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BY JUDY L. RICHHEIMER | Robert Chisholm, co-owner with husband, Lars Larsson, of the vintage poster gallery Chisholm Larsson (145 Eighth Ave. near W. 17th St.), shrugged off his own generosity. Two patrons wanted to buy postcards — Chisholm Larsson carries small and oversized cards, reproducing some of the gallery’s collection — but one had only a $100 bill, and the other no cash, just plastic. “Take the cards as our gift,” Chisholm said, “and pay it forward. Buy something for a stranger,” he instructed each. Then he noted to this reporter, “Sometimes it’s just more efficient to give away small things rather than take the time and trouble to ring up a sale.”
Chisholm’s attempt to disguise altruism as practicality is undermined by the numerous ways in which the gallery serves the public: It invites browsers to take postcards from a pile clearly marked “Free Stuff.” During street fairs, tables are set up out front, offering more ambitious “free stuff,” such as art books and auction catalogues; and Chisholm Larsson lends posters to libraries and small museums that cannot afford acquisition.
Those openhanded gestures mesh well with the primary product sold at Chisholm Larsson. “We’ve always considered posters a people’s art form,” Chisholm declared. “You can imagine a turn of the century Paris, where these artworks — Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha — would be on constant display, up on the street. They really have been a public, free art form.” And, in fact, as we toured the gallery, it was evident that some early posters were seemingly created to entice the eye rather than to advertise — the visuals so inapposite from the product being sold. There was a poster from 1896 showcasing a lovely lady surrounded by tea roses and wearing a gossamer gown, which barely promoted its sponsor, the Revere Rubber Company. Elsewhere, a 1920s poster pictured two beautifully rendered North African children walking hand in hand, with the simple and discreet caption “Lefèvre-Utile” — a biscuit company.
But the first poster that captured Chisholm’s imagination conveyed a straightforward message. It was a French advertisement from World War I featuring a young soldier, his arm thrust forward, urging us to buy war bonds. Other WW I posters proved equally compelling. “They were dramatic and colorful and heroic and just very artistic,” noted Chisholm, who entered his profession by degrees. In the 1960s he studied English at the University of Virginia and hankered after an artistic life. Initially he wanted to bean artist, but realized, “I had a much better eye than the ability to create. I could see that what I did was not as good as I wanted or expected it to be.” After school, he worked in New York City for the Plaza Gallery, an auction house handling entire estates, “… porcelain, furniture, paintings, prints, rugs; everything,” he remembered. When it was time to strike out on his own, Chisholm might have specialized in any of those objets, but chose posters — for pragmatic as well as aesthetic reasons. “They are easy to transport,” he said. “You can go Europe and come back with 100 posters under your arm.”
Larsson too had a strong early interest in art, but pursued a career in banking. Born and reared in Sweden, he relocated to New York City to establish the first American branch for a major Swedish bank. Larsson met Chisholm 39 years ago in the Village, where they lived just minutes apart. “He was the boy next door,” Chisholm recalled. The couple wed in June of 2016. Chisholm today is in his late 60s and Larsson his early 70s; they are trim and energetic and appear far younger than their respective years.
Larsson became a partner in the gallery in 1993. “It was quite a shift. I was in my early 50s, and it was time to do that change,” he said. Larsson adapted easily, according to his husband, who noted, “Lars had good instincts.” Several years prior, the gallery had settled at its present location, a site that formerly housed La Isla Shoes (throughout the ’70s, the gallery moved from the Upper West Side to the Village and, later, to Soho).
“At that time, as you will remember, they couldn’t give retail spaces away on Eighth Avenue.” Chisholm recalled of their 1989 arrival in Chelsea. “The place had been on the market for nine months at $850 with no takers,” he marveled. In part, the property was chosen for its unusual two-sided window construction. Today, the windows display an ever-changing array of posters drawn from the gallery’s stock.
When Chisholm began dealing in the ’70s, Art Nouveau was in vogue. That trend continued into the ’90s, after Larsson came on board. “About 30 years back,” he recalled, “it was very easy to sell French things, especially in New York City. There was a big demand, whether it was for posters or furniture.” During that period, the couple went to Paris four or five times a year to acquire posters.
Eventually Art Nouveau, with its riot of flowers and curlicues lost cachet, at least for many Chisholm Larsson clients. (But Fillmore West posters and other ’60s psychedelia, clearly inspired by that movement, remained hot sellers.) Collectors began to clamor for cleaner lines and for works of more recent vintage. In a statement guaranteed to depress any Gen X or Baby Boomer, Larsson observed: “Young people will come in and ask for something old. We think that means 1920s or 1930s. Oh, no, they mean 1980s or early 1990s.” But that potential buyer may have to wait:Works from the ’80s or ’90s are sometimes archived for 20 years. “Let them mature, let their time come,” Larsson asserted.
