Sunday, December 30, 2018

Into My 10th Year

This past week I have been more involved with family than writing ...

Photo by Aidan Stiebel, the young man with beard

I am now into my 10th year of publication and looked back on what I sent between the holidays at that first year.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Norton Simon

When we were in Pasadena, the Norton Simon Museum was an inexpensive Uber ride away so why not go?

In the 1970’s the Internal Revenue Service asked all institutions to appraise their collections.  A rather futile concept which happily was soon scrapped but meanwhile the museums had to give it a try.  The Art Dealers’ Association of America was asked to work on these appraisals and committees were formed.  My father ended up with the group asked to appraise the Frick Collection in New York!  To do an appraisal one uses comparisons, i.e. a similar work was sold at auction for X and this piece is better, therefore it is worth more than X.  One of my very favorite paintings, the Giovanni Bellini of St. Francis in the Desert (1476-1478) had to be given a value although there was no comparison to anything sold in recent times.  Eugene Victor Thaw (Gene), great dealer, collector and patron of the arts, lead that committee and he came up with the following formula.

Photo by Michael Bodycomb

At that time Gene had a billionaire client who wanted to build a great Old Master collection when many said it could no longer be done because all the great paintings were already accounted for.  The client’s name was Norton Simon (1907-1993).  Gene suggested they would use the highest price that Norton would pay for a painting.  I am afraid I do not remember what that figure was, but you can be sure it would be much, much higher today.

At his father’s insistence Norton Simon went to Berkley but quit after only six weeks to found a sheet metal distribution company.  He went on to invest in a bankrupt orange juice bottling plant, selling that to Hunt’s Foods for a controlling interest.  Like Warren Buffet today, he formed a holding company for companies such as McCall’s Publishing, Canada Dry, Max Factor, Avis Car Rental and others.  Aside from all the individual works of art he acquired he bought the Duveen Gallery in Manhattan including its contents.  He sold enough of them, I am guessing, to cover his purchase price and kept what he wanted. 

Norton came regularly to our gallery but bought little from us.  My father never wanted to be stuck in a car with him because he always had a large envelope of photos and transparencies that he had collected from other dealers or saw coming up at auction and wanted an opinion.  Then, I presume, if he heard enough positive responses, he bargained a bit and bought.

Norton supported the Los Angeles County Museum but also lent his paintings to museums around the world.  What he really wanted, however, was a museum of his own to house what ended up being 4,000 works of art from around the world.  In 1972 The Pasadena Museum of Modern Art was financially strapped and solicited him and his collection.  Soon he gained control and naming rights, so it became the Norton Simon Museum.   In the late 1980’s UCLA attempted to do a deal with him that he would keep most of the collection in Pasadena, but they would build a museum on their campus for the rest of his collection and run the museum in Pasadena as well.  Almost as soon as he agreed to the deal, he changed his mind.

I had been to the Norton Simon Museum before, but I was so pleasantly surprised at how good it looked from the point of view of the quality of the work which was being shown.  The fact alone that they own three Rembrandts is pretty impressive.

One painting in particular brought back personal memories…. We had a rather flamboyant client, Audrey Cory de Ayala, who I remember sweeping through her salon in her long robe,.  She was quite a character who was said to have been the girlfriend of Samuel Kress.  She had a very nice art collection and it is believed that many of the pieces were gifts from Kress, adding to their allure.  One of her paintings which we acquired was a small Antoine Watteau (1684-1721), just 5 ½ X 6 ¾ inches.  It represents a nude woman on a bed and was cut down from a larger panel.  Though we had acquired it, Gene had the right client in Norton Simon.  If you take a look at this drawing by the artist in the Getty Museum, you will see that the picture originally showed the nurse with the standard cleansing remedy of the 18th century, the enema!   Neither the Norton Simon Museum’s audio guide nor their text on line mention this fact, while the Getty text below the image makes it clear.

