An interview of Martha Mayer Erlebacher conducted 1990 December 7-1991 January 12, by Anne Schuster Hunter, for the Archives of American Art Philadelphia Project.
Erlebacher discusses her family background and education including her studies at Pratt Institute in Industrial Design, meeting future husband Walter Erlebacher; working for the design firm Arthur Wagner Associates; receiving her advanced degree from Pratt; her early optical paintings and the gradual introduction of the figure; studying and teaching herself anatomy along with Walter Erlebacher in the mid 1960s; a 1966 Yaddo fellowship; moving to Philadelphia and her first one person show there in 1966; showing with Robert Schoelkopf; the development of themes and use of mythology in her art; interest in Renaissance painters; Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae"; and portrait commissions and models.
Biographical / Historical:
Martha Mayer Erlebacher (1937- ) is a painter from Philadelphia, Pensylvania. Wife of sculptor Walter Erlebacher.
Originally recorded on 3 sound tape cassettes. Reformatted in 2010 as 5 digital wav files. Duration is 3 hr., 41 min.
This interview is part of the Archives' Oral History Program, started in 1958 to document the history of the visual arts in the United States, primarily through interviews with artists, historians, dealers, critics and others.
23 letters from Manierre Dawson to his dealer Robert Schoelkopf.
Biographical / Historical:
Art dealer; New York, N.Y. Manierre Dawson was a painter. Schoelkopf was his art dealer.
The donor, Mary Mathers Gedo, was researching Manierre Dawson and acquired these letters probably from Schoelkopf.
Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Microfilmed materials must be consulted on microfilm. Contact Reference Services for more information.
The collection comprises 29 linear feet of records that document the day-to-day administration of the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery from 1962 to 1991, with additional items predating the founding of the gallery from 1851 to 1961. The collection records artist and client relations, exhibitions, and daily business transactions through artist files, correspondence, printed matter, and photographic material.
Scope and Content Note:
The records of the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery comprise 29 linear feet of material from 1851 to 1991, with some items predating the founding of the gallery. The bulk of the records date from 1962 to 1991, providing researchers with fairly comprehensive coverage of the gallery's development and operations from its inception in 1962 until its closure in 1991. Items dated prior to 1962 relate principally to the period of transition during which Robert Schoelkopf ended his partnership with the Zabriskie Gallery and established his own business. There are also some items relating to artists of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The collection consists primarily of artist files documenting relations with contemporary artists, representation of deceased artists, and other works of art handled by the gallery. It also chronicles the gallery's exhibition schedule and the day-to-day administration of the business. The types of material that can be found here include correspondence, exhibition inventories, price lists, accounting and consignment records, shipping and insurance records, printed material, and photographs.
The collection is a valuable source of information on twentieth-century American art history, focusing primarily on early-twentieth-century modernists as well as an important group of American realist painters and sculptors from the latter half of the century. The collection illuminates, in detail, the developing market for these schools and, in the case of the latter group, provides personal insights from artists on the realist perspective.
The records also document the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery's significant contribution to the resurgence of interest in fine art photography during the 1960s and 1970s as reflected in an increase in the value of works by important American photographers such as Walker Evans.
Much of the outgoing correspondence from the gallery consists of copies of letters written by Robert Schoelkopf, with additional business being handled by assistant staff and, from the mid-1970s, Schoelkopf's wife, Laura Jane Schoelkopf. The records offer insight into the personalities of the Schoelkopfs and how their congenial and candid management style influenced their relationships with the contemporary artists they represented.
Originally the collection was organized as one large file arranged alphabetically by folder title, with titles ranging from names of artists to general subject headings such as "Correspondence." During processing it became clear that the gallery delineated operations into three main functions: artist relations, client-dealer relations, and exhibitions. Consequently the collection is arranged as three main series based on these areas of concern. A small group of miscellaneous photographs of artists constitutes an additional series at the end of the collection.
