The Big Picture
For gallery owner Walter Randel, art and antique dealing is a global affair
In the middle of Chelsea, the uber-chic center of New York’s contemporary art scene, there’s a new “kid” on the block:Walter Randel, a 75-year-old ball of fire whose boundless enthusiasm for art and adventure has taken him around the world in pursuit of beauty and left collectors and connoisseurs decades younger gasping at both his acquisitions and the stories behind them.
His collection encompasses cultures from the far reaches of the globe. In the field of African art, for example, he is perhaps best known as the dealer who sold the figure of the archetypal hunter Chibinda Ilunga to the Kimbell Art Museum and the famed Nail Fetish to the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Randel’s explorations began in the safety and comfort of academia.He trained in painting and sculpture at Bard College and got his M.F.A. at Columbia University. “I studied with Rudolf Wittkower and Meyer Schapiro,” the scholarly dealer recalls.“It was Shapiro who opened my eyes to the possibilities of looking at the whole of art history: Eastern, Western, Oceanic and New World cultures. Andre Malraux’s Voices of Silence and Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art reiterated and confirmed this possibility.”
It was a heady moment to be an art student. “Starting out as a New Yorker at that time was very special,” Randel explains.“I enjoyed privileged dialogues with Franz Kline, Harvard Arnason and Charles Egan.These men were all my mentors.”
Egan in particular was a visionary dealer; he was among the first to exhibit Kline, de Kooning, Rauschenberg, Noguchi and Cornell.“Charles saw the renaissance these ar tists were star ting…before any-one else,” asserts Randel. One of the painters Egan showed for almost ten years before closing his gallery was Peter Golfinopoulos. Bringing that association neatly full circle, Walter Randel Gallery is presenting Golfinopoulos’ recent works in its spring exhibition,Tales of OurTime,April 5th through May 26th.
Walter Randel’s intellectual curiosi- ty and thirst for immediate and vital experience in the world of art could not be contained in a classroom for long.
Armed with his newly-minted M.F.A., Randel abandoned the civilized environs ofNewYorkCityforthejunglesofthe Yucatan, fearlessly seeking untamed and powerful images and scenery. His lifelong fascination with Pre-Columbian art compelled him to explore the ruins and history of the lost Maya empire. The knowledge he gained there allowed him to play a pivotal role in the formation of the Nelson Rockefeller and Alice Bache New World Culture collections, parts of which eventually made their way into the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1965, while wandering through the Field Museum in Chicago, Randel was moved by a group of sculptures collected in New Guinea in the early 20th century. He immediately resolved to go to New Guinea to actually breathe in the atmosphere that created them. He immersed himself in the little-known indigenous culture, talking with the people about their beliefs and gaining the playful nickname “silver mouse-grass” in honor of his prematurely grey, mustachioed presence. Some of the fruits of that expedition are now on display at the Jolika Collection assembled by Marcia and John Freide at the Museum of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
Asian Art, with its more serene and cerebral (yet equally powerful) aesthetic, also intrigues Randel. Recently showing at his gallery was an exhibition of Japanese Kano School screens and Asian art from the fourth century B.C. through the 19th century.
Randel’s collection also features a wide variety of European art.“One of the most cherished acquisitions I made was a thirteenth-century brass aquamanile in the form of a rooster from Lower Saxony,” Randel recalls. “This work now belongs to the Cloisters. Before I sold the aqua-manile, I held the handle of the pre- cious water vessel hundreds of times. I could feel the undulating grooves and indentations left by all the hands who had used that beautiful work before me.Where other acquisitions allowed me to travel to many distant places, this piece afforded me a rare moment where I felt I traveled through time as well.”
For Walter Randel, appreciating art is not about just savoring fleeting aesthetic moments, as wonderful as those moments can be. For him, connoisseurship in and of itself is not a simple “gift”. It is rather a faculty that can be trained and honed with experience, when sensibility is fueled by curiosity. Walter Randel’s art world career has been based on his insatiable hunger for knowledge and appetite for discovery. And appetite is a word that Randel, an adamant vegetarian and epicurean, understands well.
After more than fifty years of looking at and looking for extraordinary works of art, Randel’s in-depth studies of the past and its arts have placed him more securely in the present; contemporary art has now become his major interest and preoccupation.
According to Randel,“The most wonderful thing about dealing is the learning. In having the work of art in hand, you are doing away with the distance that exists between yourself and art when you are looking at it in an institutional setting. Proximity to art is a life-enhancing and life-changing experience.”
Image: Olmec Terra-Cotta Portrait of a Shaman/Ruler, Mexico, ca. 900 – 600 B.C. Image courtesy Walter Randel Gallery.