Art dealer and publisher; credited with launching the late art career of Grandma Moses and popularizing the work of Austrian and German artists, including Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, in the United States. Kallir was born in Vienna, Austria to parents Jacob Nirenstein, a lawyer, and Clare Engel. He was born as Otto Nirenstein. He received his Abitur in 1912 from Akademisches Gymnasium. Until 1914, Kallir was an apprentice at a lithographic institute, and also engaged in drawing and painting lessons during this time. From 1912 to 1914, and 1918 to 1920, Kallir studied engineering at Ingenieurwissenschaft in Vienna, but left the program before obtaining his diploma due to anti-semetic attitudes within the institution.
Upon leaving Ingenieurwissenschaft, Kallir pursued his lifelong interest in art. In 1919, he founded Neuer Graphik publishing house, printing the work of famous Austrian artists, including Johannes Itten and Egon Schiele, the latter recently deceased. In 1921, Neuer Graphik was acquired by Rikola Verlag, a larger publishing group, where Kallir began to work as Head of the Art Department in the same year. During this time period, Kallir also worked at the gallery Würthle & Sohn in Vienna, where he became accustomed to gallery business. In 1922, Kallir married his lifelong partner, a noble, Franziska (Fanny) Gräfin zu Löwenstein-Scharffeneck (1899-1992).
In 1923, Kallir ended his time at both Rikola Verlag and Würthle & Sohn to open his own gallery, called the Neue Galerie, which he ran until 1938. Neue Galerie specialized in contemporary Expressionist and Classic Modernist artists, including Van Gogh, Munch, and Signac, and was closely tied to the contemporary Viennese art scene of interwar Austria. During his time at the gallery, Kallir notably organized the first major exhibition of Schiele’s work in Europe. At Neue Gallery, Kallir worked with renowned scholars, including Otto Benesch, Alfred Stix, and Hans Tietze, to create scholarly exhibition catalogues. In 1924, Kallir returned to his interest in publishing and founded Johannes-Presse, which published original prints of contemporary artists, like Max Beckmann, and bibliophilic editions of works, including those of Thomas Mann.
Kallir returned to school in 1927, studying art history under Julius Schlosser, leader of the so-called Vienna School of art history. In 1930, Kallir published a catalogue raisonne of Schiele’s works, titled Egon Schiele: Persönlichkeit und Werk (Egon Schiele: Personality and Work). The publication is renowned for documenting many of Schiele’s work lost in World War II, and served as the foundation for later Schiele research projects. A year later, Kallir completed his PhD in Art History under Schlosser, finishing his dissertation on Beiträge zur Vischerforschung. In 1931, Kallir discovered the estate and collection of late artist Richard Gerstl, and secured his legacy by displaying his works at the Neue Galerie. Kallir similarly rescued the estate of the late Peter Altenberg, creating a permanent room at the Neue Galerie with his collection. Expanding his influence in the art scene of Vienna, Kallir became the Executive Vice President of the Hagenbund, a group of Viennese Secessionist and Expressionist painters, in 1931.
In response to Anschluss, Kallir legally changed his name to Kallir-Nirenstein, a family name, in 1933. He fled Austria in 1938 with the help of Otto Demus, in order to avoid immigrant arrest, and thereby freeing him to emigrate out of Europe. While in Paris, Kallir founded Galerie St. Etienne in 1938. Upon leaving France for the US in 1939, Kallir relocated Galerie St. Etienne to New York City, and served as the owner until his death. Because modernist Austrian work was so little valued (and considered degenerate by the Nazis), Kallir was able to take a considerable number of works with him. Galerie St. Etienne specialized in the work of Austrian and German expressionists, as well as American “Outsider” painters. Through his work at the gallery and more broadly in the US, Kallir built up American appreciation for Austrian and German art work, especially that of Schiele. From 1939 to 1941, Kallir served as Chairman of the conservative Austrian-American League and as a member of the Austrian Committee.
Through his exploration of “outsider” artwork, Kallir discovered and launched the career of artist Grandma Moses in 1940. In the same year, Kallir, using the Galerie St. Etienne, organized her first solo show. In 1942, Kallir refounded the Johannes Press in New York City, publishing works of many artists he represented. Kallir was the subject of an erroneous accusation by a jealous political rival, Wilhelm (“Willibald”) Plöchl (1907-1984), involving an FBI investigation, who after a time, exonerated him. As the sole representative and Chairman for Grandma Moses Properties Inc from 1950 until his death, Kallir’s relationship with Grandma Moses proved to be one of his greatest successes. Kallir published Grandma Moses: American primitive in 1947, and also was an editor for her autobiography My Life’s History (1952).
In 1960, Kallir helped organize the first American museum exhibition of Schiele’s work, which traveled to six different museums. In 1965, Kallir organized a large Klimt-Schiele exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Once more with Otto Benesch, and Thomas Messer, Kallir also created Egon Schiele: Oeuvre catalogue of the paintings in 1966. In 1973, he published Grandma Moses’ Catalogue Raisonne, Grandma Moses. Kallir continued his work at Galerie Etienne and with Grandma Moses until his death in November 30th, 1978 in New York City. Some of his most notable awards include the Grand Medal of Honor of the Republic of Austria, and the Silver Medal of Honor of the City of Vienna.
Kallir almost single-handedly launched the artistic profile of the Austrian expressionists in the United States. A modernist devotee, he published their work in English and sold examples to American museums and collectors. His daughter, Jane Kallir (b. 1954), assumed the business and further published scholarly works on these artists. When the cosmetic magnate Ronald S. Lauder launched his 2001 museum of Austrian Expressionist art in New York, he named it the “Neue Galerie” in honor of Kallir’s work.
- [dissertation:] Beiträge zur Vischerforschung, University of Vienna, 1931;
- Egon Schiele. Persönlichkeit und Werk. Vienna, 1930;
- Grandma Moses: American primitive. New York 1946;
- edited My life's history by Grandma Moses. New York, 1952;
- Egon Schiele. Oeuvre catalogue of the paintings. New York, 1966;
- Grandma Moses. New York 1973, 1975.;
- Glueck, Grace. “Otto Kaffir [sic], ‘Discoverer’ of Grandma Moses, Dies.” The New York Times December 1, 1978 https://www.nytimes.com/1978/12/01/archives/otto-kallir-discoverer-of-grandma-moses-dies-founded-his-own.html;
- "Rikola Verlag, Verlag Neuer Graphik, Vienna." in, Starr Figura, German Expressionism: The Graphic ImpulseNew York:The Museum of Modern Art, 2011https://www.moma.org/s/ge/collection_ge/artist/artist_id-19617_role-3_thumbs.html;
- Wendland, Ulrike. Biographisches Handbuch deutschsprachiger Kunsthistoriker im Exil: Leben und Werk der unter dem Nationalsozialismus verfolgten und vertriebenen Wissenschaftler. Munich: Saur, 1999, vol. 1, pp. 351-355.