about judith alexander

The History of the arts in atlanta: an interview with judith Alexander

Courtesy of MOCA GA and the interviewer, Joey Orr

How did you get started in the arts?


On a visit home to Atlanta I went to the Atlanta Arts Festival in Piedmont Park.  The festival was started by Carolyn Becknyl, an interior designer, to give artists an opportunity to show and sell their work.  Besides the Atlanta Arts Festival, Atlanta artists could show and sell their work at a small gallery at the High Museum devoted to this purpose.  At the festival I saw a lovely small abstract watercolor by Carlyn Fisher and because of this work I believed I would be able to find other artists doing abstract work if I opened an art gallery.  I was able to get started when I was given a space by my father which had the potential of being made into a space like the clean white gallery spaces in New York City.  In this space I could realize my two goals.  I could exhibit abstract art, and have public discussions, poetry readings, concerts, lectures…


When I returned to Atlanta, 1956, after four years in the north, Atlanta did not have an art gallery.  I was told that abstract art had never been exhibited in the High Museum. But there were young artists, wonderful, talented artists, particularly Ed Ross and Gladine Tucker. There was Joe Reeves, the main artist and teacher at the arts school. I am told that he spent hours discussing the work of abstract artists with his students, Ross and Tucker, etc.  Gladine read the Partisan Review and spoke often about the work of Kandinsky.  She was perhaps the most purely abstract of the painters.  Ross and Reeves were perhaps more lyrical abstractionists.  A close friend of Tucker was Dick Robinson who had studied atonal music with the great atonal composers in Germany.  He was perhaps the most abstract thinker of the small group.  So there was a lot of thinking going on in this small group of artists when I returned to Atlanta.


…then that’s the end of that, but then I remembered, just now, that one artist who I did not know about until about a year later who worked alone and was the most abstract, totally abstract. She did constructionism. She was a structuralist.  Her name, she’s still alive, Joan Soberin, and her husband had been a member of the Bauhaus.  She was an incredible thinker and artist.


Is she in Atlanta or is she in New York?


Well, she’s in Florida now because she had to…she’s very old now, she’s in her late almost eighties.  She doesn’t do work anymore, and she wanted to be nearer the water.  She hasn’t worked for a long time.


Was she actually an Atlanta artist?


Oh, yes.  Yes, she was.  Yes, she was.  Do you mean that her family lived in Georgia?


No, just her.


Oh, yes.  When I came back, she was there all during the gallery.  She came to all the openings, though she was in the back room because she didn’t care for…a structurist.  Her teacher was Charles Beaderman who did not…who went against painting.  Everything she did was structures.  And Aspasia Voulis was another who came along, and she, too, was a structurist.  These people were so abstract; they were abstract expressionists, who the other artists were, they dealt with space and light…structures.  They were quite incredible.


When you say you were up north for four years, did you come up north for the reason of getting some gallery experience or was it for some other reason?


I was studying.


Where were you studying during that time?


Well, I was in Philadelphia, the Academy of Fine Arts.  I was at the Bonds Foundation for the two years I was in Philadelphia…It is a very great collection in Marion, Pennsylvania, and they had classes there.  I did that, and then from [the Academy] I went to…Provincetown.  I was with an artist, Hans Hoffman, and from there, then I was in New York, at the Arts Students’ League.  I  briefly babysat in a gallery in Philadelphia, but that was all. That was what I did during those times.


What are your memories and impressions of the Orly plane crash?


One of the victims of the Orly plane crash was Toni Ween.  She was young, kind, bright, and worked at my gallery.  The memory of this crash is painful.  I do not know if Atlanta is still affected by that event.  I doubt it, but I don’t know.  There may be some people who are alive who want to - myself included -        who want to leave something in the memory of someone they cared for.


The Rodin on the front lawn of the High Museum was donated to the Museum because of that crash, was it not?


Right.  And it gave impetus to start the new museum, to expand it, from the old. It was at that point that they started building.  It was once just the old High building, but then after the Orly crash they started to build. It has been a process of building since then.


What are your thoughts and feelings about Atlanta now that you have some spatial and temporal distance?


My feelings and thoughts for Atlanta have not changed - that it will grow and grow, and that it will become harder and harder to get about, and because of all of this there will be an increasing need for all the arts, and, in my case, for the visual arts, for sanity.


Who do you see as the key players in the Atlanta arts scene?


I’m not sure what you mean, but key players in the Atlanta arts scene makes me think of wealthy and/or active board members of arts organizations and Coca-Cola foundations.  Now who all these people are, I don’t know.  I do know Marianne (Lambert) is on some boards, Lucinda Bunnen, but I think it’s where the money is.  I think you might have thought I would talk about the arts and people who support the artists’ galleries, but I do not believe that is where it is.  I have never known who the key players are.


