Sunday, February 19, 2017

Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages through Time

“Turner’s Modern and Ancient Ports: Passages Through Time” is an exhibition coming to The Frick Collection, New York on February 23 and remaining until May 14.  J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) has always been a difficult artist for me.  I admit that this may have to do with the fact that I am a Francophile and not an Anglophile.

Years ago my wife was writing articles for GQ Magazine and did one on the British architect Sir James Frazer Stirling (1926 –1992).  So we went to the Clore Galleries that Stirling had completed in 1987 for the Tate Britain to house their amazing collection of Turners.  I must say seeing them all together in a single room with their shimmering light was quite exciting.

Though Turner’s “avant la lettre” impressionistic style may cover up the fact nicely, he probably left more unfinished paintings than any other well-known artist.  A little known reason is that he liked to finish his paintings while they were on exhibition, finding that they sold better that way.

The Frick is not prone to doing large-scale paintings exhibitions and this is clearly an exception that proves the rule.  In all there are over thirty paintings and watercolors, but, as is usual, at the Frick, the show is tightly focused, in this case the subject of ports,  and Frick holdings remain front and center.  The show is created organized around three paintings: the Frick’s own two large-scale works of the harbors of Dieppe and Cologne, painted in the mid 1820’s together with an unfinished work from the Tate of the Harbor of Brest in Brittany.

"Harbor of Dieppe"
"Harbor of Brest"

One of the related works lent by the Tate collection to this exhibition is a striking watercolor, called “Sheilds, on the River Tyne, for the Rivers of England, 1823” part of a series completed in 1824.  The picture was accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest in 1856.  Turner originally wished the paintings left behind to go to the National Gallery in London so they could hang with the Old Masters and in particular the Claudes (Claude Lorrain (1604/5?–1682). Many were later transferred to the Tate.

Something pointed out in the Frick’s press material that I had never thought about was the fact that travel restrictions between England and France had been in effect since 1797 and were finally lifted in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.   At that point ports used for the Navy and the defense of Britain were turned into commercial hubs and seaside resorts.  Turner’s travels back and forth from England to France afforded him the opportunity to pass through and paint the many ports he would have visited.  Today with the Chunnel connecting England with the Continent we never see the water since we are beneath it!

It is hard for Americans to understand with our large country where going from state to state can be a long distance achievement, but in Continental Europe I have been in parts of four  countries in the same day.  It is not difficult to understand that on Turner’s travels he also visited parts of Germany such as Cologne and the Rhineland.  So I will end with a photo of the third monumental picture that the exhibition is based on, the Harbor of Cologne from the Frick.

A catalog accompanies the exhibition with entries from the curators of the show, Susan Grace Galassi, Senior Curator at the Frick and Ian Warrel, independent curator and Turner specialist who is currently the  Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow.  There are a number of additional essays by illustrious scholars exploring the subject of Turner’s interpretations of ports he knew or imagined.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Lyman Allyn Museum

To my surprise a museum was among the dealers who exhibited at the Academy Mansion as part of Master Drawings New York at the end of January . The mansion was built in 1921 by the architect Frederick Sterner for the heir to the Royal Baking Powder Company fortune, William Ziegler.  The typical New York brownstone is 25 feet wide but Ziegler’s mansion is 75 feet.  So it was perfect as a venue for 5 or 6 art galleries from different cities in the States and abroad that did not have a New York City venue.  The museum in question was the Lyman Allyn Museum.  It seems to have been the idea of Christopher Bishop, an art  dealer  from Norwalk, Connecticut to invite a nearby institution from New London Connecticut to participate.

I have always been aware of the small local museums in France and their high quality holdings but much less so in this country.  Here we have so many major museums to visit we rarely get to the small gems that exist.  I was only vaguely aware of the Lyman Allyn Museum and don’t believe I ever visited though I know I had been in the area.  To my delight they exhibited a group of high quality Old Master drawings, which looked especially good in the Academy Mansion’s wood paneled rooms.  Here are two of those drawings, the head of Mary Magdalene by an anonymous German 15th century master and an elaborate Abraham Bloemaert (Dutch, 1564-1651) of “A Dove Cote” which has on the verso a Portrait Sketch of a woman (not shown).

I wanted to learn more and spoke briefly with the representative from the museum, Tanya Pohrt, who is Curator for Special Projects.  Of course, I also looked them up on line.  In 1910 Harriet Allyn requested that her bank which was clearly administrating her will would use money from her estate to create a park and museum.  She made the task easier by supplying a large piece of land next to Connecticut College, which was a girls school at the time.  Upon the donor’s death in 1926 the architect Charles A. Platt was hired to build a neoclassical museum which he based on his Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.  It was completed in 1932.

