Natural Selections

Culture Corner

An interview with art gallery owner David Tunick

Bernie Langs

David Tunick, Photo by Bernie Langs

David Tunick Inc. is an art gallery located at 13 East 69th Street, specializing in fine prints and drawings from the 15th to the mid-20th centuries. The gallery boasts high quality and rare examples of works by Rembrandt, Dürer, Goya, Fragonard, Matisse, Picasso and many others. David Tunick, the gallery president, has been active in the field of works on paper since 1966. Mr. Tunick kindly agreed to answer email questions for Natural Selections.

BL: The information you provide for each Old Masters (and other) prints is detailed and exhaustive. Not only must you research the history of the physical print and the artist, but trace its provenance as well. How do you undertake such background work?

DT: We work at it, but some discoveries are luck. If by provenance, you mean its actual meaning, the history of ownership, we go about it carefully and methodically. We take note of every collector’s stamp, mark, notation, scribble, etc. on the recto and verso of the sheet. Can we identify them if we don’t know them? To do that we go to Lugt, Les Marques de Collections de Dessins et d’Estampes both in the old two volume hard copy and the augmented online version. If a mark is in there—there are thousands— we read about it, and that may lead to other sources. We want to add to our description of every print and drawing that comes in as much in the way of ownership history as possible. Sometimes that means looking in old gallery or sales catalogues, or correspondence with a museum, more often with a former owner or gallery owner, to see if there are further records in old files. Here’s an example of the luck part: recently a man unknown to us called me from France. He had seen an important 1950 Leger gouache on our website that had turned up on the wall of old master drawing collectors here in NY. It had been “missing” since 1971, when it was last seen in public in an exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.  The NY collectors asked us to sell it for them, and we were thorough in researching the provenance, but there were gaps. The man from France said he remembered seeing this Leger on his aunt’s wall when he was a child. He filled in all the blanks, which we went on to verify. It felt good, as if we had fulfilled a responsibility, in a way, to the work of art.

BL: Rembrandt and Dürer, both well-represented by the Tunick Gallery, are masters of the art of the print. Do you have personal favorite artists and particular favorite prints?

DT: You just named my favorite artists.  Instead of going straight to graduate school, I had the fantastic experience of working in the print department at the Metropolitan Museum for two years within a short time of graduating as an art history major from Williams, where I had been introduced as a student to prints and drawings in the classroom by a remarkable triumvirate of professors led by the great Lane Faison. At the Met, more or less under the tutelage of Hyatt Mayor, a gentleman giant in the field, I was asked to fill in gaps in the cataloguing of their Dürer engravings my first year, and their Rembrandt etching collection my second year. It was very heady stuff for a twenty-two-year-old. Before I knew it, curators from all over the museum were coming to me to ask questions about the museum’s Dürers and Rembrandts, ranging from issues of provenance to whether we should lend certain ones to exhibitions in Berlin and London. But mostly I sat there every day looking at the prints really hard, every line and stroke, and comparing impressions to determine relative quality. Dürer and Rembrandt are very different. Dürer, the greatest artist of the Northern Renaissance, executed masterpiece engravings like the Adam and Eve and Knight, Death, and the Devil, the woodcut of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, all with a cool, meticulous precision. Rembrandt two centuries later— anything but cool and meticulous: etching perhaps the most psychologically penetrating and moving portrayals of the human condition in Western art, from intimate self-portraits and peasants and beggars to his most important graphic masterpieces, the large plates of The Three Crosses and the Ecce Homo, The Hundred Guilder Print, The Three Trees and the other sublime landscapes. Their approaches were so different. Dürer rarely did it over again; first off was last off—a Germanic kind of assuredness and finality. Rembrandt could hardly keep his hands out of the ink and off a plate. Many of his prints go through multiple changes (called states); he was constantly wiping the plates in different ways, creating tonal effects, simulating different times of the day or different weather, different moods. Prints were not identical multiples; each was a variant, a unique work of art. I have to add that I have had similar lifelong love affairs, the same kind of “shock and awe” sense of wonderment for the genius of Goya, Degas, and Picasso as printmakers. The battle I have fought my entire career is getting students and collectors who consider prints poor second cousins to understand how prints are at the core of the work of so many of the great painter-printmakers, from Dürer and Rembrandt to Picasso, Warhol, and Johns. The greatest prints are not reproductive of paintings; they are independent works of art, just as Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets and Mozart wrote operas and symphonies. They are a way to articulate ideas that cannot be expressed in any other form.

BL: Artists such as Martin Schongauer, Lucas van Leyden, or the mysterious Master E.S. remain as brilliant examples of the print genre but not as recognizable to the general public as Durer and Rembrandt. Does the market remain strong for them? Are there many new collectors who still value their prints?

DT: This past year we sold a brilliant large, valuable engraving by Lucas van Leyden to a new American collector in only her second or third year collecting. She was swept away as soon as she saw the Lucas in the gallery. I’m not sure she knew who Lucas van Leyden was, but she has a terrific eye and is smart as a whip. With the strong encouragement of a local esteemed curator in one of the major museums, she closed a deal with us within a week or two—and by then she knew a lot about Lucas. It’s hard enough getting a fine Lucas van Leyden, who worked in the sixteenth century. It’s nearly impossible to get a truly fine Schongauer much less a Master E.S. Both of them worked a century earlier, and E.S. in particular is beyond rare. Whenever we’ve had a top Schongauer, it’s been out the door practically before it’s come in.

BL: You have been a gallery director for decades. Is there any wisdom you would pass along to someone trying to break into the field today?

DT: Whenever a young person comes to me and asks what’s the key to success in the art business, I tell him or her that every successful dealer I know has done it their own way, taken their own path. There is no one sure-fire formula. Gagosian started selling posters on the street corner. I started by driving campus to campus with my St. Bernard dog in a Volvo station wagon with consigned contemporary prints by artists of little reputation, setting up one-day sales exhibitions spread out on tables. I do think that a solid grounding in history, art history, and some languages, particularly French and German, are helpful.  There’s no easy, fast track, no overnight sensations. It takes hard, hard work, commitment, and dedication. And I always tell people thinking of going into the field to be mindful of the fact that there are thousands of art dealers, and only a tiny sliver of a fraction are truly successful.