A Gallerist Revealed
As Zabriskie Gallery celebrates more than 50 years in operation, its namesake’s dedication to art remains unwavering
Though many words could be used to describe her career path, Virginia Zabriskie prefers the title of “gallerist”—a term she uses to distinguish between the French words galleriste and marchand d’art—to describe what she does. “My work is less about showing any given client a work of art for sale, but rather presenting an artist’s work,” she explains.
And, after a half-century of working as a gallerist, Zabriskie should know what the job entails. Over the years, this respected art world figure has mounted an unprecedented 800 exhibitions in her eponymous gallery on Manhattan Island. Such a number seems gargantuan and yet makes sense when taken in perspective—as the gallerist assuredly points out, she was one of the youngest gallery owners out there when she began and she remains one of the oldest still working.
Virginia Marshall Zabriskie began her challenging career in 1955. She had been studying art history at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, where she researched and wrote about the Duchamp-Villon brothers— Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. Then only in her early 20s, she leased a space on Madison Avenue and immediately began exhibiting the works of contemporary painters, sculptors and photographers.
To put Zabriskie’s achievement in perspective, in 1954 “only about fifteen galleries in NewYork were specializing in contemporary art and, interestingly, most of them were owned and run by women,“ cites the gallerist. This is a small number compared to today, when Chelsea alone hosts more than 250 galleries exhibiting contemporary art.While there were other gallerists at the time (albeit few compared to today’s numbers) many famous women gallerists came to have their own spaces only after working in auction houses or apprenticing with other galleries, notes Zabriskie.
Her gallery represents a lifetime commitment to exhibiting artists with innovative ideas and an identifiable perspective. The scope of her vision is clearly signified by the breadth of artistic movements covered by her gallery, which specializes in Dada, Surrealism, American Modernism, contempo- rary painting, contemporary sculp- ture and photography. Zabriskie: 50 Years, the gallery’s anniversary catalogue, reads like a timeline of post-war art history.The gallery handles works of such legendary artists as Elie Nadelman and Richard Stankiewicz and has exhibited pho- tographs of Berenice Abbott, Eugène Atget, and Man Ray, among others.
When asked about a favorite exhibition from her lengthy career, Zabriskie quickly begins reminiscing about Collage in America, the show she put together in 1957, only three years after the inception of her gallery. Included in this ground-breaking exhibition were collages by Arthur Dove, Franz Kline, Jasper Johns, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell and Robert Rauschenberg. Even this early on in her career, she explains, she knew she wanted to create exhibitions with a distinctive point of view that capitalized on her spatial acumen and highlighted her expansive vision of modern art.
From 1977 until 1998, Zabriskie directed an additional gallery in Paris, which afforded her an advantageous trans-Atlantic gallery identity.When she opened her gallery in Paris, she learned to her astonishment that the country that had produced Daguerre, Nadar, Brassai, and Cartier-Bresson did not con- sider photography truly a collector’s art form. This situation differed radically from the United States, where photography was already in vogue and was a passion for many collectors. In turn, presence in Paris gave her the opportu- nity to find notable works of art by little-known European artists and bring
them to her American audience. “I hope everybody enjoys their career as much as I do,” Zabriskie says enthusiastically. Her jubilation is no doubt warranted—as a New York gallerist whose half-century of working vision has spanned two continents, Zabriskie has left a notable, positive impact on developing art movements and the countless living artists she has worked with.
Image: Virginia Zabriskie with a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, 1974. Photo by John Ferrari. Courtesy Zabriskie Gallery.