In the mid 1970’s before I married Penelope, we worked together on an exhibition from art dealer inventories in the States and Europe at the Metropolitan Museum.  She represented the museum and I, the dealers.  Museums even today do not want to recognize the link between the commercial world and the art cathedral known as a museum, so generally, it was expected to be an exhibition of not worthwhile artifacts.  We, and subsequently The New York Times, knew better.  I have always wanted to write about the works of art that were not taken seriously then and are now in museums and I am still planning to do so.  In the Norton Simon Museum, we recognized one of those pictures.  It is a striking portrait of a Soldier Holding a Pike by Jan van Bijlert, a Dutch artist dating from about 1630.  For the show in 1974-75 it was lent by Edward Speelman, Ltd.,  London.

Let me end with one of the more important paintings in the collection which Norton bought at auction in 1965.  It is by Rembrandt van Rijn and is labelled simply Portrait of a Boy, but it is generally thought to be Rembrandt’s son, Titus.   It is considered unfinished, but I find it’s sketchiness very appealing in the depiction of a young person.

The cover of the Norton Simon biography “Odd Man” by Suzannne Muchnic, art writer and art critic for the Los Angeles Times is a photograph of the billionaire collector with this painting. Although it was published five years after Norton’s death it is still in print.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

LiT: The Work of Rose B. Simpson

I made a good friend in Santa Fe by the name of Rina Swentzell (1939-2015).  Rina and her family are from Santa Clara pueblo and though Rina became an anthropologist she, like her daughter Roxanne Swentzell, and grand-daughter, Rose Simpson, was an incredible artist.

We first saw Rose Simpson’s work in clay when she was still young enough to be called Rosie and was making small clay dolls.  Now over two decades later she is an established artist whose clay sculptures can be found in museums, private collections and many exhibitions.  She is from the  renowned Naranjo family of ceramic artists, but as you must know by now, artists never wish to pigeon hole themselves in one medium any more than actors wants to be typecast. 

Rose is currently having her first retrospective exhibition at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe.  Not bad for an artist in her mid-thirties.  It is a very original installation without real walls but rather framed veils of muslin separating the pieces.

At the end of last year the artist sat down with the designer, Louis Emmanuel Gauci, who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee and comes to Santa Fe to design the Wheelwright’s shows. He presented alternate sketches of his ideas of how the gallery might be set up to show her work at its best and within a day he and Rose had worked it out..

The lighting, which was also superb, was done by a local lighting person, Todd Elmer, who worked with the designer until all was just as they wanted it.  Jack Townes is the preparatory and exhibit installer.  All have worked together at the Wheelwright for over 15 years.  When you have a team like that on a regular basis, they get it right! 

I bring all these details up because they were crucial in getting the effect the artist wished to convey and making the work look its best for the visitor.  This show is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen. Of course, the artist’s works are mainly responsible but it takes the right setting to maximize their effect!

The curator for the exhibition was Yve Chavez (Tongva-Gabrielino).  Yve was the Wheelwrights’ first Andrew W. Mellon fellow.  She had to learn about the artist’s many facets to write an essay for the catalog which should be coming out next month.  She had to work not only with the artist but with the artist’s gallery, Chiaroscuro, to pick out the best pieces for the show and learn in which collections the sold ones were.  To put on a museum exhibition takes a village and then some. 

You may be wondering as I did, what the LiT in the title of the exhibition is supposed to mean.  It is typical of this artist’s in depth thought process which can, frankly, be difficult to follow sometimes.  This is a very self-aware artist whose work, as you will see, can be very tough.  Rose is thinking of LiT as “she is lit or illuminated from within while shining light on ideas captured in her work.”  She goes on to say, “I want my work to be accessible enough that it doesn’t scare people away, and I don’t know if I am always successful in that way.” 

Rose see’s much of her work as self portraits undertaken in order to analyze herself.  Here is the figure that greets you when you arrive at the show.   When her daughter was born a couple of years ago, Rose like most mothers became very protective of her daughter.  In this sculpture she portrayed herself as a V8 engine.  Rose said that before giving birth her body felt like a machine but, “After I was a human again, It was like the building of the baby that felt like my body was out of control, like a ’69 Chevelle going full speed, and my brain was a deflated balloon hanging off the rear bumper.”  I think any woman who has had a child can relate to that.

