Sunday, February 27, 2011

Native American, Is it Art or is it Ethnography?

I have been asked to comment on an article that appeared in The New York Times earlier this month “Honoring Art; Honoring Artists by Judith H. Dobrzynski" . More specifically on a statement made in the article by Dan L. Monroe, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Mass, "Recognizing that Native American Art was made individuals, not tribes, and labeling it accordingly, is a practice long overdue. Continuing to follow past practices perpetuates a set of ideas, values and historical practices laden with racism, ethnocentrism and tragic and destructive government policies."

My first reaction to the statement, and the article, was a great audible, Hoorah! Finally somebody was looking at the artists who created the art. The British Museum in London has long had an excellent collection of Native American Art but it has been shown as ethnography. It is lumped in with the Art of the Americas. The Keeper (curator) of the department, Jonathan King, is a great expert in Native American Art but his rise to the head of the department made him Keeper of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, an ethnographic designation lumping all native peoples in one pot. Looking at the BM collection we have often lamented the fact that it seemed no effort had been made on the labels to identify the makers or often not the tribe even if they are known.

Ethnology, according to Wikipedia comes from the “Greek, ‘ethnos'’ meaning ‘people, nation, race’ It is a branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the origins, distribution, technology, religion, language, and social structure of the ethnic, racial, and/or national divisions of humanity.”

There is nothing wrong with that. In my opinion, Mr. Monroe has taken the ethnographic approach that has been used by many institutions to the extreme in the second part of his statement. The ethnographic approach can lead to the downgrading of Native Peoples and was probably used as such. It is however, in and of itself not the case, but there is so much more. There is no question that further identifying the work as the product of an individual raises it to a higher level.

When I visit a museum, and am interested in what I am looking at, I want to learn more. One is not totally satisfied with a label on a painting that says just, “Italian Renaissance”. Many questions are brought to mind. Who could have painted such a beautiful portrait, who is the sitter, where were they, and, maybe, can I see more by this artist? Additionally, if so little is known can we consider the work as at all important? If we know that the name of the artist is Leonardo da Vinci it gives us context into which we can slot other information. Leonardo is an artist from the late fifteenth, early 16th century, Michelangelo is a contemporary, we can slot artists in before and after, all this helps to understand what we are looking at.

This is, of course, true for all art. In this part of the world a well-known name is Naranjo. This identification alone can be helpful because we know that most by that name are from Santa Clara pueblo and many of them are great potters. Just seeing the name brings the medium and tribe to mind. It contributes to the enjoyment and more importantly the understanding of the object we are looking at. If you are a collector you also know that from Santa Fe it is only a short distance to Santa Clara where you can meet other members of the Naranjo family and maybe even make an acquisition.

The response by an artist to a question asked often in the Native American art world and the Anglo art world, as well, might help to express my bottom line on this issue. In an oral history interview in 2002 under the auspices of the Archives of American Art Joyce Marquess Carey, a quilt maker and educator, replied to a question, “… That old argument has been going on for so long about is it craft or is it art. And I think, well, ‘a rose by any other name,’ you know. What’s the difference? It’s all in the mind of the describer”. Craft being considered more an aspect of ethnography and the study of peoples, by designating it as art we lift the work to a higher level, one that has to be considered in a different light. The name of the artist is the final accolade we can give to the work. We have added another important dimension to our total picture of what we are looking at, learning about and hopefully enjoying.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Outsider

I had heard about Outsider Art from my father the first time; that would be about 45 or 50 years ago. Of course, it was not called Outsider Art in those days. What my father was showing me was a book in our library called, Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the mentally ill) published in Germany in 1922, by Dr Hans Prinzhorn . These were works by inmates in an insane asylum. The concept was articulated from the liberal translation of what Jean Dubuffet called ‘Art Brut’ or ‘Raw Art’.

It was probably 20 years later that I learned that there were dealers and collectors who concentrated on this specific field. It didn’t really register with me even after the renowned show manager, Sanford Smith, organized the first Outsider Art Fair in New York in 1993.

Finally, my curiosity was piqued when my friend and colleague the drawings and print dealer, Emanuel von Baeyer told me that he was also buying “Outsider Art”. I decided to find out for myself what this field was all about. I visited the recent Sanford Smith Outsider Art Fair which is now held in a New York office b
uilding at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. The building devotes an entire floor of their huge edifice to exhibition space. As I walked into the show I half expected to see inexpensive scraps of paper on the wall. Wow! Was I ever surprised? Many pieces are just as sophisticated and interesting as in any other modern art fair.

Some of what I saw reminded me of Dubuffet, which I guess is not surprising since the term Outsider Art started with him. I believe his concept was summed up in a quote of his p
osted on one of the exhibitor’s walls, “Real Art is always where you least expect it.” That certainly was true in my case.

The style is totally international. I noticed dealers from England, France, Japan as well as across the United States including Chattanooga Tennessee. I found all media and styles, but much of the work seemed to have an affinity for African art, although that was by no means a criterion. One Haitian artist recycled an oil drum to make the most fabulous large screen depicting in the center “the King and Queen”.

I decided to go around and ask some of the exhibiting dealers how they would define Outsider Art. I had the feeling that many did not care for the term because somehow it sounds like second rate, and it certainly isn’t that. The answer which all seemed to agree on was that Outsider Art was done by artists who were self-taught, and were not thinking about the market, or particularly interested in selling their art. Some of the artists would not allow the subject of marketing to be even discussed.

As I wandered through I kept thinking of well known established artists who would fit some of the criteria for Outsider Art. Van Gogh famously spent time in the insane asylum at St. Remy. Grandma Moses was certainly self-taught. Many Native American and Hispanic artists use found objects such as tin cans, bottle caps or computer boards to create their art. Many of them have not joined the scramble to produce what their dealers or clients want them to do.

