The business partnership between Samuel Kootz and Pablo Picasso was far from smooth. For one thing, neither could speak the other’s language when they met.
Says art historian Barbara Michaels, who was once Kootz’s secretary and who wrote a memoir about him: “It was a fickle love affair.”
But it was that fickle affair that solidified Kootz as one of the most influential gallery owners of his generation and helped him launch the careers of abstract expressionist painters such as Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and William Baziotes.
It began in 1946 when Kootz (Law 1921)—hoping to get a leg up on his art gallery competitors who were waiting to board ships across the Atlantic—hopped a plane to Paris to meet Picasso.
With the help of an interpreter, Kootz explained to Picasso that he wanted to buy his paintings, which he would resell to help support a growing stable of talented young artists at his New York City gallery. Kootz showed Picasso some of their works. “Apparently he impressed Picasso enough,” Michaels says.
In 1947, the Kootz Gallery held the first postwar American exhibition of Picasso, with Kootz going on to serve as Picasso’s sole representative here for the next two years. “It cemented his name as a dealer and a gallerist,” says Rebecca Schoenthal, exhibitions curator at The Fralin Museum of Art at UVA, “and also, financially, gave the gallery a great push.” In return, Picasso received what were, in some cases, better deals than he had been offered in Europe.
Today, Kootz—whose love of painting first took root at UVA—is known as a marketing pioneer, whose eye for fresh talent helped facilitate the abstract expressionist movement in New York City that gave American art a foothold on the international scene, according to Schoenthal.
While many gallery owners were expecting people to want to come in and check out new paintings, Kootz, according to Schoenthal, was always in promotion mode. He wrote personalized Christmas cards to prospective clients, often incorporating catchy taglines—a skill he had picked up during a stint in advertising. Kootz also hired critics to write essays for his catalogs and ran ads in newspapers.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Kootz came to UVA on an academic scholarship and pursued a bachelor of law degree. He became intrigued with painting and began making weekend trips to New York City galleries. According to an interview with the Smithsonian, the Stieglitz Gallery and the Charles Daniel Gallery were two of his favorites. The latter showed painters who “were striving to be a little more personal, a little more ambitious in getting out of the Puritan strain of American painting,” Kootz told the Smithsonian. “Daniel seemed to me to be conducting a more liberal gallery in that he would give younger men a greater chance to show.”
Michaels says Kootz became “passionate” about Picasso in the 1920s and talked about one day meeting him. During this time, Kootz’s knowledge about painting continued to grow. However, he wouldn’t build a full-time career around it until years later.
After graduating from UVA, Kootz bounced among occupations, spending time as a lawyer, an advertising executive in the film industry and a fabric designer. But all the while, he stayed close to art through his writing. Kootz wrote two books on American art and served as a critic for several publications.
With what Michaels calls a “revolutionary” idea to subsidize up-and-coming artists, Kootz became an art dealer in 1944. It was Picasso, according to Kootz, who wound up being the linchpin to the business model. “If we had to exist on the sales of our American men,” Kootz told the Smithsonian, “we would have absolutely been dead.”
In 1949, Kootz put on an exhibition called “The Intrasubjectives.” Featuring Hans Hofmann, Jackson Pollock and others, it would, according to the New York Times, help pave the way for abstract expressionism.
“Kootz very much wanted to champion American talent but didn’t want provincialism to pervade American art,” says Fralin director and chief curator Matthew McLendon. “He wanted the American artists to be very aware of what had gone on in Europe in the previous generation that had forever changed the Western art world and to learn from that, but to make something new out of that that could put America on the map, so to speak.
“Now that we look back on him, we see how vital he was to that conversation.”
A year before Kootz’s pioneering exhibition, Picasso had persuaded him to close his gallery to become Picasso’s world agent. But Kootz, according to the Smithsonian, wound up missing the daily contact with his art friends and soon reopened a gallery on Madison Avenue.
Michaels remembers the Kootz-Picasso relationship as one in a constant ebb and flow. She says Kootz would become angry when Picasso used him to inflate prices to his European dealer. Picasso, in turn, wouldn’t sell to Kootz for stretches of time. But, Michaels says, there would usually be reconciliation.
On those occasions, Kootz—who died at the age of 83 in 1982—would capture the moment with a photo of himself, Picasso and whichever pieces he had just purchased. At a fall Fralin exhibit, a number of those photos were on display.
“They represent,” Michaels says, “his triumph.”