The Lyman Allyn Museum is focused, though not exclusively, on American Art with collections of paintings, works on paper, decorative arts between the 17th and 20th century.  Two examples from the American Painting collection are an Isaac Sheffield (1807-1845) who was the son of a sea captain known for painting portraits of sea captains but here he made an exception and painted the 5 year old son of a sea captain.  An absolute classic by a better known artist is a New England scene by Frederick Edwyn Church (1826-1900) painted in 1850.

Clearly, the Museum has more than American art, in the exhibition I saw there were works by a number of European artists as well as ones mentioned above they showed a Frederico Zuccaro and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.  There are 900 drawings out of 15,000 objects in the collection.

The plot of land that Ms. Allyn gave to the museum was turned into a lovely sculpture garden. Several of the works are by a local artist, David Smalley, and here is one in the 11 acre sculpture walk.

The museum collection includes some ancient and non-western objects.  There is a contemporary gallery and several contemporary photography exhibitions are on the books.

In the early 19th century the Town of New London was one of the world’s busiest whaling ports and it is still used by the Coast Guard as well as pleasure craft. There is a large beach and a grand theater.  It seems like the perfect place for a summer visit Since I plan all my travels around museums in the area this will certainly be on my list.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Kerry James Marshall: Mastry and the Segregation of Art Worlds

I presume that others of you have complained that you need a different doctor for whichever muscle or limb bothers you or figuring out which of the dozen olive oils you are supposed to buy on the grocery shelves.  So it is in the art world.

We see headlines that the art market is booming because an auction in contemporary art did well or maybe that just a few paintings brought records.  But that does not mean that all contemporary art is doing well.  What about Native American Art?   What about 21st century Design?  What about art by African Americans?

I don’t even remember learning about African American art at university except maybe Jacob Lawrence one of the few African Americans to make it into my Art 1 course.  Of course, the problem is that we make these distinctions and that you have to take a separate course, if it exists, in these different areas. And you thought that it was only Asian art that you were missing?

Artists want to be known as Artists without the modifiers.  Thanks to the Met Breuer museum in New York I was introduced to Kerry James Marshall.  Actually, I might not have gone to see the show if it had not been brought to my attention by Nancy Hoving, widow of the Metropolitan Museum Director and medievalist , Tom Hoving.  I thought if Nancy recommended it I should take a look and I am certainly glad I did.

The exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Mastry was organized by The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.  It was co-curated by Helen Molesworth, Chief Curator, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; Dieter Roelstraete, Guest curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; and Ian Alteveer, Associate Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kerry James Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1955, grew up in Los Angeles, went to Otis College of Art and Design in LA, worked in museums in New York and now lives and works in Chicago.  In his own words, “You can’t be born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1955 and grow up in South Central [Los Angeles] near the Black Panthers headquarters, and not feel like you’ve got some kind of social responsibility. You can’t move to Watts in 1963 and not speak about it. That determined a lot of where my work was going to go…”

The show is a retrospective on 35 years of Marshall’s art placing black figures in a medium where black figures are rarely seen.  As I looked at many of the monumental canvases I was struck by the dense blackness of the figures and had a reaction quite different than I might have had to white people.  It was by no means negative but it took some getting used to because they are solid black making some features of the people very difficult to read without great concentration.  I have no idea if African Americans feel the same way because I only have my own perspective.  A great example of what I am speaking of is in a painting called “Could this be Love, 1992” lent by a private collector courtesy of Segalot, New York.   They are in my mind, haunting figures, more shapes than portraits that you might see on the street.

Marshall’s “Past Times, 1997” where the credit line reads, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, McCormick Place Art Collection, Chicago is part of a series of paintings of public leisure in Chicago.  Note the high-rises in the background.  It makes me think of one of Tom Hoving’s singular achievements when he was New York City’s Parks Commissioner before becoming Director of the Met.  He opened Central Park to all, making it a place that people would flock to on weekends.  I had spent my life as one of the few who played and biked in Central Park and frankly I lamented no longer having my private place where others did not go.   Still I did like to see so many more enjoying what I always had to myself, particularly the families who celebrated the Puerto Rican Day parade with picnics and outdoor barbecues, which made the whole park smell inviting until the latter were banned.

An apt picture to close with is “Untitled 2008” from a private collection courtesy of Segalot, New York.  I presume the artist thinks this painting needs no explanation.  It is, of course, about looking into the future or getting lost in nature.  To me it recalls paintings by Caspar David Friedrich (German 1774-1840).  Here are illustrations of the Marshall and  “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” by Friedrich in the Metropolitan Museum.