Who would you say was particularly influential while you had your gallery open in the fifties?


I don’t know.




I mean, how would I…I mean, you know you might ask somebody, and somebody might say that I was, but that’s not true.  I was simply an art dealer in my own world, and I brought abstract expressionism [to Atlanta]. Those people who took advantage of it, that was fine…of the artists in Atlanta and away, but who really was…it was the people who had to do with the Museum, who had to do with the money, who were or were not interested.  At that time there were some people from the Chamber of Commerce, very wealthy men, who wanted me to start, to support a contemporary art museum. I did not. [Gudmund]  Vigtel [director of the High Museum 1963-1991] was very opposed to it, and the High Museum got so little money, but these people felt like he was doing a lousy job.  I did not want to get in that situation.  So, it’s those people who are to me the key. Whether they do or not. Whether or not Coca-Cola is giving to an arts institution or not.  If they don’t give, the institution is in trouble. Right? Am I with you?


Yes, ma’am.


It all gets back to money and where it goes.  And I was fortunate because, as I told you, my father had this building, an old house.  He had rented it to some people.  And when I went into it because nobody seemed to be there, it turned out [the renters] had been bootleggers. They had torn up the whole place.


This is where your gallery ended up being?




Where was this house?


It was on Peachtree Road where Phipps Plaza is.  It was nearer to Wieuca.  It was beautiful space.


What was the name of your gallery?


Well, it was the New Arts Gallery, and then the last few years it was the Alexander Gallery.  I had to change that because I started showing outside of Georgia, and I wanted to be more specific.


How do you see the Heath Gallery and its effects on Atlanta?


David Heath, as far as I know, was for the artists he represented for many years and for his many clients and friends, a beloved figure with charm and grace and wit.  His gallery represented excellence for what he exhibited and how he presented the art.  I’m sure he is missed by many artists whose careers he helped establish and by art collectors who were fortunate to buy wonderful art works from him.  I certainly miss him and his gallery.  It sounds all good, but there is the between the lines, which is to say that at that time he was the gallery, he was the gallery, and he did a supreme job of it, and what I would say…Judy Barber called me last night… And I told her…we were talking about David, and David, to me, he…do you know him?


No, I have not met him, yet.


Well, he may be very elitist now, I don’t know, but when I knew him, when I was a part of the whole thing, he was the most charming, I think, of all of us art dealers, and that goes a long way. He had the wit, and he was…you just loved him, you know?  You couldn’t help it, and that means a lot in this business.  He was just wonderful.


I have heard some frustration expressed about him not getting his Atlanta artists more into the New York arts scene, which he was part of.


Well, the problem there is that he was taking care -at that time I had closed my gallery, and he was THE gallery.  With the artists in my time, no Fay Gold, no whatever…Kiang…everyone can try their best to do that, but if you can’t, you can’t.  And perhaps you don’t say it so bluntly to the artists.  Perhaps if those same artists lived in New York, then they would be with their peers, people painting and thinking about the same thoughts, their work might have jumped.  But they didn’t make that move.  It’s very seldom.  I think why I have been lucky with my artists, the ones who were self-taught, is because of their own uniqueness. They weren’t part of the mainstream. There are certain people who specialize in the self-taught, and when you find someone who is really very exceptional, it’s pretty easy to get them connected with another gallery.


When you say artists who are self-taught, are you referring to folk artists now?




How does folk art play into the arts in Atlanta?


Traditional Folk Art plays a great part in understanding the culture of Atlanta and of the South.  For its beauty, its design, folk art will always be cherished.  How does a self-taught, outsider, idiosyncratic artist play into the arts in Atlanta?  It is recognized by the galleries, the museums, artists, collectors. Great self-taught art has a future if great art has a future.


You had mentioned a big show that took place at the Atlanta Historical Society.  Was that sort of a milestone for folk art in Atlanta?


Missing Pieces [was the name of that show]. You can probably find [the catalogue] at the [Atlanta] Historical Society.  It was historical.  It traveled.  It was a model for other states putting together work of this sort.  It started in the eighteenth century and went up to when a purist folk artist would be considered idiosyncratic.  I think the person who gave so much of the traditional folk art to the Historical Society would call it idiosyncratic.


About what year was this show?


I want to guess that it was in the early ‘70’s.


Did you have anything to do with putting the show together?


Nothing at all.  At that time, I wasn’t even thinking about folk art.


So this was sort of a springboard for you, also.


It was THE springboard for me.