Rose first learned from her mother, a major sculptor in clay, Roxanne Swentzell. Like any great artist she did not say I know all there is to know but went on to get her BFA from The University of New Mexico where her focus was studio arts, writing and dance, then further to graduate with an Honors MFA in Ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design.  You would think she would stop there, but no, she attended Northern New Mexico College’s Automotive Science Program with a focus in Auto Body and is currently enrolled in the Institute of American Indian Arts in their Creative Writing MFA program!

What I find so wonderful about Rose’s work is that one can appreciate it without any background information whatsoever,  or you can get another layer of stimuli by looking at it through her eyes with her mystical and ethereal interpretations.  This baby, for instance, Rose identifies as a self- portrait although it also might make one think of her own child, but her daughter was born two years after the piece was completed!

The untitled sculpture which Rose refers to as “Horned C-section” is a collaboration with her mother and father, Patrick Simpson, who owns this piece.  Rose sees this as her mother giving birth to her.  Her father is an artist who works in clay and metal and as a youngster she helped him carve wood. sculptures  She learned that if you put your mind to it you can do anything and she eventually mastered sewing, drawing, painting welding and automotive design and repair.  If your car is stuck on the side of the road, hope that Rose will come by!

At the end of the show is “Rose’s Cabinet of Curiosities”. She sees it as kind of a kunstkammer (my word not hers)but these are pieces that have special meaning to her. So what is an oversized bullet doing there?  Bob Haozous who also has an exhibit at the Wheelwright that I hope to write about in the next weeks, gave Rose this oversize dud as a high school graduation present. The label states “She has had it with her ever since. It represents the power of not going off even when provoked, but still has the power and capacity to do so. Boom”.

The show will be up until next October but if you go now you will miss the summer crowds.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Erle Stanley Gardner

After the wedding I wrote about last week we went to Temecula, California to spend Thanksgiving with our new in-laws.  What a great family holiday that was, we got to meet a slew of new relatives and had a delicious meal.  After dinner we played celebrity!

Needless to say, we had to check out the local museum which was naturally about the growth of the town that was only incorporated in 1989.  Every small town touts their Native Sons and Temecula did as well.  It turned out to be one of my favorite authors from my youth, Erle Stanley Gardner (1889-1970).

In a corner upstairs at the museum was the recreated study in Gardner’s ranch house in Temecula where he lived from 1937 until his death.  Should the name not ring a bell, he wrote all the Perry Mason mysteries which were eventually turned into radio shows and then appeared on television.  Gardner was a self-taught lawyer who started as a typist in a law firm and then passed the Bar without ever having any formal training.  After passing the Bar he joined a well-known law firm where he was a litigator, often in criminal trials.

After a while the law began to bore him, and he also wanted to make some more money, so he started writing stories for pulp magazines producing 600 in all.  In this way he honed his writing skills.  When he was teased that his good guys always being killed off the heavies with their last bullet, so they must have been very bad shots, he is said to have responded “At three cents a word, every time I say “Bang” in the story I get three cents.  If you think I’m going to finish the gun battle while my hero still has fifteen cents worth of unexploded ammunition in his gun, you’re nuts.”  What adds credence to that story is that in 1932, his last year of writing exclusively for the pulps, he earned $20,000, the equivalent of over $300,000 today.

Although he is now best remembered for the TV show that ran from 1957-1966, I became interested in Perry Mason on the radio.  It ran as a 15-minute continuing series from 1943 to 1955 on CBS Radio.  I must have caught on in the late 40’s.  I began reading the novels around 1953-54.  How, you might ask, can you remember that? It is actually very simple:  In 5th grade I had a French, French teacher, Monsieur Turgeon. I know he was French since aside from his accent he said to me one day…”Tomorrow is parents day and I must try not to touch all the mothers!”  Can you imagine the reaction today to what was then the way many Europeans spoke using their hands and touching.  Monsieur Turgeon was also planning his return to France and had to give up some of his home clutter.  Knowing I was interested in Perry Mason since I was already planning to grow up and become a great criminal defense lawyer (Yeh! Right!). Monsieur Turgeon gave me all his Perry Mason mysteries.  There must have been at least a dozen.  I wonder if he read them to learn the American vernacular?

