I knew the day would come when Gertrude Kasle was no longer a phone call away. My gracious, spirited friend died last month at 98.
I knew Gertrude on several levels. As the glamorous mother of one of Burton’s best friends, Roger. As a dealer who brought cutting edge artists to Detroit and showed patience and joy discussing their work. As a host of somehow casual but sophisticated dinner parties in a home improbably mixing contemporary paintings with Victorian furniture. And as a dear friend, ready with an eager hug and wise advice.
My love for art blossomed at Gertrude’s gallery in the iconic Fisher Building. In the late 1960s, I was a correspondent for Fairchild Publications (Women’s Wear Daily, Home Furnishings Daily, etc.). Our offices were in the New Center Building (now the Albert Kahn building) kiddie korner across the street. I spent many lunch hours admiring or puzzling over work by Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Philip Guston and Larry Rivers at the gallery tucked into a corner of the mezzanine.
Gertrude taught me about Abstract Expressionism and how it developed in New York out of the horrors of World War II. How it was the first American art movement to gain international influence and turned the epicenter of the art world from Paris to New York. It represented “the free expression of a free society,” she said, unlike that permitted by totalitarian regimes. Gertrude talked of her friendship with Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock’s wife, and legendary NY art dealer Betty Parsons. Clients and friends included U of M professor and art collector Herbert Barrows and renowned poet John Ciardi.
Gertrude also showed Detroit artists she believed in, including the late Al Loving. Brenda Goodman and Michele Oka Doner have both since developed significant careers in New York. In 1973, Gertrude saw Brenda’s first one-person show at Detroit’s first alternative space, the Willis Gallery. She invited her to exhibit in the Gertrude Kasle Gallery. “That was one of my proudest moments,” Brenda says.
For a show of Pop artist Jim Dine, Gertrude hung a print in a glass case in the Fisher Building lobby. I walked by “13 Hearts” often, delighted by the imaginatively rendered hearts. During that period, I became a columnist with The Detroit News. I celebrated my new position, and $60 a week raise, with the purchase of “13 Hearts.” Gertrude let me pay it off in installments, as she did with many young and broke collectors.
One of Gertrude’s gallery assistants was my friend Marsha Miro, who became an astute critic and author. Another gallery assistant, for a brief period, I’m proud to say was my mom, Barbara Handel.
In the 1970s, Meadowbrook Gallery at Oakland University mounted a show of paintings from the Kasles’ collection. In Gertrude’s introduction to the show, she wrote, “The ability to make progress separates us from animals and is to be rewarded, encouraged and cherished.“
Gertrude’s late husband Leonard ran Kasle Steel in Detroit. He served on the Detroit Board of Education in the 1950s and was its first Jewish president—a big deal in those anti-Semitic days. Leonard was dashing and flirtatious. “Men will be men,” Gertrude said. “I was still Mrs. Leonard Kasle.”
Reading my memoir about surviving a marriage crisis, Gertrude hand-wrote me a 2-page letter about how she’d enjoyed it. And how glad she was, for the sake of our family, that we’d come through it.
Often the art Gertrude showed was so foreign to Detroiters that she didn’t sell anything from her frequent shows. Years later, I asked how she convinced so many artists to let her show their work. She made them a promise, she said. She’d sell at least one piece from every show. Often she did only sell one piece—to herself. In the future, many of the artists she showed soared in popularity. As Gertrude aged, she sold some of those works at wildly escalated prices.
Son Stephen says his mother viewed having openings and selling art as a way to educate the public and broaden the cultural base of society. His mom admitted it was “hard” for her to accept money for art. “Her great pleasure came from sending checks to the artists.”
Because Gertrude spent her later years in Sarasota, FL, I’d see her at least once a season. She remained young at heart. She moved to a new apartment, delighted with a small balcony overlooking the bay and a sleek open kitchen her daughter Barbara created from Ikea. Still a beauty, she appeared in a local ad for a cosmetic dentist. Burton and I spent time with her beau Bib, who shared her affection for the Democratic Party. She told me about her first date with her most recent sweetheart, a few years older than she. They met for tea at the Ritz Carlton, accompanied by their aides.
In her 90s, Gertrude grew increasingly short of breath. She underwent 2 open heart surgeries. Both times she told her doctor, “If I die on the operating table, it will be okay. I’ve had a wonderful life.” I asked how she coped with the losses involved in growing old. She said, “I focus on what I can do, not on what I can’t.” It’s become my mantra.
4 years ago, after lunch together, Gertrude and I went up to her apartment. We passed the large Jane Hammond print in her foyer and settled in on her sofa. She brought out a couple of albums she’d put together. They included newspaper reviews and invitations she’d created for gallery shows—stunning graphics, all different, reflecting the artist featured. I was entranced. When a storm threatened and the sky outside began to darken, I dragged myself away.
The next year over lunch, I asked to come upstairs and look at those albums again. They were gone, she said. In typical realistic fashion, to avoid creating problems for her offspring she’d donated them to the Archives of American Art. I regretted not having stayed longer the year before. But Gertrude taught, and exemplified, gratitude. I’m grateful I saw them when I did, with my still vibrant friend at my side.
Two days before Gertrude died, her oldest son Roger and wife Lisa were at her bedside. Roger was dyslexic as a child. His mother thought it would help him to memorize poetry. She spent hours reading to him. He memorized passages from “Invictus” and “Leaves of Grass.” On his last visit, Roger said to her, “I’m going to read you some of the poetry you read to me as a child.” His mother “smiled from ear to ear.” Gertrude particularly loved Edna St. Vincent Millay.
As Roger recited, “The world stands out on either side/ No wider than the heart is wide,” his weakened mother whispered the words along with him.
The Gertrude Kasle Gallery lasted 11 years and inspired many Detroit collectors. Gertrude’s spirit is eternal. Rest in peace, my wide-hearted friend.