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Walter Moos opened his first art gallery in Yorkville in May, 1959.
Walter Moos opened his first art gallery in Yorkville in May, 1959.

Obituary

Art dealer Walter Moos, ‘The father of Yorkville’ Add to ...

Mr. Moos spent the next five or six years in Switzerland under the care of his prosperous relatives, tutored, he liked to tell his sons, by “the same tutor to the King of Siam and the Rothschilds.” At war’s end, he attended the École Supérieure de Commerce in Geneva (where, Michel Moos believes, he picked up the English he would later use with such fluency).

At 22, he immigrated to the United States, only to end up being drafted into the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division upon his arrival. After two years of service, during which he attained the rank of sergeant major, Mr. Moos received an honourable discharge. He then made his way to New York to spend the next 12 years working at the New American Library, the U.S. publisher of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

When he wasn’t working, Mr. Moos was immersing himself in the vibrant New York art scene. By the mid-fifties, he was especially close to Martha Jackson, whose gallery was one of the city’s most sophisticated, with a diverse roster of artists that included, at one time or another, Karel Appel, Antoni Tapies, Francis Bacon, Lee Krasner, John Chamberlain, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Marisol, Lester Johnson and Morris Louis.

Eventually, Mr. Moos hit upon the idea of starting his own modern-art space in Manhattan. But then, during a holiday visit to his older brother, Henry, a Toronto travel agent, someone challenged him to open a showcase in the Ontario capital. “New York already has a lot of galleries,” he was told. “We need more art galleries here.”

Intrigued, Mr. Moos scouted what he would later call “this visually challenged city” to see if this was true and discovered it was – more or less. (The Carmen Lamanna Gallery, for instance, was still seven years from opening. Avrom Isaacs had opened the Greenwich, later Isaacs Gallery, in 1955 and by the early sixties it was the premier venue for cutting-edge Canadian creators Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland, Graham Coughtry, Dennis Burton and Mark Prent, among others.)

Drawing on his family connections with the European art world – Uncle Max had been Picasso’s primary dealer in Switzerland – and his friendship with Martha Jackson, Mr. Moos was able to make an impressive bow at his Avenue Road and Davenport locale. But it wasn’t just the art that was the draw – it was Mr. Moos’s attentiveness, his enthusiasm and politesse, including his penchant for lightly kissing the proffered hands of his female patrons upon introduction. Another gesture that became a signature of sorts was a loose military salute, done with his left hand positioned at eye level, the baby finger raised as one does when sipping a cup of tea in proper company.

One week after the opening, the prominent financier and arts patron Samuel Zacks came into the shop accompanied by a 25-year-old Romanian-born sculptor named Sorel Etrog, whose work Mr. Zacks liked. Mr. Moos and Mr. Etrog made an instant connection. “He was very European like me, yes?” Mr. Etrog, 79, recalled recently. “He was courtly, easily involved in the dialogue.” He was also “a great joke teller; he would change his entire physiognomy as he did so, like an actor putting on a show.”

In short order, Mr. Moos was hosting an exhibition of Mr. Etrog’s wood constructions, thereby initiating a partnership that would endure into the spring of 2013, when the now-famous abstracted figurative sculptor and his dealer met at the Art Gallery of Ontario for the opening of a five-month Etrog retrospective.

Mr. Moos stayed in his debut location for almost two-and-a-half years before seeking larger quarters a few blocks to the south. Newly married to the former Martha Wegmuller, he settled on buying the two halves of a semi-detached house on the north side of Yorkville Avenue. In doing so, he inadvertently became “the father of Yorkville” – or at least the Yorkville that, by the late 1960s, was Canada’s Haight-Ashbury, and then, as Michel Moos puts it, “the equivalent of Rodeo Drive for Toronto.”

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