Sunday, March 18, 2018

Painted in Mexico 1700-1790: Pinxit Mexici

“Painted in Mexico 1700-1790” is the name of an exhibition I saw a week before it closed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  It was a six-year undertaking by the co-curators ILona Katzew, curator and department head at LACMA, Jaime Cuadriello and Paula Mues Ortis of Mexico City and Luisa Elena Alcalá of Madrid. The curators toured Mexico in search of paintings never before recorded that told a piece of art history about which little was known.

By the 16th century artists from Spain were already coming to the New World either to decorate the new churches or complete artistic commissions.  Some formed workshops, which lasted generations. By the 17th century there were artists born in New Spain who had no experience in the Old Country but were informed by a combination of paintings and prints by their forbearers and the world they knew.  This exhibition shows that by the 18th century the Mexican artists developed their own styles.

The exhibition begins with a large painting, “Apotheosis of the Eucharist”, 1723 by Juan Rodriguez Juárez 1675-1728 commissioned for the newly established convent of Corpus Christi in Mexico City.

Nearby are two paintings attributed to Nicolás Enriquez (1704-c.1790).  One is the Interior of the Church of Corpus Christi with a view of the main altar where you can see the Juan Rodriguez Juárez altarpiece which is my previous illustration.

The second image is of the Alameda Park and Convent in Mexico City where we were a few months ago and I wrote about.  These two paintings were lent to the exhibition from the Royal Palace in Madrid as they were commissioned and sent to the King of Spain to show the progress already made in New Spain and to garner continued support for these ventures.

Like many other exhibitions this one is divided into themes, such as Great Masters, Master Story Tellers, Noble Pursuits and a number of others.  Due to a rather disjointed installation it was difficult to follow these themes but it did not detract from the enjoyment of the exhibition and the feeling of discovery.

As I recently wrote about the Virgin of Guadalupe I will illustrate “Allegory of the Patronage of the Virgin of Guadalupe over New Spain,” by an unknown artist, dated 1786, one of a number of depictions in the exhibition.  It was lent by a private collector in Mexico City and is a devotional picture set in an especially lavish silver frame.

The influence Europe still had on the New World is evident in a large painted folding screen, known as a biombo, with Fête Galante and Musicians, attributed to Miguel Cabrera (1715-1768), ca. 1760.  Except for the Spanish costumes it looks like it could have been imported directly from France and and the composition has been traced to a French print.  This piece from a private collection has been on loan to Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., the non-profit branch of the National Bank of Mexico (Banamex) located in Mexico City.  It co-organized the exhibition with LACMA and was its first venue.

Though very difficult to decide, I will end with what is, at the moment, my favorite picture in the show.  It is by Nicolás Correa (1657 - ca.1708), “Procession of Saint Rosalia of Palermo”, 1708, from another private collector in Mexico City.  The scene evokes the miracle during the plague that struck Palermo in 1625.  I love paintings where every time you look at them, with fresh eyes, you make a new discovery; here the individual figures in the crowd.

You will have another opportunity to see the exhibition, which is heading now to the Metropolitan Museum in New York where it will open on April 24 and remain until July 22.  If I end up seeing it again I may write with a new view!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Obama Portraits

The first time I saw images of the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery I was surprised, maybe even a little shocked… but that was probably the way some people felt when we elected our first Black President, even those who desperately wanted him to win.  So why not make the portraits different as well?

Then I remembered where Barack Obama took his wife on their first date, The Art Institute of Chicago.  I remembered that with particular fondness because finally there was at least one politician who cared about the Arts … how very rare. No wonder they had their favorite artists.

Why do so few people, except school groups, go to the National Portrait Gallery? Because the portraits are usually extremely stodgy and boring.  Here you can see other Presidential portraits, . They are not very exciting. There are small differences between them but not major ones with two notable exceptions when Elaine de Kooning painted JFK and Chuck Close did Bill Clinton.

The artists the Obamas requested to do their portraits are, not surprisingly, also African American.   Kehinde Wiley, who painted the President, and and Amy Sherald who painted the First Lady are not strangers to the politics of race and would want to do something different that would stand out for their sake as well as their sitters.  Even in the best of all possible worlds, when all visitors are “color blind”, these portraits would stand out as the First Black President and his First Lady.

