Sunday, November 19, 2017

Murillo: The Self Portraits

We had a rare opportunity, since we are so seldom in New York, to attend a press opening where the curator, Xavier Salamon, Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at the Frick talked to us about the exhibition, “Murillo: The Self Portraits”.  It is the only show in the U.S. commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  Salamon co-curated the show with Letizia Treves, curator at the National Gallery in London where a larger version of the show will be in the spring of next year. 

Salamon is an excellent speaker and could make the exhibition absolutely clear to us.  Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), a baroque Spanish artist spent his life in Seville. Artists often paint many self-portraits because that is whom they are most familiar with and is always available.  Murillo, however, is known to have only painted two; in fact the artist only painted fifteen  portraits and the Frick is showing five of them including the two  self-portraits.  One belongs to the National Gallery in London and the other, which Henry Clay Frick, himself, bought in 1904 and stayed in the family, was given by Mrs. Clay Frick II in 2014.  

It is said that on Facebook we project our image as we would like people to think of us.  There we can use images and words but the artists of yore had to do it with paint and brush or chisel and marble.  In Murillo’s first self-portrait painted between 1650 and 1655 now in the Frick Collection, the artist is surrounded by a trompe l’oeil frame, a hollowed-out stone block, chipped away and eroded by time. The block, in turn, is propped up on a stone ledge.  This fictive frame is unique in concept and not found on any other work by the artist or his followers.  It also shows the artist with some gravitas even at the relatively young age of about 35.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

Murillo’s second and last self-portrait, lent by London’s National Gallery, was done in 1670.  He wrote below it in Latin as if it were the label for the painting, (translated) “Bartolomé Murillo painted himself to fulfill the wishes and prayers of his children”.  Interesting that he felt he needed an excuse to do another picture of himself or maybe since their mother had died some years before they did not want him to die without a rendering by which to remember him.  Murillo’s wife had given him 9 children 5 of whom had died: that does given one a heavy burden and the necessity of coming face to face with mortality.  My mother asked my father to have his portrait done by fourth generation photographer, Louis Fabian Bachrach. He complied but I don’t remember her ever putting it up, he would not have wanted it!

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

As we know politicians are often elected on the basis of their name and image recognition so is with artists as well.  It is clear that Murillo was thought of as important in his own time for shortly after his death engravings of his early self-portrait started to be made and disseminated.  A sampling of these has been included in the show .

One painting that I cannot resist illustrating is the artist’s “Two Women at a Window” circa 1655-1660 from the National Gallery in Washington D.C.  Salamon explained that women would not have done this at the time unless they were looking for business and they were most probably prostitutes presenting themselves to the gentlemen walking by.  His point of including it was Murillo’s highly original use of trompe l’oeil: a woman leaning out from the stone ledge of a window, comparing this with the artist himself grasping the faux stone fame around his image.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

The show is an interesting insight into an artist who was famous in the 18th and 19th centuries but who fell from favor in more recent times. It is another example of the Frick Collection’s small, very focused exhibitions, which are often the ones you can learn the most from.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Mexico City, After All

Our original journey to Mexico City was cancelled because of the earthquake so we tried again. After a smooth flight from New York’s JFK we landed in the valley between the mountains which holds one of the largest cities in the world with a population of 9 million, Mexico City.  We met up with our son Hunter who had flown in from L.A.  We were there for the tour Penelope had worked on in conjunction with an exhibition of photographs of Frida Kahlo at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in Santa Fe.  It was just after the celebration of the Dead but there were still some vestiges remaining.

We arrived a day before the group and headed directly to the Cathedral, which was not on the established itinerary.  We went by subway which was quieter but even much more crowded during non rush hours than New York.  The Cathedral is incredible in size and decoration. Mexican gold was a large reason for the Spanish conquest and you could see that there was plenty to spare in that the gilding was so thick in the Cathedral that the altars have not needed re-gilding since the original in the 18th century.  Unfortunately the paintings were so black with years of soot, that without strong light, one could not see them.

