The Charles Egan Gallery
Summary of The Charles Egan Gallery
The Charles Egan Gallery was a relatively small institution on Manhattan's 57th Street, the center of all gallery activity in the 1950s. Its proprietor, Charles Egan, did not grow up wealthy nor did he possess any serious credentials in the art world, but he was very well liked by many artists of the New York School. The Egan Gallery was a small but very bright star in the 1940s and 50s, and was best known for its solo exhibitions of some of Abstract Expressionism's biggest figures, including de Kooning, Kline and Guston.
Background of Charles Egan
Born in Philadelphia in 1914, Charles Egan dabbled with drawing and painting at an early age, but never expressed much desire to become an artist. He never completed high school, and in 1935 he moved to New York and took a job selling art at Wanamaker's department store. He subsequently found work as a salesman at the Ferargil Gallery and then at J.B. Neumann's New Art Circle, which specialized in older European Modern art.
Despite having no formal training in the arts, academic or otherwise, Egan became very popular among a slew of New York artists. Egan frequented the Waldorf cafeteria and befriended artists such as Isamu Noguchi, Franz Kline, Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and Milton Resnick. Sensing that Egan was displeased with answering to others, they all encouraged Egan to open his own gallery.
In February of 1946, Egan's gallery started out as a tiny room on the top floor of a four-story residential building on 57th Street. The gallery's very first show was an exhibition of gouaches by the Swiss artist, Otto Botto.
Many of Egan's artist friends from the Waldorf cafeteria were surprised that they themselves were not selected for the gallery's opening show. According to Resnick, "No one took it [the exhibition] seriously." But Egan defended his position by saying, "You know, you guys, I'd never be able to sell your paintings. I'm broke, and I need to sell."
In only its second year, the Egan Gallery managed to acquire on loan a number of paintings and exhibited an impressive group show that included works by de Kooning, Rothko, Joseph Stella, Joseph Albers, Paul Klee and Georges Braque.
Willem de Kooning Joins the Gallery
Egan was an enormous fan of de Kooning's paintings, and in the spring of 1948, he gave the artist his first ever solo exhibition. De Kooning was approaching 44 years of age, and after 22 years of working and struggling in New York City, one of Abstract Expressionism's true giants finally got his first exclusive, large scale show. The show was important for de Kooning and was lauded by fellow artists even though it received a tepid response from the press. Starting in 1948, Egan was de Kooning's exclusive art dealer. By 1953, however, de Kooning was lured away by the dealer and gallery owner Sidney Janis, whose gallery offered far greater public exposure than Egan's.
Egan Marries and has an Affair
In September of 1948, not long after de Kooning's first show at the gallery, Egan met his wife-to-be, Betsy Duhrssen while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard. The two returned from their honeymoon around the same time Willem and Elaine de Kooning returned from a summer teaching at Black Mountain College. Elaine was stunned to discover Charles had married, as the two had been carrying out an affair for some time.
The affair continued even after Charles' marriage to Betsy, and appears not to have been terribly secretive. Betsy knew about and tolerated the affair, while both Elaine and Willem had been carrying out their own extramarital affairs for years.