You might think many things about the spartan box at 481 Commercial, with its odd little clerestory windows, as you scurry by in search of authentic cultural milestones. You might wonder where the Historic District Commission was when we needed it. You might ponder how anyone could see out those windows. You probably wouldn’t think, “Ah, this is one of the most important landmarks of the last golden age of the Provincetown summer art colony, and a vital outpost of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the early 1950s.” But it is. And it was.
Now the Chandler House Gallery, a two-bedroom condominium, this building was constructed 60 years ago as the Kootz Gallery; the Provincetown branch of Samuel M. Kootz’s important and influential gallery at 15 East 57th Street in Manhattan, where the works of Abstract Expressionists (Kootz called them the “Intrasubjectives”) were given a generous home. The New York gallery opened in 1949 with a show that included Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky and Ad Reinhart. That was for starters!
Kootz (1898-1982) was described by Grace Glueck of The New York Times as an “early champion of the Abstract Expressionist school that brought international fame to American painting … an activist and a prophet in its behalf.” Her obituary of Kootz quoted his introduction to “The Intrasubjectives” show of 1949:
The intrasubjective artist invents from personal experience, creates from an internal world rather than an external one. He makes no attempt to chronicle the American scene, exploit momentary political struggles or stimulate nostalgia through familiar objects; he deals instead with inward emotions and experiences.
Kootz was spending the summer in a waterfront cottage owned by the painter Marjorie Windust (1908-1996) and her husband, Nathaniel “Nat” Halper (1907-1983), a Columbia graduate and James Joyce scholar. As Dorothy Gees Seckler recounted in Provincetown Painters (1977), “Halper arranged to build a gallery on their property as part of a real estate exchange.” What resulted was very much the structure one can see today, with the obvious difference that a lovely large-scale jalousie window wall on the west end of the building was eliminated long ago. To judge from an early 1950s photograph in the Archives of American Art, the front entrance is just where it was, and so are the clerestory windows on the east end of the building, which — of course — make perfect sense if what you’re building is an art gallery.
Kootz soon found that his summer gallery was taking too much time away from his writing, Seckler wrote, and so turned it to over to Halper after the 1954 season. Halper’s partner in the new enterprise was John Murray Cuddihy, and so the showcase was known as the H-C Gallery on its opening in 1955. It was renamed the HCE Gallery in 1957, a reference to initials that are found throughout Finnegans Wake: “Here Comes Everybody,” “Howth Castle and Environs,” “hod, cement, and edifice,” “Haround Childeric Eggeberth,” “H. C. Earwicker.” This name was used for the duration of the gallery’s existence, until 1967.
“Here Comes Everybody” might have been the most appropriate designation for a gallery that showed the works of — and this is a really short list — Hofmann, Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, Louise Nevelson, Claes Oldenburg, David Smith, Marsden Hartley, Fritz Bultman, Jack Tworkov, Leo Manso, Nassos Daphnis, Karl Knaths, Philip and Conrad Malicoat, and Anne Brigadier, who lived next door at 479 Commercial. Seckler described HCE as
the showplace for the artist who had arrived. Those who had attracted favorable attention at Gallery 256 or the Sun Gallery might ‘graduate’ to this attractively designed modern gallery. … Its prestigious openings were not to be missed.
The Gallery is one of the six condominium units into which this property was divided, under the name of Chandler House. Another single unit is the Beach House. The Captain’s House is composed of four units, including a penthouse.