Only in the sacristy were they viewable. The sacristy was what Penelope wanted most to see as its walls are covered with huge canvases painted in the late 17th century by Cristóbal Villapando (ca. 1649-1714) and Juan Correa 1646-1716). Here is a panorama of the Sacristy, a detail of the Correa and a detail of the Villapando (in that order).

Across the street from the Cathedral is the Templo Mayor.  The Spaniards had destroyed the great Aztec pyramid, using its stones to build the Cathedral.  Only in 1978 did electrical workers digging in a residential block near the Cathedral come across the remnants of the Temple.  When Archeologists took over, slowly but surely more of this important archeological site was revealed.  The Aztecs had kept building pyramid upon pyramid as they continuously enlarged their most important temple.  Within its precincts archeologists have found a ball court and the sacrificial remains of humans as well as every species of animal known in Mexico.  There is, of course, a museum attached and here is Penelope in front of a group of skulls.

Between the Cathedral and the Aztec excavation there is a small plaza where there are Aztec drummers and dancers in constant performance.  They are not necessarily descendants from the Aztecs, nor are the dances authentic, but they take their work very seriously. Here is a brief example.

The next day the official tour called “Frida in Context” commenced with James Oles as the scholar leading us.  Known as Jay, he grew up in Connecticut, got his degrees including a PhD from Yale and threw in a JD at the University of Virginia to boot.  Today, he is a professor at Wellesley for one semester a year and spends the rest of his time in Mexico.  He is curator at the Davis Museum at Wellesley, has written several books on Mexican art and Modernism and arranged important exhibitions on the subject.  We were lucky enough to have him give us the three intensive days in Mexico City devoted to Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) - he is a phenomenal teacher!

Suffice it to say that to write about everything we have seen and the information gathered would be impossible.  But here goes - we started with Diego’s last large fresco from 1947-48 called “Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”, which was originally done for a hotel on the park that  was destroyed in the 1985 earthquake. The mural was thought important enough to save and restore.  Moving a fresco is not like moving a painting on canvas as the paint is applied directly onto wet plaster and becomes part of the wall. In this case the entire wall was moved to an exhibition space constructed for it.  The work shows important personages of different periods around images of Diego as a child with grown-up Frida behind him.  It is impossible to show a good illustration of the 50 foot painting so here is a detail.

Jay, like every good teacher, believes that one first must put the subject in historic context so we went to the Franz Mayer Museum.  Immigrating to Mexico in 1905, Franz Mayer became a very successful banker and stockbroker and an avid collector. He amassed not only decorative arts of colonial Spanish America but European and Asian works too, everything that was popular with the elite when the Mexican Modernists came onto the scene.

In the near future I will get into more detail on Frida and Diego and what we saw in the last two days in Mexico City.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

TEFAF New York, 2017

TEFAF stands for The European Fine Art Fair organized by the European Fine Art Foundation.  The Fair became known in the art world as simply “Maastricht” as it started in that city in the Netherlands in 1988.  I wrote about it several times when I was still traveling in Europe.  It had been a dream of many of the exhibitors to stage such a fair in New York but there had been no suitable  venue until two years ago when the Haughton Fair at the Park Avenue Armory closed.  Also known as the 7th Regiment Armory it was  built in  1861 in response to President Lincoln’s call for troops.  It has long been New York’s primary art fair venue.  A new administration at the Armory refurbished the building allowing the great rooms to shine with their original splendor so that bigger and better shows as well as performing arts could take place there.

The first “TEFAF, New York” took place last year and I wrote about that from a distance using press and dealer reports and images.  The positive reports lured not only me to New York this year, but also a lot of dealers who had been dubious and did not want to be pioneers. TEFAF now has a very large waiting list of dealers.  I participated in an art fair at the armory for the first time about a half-century ago and the armory had not changed one iota until last year.  It was an amazing transformation and we got totally lost more than once on this visit.  Since the period wood paneled rooms had been restored they could now be used and even the upper floor opened for exhibitors.  There was also room to pass food upstairs while below there were food stands.  TEFAF creates the most lavish fairs so they are naturally very expensive to participate in.  Opening night the food, wine and drinks are gratis.  We ate our fill of shrimp, duck paté, burger sliders and other delicacies.

