Lily Downing exhibits her 'stable' of artists in charming country-barn gallery

Lily deJongh Downing insists she is not an art historian.

“No papers,” she says, “no MA, no PhD.” This from someone who owns an art gallery, who is on a first-name basis with many of today’s most prominent artists, someone who has been in the field most of her life. And this from someone whose July exhibition in her gallery in north Stamford showed works by such luminaries as Twachtman, Picasso and Warhol.

Downing is grounded in the art world. Her career blossomed as the art director and exhibition curator for 25 years at New York City’s Gerald Peters Gallery, a prestigious showroom for collectors of predominantly American art. During that time, she curated works by Georgia O’Keefe and Andrew Wyeth. Before that she worked with André Emmerich, an esteemed gallerist in New York City. She herself studied art and at one time thought of becoming a painter.

Downing recaps this brief biography sitting beneath a painting by John Gibson of six red spheres with black dots. Her blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, her face devoid of makeup, she occasionally sips from a cup of coffee that surely gets colder by the minute. She is completely at ease, in her element. She’s in her barn-turned-gallery that has hosted exhibitions since late 2013. Several works of art are still on display from her July show, “Left and Right of Center.” During the opening reception of the exhibition, Downing conducted a gallery talk about how Impressionism led to Modernism which then led to Abstractism.

The barn is part of a triptych on her 1700s/1800s estate: barn, cottage, house. The white walls and beams in the barn set the stage for the display of realiistic and abstract works of art that often hang side by side in her shows. They cover the spectrum, from past masters and living contemporary artists. Because Downing’s shows are often “group affairs,” with many different artists and movements, they attract collectors from Maine and Massachusetts, as well as from New York and Connecticut.

“I want to give people options,” Downing says. “I’m a generalist. I don’t micro focus.”

One can get overwhelmed listening to Downing talk art. She segues from Milton Avery, who painted landscape still life in a “very modern vein,” to Keith Haring, who delves into black-and-white abstractions like the one that reminds her of girls jumping rope, and then to J Henry Fair, an environmental photographer who records “man’s scars on the earth.” She glides into a discussion of the works of Mike Glier, who teaches at Williams and once devoted his artistic output to white male power. He’s now exploring abstract landscapes focused on longitude and latitude, she says. Susan Williams, Downing continues, is a “very cerebral artist. Women love her work and the mood she brings out in her paintings.” Then Max Weber, Gorky, Rothko. This isn’t Art 101; it’s more akin to a master’s in fine arts.

Up a short flight of stairs past a Twachtman to a loft gallery is art of a different sort: a high chest whimsically painted with fish eyes by Heidi Howard. During the July exhibition, Warhol’s “Mao” hung alongside it. Another gallery of sorts is in her office in the next room, where 300 books on artists and art movements sit on low shelves and abstract art conquers the walls.

Downing is fairly private, relying on word of mouth and contacts to attract potential buyers. Her husband, David Yudain, is point person for her, editing her press releases and catalogs and helping with the hanging. When they are not fussing in the gallery, Downing and Yudain can often be found riding — they are long-time equestrians.

Years ago, couples would visit galleries to buy art, Downing reminisces nostalgically. But the scene has changed drastically in the last few years. The American art business “is shot,” she states emphatically, with much of the prewar American art scene aged out and shrunk. And there aren’t many dealers left. Today, contemporary art is “on steroids, yet the business runs in the same vein as it once did — on trust and connections,” she says. “It’s amazing how well that works considering that it is a fairly unregulated enterprise.” Surprisingly, there is little fraud despite the likes of Larry Sandler, who was sentenced to jail for fraud that involved millions of dollars stolen from celebrities such as John McEnroe and Robert De Niro.

“I believe in apprenticeship,” Downing says of her career path. “I learned a ton. I learned my trade from doing and from mistakes and successes.” She has fond memories of her time at Gerald Peters, like the day David Hockney came in. Told that Henri Matisse’s works were at the framers, he asked Downing to take him there. She watched as he sketched while looking at a Matisse piece, fascinated that he never once looked down at his notebook as he penciled away.

“It was just one of those perfect moments that not every art dealer gets to experience,” she says.

That memory triggered another. Earlier in her career Downing chaired a junior benefit at the New York Studio School. She needed something or someone to make the event exciting. On an inspired impulse, she contacted American artist Wayne Thiebaud. After a brief conversation wherein Thiebaud revealed that he had once taught at the school, the artist agreed to let Downing use one of his vivid paintings of women’s high heels on the invitation. She, in turn, invited him to be the program’s honoree. The evening was an instant success.

The next major exhibition at The Barn Gallery is Oct. 18 with an emphasis on Connecticut artists like Childe Hassam and John Henry Twachtman. Visitors will also see works by Horace Wolcott Robbins, a student of Frederic Church, and works by lesser known artists.

“A good dealer is always looking,” Downing says.

Rosemarie T. Anner is a frequent contributor to Hearst Connecticut Media.