Thirty-seven years with Richard Feigen: the dealer who was a collector first—and sold to feed his habit

Frances Beatty remembers a mentor who would rather give you a lecture on Max Beckmann or Peter Saul than sell you a Van Gogh, but who could do both

Richard L Feigen Anna Schori

Richard L Feigen Anna Schori

Richard Feigen was already well known for his galleries in Chicago (opened in 1957), Los Angeles and New York when we first met at a cocktail party in New York in 1975. I was writing my dissertation on André Masson and Surrealist Imagery, at Columbia, and working on Carolyn Lanchner and Bill Rubin‘s Masson show at MoMA (1976). When I asked Richard how he had had the vision to have a Masson show in the 1960s, he said, with his inimitable wry laugh, “If you wanted to buy Picassos from Kahnweiler [Louise Leiris Gallery in the 1960s] you had to buy a Masson first. I had a lot, so I figured I might as well do a serious show.”

I received my PhD in 1980 and was offered a job teaching at my alma mater, Vassar. I loved Vassar, but I couldn’t face leaving New York City—which, despite being on the brink of bankruptcy, was so exciting with its galleries, museums and nightlife; the Mud Club, Studio 54—for Poughkeepsie. Richard said to me: “Frances, you could be a great art dealer. Come work with me.” I suspected being an art dealer would make me a pariah in academe. It sounded perilously close to “drug dealer”. My mentor, Linda Nochlin, a great friend of Richard’s activist sister Brenda Feigen, assured me that Richard was a scholar/dealer and urged me to accept. I did and we worked together for 37 years. I could never have had a greater colleague and mentor.

Richard had already had an incredible career. He had shown Francis Bacon in Chicago (1959) John Baldessari in Soho (1970), and had bought and sold more Max Beckmanns than anyone in America. While juggling major deals in German Expressionism, Surrealism and English Pop, he commissioned the 35-year-old Hans Hollein to design his gallery on 79th Street, opening it in 1969 with a Monet show. He borrowed works from legendary collectors such as Nate Cummings, Sheldon Solow, Charles Engelhard, David Kreeger, AN Pritzker, Potter Palmer—the pinnacle of collectors from Richard’s native Chicago—and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For Richard, his passion for Art came first. In the foreword to the Monet show he wrote “If we have a role as art dealers, it is to bring things together and give the artist, of whatever period, a proper forum and an audience… the formal concerns of Rothko, Riley and Poons were, after all, in the tradition of Sassetta and Poussin and Seurat.” Twenty years after writing this, Richard sold the great Poussin Venus and Adonis to the Kimbell in Fort Worth and even acquired a Poussin for his own collection. He sold wonderful Seurats, including the sketch for Les Poseuses, to the Art Institute of Chicago. In this preface, Richard perceptively links Dubuffet, Cornell and Oldenburg to El Greco, Van Gogh and Picasso. He even published Dubuffet’s groundbreaking manifesto, Art and the Anti Culture, in facsimile in 1969. He persuasively lectured anyone who would listen about the key role Dubuffet played in 20th-century art (he was right). Richard always said he was a collector first—but he had to sell to feed his habit. When had his eye on a Guercino in 1982, he let me sell one of his greatest 1946 Haute Pâte pictures to Alfred Taubman, my first big client.

Richard was profoundly devoted to the work of Joseph Cornell, whom he met in the early 1950s, and he made the art world pay attention—resulting in shows at MoMA, and the Met. Richard told me he once brought Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh to visit Cornell at his house on Utopia Parkway, Queens, in the early 1960s. Cornell made Tony and Richard stay upstairs while he escorted Janet downstairs to see his “special” boxes. When I visited Tony’s house in London, I was astonished to see dozens of Tony’s own handmade “versions” of Cornell boxes on the bookshelves. Richard’s obsessions could be contagious. By 1980 he had amassed a collection of major Cornell boxes—among them Cléo de Mérode which later went to Robert Lehrman, another Cornell fanatic, and convinced Leo Castelli and James Corcoran to form a partnership for a new gallery on Madison Avenue in 1982 whose real raison d'être was to represent the Cornell Estate and show James Rosenquist (who was like a brother to Richard) uptown. The programme expanded to Robert Rauschenberg, Charles Simonds, and Yves Klein.