People always think that the original was better (“in the good old days”) and while that often may be true, it does not have to be.  Yes, TEFAF in Maastricht is much larger, which allows for larger booths but, as one colleague said, the smaller booths in New York forced the exhibitors from all over the world to show only their best works of art!

Since the armory, even with the second floor, is so much smaller than the modern exhibit hall in Maastricht, there are 95 dealers exhibiting as compared to around 260 in the Netherlands. In New York in the Fall you see mostly older art from around the world: the organizers bill it as Antiquity to 1920.  In the Spring there will be another “TEFAF”, New York” with mostly modern and contemporary art exhibited. I liked that categories were mixed, making every booth seem different,-- silver, next to painting, next to furniture, and on the opening day, next to food!  Yes, some of the exhibitors thought the latter got in the way of the total art experience, but the way the visitors were storming the food tables, they did not see to have a problem with it.  The day after the opening there was no food on the main exhibit floor.

Among the visitors almost 30 museums and institutions were represented from all over the States as well as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Kunsthistorischesmuseum in Vienna and the Palazzo Stozzi represented by their Foundation in New York.  Among the celebrities present were Anderson Cooper who was spotted here last year as well.  A big hit was Whoopee Goldberg.  Famous collectors such as Jo-Carole and Ronald Lauder (Ronald was co-founder of the Neue Galerie Museum) and Anne Bass attended.  The lists go on and on.

My wife now being on the board of the Spanish Colonial Art Society and Museum in Santa Fe we were particularly aware of wonderful pieces from Spain, Mexico and various places in South America, which we had not seen in Maastricht last time we were there.

At the S. Mehringer gallery from Munich we saw a small altar with Madonna in soft woods including  boxwood by the Spanish artist Benito Alonzo Da Vila done around 1740.  It could have been made for a private chapel or as a master-work to show the skill of the artist.  I have included a detail behind the virgin and child but since I was using an old iPhone I could not capture the detail in the candle sticks or chandelier.

For me another sign of moving on was that I was more drawn to fields other than the ones that I had spent my life dealing in.  When I saw this bronze fulcrum fitting from Cahn International in Basel, Switzerland  showing Dionysos, god of wine, joined by a panther , I fell in love, --of course having no idea what it was.  I learned It was a furniture fitting probably for one of the four corners of a bed.  A few of the drill holes were surely to attach it to the bed but the rest would have been fitted with colored pieces of metal to make them even more decorative.

We become exhausted after 4 plus hours at a fair, imagine how the exhibitors feel after 8 or 9 hours… but there are parties as well, and, being almost Halloween, there was a costume party given by the Naumanns and Agnews, where the fare was oysters prepared by a professional oyster shucker from The Netherlands, pizza and, of course wine … what a way to go!

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Too Many

Years ago a friend of ours wanted to show off how his two year old could count.  She stood in her PJ’s in the bottom drawer of her chest of drawers and started, “1,2,3,4,5,6,7, too many”.  Ever since it has become a family saying and that is just how I feel about our up coming trip to New York.  Even though you will read this after we arrive, this is what we are facing.

In major cities when there is a big art event planned others try to pile on so that there is an incentive for as many as possible visitors and art interested individuals will come to town.  Such an event may very well occur on the day after we arrive.  It is the opening of TEFAF (The European Fine Art Fair or Art Foundation) at the Park Avenue Armory.  I have written several blogs about this international fair, which started years ago in Maastricht, The Netherlands. It now has two incarnations in New York.  The Fall event concentrates on the old master world.  At the Javits Center The International Fine Print Dealers are having their annual event and The New York Satellite Print Fair is taking place across town.  Up on Park Avenue The Art & Antique Dealers League of America (I believe the oldest art dealers association in the U.S. is  having a fair  in a hall at a well known church and school.

