For most of its 148 years, the name M. Knoedler has been a powerful and respected imprimatur in the art trade. Now a dispute among the gallery's top management is likely to test whether the name over the door can still give the firm its credibility.
Like many quarrels in long-standing businesses, this one is about succession. After the October announcement of the retirement of Knoedler's last director, Lawrence Rubin, the gallery's chairman and principal owner, Michael Hammer, is said to have decided to split Knoedler's leadership between two co-directors, Ann Freedman and Donald Saff. In December, Mr Hammer (the grandson of the previous owner, Armand Hammer) changed his mind and named Freedman president and director. That decision led to the current dispute, in which Rubin and several artists have cut their relations with Knoedler and Donald Saff may file charges. Observers in the trade now wonder whether Knoedler's reputation can outlive its regime under Rubin.
According to Donald Saff's lawyer, the prominent New York labour attorney Theodore Kheel, "it started from the repudiation of an agreement by Michael Hammer to employ Don Saff for one year as the co-director of Knoedler's gallery with exclusive jurisdiction together with Larry Rubin of all artistic decisions". Mr Kheel maintains that a letter from Michael Hammer detailing that agreement was seized by Michael Hammer after the letter had arrived at Knoedler's office in New York and Saff had failed to pick the letter up. After Mr Hammer took the letter back, Kheel contends, Mr Hammer notified Mr Saff that Saff would no longer be named co-director of the gallery, which would then be directed by Ann Freedman. Mr Hammer assured Mr Saff that Mr Saff would still be a consultant in charge of "all artistic relationships", Mr Kheel said. Nevertheless, even in the absence of the letter, which Mr Kheel accuses Mr Hammer of stealing, Mr Saff had an oral agreement to be employed as Knoedler's co-director, Mr Kheel says.
Neither Michael Hammer or his New York lawyer could be reached for comment.
Mr Saff, who had coordinated Robert Rauschenberg's international tour and educational project "Rauschenberg Overseas Culture International", says Lawrence Rubin had been aware of Mr Hammer's agreement to make Mr Saff Knoedler's co-director, and Rubin, who had brought Mr Saff into the gallery, was shocked by Mr Hammer's about-face on Mr Saff's firing. Mr Hammer's change of mind, Mr Saff says, triggered Mr Rubin's decision to sever ties with Knoedler, for whom he was working in retirement as a consultant. Mr Rubin's departure, Saff says, caused the exodus of Rauschenberg, Howard Hodgkin, and the estate of Richard Diebenkorn. At the time of Mr Rubin's retirement last year, Frank Stella decided that he would no longer be represented by Knoedler, Mr Saff said. Frank Stella has told reporters that he is neither "in nor out of" the gallery.
Before the quarrel over his appointment, Saff had collaborated with Knoedler on the preparation of editions of artists' work, particularly of Rauschenberg. Those separate agreements are still in effect, Theodore Kheel maintains, although "there is a question about whether they'll comply with the terms". Mr Saff claims that the dispute came as a complete surprise. Neither Mr Saff nor Mr Kheel would speculate on how the conflict might influence the gallery's future business.
Lawrence Rubin, who could not be reached for comment on this article, is said to be establishing a gallery in Zurich. Dealers say that since the early 1980s Rubin's contacts were the core of Knoedler's business.
Ann Freedman, now president and director at Knoedler denies any role in the shakeup, and says she plans to hire an associate, "to help and complement my set of skills, somebody strong and experienced, but obviously that doesn't happen overnight. I don't believe that an institution of this significance and weight can have just one person doing so much. But I am president and director, and that will remain".
Ms Freedman, who was hired by Rubin seventeen years ago, characterises Knoedler's current situation as a management succession, not a crisis. "I can confirm the fact that work has been returned to Rauschenberg, to Mrs Diebenkorn, and Mr Hodgkin", she stated. "I have not been informed that they have gone to any other gallery. It's not neces-sarily a closed case from my point of view until I hear that they've gone elsewhere, and our door remains open because in all three cases we would want very much to continue to represent them", Freedman explained.
Crisis or not, this is not the first drama Knoedler has weathered. In 1971, when the American businessman Armand Hammer bought the then struggling gallery for a mere $2.5 million from the Knoedler family which had founded it in 1846, veteran staff and artists fled in fear of the crass autocrat who never hid his dislike of most modern art. Hammer's purchase price, shared among several investors, was far less than the value of Knoedler's somewhat dubiously attributed inventory of Old Masters, which were sold or traded for a profit. Lawrence Rubin was hired to bring in a stable of contemporary artists, and the gallery merged in 1977 with Modarco, a Swiss art investment group which still holds an interest in the business.
To survive the current shakeup, former employees reckon, Knoedler needs to keep the artists who remain in its stable from leaving. So far, many of them have stayed. One is Donald Sultan, who has been with Knoedler for five years. "I'm thinking of giving [Ann Freedman] a chance - she's been there a long time", he said, adding that he thought Laurence Rubin had essentially handed the gallery over to Ms Freedman when Mr Rubin retired. "Maybe it's just that the torch has passed; we'll have to see", he said.
"The dispute seems to be among the people working there, not among the artists. We weren't players", Mr Sultan observed.
Donald Sultan, who opens a show of paintings at Knoedler on 8 March, observed that Knoedler's business was based on personal relationships "of effectiveness and trust", rather than written in exclusive contracts, which could make it easier for artists who were dissatisfied with the new management to leave. "It doesn't have contracts for any artist", he said, adding that other galleries have sought him out since the dispute surfaced.
"In the Nineties, dealers no longer need to have a very long tight exclusive leash on artists", Ann Freedman pointed out, acknowledging that artists who show at Knoedler often display their work in other galleries, if only for reasons of size. "We're at a time when we need to see the best possible exposure for our artists, and it's a halo effect - it benefits all of us", she observed optimistically. In fact, she added, the gallery's next exhibition, "Seven from the 70s", will include work by Knoedler artists and non-Knoedler artists (Lee Krasner, Agnes Martin, and Joan Mitchell). Ms Freedman would not say which new artists might be added to Knoedler's stable.
Dealers indicate that the crucial component of Knoedler's future may not be living artists, but the estates of those artists whose values have risen recently. The estate of the sculptor David Smith (Knoedler's choicest client, dealers say) is staying with the gallery. Knoedler also represents the Robert Motherwell estate. "It's the artists who will take this institution forward", Freedman argued, "not the few people who have corporate titles or who run it".
Ms Freedman's critics are quick to point out that she is a salesperson by training, not a connoisseur, and had been hired from a position as receptionist at another gallery. Former employees doubt, on the other hand, that her background will be a liability. "After all, Mr Knoedler started out long ago as a brush salesman. He didn't know anything about art", said a former specialist at the gallery. But dealers do say that Freedman's fierce disposition needs taming for business to flourish.
So does the dispute with Donald Saff, which has received wide coverage in the New York press. "If it's possible to reach an agreement we will reach an agreement", said Mr Kheel, who is demanding a "total settlement" from Knoedler on Mr Saff's behalf "if it's not, we will be suing".
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is there life after Rubin?'