Sunday, July 21, 2019

Collecting Bits & Pieces

I love it when I start writing about a subject and then look on line and find I am not the only one thinking along these lines. When it turns out to be the Metropolitan Museum, I am positively proud!

In this case after I picked my title and began writing and then looked up collecting fragments and wouldn’t you know it there were several entries for books in German which I decided I would not bother acquiring and then the headline: “The Dietrich von Bothmer Fragment Collection.”  Of course, it helped get my attention that I knew this famous art historian, curator and  head of the Department of Greek & Roman at the Met.  He came to the Met a couple of years after I was born and retired in 1990.

Dietrich, of course, acquired the important pieces for the museum but ,since Greek vases was the area of art he was most passionate about, he began to collect for himself broken pieces about the time he began to teach. I am sure he brought some of that collection into his classes before taking his students for a tour of the Met’s collection.  Dietrich passed away in 2009 and bequeathed his personal collection to the Met, which for all we know was a deal he made with the director of the Met when he told them he wanted to collect privately in his professional field, something that  was later frowned upon.

Aside from the headline grabbing auction records where people more interested in status than art are buying, there still are plenty of people who have the desire to collect art from various cultures in the old-fashioned way, because they love it.

So why do people collect fragments or even an unfinished drawing.  One looks for areas of art that one can afford, and it may just be part of a whole.  A small sketch might just be the first thoughts of an artist, maybe a record of someone on the street which the artist will use later in a painting.  With sculpture, you might think an entire figure was out of reach but owning a fragment can be something satisfying and part of history.

I started to think of some pieces that we own which are remnants of a bygone era, both historically and for our life time.  In New York, one of my fields as a dealer was  in the European decorative arts of the 17th and 18th century. Most of that was sold because it was part of gallery inventory but I felt we had to keep some pieces so we would not totally lose our past to the world of the Southwest which has brought us to collecting Native American art.

Who wants to throw away a thing of beauty?  Here is a Meissen Porcelain handle with a silver letter opener of later date.  The handle would have originally been for a knife or fork. When the blade or tines were no longer usable someone refitted the handle for a new use rather than throw it away. This particular handle dates around 1740 and is painted with Meissen’s well known “Flying Dog” pattern adapted from the Japanese Kakiemon style.

Meissen, near Dresden, Germany was the first Western factory to produce true hard paste porcelain.  In 2012 a small early Meissen porcelain tea service came up at Bonham’s auction house.  In a sense it was a fragment because it was missing its most important piece, the teapot!  Still at least a couple of people got excited enough about it to shoot the price up to $760,000!

We on the other hand, own just one lonely saucer attributed to one of Meissen’s greatest artists, Christian Friedrich Herold.  He worked at the factory for half a century and when he started out there in 1725, he painted Chinoiserie subjects on the factory’s wares. On the bottom of the dish is a large number 17 in gold which was the gilder’s mark.  Placing gold leaf on porcelain was a sub specialty not done by the painter.

Take a look at this pair of German 17th century lions.  They clearly belonged together but were not just decoration. There is a small piece of gilt bronze on top that looks attached and not molded with the rest.  Turn it over and you find that a screw is holding this to the Lion’s back.  Without this top they are flat and clearly something was on top of them.  Since they are too small to hold a cupboard or chest of drawers, they probably propped up a small cabinet or, more likely a clock.  The clock might have stopped working and the owner had no more use for it, so they threw it out and an industrious person preserved the feet and turned It into a decoration which we enjoy every day.

Bits and pieces, or rather fragments can provide the acquirer with great personal pleasure.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects

We met Judy Tuwaletstiwa at a pig roast!  Our friends from the Hopi Reservation took us along to a birthday party of a Hopi friend of theirs outside of Santa Fe. For this occasion, the entire pig was roasted… delicious and enough for all. Their friend turned out to be married to an extremely dynamic artist, Judy Tuwaletstiwa. 

