Sunday, October 22, 2017

The TGP

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.


Sunday, October 1, 2017

Change of Plans

We were headed for Mexico City in 2 days for a tour of artist, Frida Kahlo's world when we heard that there had been an earthquake south of the city so at first we thought there would be no problem but it soon became clear that our trip would not come to pass.

My wife is a wiz when it comes to travel emergencies and by the next morning she had our son from Los Angeles who was going to join us rerouted to New Mexico.  The idea was to take a short road trip through Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

Our first stop was in O'Keeffe County, the town she settled in, Abiquiu.  We stayed at the Abiquiu Inn we knew from our visit to her house some years ago.

Going into the village we discovered a 5 room shop with every kind of artifact you can imagine from around the world on view.  Alas, nothing for us. Most everything else was closed but there was a wedding in the church for a Hispanic couple who were very nattily dressed.  We also drove to the nearby white limestone rock formation that O'Keeffe loved to paint, the Plaza Blanca.  Our son, Hunter took this image of himself and his mother, Penelope at the White Place as O’Keeffe call it.

Photo Credit: Hunter Stiebel

The following day we decided to do something more adventurous and went off on a dirt road for 13 miles, not the thing to do in a BMW sedan even if it has 4-wheel drive!  It went through mountains with hairpin turns but at the end of the road we had our reward.  In a green valley was the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, designed by the famous Japanese-American woodworker and designer, George Nakashima.  It is beautifully snuggled against the rocks with a glass clerestory so you can see the rocks from inside the church .  We entered just as the monks were getting ready to rise, put on their hoods and exit bowing to the altar and tabernacle as they left.  Quite an image that I wished I could have photographed, but here is a photo of the Church.


It was clearly a pilgrimage site for those seeking sanctuary and guidance as well as tourists.  One could even have a room for a few nights. There was a small cemetery with simple wood crosses which seemed so ideal for repose.


Our ultimate goal was Pagosa Springs, Colorado,  and a resort with hot springs.  Our son said our suite at the Springs Hotel was bigger than his apartment in LA:  2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a sitting room and kitchen.  We must have been there off-season because it is not hard to spend the same money on a just  O.K. room in New York.  Here is a photo of the hotel and outside at night.




The next day I walked along the river-bank watching the waters rush by while Hunter and his mother took a mountain hike.  Later, we all went to the Pagosa Springs pools.  There are quite a number and they have different temperatures.  The coolest is 89 degrees, going up beyond 110. Needless to say that one was called "The Lobster Pot"!  For me 103 was plenty.  There was much discussion between the visitors about what the hottest temperature felt like and there were those who were happy with the cooler ones.  It is novel and amazing from Nature's point of view but personally it was not something I would want to do on a regular basis.  The locals, however, could buy monthly passes and did.


What a treat those few days with nature were.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Stepping Out

Who would have thought that a woman from Northern Ireland who came to the U.S. as a child would develop a passion for 2,000 to 3,000 year old sandals from the Southwest but so it was that Maxine McBrinn curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture who produced an exhibition on the history of western Indian footwear.

McBrinn starts the show with plaster impressions of sandaled footprints from the birth of pueblo culture between 500 BC and 500AD (Basket Maker II) . She goes on to cover the Western tribes including the Apache, Cheyenne and Comanche with loans from all over the Southwest like the Edge of Cedars State Park Museum in Blanding, Utah.

McBrinn writes the shoes “are very personal and feel like a direct link to an individual in the past.  You can see the size of their foot, the imprint of each toe, and how the sandal was repaired.”  They can also tell us much about the wearer.  How large they were, were they male or female sometimes even about their health, if they had bunions or limped with an uneven gait.

Anglos seem to think that when they arrived in 1492 the Indians also suddenly appeared to torment them.  There is a reason that to be politically correct we call them Native Americans -  they were here first!   However, since I have never heard an Indian call himself a Native American I will stick to the name Whitey first gave them, Indians.  Driving home this point of their  length of time here the new exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC) is called “Stepping Out: 10,000 Years of Walking the West.” 

As a child back East we were introduced to moccasins as a stiff leather slipper with some beads on top but when one gets out West you learn that that is just a tourist version of the real thing.  We know someone who commissioned a pair of mocasins from a friend, as bedroom slippers which he called, “comfy”.  They were not unlike the quilled and beaded Sioux moccasins, circa 1910, from the museum’s collection.