Originally paper records throughout the collection were generally arranged chronologically, although this order was not strictly adhered to. Frequently, correspondence and memoranda were attached to related records going back several years. To preserve the relationship between such documents, records stapled together in this way have been left together. They are arranged in reverse chronological order and filed in the folder corresponding to the primary date (i.e., the date of the first and most recent paper in the group). Researchers should be aware that date ranges provided on folders refer to the primary dates of documents contained therein and that some items in the folder may predate that range. Otherwise, the general chronological scheme has been retained throughout the collection, with undated material placed at the beginning of the appropriate file.
Printed material is arranged in chronological order, with undated material at the beginning of the folder, and may include press releases, exhibition announcements, exhibition catalogs, posters, clippings from newspapers, magazines, and journals, and other publicity material. Large amounts of printed material are broken down into several discrete folder units.
The most consistent labeling system for photographic material apparent throughout the collection was title of work of art. The majority of images are not dated with a printing date or the date that the work of art was produced, and although many of them have a processing number, these are by no means consistent and there are no master lists that can be used to interpret them. Consequently, images are arranged primarily by media type and then alphabetically by title. Untitled images are placed at the beginning of a media group; "the" in a title is ignored. Exceptions to this method are addressed in the appropriate series descriptions.
Files labeled "Photographs of Works of Art" will typically include any or all of the following: black-and-white copy prints, black-and-white transparencies, color transparencies, slide transparencies, Polaroid prints, color snapshots, contact sheets, and separation sheets. Often the same image will be duplicated in several different formats. Any notes on photographic material found in or on the original folder in which the material was filed have been preserved with the material or transcribed onto a sheet of acid-free paper that either encloses or is placed directly before the item to which the information applies.
The designation "General" indicates that a file may contain any or all of the types of material outlined above.
Series 1: Artist Files, 1851-1991, undated (Boxes 1-23; 23 linear ft.)
Series 2: General Business Files, 1960-1991, undated (Boxes 24-28; 4.74 linear ft.)
Series 3: Group Exhibition Files, 1960-1988, undated (Boxes 28-29; 1 linear ft.)
Series 4: Photographs of Artists, undated (Box 29; 0.25 linear ft.)
Robert Schoelkopf, Jr., was born in Queens, New York, in 1927. He graduated from Yale College in 1951 with a bachelor of arts degree and then taught briefly at his alma mater while conducting graduate research in art history. Schoelkopf began his career in commercial art in 1957 as an independent dealer of American painting and sculpture and became a member of the Art Dealers Association of America in 1958. In 1959 he formed a partnership with Virginia Zabriskie, of the Zabriskie Gallery in New York, which lasted until 1962. The gallery exhibited late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century American painting, together with contemporary painting of a somewhat conservative style.
In 1962 Schoelkopf signed a three-year lease for the fourth floor of a building at 825 Madison Avenue in New York, where he opened the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery. From the outset, Schoelkopf aimed to specialize in American painting of the nineteenth and twentieth century and sculpture of all schools. He predicted a burgeoning market for the Hudson River School in particular, believing that American painting was increasingly perceived as being worthy of serious attention. In a letter dated January 3, 1963, Schoelkopf congratulated John Spencer for his decision to collect nineteenth-century American paintings for the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, assuring him that "progressive chauvanism [ sic] will operate to elevate prices in American painting. Every year more colleges teach Art History, and soon they shall have reached the level of sophistication and development where they will be obliged (for face) to offer tuition in specifically American art - hitherto neglected of academicians.... I and many other dealers have plans for exhibitions of nineteenth-century American painting, especially the Hudson River School."