Until September 15 the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) in Santa Fe has an exhibition called, “Judy Tuwaletstiwa: The Dream Life of Objects”. Judy is a very intellectual artist with a degree in English Literature from the University of California at Berkeley and a Masters in the same field from Harvard. When I was speaking to the young artist behind the gallery reception desk he said  you need to “feel”  this show as much as observe it.  If you give it a chance it will speak to you.

My thesis has always been that you should walk through any exhibition and then if you wish to dig deeper read the labels, take the audio guide, if it exists, and, if you are really serious, buy the catalog… and then read it!

In this show, however, I was told that Judy wished the visitor to see the 9-minute film first and then see the show.  Unfortunately, too much light poured into the room when I was there and the sound too low for my old ears, but I had watched the 3-minute version on line which I will share with you here: 

Judy speaks of language and how materials speak to her.  She tells us that the first language we hear is our mother’s heart beat before we are born.  The second language is our sense of touch.  She is shown touching a rock which she tells us holds history.  It made me think of an infant of touching its mother’s breast or clutching a rattle, that is how learning begins.

Judy had no formal art training, but allowed her materials to speak to her.  She speaks of working with the fragile medium of glass and weaving at the loom which the layman might find tedious, but it is there, she said, that she learned patience.

This brought two experiences to mind.  When my wife, Penelope, was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum she gave a lecture once in conjunction with a Corning show called “New Glass” at the Met.  She did not allow anyone to sit in the front 3 rows because she began the lecture by smashing a glass on the side of the lectern … yes glass breaks! 

The second was a personal experience.  The only art I was ever half way good at was photography, in the days when one could bulk load one’s own film and process it in one’s bathroom.  My enlarger and chemical trays were all on a board over my bathtub and I stayed up half the night working.  One certainly had to be patient getting the image that one wanted out of the negative.

Judy is not Native but Jewish. She was born and grew up in East Los Angeles, which she said was a melting pot of various ethnicities and “they all played together”.  Her family was from Poland and her first husband was Armenian. In 1993 she married Phillip, a Hopi Indian. His grandfather’s name, Tuwaletstiwa, was changed to Johnson at Keams Canyon boarding school in the late 1800’s because they could not pronounce his Hopi name!  Phillip wanted to take back his grandfather’s name and they both agreed to do so. The name Tuwaletstiwa has a beautiful meaning, “ripples made in the sand when the wind blows”.

The first room of the show is a wall of photographs of the Warsaw Ghetto, lent by the Hollocaust Museum in Washington D.C., and families that were slaughtered there at the orders of Heinrich Himmler.  Judy writes about the figure of a little boy with his hands up. “This image has haunted me since I was young:  I identified with the boy in the foreground who was only a few years older than I in 1943. If my grandparents had remained in Poland, I might have huddled in this group.”

Associated with these images is a series of works which one sees and feels in particular, for me, these hands cast in glass. Are they charred?

In another gallery a fair amount of wall space is used to show what look like a series of abstract banners.  They are 36 photographs showing a process.  In 1987, Judy decided that her first attempt at painting was going to be a red painting, but she would work her way there…again a process. In a public discussion she had with David Krakauer, American evolutionary biologist, who is President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute, she speaks of Native American kivas.  These holy places have images painted on the walls for a ceremony, which are then painted over for the next event. Often hundreds of images are layered on top of each other.  For doubters of process she asked her audience how many were writers?  Then she asked whether they ever rewrote and effectively wrote over what they had written, sometimes having to delete their favorite words in a quest for the final result.  Count me in that group and sometimes I keep the sentence or phrase for another time.  Here is the end result and one wall of the photographs recording the process.

Bringing you up to date here is a piece in one of the artist’s favorite media, kiln-fired glass adhered to canvas. It is titled “Text. Shards 2, 2019”.  Shards in this part of the world usually refer to the broken remnants of Native American pottery that have survived over time.  In fact, there is an archive in New Mexico of pieces of pottery collected at building sites when excavation starts.  These are important evidence from which we can learn of earlier Indian generations.