Gardner wrote other mysteries as well, but it was the Mason publications that brought him fame and fortune.  In all 119 were published. For the most part dictated by Gardner and typed up by his seven secretaries.   Perry Mason went from book to radio to a long running TV series starring Raymond Burr, here portrayed on the museum’s television together with his nemesis, the homicide detective on the show, Lieutenant Arthur Tragg.  His other memorable characters were Della Street who was a compilation of three sisters among his secretaries (one of whom he married); Paul Drake, his detective whom Mason depended on for the evidence to find his clients innocent; and Hamilton Burger the inveterate prosecutor who lost almost every case to Mason.  There was not much to learn about any of Gardner’s characters background from the novels themselves and that is probably why I remember the TV characters best.

Still today the Perry Mason series ranks third in the top ten best-selling book series.  For that reason in 2015, the American Bar Association's publishing imprint, Ankerwycke, began reissuing Gardner's Perry Mason books, which had been out of print in the United States.  Or maybe they just want to inspire more young people to become lawyers after all the bad press they get!

If you wish to delve further into this subject I found, but have not yet read, “Erle Stanley Gardner : The Case of the Real Perry Mason” by Dorothy B. Hughes.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Wedding in La La Land

Not many occasions to get the whole family together particularly when your kids live coast to coast, Philadelphia area, Traverse City, Michigan and La La land (aka Los Angeles) naturally enough for the actor, Hunter, the Groom.  He managed to get his siblings and his parents for a destination wedding … a destination for us all.

We decided if we wanted to be together an Airbnb would be the best bet, so we booked a McMansion!  Yes, it was still cheaper for 11 to 13 of us than a hotel since 3 out of 4 grandchildren made it as well and the bride and groom joined us a day after the wedding.  Everything in the place was the latest in electronics without instructions! … Even to the controls on the window shades in our bedroom, where the secret was ‘open’ meant ‘closed’ and vice versa… except when it didn’t.   Here’s a wide angle shot of the property as well as the white grand piano in one of the downstairs living rooms where grandchildren Aidan and Lucy reprised their early childhood duets.

Mallory, the bride, found a place called “The Nature Friends” Los Angeles Branch.  It is actually in Sierra Madre, California, a suburb of Pasadena which has practically become a bedroom community for Los Angeles as well. “The Friends” were founded in Vienna in 1885 to afford families a place to enjoy and study nature.  Germans, Swiss and Austrians, in particular, find “walking” (hiking) a national sport   which my German parents introduced me to at a very early age.  I did not appreciate it as a small child but learned to love it later in life.  These clubs spread throughout Europe and then migrated to the U.S.  This branch of “The Friends” began in the 1920’s and originally included Germans and Hungarians.  They decided to add a dance hall to their club house which was perfect for the wedding.  Also, to accommodate families there is always a hostel attached with many bunks in the same room, but the bride and groom assured us that they had a more private space for their first night of marital bliss!

An actor and a therapist have a budget to work with and they made it work!  Didn’t hurt to have a slew of relatives from both sides of the family helping out.  Penelope’s and my first role       was to wrap the cutlery in napkins and tie them together for 120 plus guests.  Then we went on to drape the tables in different patterned oil cloth with a runner down the center and get the plates out and be ready for guests.  Other family members and friends were working on moving tables and chairs to set up outdoors and bringing in some of the drinks and decorations.

The rehearsal dinner was held in the garden of a friend of the Bride & Groom. Since many of the couple’s friends from high school and college had come from all over the country there were lots of reminiscences.  From a balcony in the house, Mallory and Hunter greeted all with profuse thanks for having gathered for the event.

The next morning there was more work for us at the wedding site, half way up a mountain side, definitely a venue for those in good shape.  The youngsters loved the challenges of the steps and hills.  The ages went down to 4 months but those had the luxury of being carried.