The President is set against greenery, and according to the New York Times the flowers have symbolic meaning for him.  The African blue lilies represent Kenya, his father’s birthplace; jasmine represents Hawaii where he was born; Chrysanthemums are the official flower of Chicago where he first got into politics and where he met Michelle.  Some said that Obama seemed too aloof as President, always the academic.  While that was never my feeling, here you see him as a contemplative individual, always taking his decisions very carefully in spite of the many frustrations!

 The Times describes Amy Sherald’s take on Michelle Obama as emphasizing an “element of couturial spectacle and rock-solid cool”.  I do understand these aspects but also the seriousness with which Michelle saw her role in the White House.  Not trying to do her husband’s job but doing something just as important speaking for the young, as far as education and health are concerned.  I have hardly any interest in haute couture and though I am supposed to have heard of Michelle’s dress designer Michelle Smith, I have not.  I can note, however, that this dress has style and most importantly to me is that it is different but tasteful and distinguished.

I can also perfectly understand why a little girl could be mesmerized by Michelle’s portrait.  Not sure that a young child would think, “Oh, this is a woman who was the first Black First Lady”.  I think that the monochromatic effect of the work makes it all the more powerful, as the First Lady was in her own way.  Here is the photo of two-year-old Parker Curry, taken by another museum visitor Ben Hines.

I don’t think that the Obamas had in mind what their portraits would do for the National Portrait Gallery but attendance at the museum has been up 300%.  I doubt that any other Presidential portraits inspired that kind of attendance  when they were unveiled.  How refreshing mixing politics and art with the emphasis on the latter while serving the former!

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

You might think that an exhibition with a title like, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” might open in Los Angeles or New York but would you believe The Tate Modern in London?!  As I am writing it is in its second venue at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, AR ... founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton.  Unfortunately, we have not been there yet but all reports are raves!  Just as surprising in my mind is the fact that I read about the show first in Business Week magazine.

As the press release from Crystal Bridges generously notes the show was developed by the Tate.  The curators for the show are Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley at the latter and Lauren Haynes for Crystal Bridges

In the introduction to the catalog the curators from the Tate write, ”There is no America without African American”.  Thank goodness for those who observe us objectively and not xenophobic-ly as we so often see ourselves!  As you have probably already surmised all the artists are black and the art was created between 1963 and 1983, an especially turbulent time for Black America.  The show which is a bit smaller in its second venue is organized in 12 sections, movements, geography, and civil rights being a few of them.

Here are some examples of the work in the show:

Norman Lewis’s, (1909-1979), America the Beautiful of 1960 is a black and white image with a very ironic title.  It is not the abstract image it appears to be at first.  Look closer and you will see the peaked white hoods and crosses of the Ku Klux Clan.  When abstract art was all the rage for the whites, or Anglos as I have learned to call us in the Southwest, the blacks had very different priorities to deal with!

I must admit to not being familiar with all the names  of the artists but one that is very well known to me as a big fan, is Romare Bearden (1911-1988), represented here by Pittsburgh Memory 1964.  It appears in the catalogue under a section called American Skin: Artists on Black Figuration.  His collage paintings draw from the workingman in the general populace, here accentuated by the monochromatic tones. It does not take much to imagine these two figures as steel workers, just one step above the title, slave.

Benny Andrews (1930-2006), Did the Bear Sit Under a Tree? from 1969.  I am afraid I could not find the precise meaning of the title but it is certainly a powerful statement.  Andrews grew up in the segregated American South and became a leader of black activism in the arts.  It does not take much imagination to understand “Black Power” and “Power to the People” from this painting and collage including rolled cloth of the flag and the zipper glued across the mouth of the black man.

Carolyn Mims Lawrence, (1940-), Black Children Keep Your Spirits Free 1972.  The title is right there in the center of the painting.  I find the colors and fantasy offer liberating hope, in contrast to depressingly dark, monochromatic paint.

Betye Saar’ (1926-) Rainbow Mojo from 1971 might be a positive note to end on.  I should have guessed it,--the concept for this series came out of her interest in astrology- and its bright colors create an optimistic tone.

This is a very small slice of art from the exhibition and my hope, as usual, is to have whetted your appetite to learn more.  If you are old enough, think back; if you are younger learn about the years following 1963, the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the a period of black activism, two decades that are so important to American history.

The exhibition at Crystal Bridges closes on April 23 and will travel next to The Brooklyn Museum where it will open in September.  Strange irony that where you would think the show would be born is where it ends!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe is an important figure of devotion to the  peoples of the New World.

