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Richard Feigen, gallerist and champion of art, dies at 90
Richard Feigen in his townhouse on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, Dec. 13, 1996. Feigen, a prominent gallerist, dealer and collector whose influence in the art world in New York and beyond included brokering top-dollar deals of all sorts for museums and magnates while championing both old masters and new talent, died on Jan. 29 in Mount Kisco, N.Y. He was 90. Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Richard Feigen, a prominent gallerist, dealer and collector whose influence in the art world in New York and beyond included brokering top-dollar deals of all sorts for museums and magnates while championing both old masters and new talent, died Jan. 29 in Mount Kisco, New York. He was 90.

His daughter, Philippa Feigen Malkin, said the cause was complications of COVID-19.

Feigen had a hand in numerous headline-making art sales during his more than 60 years in the business. At his galleries in Manhattan, Chicago and elsewhere, he hosted countless exhibitions, including early ones by emerging figures like pop artist Gerald Laing and sculptor Enrique Castro-Cid. For years he represented the elusive collagist Ray Johnson, and he was a big booster of assemblagist Joseph Cornell, painter and sculptor Jean Dubuffet and painter and printmaker Max Beckmann, all of whom received shows at his galleries.

At various points he advanced surrealism, German expressionism, Italian art from the 13th century to the Baroque period, and, especially, anything involving old masters. A headline on a 1987 article in The New York Times about him and his work on behalf of the freshly minted collectors of the day said simply, “Old Masters, New Tycoons.”

As that article noted, with his interest in old masters he was shaking up a traditionally staid corner of the art market — he had “brought the style and pressure of Wall Street to a trade still steeped in the notion of aristocratic gentility.”

Whatever artist or genre he was bidding on or showing in his galleries, Feigen, despite having little training in art or art history, showed a keen instinct for spotting value — or, more important, future value.

“Richard was always ahead of the curve,” Frances Beatty, who from 1980 to 2017 was vice president and then president of Richard L. Feigen & Co., said by email. “He did not like being a follower; he wanted to shine a spotlight on great art that was underappreciated.”

Feigen traveled in heady circles, befriending artists and jet-setting about to cajole those who collected them. His hard-driving style put off some of his more reserved colleagues.

“He can manage to work four English dukes, three financiers and two movie stars into one of his long-running sentences,” one of them once complained.

Whatever his passion of the moment, Feigen came to understand that to appreciate the art’s importance and value required knowing how it fit in its time period.

“The artists that I like take chances,” he said in an oral history recorded in 2009 for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “They’re not painting in their rearview mirror. They’re painting through the windshield.”

Richard Lee Feigen was born Aug. 8, 1930, in Chicago. His father, Arthur Paul Feigen, was a lawyer and real estate investor, and his mother, Shirley (Bierman) Feigen, was a homemaker.

By the time he was about 10, he was already developing a rudimentary theory of collecting.

“I think I was interested in the future potential of things,” he said in the oral history.

At 11 or 12, as he told the story, he bought a watercolor by Scottish artist Isaac Cruikshank caricaturing the French Revolution, which had caught his eye in a local antique shop. He paid $100, he said, money he had earned by selling teacups with flowers in them. Why would a child buy such a thing?

“I liked it and I felt it was undervalued in terms of what it would cost me,” he said in a 2019 interview with Christie’s, the auctioneer.

By the time he was in college at Yale University, he had accumulated enough of a collection that he worried the pieces were “somewhat endangered by a bunch of rowdy roommates,” he said in the oral history. He earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1952 and a master’s degree at the Harvard Business School in 1954.

He was being groomed for a spot in a company owned by relatives, the Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co. of Los Angeles, and at 25 was assigned to start its investment division. But his passion for art collecting kept pulling him back east.

He bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, thinking he could work Wall Street and pursue his art passion at the same time, but that didn’t prove feasible. In 1957 he jumped into the art world with both feet, opening the Richard Feigen Gallery on Astor Street in Chicago.

“I had to use my own collection as my opening show,” he recalled in the oral history. It was titled “Masterpieces of 20th-Century German Art,” Feigen having been enamored of the German expressionists. But soon he was showing Beckmann, Francis Bacon, Romanian sculptor and painter Victor Brauner and other important artists there.

He also took to representing some Chicago-area artists, among them painter George Cohen. Their eagerness to have their work seen in New York, he said, was one of the reasons he opened his first New York gallery, on East 81st Street, in 1963.

In 1965 he opened a second Manhattan gallery, in SoHo, focused on contemporary art. In this period he had a piece of a gallery in Los Angeles, and, for four years in the early 1990s, he had a gallery in London. Over the years his New York galleries occupied various spaces, including the current one on East 77th Street.

Feigen enjoyed working with his artists, even mercurial ones like Johnson, who died, apparently by suicide, in 1995. Once Johnson indulged in a sort of performance art, dropping 60 hot dogs out of a helicopter over Wards Island in New York City. He talked Feigen into picking up the tab for both helicopter and dogs.

“He was relentless in his devotion to particular artists and movements (never the most obvious ones),” Beatty said.

While showing artists at his galleries, Feigen built a reputation as a wheeler-dealer in the art world. He often turned up as the bidder behind a high-priced sale at the big auction houses and even was cast as a version of himself in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street.” Often at such auctions he was representing buyers he had schooled on the value of investing in art.

“There are few ready-made clients in this business, particularly Americans,” he told The Times in 1987. “You have to convert them.”

Museums often turned to Feigen for important acquisitions. But sometimes he was buying for himself, either for inventory for his galleries or for his private collection, which over time became formidable.

“I’ve never bought a great object for myself that I could afford,” he admitted in the oral history. “I never knew where the money was going to come from. I managed somehow to conjure it up.”

Several times late in life Feigen, who at his death lived in Katonah, New York, sold pieces of his collection to finance his retirement. Christie’s handled one such sale in 2019.

“I hope none of them will sell,” he said at the time, “because I want them back in my living room.”

Feigen’s marriages to Sandra Elizabeth Canning in 1966 and Margaret Culver in 1998 ended in divorce. In 2007 he married Isabelle Harnoncourt Wisowaty, who survives him along with a daughter, Feigen Malkin, and a son, Richard, from his first marriage; two stepdaughters, Stephanie Diana Harnoncourt Wisowaty and Léonie Allison Harnoncourt Wisowaty; a stepson, Alexander Karl Richard Wisowaty; a sister, Brenda Sue Feigen; and three grandchildren.

Feigen, a staunch Democrat, recorded the Smithsonian oral history in January 2009, during the final days of the administration of President George W. Bush, whose eight years in office he had viewed with dismay from a cultural standpoint. He spoke about stewardship and where art should fit in society’s value system.

“It has to start out with a belief that is not universal: that the arts are fundamentally important,” he said. “Now, not everybody agrees with this, and some people would call it elitism. The fact is that I believe that what we leave behind in terms of the arts is what really matters, and not the bombs we make and the craters we dig and the structures we build, which will turn into rusty piles in time.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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