In this show Judy Tuwaletsivwa gives us much to feel and think about and I have only scratched the surface.

Sunday, July 7, 2019


After seeing the great exhibition in San Diego, we took the train up to Pasadena, where our son, Hunter and his wife now live. Since childhood our son has loved touring, so he organized a tour to introduce us to his new home city. 

One of the cultural stops was The Gamble House. We had visited the house before, maybe 40 years earlier, and I remember being more excited by it then.  That was possibly because we were then with colleagues on a junket, not on a general public tour. I love the period and looking at the photos I am posting I feel what I did then … the harmony of this Arts and Crafts house, from its Japanese-influenced wood structure to the stained glass of its front door.

David Gamble, second generation of Proctor & Gamble, and his wife Mary, from Cincinnati decided to build their winter residence in Pasadena and hired the firm of Greene & Greene.  The latter were architects who had built other houses in the neighborhood which the Gambles obviously liked, and it could not have hurt that the Greene Brothers originally came from the Gambles’ home town.

Charles Greene (1868-1957) and Henry Greene (1870-1954) were born on the outskirts of Cincinnati.  Their father became a physician in St. Louis and put the boys in a Manual Training School at Washington University.  He then decided that they should become architects and enrolled them in the architectural school at MIT.  They found work as apprentices in a couple of architectural firms when their parents moved to Pasadena and asked their boys to join them.  On the trip west they visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where Japanese architecture made a lasting impression on them.  Opening their own architectural firm, they designed what they called “Ultimate Bungalows” of which the Gamble House is one. Some bungalow! Our tour of most of the rooms took over an hour and we were not lingering. 

The drawings were ready in February of 1908 and construction was started in March.  Not everything moves quicker today then in yesteryear! The Gambles also wanted Greene & Greene to design the furniture which was all completed by the summer of 1910.  The house included a number of blind doors and inset closets giving a very clean look, accentuated by the furniture.

Mary and David were not the only Gambles living in the house but two of the sons were there at different times.  it seems there was always a child or grandchild around and Mary’s sister, Julia, became a full-time resident. There were bedrooms for all, most of them with sleeping porches which were much appreciated in the days before air conditioning. The dining room table was expandable, and the large sitting room was designed to accommodate the different activities of family members.

We also went to see the City Hall of Pasadena, a very grand building indeed. The project began in 1923 when the people of Pasadena approved a $3.5 million project to develop a civic center with City Hall being the centerpiece. This was near the end of the “City Beautiful Movement” 1890’s to 1920’s when urban planners decided that “design could not be separated from social issues and should encourage civic pride and engagement.”  It continues to do so almost a century later.

The low relief armorials on the building have the seal of the city on a shield. My schoolmate, David Phillips, who is an expert in armorials, supplied me with the explanation: The word Pasadena means “valley” in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) language but has been interpreted as “Crown of the Valley” or “Key of the Valley,” hence the adoption of both the crown and the key in the official City Seal.

It is not easy to keep a hundred-year old building in mint condition particularly when it is being used by hundreds of employees and visitors every day!  Near the end of the 1990’s the City hired an architectural firm to do a major renovation that included earthquake-proofing the building by floating the pillars of the foundation on moveable steel balls. The employees were all cleared out in 2004 and were finally allowed to return in 2007.  Now again, it is worth a look.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain

My wife lured me to San Diego with the carrot that we would then go to Pasadena to see our son and his pregnant wife.  No, San Diego, was not to tour this lovely sea side town or lounge around but to go see an exhibition and the rest of the time, sit and listen to talks about the ideas behind the show. Having said that,  I am so glad I came along because, “Art & Empire: The Golden Age of Spain” is one of the best exhibitions I have seen in a very long time.   The paintings and sculpture are top notch.  The decorative arts a little less so but I am not complaining.  