The exhibition presents a lot of social commentary which you can already see in Past Times but generally I have avoided that subject here.  if you get to see the show you won’t miss it.  For me it is the common values between the black and white experience that resonate in Marshall’s work.  The exhibition has closed at the Met Breuer but you have another chance to see it at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art from March 3 to July 3, 2017.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

25 Years of the Outsider Art Fair

I need to start out with a correction.  Last week spell checker changed the spelling of  Valentin de Boulogne in every one of my uses and though corrected later should not have escaped me in the first place.  Profuse apologies to all.

Now to the subject at hand, the Outsider Art Fair that I saw recently in New York. What is Outsider Art?  It is still a strange term to many and difficult to translate.  The simplest definition is that it is work by non-formally trained artists, ones untainted by a formal arts education. This definition allows for a great deal of latitude in the choices and it is up to a dealer, or better yet an art fair, to convince collectors that they should be interested.

An old line among dealers is that their clients buy with their ears not with their eyes but I choose to believe that it is a combination of both.  For instance, one image that grabbed me as soon as I came into the Fair was a message printed on a number of grids:“The Next 100 Years Enough for All…  RENEWABLE  There Are Disasters Every Day, Don’t Worry You Will Find Your Day. Keep the Faith. Change Come so Pick a Day”.  The grids are like tiny calendars and the big disaster is a drawing of a ship with more verbiage in part “Titanic Fate Just Ain’t Goinna to Wait”.   The work is by George Widener, not surprisingly called “Renewable”, and was created last year exhibited by the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York.  I was startled by the relatively high price on the piece and decided to take a look on line.   What a fascinating story.   

It is not that unusual to find some of your best outsider artists among the mentally ill as in this case where Widener has autistic issues.  Sometimes when the artist is in a mental institution it is their doctors who keep track of their work and date the pieces they create.

Fred Giampietro Gallery of New Haven, Connecticut showed a picture by a Tattoo Artist working like crazy on this woman’s body leaving no stone unturned.  It was a trade sign for the Orsini Long Beach Tattoo Shop.  Al Orsini was also the creator of this work that he painted in 1960.  The sign shows many of the choices you could pick from for your tattoo.  It was clearly produced by an artist of a different sort who knew how to express the possibilities of his day job.

Gerlerie Hervé Perdriolle from Paris did a small show, “Website: India 20 Years of Passion”.  The Warli Tribe located near Bombay use a very simple artistic vocabulary and describe themselves as Farmers and Painters.  This is one of my problems with the nomenclature of Outsider Art because by this definition I see no difference between the Warli Tribe or the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona who are Native American artists and farmers but they would not consider their work “outsider” because it is within their own tradition.  However while the Warli have a  far more limited artistic vocabulary, the Hopi create their art in many media with varied subject matter.

Terry Turrell is a self taught artist.  He was a junkman and often uses found materials in his art.  He is in his mid 60’s and lives in Idaho with many animals.  In the booth of American Primitive from New York there were many animal pictures by the artist but this one had a very Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom” quality to it, American primitive, if you will.

There was one Outsider exhibit devoted to a group that you may be more familiar with. It is the Quilt Makers of Gee Bend, a community of about 700 on a small piece of land surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.  They hold a prominent role in African American art history having created these quilts since the beginning of the 20th century and many of them being descendants of slaves.  There have been exhibitions of there work at a number of major museums. 

Though Outsider Art is an amorphous term that catches a lot of art in its net, it is a fascinating field that captures the imagination.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) is not a name that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  Why? Possibly because your art history course in school was all about the Italian Renaissance and not what was going on North of the Alps in France.  Valentin was French and thought of as an interloper in Italy and his career was cut short by a fatal bout of influenza at age 42.

“Valentin de Boulogne” Beyond Caravaggio” which I just saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest ever, monographic exhibition devoted to the artist’s work.  It shows 45 of Valentin’s 60 extant works.   The show was curated by Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Met, and Annick Lemoine, author of an authoritative book on Valentin’s contemporary Nicholas Régnier.  It was co-organized by the Met and the Louvre which lent all of it’s extensive collection of paintings by the artist.

The point of the exhibition is to show, of course, the importance of this little known artist in his aspiration to take the chiaroscuro masterpieces of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) one step further.  He wanted to add a psychological depth and dimension to those dramatic images.  He would leave out the boarders in order to bring the viewer into his paintings, making them bear witness to what is going on.  While Caravaggio was first to dramatize with chiaroscuro technique Valentin used shadow more subtly to show the psychologies of his characters.  The artist is compared so often with Caravaggio and his influence that it makes you want to see a Caravaggio to make your own comparisons but alas none are included in this exhibition. 