The story is told that in 1531 an Aztec Indian, named Juan Diego, heard music on Tepeyac hill as he was walking to church near Mexico City.  After climbing to the top, a woman revealed herself as the Holy Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus.  She asked Juan Diego to be a messenger.  He should find the Catholic Bishop of Mexico and ask him to build a church on that exact spot.  The Bishop, of course, was dubious.  Juan Diego was sent away 3 times asking him for proof of his apparition. 

On December 12, 1531 when Juan Diego was in search of a priest to visit his dying uncle the Virgin appeared again to him and told him his Uncle would be cured and the following day he found his uncle well again.   She further instructed him to gather roses from the hill at which they had met.  Even in that cold weather season the flowers were in full bloom and he carried them in his tilma (cloak) and brought them to the Bishop.   As they spilled out in front of the Bishop an image of the Virgin Mary appeared on his cloak.  The Tilma can still be seen today behind the main altar in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.   She was the only apparition of Mary who provided proof of her existence through an image. There were other accounts where people said they saw her, but they were unable to provide proof of their encounter.

When the Spaniards came to the New World they brought along their religion of  Catholicism and believed they could convert the Native Americans.   There was, however, a revolt by the Indians in 1680 and they expelled the Spanish.  They were not gone for long and by 1692 the Spanish had returned.  Many of the Native tribes continued to pray in the Catholic Church and venerated the Virgin Mary.  In celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe they have a feast day and perform a special dance known as the Matachines. The official date is December 12 but the dances in her honor actually begin in October.

In Santa Fe we have The Santuario de Guadalupe, the oldest extant shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in this country dating from 1777.  It was a small adobe church on the banks of the Santa Fe River which today is a mere trickle unless the reservoir is opened or we have a large rain and in either case it is more of a brook than river. The site is important as it was the end of the Camino Real, the Colonial trade route from Mexico City.  Here you can see the Santauario as it looks today  and the large statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe in front created in 2008.

The wall behind the altar is covered by a painting dated 1783 by José de Alzíbar (1730-1803), one of the leading painters of Mexico City. This monumental canvas illustrates the traditional image of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by vignettes of the legend of its origin.

Unfortunately, the church fell into such disrepair that it was declared unfit for regular use. And by the end of the 19th century the new and first archbishop of Santa Fe, Jean-Baptiste Lamy  (1814 – 1888), a French Roman Catholic prelate asked Father Defouri to come down from Denver and become pastor of the English-speaking people in Santa Fe.  At the same time Bishop Lamy agreed to give the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the American Congregation.  They got to work on the Church making needed repairs between 1881-1884.  A 1922 fire razed the roof forcing another big change to a California mission style and a new bell tower.    By 1961 the parish had long outgrown the Church and  a new one was built behind the original.  In 1973 Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez began an effort to raise funds to bring the Church back to its original configuration.  At that time  the Archdiocese “deeded” the building to the newly formed non-profit and non-sectarian Guadalupe Historic Foundation, that completed the work in time for our Bicentennial.

Our Lady of Guadalupe lives on.  Gail Delgado, Director of Santaurio, says she has witnessed a deep devotion to the Virgin Mary, even by non-Catholics.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Do I Do Now?

Your Great Aunt Nellie died recently and left you with a group of art works.  Your first thought is what did she expect me to do with these.  Its simple:

-Learn what it is that you wish to sell
-Find out its provenance
-Reach out to both dealers and auction houses
-Make the difficult decision

Truthfully, it is not quite that simple.  Would have been nice if one of the paintings that was left you was signed by Rembrandt together with all the references in the various monographs including the latest one.  When I was first in the business there were 600 recognized Rembrandts in the literature and that was reduced by the next generation to 300. One more generation and we were down to 150.  Then a committee was set up to decide what paintings Rembrandt actually did and which were just a follower of Rembrandt’s.  Only one member of the scholars’ committee has stayed with the project and I do not know how many Rembrandts are recognized in the current literature.

You quickly ascertain that the painting you have been left is not by Rembrandt but by who is it?  Should you believe that the work is not by Aunt Nellie herself nor her immediate family, see if it is signed on the front or the back.  Should a name appear, go to the web and put in the name with a comma and the word artist afterwards and see if that is a lead.  If so see if the works on line are similar to what you have inherited.

Should you feel there is hope that the work may have some value beyond sentimental,  scour your aunt’s records for an invoice, or letter of gift, or any clue as to how she obtained the picture.  This information in rare cases can add to the value if the work belonged to someone important.  More important, however, is that it might help authenticate the work.  If there is a letter to Aunt Nellie from the artist gifting it to her out of friendship or gratitude you need seek no further.