The premise of the exhibition is that from the later 16th through the 17th century the glory of Spanish art was not restricted to the Iberian peninsula but was a global phenomenon of an empress that covered Flanders, southern Italy, the Americas and the Philippines.  Our friend Judith Dobrzynski, wrote about the show for the Wall Street Journal which certainly influenced our decision to come. Her only mild criticism  was that the thesis of the show she found “a bit of a stretch” in saying that while Spain may have influenced the art of the New World it did not work in reverse.  The curator for the show, Michael Brown, said that influences either way were not his goal.  I believe  that he was just demonstrating that great art  was produced in the mother country but also in Spain’s empire which is said to have been the largest in history.    I found that in some cases the paintings he selected  from Mexico and South America were  better than comparable works from Spain!

The first day we heard the inaugural lecture given by the Director of the National Gallery in London, Gabriele Finaldi, a specialist in Spanish art. The large auditorium was totally sold out for his very entertaining talk about the Spanish paintings in the National Gallery. He pointed out how recent cleaning revealed depth and detail in the St. Francis in Meditation by Francisco de Zurbaran which was lent to the show.

The next day’s program comprised 10 speakers and many of the talks were excellent. They illustrated the originality of art made in the New World from the creative interpretation of Flemish prints to the use of newly discovered gems or indigenous feather work.     

I had asked permission from the curator to take photos though that turned out to be unnecessary.  I thought, however, that I could be selective in the photos I took but since there were so many images that I found wonderful.   I must have taken pictures of 75% of the 110 works shown.  Therefore, here are a few that at this moment stand out in my memory.

Since its founding in 1926 the San Diego Museum has built a collection of Spanish painting and in recent years has staged a number of exhibitions  on the history of Spanish art. The current Director Roxana Velasquez, encouraged  and supported Michael Brown, over the four years it took to put this show together.  Although 20% of the works came from the museum’s own collection, just think what it takes to get 35 private collectors and public institutions from here and abroad to lend the remainder which include stellar works, including three paintings by  Velazquez.  Here is my favorite of these, “The Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus” from the National Gallery of Ireland.

The San Diego Museum owns a lovely small Rubens cartoon for a tapestry, “Allegory of  Eternity, the Succession of Popes” and the Monasterio Descalzas Reales in Madrid lent the Flemish tapestry derived from it.   The latter had just been restored and Michael Brown was thrilled when he was informed that it was safe for it to travel.  As you see from the photo it was too tall for the ceiling of the museum but was ingeniously mounted  to a support curved at the top.

I have written about Biombos (folding screens) before and this one lent by the Brooklyn Museum and dating circa 1697-1701, was special.  It was actually only half a screen since it had  originally 12 folds and the other half is now in The Museum of the Americas in Madrid. On one side of the screen on view is a battle scene, the siege of Belgrade,  and the other is a hunting scene of which I am illustrating a detail. The subjects derive from European  prints but they are painted in oil  and inlaid with mother-of-pearl In an adaptation of Japanese technique practiced by the Gonzalez family in Mexico. The images below is the full screen of the battle and a detail from the verso.

I have seen Nun’s shields before but they always looked to me that they were too large for a wearable brooch and  in this show I saw the proof.  There was  a Nun’s Shield from the Phoenix Art Museum made in Mexico around 1700 installed beside the celebrated great painting dating around1750 by the Mexican master, Miguel Cabrera,   of “Sister Juana Ines de la Cruz” from  the National History Museum in Mexico City. With no lifetime image of learned woman to work from Cabrera imagined her as the prototype of a scholar, even depicting the Anunciation scene on her Nun’s Shield with the Virgin’s reading being interrupted by the Angel.

