Sunday, January 29, 2017

25 Years of the Outsider Art Fair

I need to start out with a correction.  Last week spell checker changed the spelling of Valentin de Boulogne in every one of my uses and though corrected later should not have escaped me in the first place.  Profuse apologies to all.

Now to the subject at hand, the Outsider Art Fair that I saw recently in New York. What is Outsider Art?  It is still a strange term to many and difficult to translate.  The simplest definition is that it is work by non-formally trained artists, ones untainted by a formal arts education. This definition allows for a great deal of latitude in the choices and it is up to a dealer, or better yet an art fair, to convince collectors that they should be interested.

An old line among dealers is that their clients buy with their ears not with their eyes but I choose to believe that it is a combination of both.  For instance, one image that grabbed me as soon as I came into the Fair was a message printed on a number of grids:“The Next 100 Years Enough for All…  RENEWABLE  There Are Disasters Every Day, Don’t Worry You Will Find Your Day. Keep the Faith. Change Come so Pick a Day”.  The grids are like tiny calendars and the big disaster is a drawing of a ship with more verbiage in part “Titanic Fate Just Ain’t Goinna to Wait”.   The work is by George Widener, not surprisingly called “Renewable”, and was created last year exhibited by the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York.  I was startled by the relatively high price on the piece and decided to take a look on line.   What a fascinating story.   

It is not that unusual to find some of your best outsider artists among the mentally ill as in this case where Widener has autistic issues.  Sometimes when the artist is in a mental institution it is their doctors who keep track of their work and date the pieces they create.

Fred Giampietro Gallery of New Haven, Connecticut showed a picture by a Tattoo Artist working like crazy on this woman’s body leaving no stone unturned.  It was a trade sign for the Orsini Long Beach Tattoo Shop.  Al Orsini was also the creator of this work that he painted in 1960.  The sign shows many of the choices you could pick from for your tattoo.  It was clearly produced by an artist of a different sort who knew how to express the possibilities of his day job.

Gerlerie Hervé Perdriolle from Paris did a small show, “Website: India 20 Years of Passion”.  The Warli Tribe located near Bombay use a very simple artistic vocabulary and describe themselves as Farmers and Painters.  This is one of my problems with the nomenclature of Outsider Art because by this definition I see no difference between the Warli Tribe or the Hopi Tribe in Northern Arizona who are Native American artists and farmers but they would not consider their work “outsider” because it is within their own tradition.  However while the Warli have a  far more limited artistic vocabulary, the Hopi create their art in many media with varied subject matter.

Terry Turrell is a self taught artist.  He was a junkman and often uses found materials in his art.  He is in his mid 60’s and lives in Idaho with many animals.  In the booth of American Primitive from New York there were many animal pictures by the artist but this one had a very Edward Hicks “Peaceable Kingdom” quality to it, American primitive, if you will.

There was one Outsider exhibit devoted to a group that you may be more familiar with. It is the Quilt Makers of Gee Bend, a community of about 700 on a small piece of land surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River.  They hold a prominent role in African American art history having created these quilts since the beginning of the 20th century and many of them being descendants of slaves.  There have been exhibitions of there work at a number of major museums. 

Though Outsider Art is an amorphous term that catches a lot of art in its net, it is a fascinating field that captures the imagination.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Valentin de Boulogne: Beyond Caravaggio

Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632) is not a name that is on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  Why? Possibly because your art history course in school was all about the Italian Renaissance and not what was going on North of the Alps in France.  Valentin was French and thought of as an interloper in Italy and his career was cut short by a fatal bout of influenza at age 42.

“Valentin de Boulogne” Beyond Caravaggio” which I just saw at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest ever, monographic exhibition devoted to the artist’s work.  It shows 45 of Valentin’s 60 extant works.   The show was curated by Keith Christiansen, the John Pope-Hennessy Chairman of the Department of European Paintings at The Met, and Annick Lemoine, author of an authoritative book on Valentin’s contemporary Nicholas Régnier.  It was co-organized by the Met and the Louvre which lent all of it’s extensive collection of paintings by the artist.

