By Catherine Fox
December 17, 2004
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The art community is in mourning.
Judith Alexander — patron, mentor, friend, visionary, champion — died in her sleep at 72 in her New York apartment this week.
“She is an icon of Atlanta art history,” says Louise Shaw, former director of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. “Her influence has rippled from the ’50s to today.”
Alexander’s accomplishments and good works are legion. She founded one of Atlanta’s first contemporary art galleries and introduced the city to abstract expressionism. She started Atlanta’s first folk art gallery in 1978 and brought obscure Georgia artists to national prominence.
A High Museum of Art benefactor, she gave it some 160 works of art over the last 40 years. Her recently announced gift of 130 works by self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe, together with archival material she
donated, makes the High the definitive repository of Rowe’s work. She also gave art, particularly by Georgia artists, to many other museums, from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.
“Judith has done so much in advancing the cause of Southern art and culture,” says Ogden director Rick Gruber. “What she has given us amounts to a survey of Georgia artists.”
First Folk Art Gallery in Atlanta
Judith Alexander Championed folk artists, especially the late Nellie Mae Rowe. The collector donated 130 pieces of the Vinings artist's work to High Museum.
But her legacy is just as rich in intangible ways. Her friends and colleagues have repeatedly praised her undemanding generosity, her thoughtful conversations, her brilliant eye. As Shaw says, “If Judith liked it, you paid attention.”
They also remembered with affection her ornery side. “I think what I’ll miss the most is arguing with her,” says artist Susan Loftin.
Alexander was 24 when she founded the New Arts Gallery. Fresh from four years studying painting in the Northeast, she was eager to share her passion for abstract art with her hometown. Her father, a prominent lawyer, let her renovate a rental property on Peachtree Street, and she turned it into a pristine white-walled, New York style space.
The gallery soon became the center for Atlanta’s young art community. And the region: William Christenberry, one of the South’s most important artists, still remembers driving in from Tuscaloosa, Ala., for her Franz Kline exhibition. She not only introduced the likes of modern art heroes Jackson Pollock and Jim Dine, but she also gave Atlanta artists a platform for showing their work.
Hoping to create a salon for contemporary culture, she persuaded New York dealers and critics to come give talks. Among them were Richard Bellamy, whose Green Gallery in New York was a key venue in the ’60s avant-garde art scene. Vincencia Blount, an Atlanta abstract artist who’s now 80, learned as much from her conversations as the exhibitions. She credits Alexander with transforming her from a dabbling former deb to a committed artist.
“I wouldn’t have been serious about art without Judy,” she says, “because there was no reason to be.”
Folk Art Pioneer
Alexander was ahead of the curve in promoting self-taught art, too. Inspired by “Missing Pieces,” a history of Georgia folk arts at the Atlanta History Center, she opened the Alexander Gallery in a bungalow on East Paces Ferry Road in 1978. That was nine years before the Corcoran Gallery’s landmark exhibition “Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980” started the folk art craze.
A cozy place with a carving of a watermelon in the window, the gallery launched the careers of a number of now-revered Georgia artists, including the late Ned Cartledge. An avocational wood-carver, Cartledge met her at a country fair, where he had a booth. “She told me I was a folk artist,” he would say. “I didn’t even know it.”
Rowe was Alexander’s hands-down favorite. Long after she closed the gallery in 1989, she devoted herself to a relentless pursuit of recognition for the artist she called, “my Nellie.”
“Judith almost willed Nellie Mae into existence,” says friend and former Atlanta art dealer Jeff Kipnis. “She had a reputation for being scatter-brained, but she had an incredible capacity to get things done.”
Alexander was not the only pioneer in her family. Her ancestors were among the first Jewish settlers in America. Her father was on the defense team for pencil factory manager Leo Frank in the 1913 Mary Phagan murder case.
She grew up on an estate where Phipps Plaza is now. In contrast to her youth, Alexander lived very simply. Her small apartments in New York and Atlanta were sparsely and carelessly furnished, though the closets were stuffed with art. “She lived her own life in her own way,” says Andrew Dietz, who is writing a book about self-taught art.
Early Champion of Abstract Art
Judith Alexander brought the work of many contemporary artists, including Franz Kline, to her first Atlanta gallery in the 1950s. Shown is Kline's "Painting Number 2" from the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
A Difficult Reputation
She ran her business in her own way, too. For instance, if she didn’t like you, she wouldn’t let you buy from her. (She was always saving the best Rowes for the museums she just knew would eventually want one someday.) No wonder she had a reputation for being “difficult.”Former New Yorker Ben Apfelbaum, now Spruill Gallery director, remembers years ago seeing a Rowe at the Studio Museum in Harlem, N.Y., and calling Alexander Gallery to purchase it.
“She came on the phone and said, in a thick Old Atlanta accent, ‘It’s not for sale.’ We kept on talking,” Apfelbaum said. “By the third hour on the phone, it was Judith’s normal voice. At the end of the conversation, she invited me down to see the gallery.”
They became fast friends, but she never did sell him the drawing. It went to the High instead.
Friendships were something she collected as passionately as art.
“She was the rare person who didn’t just love the art — but the artists, too,” says Mario Petrirena, one of the young artists who began hanging around the folk art gallery, enthralled with her knowledge and her quirky personality.
She became their ur-den mother. She bought their work and helped them out when they were in a financial crunch. Although that kind of support was appreciated, artists like Petrirena most valued her critical counsel and encouragement, which she dispensed even after she closed the gallery and moved to New York to care for her late sister.
Benefactor to Many Atlanta Artists
Thanks to Alexander's efforts, Benjamin Jones' drawings have found a place at the Whitney Museum in New York and elsewhere.
“She had a way of building you up,” Petrirena says. “One time, after some disappointment, she said to me, ‘People can be curators or dealers or critics, but never forget that you have the biggest gift of all — the ability to make art.’ She was always there. I can’t count the number of artists she helped.”
Another is Benjamin Jones. “I call her my second mama,” he says. She helped boost his career by funding acquisitions for interested museums.
“They ought to erect a statue of her at the Capitol,” Jones says.
She would have hated that, though. Intensely modest, she detested having her picture taken and refused most interviews.
She didn’t want the attention. Advocating for the artists she cared about and seeing them succeed was her reward. “Lots of people see art as added value to their life,” Kipnis says. “She saw art as essential to life.”