I mentioned sculpture and there are so many possible choices but if you force me I will pick this small woodcarving lent by the Denver Art Museum  of “St. Peter de Alcantara Penitente.”  The joke that went around the viewers was, “no, it’s not Hamlet!.”  The label attributes it to an indigenous Ecuador artist, Manuel Chili (circa 1723-1796) but it was Donna Pierce, former curator at the Denver Art Museum who explained what seemed a unique style was derived from Manilla Ivories imported through the galleon trade.

I will end with my wife’s favorite image by Zurbaran, an artist exceptionally well represented in the San Diego Museum’s permanent collection. There is another version of this lovely small picture of “The Lamb of God”  in the Prado in Spain.  At the time there was no concern about multiple versions, in fact they were frequently commissioned. One of the symposium speakers emphasized that in the history of Spanish art the copy of an image was of equal value and power as the original.

I have just scratched the surface and all I can say is if you are near San Diego before September 2nd do stop by the museum to see this wonderful and original exhibition.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Jews, Money, Myth

“A Terribly Durable Myth” is the title of an article by Sara Linton in The New York Review of Books that was emailed to me by a friend.  It deals with the exhibition, “Jews, Money, Myth” at the Jewish Museum in London.  I was intrigued but then I paused, my father had a problem with Jewish Museums, saying there is no such thing as Jewish art unless you are speaking of ceremonial objects.  He felt, as I do that art is art or not!  On the other hand, Jewish History is, obviously, extremely important.  As I tell people, I am not a religious Jew, but I feel very strongly that I am an ethnic Jew.  After all that is how I was brought up to be both proud of my Jewish heritage and aware that anti-Semitism exists.

As I read the article, I saw that Jews and money is one of the straws that Ant-Semites latch onto.  Ms. Linton mentions that the first object in the show is the “Oxford English Dictionary” of 1933 and its definition for “Jew, as a name of opprobrium spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person” and that is in the Anglo-Saxon world.  Is it that far a stretch to Nazi Germany and Hitler using the Jews as a scape goat for the national economic disaster of the 1930’s, pointing to “the enemy within.”

Since everything has to start somewhere, Judas is credited with that “honor.”  The Bible says that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Jewish chief priests in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. By the 12h century he had become the personification of all Jews.  This is where the association of Jews with money begins.  Also, Jesus threw the money lenders out of the Temple.  Remember, there were no Christians yet!  Around 1200, the Catholic church prohibited Christians charging interest on loans, leaving the function of money lending to the Jews who were often accused of usury.

What I particularly like about this exhibition is that aside from manuscripts it uses works of art to illustrate its story.  We all love stained glass windows whether we grew up going to church or not.  Sometimes we forget, however, that they were often made to tell a story.  In this case this 16th century German window shows “Christ Cleansing the Temple” lent by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

In order to illustrate the fact that after Jesus was arrested Judas returned the 30 pieces of silver to the priests, the show’s curator, Joanne Rosenthal, borrowed a Rembrandt “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” 1629, from the National Gallery in London.  This sympathetic depiction of Judas’ remorse is referred to as Rembrandt’s first masterpiece. painted when the artist was just 23 years old. 

Antisemitic propaganda targeted the international banking family of the Rothschilds. Their story starts with Amschel Rothschild (1744–1812) from Frankfurt who had five sons whom he sent to London, Paris, Vienna, Naples and one stayed in Frankfurt.   In several cases they even funded wars and became, in the 19th century, the world’s wealthiest family.  Here is a poster, lent by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, demonizing Baron James, founder of the French branch of the family.  It was produced in France around 1900 for the Musée des Horreurs, a series of caricatures inspired by the Dreyfus Affair. (

Today many members of the Rothschild family have remained in the international banking world.  My family, also from Frankfurt, were art dealers to several of the Rothschilds in the same way that Amschel was a factor to the noble Hesse-Kassel family.  In England some brand names proudly announce in their advertising and on their products that they are “Purveyors to the Queen”.   

