Fassbender Folds

The trouble started about a year ago, Ingrid Fassbender says, during the presidential election. Business at her near-west-side gallery fell off a cliff. She needed a partner to help meet expenses. A Berlin dealer was interested, and so was her onetime employer, local gallery owner William van Straaten. Thinking the Germans might be too far away, and excited by the blue-chip printmakers van Straaten would bring, she struck an agreement. They would function as two entities in one space, with van Straaten taking over the smaller of her two galleries. He would remain in Colorado (where he now lives), and Fassbender would handle his Chicago business. “The match of the work was wonderful,” she says. In May, the new name went up on the door. Fassbender Gallery became Fassbender van Straaten.

By July she knew she had made a mistake. Van Straaten terminated the relationship, and Fassbender limped along for the rest of the summer without drawing a salary. September rolled around with a big new worry–she needed surgery. Then came 9/11. That did it, she says; after eight years in business, closing began to look like an option. Fassbender now has a clean bill of health, but her gallery will shut its doors permanently January 5. The 13 Chicagoans she represents (along with 10 Europeans) learned this week they’ll have to find new homes.

Most of her artists–including Vera Klement, Gerda Meyer Bernstein, Barbara Cooper, Linda Horn, Michiko Itatani, and Matt Lamb–have been with her from the beginning or soon after. Fassbender, who got her start working at galleries in California and Chicago, says encouragement from the artists (and financial backing from one) was what gave her the nerve to strike out on her own, renting a 1,600-square-foot space on Sangamon in 1993. It turned out to be good timing: “The bang of the 80s was over, rock bottom had been hit, and the market was just coasting along before it picked up again,” she says. “The gallery immediately got a lot of attention; if it had been a stronger art market, I don’t think that would have happened.”

She had another advantage, one that had been buried. Fassbender’s family had immigrated to Chicago from southern Germany in the early 50s, when she was 12. It was a difficult time to be German in the United States. Her parents, intent on assimilating, shed their European ways as fast as possible and spoke only English. “I lost my accent within two years,” says Fassbender. It wasn’t until 1983, when she was hired as director of the Chicago branch of the German gallery Asperger & Bischoff, that she “got reintroduced to being German,” made a trip back to her childhood hometown, and realized “how much a part of me that was.” When she opened her own gallery, she had a strong roster of German artists–such as Hubertus von der Goltz, Henning Kurschner, and Birgitta Weimer–along with the Chicago group.

Fassbender says she always liked the “outreach” aspects of her work best–exchanges that sent Chicago artists to Europe or Asia, or the gallery’s annual installation shows. “But with the downturn in the market since last November, I’m so stressed out about the income, I’m not doing the things I really enjoy. In this economy, where your concern has to be so commercial, I’d rather be selling shoes.” That doesn’t seem likely: after January she’ll be working on a new sculpture park in Korea and a symposium in Germany.

Robert Henry Adams, 1955-2001

Art dealer Thomas McCormick first met Robert Henry Adams in 1971 in Lakeside, Michigan. “I was 21 and working for a print dealer,” McCormick says. “He must have been 15 or 16. He was this very precocious hippie, bohemian high school kid with a shocking, out-of-control mane of red hair, dealing rare books out of his mom’s garage.” By 1983 Adams had moved on to paintings. A dealer’s dealer, he specialized in Chicago modernists, bringing attention and scholarship to neglected local artists from the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. In 1990 he opened his Webster Street gallery to the public, mounting exhibitions like “Chicago: The Modernist Vision,” and documenting his shows with catalogs that still serve as reference guides for the period. In ’94 he moved Robert Henry Adams Fine Art to River North, opening the new space with “Moholy-Nagy and the New Bauhaus.” He served two terms on the board of the Chicago Art Dealers Association and chaired its ethics committee for the last seven years. “If I had to sum it up,” McCormick says, “I’d say he was the best art dealer I ever knew. He really knew his art history and he had a natural eye to go along with it. And he had balls the size of watermelons. He was very aggressive and followed his hunches. On top of that he had super integrity. That’s a pretty formidable package of attributes. And then he was a really nice guy. A lot of people who are good art dealers are also flawed human beings. He was a gem. And he ran an absolute first-class gallery.” Adams died November 15 at the age of 46, after five years of triumph over cancer. Valerie Carberry, who worked for him, says his gallery will continue to “honor and promote the agenda of Rob Adams.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.