"Zoë Dusanne: An Art Dealer Who Made a Difference" shines light on a pivotal figure in the Seattle art scene of the mid-20th century.

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‘Zoë Dusanne: An Art Dealer Who Made a Difference’

by Jo Ann Ridley

Fithian Press, 156 pp., $15.95

BOOK REVIEW |

The gallery was long ago razed to make way for I-5. And its owner, Zoë Dusanne, has been dead for almost 40 years.

But Jo Ann Ridley, in her brisk biography of Dusanne (1884-1972), persuasively makes the case that Dusanne is still with us, both in what she did for Pacific Northwest art and in the appreciation for modern art from elsewhere that she fostered in Seattle.

Among the European artists Dusanne exhibited were Jean Arp, Paul Klee, Henri Michaux, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Delaunay and Giorgio de Chirico. Those from the Northwest she championed included Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, Alden Mason, Paul Horiuchi and George Tsutakawa.

Take into consideration that Dusanne did not start collecting art until she was in her 40s and didn’t open her gallery until she was in her 60s, and you have an interesting story. Throw in the fact that she was an African-American who worked for years as a beautician before she ever got started in the art business, and you have a fascinating tale.

Dusanne was born Zola Maie Graves in Kansas in 1884 to parents who were both successful chiropodists. They were also cultured, giving young Zola Maie early exposure to Chicago’s theater scene and Art Institute. By 1912, Zola Maie had married and separated, given birth to a daughter, dropped the “Maie” from her name, shortened “Zola” to “Zoë” and moved to Seattle, where her parents had moved 6 years earlier. The city, Ridley tells us, was then deemed “a shade more hospitable to African Americans than most.” (That didn’t stop Dusanne from sometimes passing for white, claiming Mexican or Peruvian ancestry.)

A second marriage followed in 1919 — and was over by 1923. Daughter Theodosia, an aspiring actress, attended Cornish College of the Arts, and was advised by Nellie Cornish to try New York. Mother and daughter, with a letter of introduction from Mark Tobey (whom they’d met at Cornish), landed in the middle of Greenwich Village, where Zoë may or may not have married a certain Henri Dusanne. (The only evidence that he existed is Zoë’s classy new last name, which she may just have made up.)

The friends that mother and daughter made in New York included Marian Anderson, Peggy Guggenheim and Alexander Calder. It was in New York, too, that Dusanne grew serious about art collecting. When she moved back to Seattle in 1942, she brought her collection — including works by Klee, Arp, de Chirico, Joseph Stella and Fernand Léger — with her.

In Seattle she ran an electrolysis studio at first, but word of her unusual art collection soon spread around town. In 1947, thanks to the interest of Seattle Art Museum director Dr. Richard E. Fuller, an exhibit of 22 paintings from the Zoë Dusanne Collection enjoyed a run at SAM. But Dusanne truly came into her own when, in 1950, in a custom-built house overlooking Lake Union, she opened Seattle’s first contemporary art gallery. Contemporary art shows weren’t unheard of — but a gallery dedicated to living artists was.

Although the Zoë Dusanne Gallery made a big impression on anyone who came into contact with it, it was a continual financial struggle for her. It took time to generate interest in local artists, and there was a discognitive gap regarding what might be for sale in a Seattle contemporary art gallery. As Virginia Wright noted to author Ridley, she and her husband, Bagley, still went on art-acquisition trips to New York after they moved here in 1954 because it didn’t occur to them that “a local gallery would have a Mondrian or a Klee for sale.”

Struggle though it was, it wasn’t the business side of art dealership that did in Zoë Dusanne Gallery but the decision to route I-5 along the lower west side of Capitol Hill. Dusanne’s house, in its path, was condemned. She carried on for a few more years in far less picturesque quarters, but with her health failing, she didn’t last there for long.

Ridley gives a vivid account of Dusanne: her style, her eccentricities, her difficult relations with her daughter, her rumored but unverifiable liaisons with name New York artists. (“As for affairs in Paris,” Ridley quips, “she didn’t go there until she was sixty-nine years old. But Paris is Paris.”)

“Zoë Dusanne: An Art Dealer Who Made a Difference” illuminates a pivotal moment in the history of the Seattle art scene. But it comes to us under sad circumstances. Ridley died shortly before the publication of this lively study.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com