Gallery View: Nina Freudenheim Gallery
Lately, Buffalo’s urban landscape has been sprouting commercial art galleries like mushrooms after a rainy day. Public interest is swelling too as attendance keeps growing at events like Allentown’s First Friday and similarly synchronized Amherst Street receptions. Buffalo even has its own fledgling contemporary art fair, the Echo Art Fair, which enters its second year this July. Amidst the plethora of recent activity, one gallery is notable for its longevity and reputation as Buffalo’s most professional commercial venue. The Nina Freudenheim Gallery is now in its thirty-seventh year of exhibiting artists of national and international prominence.
“When I started out, I had no idea what I was doing,” admits the owner of the eponymous gallery, Nina Freudenheim. “Both my husband and I had been collecting for years, neither of us having a real background, but we grew to really love art.” Freudenheim developed a desire to know the artists who were creating the work she was collecting and this yearning planted the seed that became her gallery. The time was right. “My youngest child was seven years old and he was going to be in school all day. I had worked at other interesting jobs, but this was something that really got me,” says Freudenheim, “so I started talking to people whom I admired in the art world from all over the country, and started visiting artists’ studios.”
It was a time when New York City was welcoming to a novice entering the gallery business. “There weren’t so many galleries [in New York at the time] and the owners would actually talk to you,” she says. They would take you in the back room and show you things and spend an hour with you, sometimes two hours, and you could really get an education.” It was a far cry from today, where hundreds of galleries vie for attention and helpfulness has been largely replaced by studied haughtiness. Observes Freudenheim, “Now they barely look up from their computers if you should have a question.”
Freudenheim opened her first space on Franklin Street, later relocating to Delaware Avenue, and then briefly to Niagara Street before moving to the gallery’s current location in the Lenox Hotel on North Street. Like the Manhattan galleries she learned from, Freudenheim established an identity that reflects her own taste and interests. “I’m either attracted to something for reasons that have built up in my head over the years, or I’m not,” she says. “And when I’m not—despite the fact that the work is good quality—it’s hard for me to do anything with it.”
Freudenheim’s interests seem to gravitate toward abstraction and photography, and they are reflected in many of her exhibitions. Beginning April 7 and running through May 16 for instance, Sean Scherer— previously known for his riffs on the early twentieth-century abstract work of Russian suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich—returns after a painting hiatus with a notably exuberant series of new work. Forced to abandon his studio near the World Trade Center following the events of September 11, 2001, Scherer had been focusing on stark black and white drawings that, intentionally or not, hinted at the chaotically strewn rubble of ground zero. (Some of these works will be included in the Freudenheim Gallery exhibit.) In contrast, Scherer’s colorful new abstract paintings make a dramatic hairpin turn toward dynamic—even whimsical—expression, with hyperkinetic linear marks that dart amidst shallow illusionistic pictorial depth. Scherer states that “both the drawings and paintings recall systems in flux, at once collapsing but also regenerating.” It’s tempting to see this as a metaphor for the artist’s own ten-year psychic journey.
Following Scherer, from May 19 to June 27, is an exhibition of work by Southern Tier artist Cletus Johnson called Theaters and Collage. Johnson, whose work was recently acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, will exhibit a mix of old and new pieces, including four of his signature “theaters,” described as “meticulously crafted, internally lit, shadowbox constructions of imaginary theater facades.” These miniature, mostly white tableaus evoke vague feelings of nostalgia for the stagy grandeur of a bygone world that never existed. Johnson has also been working on a body of small collages that he refers to as pixie theaters, a name taken from a movie theater he ushered in as a boy.
Johnson’s collage work has included deceptively minimal poetic compositions of appropriated photo-based imagery, which has an intimate scale and erotically charged tone that invites quiet rumination. The artist is also known for his collaboration with the late poet Robert Creeley, where artist and poet exchanged sketches and poems until a sculptural form took shape.
Other notable artists, living and deceased, that Freudenheim has exhibited include Charles Burchfield, Charles Clough, John Coplans, Sam Gilliam, Philip Guston, Lester Johnson, Markus Lüpertz, Amanda Means, Louise Nevelson, Georges Noël, Beverly Pepper, Pat Steir, George Seagal, and H. C. Westermann.
Freudenheim explains that while the work she exhibits reflects her personal taste, her interests in art are broad. “I go to New York all the time to see what’s going on, but I also look in Buffalo to see what’s going on here,” she says. Freudenheim represents several Buffalo artists, including Michael Herbold, Catherine Koenig, John Pfahl, Katherine Sehr, and Peter Stephens. “I look at anyone’s work who comes to me. Absolutely anyone. I love looking at new work, and I show regional art a lot, actually.”
Freudenheim remembers the early days when there were many good mid-career artists, and a “young artist” was someone who had been out of college developing his or her own unique style for a good decade. It doesn’t work that way anymore: “Collectors buy a couple works while [artists] are in college, and form connections with them in the hopes that they are going to produce good work [later] and they can sell it—and the prices are never inexpensive.”
The gallery owner believes the enormous amount of information about art and artists available on the Internet has shifted the emphasis among collectors from the love of art to a fixation on its investment potential. “Everything is about whether it’s going to increase in value,” Freudenheim contends. “Nobody really trusts their eye the way they did earlier.” But she says there are still those who really care about art and artists—including many of her clients. Freudenheim sympathizes with people today who love art but can’t afford the inflated prices, particularly in the current economy. “I’m very conscious of price,” she says, “It’s one of the things I spend the most time on. I look at artists certainly for their quality, but there’s no question that I don’t have a market for $50,000 or $100,000 paintings. It doesn’t exist here for me.”
The computer age has changed the gallery business in another way. “You’re out there,” says Freudenheim, referring to her gallery’s Internet presence. “I had something online a month ago and two days after it was up, someone from Germany called and asked what the condition of the work was, and he bought it.” Still, despite changes in the market over the years, Freudenheim’s reason for remaining in business hasn’t changed: “I love supporting artists I care about. I love making studio visits. I love discovering surprises. I love artists.”
Bruce Adams is an artist, writer, educator, activist, magician, and father.