TEFAF Maastricht 2013

Those are just the fairs.  If you are reading this you probably are aware of the plethora of museum exhibitions around  town. The night we arrive is an opening at the Neue Gallerie of an exhibition, “Wiener Werkstatte 1913-1932: the Luxury of Beauty” We have always had an interest in this field my wife curated at the Metropolitan Museum. The Morgan Library is showing “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from The Thaw Collection”.  Gene and Clare Thaw have arguably given more drawings to the Morgan than J. P. Morgan himself.  Not to be out done, the Metropolitan Museum is having a show “Leonardo to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Robert Lehman Collection”.  This is from a very large collection of many fields given to the Met by Lehman’s estate on the condition that it be kept together in its own space. Though it is an integral part of the museum, loan papers have to be made out if pieces are shown in another part of the museum.  Needless, to say the Met will have several other shows within its walls at that time.  A monographic show which I am looking forward to is at the Frick Collection, “Murillo: The Self Portraits” celebrating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth.  Because of my interest in Native America I hope to see a show at the Whitney Museum, “jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World”.  The reviews I have read have been positive but there has been controversy, particularly in the Native American World, over whether he has the right to call himself an Indian and why he should get a solo museum show when there are so many other artists who are as good and more Indian than he.  This is a subject one could devote at least a chapter to.

Robert Lehman Wing at the Met

I am not even going to touch on individual dealer exhibitions which are up in galleries 365 days a year and you can spend that time going to a different one every day.  I do have my eye on at least one Old Master show and one from the photography world.

We will be in New York for 6 full days and we already have several lunches and dinners planned, and might catch a show or two.  If your head is not swimming, mine is.  There is no way to do it all but we will get to as much as is possible.  Then I will have to make choices for Missives. Which ones would you write about?

Oh yes, we go to Mexico City from New York to be on the postponed “Frida Kahlo in Context” tour.

As I said “Too Many” but I will let you know about some of the highlights!

Sunday, October 22, 2017


What is the TGP? It sounds like the acronym for a complicated chemical formula or something they put in your soda!  Searching on line the first thing that came up on my computer was “The Naked TGP”. I don’t want to know what that stands for.  In this case, however, I am referring to the “Taller de Gráfica Popular” (The Peoples Graphic Workshop) which is the subject of “Mexican Mirror” a small but exquisite exhibition at the New Mexico History Museum.

The TGP started during the tenure of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940).  This progressive administration saw social and economic transformations initiated by popular demands of the Mexican Revolution. As often happens, out of this came a new art movement.  The TGP mostly created prints and posters and it is these that are being shown.   The inspiration came from Jean Moss, co-curator for the exhibition who had the opportunity to see the collection of Jeff and Anne Bingaman.  He was our five-term senator from New Mexico, a much beloved individual in this town.  His wife says this is entirely the Senator’s collection which he started when he found a book on the artist Leopoldo Méndez and the TGP in a used bookstore in Zacatecas, Mexico..   I asked the Senator, who wants to be called Jeff, how many prints were in his collection and he modestly said not much more than 60.  While the exhibition is not confined to Anne and Jeff’s collection the vast majority are theirs as are all those illustrated here.

Jean Moss suggested the exhibition to Tom Leech, long time Curator at the History Museum and Director of the Press at the Palace of the Governors. He loved the idea as it gave them the opportunity to do a show that was not only interesting for the art but related to issues of our time on both sides of the border.

Political commentary in art is always fascinating and this is no exception.  Jeff summed it up, writing “the main themes are the dignity and nobility of the Mexican people, oppression of the people by the government and the Catholic Church, U.S. imperialism, the greed and inequality resulting from capitalism, and the condemnation of fascism and corruption in all forms.” His appreciation grew after he learned that it was a collaborative effort of artists from many backgrounds and, though most were Mexican, there were artists from the States as well.

The image that is right up front in the show and says it all: it is a linocut by Leopoldo Méndez (1902-1969), one of the founders of the TGP.  It shows the printer, José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) in his workshop looking out on a scene of armed response to demonstrators around 1900. This linocut was done a while after the fact, 1953.  Posada was working during the Mexican Revolution producing broadsheets and political commentary.  His work had a great influence on the TGP.

