Growing Up With Art is a series of dialogues with people who lived with art in their formative years. Our first guest is Philippa Feigen, daughter of the legendary art dealer and connoisseur Richard L. Feigen (1930-2021). Philippa grew up in a Hans Hollein-designed residence on New York’s Upper East Side, which doubled as an art gallery that housed a collection of paintings by artists as varied as Max Beckmann, Orazio Gentileschi, J.M.W. Turner, Richard Parks Bonington and Fra Angelico. Richard was at the nexus of the art world during his lifetime. Exhibitions at his galleries in Chicago and New York played a key role in advancing the reception of artists like Francis Bacon, Joseph Cornell and Ray Johnson, as well as Old Masters, Surrealism and German Expressionism in America. Memorably, he would bring many of those working in the Old Masters community together every January for both Chinese food and gossip. In this conversation with Nicholas Hall, Philippa speaks candidly about the thrills and demands of her formative experience.
When did you become aware of the presence of art in your life?
I don’t have memories of not being aware of art, but my most conscious memories were of our home at 27 East 79th Street. The front room had Beckmann’s Der Bock on the wall and a giant Dubuffet hanging over the couch. I was always restrained from leaning against or bumping into it. When we moved from that home to 953 Fifth Avenue, there was always art, too; walls were never meant to be left bare. I’m sure, if there was a need for a surface, a ceiling would have sufficed.
Did your father teach you about art history specifically? Not just about the dealing of art, but the art itself? You worked for him briefly as well—could you share what that was like?
I picked it up through stories, through anecdotes, through drama, but my father never sat me down and taught me anything. It was more atmospheric. And he narrated these wonderful and exciting stories he described in his book Tales from The Art Crypt to me on a loop. Working for him was overwhelming. I felt like my whole life led me up to that, but he was a huge personality, and I don’t think there was a lot of space for divergent views or subtlety. It was very hard for me to carve out my own space, because he occupied so much.
What is the role of art in your life today? How do you share the enthusiasm for art that your father imparted?
My childhood made me aware of quality, authenticity, and beauty. So, for better or for worse, I really can’t step away. I’m aware of what we’re looking at on the walls right now, the quality and the beauty, the preciousness of human expression. I know it when I see it, and I appreciate it. My father spent a lot of time tuning my eye and my ear and my perception to what is beautiful.
Concretely, I work with a few institutions on the board level, and the perennial question we ask is how to engage people, especially in this challenging, post-COVID environment. By now, we’re all accustomed to interacting online. So we try to make things as accessible as possible in whatever way people are able and inclined to engage. I think it’s important to understand the historical context, but it’s also important to understand the human context and that art speaks on a level that brings all of us together. It communicates something about the human condition.❖
Listen to the full conversation linked above the video