Richard L. Feigen, an eclectic and influential art dealer whose galleries spanned Chicago, New York, London and Los Angeles—with clients around the world— has died at 90 from complications related to a recent battle with Covid-19, a representative for Feigen’s gallery said.
A collector since childhood, Feigen at various times showed work by a wide range of artists who had not yet gained a following in the U.S. He gave Francis Bacon his first solo show in the United States. He also put on exhibitions of work by Jean Dubuffet, Max Beckmann, Bridget Riley, and Allen Jones.
His greatest impact was as an Old Masters dealer where he often described himself as “a collector in dealer’s clothes.” He had the prescience to acquire artworks that were later greatly valued by the art market—a Turner painting, The Temple of Jupiter Panellenius Restored, from his collection sold at Sotheby’s for $12.9 million in 2009, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles purchased his Orazio Gentileschi painting Danaë and the Shower of Gold (ca. 1623) for $30.5 million, also at Sotheby’s, in 2016.
“He really loved art,” said Frances Beatty, the former president of Richard L. Feigen & Co. “He loved being a part of important things in the art world, and he had very standards—he loved scholarship.”
Feigen’s gallery first opened in Chicago in 1957, and has referred to himself as an “instigator” of the opening of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, in 1967; he later expanded to New York in 1963. In 1965, the gallery became one of the first to open in SoHo. But most of his dealing was conducted from a series of buildings and townhouses on the Upper East Side of New York that he bought and sold to advantage much as he did with art. In 2017, Zwirner Gallery took over Feigen’s building at 34 East 69th St. for its uptown branch.
Much of Feigen’s interest in art came from his own early efforts in collecting. Born in Chicago in 1930, he was raised in a home that a Christie’s article from 2019 described as being “comfortable rather than wealthy.” He initially began buying stamps, coins, and rare books, and then moved on to art, purchasing a watercolor by Isaac Cruikshank that satirized the French Revolution.
“I was really first attracted to things I thought were undervalued or underestimated and that led me into keeping things I felt most attracted to, and that led me to collecting,” he told Christie’s. But it wasn’t until the ’50s that he “came out of the closet as a dealer,” as he told the New York Times in 1987.
Feigen went on to attend Yale University, where he studied art history and English literature as an undergraduate, and then got an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School. He went into finance, moving to New York in 1954, to work at Lehmann Brothers, and he later purchased a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. “I was advised by my sponsor, [Gustave] Gus Levy, that I would be bored, which in fact he was absolutely right,” he said in a 2009 Smithsonian Archives of American Art oral history. He sold his seat, worked briefly at Goldman Sachs, and then left the finance world entirely, embracing his new art dealing career.
When he operated his gallery in Chicago, the city’s art scene was small, and he became a crucial figure within it. His collecting patterns—which skewed at the time toward German Expressionism and Surrealism—proved influential among local institutions.
During the ’60s, Feigen’s gallery and its offerings evinced a kind of unlikely radicalism. He showed artists who had not yet gained a following in the U.S. He gave Francis Bacon his first U.S. show. And his gallery moved into political territory as well: it mounted, for example, a show featuring art made in response to the police brutality that took place amid the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The New York Times reported that 10,000 people visited the show during its run in Manhattan; it included works by James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenburg, and others. The gallery also held benefits for the Young Lords and the Democratic politician Howard J. Samuels.
“He stuck to his beliefs and educated his clients,” said dealer Michael Findlay, now a director at Acquavella Galleries, who worked for Feigen’s New York gallery in the 1960s. “He didn’t feed them what they wanted.”
Around that time, Feigen and his then-wife Sandra, whom he divorced in 1978, became fixtures in New York social circles. In 1970, they attended at a party for the Black Panthers. Tom Wolfe was in attendance, and quoted Feigen in an essay where Wolfe termed the phrase “radical chic,” used to denote high society’s trendy support of leftist causes.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Feigen’s gallery began turning its focus primarily to Old Masters art, showing work of the kind in Hans Hollein–redesigned townhouse on the Upper East Side. Then, deeming the building’s look to outré for the offerings on view, Feigen sold the space to the couturier Hanae Mori. Feigen worked with dealers Leo Castelli and James Corcoran to oversee Joseph Cornell’s estate, later cutting off that relationship when the estate went to Pace Gallery. (From 1976 to 1987, he also ran a gallery with the two dealers, called Castelli Feigen Corcoran.) All the while, he quietly continued selling Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and 20th century art.
Feigen helped breathe new life into the Old Masters market during the ’80s. At that decade’s start, Old Masters was considered a boring corner of the art market; by its end, Old Masters art accounted for some of the top sales made by auction houses, and collectors were buying centuries-old masterpieces for millions of dollars. Feigen himself bought works by J. M. W. Turner, El Greco, Rembrandt, Nicolas Poussin, Giorgio Vasari, and others for high prices at auction during this time, and he began selling art to the world’s top collectors, including juggernauts such as Ronald Lauder, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, A. Alfred Taubman, Norton Simon, and Saul Steinberg. So highly regarded was he that he played himself during a scene in the 1987 film Wall Street.
During this time, he hadn’t lost his passion for contemporary. In time for the gallery exodus from Soho to Chelsea, he ran the gallery Feigen Contemporary in Chelsea from 1998 to 2007, showing at least one artist who became a superstar: the late Jeremy Blake.
Beatty, the former president of Feigen’s gallery, said that museum directors and curators also came through the gallery frequently and that more than 100 institutions worldwide had bought works from Richard L. Feigen & Co. “We really concentrated a lot on selling things to museums,” she said.
In recent years, as he began planning his estate, Feigen started parting ways with works from his holdings for top dollar at auction. In 2019, 10 works from Feigen’s holdings, by the likes of Titian, John Constable, and Carracci, headed to Christie’s.
Feigen, who in 2000 released a memoir called Tales from the Art Crypt: The Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art, has remained active for much of the past decade. His gallery today focuses on 700 years’ worth of art. In 2010, he showed works from his art collection at Yale’s art museum. That year, Feigen told the Times, “There isn’t a single art history department in the world that I consider first-class.”
By the end of his career, Feigen began lamenting the state of the market, too, alleging that prognosticators had begun to focus too much on art that wouldn’t have any longevity in the years to come. “What I do,” he said in his Smithsonian oral history, “is a dying business.”