Marcuse “Cusie” Pfeifer is a one-of-a-kind phenomenon in a world of multiple editions. When she opened her gallery on Madison Avenue in 1976, she exclusively exhibited photography, aggressively promoted women photographers, and agitated the art world with the first photography exhibition devoted to The Male Nude (1978). Now in her ’80s, Pfeifer has promised her entire photography collection to the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art. To date, the museum has received 68 of the photographs comprising that gift: Wayne Lempka, curator and the museum’s Interim Director chose 48 of them for this exhibition, In Celebration: A Recent Gift from the Photography Collection of Marcuse Pfeifer. Two different perspectives—one from Pfeifer’s collecting habits, the other from the museum’s acquiring agenda—impressed me as I toured the exhibition and then having visited Pfeifer at her home to preview the remaining, future gift.
Pfeifer’s heart rules her head. A sharp-witted woman, she refers to her collection as an “accumulation,” saying, “things just fell into my lap.” So they did when Robert Schoelkopf (1928–91), the noted gallerist for whom she once worked, stopped exhibiting photographs because, according to Pfeifer, he found it to be unprofitable. Pfeifer saw opportunity. She acquired his small photography space, although she had no idea for a first show until someone walked in and sold her fifty Weegee photos. Weegee (Arthur Fellig, 1899 – 1968), a gritty photojournalist and street photographer who lived in his car with a police scanner and dark room, set his sights on the city’s raspy denizens. Men in Jail (1950), one of two Weegee works in this exhibit, captures five detainees squeezed into a graffiti-scrawled waiting cell, some asleep on benches, others confronting the viewer; some dressed like hobos, others in jackets and ties. The image packs the kind of authentic punch that appealed to Pfeifer, as did the reportage of Elliott Erwitt’s Fort Dix, New Jersey, 1951 (1951), which depicts a marching recruit sticking out his tongue at the photographer.
“I wasn’t good at selling,” admits Pfeifer, who chose photographs because they moved her visually and emotionally. Her clientele appreciated her sharp eye, and their collecting priorities often matched Lempka’s curatorial choices: He looked for works to fill in gaps in the museum’s photography collection; works by famous artists (though not necessarily representative of them), works with instant recognition, and, given the limited space for this exhibition, works that flowed logically into each other. Though this intuitive dealer and scholarly curator may collect from different perspectives, it’s easy to understand why both were mutually fired up by Berenice Abbott (1898 – 1991), Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (b. 1952), and Peter Hujar (1934 – 87), whose three related groupings dominate this exhibition.
12 Berenice Abbott portraits—Eugène Atget, Janet Flanner, and Buddy Gilmore among them—portray subjects set against pale grey or neutral backgrounds, their accessories and often theatrical poses calibrated to tap their elusive inner selves. James Joyce (from the series “Faces of the ’20s”) (1928), for example, captures the famed author finely garbed in a felt hat, suit, and tie. He holds a cane and wears two rings on one hand, palpable baubles striking stark contrast with his vacant stare, a detached gaze suggesting his lost, if not self-absorbed, nature.
New PaltzSamuel Dorsky Museum of Art
February 9 –July 14, 2019
The exhibited Abbott works hold vibrant visual conversations with seven portraits by Greenfield-Sanders facing them across the room. Pfeifer helped launch Greenfield-Sanders’s career after she received a call from the poet Mark Strand, who had seen his works while sitting for the artist. Greenfield-Sanders’s images of personalities—Meyer Schapiro, Clement Greenberg, Mary Boone—intrigued Pfeifer because they represented art world celebrities with known names but not known faces. Each subject, dressed in dark clothing, dissolves within a rich and dense black background, leaving facial expressions and hand gestures dramatically lit to project their electric, intelligent personas. “He had a camera the size of a Volkswagen,” says Pfeifer, who loved the fact that contact photos (which are the size of huge negatives) result in sharp images with subtle blurry areas—something you can see in a faintly defined ear in Greenfield-Sanders’s Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (1986). For Pfeifer, the variations produced during the artist’s printing process made each print unique, a reason she was opposed to limiting artists to numbered editions, and a reason why she is today un-enamored by the exactitude of digital photography.
Peter Hujar (1934 – 87), another artist whose career was launched by Pfeifer, and best known for his portraits (including the much circulated one on view of Susan Sontag ), is here celebrated with a riveting vintage group of large, crisp Cubist-like shots of city architecture, including New York: Sixth Avenue (I) and (II) (both 1976). Other miscellaneous works on view represent Liliane De Cock Morgan, Lois Conner, the legendary Cartier-Bresson, and candid camera photographs by Erich Salomon—who used hidden cameras to capture the highlife of pre-World War II uppercrust Germany. There is also a vitrine with a catalogue, reviews, and memorabilia of The Male Nude exhibition, which was universally panned by critics except Vikki Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic. Ben Lifson, appalled by photographic images of frontal male nudity, commented in Village Voice, “A man’s body doesn’t lend itself to abstraction like a woman’s”—this at the height of the sexual and feminist revolutions! Both Lempka and Pfeifer opined that still, in 2019, frontal male imagery can be a hard sell; difficult to fathom when the first photograph in this exhibit, John Ernest Joseph Bellocq’s Untitled (Storyville prostitute) (1911–13), features a frontal reclining female nude lying on a wicker divan, looking more vulnerable than seductive.
All these works are teasers for the breadth of Pfeifer’s full collection. Images that are yet to come to the Dorsky are at home with her, hanging on kitchen, library, bathroom, and office walls; sharing space with framed family photos and a lifetime of memorabilia. They are works that Pfeifer culled from collections, antique shops, and flea markets. Among them, an 1843 cyanotype by Anna Atkins, George Platt Lynes’s portrait of Gertrude Stein, Gisèle Freund’s image of Frida Kahlo, and another of Colette, by Brassaï .
Those who recall the ’70s art press may remember how photography was set apart. The New York Times column “Photography View,” for example, isolated coverage from painting and sculpture exhibitions. So not only is this historical art collection of enormous importance for the Samuel Dorsky Museum, it also acknowledges Marcuse Pfeifer as a pivotal figure who helped raise photography from the status of the art world’s stepchild to that of a favorite daughter.