What I did not know was that early on they were just a flat piece of material to go under the foot.  It makes sense when you think what a shoe is for, to protect the bottom of your feet not the top!  They had to be tied on and so came about the sandals we know so well.  Some sandals were made extra large to leave room to put in mud and grass to keep the wearer’s foot warm.  Here are three different examples: the first is an adult scuffer toe sandal  of about 1300, the second even earlier 750-13 00 is a plain weave sandal of an Ancestral Pueblo, and the third a winder sandal from the Canadian River area made of Yucca grass, also before 1300. 


It was not until about 1300 that moccasins came into fashion.  At first they were decorated with traditional quill work, but when beads came to this country as payment, trade bead-work began to be used.  Though the myth is that the island of Manhattan was acquired from the Indians for $24 worth of beads it wasn’t until about 1800 that that beaded pocasins came into common use. This pair of beautiful Sioux beaded sole moccasins from the museum’s large collection, dating prior to 1890 is made of hide, cloth, glass beads, tin, horse hair also from the museum’s large collection.

Photo Credit: Christopher Durantes

Change is inevitable and everything has to be brought up to date so today we find “High Fashion” shoes such as this pair of heels designed by the noted designer Steve Madden and beaded by Kiowa artist Teri Greeves.  These were commissioned for the show and paid for by The Friends of Indian Art, a support group for the museum.

Photo Credit: Stephen Lang

I found this exhibition to be an eye opener in a field that I thought I understood something about. Learning the history and having it illustrated will have me looking at sandals and moccasins quite differently and with more appreciation from now on.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

A Look Back: Two Dreamers

Quickly approaching is the eighth anniversary of Missives of the Art World ... and as such, from time to time previously published Missives will be featured.  "Two Dreamers" was originally published on October 3, 2010.

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Two Dreamers … one with eyes lowered as if in prayer and the other looking to the stars. Who are these women? We will never know, for they are not commissioned portrait busts but rather idealized heads based on a sculptor’s study of a live model. Furthermore, they are not even in the traditional materials of “fine arts”, stone, or bronze. These two dreamers are made of red stoneware known as Böttgerware, and produced at the porcelain factory of Meissen somewhere between the late 1920’s and mid 1930’s. Their authors were sculptors who made their living creating models for ceramic production.


These sculptural studies are a world apart from the precious quality generally associated with porcelain figurines. But modelers for porcelain factories of the 18th century were often talented sculptors (Kaendler at Meissen, Bustelli at Nymphenburg foremost among them) who could shape the human figure to conform to the stylization of the Baroque and Rococo eras. Just so with these two heads, where the realistic study of models is transformed through the lens of the Art Deco style of the twenties and thirties.

We know little about the sculptors themselves. Professor Emile Paul Börner (1888-1970) studied in Florence and the Italian tradition of the depiction of the Virgin Mary is evident in the mystical tranquility he evokes in his female subject. Even less is known about Willi Münch-Khe (1885-1961), the author of the Balinese beauty, who worked as a modeler at several other German factories as well as at Meissen. He clearly shared in the fascination with the exotic that was current in the art deco and moderne periods.

They both realized the potential of the high-fired red-brown ceramic that had been overlooked in the centuries since it was developed by the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719) in his attempts to produce porcelain for the princely patrons of the Meissen factory. He was the first in Europe to discover the formula for true porcelain known from oriental imports and Meissen began production in 1710. But the early vessels of red stoneware, now dubbed Bottgerware, are among the most prized by collectors today.

The exceptionally hard medium allows for the most refined detail and the contrast of matte and highly polished surfaces (see the eyelashes on Borner’s piece, the glistening lips on Münche-Khe’s) Did the director of the factory encourage the two sculptors to explore the medium in large sculpture? Did the two sculptors challenge each other? I have been so intrigued by my two ladies, their relationship and their contrasting beauty. They are hors de categorie, surpassing the stigma of “minor arts” associated with the products of porcelain factories.

Will we ever know the circumstance of their creation?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Old Masters Rock

If you have not already guessed, “Old Masters Rock” is a book about how to look at art with children.  This book may not be unique in its goals but it certainly has a different way of approaching the subject.