Schoelkopf's instincts regarding the Hudson River School were undoubtedly correct, and consequently nineteenth-century American painters formed a permanent mainstay of his inventory. He is perhaps remembered more, however, for his dedication to reviving interest in lesser-known American painters from the turn-of-the-century who were impressionist or modernist in style. Schoelkopf developed something of a reputation for unearthing forgotten talent that, while sometimes mediocre or inconsistent, was occasionally exceptional and certainly worthy of note. He was committed to reinstalling Joseph Stella in the pantheon of major American artists, representing Stella's estate from 1963 to 1971 and holding regular exhibitions of the artist's work from 1962 on. In 1969 the gallery held the first New York exhibition of the paintings of Manierre Dawson, who was subsequently acclaimed by the critics for his important and innovative contributions to modernism. In 1970 Schoelkopf began showing the work of Jan Matulka, an artist whose work had been neglected since the 1930s, and his enthusiastic representation of the Matulka estate paved the way for a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1979.
Schoelkopf's interest in turn-of-the-century artists also extended to sculptors such as John Flannagan, Ethel Myers, Elie Nadelman, and John Henry Bradley Storrs, and he directed considerable energy to furthering Gaston Lachaise's reputation as an artist of major stature. When Lachaise died at the peak of his career in 1935, his estate was left to his wife, Isabel, and in 1957 to Isabel's son, Edward. When Edward died shortly thereafter, John B. Pierce, Jr., a nephew of Isabel Lachaise, was appointed trustee of the estate and formed the Lachaise Foundation. In 1962 Pierce entered an agreement with Robert Schoelkopf and Felix Landau to represent Lachaise's sculpture on the East and West Coasts, respectively. In this capacity Schoelkopf helped to launch a major retrospective of the artist's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1964 and a traveling exhibition that began circulating in 1967.
The gallery's other major commitment was to painting and sculpture by contemporary American realists, many of whom worked in a figurative style and explored elements of allegory and classical mythology in their work, presenting landscapes, still lifes, and portraits from a realist perspective. The bulk of the gallery's exhibitions were, in fact, of work by contemporary artists, including metaphysical still-life painter William Bailey, colorist Leland Bell, figurative painter Martha Mayer Erlebacher, landscape and narrative painter Gabriel Laderman, and Icelandic artist Louisa Matthiasdottir. William Bailey was one of the gallery's most commercially successful artists, and his first one-person exhibition in New York was held there in 1968. Demand for Bailey's paintings often far exceeded his output, and by the late 1970s Schoelkopf invariably sold out his exhibitions and had compiled a lengthy waiting list for his work.
In its early years the Robert Schoelkopf Gallery contributed considerably to the development of interest in fine art photography that fostered an increasingly lucrative market for photographic prints during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965 Schoelkopf began incorporating photography into the gallery's exhibition schedule and, in the spring of 1974, opened a gallery dedicated to photography on the second floor at 825 Madison Avenue. Between 1965 and 1979 Schoelkopf's was the only serious New York gallery dealing in painting and sculpture that also regularly exhibited photography as fine art. His interests lay primarily in antiquarian photography and the work of nineteenth-century and twentieth-century masters including Eugéne Atget, Mathew Brady, James Robertson, and Carleton Watkins. Schoelkopf organized shows examining specific photographic processes, the photogravure and the cyanotype, and presented surveys of genres such as portrait and landscape photography. In 1967 he held the first exhibition in many years of the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, an important figure in the history of Victorian photography, timing it to coincide with a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that focused on Cameron as one of four Victorian photographers.
Schoelkopf also handled the work of several influential contemporaries, most notably Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, and Gisèle Freund. The gallery held Freund's first exhibition in the United States in 1975 and was, for a time, the only place in New York where one could see and purchase prints by Cartier-Bresson. Schoelkopf began exhibiting Evans's work in 1966 and regularly thereafter, including a 1971 exhibition that coincided with a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
In the fall of 1976 the second-floor gallery space was turned over to Marcuse (Cusie) Pfeifer, then the gallery's director, who planned to use it to show the work of young photographers in a gallery under her own name. Schoelkopf continued to hold several photography exhibitions a year in the fourth-floor gallery but decided to concentrate primarily on nineteenth-century masters.