The point of the exhibition is to show, of course, the importance of this little known artist in his aspiration to take the chiaroscuro masterpieces of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) one step further.  He wanted to add a psychological depth and dimension to those dramatic images.  He would leave out the boarders in order to bring the viewer into his paintings, making them bear witness to what is going on.  While Caravaggio was first to dramatize with chiaroscuro technique Valentin used shadow more subtly to show the psychologies of his characters.  The artist is compared so often with Caravaggio and his influence that it makes you want to see a Caravaggio to make your own comparisons but alas none are included in this exhibition. 

By the time Valentin arrived in Rome, Caravaggio had already fled leaving behind a challenge to any would-be successors, but if Valentin was anything, he was extremely ambitious.  Caravaggio had introduced the very radical view that an artist should work directly from the model and not bother with the difficult and time-consuming process of composing sketches and making detailed studies and a finished compositional cartoon before getting on with it.  In this way he broke away from the heretofore great masters, Raphael and Michelangelo.  In other words he thought that to convey reality you had to work from life!  Valentin wanted his compositions to be set up in a more life like manner.  He often worked with the same models probably because as they got to know each other better the artist learned how to shape them to his best advantage.

For the scholar this exhibition was a major event saving thousands of miles in travel just to be able to see such a major percentage of an artist’s work.  One could watch the development of the artist’s style from Caravaggio imitations to mature works where he brings the feeling of a living human being who can show emotion.

“The Cardsharps” 1614-15, from the Old Master Paintings Gallery in Dresden is a rather early work of Valentin and I think you can see even in reproduction that it does not have the verve of the  Caravaggio, in the Kimball Museum in Fort Worth.


From his later work I chose the “Crowning with Thorns” 1627-28 from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.  Valentin takes a theme he worked on before but, in this case, the torturers seem to have a realization of what they are doing, or, as the label puts it, they have “gained a sense of psychological complexity”.

There are two paintings that I particularly liked, both were set in the walls in Versailles and were shown here just cleaned and without frames, making them especially vibrant.  They are of St. Matthew and St. Mark.  Here is an image of the St. Mark.

Valentin though lost for a long time was extremely popular in his own time.  His biggest client probably was Francesco Barberini (nephew of Pope Urban VIII) and many of his works were kept in the Barberini family for generations making them less accessible to the public.  Other major clients were Cardinal Mazarin and even Louis XIV himself.

My wife Penelope Hunter-Stiebel did an exhibition some years ago, “The triumph of French painting: 17th century masterpieces from the museums of FRAME” for the Portland Art Museum.  In the show she had a painting by Valentin she particularly admired of Judith with the head of Holofernes from Toulouse so I said I would share it with my readers.  In my search, however, I found another picture of Judith that I could not resist, this one is from the National Museum of Art, Valetta, Malta dating 1627-1629.  Here the emotions of all are brought to the foreand what cool customer Judith turns out to be!

By the time you read this the exhibition will have closed at the Metropolitan but it will be on view at the Louvre February 22 to May 22, 2017. It will be quite a long time, if ever, that one will be able to see such a percentage of  this 17th century artist’s work together again. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Art Dealer Today ?

My father defined our trade quite simply, --we try to convince someone who does not want to sell, to sell, and someone who does not want to buy, to buy. That could never be more true than today when everyone with a collection wants to hold on for a better selling climate and those who wish to collect have no expendable cash!

We travel, we look, we schmoose (gab) and we hope. Often we fail in our attempts to bring a buyer and seller together but once in a while we succeed, and that is a day to celebrate. My father and his cousin Rosenberg always celebrated twice. Once when the client said, “I’ll take it” and again when the check actually arrived. That is another thing that is more true than ever today.

In the old days if a client said they would buy something you could literally bank on it. Unfortunately, that is not as true any more . It used to be a pretty small art world. Everyone knew everyone. My father believed that if anyone collected in our fields they had to visit our gallery, not necessarily buy, but check out what we had.

Klaus Perls the renowned art dealer used to say, “I have never sold anything in my life. Once in a while I have allowed someone to buy something”. From an old fashioned dealer such as myself it makes a lot of sense. We want people to come by our galleries and fall in love with a work of art. Only after that am I there to consummate the acquisition.

Today, the art world is bigger. There are many more art buyers (if not collectors), there are many more art dealers, and the auction houses greatly influence the market.

