Franz Bader, 82, seemed more worried than usual this week as he looked out the window of his busy new gallery and bookshop at 1701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, just a stone's throw from the Renwick. Saying he felt like the long-gone founder of a big corporation, he pointed wistfully to the large "Franz Bader" sign installed over the door. "My name is here, but I'm gone," he said.
Not true, of course. But it is true that at the end of this month, when his annual Christmas show of works by gallery artists closes, the Austrian-born bookseller and art dealer will officially retire, leaving one of Washington's most beloved and enduring institutions -- the 33-year-old Franz Bader Gallery and Bookshop -- in the hands of others.
"I'm not worried," said Bader, though his furrowed face and deeply circled eyes make clear how anxious he is about the absence of day-to-day anxiety after 65 years in a tough business.
But if he is uncertain about himself, he has assured the future of the Franz Bader Gallery and Bookshop, and he's happy about that. Earlier this year, faced with having to change locations for the fourth time, Bader sold the gallery to former private dealer Wretha Hanson, who has been gradually taking over full responsibility. He also has transferred separate ownership of the bookshop to the gracious Sabine Yanul, who has presided over that part of the operation for 20 years.
Under Hanson's direction -- and with the design help of Washington architects Cass & Pinnell -- the Franz Bader Gallery and Bookshop reopened this fall in its largest, handsomest space to date.
Much has been gained in the airy new space, including two separate galleries (one 18 feet tall) designed for showing large sculpture as well as paintings and prints. Sculpture is something Hanson plans to do more with, starting next year when she will introduce a new group of gallery sculptors, among them Jennie Lea Knight, V.V. Rankine, Walter Kravitz and John D. Antone. Many gallery artists will remain, including Peter Milton and Robert Marx, the latter of whom will open the new season in January.
Part of the fallout of the design is the pleasant sense of several things going on at once -- a very different feeling from the high-church silence and off-putting emptiness of most galleries. Here, the flowing space encompasses not only the Bader Gallery, but an entirely new gallery as well -- the Anne O'Brien Gallery, which has been rather ingeniously carved out of space on the adjoining mezzanine level. Though hers is an entirely separate enterprise devoted to contemporary art glass, O'Brien's gallery adds to the sense of community here, as well as to our knowledge of what's going on in leading glass studios around the country.
The current show at Anne O'Brien -- the third of three strong shows there this fall -- features a lively pair of artists from Rhode Island: James Watkins and Elizabeth Jane Pannell. Watkins makes mold-formed still-life sculptures from ground, fused glass, the best of which look like bottles straight out of a painting by Giorgio Morandi. Pannell makes more traditional plates and bowls and plaques, which she decorates with casual figures of chums who sit around in the landscape, or swim, or hug. She creates her little scenes not with paint, but with colored glass chips, applying them to a small lump, or "gather," of glass on the end of a blowpipe before blowing and spinning the piece into its final form and distorting the images. The results are intriguing.
If much has changed at the new Bader, the best news is that much has also stayed the same, including the stacks of shrink-wrapped, inexpensive prints and drawings (many of which happen to be more interesting than much of what's on the walls at the moment). Most importantly, the best art bookshop in town is still there, tucked neatly into a low-ceilinged area behind the gallery, and it retains all the intimacy and charm of its earlier incarnations.
Always in tune with what's going on in the art world here, Bader Bookshop has readily at hand or can quickly get every art or photography book or catalogue anyone might want or need. Earlier this week, the bookshop appropriately celebrated the publication of another bit of Washington art history -- "Marjorie Phillips and Her Paintings," a charming memoir, with many illustrations, about the life and still not fully appreciated art of the cofounder of the Phillips Collection, written just before her death this year at 90.
Bader has no plans to write a book. But to wean himself from the gallery, he plans to pursue three other great passions: his own photography, his study of the 16th century ("it's a fantastic century") and travel with his wife. "In January, we're going to Sanibel [Fla.]. And in March we're going to Italy, where we may get lost. That's a luxury I've never had."