Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Setting up a show of pre-Columbian art at the Esther Robles Gallery
A Brief History of the Esther Robles Gallery in LA
by Jaime Robles
Three years ago my ninety-five year-old uncle Bob, diagnosed with heart disease, began to write his memoirs. He asked me for help with the writing, and I agreed. As a child I had found him and his wife Esther to be the pinnacle of glamor and sophistication. At that time they ran one of Los Angeles’ premier art galleries and they were instrumental in the development of the art scene in Los Angeles during the 1950s and ’60s.
Los Angeles with its wide-open spaces, vast skies and sunny weather attracted the early innovators of the movies, that industry of illusion and metaphor dressed as reality. Movies were and are at heart an art form, and LA was built on the imaginative drive that forms art. Freeways are its language, the extensive pathways of concrete that lead to places other than home. But it took decades before visual art became a force, settling in the bones of the culture. In the 1950s Esther was one of those pushing to make art a thing in Los Angeles. Ahead of her time, she was committed to showing West Coast artists and women artists, though later they would expand the gallery’s artist to include European artists, among them Karel Appel.
In 1946 my then twenty-four year-old uncle was back from the war, and, agreeing with Gertrude Stein, that there was no there in Oakland, he headed south. In LA Bob found a job at a plastics firm downtown, and rented a room in a house nearby. Needing a break one Saturday, he went to a nightclub on wide central Wilshire Blvd, and there he met Esther Stoefen.
Robert Holtz Robles was born in Oakland, the third son and youngest child of five. His father, Max, had emigrated from Mexico decades earlier when California had been part of the United States for only a few decades, its borders fluid to nonexistent. His mother, Bessie, born in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, was the daughter of German–Irish immigrants. Her autocratic father made considerable money in the gold and silver mines of Mexico, and eventually he moved to San Francisco with his three daughters. According to my father, “he hated Mexicans” and he disinherited Bessie when she married Max. While Max was a charmer he wasn’t much of a provider, and by the time he was 11, my uncle Bob was an orphan, his brothers struggling to support themselves, his sisters packed off to Bessie’s sisters.
Esther, whose maiden name was Waggoner, was a young woman from conservative Midwestern stock. She once sang me a fragment of a Women’s Christian Temperance Union song, which she said some of her relatives (aunts, maybe) had sung. I was charmed but also slightly taken aback, I remembered their gallery openings as vibrant, chatty events, with a full bar and flowing alcohol. Once, at the end of an event celebrating the sculptor Claire Falkenstein, a group of us drove out to a huge fountain she had created in front of the Federal Savings on Wilshire. Claire christened the fountain by smashing a bottle of champagne over the twisting copper forms with their embedded blobs of colorful melted glass.
Claire Falkenstein, “Corona (Fusion),” 1971, brazed copper and fused glass. (Pasadena Museum of California Art)
Esther had a flare for the glamorous, as a young woman she had wanted to go into theater and films but was repelled by the casting couch policies of Hollywood. She was tall, dark-haired with high cheekbones, and tilted eyes. Bob was dark-haired, thin, and movie-star handsome.
Esther was in the midst of a divorce at the time they met, and was running the framing business she had begun with her husband. Located on La Cienega Boulevard in the midst of what would become LA’s gallery row, the frame shop would morph under the influence of Esther ambition and Bob’s steadfast commitment. In the years from 1947 to 1956 it would change its name from Stoefen Picture Frames to Esther’s Alley Gallery–Stoefen Picture Frames to Stoefen–Robles Ltd. to Esther’s Alley Gallery to, finally, Esther Robles Gallery. My father, who worked as the display director for a chain of men’s clothing stores, gave them a set of wrought-iron gates for the front of the alley that led to their gallery. Those gates later migrated to their home in Brentwood, but remained throughout their career a part of the gallery’s logo, stylized as three upward-pointing arrows between Esther’s initial ER.
While Esther provided the public face of the gallery, guiding its aesthetics and ideology, and providing the artists with appreciation and nurturing, my uncle provided the stable underpinnings, dealing with the physical space of the gallery as it increased and shifted, hanging shows, and maintaining the archival materials.
