama. Now, I knew about the existence of the Chicago Gres and it was obvious that the Midwestern counterpart had been interested in some of the same artists since when I looked up one or another artist’s name (for example, Fernando Botero and Yayoi Kusama), I sometimes found that they’d exhibited at both the Washington Gres and the Chicago Gres—but I’d always believed they were separate businesses. Apparently, I was mistaken about this. (The Gres Gallery, Chicago, lasted a few years beyond the closing of Gres Gallery, Washington, closing around June 1964.)
My misapprehension about the relationship between the Washington and Chicago Greses was confirmed by a remark by Beati Perry reported by the Post on 20 January 1962. What came next only put a specific date on an event that I, of course, knew about when it happened: On 4 March, the Post reported that Gres had announced that it would close on 17 March, at the end of its last show. (The final exhibit was presumably the group show entitled Midwinter Gallery Exhibition, the last show on the Post’s “Monthly Art Calendar” [4 February—Gres wasn’t listed on 4 March or thereafter], originally scheduled between 16 January and 10 February, but probably extended until the closing.) The Post called the Gres’s closing “a real loss for Washington.” The Post writer I believe was Leslie Judd Ahlander described the “four stimulating, pioneering years” as ones during which “many new artists were introduced to this city in exhibitions that were as provocative as they were sometimes controversial.” “Gres Gallery Closes After 4 Stimulating Years” lists in extensive detail all the events that Ahlander felt were significant to the art scene of the Nation’s Capital, but her summary was:
Artists of international reputation were brought here, young painters and sculptors discovered and many others given the opportunity of exhibiting in an encouraging and dynamic atmosphere.
The Gallery’s record during its short tenure was impressive.
. . . .
Under the direction of Beatrice Perry, the Gres Gallery did much to bring the best contemporary international art to Washington.
Gres Gallery was only the second gallery in the U.S. to mount a solo show of Fernando Botero’s work, the first U.S. gallery to exhibit abstract paintings from Poland, and the first to show modern Western-style art from Japan. Among the solo U.S. débuts Gres presented were Jack Youngerman, José Luis Cuevas, Assetto, Antoni Tàpies, Jorge Oteiza, Rudolf Hoflehner, and Henri Michaux; Gres also mounted the first shows of Matta and Larry Rivers in the U.S. outside New York. Museums like MoMA and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others, borrowed exhibits or artworks and sometimes even bought pieces from the gallery.
The paper didn’t provide an explanation for why such a successful art dealership would fold so suddenly after so short a span (more like 4½ years). There was no hint that finances were a problem or that the stewardship of the art business had faltered. The truth is that too many of the group, the so-called Gres Corp., many of whom were Foreign Service Officers or international businessmen, were leaving the District at the same time—including Beati Perry, who, with her husband, Hart, returned to New York City for his business. My own parents went to Germany in the fall of 1962 (my dad had joined USIA the year before).
I don’t know why the Threadgills didn’t sell the gallery like the Greses had in 1958, but they didn’t. The shareholders were paid back in part in unsold stock—that is, art. Some of the works in my parents’ collection, which began at Gres, originated from that in-kind pay-out—and some of the Gres art has ended up in my own small collection.
This whole venture (around 3½ years from Dad’s impulse purchase to closure), “helping out” in the gallery and meeting the artists at the vernissages, are some of the most vivid and cherished memories of my childhood. It was an art education for my whole family and an adventure for me, and it had repercussions well beyond the demise of Gres Gallery to the ends of my parents’ lives. I’ve decided that our involvement in Gres Gallery was the third greatest influence in my life after my teen years living in Germany and Switzerland and my army tour in West Berlin. I’ve also seen that it’s the longest-lasting direct influence: my interest in art, especially modern Western art, continues unabated today. The other experiences were probably more formative, however—I learned a lot about myself, especially from the military service, and perspectives that continue to inform my view of the world.
[That brings this tale of Gres Gallery to an end. It was a wild ride for one pre-adolescent boy and obviously it still resonates for me. I don’t expect that anyone reading this account will experience the same feelings I had—and continue to have—with respect to Gres, but I hope you glean a little of what it meant to me then (and means to me now). Nearly no one connected with the gallery is still alive except a few like me who were children at the time.
[I seem to be the only person to have attempted to put together a historical narrative of the gallery—and I know there’s material I haven’t uncovered yet that would expand the scope of this article. For one thing, as I mention above, I didn’t go through the coverage of the Washington Evening Star, which I suspect would add some differing perspectives to the narrative. I once checked the Art & Architecture Collection of the New York Public Library, looking for something specific connected with Gres, and I found very little there. I haven’t checked the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art in Washington; I don’t know if there’s any information in those files, but I’d hope so. (There is a New York Research Center for the AAA, but I don’t know if it would have any files on a Washington facility; I must inquire.)
[I said at the end of Part 1 that I was thinking about appending a list of the names mentioned in this article and, perhaps, a chronology of Gres Gallery exhibits, but the lists are very long, even just the artists whose names I mentioned here, so I’m considering making an appendix which I’ll post separately this week. I’ll see if that’s feasible.]