Virginia Zabriskie, an art dealer whose New York and Paris galleries specialized in modern and contemporary American works of the non-blue-chip kind, and who helped establish photography as a fine art, died on May 7 at her home in Manhattan. She was 91.
Her death was confirmed by the critic Martica Sawin, a close friend.
A lively, indefatigable woman, Ms. Zabriskie pursued a long career despite suffering throughout her life from dystonia, a neurological movement disorder that affected her speech and the mobility of her hands.
She had set out from childhood to be an artist but changed her mind in college because, she was quoted as saying in “Zabriskie: Fifty Years,” a book celebrating her gallery’s anniversary, “my ability to interpret and criticize art grew faster than my ability to make it.” She switched to art history, acquiring the knowledge and research skills that served her ecumenical view of art, her interest in artists from the past and her knack for presenting interesting group shows.
Her New York gallery was in operation, mostly on 57th Street (although it was on the Upper East Side in its early years), from 1954 to 2010. When she started there were fewer than 20 commercial art galleries in uptown Manhattan; by the end, there were several hundred.
In New York, the Zabriskie Gallery generally operated outside the Abstract Expressionist, Pop and Minimalist mainstream, featuring artists who had quieter careers or were overlooked. She favored figurative expressionism in both painting and sculpture.
The artists she exhibited most frequently included the painters Robert De Niro Sr. and Lester Johnson, the multimedia wizard Mary Frank and Richard Stankiewicz, one of the innovators of junk sculpture. She also represented Pat Adams, a painter of fastidious astral abstractions, throughout the gallery’s run.
Other contemporary artists to whom she gave solo shows, or whom she paired with one another, formed an admirably eccentric list: Bob Thompson, Jan Muller, Ellen Lanyon, George Sugarman, Gandy Brodie, Emilio Cruz, Nell Blaine and Miyoko Ito.
Ms. Zabriskie also paid attention to 20th-century American artists from earlier generations, including the painters George Ault, Arnold Friedman and Abraham Walkowitz and the sculptors Gaston Lachaise and William Zorach. She gave the great Polish-American sculptor Elie Nadelman eight solo shows between 1967 and 1987.
In 1957 Ms. Zabriskie formed a partnership with Robert Schoelkopf, which lasted until 1961. He established his own respected gallery shortly afterward.
She began to add photography — first past, then present — to her purview in the late 1960s, when she acquired the Walkowitz estate and, with it, several photogravures by Alfred Stieglitz. Photography would eventually lead her to Surrealism. Recognizing the ephemeral nature of her own profession, she also devoted exhibitions to important New York galleries, including the Daniel Gallery (1913-32) and the Hansa Gallery (1952-59).
Her better-known historical shows included “Surrealism 1936 — Objects, Photographs, Collages and Documents” (1986), “Surrealism and the Book” (1991), “Conspiratorial Laughter — a Friendship: Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp” (1995) and “André Masson in America” (1996).
In 1977, when Ms. Zabriskie opened Galerie Zabriskie in Paris to show photography exclusively, there was only one other gallery doing so there. When she closed the Paris location in 1998, she was awarded a medal of honor by the City of Paris.
“Au Revoir Paris,” her final exhibition in that city, brought together the work of 26 American photographers who had their first solo gallery shows in Europe at Galerie Zabriskie. It was a stellar list that included Alfred Stieglitz, Berenice Abbott, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Walker Evans, Lisette Model, Paul Strand, Barbara Morgan and Lee Friedlander.
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During her Paris years, Ms. Zabriskie played a central role in the rediscovery of the work of the French Surrealist photographer Claude Cahun (after buying an unidentified collage at auction on a hunch that it was a Cahun) as well as that of Georges Hugnet, the Surrealist collagist and book designer.
Ms. Zabriskie was born Virginia Marshall on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on July 15, 1927, the oldest child of Arthur A. Marshall Sr., a restaurateur, and Agnes Ione (Walters) Zabriskie, who acted in silent movies before her marriage. Her younger brother, Arthur Jr., became a state’s attorney in Maryland. Her marriages to George Zabriskie (1952) and Arthur Cohen (1970) ended in divorce. No immediate family members survive.
She attended the High School of Music and Art and studied art history at New York University. After graduating in 1949, she began graduate school at the university’s Institute of Fine Arts.
In 1948, a chance encounter in a museum gained her a mentor: Walter Pach, one of the organizers of the 1913 Armory Show, a controversial exhibition that introduced European modernism to the United States. Her art-world education began.
Mr. Pach asked her to pose for him — which she did, bringing her mother. He introduced her to the artists of his circle, among them John Sloan, Edward Hopper and Marcel Duchamp.
She wrote her senior thesis on the Duchamp brothers (Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon and Raymond Duchamp-Villon). A postgraduate scholarship took her to Paris, where she studied both art history and French at the École du Louvre. She also passed the docent’s exam, becoming the first American to lecture in English in the museum’s department of paintings.
Ms. Zabriskie became one of the youngest dealers in New York in 1954, at age 27, when, with no major backer, she bought the Korman Gallery on Madison Avenue for $1 from its owner, Marvin Korman, whom she knew from graduate school.
She ran the gallery on a shoestring, working by herself for the first three years and using Korman Gallery stationery until it ran out. The stationery, and the gallery, soon had a new name: Zabriskie.
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