The wedding ceremony was enchanting, held in the open space under a tree.  The place was terraced so people could watch from different angles and heights. The Officiant, Rachel McBride, was a friend of Mallory’s from college at Berkley.  She and her husband gave the couple a Pendleton Blanket with the following explanation via her draft for the ceremony: 

“The pattern on the blanket moving through the guests is based on an embroidered manta, the garment worn by Hopi women in ceremonies to bring tranquility and harmony to the entire world. It is made of wool, a sacred material which keeps us warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The spiritual meaning of wool is one of warmth and protection, often associated with maternal tenderness. This blanket, imbued with positivity and well-wishes, signifies the warmth and support of family and friends that are needed to sustain a healthy relationship. It represents a bond between the bride and groom; a closeness that will continue to develop day after day. This blanket creates comfort and surrounds the couple with beauty, a keepsake that will remind Hunter and Mallory of the comfort and beauty they bring to each other and will continue to provide each other.  Will Hunter’s parents please bring the blanket? Hunter and Mallory are wrapped in blanket by Hunter’s parents.”

That is exactly what we did.  After they were wrapped in the blanket the ring bearer, Mallory’s nephew, Emmerson, 11 years old, stood by and they were formally wed.

As evening approached a taco dinner was cooked on the balcony of the Hostel by the caterers. Maybe a little something should go wrong at every happy event to keep it real.  Why else would it be tradition to say “break a leg “to an actor before they go on stage?  The taco supply ran out! Some unfortunate souls arrived too late at the food table and had to settle for cheese quesadillas which were also very tasty.

Then as darkness fell, family members and friends were asked to give toasts and stories about the newly married couple.  All gathered as the parents of the bride, Barb & Mike Gross, told their tales.

The festivities ended with dancing and Mallory and Hunter got on the stage of the dance hall to again say how happy they were that all had come to celebrate them.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Hispanic Society Museum & Library and “Visions of the Hispanic World”

It is hard to believe that there are still hidden treasuries of art in New York but there are.  Not that many have ventured almost to the Hudson River at 155th Street in Manhattan.  The Heye Museum used to be up there too, but that great Native American collection went to Washington D.C. and the National Museum of the American Indian Art.  Now the Hispanic Society Museum & Library are there, all on their lonesome.  At one time it must have seemed like a great real estate Investment to the institution’s founder, Archer Milton Huntington (1870-1955) since the first subway line in New York started at this location in 1904. Four years later the museum opened to the public.  Towns migrate, however, and Manhattan went in the opposite direction.

Archer Milton Huntington took a fateful trip to Mexico as an older teenager and caught the bug, not only for Hispanic Art but the far more contagious one, collecting, and decided to establish a “Spanish Museum”. Probably much more familiar to those in the art world is The Huntington Library in Pasadena, California, founded by Henry E. Huntington which I wrote about a few years ago.  Archer and Henry were cousins both who inherited railroad money and invested in real estate.

Archer did not only throw money at the art of the Hispanic World but went a step further, that most don’t make.  He became a scholar himself and funded study of the field through his museum curators and outside scholars.  Archer’s first trip to Spain was in 1892 but he never acquired art there.  He believed that the Spanish Art in Spain should remain there, so he collected outside of Spain, mainly from dealers in London and Paris.  His personal Library in New York circa 1900 gives you an idea of his scholarship.

Recently the Hispanic Society made a deal with the City to acquire the building next door that had housed the Heye Museum and took the excuse to close their doors for a few years and bring both buildings about to modern day standards.  As we have discussed before this gives a museum a chance to lend works of art that they might not ordinarily lend, show off their wares and get the word out about the institution, as well as make some money in the form of fees to rent the exhibition.  A great coup was to get the Prado in Madrid to be first on The Hispanic Society list, for, if the collection was worthy of the Prado it had to be be pretty good!  In fact, I understand that the director of the Prado was most Impressed by the collection saying that in no other one place could you seen the entire history of Spain and the New World. 