The Print Lovers by Honoré Daumier

If you believe you have identified the artist see if there are any monographs on the artist and go through those to see if your picture is in there.  This will be important for you to know when you go to the next step and try to find out what the picture is worth. 

If you have that proverbial Rembrandt mentioned above and it is first rate you might go to the most prominent auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s, but since this is most probably not the case I would not have high expectations.  My father used to say, referring to the major auction houses.  “We can compete with their prices but not with their estimates.”  More than once I have been seduced by an estimate only to get a phone call shortly before the sale asking me to reduce my reserve (the price below which I will not sell) and have them slash the estimate and still buy in (not sell) the picture.  Then your picture is not only handed back to you, usually with fees, but it is what is known as “burned”.  Everyone knows the price it failed to bring and you will have great problems selling the picture for a long time because if no one else wants it, why should anyone else buy it.

Auction is also a lottery.  Someone, and preferably two people, have to want it at that time and place.  If the sale is in New York and the person who is interested to buy the work is in Georgia he may not be able to either get to New York or know who to send in his place.

I owned a contemporary painting by a British artist about 6 feet high that I no longer had room for.   No New York dealer had ever heard of the artist.  I looked her up on line and found that the New Orleans Auction Galleries had sold the artist’s work successfully.  I got less than my cost from the sale but I no longer had to pay storage for the art. 

The way I like to sell is through a dealer, if need be on consignment. If it is on consignment you have a agreed on the price you will receive, you can even agree on the dealer’s commission or he will give you a net figure that you get all of.  If after a set period of time it does not sell you can still put it in auction and there are no records to indicate that the work was available at a different price. 

How do you find a dealer?  One way is to go to the web and go to  It stands for La Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvre d’Art,  The International Confederation of  Art Dealers . This is an organization consisting of over 30 art and antique dealers’ associations in over 20 countries and representing about 5,000 dealers.  They have been vetted by their associations and deal in almost every area of the art market.  Start with the ones closest to home and make a few phone calls sending some really good photos and the information you have gathered and  see what they have to say.  Don’t forget that it costs to ship and insure a work so take that into account.

Now its time to get some expert advice.  If you are unfamiliar with the art world and have no idea where to turn get in touch with your nearest museum and find out who the curator is in the department where you think your work might belong.  The museum will NOT appraise it for you and you should not ask.  You only want to know what they think it is and who in the commercial world, auction house or dealer, might have the specific expertise in the art or artists you have to be able to help you.

Good luck with your quest, detective work can be lots of fun … enjoy!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Censorship of Art

Years ago in France I remember an 1866 painting by by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) was shown behind a curtain because it focused on the private parts of a nude model. Its title, The Origin of the World is in its own way factual, and forces one to think of the painting differently… but what was really in the mind of the artist?  Some people will believe they know ...

In December last year a human resources manager at a New York financial firm circulated a petition on line requesting the removal of a 1938 painting by Balthus (1908-2001) from the walls of the Metropolitan museum.  Titled Therese Dreaming, it depicts the artist’s 12-year-old neighbor fully dressed but in a pose that shows her underwear. The petition called it pedophilia and received 100,000 signatures.  Strange thing is, though I have known the painting most of my life and understood it was suggestive, I never thought of that description.

More recently the Manchester Art Gallery in Manchester, England removed from view their painting called Hylas and the Nymphs by Joseph William Waterhouse (1849-1917), which represents a Victorian erotic fantasy.  Why? The reason given was “… to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.”  If it is in the museum’s opinion an important work of art representing a moment in history why do they need to ask the public?  I thought the work of a curator and director was to educate the public, not take their guidance. And how is the public supposed to have an informed opinion about what they cannot see?

You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The Metropolitan museum decided to keep the Balthus on view. The Courbet started out at the Louvre and today resides at the Musée D’Orsay and, as far as I know, has always been on view. 

A famous living artist, however, who critics and public alike have appreciated for half a century, has been denied a planned exhibition due to allegations of  sexual misconduct. I cannot say I know the artist Chuck Close but his gallery was in the same building as mine and when I had the chutzpah, to open a contemporary department in my old master gallery Mr. Close came, in spite of his wheelchair, to the inaugural luncheon we arranged.  Coincidentally, he had kids at the same schools as I did so I would see him there regularly attending to his children.  From what I have read he spoke inappropriately to his models who have complained as they have every right to do.  I might advise my daughter not to model for him or, at least, not listen to him.  She in turn might start a movement depriving the artist of models and thereby dampening his career.  But, what has happened as a result of the recent complaints?  The distraught artist insists he has done nothing wrong  but The National Gallery in Washington D.C. cancelled  a show of his work drawn mainly from its own collection. denying the public access to the work in an act of outright censorship unprecedented for the institution.