A 1960 linocut celebrates the Contribution of the People to the Expropriation of Petroleum in 1938.  The people are donating their property to be sold to buy back the petroleum interests from foreigners. Note the oil rigs with flags behind the crowd.  The artist, Elizabeth Catlett also known as Betty Mora, (1915-2012) was an African American who moved to Mexico and joined the TGP where she met and married the Mexican artist Francisco Mora. She was born and raised in Washington D.C. and is also known for documenting the African American experience.

In 1947 Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003) did this linocut titled “The Criminal Victoriano Huerta Seizes Power”, still today he is known as “The Jackel” and “The Usurper”.  He was a military officer and 35th President of Mexico, but for only 17 months, since his family coup was then overthrown and he had to flee the country in 1914.

My last illustration is by Guillermo Bonilla of The Vegetable Carrier.  Does it remind anyone else of Goya?  To me it shows how closely Mexican Art can still echo that of the old country.

Impressed as I am by these prints I neither have the room nor the stamina to start yet another field of collecting, but ... as I have learned ... never say never ...

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tale of Two Performances

I guess the performances we saw were what my kids would call concerts, that is if they were outdoors and there were a few thousand people but these were much more intimate affairs. They took place in the Lensic Theatre which only seats 800 plus but audience member shouted out as they might in a stadium.

The performers were Robert Mirabal & Ethel and Loudon Wainwright III.  My father used to say that by being a pessimist and not expecting anything he was never disappointed.  That may have been wise advice. I expected to feel ambivalent toward the first but I loved it; and the second one that I was really looking forward to, I found disappointing.

In the case of Robert Mirabal & Ethel, I had no idea who or what Ethel was and found out they were a group of musicians who played string instruments.  They play several but the main ones are, violin, viola, mandolin and cello.  The group was founded in 1998 and they often collaborate with solo artists.  In this particular case it was Robert Mirabal, a Taos musician who not only plays a number of different kinds of flutes, he makes them as well.  For this performance he also played piano and the didgeridoo.  This latter instrument comes from the indigenous peoples of Northern Australia.   It was invented, according to various sources, either more or less than a millennium ago: in any case it has been around for awhile.  From what I could see it was as difficult to play as a shofar … it takes a lot of air to make a sound, which is not entirely easy on the ears.

Photo by Tim Black

I knew I liked Mirabal having heard him before.  I love Indian flute music.  Somehow it transports me to the Hopi Mesas in Northern Arizona.  I thought the different ways that Ethel made their instruments work together was incredible.  Having mostly heard string instruments in a classical music orchestra I did not think of them working in an innovative manner and not just all creating one harmonious sound.  This was so exciting.  The video below will give you a taste of the music we heard and most of the instruments including the didgeridoo.

The second performance was Loudon Wainwright III.  I was looking forward to a musician  whose sound was something between Country and Folk music.  It turned out that was not the performance he was doing for us.  Basically, we heard a comedian who did some of his own songs and recited stories his father had written (the latter was an accomplished writer who was on the staff of Life Magazine).  Unfortunately, I did not find him very funny.  My wife, however, loved the stories, which, I must admit, were often touching, particularly coming from the son of the author.  By the way, the audience obviously knew what to expect and just loved him.  He is, as I thought, extremely well known.  He has made 26 albums and his songs have been sung by the likes of Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt.  Here in a PR photograph ...

Photo by Ross Halfinn

That might explain my confusion.  At the age of 70 plus he may feel more comfortable not doing a great many songs.  We heard Joan Baez, some months ago, tell the audience that she would not do her songs with the high notes anymore and I remember a point at which Pete Seeger spoke more that sang his songs.  Below is an example of a song without the humor.