One of the most poignant images in the exhibition is a war poster, titled, “The Way of the Red Sea is a Way of Blood” from Italy in 1944.  In a parody of Moses parting the Red Sea so the Jews could flee Egypt, you have Jewish bankers carrying money bags through the Red Sea with a tank on one side and the dead on the other.  Again, the implication that the Jews start and then profit from wars.

In these sadly divided times, I believe it is a good moment to show how long some prejudices have lasted and where they come from.  This is not only true for Jews but for the Muslims, Black people, Asians, Hispanics and even Native Americans.  I think Bob Haozous, a Native American artist, summed it up best.  “There were no Indians before Columbus!”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Museum of Bad Art

It is amazing what one finds when trolling the internet.  I was looking for interesting art exhibitions at art museums around the country when I happened upon, “The Museum of Bad Art”.  Of course, I thought it was a joke, so I wrote to them and sure enough received a response from Michael Frank, Curator-in-Chief Museum of Bad Art.  The museum's catchphrase? "Art too bad to be ignored." I guess it is true, “there are no new ideas under the sun”!

The concept for the museum was born in 1994 when an art and antiques dealer, Scott Wilson, found a painting in a pile of trash and picked it up so he could unframe it and sell the latter and again discard the painting.  A friend of his, Jerry Reilly, saw the painting and asked if he could acquire it with the frame.  When Mr. Wilson found an equally unsuccessful work Mr. Reilly again acquired it and the latter started his Museum of bad art in his basement.

Mr. Reilly’s wife, Marie Jackson, started to write brief blurbs about the art they were collecting so their friends could better understand it and they made a CD-Rom as a virtual museum. The photographer, Tom Stankowicz and Mr. Reilly’s sister, Louise Reilly Sacco all became founders of the museum.  Amazingly enough, they were able to gain the attention of Rolling Stone and Wired magazines and even the Wall Street Journal and the museum moved to the basement of a 1927 art-house movie theater outside of Boston.  It was always open when there was a movie on.

When Michael Frank was asked, what were the criteria for bad art that would be accepted by the museum, he gave the ageold explanation used by the courts regarding pornography. “I know it when I see it”.  I would find this difficult to accept were it not for the fact that the question what is art has never been successfully answered though many a bottle of ink has been spilled on the subject, so how can good or bad art be defined.  My father gave me a book called “A child of Six could do it” regarding abstract expressionism and the like but happily the museum that has some 700 works in its permanent collection does not collect works by children.

They are looking for works “created by someone seriously attempting to make an artistic statement-one that has gone horribly awry in either concept of execution”. Just because an artist has poor technique does not ensure acceptance by the museum and the conditions go on such as no works on black velvet or art made for the tourist trade.  

I don’t think you will have any problem recognizing bad art, at least not what is on their website.  For Instance, under the section called “Poor Traits”, is an anonymous painting titled “Welcome to the New World”.  The museum’s description is as follows “An Aztec emperor (possibly Montezuma) introduces the no-look high-five to a new friend who, judging from his suntan, has only recently arrived in the tropics”. Yes, and the wall label goes on from there!

In the section “In The Nood” I found “Chiquita” purchased in a thrift store in Boston.  Here part of the description is “Oblivious to the advancing lava flow, the lovely iconic tropical spokeswoman calmly gives us an alluring wink of the eye as all hell breaks loose behind her”.

My final image is from “The Sports Section” called “Yoga Class” which was found in the donor’s apartment building lobby. It is described briefly “We see an unidentified woman achieving the rarely attempted downwardly-mobile pigeon pose”.

I think that the Harvard Review summed the museum up beautifully, “MOBA is Affordable, Amusing, and a good place to share a laugh”.

Wait a moment, If you are already in your cars heading to the museum, please make a U-Turn at the next safe intersection and return home.  At this time the museum is closed for renovation with no reopening date scheduled!  You can, however, go to their website or find them on Facebook.