Politics-loving art gallery owner Ronald Feldman dies at 84
Ronald Feldman, who for nearly 50 years oversaw one of New York’s most staunchly political and forward-looking art galleries, died Dec. 20 at his home in Chappaqua, NY. He was 84.
His family said the cause was Alzheimer’s disease.
A lawyer by training and deeply interested in politics, Mr. Feldman, at his Ronald Feldman Gallery in SoHo, exhibited artists who pushed boundaries with work that almost always had a political orientation.
The list of famous artists to whom he gave his first or first New York exhibitions included Hannah Wilke, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, Eleanor Antin, Pepon Osorio, Komar and Melamid, Helen and Newton Harrison, Ilya Kabakov, Ida Applebroog, Ed Schlossberg and Arakawa. .
Before it was fashionable, these artists often focused on women’s rights, the environment, totalitarianism, identity and war.
Over time, they have passed through several generations, from the figurative painter Leon Golub to members of the younger generations like Christine Hill, Keith Cottingham, Roxy Paine and Rico Gatson. But the gallery also showed abstract painters like Bruce Pearson and Carl Fudge, whose approaches to their art were distinctly irreverent. Mr. Feldman published some of Andy Warhol’s first edition serigraphs.
In a 2010 public interview with museum director and curator Stuart Horodner at the Atlanta Center for Contemporary Art, Feldman said that at first he had no idea that “running a gallery was 24 hour work”. when he had chosen to become a dealer to “take big risks”.
“We have gone bankrupt on paper several times over the years,” he said.
His goal, he told Mr. Horodner, was “to find artists who would make statements relevant to their time,” though he didn’t always expect them to quickly pick up on the audience. Several of its artists have been successful, but others have not. Yet his commitment to them rarely wavered.
“As long as you’re nurtured by artists,” he said, “you want to stay with them.”
Ira Ronald Feldman was born on April 25, 1938 in the Bronx to Irving and Judith (Solon) Feldman. His father was president of a pharmaceutical company. Ronald grew up in Long Beach, NY; earned a BA from Syracuse University and a law degree from New York University School of Law; then served in the Air National Guard in Mississippi and Texas for six months.
Upon his return in 1963, he married Frayda Futterman, who had grown up in Larchmont, NY, and worked at McCall’s publishing house. They met when they were asked to be godparents to a son of mutual friends.
She survives him, as do their two sons, Mark and Andy; their daughter, Julie Golovcsenko; and eight grandchildren.
After law school, Mr. Feldman joined a small law firm in New York, and he and his wife began visiting galleries and museums. He became a partner in his firm within three years, but by then he had realized, as he told Mr Horodner, “I wanted to be a protagonist in a different way”, on behalf of artists, not legal clients.
In 1971, the Feldmans opened a gallery on the ground floor of a small townhouse on East 74th Street in Manhattan, just around the corner from the Whitney Museum of American Art. They intended to be private dealers, but a friend, the painter Ed Moses, asked if he could show his work there; they said yes and never looked back.
In a short time, exhibitions are devoted to the feminist sculptor and performer Hannah Wilke, the German sculptor Joseph Beuys (who is only just beginning to make a name for himself in the United States), the modernist innovator Marcel Duchamp and Chris Burden, inventor of the performance art endurance.
Warhol was a frequent visitor, perhaps because the space had been the final resting place of Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery. In 1962, Warhol presented his first Pop Art exhibition at the Ward Gallery’s original address, a former stable on West 58th Street.
During many visits, Warhol would ask Mr. Feldman a question that he sometimes asked people: “Do you have an idea for me?” Mr. Feldman eventually came up with an idea that appealed to Warhol, resulting in “Ten Jews of the 20th Century,” portraits published in 1980 and first exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan.
Mr. Feldman was active in Democratic politics, raising funds through gallery benefits and helping other galleries organize them.
President Bill Clinton appointed him to the National Arts Council. He has also served on the boards of People for the American Way, Creative Capital, the Art Dealers Association of America, and the New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics.
In 1987, when there were rumblings that the Vatican’s restoration of Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel might do more harm than good at work, he signed a number of artists a petition asking the Vatican to suspend the project and reconsider it.
The petition had no effect, but the notoriety of the signatories illustrated Mr. Feldman’s hold on the art world. Among them were Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Motherwell, Susan Rothenberg, Eric Fischl and Christo.