By the time Valentin arrived in Rome, Caravaggio had already fled leaving behind a challenge to any would-be successors, but if Valentin was anything, he was extremely ambitious.  Caravaggio had introduced the very radical view that an artist should work directly from the model and not bother with the difficult and time-consuming process of composing sketches and making detailed studies and a finished compositional cartoon before getting on with it.  In this way he broke away from the heretofore great masters, Raphael and Michelangelo.  In other words he thought that to convey reality you had to work from life!  Valentin wanted his compositions to be set up in a more life like manner.  He often worked with the same models probably because as they got to know each other better the artist learned how to shape them to his best advantage.

For the scholar this exhibition was a major event saving thousands of miles in travel just to be able to see such a major percentage of an artist’s work.  One could watch the development of the artist’s style from Caravaggio imitations to mature works where he brings the feeling of a living human being who can show emotion.

“The Cardsharps” 1614-15, from the Old Master Paintings Gallery in Dresden is a rather early work of Valentin and I think you can see even in reproduction that it does not have the verve of the  Caravaggio, in the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth.


From his later work I chose the “Crowning with Thorns” 1627-28 from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Valentin takes a theme he worked on before but, in this case, the torturers seem to have a realization of what they are doing, or, as the label puts it, they have “gained a sense of psychological complexity”.

There are two paintings that I particularly liked, both were set in the walls in Versailles and were shown here just cleaned and without frames, making them especially vibrant.  They are of St. Matthew and St. Mark.  Here is an image of the St. Mark.

Valentin though lost for a long time was extremely popular in his own time.  His biggest client probably was Francesco Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII) and many of his works were kept in the Barberini family for generations making them less accessible to the public.  Other major clients were Cardinal Mazarin and even Louis XIV himself.

My wife Penelope Hunter-Stiebel did an exhibition some years ago, “The triumph of French painting: 17th century masterpieces from the museums of FRAME” for the Portland Art Museum.  In the show she had a painting by Valentin she particularly admired of Judith with the head of Holofernes from Toulouse so I said I would share it with my readers.  In my search, however, I found another picture of Judith that I could not resist, this one is from the National Museum of Art, Valetta, Malta dating 1627-1629.  Here the emotions of all are brought to the foreand what cool customer Judith turns out to be!

By the time you read this the exhibition will have closed at the Metropolitan but it will be on view at the Louvre February 22 to May 22, 2017. It will be quite a long time, if ever, that one will be able to see such a percentage of  this 17th century artist’s work together again. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Art Dealer Today ?

My father defined our trade quite simply, --we try to convince someone who does not want to sell, to sell, and someone who does not want to buy, to buy. That could never be more true than today when everyone with a collection wants to hold on for a better selling climate and those who wish to collect have no expendable cash!

We travel, we look, we schmoose (gab) and we hope. Often we fail in our attempts to bring a buyer and seller together but once in a while we succeed, and that is a day to celebrate. My father and his cousin Rosenberg always celebrated twice. Once when the client said, “I’ll take it” and again when the check actually arrived. That is another thing that is more true than ever today.

In the old days if a client said they would buy something you could literally bank on it. Unfortunately, that is not as true any more . It used to be a pretty small art world. Everyone knew everyone. My father believed that if anyone collected in our fields they had to visit our gallery, not necessarily buy, but check out what we had.

Klaus Perls the renowned art dealer used to say, “I have never sold anything in my life. Once in a while I have allowed someone to buy something”. From an old fashioned dealer such as myself it makes a lot of sense. We want people to come by our galleries and fall in love with a work of art. Only after that am I there to consummate the acquisition.

Today, the art world is bigger. There are many more art buyers (if not collectors), there are many more art dealers, and the auction houses greatly influence the market.

A good friend and art dealer colleague who studied a different field at Columbia University has said to me that he is jealous of my art history degree. I have countered with how jealous I am of his business degree. Which one is more important? I believe that today, probably, the business degree is more important. As a matter of fact some of the most successful art dealers have MBA’s.

When I was doing my MA at Columbia I asked a professor about continuing on for a Phd. He asked “Why? You can learn more in your gallery in 2 months than here in 2 years”. Now, while this might have been a bit of an exaggeration, on the job training in the art field is possible. Business formulae are much more difficult to master without the discipline of a scholastic setting.