I have come to the conclusion, not surprisingly, that art is art, and some Outsider Art is wonderful, but the term is just another attempt by the art world to pigeonhole a style and thereby make it respectable and marketable.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sky Is The Limit

I was going to start with a definition of Romanticism. However, since the term is used in many countries with different definitions in every artistic endeavor, literature, music, and fine arts with more than 150 definitions according to Vermeylen, I shall refrain!

After perusing several books ostensibly about Romanticism or Romantic artists that meet my criterion for the style I finally turned to my computer and looked at Wikipedia. There was an excellent article with 17 footnotes and a bibliography of about 25 books. Best of all their definitions of Romanticism fit my vision of the subject! “Romanticism (or the Romantic Era) was a complex artistic, literary and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Europe, and gained strength in reaction to the Industrial Revolution (Bazarov) “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling” (Baudelaire).

The Romantic Movement comes into full bloom between 1760 and 1850 but often looks back to medieval times with knights or images of Gothic ruins. Its peak, for me, occurs in Germany and Scandinavia between 1810 and 1840, when the artists gave their pictures a surreal feeling often expressed in the sky in an idyllic view.

The artists that represent the epitome of the style are Caspar David Friedrich and Johann Christian Dahl (1788-1857). It is no surprise that they were also the teachers of a second generation of Romantic painters like Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869) and Georg Heinrich Crola (1804-1879).

I have never acquired a great Friedrich but I did acquire a work by Crola. Our gem of a painting shows one of the favorite subjects of the Romantics, the mystical effect of a dramatic sky that dominates a landscape. We have attempted, more than once, to capture the painting’s effect in a photograph but the problem is that, while a photograph may record an image, it cannot capture the artist’s imagination. The color never seems quite right. The camera can never convey our gut reaction to a work of art.

Our picture is titled “The Trollenstein Ruin Near Naumburg” and dates from 1826. It shows two small figures dressed in the attire of German university students on a hillside. One plays a guitar while his companion stares out at the breathtaking sunset. Below are the ruins of a church and an idyllic landscape of rolling hills. The painting inspires by interpreting the awesome vitality of Nature.

I am sure we have all seen this kind of scene and tried to capture it in a photograph. I have only succeeded once, and that was on the Hopi Reservation. I had my camera out at the right moment stopped my car on the side of the road. I now have a computer screen background that I cannot believe was not created and touched up for a Kodak advertisement.

Shortly after we acquired our Crola, Eric Zafran, curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum, told me that he had acquired a painting by Crola and it was the only one in a U.S. Museum collection. It is called “A Thunderstorm at lake Chiemsee”. The picture depicts two figures that have obviously just gotten their boat safely to edge of the raging sea as rush for cover.

In both pictures the atmospheric sky and landscape dominate, while the figures give a story line and draw the viewer into the picture.

Learning about the Atheneum acquisition made by a curator I respect, was a rewarding confirmation of my taste and eye. It was very comforting because I had gone out on a limb acquiring the Crola simply because I loved it.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

That Was The Week That Was

This is positively the last Missive on Old Master Week in New York for the next year!

To get the question everyone will automatically ask out of the way, “How did you do”. . Of course, what every dealer says after a less than perfect fair: “ah, but the connections I made” or “lots of good people came through”. These have become trite and easily dismissed but they are very important pieces of our business, because people do come back or think of you or start looking at your website. … For this year’s Master Drawings the weather cut down attendance dramatically until the temporary thaw of the final day. There were some sales and more are pending. We hope for a repeat of last year when most of the sales came through after the week ended.

What else was going on?

As mentioned before, there were many social events during the week. Sotheby’s gave a dinner in honor of Emilie Gordenker, director of the Mauritshuis (the Dutch Royal Cabinet of Paintings) in The Hague. Christies did a dinner in honor of the distinguished drawings collector, George Abrams and The Master Drawings Association gave a dinner in honor of Pierre Rosenberg, the renowned French scholar and former director of the Louvre.

We attended the dinner in honor of Dr. Gordenker. This was one of a series of dinners that Sotheby’s has done honoring different museums, clearly a mutually beneficial association. It was a very nice affair held in the 10th floor galleries of the auction house where works from the upcoming Old Masters sales were on view.

At our table there were members of the trade, several collectors and a department head from Sothebys. It was an equitable mix. The menu offered a meal I have never had at a formal dinner before, chicken pot pie! It was actually quite good.

With desert and coffee there were the usual number of talks: George Gordon spoke for Sotheby’s; Otto Nauman spoke as one of the founders of the American Friends of the Mauritshuis; and last but not least was the guest of honor.

Dr. Gordenker spoke about the expansion plans for the Mauritshuis. The problem is, that what most museums crave, a larger audience, causes its own issues. The best known museum expansion addressing the problem is the Pyramid at the Louvre built by I.M. Pei. While the Pyramid is quite striking, after one gets used to the glass structure in between the buildings of the venerable Palace, I, for one, will never get used to the Grand Central train station reception hall through which all visitors are funneled.

The Mauritshuis is also planning to have a below ground entry and reception area. The public will then be allowed to enter through the gates to the original entry court yard. From what I could decipher on the plans, given to all the dinner guests, it seems to be quite in keeping with the aesthetic of the 17th century house; the new spaces here and in the newly acquired building across the way appear modest and functional.

If you would like to learn more about the Maurithuis and its plans I would suggest getting in touch with the present head of the Friends of the Mauritshuis, Mireille Mosler (

It was a very busy and hectic week that all felt was worthwhile, but we can all certainly use a break before the next go round!