In March 1971 a fire in the building at Madison Avenue resulted in substantial water damage to the gallery space. Although very little of the inventory was destroyed, the incident forced Schoelkopf to close until September. This temporary loss of revenue compounded with a nationwide recession cut into Schoelkopf's financial resources and left him questioning his commission policy and his level of commitment to contemporary work in all media. A letter to artist Adolph Rosenblatt dated May 3, 1971, records how Schoelkopf had become increasingly disenchanted with "all contemporary work" and would begin taking 40 percent commission on sales, instead of 33.3 percent. "Beside the matter of enthusiasm is the matter of economics," Schoelkopf remarked, "and the last year and a half have been really dreadful for the art business."
This difficult period was followed immediately by more prosperous times. January 1973 proved to be the gallery's most successful month to date, encouraging Schoelkopf to purchase a house in Chappaqua, New York, later that year. In November 1974 Schoelkopf wrote to Anthony D'Offay that business "is as slow as it has ever been, but what sales we make are big ones" and revealed that auctions had, at that point, become his primary avenue for trade.
Around 1975 Schoelkopf's wife of eleven years, Laura Jane Schoelkopf, began working in the gallery. Although seemingly dubious of the work at first, she became a considerable asset to the business and reputedly complemented her husband's relationship with the gallery's contemporary artists through her warmth and hospitality, qualities often noted by artists who corresponded regularly with the couple.
The financial instability that characterized the 1970s undoubtedly influenced Schoelkopf's decision to cease exhibiting photography in 1979. By 1978 however, his investment in early-twentieth-century art appeared to be paying off. Jan Matulka, Joseph Stella, and John Henry Bradley Storrs had all been represented in exhibitions at major museums, and sales of their work had increased considerably. Gaston Lachaise's reputation continued to grow, and the traveling exhibition still circulated, garnering far more interest than had originally been anticipated.
Although contemporary artists continued to take up the largest portion of the gallery's changing exhibitions, Schoelkopf's interest in contemporary work was growing more conservative, tending toward a narrower focus on the narrative and allegorical. By 1979 he no longer exhibited contemporary sculpture, admitting to a lack of enthusiasm for the work of any of the current figurative sculptors and a dislike of all contemporary abstract work. In a letter to Lillian Delevoryas, dated March 17, 1982, he confessed, "With age has come a hardening of the aesthetic arteries perhaps. What we have been showing is realism, but getting tighter all the time."
In April 1984 the gallery was moved to 50 West Fifty-seventh Street, and, during the years that followed, the Schoelkopfs pared down the number of contemporary artists they represented, handling only those to whom they felt most strongly committed while continuing to specialize in nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American painting and sculpture. As the gallery approached its thirtieth anniversary, Schoelkopf's achievements were considerable. He had operated a successful New York gallery for almost three decades, rejuvenated the reputations of several important American artists, and was respected by artists and clients alike for the integrity, intelligence, and humor with which he conducted his business affairs. In 1987 he had been appointed to the board of trustees of the Williamstown Regional Art Conservation Laboratory. By this time he was also a member of the advisory board to the National Academy of Design, and in 1988 he became a co-trustee of the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
In March 1990, Robert Schoelkopf was diagnosed with leukemia and underwent a regimen of cancer treatment that resulted in a brief remission by the summer. Schoelkopf returned to work temporarily, but by 1991 his condition had worsened and he died in April of that year. Having known for some time that her husband's prognosis was poor, Laura Jane Schoelkopf had apparently decided that she would not continue the gallery in the event of his death. With the help of the youngest of their two sons, Andrew, she settled final accounts and assisted the gallery's contemporary artists in finding representation elsewhere before closing the business in August 1991.
Twenty-seven linear feet of records were donated to the Archives of American Art by Laura Jane Schoelkopf, Robert Schoelkopf's widow, and the Coe Kerr Gallery in 1991 and 1992. An additional gift of 3.4 linear feet was donated by Laura Jane Schoelkopf in 1996. The collection was reduced slightly during processing.
The collection is open for research. Use requires an appointment.