From the Prado it went to the Belles Artes in Mexico City and its first stop in the Unites States is Albuquerque, New Mexico.  It is highly unusual for my adopted state to get exhibitions worthy of any major museum in the world and I am quite proud of it.  The director of the Albuquerque Museum, Andrew Connors, did not waste any time in requesting and agreeing to the stringent terms and fee for the exhibition.  He and the Albuquerque Foundation together with their patrons not to mention the staff deserve huge kudos for pulling this off.  For the grand opening dinner not only was the Executive Director and President of the Hispanic Society, Dr. Mitchell A. Codding present but also Assistant Director Dr. Margaret Connors Mcquade and Dr. Marcus B. Burke, Senior Curator of Paintings, Drawings, and Metalwork as well as others who were all involved with the show.  The Chairman of Board of the Hispanic Society, Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, was the honored speaker for the evening.

How do you pick a few images when there are over 200 entries in the catalog beginning with earthenware from 2400-1990 BC, and most of them are masterpieces?  Wanting to expose my readers to what they don’t regularly see, like a great Velazquez or El Greco, I have picked some other possibilities. First, not only for the strength of the piece but also thinking of how impressive shipping and installing a piece like this is, the reclining alabaster effigy figure of Doña Mencia Enriquez de Toledo, Duchess of Albuquerque, from the workshop of Gil de Siloé, 1498.  You can figure out why they brought it along!

Sherman Lee, a longtime former director of the Cleveland Museum used to say that if just looking at works of art was sufficient to make an expert, every guard would be one.  Sometimes you can see that the guards are actually interested, so I asked one standing nearby whether he had picked a favorite work yet since the show was being installed for many days.  He pointed to an image that was on the top of my list as well.  It was the Ascension of Christ by Miguel Alcañiz active in Valencia 1408-47, and this altar piece was painted between 1422-30.  The frame alone would make it worthy of a major collection.

In 2014 the Albuquerque Museum had another blockbuster exhibition on a similar but far more limited theme called, “Behind Closed Doors: Art in the Spanish Colonial Home 1492-1898”. That show was curated by Richard Aste of the Brooklyn Museum and he wanted to include a work of art from the Hispanic Society that was considered too fragile to travel ,so only a photograph was shown but we have the original now in Albuquerque.  It is “The Wedding at Cana” signed and dated Nicolas de Correa, 1696.  Correa was born in Mexico about 1665 and died after 1696 but his career is not well documented.  What I find so marvelous is how the oil and mixed media on the panel is interlaced with mother of pearl which gives the image a shimmer that can be noticed even yards away.

We were asked if we wished to sponsor a painting and we said we did.  We picked this Casta painting, (Casta meaning someone of mixed blood) by Juan Rodriguez Juárez (Mexico City 1675-1728).  It is called, “The Castas: Mestizo and Indian Produce Cayote” ca. 1715.  I am informed that in recent years the Casta paintings have become much more sought after than in the past, increasing their value. Even so we contributed $500 and got our name as sponsor under the label but I am sure if we had picked one of the paintings by Velazquez it would have been a higher figure.  Instead we picked an additional object which I will write about in part 2 in January.

Hung next to “The Castas” was “Young Man from the Coast/El Costeño”, 1843 by José Augustin Arrieta (1803-1874).  Arrietta was known for painting scenes of everyday life in Puebla. When the painting came up at Sotheby’s the catalog had the following note, “This painting may be considered an artistic monument of Mexico and, if so, could not be exported without the approval of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH). Accordingly, it is offered for sale in New York from the catalogue and will not be available in New York for inspection or delivery. The painting will be released to the purchaser in Mexico in compliance with all local requirements. Prospective buyers may contact Sotheby's representatives in Mexico City and Monterrey for an appointment to view the work.”  The painting had been in the same Mexican family since it was painted but had travelled to exhibitions all over.  Clearly the Hispanic Society is on good terms with the Mexican Government and was given permission to export the picture.

Sometimes one just falls for an object, just because it speaks to you without analysis and Penelope and I agreed on this Aquamanile, defined as a “Hot Water Kettle in the Form of a Lion”.  Traditionally they were filled with water for washing the hands.  In contrast to an Italian brass Aquamanile this 18th century silver Peruvian one looks cute, like a stuffed teddy bear you want to take home with you.