The cover of the book shows a few wonderful Old Masters and the name of the person who had the idea and selected the pictures and wrote the text: Maria-Christina Sayn-Wittgenstein Nottenbohm.  It takes 3 lines to cover all of the names she was born with plus the last, which is her husband’s.  So it is with German aristocracy. If you forced her she could even add a title!  To make things simple she prefers her nickname, Puppa and that is how I shall refer to her.  Presently she is a dealer in the field of Old Masters under the gallery name Sayn-Wittgenstein in New York.  To assure you how well thought of she is in the art world, Gary Tinterow former  chairman of the Met’s department of 19th-century, modern and contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum and now director of the Fine Art Museum, Houston, wrote the introduction

The entries in Old Masters Rock started with regular pieces, emailed to friends over a year ago. Even though Puppa has kindly said to me that I had inspired her to do this, the real inspiration was taking her son Gaspar to museums in this country and abroad and discussing the paintings with him.  Here they are recently at the Metropolitan Museum discussing John Constable’s, Salisbury Cathedral of 1825.


The book begins with some tips for parents and their children.  It comes down to asking questions.  My wife always asked our son and his older brother and sister what they thought a painting was about.  Puppa goes much further with lots of questions and answers about subject, technique and vision of the artist.  The contents are divided into themes, Animals, Families, Myth & Magic, News of the Day and a number more.  Some of the most famous old masters ever are included and a number of my favorites are there in full-page color illustrations.

We might as well start at the beginning with the section on animals and a Leonardo da Vinci, “Lady with an Ermine”, circa 1490.  I was lucky enough to see this picture on a junket to Poland with Basia Johnson right after the Berlin wall came down and there were, as the Polish people called it, “the changes”. Since it had not yet been hung in the galleries at the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, the painting was quite literally brought out of the vault for us. I would take it over the Mona Lisa any day of the week!  To each of these full-page illustrations Puppa has added an equal sized page of text with facts about the artist and technique, and in this case ermine and women of history and mystery.   It is material that will intrigue children and adults alike.    As an example, regarding Leonardo, Puppa writes, “Leonardo was a wizard!  He was brilliant and loved science… and imagined…flying machines”.  She tells about the Ermine that, “are great at catching mice… Ermine fur is traditionally used for royal robes”.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Like most children of parents involved in the arts, I was dragged to auction houses, galleries and museums from the time I was born.  I don’t mind admitting that I was often bored out of my mind, but tell me that I was not allowed somewhere and I was dying to go. This was so with the Frick Collection in New York, which restricted admittance until the age of 10 and I believe still does.  Maybe it was a birthday present, I don’t remember, but I know shortly after my 10th birthday I was taken to the Frick and fell totally in love with a painting, “St. Francis in the Desert”, 1475-1478 by Giovanni Bellini, who I later learned was one of the most important artists of the early Renaissance in Venice.  This large picture, almost 4 by 5 feet, absorbed me like a large screen television might absorb a football fan today!  Puppa introduces this image by the name of the movie “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” that alone is more interesting to a child than St. Frances in the Desert.  Don’t remember St. Francis from my Jewish upbringing.  Puppa puts the latter in historical context and describes the scene, asking questions like whether you can guess what time of day it is or how St. Francis feels while he is saying his morning prayers.  These are all short paragraphs: even technique is explained in simple terms.  They can be read with your child and made into a game or you can just remember one or two when you take your child to the museum.

Copyright The Frick Collection

Another painting that mesmerized me when I was young was Albrecht Altdorfer’s “Battle of Alexander at Issus”.   The picture is in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Puppa calls it “Middle Earth”.  She compares it to classic movie scenes and explains the battle and uniforms.  At the same time everything that is pertinent art historically is also there, including where to find the signature, which explains that Altdorfer was from Regenspurg.  I am sure it was all the tiny soldiers on horseback brandishing weapons that so intrigued me and Puppa describes them so you won’t miss it in the illustration.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

I will mention one more painting which Puppa titles “Construction Site”.  It is Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Tower of Babel” of 1563. I won’t give the story away just the punch line!  Everyone ends up speaking a different language.  We had just such a construction site next door to our house in New York where the contactor got a pick-up crew that spoke Chinese, Spanish, a language from India and many others.  We could never learn anything from them because they could not communicate.  Here is the entry and illustration from the book.


If I have not enticed you to order the book, and encourage your local books store to carry it, then note that the book is already so popular an article appeared in the arts section of the Wall Street Journal earlier this year.  Puppa’s lecture tour for the book started in the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace, which, as lofty as that sounds, has temporary exhibitions from the royal collections, open to all for an entry fee.  You can find her lecture schedule on her Amazon author page HERE.