One prominent collector, Angelina Lippert, curator for Poster House — which will be the city’s first poster museum when it opens on W. 23 St. (btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.) in 2019 — extolled the breadth of the Chisholm Larsson collection. “Robert’s and Lars’ gallery occupies a unique space in the field,” Lippert wrote in an email. “Unlike so many poster dealers who focus only on one particular area (Art Nouveau, Art Deco), they showcase a diverse and seldom-seen array of posters from around the globe, from Polish film posters to American turn-of-the-century circus, 1960s protest to contemporary marvels… as such, [they] have a more accessible, interesting, and vibrant collection than pretty much anyone else in town.”
They also, she added, “understand that you shouldn’t have to be a millionaire to buy great art…” Prices for a rare poster at Chisholm Larsson can be as high as $10,000 — but the majority of their 50,000 posters (more, counting duplicates) range from $100 to $1,000.
Household names (that is, if the household happens to enjoy old posters) represented at various times by Chisholm Larsson include Jules Chéret, star of the Art Nouveau period; A.M. Cassandre, known for his monumental Deco stylings of ships and trains; Milton Glaser, an all-around design icon; and Shepard Fairey, whose HOPE poster arguably helped elect President Barack Obama. Often Chisholm Larsson carries works of well-known artists that diverge from our expectations. Currently on view, for example, a poster by Chéret — known for cavorting, lovely young women — depicts an eye-catching, stylized battle scene.
Chisholm’s and Larsson’s wide-ranging taste has paid off by attracting customers from around the world, and the partners have noticed certain national tendencies. According to Larsson, Australians like clean lines and “a little bit of fun,” with Chisholm adding, “and nothing earlier than the 1950s.” Danes, too, crave humor; and, Larsson notes, the Japanese want posters that suggest the spare lines of an Audrey Hepburn silhouette.
Sometime national tastes flip dramatically. “When the Soviet Union broke up in 1989, they were so tired of the propaganda posters that they grew up with, they just dumped them,” Chisholm recalled. The gallery bought hundreds. “People thought that we were crazy. Now we are selling them back to the Russians.”
Serious collectors of posters tend to collect only in that medium. Larsson stated, “I think that you can compare them to people who collect stamps.” And they often collect according to category — aviation is popular — or a specific subject, such as a movie, buying advertisements of the same film as promoted in various countries. Larsson observes, “A lot of time the Italian posters are more sensual and fun. And the actors’ looks change.” Chisholm chimed in, saying, “We’ve seen Italian posters featuring Audrey Hepburn and all of a sudden she’s very zaftig.”
Nearly every poster carried by Chisholm Larsson is original. However, when the real thing is impossible to acquire and the image irresistible, they might relax their standards. One example: a poster showing two wholesome-looking young women standing next to their Harleys, planning a road trip — in 1934. The original is impossible to find. They have equally dim hopes of ever acquiring an original for Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Larsson observed, “A lot of people think that they have an original. You hardly can find that.” Chisholm added, “Not for love or money.”
Artistry might soften a poster’s message, but at the end of the day, messaging defines the medium. So, do Chisholm and Larsson ever deal posters that they find offensive?
“That happens sometimes. We have posters for George Wallace and of course we are not George Wallace fans, and never have been,” Chisholm noted. “But historically they are very interesting. And history should never be obliterated.” A recent controversial poster from Switzerland called for banning mosques in that country; again, the gallery bought the poster, but deplored the message.
The expansive tolerance practiced by Chisholm and Larsson does have its limits. “We bristle when people ask us, ‘What’s a good investment?’ We don’t want anyone to buy anything they don’t like but think is a good investment,” Chisholm professed. And the partners are chagrined by collectors who don’t protect their posters from UV light.
Outside, after the interview, we admire the windows, which generally are curated according to holidays or current affairs. (From time to time, images of British royalty dominate.) Chisholm remarked, “A lot of the things in the windows are unique. The only example we’ve ever seen. So, we want to show them off before they disappear into someone’s home.”
Chisholm described the installation on view in the southern window at the time of our visit, during Pride Month. “Almost every June,” he noted, “we adorn our windows with remembrances of gay culture.” This year’s lead was an advertisement for the 1970 movie “Ann and Eve,” with a lesbian character — a film critic who, unfortunately, is a murderer as well. Also prominent is the poster for the Italian release of “Boys in the Band,”with a title that translates into English as “Party for the Birthday of Dear Friend Harold.” Chisholm drew attention to a poster of Joe Dallesandro in “Flesh,” aka “Andy Warhol’s Flesh,” noting, “We couldn’t resist adding some eye candy.”
Just prior to the gay-themed installation, the window focused on shoes. Why shoes? “Those posters are an homage to the former tenant, La Isla Shoes,” Chisholm explained.
Chisholm Larsson Gallery is located at 145 Eighth Ave., near W. 17th St. For info, visit chisholm-poster.com, call 212-741-1703 or send an email to email@example.com. Also: facebook.com/chisholmlarsson and, on Twitter: @chisholmlarsson.