Mitchell A. Codding, Executive Director of the Hispanic Society and a great scholar in the field, together with Miguel Falomir, Adjunct Director of Conservation and Investigation at the Prado, curated this spectacular show.  It will be joined by additional later material on December 22 and both sections of the show will remain up until March 31, 2019.  You will hear from me again in January when the entire show can be seen all at once but go now, there is too much great art to absorb all at once and on every visit you will make additional discoveries!

Sunday, November 18, 2018


Before we left for New York I was perusing the New Yorker Magazine when I came across what looked like an afterthought at the bottom of the “In the Museums” page.  It was, however, written by the incredibly discerning and articulate art critic, Peter Schjeldahl.   His subject was another small focused exhibition, this time at the Morgan Library and Museum. He started the paragraph by saying, “The small show ‘Pontormo: Miraculous Encounters,’ at the Morgan Library, centers on one of the damnedest great paintings of all time: Jacopo Pontormo’s ‘Visitation’ (1528-29), on loan from a church near Florence”.  Now, how can one resist that come on?

Jacopo da Pontormo’s (1494-1557) was born Jacopo Carrucci, and his father, Vasari noted, was also a painter.  Jacopo had some illustrious apprenticeships among them with Leonardo da Vinci and Piero di Cosimo.  He broke away from the classic Renaissance style of his teachers to become one of the champions of a new style called Mannerism, a movement some art historians consider originated with Michelangelo.

The Morgan’s exhibition focuses on Pontormo’s impressive “Visitation”, an altarpiece thought to have been painted for a location in Florence but which has been installed in a side chapel in a small parish church in Carmignano for the past 480 years.  It represents The Virgin and her older cousin, Elizabeth, both pregnant, the latter with John the Baptist, and two attendants looking out at the viewer.

Next to it is a rare drawing for the painting lent by the Uffizi in Florence. For some reason the Morgan could not release a photo, but I did find it on WikiArt marked “public domain”.  It is alway exciting when you can study the “modello” next to the final product.  The drawing has been squared so that the composition transferred to the panel with each square of the drawing enlarged 7½ times.

There are just five works of art in the exhibition which includes a print by Durer which may have inspired Pontormo’s “Visitation” composition, a red chalk self-portrait by Pontormo and his drawing of an armed youth. They are shown in a gallery the size of a doctor’s waiting room. It is the first gallery you see on the main floor of the museum and was named after a great dealer/collector and his wife who contributed mightily to the drawings collection of the Morgan, Clare and Gene Thaw.  Both passed away recently but knowing them, they would have loved this show!

Pontormo only painted 15 portraits most of which are in Italy but we are extremely lucky to have one in a private collection in New York which was lent to this show.   It is “Portrait of a Young Man in a Red Cap”, circa 1530, tentatively identified as Carlo Neroni, a Floretine nobleman.   In spite of being much smaller than the altarpiece, it is such a strong image and shows the artists hand so clearly, that it is offers the possibility of contrasting Pontormo’s public and private style.

How the portrait came to New York is an interesting story by itself.  It had been on view, as a loan to the National Gallery in London where J. Tomilson Hill, the New York financier and  major art collector, first saw it.  He learned that the owner, the Earl of Caledon, was interested in a cash sale.   Hill paid $48 million for the picture which was, in 2015, £30.7 million.  Hill then applied for an export license.  The British government has the right to hold up export to see if the sum can be raised to buy it from the exporter.  The National Gallery managed to raise the £30.7 million but over the time it took to raise that sum, Brexit caused the value of the pound to fall. Hill said he would have let the painting go if he had received the dollar amount he paid but accepting the original figure in post-Brexit pounds would have cost him 10 million dollars and he would not take that loss.  

Market values aside the last sentence of Peter Schjeldahl’s mini review returns us to the impact of Pontormo’s “Visitation” altarpiece, “The work simultaneously maximizes the two classic functions of painting, narrative and decoration like nothing else you have ever seen.”  The show is up at the Morgan until January 6, 2019 before it heads to the J. Paul Getty Museum from February 5 to April 28th.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Charterhouse of Bruges

As I have said before, I love small focused exhibitions since too often I get lost or confused in the larger ones when the curator of the show is trying to make too many points at once.  Our trip to New York revealed two such small exhibitions and I will write about one this week and the other next.

