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Richard Feigen. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Getty.
Richard Feigen. Photo: Patrick McMullan/Getty.

Richard Feigen (1930–2021)

Richard Feigen, whose astute and often prescient eye for underestimated art old and new made him one of the most influential dealers of the postwar era, has died at age ninety from Covid-19. Best known as a purveyor of Old Masters and for his acclaimed personal collection of early Italian paintings, Feigen shaped hundreds of institutional and private holdings over five decades while also organizing the first US exhibitions for Francis Bacon and Joseph Beuys and debut solo shows for John Baldessari and Ray Johnson.

Born in Chicago in 1930, Feigen began collecting from an early age, making his first acquisition—a watercolor by Isaac Cruikshank, father of cartoonist George—at age eleven. After studying English and art at Yale University and attending Harvard Business School, Feigen sold his stock exchange seat to start a contemporary art gallery in Chicago in 1957, and five years later expanded to New York, where he was one of the first gallerists to open up shop in SoHo. He maintained a roster that included Joseph Cornell, Jean Dubuffet, Jasper Johns, Bridget Riley, and James Rosenquist, and threw himself in liberal causes, hosting events for presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and curating artist responses to the turbulent Democratic National Convention of 1968. (He was notably quoted in Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s 1970 essay on political posturing among New York’s white elite.)

Feigen’s shift in the ’70s and ’80s toward the undervalued category of Old Masters—a then-fusty market he helped jump-start, exhibiting the paintings in a two-story row house on the Upper East Side he had revamped by Hans Hollein—was owed as much to personal attachment as mercenary acumen; the mostly self-taught dealer kept the works he loved most for himself, filling his uptown home with the company of Fra Angelica, Orazio Gentileschi, Guercino, and Lorenzo Monaco (his holdings were shown in their entirety at Yale in 2010). Feigen had begun to lighten his renowned collection to help fund his retirement, auctioning ten works through Christie’s in 2019. 

He remained active in later life, running galleries in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London (David Zwirner took over his building at 34 East Sixty-Ninth Street in 2017). In recent years, Feigen often criticized what he perceived to be increasing commercialism in museums and the growing lack of connoisseurship behind art’s institutions and markets. In 2009, during an oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, he was asked what he hoped his legacy would be. “Taste,” he replied. “Not prescience or anything like that. But just taste.”

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