Geoff Sifrin

RIP Queen Linda the Only

MOMMY of the South African art world. Linda Givon (left) with Steven Cohen in his work Taste, performed at Wits Art Museum in 2016 at the opening event of an exhibition celebrating Givon’s 80th birthday. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

THE IDEA OF writing a conventional tribute to Linda Givon, the founder of the Goodman Gallery, who died suddenly on 5 October 2020, at 84, seems trite. This is because she was much more than the pedestrian sum of her parts. She was born, educated, married, divorced, widowed. She founded a gallery. She gave magic to the world. And she turned the South African artworld from the 1960s upside down and on its head and gave professional international relevance to significant South African artists, the likes of whose work had never been seen before.

In 2011, she told art critic Wilhelm van Rensburg that she was not interested in writing a conventional autobiography. She wanted to pen something you could “open at any page and find something interesting to read.”

Her life was arguably like that: Known variously as Madam Art, Queen Linda the Only, Glinda, the good witch of the South and Queen Asteroa, Givon was the Goodman Gallery, for many years South Africa’s only commercial gallery dealing in serious contemporary art, which had the world’s attention.

Art in South Africa before the Goodman – with the exception of Irma Stern and a couple of others – was generally parochial, pretty and safe. It toed the party line and predominantly comprising landscapes and still lifes, did not upset the hearts (or stomachs) of its audiences. Operating as though apartheid didn’t exist, Givon was the energy behind undermining the racist regime’s strangle hold in getting black and white South African artists with the confrontational energy and skill, the acclaim they warranted.

Stating her perceived need to “keep the heart of art pumping”, to Business Arts South Africa in 2019, when she was acknowledged by that organisation as the Arts Champion, Givon was flamboyant and understated, generous and direct.

She founded South Africa’s iconic Goodman Gallery in 1966. The society’s values of the time were blurred with racism and Givon, fearless in her self-belief, gave professional galleristic prominence to artists of the ilk of Dumile Feni, Ezrom Legae, Durant Sihlali, Johannes Segogela, Willie Bester … and the list goes on. These were individuals with voices that were fresh and fierce, unique and unapologetic.

It was not only galleristic prominence that Givon presented for her ‘stable’ of artists: it was a career that cocked a snoot at the cliché of talented artists dying unknown in their ateliers. And this was long before it was either fashionable or permissible for black artists to show their work in a world designated ‘white’ by the apartheid regime. Indeed, the story of exhibiting artists masquerading as waiters at Goodman’s exhibition openings, in case of intrusion by security police, is legendary.

The seeds for Givon’s career were sown when she was a child. Her fascination for everything to do with outer space matured into the more pragmatic idea of gallery space and its complicated currency on the walls of a black box (her Hyde Park gallery) or a white box (her Jan Smuts Avenue gallery), according to the dictates of exhibiting fashion.

Born on 2 August 1936, to self-made entrepreneur Morris Finger and his wife Hetty, who had immigrated to South Africa from Eastern Europe, she read for a BA at Wits University, before swanning off to London, where she studied drama and was interned professionally at the Grosvenor Gallery, under its American founder Eric Estorick.

Givon grew into one of South African art’s most powerful gatekeepers, alongside the ilk of the Johannesburg Art Foundation’s Bill Ainslie, and Wits University’s Alan Crump. She was the “turnstile” though which an artist had to go, in order to become taken seriously. Like American socialite Peggy Guggenheim or Denise René, Parisian art’s grand dame during the 1950s, Givon made artists. She lived in the cut and thrust of an artworld which found its feet and relevance in a country dragged down by apartheid.

She was just 30 when she launched her storefront gallery space in Hyde Park: it was a venue which grew organically as adjacent premises in the strip of shops became available. Thirty years later, the gallery reinvented itself in the white, showy landmark that sits in the heart of the Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank. In 2008, she sold the space – and its brand – at an enormous price, to Liza Essers, a financial-consultant-turned-art-entrepreneur.

Known for her immense generosity and wisdom, Givon was no walkover. Indeed, she was often terrifying, knowing her own value and understanding the hush her presence gave to many a journalist or cub art critic. But her South African visual art savvy reflected deeply on her awareness of not only art, but also of how society turned. She was critical of other commercial galleries in the city, which habitually “lauded artists who made pretty scenes of the townships, so that the white elite who bought these works could believe they were doing their bit for the blacks but were just living with pretty pictures.” Respected as the first – and for many years, the only gallerist to really be dealing in contemporary South African art, she decided to focus on artists with fire in their bellies. This included SA’s superstar artist William Kentridge, as well as Walter Battiss and Norman Catherine, who invented Fook Island and deemed Givon its queen.

It also included performance artist Steven Cohen, who first showed at the Goodman in 1999 in ‘Nobody loves a Fairy when she’s 40’. Exhibiting with Peet Pienaar in a controversial work about circumcision, Cohen opened the show with a performance which found him naked and in the window overlooking Jan Smuts Avenue. Givon told van Rensburg how the sex workers across the road exposed themselves and called to the two artists “Look! We also got them!” Cohen, who currently lives in France and has often described how that exhibition was pivotal to giving him the courage to develop his extreme repertoire, commented that he was “gutted” at the news of Givon’s death and that her absence feels like the erasure of 40 years of artmaking.

In 1999, Cape Town-based artist and writer Sue Williamson – also a Goodman Gallery artist – wrote of the impossibility of imagining what the South African art scene in the absence of the Goodman would be. The gallery still exists, but the understanding that Givon doesn’t, any longer, feels catastrophic. And while there are other gallerists all over the country, the artworld feels orphaned. Tracey Rose another of the Goodman’s significant artists commented: “Linda was the womb of contemporary South African art. Without her presence, this present would have been unimaginable.”

Much more than a sedate queen of art, sitting in her plush and art-filled office, Givon never restricted herself to those laurels. Over the years she stood on toes, banged on authoritarian doors, curated, thought and fought in her quest to develop the art world itself. Her generosity with her time, her money and her art were legendary, but not indiscriminate. She donated art to institutions around the country, was often an anonymous donor of cash to art-worthy causes and hers was a significant voice in community art centres.

Privately, Givon was a quietly spoken person with simple tastes and deep loves. Professionally, she was a tiger. She leaves her brother Michael, her daughter Lee and her son Robert and their families, as well as literally thousands of artists, investors, colleagues and gallery visitors utterly bereft.

A version of this tribute was published by New Frame.

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