The Artist

This is, of course, a direct result of the #metoo movement which is a positive empowerment of women to call out lewd or indecent behavior. But we still have a legal system and, I hope, a belief in the concept of innocent until proven guilty!

“Every day, thousands of commuters pass by a series of 12 mosaics by Chuck Close, recently installed in the new 86th Street station of New York’s Second Avenue subway line. The murals, are 9 feet tall and depict a cross section of New York City cultural icons — Close himself among them,— all rendered in his signature style, photo-based images transposed with meticulous care onto psychedelic grids. They are a reminder both of the diversity of the art world here and of Close’s stature within it.  Here is the mosaic of British artist, now living in New York, Cecily Brown and another one of Close himself: an artist’s artist, at 77 years old.“ (from the New York Times)

What is the National Gallery afraid of?  Is it not strong enough to withstand criticism as the Metropolitan Museum did regarding their Balthus. It goes beyond censoring images to suppressing the body of work of an artist on the basis of accusations about his behavior.  Does our National Gallery now bow to the politics of the day like the rest of Washington D.C.?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility

The exhibition, “The US-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility” opened at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles and is currently split between 516 Arts, a gallery in downtown Albuquerque, and the Albuquerque Museum.

It was conceived long before the current U.S. administration made an extreme effort to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.  Our relationship with Mexico is at an all time low because of the lack of understanding of the mutual good that our countries can do for each other.  This is not to say there are no natural tensions between neighboring countries as there are between husband and wife!

Lowery Stokes Sims a very old friend from New York, and her colleague Ana Elena Mallet, a Mexico City based independent curator, were co-curators on this exhibition. We heard them speak about it at the Albuquerque Art Museum last week.  Lowery went to great lengths to explain that this show was not directed at the border or the issues there at the moment, but rather the artistic production of artists who live in close proximity to it as well as artists who cross it regularly.

The press release from 516 Arts puts it this way, “The contemporary artists in this exhibition explore the border as a physical reality (place) as a subject (imagination) and as a site for production and forward thinking solutions (possibility).

At the lecture we heard the story of Daisy Quezda, who grew up in Southern California, a block from the border.  In the evenings her mother would hang clean clothes on their laundry line for immigrants to take, leaving their torn and dirty garments to appear there the following morning. That childhood experience is symbolized by the dirty shirt cast in ceramic hanging on a rod above dirt collected at the border by the artist.

Elizabeth Rustrian Ortega is a Mexican artist who sees the border in an interesting way in her jewelry.  In 2013 she created  the “Cruce de Armas” necklace made in silver, gold plated silver and  barbed wire with a figure of the Christ child sitting on the barrel of a rifle with more rifles on  both sides.  This is a piece I would not advise wearing but rather keep it in a showcase!  (image of barbed wire necklaceChiricahua Apache artist, Bob Haozous has a unique way of seeing the border and his 1991 sculpture is shown outside  the museum entrance. The front is painted in bright colors with O’Keefe clouds in a sunny sky above the mountains of New Mexico but it is edged with posts bristling with barbed wire. On the back is a somber view in rusted steel. A door with the words “Border Crossing” is secured with two locks, on one side of the door is an airplane, and the other andarmed guard waiting for those who cross over by foot.

In works titled “The Space in Between” fitting commentary is also provided by Margarita Cabrera who has created cacti as a symbol of the land that surrounds the border, sewn out of the border patrols uniforms.

A project called “Repellent Fence” was created in 2015 by Postcommodity, a collective composed of indigenous artists who lived in Arizona and New Mexico. They created 26 scare-eye balloons that were enlarged replicas of a product marketed to repel birds from, for instance, orchards where you don’t want them eating the fruit.  “Repellent Fence” required a great deal of cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. as it consisted of a 2-mile line of balloons with their large eyes floating over the border fence built by the U.S. In the museum a video of the project is shown with one of the actual large balloons looming above you.  For more details on the project go HERE.

The show loses some of its continuity by being in two venues but it is well installed in both.  If you can I would suggest starting at 516 Arts and then going onto the museum but that is not a must.  There will also be other events related to the show around Albuquerque.  It will be on until mid April.