Andre Emmerich

Art dealer with 'impeccable timing'

André Emmerich, art dealer: born Frankfurt, Germany 11 October 1924; twice married (three sons); died New York 25 September 2007.

Towards the end of his life, the New York art dealer André Emmerich recalled admiring a Monet painting of Waterloo Bridge in the collection of Oberlin College, the liberal arts school in Ohio where he was then a 19-year-old undergraduate. The collection's curator, a Mrs King, had sniffed in disapproval: "You have a soft eye, André. You'll have to harden it." "Actually," Emmerich chuckled, "what I had was the eye of my generation, but just a few years ahead. That was always my great advantage".

This was no more than the truth. Where it is given to lucky gallerists to have a single string to their bow, Emmerich had three. He was among the first New York dealers to champion colour-field painting, at a time in the 1950s when the work of artists such as Morris Louis was viewed with deep suspicion. Although Louis's early pictures were, as Emmerich himself said, "quite unsaleable", he took them on anyway. Soon Louis moved away from painting "big, raw canvases with a single column of red or blue in the middle" to the stripes which would make his reputation, and that of the André Emmerich Gallery along with it.

By the mid-1960s, the gallery also represented Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler, as well as a crew of non-abstractionists – David Hockney and Yoko Ono were only two of them – in which its owner took an avuncular interest.

Before this, in the early 1950s, Emmerich had already helped to make the US market in pre-Columbian art. Until he opened his first gallery at 18 East 77th Street, Manhattan in 1954, the classical arts of pre-Conquest America were seen as a subject for scholars rather than collectors. By alternating shows of objects from, say, the Mezcala culture of Mexico with others of work by contemporary artists such as Robert Motherwell and Adolph Gottlieb, Emmerich spawned a hugely lucrative vogue in pre-Columbian art. Typically, he made himself an expert in the field, writing a pair of scholarly works, Art Before Columbus (1963) and Sweat of the Sun and Tears of the Moon (1965).

His talent for anticipation he put down to genetics. Although Emmerich's father was a lawyer, he was, as he liked to say, a third-generation art dealer on his mother's side. His maternal grandparents had owned a gallery, while his own parents were serious collectors. His mother's sister was a successful painter who was married to an art critic; the couple ran a gallery in Paris in the 1930s. When, fleeing Nazi anti-Semitism, the Emmerichs took 12-year-old André from Frankfurt to the Netherlands in 1936, they opened him to the collections of the Mauritshuis and Rijksmuseum. From Holland the family fled to the Dutch West Indies in 1939, and then on to New York the following year.

This polyglot upbringing stood their son in good stead when he arrived at Oberlin in 1942. The family having lost most of its money on the way, the young Emmerich went to college on a scholarship which he eked out by helping to catalogue the Dutch and German works in Oberlin's collection. "You got 35 cents an hour for typing catalogue cards," he later said. "You only got 30 cents waiting tables in the coffee shop."

Graduating, Emmerich took up a career in journalism. After five years working in Paris for Time-Life magazine, he was approached to join the US delegation to Unesco as its youngest member. Also on the Visual Arts Advisory Committee was Robert Motherwell, who quickly befriended the young journalist and introduced him to "the small group of eccentric painters we now know as the New York Abstract Expressionist School". At first, Emmerich found their work puzzling. In 1954, though, he decided to throw in journalism and set himself up as a contemporary art dealer. "In retrospect," he recalled, mildly, "my timing turned out to be impeccable".

As with all great gallerists, there was more to his success than a good eye and a sense of event. Emmerich was suave, multilingual and worldly, qualities which inspired confidence in the international art-buying rich. His years as a journalist also left him with a nose for publicity. He once went to a fancy dress ball with a female cousin and the artist Helen Frankenthaler, the former dressed as van Gogh's "L'Arlésienne" and the latter as a Picasso nude with balloons for breasts.

Spotting a Time-Life photographer he knew, Emmerich persuaded him to shoot the girls: the resulting photograph ran to a full page in the magazine's society section the following week. Although this was useful publicity for the André Emmerich Gallery, his cousin's mother was not pleased. "She rang my mother and said, 'How could André do that?'," Emmerich later laughed. "No nice Jewish boy will marry those girls now."

Even in old age, Emmerich's eye never let him down. In 1982, he bought a failing estate in upstate New York and turned it into a highly successful sculpture park, Top Gallant, showing the work of avant-garde artists such as Keith Haring. In 1996, he sold his Manhattan gallery to Sotheby's, who, to his sorrow, closed it two years later.

Charles Darwent

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