Stalking a Rembrandt painting with the brilliant and ebullient Seymour Slive, Saul Steinberg and Richard in the 1980s was like being in an art world Ocean’s 11.
Frances FL Beatty

Richard became close friends with many generations of art historians and curators. His happiest hours were spent in their company, or talking to them on the phone—I often told him I was going to go outside and call him from the phone booth to get his attention. Marcel Roethlisberger, Seymour Slive, Keith Christiansen, Tim Clifford, Larry Kanter were but a few of those most precious relationships—he prized scholars who had “an eye”. For Richard, the joy of art dealing was persuading someone else to see a work as he did. Stalking a Rembrandt painting with the brilliant and ebullient Seymour Slive, Saul Steinberg and Richard in the 1980s was like being in an art world Ocean’s 11. They were armed with not only desire and expertise but funds. Richard introduced Saul to Seymour because he said a collector should know the great scholars and be able to consult them. For us, an educated client was the best client. Selling works to over 125 museums, over a period of 50 years, made us prouder than any big-ticket item. Richard sold Jasper Johns’ masterpiece, the double white map—Two Maps—to Leonard Lauder to give to the Whitney. The day we all examined it with Johns was one of the thrills of my career. Richard used to say that Attic and Excavation were Willem de Kooning’s greatest masterpieces so when I found and then sold Little Attic in 1985 to a client, I felt that I had made it to art dealer heaven.

Feigen: for him the joy of art dealing was persuading someone else to see a work as he did Courtesy of Richard L Feigen Inc

Richard had a wonderful, often wicked, sense of humor. The year I arrived, he bought in partnership the quintessentially nightmarish Fuseli’s The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches. We were extremely excited that Sir John Pope-Hennessy (the “Pope”) was coming to look at this masterpiece for the Met. Two young curators, who had happened by beforehand, spied the picture and, pleased with their cleverness, said “That’s a Fuseli isn’t it?” Richard responded: “No, it’s Marvin Fuseli, his brother” and turned on his heel. Pope-Hennessy bought the picture for the Met; it sends shock waves of sublime horror, even now, through the museum’s visitors.

With a simultaneous commitment to Beckmann, Fra Angelico and Ray Johnson, Richard bewildered some, but not me. His devotion to Johnson, a contemporary of Warhol and Johns, was steadfast despite Johnson’s exasperating elusiveness. I went down the rabbit hole even further than Richard, and still represent the Ray Johnson Estate, channelling and championing his work with what, I am afraid, some may regard as fanaticism. Richard’s “performance” in the film How to Draw a Bunny: a Ray Johnson Portrait (2002) is vintage Richard. It tells you everything that Ray convinced Richard to pay for “the dogs” and the helicopter so Ray could drop 60-foot-long hot dogs on to the expectant attendees of The Seventh Annual New York Avant-Garde Art Festival gathered far below on Wards Island, in 1969. Despite his reputation for astute business moves, Richard was always ready to “follow his gut”, and embrace eccentricity.

For us, an educated client was the best client. Selling works to over 125 museums, over a period of 50 years, made us prouder than any big-ticket item.
Frances FL Beatty

Richard was “ahead of the curve”. He managed to shine a spotlight on great art that was underappreciated. He would rather give you a lecture on Beckmann or Peter Saul than sell you a Van Gogh, but he could do both. He was the model par excellence of a scholar/dealer. Richard valued integrity over expediency and was instrumental in expanding the appreciation of artists as varied as Rosenquist, Richard Parkes Bonington, and Orazio Gentileschi. The quintessence of Richard’s vision and his stunningly rich career was his bedrock belief and understanding that artists across time and place are connected formally and metaphysically, and that art is the most essential manifestation of human life.

People will say his loss marks the end of an era but, in my view, Richard L. Feigen was an era unto himself.

  • Frances FL Beatty worked with Richard Feigen for 37 years. She is Chairman of Adler Beatty and Managing Director, The Ray Johnson Estate

"The ultimate dealer of Old Master paintings and an excellent connoisseur of art ". Richard Feigen remembered by Max Hollein, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.