Peter Hay Halpert by Stéphanie de Rougé
Day 15 –
The first thing that charms me about Peter Hay Halpert’s gallery is the intimacy of the space: it’s a cross between a gallery and an apartment, and through the open windows one can hear the sounds of leaves rustling and birds chirping. There’s a small bar, dark red walls, a leather sofa. A warm and welcoming place.
The discussion starts easily – Peter leads the way through his varied adventures (lives?), and I follow, as well as I can. Peter started as a specialist on history of architecture as well as Flemish painting. He then followed a more commercial path for a family business that led him around the world. It wasn’t until the 1980s, thanks to Vanity Fair, that he discovered and fell in love with photography. That’s when he started his collection... Peter is also a curator, writer, professor… His assistant helps illustrate Peter’s story by showing me a photograph here, a book there – what a life!
When the time comes for me to shoot, Peter looks in the mirror and says to me: “You can see why I became a professor of fashion photography at ICP: it’s because of my great sense of style.” He bursts out laughing, and in a glimpse allows me to do the same and runs off to get changed.
The man who comes back into the room is the public version of Peter: the curator, the gallerist, the man of photography. I am happily impressed and also truly happy to have seen Peter au naturel as well. The man knows how to pause, photographing him is a pleasure. He wants a print of my portrait for his collection – I feel blessed.
If I had to sum up this meeting with one word, it’d be HUMOR – Peter is an entertaining man with an extraordinary story, and he knows just how to tell it.
Thank you, Peter.
From the first encounter with photography to the opening of his own gallery…
He studied art history, French architecture, and urbanism at Trinity College and Brown University, after which he went to RISD to work with Frank Robinson, a specialist in 17th-century Flemish painting.
In 1980, he gave up his studies, working for several years in the family business – a commitment that took him around the world for 10 years.
Around the same time, the famous Vanity Fair was revived after being dormant for many decades. The first issue included, among other features, a series of photos by Richard Avedon. At the time Peter was living in Portland, and he quickly became a proud subscriber to the magazine. He would pay particular attention to certain features such as images by Bruce Weber, Annie Lebovitz, Irvin Penn, Herb Ritts. And profiles of photographers such as Joel Peter Witkin and Sally Mann.
In 1986, the Whitney included Bruce Weber’s portraits in its biennial: an entire gallery of them, from the floor to the ceiling. Peter bought the catalogue. He contacted Robert Miller, who represented Bruce, and bought three photographs. He did the same with Adam Fuss, and then with Robert Mapplethorpe…and thus his collection was born.
He then moved to Philadelphia, where he began to curate shows, mostly of photography, and to write as well.
Nearly every week he would enrich his collection with new photographs, by Duane Michaels, Marcus Leatherdale, Tina Barney, David Bailey, Ellen Carey, Neil Winokur, Greg Gorman…
In 1991, he quit the family business and moved to New York to concentrate full time on photography. These were tough times, and money was tight. But, says Peter, this was when he learned the fundamentals of his business: how to discover new talents and nurture their careers, rather than just following a market galloping at an out-of-control pace. Peter Hay Halpert Fine Art was underway.
His best memory as a gallerist…
A conversation with John Richardson, who was writing a biography of Picasso and who told Peter about the last time he had lunch with the artist. Peter decided, at that moment, that he would only represent living artists, ones he could speak to, debate with, and join for meals.
Another conversation with Leo Castelli who came up with a unexpected suggestion: buy prints from the shows that you curate. Certainly not the best way to run a good business but most likely to help build a good collection.
His worst memory as a gallerist…
Not being able to buy Richard Avedon’s three panel portrait of Warhol Factory.
The first photograph he bought for himself? Or one that has a special importance in his life…
“Figure of a Young Man,” from Andy Warhol’s series of stitched photographs. Peter feels a special attachment to this image: there’s a romantic feeling from those post-World War II days that makes him think of his favorite poets of the time. He also likes how, uniquely in Warhol’s oeuvre, these are the only works in which photography is the final art object and not an intermediate stage. And he especially likes how it captures so many of Warhol’s signature techniques: repetition, mechanization, sutures that link different images together…
To acquire the work, he had to make a deal with some gallerist friends and part with three other important works from his collection: La Gare Saint Lazare by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau’s Baiser de l’Hotel de Ville, and Ruth Orkin’s American girl in Italy.
And then he tells me the best story about a phone call he had with his mother just after acquiring the Warhol. You sold the Cartier Bresson to buy something by – what’s his name – Warhol? And him explaining to her that, if his instincts were right, this Warhol guy might turn out to be one of the major artists of all time.
On his bedroom wall…
Mostly paintings and drawings. Also a photograph by Ryan McGinley. I noticed, on the way to the bathroom, a Barbara Kruger piece and a photo by Steichen, from his series on the Navy during the war.
Stéphanie de Rougé
Stéphanie de Rougé