Thank goodness, museum curators are still being trained as art historians. Increasingly, however, the prerequisite for a museum directorship is a degree in business administration, yet museum directors still make the ultimate decisions of what acquisitions will go to the trustees for approval. There are few who are strong in both art and administration. . We have recently lost two such directors, Philippe de Montebello who retired from the Metropolitan Museum, and the late James Wood, named President of the Getty Foundation after retiring as the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Happily the Metropolitan picked a new director, Tom Campbell, the old fashioned way, from the curatorial ranks.

From the art dealer, both more scholarship and more business acumen are demanded. I think that the former is a great improvement in our trade. Our clients want to know more about the art that they are buying. We have to be able to supply the latest scholarly information available. The complicated, protracted, deals that have become the norm are alien to the world I grew up in. Yet the art dealer today must be able to handle both.

The art world does change, but slowly.  This Missive was first published on August 15, 2010.  Not sure if it has changed since then, what do you think?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Rapid Response: Art as Investment

My blog from last week on investing seems to have struck a note with a number of readers.  I thought it would be as interesting to my readers as it was to me to see some of their responses.

An art dealer from New York wrote the following,  “One faction of my family dealt in colored diamonds… and I did buy some nice modest stones.  Some we made into jewelry for [my wife] to wear (which she still has) and others we put in the safe. Unfortunately, our business needed money before colored diamonds really took off. We did make a small profit but ... colored stones are now through the roof.”

He also said, “I was recently telling a collector, who bought … a Dutch 17th century paintings, that when we all started in this business, a nice 17th century panel of an interior with figures was easy to flip and sell, and they were. A Boer vomiting in the foreground was easily worth 10 grand, if his missus was relieving herself in the background, add 5 grand. Today they are compared to the furniture market [in] ‘brown wood’ which has declined.”

I heard from a friend who I first met in an Art Forum on Compuserve in the mid 90’s.  As mentioned before tastes change and as he wrote:  “…we see periods of public interest in [different areas of] collecting: rugs, Federal period furniture, Arts & Craft pottery. Books and TV shows about collecting for fun and profit, but with profit as the attention-getter. I think it signals a coming decline, a bursting bubble. New generations begin to collect and all of a sudden the furniture of 1950 becomes more desirable than 1750, this school or that period wanes in popularity.   It's nice when the market smiles at you and confirms your ‘taste' but if you don't buy what you love, you might as well be buying stock certificates. If you buy art because you just have to, you can't lose.”

This from an international collector who has been a dealer, curator and world traveler.  “Good article, so true.  You can never say or write it enough.  Investing in art is not for the weak of heart, and, to be at all successful requires ruthless behavior and lots of acrobatics.  Non merci.  We learned this in our early years in the art market, when it was considered very wrong to collect art as an investment, and the general opinion was the only collections that went up in value had been bought out of passion, and with a lot of hard work, by connoisseurs.”

From a former London art dealer echoing similar thoughts, “Art can be compared, depending on your taste to a race horse or a yacht say, which may both devalue with time, whereas art does not get worse with age. Of course there are people who make profits from art and horses and yachts but they are professionals and know what they are doing. Sometimes private investors can manage this too. And art does not suffer from costs of upkeep.”

I was delighted to hear from an actual practicing Native American Artist who wrote about her own experience and point of view, “I ran into someone over the weekend whom I have not seen in years. She purchased a giclee from me over 15 years ago and one of the first things she said to me was ‘Do I have any idea what that piece might be worth now?’ I told her I had no clue since I have not dealt with 2-D work since I started making baskets in 2008, but I hoped that it had escalated in price.  I hope investing is not why she purchased the piece but I would like to think that my work preceding my baskets is gaining in long term value too. Pricing work is such a tricky dance. It always boils down to work is worth whatever the market will bear.”

I even heard from an Art Advisor in Switzerland, “Despite what you state that Fine Art fluctuates in value based on the current TASTE of collectors, the value of TRUE MASTERPIECES (Old Masters, Impressionism, Picasso, etc.) has RARELY(if EVER!!!) retreated in comparison to ALL "Financial Assets" over the past 200 to 300 years!!! I AGREE, BUY IT because you LOVE IT and want to LIVE with IT BUT(!!!!!)......let us NOT FORGET that paying MILLIONS for a GREAT painting.......WELL......IT'S a LOT(!!!!) of.......MONEY!!!!!”

Borrowing again from the London art dealer in response,  “But the problem here is that few people can afford to buy the best art and not care about resale value. People do like to think that these beautiful objects also represent a store of value.”

I will end with a personal favorite because it confirms some of my prejudices.  This from a collector of German ceramics in the U.S.   “It speaks volumes that he (Jeff Koons) collects the great masters. That trait seems to be shared by many “modern” artists. One wonders why that appears to make no impression on collectors of their works.”