A good friend and art dealer colleague who studied a different field at Columbia University has said to me that he is jealous of my art history degree. I have countered with how jealous I am of his business degree. Which one is more important? I believe that today, probably, the business degree is more important. As a matter of fact some of the most successful art dealers have MBA’s.

When I was doing my MA at Columbia I asked a professor about continuing on for a Phd. He asked “Why? You can learn more in your gallery in 2 months than here in 2 years”. Now, while this might have been a bit of an exaggeration, on the job training in the art field is possible. Business formulae are much more difficult to master without the discipline of a scholastic setting.

Thank goodness, museum curators are still being trained as art historians. Increasingly, however, the prerequisite for a museum directorship is a degree in business administration, yet museum directors still make the ultimate decisions of what acquisitions will go to the trustees for approval. There are few who are strong in both art and administration. . We have recently lost two such directors, Philippe de Montebello who retired from the Metropolitan Museum, and the late James Wood, named President of the Getty Foundation after retiring as the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Happily the Metropolitan picked a new director, Tom Campbell, the old fashioned way, from the curatorial ranks.

From the art dealer, both more scholarship and more business acumen are demanded. I think that the former is a great improvement in our trade. Our clients want to know more about the art that they are buying. We have to be able to supply the latest scholarly information available. The complicated, protracted, deals that have become the norm are alien to the world I grew up in. Yet the art dealer today must be able to handle both.

The art world does change, but slowly.  This Missive was first published on August 15, 2010.  Not sure if it has changed since then, what do you think?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Rapid Response: Art as Investment

My blog from last week on investing seems to have struck a note with a number of readers.  I thought it would be as interesting to my readers as it was to me to see some of their responses.

An art dealer from New York wrote the following,  “One faction of my family dealt in colored diamonds… and I did buy some nice modest stones.  Some we made into jewelry for [my wife] to wear (which she still has) and others we put in the safe. Unfortunately, our business needed money before colored diamonds really took off. We did make a small profit but ... colored stones are now through the roof.”

He also said, “I was recently telling a collector, who bought … a Dutch 17th century paintings, that when we all started in this business, a nice 17th century panel of an interior with figures was easy to flip and sell, and they were. A Boer vomiting in the foreground was easily worth 10 grand, if his missus was relieving herself in the background, add 5 grand. Today they are compared to the furniture market [in] ‘brown wood’ which has declined.”

I heard from a friend who I first met in an Art Forum on Compuserve in the mid 90’s.  As mentioned before tastes change and as he wrote:  “…we see periods of public interest in [different areas of] collecting: rugs, Federal period furniture, Arts & Craft pottery. Books and TV shows about collecting for fun and profit, but with profit as the attention-getter. I think it signals a coming decline, a bursting bubble. New generations begin to collect and all of a sudden the furniture of 1950 becomes more desirable than 1750, this school or that period wanes in popularity.   It's nice when the market smiles at you and confirms your ‘taste' but if you don't buy what you love, you might as well be buying stock certificates. If you buy art because you just have to, you can't lose.”

This from an international collector who has been a dealer, curator and world traveler.  “Good article, so true.  You can never say or write it enough.  Investing in art is not for the weak of heart, and, to be at all successful requires ruthless behavior and lots of acrobatics.  Non merci.  We learned this in our early years in the art market, when it was considered very wrong to collect art as an investment, and the general opinion was the only collections that went up in value had been bought out of passion, and with a lot of hard work, by connoisseurs.”

From a former London art dealer echoing similar thoughts, “Art can be compared, depending on your taste to a race horse or a yacht say, which may both devalue with time, whereas art does not get worse with age. Of course there are people who make profits from art and horses and yachts but they are professionals and know what they are doing. Sometimes private investors can manage this too. And art does not suffer from costs of upkeep.”

I was delighted to hear from an actual practicing Native American Artist who wrote about her own experience and point of view, “I ran into someone over the weekend whom I have not seen in years. She purchased a giclee from me over 15 years ago and one of the first things she said to me was ‘Do I have any idea what that piece might be worth now?’ I told her I had no clue since I have not dealt with 2-D work since I started making baskets in 2008, but I hoped that it had escalated in price.  I hope investing is not why she purchased the piece but I would like to think that my work preceding my baskets is gaining in long term value too. Pricing work is such a tricky dance. It always boils down to work is worth whatever the market will bear.”