The gallery’s early collectors came out of old Hollywood: Fanny Brice, the comedienne who was the subject of Streisand’s Funny Girl and whose son, William, was to become a respected artist; Joseph Cotten, whose collection of circus posters and memorabilia they were to sell at Esther’s Alley Gallery; Sterling Holloway, who did voice-over for Disney including Sleepy, the Cheshire Cat, and Winnie the Pooh, would gallery sit for them when they travelled to Europe. A host of others, some from the silents like Mary Pickford, would sail through their doors. Some were less than savory.
In the late 40s they were invited to view a property in Beverly Hills as a possible investment by
former silent film stars Kay English and Norman Kerry. Waiting at the house for them was Prince David Mdvani, part of the bankrupt Georgian aristocracy that fled when the Soviets invaded after WW2. His violent marriages had made ongoing news in the tabloids. The venture suddenly seemed shady: “The house on this cul-de-sac in Beverly Hills had been recently owned by singer-actor Mario Lanza. Hailed as the next Caruso, Lanza was an unstable man. He had gone on drunken rampages in this once luxurious house. We were given a tour of the house, room by room, and there were large splotches of red wine, broken glasses and all, that had been thrown against the walls in certain rooms. Carpets were stained with red wine and doors had been broken off their hinges through sheer brute force. All evidence of a guy losing it.”
The art world itself had its own dark side. In 1962, the gallery was shocked that the auction house failed to bring in the expected price on a Modigliani from the Alden Brooks collection. The painting had auctioned at Sotheby’s for a few hundred over $67,000. My uncle explains, “A telephone call, some months later, from an unknown woman who would not divulge her name informed us that a trio of dealers had made a deal with auctioneer Peter Wilson to knock down “Garçon Rouge” at the Reserve Price and thereby stop any further bidding. The informer was explicit about what occurred and went on to say that the painting was very soon sold to a collector for $150,000 and that the collector had been given a written appraisal for donation to the Guggenheim Museum for $300,000.”
In 1962 Bob and Esther, who had lived in an apartment over the gallery divided into three different exhibition spaces, would buy a home in Brentwood on San Vicente Blvd. There they filled the house with artwork, the outside large garden with orchard became a sculpture garden. I remember going to visit and being filled with wonder at art I had only seen in books: a small Modigliani on the wall and a portfolio of Goya’s etchings, Los desastres de la guerra, on the coffee table. A huge figurative laminated-wood sculpture by Robert Cremean dominated the middle of the living room. It was to this art-emblazoned home that they would bring their serious collectors for drinks, snacks and to talk art sales.
The most recent chapters of Bob’s memoir include Esther’s diary entries for the year of 1963, when Claire Falkenstein was living in their cottage, working on a fountain that they had commissioned for the pool in their garden. There is a homeliness to the entries. Esther’s entry of Thursday, 31 January, 1963, reads, “Many dinner & drinks at home, clam dips, potato chips, celery, olives, nuts, cheese puffs. Martha Jackson, Hultbergs, Billy Al Bengston, Florence Downing – steaks, potatoes, sour cream & chives, salad and pumpkin pie, lots of red wine, drinks after dinner. Very late to bed. Bill's Market $18.77.” Three days later on February 3, however, this telegram arrived:
= PAY BALANCE OF 1962 RENT OBLIGATION OR CONSIDER THIS A THREE DAY NOTICE TO VACATE= WITHERBEE
In truth, despite the glamor and high-fliers, they were often struggling financially. And reading through Bob’s memoir I’ve come to understand thoroughly that they never had the cunning or ruthlessness that characterizes many of our more prominent art dealers. They had only taste, energy, and a desire to validate the West Coast as a center of art in America.
I was working at the abstract-expressionist Sam Francis’ studio, The Litho Shop, in the late 1980s, when Sam invited us to the three-day opening of Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art. Black-market tickets for the first opening night sold for $500 and one of the printers at the studio made his own tickets, rolling out the hot pink ink onto card stock to insure his friends could attend. The opening was opulent, with food and drink in massive display, along with most of America’s top artists kitted out in their own style of formal drag. The dream of Esther Robles Gallery was realized: fine arts in LA had come into its own.
Quotations are from R. H. Robles’ work-in-progress memoir, History of an LA Art Gallery.
The back of a canvas by Karl Benjamin, showing the gallery’s logo.