Buried just last week at the Montparnasse Cemetary, Paris, gallerist Denise René will be remembered as the woman who launched the careers of such artists as Victor Vasarely and Piet Mondrian. The Pope of Abstraction never wavered from her initial investment in optical and abstract art. “Beauty is a battle,” states the short text on her gallery’s home page, “and only [René’s] eye and defiance enabled her to establish major trends in contemporary art, as with geometric abstraction and kinematic art, and to launch multiple great artists of the 20th century.”
Driven by secret and not-so-secret relationships, the art world runs on personal relationships. An encounter between Vasarely and René at the Café de Flore in 1939 led to the opening of her gallery six years later, on the heels of the liberation of Paris. Her inaugural exhibition “Drawings and Compositions by Victor Vasarely” met with success in the post-war city, its newness matching the post-war environment of rebirth. The Vasarely originals and Vasarely multiples were like nothing that had been seen before.
“Le Mouvement,” the gallery’s 1955 exhibition of kinetic art, broke further ground. Convinced that in order to exist, art must take new forms, René threw her weight behind risky choices. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, she continued showing Vasarely paintings and Vasarely sculptures, bolstering the Hungarian artist’s career. Alexander Calder got on her roster with his stabiles and mobiles.
In 2001, the Centre Pompidou celebrated the gallerist’s influence – and daring – with the exhibition “The Intrepid Denise René, A Gallery in the Adventure of Abstract Art, 1944-1978.”
We celebrate René, her three galleries and her decades-long career in a field dominated by men. The imbalance on the dealer side has shifted but remains. As of April, thirty percent of the galleries in New York’s Lower East Side were owned by women. Five years ago, that number hovered at four percent. Laurel Gitlen, Lisa Cooley and Rachel Uffner are a few of the names hanging outside the door these days.
Women artists are not faring as well; the National Museum of Women in the Arts estimates that women have made approximately five percent of the art on display in the United States.
Sharing clients and advice, forging personal relationships, these things still oil the art machine. A century ago, when René was born, Fauvists outraged critics with canvases of riotous color and Cubists deconstructed the world. Today, with sharks floating in formaldehyde in the Tate Modern, the possibility of identifying a cohesive movement has all but gone out the window.
The need for more women pioneers like Denise René is the elephant, and that elephant is still in the room.