I even heard from an Art Advisor in Switzerland, “Despite what you state that Fine Art fluctuates in value based on the current TASTE of collectors, the value of TRUE MASTERPIECES (Old Masters, Impressionism, Picasso, etc.) has RARELY(if EVER!!!) retreated in comparison to ALL "Financial Assets" over the past 200 to 300 years!!! I AGREE, BUY IT because you LOVE IT and want to LIVE with IT BUT(!!!!!)......let us NOT FORGET that paying MILLIONS for a GREAT painting.......WELL......IT'S a LOT(!!!!) of.......MONEY!!!!!”

Borrowing again from the London art dealer in response,  “But the problem here is that few people can afford to buy the best art and not care about resale value. People do like to think that these beautiful objects also represent a store of value.”

I will end with a personal favorite because it confirms some of my prejudices.  This from a collector of German ceramics in the U.S.   “It speaks volumes that he (Jeff Koons) collects the great masters. That trait seems to be shared by many “modern” artists. One wonders why that appears to make no impression on collectors of their works.”

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Is Art a Good Investment?

Four or five years ago I wrote about art investment and looking back on it I see that things have changed.  There may be an art investment fund somewhere but they certainly no longer make the news.

Yet, the concept that it might be a good idea to invest in art still persists.  I received a cold call last week asking me about investing in art and I gave a very simple one-word answer, “Don’t!"

There are many, particularly in the scholarly and museum communities who do not believe that art should be associated with money because art is on a higher level.  Of course, that is ridiculous.  Art is usually found in palaces and with captains of industry with the people that could afford it.  If you do not find yourself in that category and want to buy a work of art which is more than a hundred dollars you want to know what you are paying for.  Still there are no sure ways to know what an art work is worth and it is most certainly not a liquid asset.

One of the main reasons for this is that the monetary value of art rests in large part on taste and fashion.  I personally do not understand or, put another way, care for the work of Jeff Koons.  Yet he is considered far and wide as a major artist worthy of exhibition and collection in the most important museums in the world.  What would happen, however, if over time more people of some weight either in the art or financial world began to feel as I do?   Seemingly overnight the works that came up at auction would bring less and less, Jeff Koons’ dealer(s) would have to ask less and before you know it your Koons investment has declined in value.   I am happy to say that Jeff Koons has a great appreciation for art and collects Old Masters among other fields.  Here is an image of the artist with one of his rabbits.

I watched it happen in the market for Renaissance bronzes where there were three major collectors and to bring a high price at auction you only need two.  Two of those collectors died the same year and the third changed her mind and started collecting in a different area.  Suddenly the prices were no longer astronomical.  So there may always be a market for Jeff Koons or Renaissance bronzes but it just will not be as high as before, and therefore not a good investment.

What, however, if you had bought that Jeff Koons because you really loved it, it gives you pleasure to look at, or, one of the reasons I buy a work of art, because it makes you smile.  In that case, it would not matter so much what the value of the sculpture or picture is because you will continue to enjoy it.

Every once in a while there are “discoveries” of “lost” artists.  Since the artist was obviously not lost and the work didn’t disappear, but rather one or more art historians started to see that a group of works related to each other and, through copious research, were able to put a name to the artist.  Should the art appeal to others at that time suddenly it becomes worth money and possibly lots of it. 

Also, if a work of art is newly attributed to a famous artist.   What if no one had thought about the work of art from great great grandpa sitting in the attic and you just want to be rid of it. So you take it to an expert at a museum, or a dealer or an auction house and they recognize it as an important piece as recently happened with a Leonardo da Vinci drawing.

“Over night” actually months or years after the work is “discovered,” this scrap of paper is worth a fortune.  The fact that it was preserved shows that there were those who cared for it but I think all would agree this was not an investment but a piece of luck.

As I said in my last Missive on this subject investing in any area is not just about the wins but rather the percentage of wins over losses.  Webster defines investment as, “the outlay of money usually for income or profit”.  Since there is no way to wring income out of a work of art do you want to take a gamble on the profit?