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Gallery Chat: Distinguished Art Dealer David Tunick Celebrates 50 Years in Business and the Ongoing Power of Drawings and Prints

In a room covered wall to wall with prints and drawings by masters such as Rembrandt, Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso, David Tunick—founder of David Tunick, Inc.—ushered us to a back office to show us some of the rare treasures quietly tucked away inside the gallery’s boxes.

“Collectors and curators rarely look in the boxes anymore because they have less time,” Tunick explained, “but they’re chock-a-block full of museum-quality art.”

Francisco Goya, Ya Van Desplumados (There they go plucked i.e. fleeced) from Los Caprichos (detail), etching, burnished aquatint and drypoint on laid paper.

Turning the delicate pages, Tunick unveiled layers of art history intricately sketched and etched onto paper by Old Master and Early Modern luminaries: an 18th century aquatint by Spanish icon Francisco de Goya; a 16th-century battle scene between centaurs by Enea Vico—the Italian engraver who reimagined antique paintings in modern, grotesque forms; a 17th-century rendering of peasants by Cornelis Bega—who introduced psychological depth to Dutch Golden Age genre scenes.

Cornelis Bega, The Inn (detail), etching.

Tunick has been preserving and extolling works of art on paper since he started in 1966. After completing a bachelor’s degree from Williams College and studying for a master’s from Columbia University in art history—as well as a prestigious two-year internship in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Print Department—Tunick opened his gallery, at first by appointment, on the Upper East Side in New York.

Over the past five decades, he has mounted exhibitions around the world and has produced numerous catalogue essays with a focus on artists from the 15th to mid-20th century such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Piranesi, Daumier, Whistler, Munch and Picasso. An early member of the ADAA, Tunick also was key in launching the inaugural Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory in 1988.

Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1895 (color added 1902), lithograph and woodcut print.

Eager to share his expertise with a new generation of scholars and curators, Tunick has also lectured for colleges and museums for many years, focusing on connoisseurship. He teaches primarily from his gallery pro bono.

“It’s no secret to me why a lot of people who have come out of prints and drawings have gone on to run museums and occupy many other important curatorial positions. It’s very demanding to accurately record the hard facts for a label for a print or a drawing—the watermark, the provenance going back centuries, the type of paper, the proper reference, the state, the condition, and so on. To do it precisely and correctly and in full takes a great deal of looking, training, and practice,” Tunick explained. He is proud of the many “graduates” of his firm who have gone on to top positions in auction houses and museums, including as museum directors.

Edward Hopper, Evening Wind (detail), 1921, etching on white wove paper. 

Tunick chatted with us about his journey from art dealer traveling in a Volvo station wagon to renowned authority, the contemporary market for Old Master and classic works on paper, and more.

Why do you specialize in works on paper?

First of all, works of art on paper have always fascinated me from the first time I held one in my hands as a student under the tutelage of a professor who said, if his wife would let him, he’d sell the family car to be able to own it. It was a Rembrandt under offer to the college museum. It wasn’t just the economics of it. I couldn’t believe I could actually touch and hold a great work of art that Rembrandt had made and touched. It was an Annunciation to the Shepherds, a wonderful, large Baroque etching bursting with light and dark and energy. As undergraduates at Williams we were really fortunate to have our art history classes in the museum building itself. We were surrounded by actual objects. None of us realized at the time—or at least I didn’t—how special that was. And often, prints and drawings from the collection were passed around in class.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with Trees, Farm Buildings, and a Tower, c.1651, etching and drypoint on white laid paper. 

Secondly, it’s been a career mission of mine to get the message across that for many of the great painters—Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Johns, Warhol, to name a few—drawing and printmaking were just as important as painting.

Henri Matisse, Henriette and Her Brothers, 1923, charcoal and stump on paper.

Today, by and large, prints and drawings are mistakenly considered poor relations to paintings—third cousins, once removed. Yet, Picasso’s big 1934 Minotauromachy print, for example, precedes his 1937 Guernica painting. It’s almost impossible to conceive of the Guernica without the Minotauromachy. If you surveyed a month’s worth of Picasso’s work, you would see that he went back and forth from print to sculpture to drawing to prints—really getting a lot of his ideas from one for the other, each medium feeding off the other. This is true for any other artists, too.

Pablo Picasso, Le Frugal Repast, 1904, etching on Van Gelder paper.

How did you become a dealer?

There was an itinerant print dealer, Ferdinand Roten Galleries in Baltimore, who came around to college campuses. During my sophomore year, I started to buy things from them for $8, $12, $40—whatever I could afford at the time. After a while, I wondered if I could do the same thing, only better.

After college, I started out on Newbury Street in Boston because someone was kind enough to give me a desk in a gallery without charging rent. I approached dealers in Boston and New York to work on consignment for them before I even knew what the word meant. They had to explain it to me. I traveled in my car, setting up one-day shows at colleges and universities, taking along my two St. Bernard dogs, Besnard and Buhot—the only dogs allowed in many college museums.

What kind of work did you initially sell?

Mostly work by contemporary New England artists like Baskin and Abeles, with the odd Braque or Picasso, Vasarely, Trova, Anuszkiewicz and Warhol mixed in.

A year or two after college, I started leading bicycle tours in Europe. While there, I went to galleries and started buying little things. I was most attracted to Old Master material from the start and decided to leave contemporary art behind. In my eyes, at the time, except for Warhol, contemporary art (given my limited knowledge of it) didn’t equal the art of El Greco.

How did you make the transition?

I heard there was a thing you were supposed to do called research, so, I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and knocked on the door of the print department, which took me awhile to find. The esteemed curator Eleanor Sayre (I didn’t know who she was) answered the door, literally looked down at me, and said, “What do you want young man?”

