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Marcuse Pfeifer, 1998. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
Marcuse Pfeifer, 1998. Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Marcuse Pfeifer (1936–2020)

Marcuse “Cusie” Pfeifer, who championed contemporary photography at the eponymous New York gallery she founded in 1976—and in doing so, helped launch the careers of Peter Hujar and Sally Mann—has died at age eighty-four. She was one of the first gallerists in the city to exclusively show photographs at a time when many critics and collectors still denied the medium the status of art. She went on to become a founding member and president of the Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD), which hosts the Photography Show, the prestigious art fair. She died in Kingston, New York, where she lived and, in 2005, cofounded the Hudson Valley LGBTQ Community Center, whose art program she directed for over a decade.

Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1936, Pfeifer became interested in art and social justice as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she divided her time between the campus and Manhattan’s art galleries—avoiding photography, at first. “I never liked photography,” she later told an interviewer, speaking of her student years. “I never went to see the photography shows. It seemed mechanical and boring.” After stints working at the New School and the Museum of Modern Art, she met respected Madison Avenue dealer Robert Schoelkopf, who told her he was going to stop selling photographs due to a lack of interest from collectors. Pfeifer, having had a change of heart about the medium, acquired his photography space. Guided less by profit than by her emotional reaction to images, Pfeifer made it her business to show “young unknowns.” When considering artists to represent, she insisted on looking over their portfolios in person.

Pfeifer met Hujar through Maggie Sherwood’s experimental art center, the Floating Foundation of Photographers, and immediately recognized his talent. For his first show with her, in 1977, she formed an exhibition from his series “Portraits in Life and Death.” Although these images are now renowned, they received a lukewarm reception two years prior, when he published them in a 1975 book introduced by Susan Sontag. The show garnered some of Hujar’s first reviews, and in 1978, Pfeifer included his work in “The Male Nude in Photography.” The survey, which also featured photographs by Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe, among many others, was almost unanimously disparaged by critics but helped establish the gallery’s reputation.

Throughout her gallery’s fourteen-year run, Pfeifer consistently challenged the male gaze in photography, showcasing female photographers like Carlotta Corpron, Nell Dorr, and Lois Connor. She also introduced New York’s art world to the German photographer Lilo Raymond and was the first to hang Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s portraits in a gallery setting. In 1987, she organized a show of Mann’s “Family Pictures,” a series of black-and-white photographs closely linked to the artist’s famous “Immediate Family” series, which led to conservative uproar during the culture wars of the late ’80s and ’90s. Last year, the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art in New Paltz, New York, staged an exhibition comprised of ninety donations from Pfeifer’s holdings, which included photographs by Berenice Abbott, Anna Atkins, and Gisèle Freund. “It’s not really a collection,” she said of the works she amassed throughout her career. “It’s my response that’s the common denominator. The picture itself has to move me.”