Joe Wolpe: When Cape Art was Coffee with Joe

The South African Jewish Museum will pay tribute to the life and work of Joe Wolpe in an exhibition titled ‘When Cape Art was Coffee with Joe’. The exhibition will open to the public on 3 March 2008. The exhibition will trace Joe’s career from the time he took over his father Max’s framing workshop in Lelie Street, through to his work as a gallerist, dealer in local and international art, and prominent South African artist.

Born in Cape Town in 1922, Joe Wolpe is primarily known for the powerful role he played in the promotion of contemporary and local international art in South Africa over five decades. The artists he supported ranged from Wolf Kibel and Charles Gassner to Henry Moore and David Hockney. Operating through an intimate coffee-for-every-visitor basis, Joe created a name for himself that endures to this day.

Joe’s father, Max Wolpe emigrated from Lithuania to Siberia and then South Africa. After seven years as a photographer, he set up a framing workshop in Lelie Street, which became a meeting place for emerging artists. Intent on his son having a secure profession, Max articled Joe to be an accountant in 1940. But when Max fell ill in 1945, Joe moved into the framing workshop and began to realise his own artistic promise. Soon Joe’s framing became legendary together with his own tradition of coffee, music and discussion.

Joe started to collect art seriously in 1951. By this time customers had begun to ask him to select paintings on their behalf and local artists had approached him to sell their works. To support his growing family and to survive as a creative framer, he began to sell his original collection of art in 1955. His career as an art dealer had begun.

In 1964, Joe, with the assistance of Esther Friedland (now Kluk), opened a gallery in Hope Street, a small partition of the framing workshop that was to grow into the renowned Wolpe gallery. In 1966 Joe moved to Strand Street, and opened the new gallery with a landmark exhibition by Irma Stern. During these years he emerged as a renowned international art dealer, with connections to the major auction houses and galleries in Britain and Europe. Joe eventually relocated to Impala House in Castle Street in 1973. In 1990, he closed his gallery and pursued his calling as an artist full time.

Says Shea Albert, director of the South African Jewish Museum “Preparing for this exhibition has been inspiring in terms of appreciating Joe’s life and his invaluable contribution to the world of art in South Africa. He has been a true mentor both to artists and art collectors. His vision is matched by his integrity and we are enormously proud to be able to present this exhibition.”