I first titled this piece, “That's What Makes Horse Racing” and decided that was too misleading a title.   My wife could well write a rebuttal to my opinion since she felt almost 100% the reverse.  When our son Hunter was still at home he would usually referee these discussions and try to explain it to us by saying things like “For the actor, it's a question of choices”.  Today he is an actor, writer and director.   As I said, that’s what makes Horse Racing” and can add to the enjoyment of art.  Having differences of opinion gets your mind working and can be quite rewarding.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Education of an Art Dealer

By the time I finished my BA at Long Island University I realized I was not cut out to be the lawyer I had wanted to be since my high school French teacher gave me his collection of Perry Mason mysteries. There was an easy way out, a family art dealership, Rosenberg & Stiebel (R&S).  One partner, my father’s brother, had just died; the head partner, my father’s cousin, was on the brink of retiring; and my father had just had a heart attack, for which 50 years ago they put you in the hospital for weeks.  I always liked my father’s gallery, which we always referred “the office” so, at my mother’s urging, I decided to join the firm.

I set out to learn more about art history, even though I had visited many museums with my parents, I went to Columbia University for an MA, where I got the great advice from one of my professors that I could learn more in two months at the family firm than in 2 years at Columbia going for a PhD.

Before that however, I took what today is called a gap year.  During that time I went to England where I took courses at the Courtauld Institute and studied at the Study Center for the Fine and Decorative Arts (1955-75). The courses were mostly taught in the great London museums like the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and The National Gallery.  I also remember the ceramics curator at the Wallace Collection teaching about French porcelain in front of their great collection. French furniture was taught in the Wallace and the V&A. That is how I learn best, from the original pieces. I did miss the architecture section because of schedule but read the course material, and, in the end, managed to pass all the exams. I received a certificate definitely worthy of framing since it was signed by well-known authorities including John Pope-Hennessy, the famed Renaissance Scholar, who was director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) at the time.

After London I went to Paris.  I was there to learn the art dealer trade, at least from the French point of view, as well as French 18th century furniture which was one of several fields my family firm concentrated on.  There was a Paris dealer, René Weiller with whom there was always an open account: we bought from him, he bought from us and we gave each other objects on consignment.  He was the ultimate connoisseur and sold to the best dealers in London, Paris and New York and I am proud to say we were his choice for New York.  Of course, we had the advantage that when my uncle lived in Paris in the 20’s he had befriended and dealt with René.  Though my uncle made it to the U.S. during World War II, he went back to Paris and resumed the relationship by 1950. (I remember because my uncle’s 1949 Buick became my parents first car!)

I was basically apprenticed to René Weiller.  My parents were loathe to invite him socially because he lived and breathed French Furniture and objects and did not like to speak of anything else!  In Paris I stayed in his home with his son, Patrick, who became a dealer in Old Master Paintings and later a novelist revolving around the art trade.  When I was there in the 60’s he was finishing up his Baccalaureate.  It was the closest I got to riding a motor cycle because I rode on the back of Patrick’s small motorcycle together with his school books!

René Weiller from Connaissance des Arts
René spent at least 14 hours a day working on his passion.  You could only find him in his office after 7 pm, but he started at 5 AM with his furniture restorers who were working on the pieces he had found, often in the countryside.  René never kept anything for long.  He was happiest when he could buy in the morning and sell it in the evening. I caught him in his car one evening where he was holding a miniature gilt bronze cartel clock, which I bought on the spot and took for my home.

 I remember one piece, a black desk that when the restorer started to clean it, he had a shock.  It was coming out red! René called my father and asked what to do, keep going or cover it up again.  The reply was “Bring it back to its original state”.  It turned out to be the red lacquer desk made for Louis the XV with the royal inventory number underneath.  It is now in the Metropolitan Museum, thanks to Charles and Jayne Wrightsman,

I have always believed in apprentice programs and still believe that one can learn from professionals at least as much as in University.  Of course, art dealing was different then, especially in France.  René once pointed at the Louvre from his car and said to me proudly “I have not set foot in that place for 20 years”.  No dealer would dare say such a thing today!

You can learn the most by seeing art in the original and discussing it and one learns from doing and watching others.