I said, “I’m here to do research on a Dürer engraving.” She asked what book I wanted. I didn’t know. She pulled the standard Dürer catalogue raisonné by Meder off the shelf. I had never seen it and couldn’t read it because it was in German. She really let me have it and then proceeded to throw me out. Nobody had talked to me like that since I was a little kid, but I called her the next day, invited her to lunch, and we became great friends for life. She told me that I had to learn French and German, that I had to go to graduate school, and proceeded to arrange invitations for me to study at some of the top programs in the country.

I wound up eventually going to Columbia, but first took an unpaid position in the print department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, working with the legendary A. Hyatt Mayor. The Met was my real graduate education.

Why?

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection has over two million prints, and I had the run of the whole place. It was forbidding but incredibly interesting and rewarding.

I worked on Dürer my first year and Rembrandt my second. As soon as I started, curators from all over the museum would come to me and say what do you have by Dürer that relates to such and such painting. The Prado museum has asked us for some loans—should we loan this or not? I was a kid, I didn’t know what a museum should loan, but it was my job to learn—fast.

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498, woodcut.

How did you manage?

John McKendry, who was then head of the print department, had an encyclopedic memory. He or Hyatt Mayor would look in on me and say, “Well if you’re looking at that Dürer, you should really go to all the prints of Schongauer.” Or I would read something and it would refer to Goltzius. So, I’d spend a week going through everything by Goltzius.

When did you become a full-time dealer?

While I was at the Met and during graduate school, I hired a college classmate to go out on the road to continue the business so I could support myself. When I was done with that mostly self-learning phase, I started going to museums around the country and began publishing catalogues to send literally around the world. That’s how it all got started.

Is it difficult finding new buyers for older material, given how strong the contemporary market is right now?

The clientele may be diminishing for minor material, but there are always clients for top things, no matter the period. When our colleagues who are dealers or who are museum directors introduce us to young—or even older established collectors of contemporary art—they sweep through here sometimes like a vacuum. They seem to appreciate common themes and the thread through the centuries, from old master to classic 20th century and contemporary. 

Barnett Newman, Untitled, 1961, lithograph on white Arches paper.

Castelli used to buy old master prints from us as gifts for some of his best artists, household names. We have several contemporary artists as clients now. Some collectors who don’t blink an eye at spending tens of millions on a contemporary painting, can’t believe they can buy a terrific large 17th-century etching by Ferdinand Bol—one of the great pupils of Rembrandt—for $30,000, or even a Rembrandt for $250,000. It’s important for there to be that kind of recognition and synergy between contemporary and Old Master works.

Do they show as much enthusiasm for the lesser-known artists you show?

Luckily, I’ve got a young staff that understands how to go about marketing some of the minor things, but it’s easier to sell a Rembrandt for $175,000 or a Munch for $500,000 than it is to sell a Jacob Matham engraving that makes my heart pound just as much for $5,000.

Jacob Matham, Preparing for Market, engraving.

What’s one of your favorite works currently on view/available by a lesser-known artist?

I love this Hans Baldung’s woodprint, The Conversion of Saint Paul. It absolutely presages German Expressionism. Baldung and a few others were as equally powerful as Dürer.

Hans Baldung, The Conversion of Saint Paul, 16th century, woodcut print on paper.

What advice would you give to an aspiring dealer?

It’s important to have some art history and languages, but also helpful if you have some business experience and definitely a healthy dose of business acumen. A passing knowledge of banking, currencies, customs, and marketing, —at least in my field—is useful. And of course these days, you have to be familiar and comfortable with the technological tools at our disposal. But nothing trumps a keen eye, intelligence, judgment, and an insistence on quality and integrity. Reputation and relationships are everything in our business.

In the end, I think it’s imperative to find your own path. Every successful dealer I know has followed his or her own model. It’s an exciting life!

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Our new exhibit is now open! America The Beautiful showcases a mixture of American Historical Prints and Contemporary American Artists (including many Wisconsin Artists!) that emphasize the beauty of our country and its history. 

Alongside this show we have another exhibition for Craig Lueck, a Wisconsin watercolor artist that specializes in landscapes. His subjects range from Wisconsin lakes to Venice, Italy, so you’re sure to find a scene you like.  

Stop on by from now until October 10th for America the Beautiful and Craig Lueck Watercolors!

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Summer Gallery Night Exhibition

The David Barnett Gallery is pleased to present its “Toulouse-Lautrec and the Paris Scene” exhibit.  An opening reception will be held on Gallery Night & Day, Friday, July 27, 2012 from 5:00pm to 9:00pm and Saturday, July 28, 2012 from 11:00am to 5:00pm.   The exhibit will run through October 13, 2012.  The gallery is located at 1024 E. State St. at Prospect Ave. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Featuring vintage posters and original prints from the period - La Belle Epoch 1890’s through 1930’s French Art Deco - highlighting the rare 1897 Toulouse-Lautrec portfolio “Au Pied du Sinai”.   Artists include Mucha, Bonnard, Steinlen, Cheret, Gauguin, Degas, Villon, Paul Emile Pissarro, Ludovic Rodo Pissarro, Cassandre, Paul Colin, Caron, Fix-Masseau, Poulbot, Georges De Feure, Lebasque, Gadoud, Guener, Clerice Freres, Georges Dola, Prejelan, Louis Lessieux, Marguerite Montaut (Gamy) and more.  Subjects include music, movies, sports, air and nautical, travel, beverages and animals. 

Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter, printmaker, draftsman and illustrator, whose immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 1800’s yielded a collection of exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times.  The artist is known as one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period.