The Frick Collection was kind enough to send me an elaborate Press Kit when the show “The Charter House of Bruges: Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Jan Vos” opened but I decided I had to see it before writing.  It was well worth waiting for.  The Frick has one small exhibition space, smaller than a New York hotel room, which they often use to show that would get lost in a larger venue and they used it to optimal advantage for this exhibition.

A Charter House is a Carthusian monastery. For those like me who are not sure who the Carthusians are, they are part of an austere monastic order started by St. Bruno of Cologne in 1084.  They remove themselves from the world as we know it, one of solitude and silence, staying mostly in their cells  I would go mad by day two, but that is their chosen life to concentrate on their religious beliefs.  While some art might be considered distracting other subjects were believed to be of assistance in meditation, at least in the 15th century.   As a result the Charterhouse in Bruges, became a repository some of the major art of the period and and the subject of this show.

Sometimes one enjoys works of art by association and that is the case for me.  This exhibition includes two marble relief sculptures of Carthusian monks, ca. 1380-1400 from the Cleveland Museum of Art. I remember close to a decade ago a long row of alabaster figures of Carthusians, 36 strong and 16 inches high, at the Metropolitan Museum.  Known as the Mourners. They were lent by the museum in Dijon where they were created to surround the ducal tomb.  The photo below shows how impressive they were by the throngs around them in the Met’s Medieval Court.   Here is the article from the New York Times covering that event.

Here is the image from the Met in 2010 and the 2 kneeling figures from Cleveland at the Frick.

Bruges is a small town in Belgium that had some truly great artists working there including one of the greatest, and a teacher to so many others, Jan van Eyck (1395-1441).  Looking at some of his small paintings one gets the feeling he painted with a single brush hair, he is so precise and his little figures so perfect.  Often it is helpful to have a magnifying glass which is graciously supplied by the Frick from a rack of several on the wall.

The nine works in the show are all of a small scale so one can grasp the sense of the exhibition quite easily.   The smallest of the objects is a Boxwood carved “prayer nut” by Adam Dircksz and his workshop which was lent by a private collector.  It was made for the Carthusian François du Puy, circa 1517-21 just 1 7/8 inches in diameter.  Here the magnifying glass was most helpful, and the artist also must have used some visual aid!  It is beautifully carved with praying monks outside and the inside shows the mother and Child on one side and two monks praying on the other.  A prayer tool that could be carried in a pocket must have been a source of great comfort and support to the bearer.

Jan Vos was elected to be prior of the Charterhouse of Bruges in 1441 and remained so for nine years.   While most works of art were given to the Charterhouse by lay patrons, Vos
commissioned the two pre-eminent artists of Bruges to paint works, so he himself became a patron.  I wonder what others thought of him being portrayed as such in some of the paintings he commissioned.  Jan van Eyck’s “The Virgin and Child with St. Barbara, St. Elizabeth and Jan Vos” in the Frick collection was commissioned shortly before the artist’s death in 1441.  It is thought that a very accomplished member of his studio completed the painting and it has been suggested that was Petrus Christus.  The closely related “Virgin and Child with St. Barbara and Jan Vos“ lent for the exhibition by the State Museum Painting Gallery in Berlin, was painted by Petrus Christus a few years later.  The Frick’s painting was once in the care of my family gallery from a private collection.

I will end with a painting we sold to a private collector that has been lent to the show, “The Virgin and Child by a Fountain”, about 1440.  It is called a workshop copy of a work painted by Jan van Eyck in 1439, though I heard from at least one museum director that if the virtually identical painting did not exist in the Museum in Antwerp our picture would be considered the original by van Eyck.  Years ago we were lucky enough to see the two paintings side by side and I could not see that the one considered autograph was superior or different, for that matter.   Such is the life of a purveyor of Old Masters.  It is not unusual for an artist to repeat a painting for second patron.  How many portraits did Gilbert Stuart do of George Washington, some of them virtually identical?   In one museum I once found the papers where a curator said that theirs’s was the original of a work of sculpture though he was not sure himself!  The rule is don’t buy a work of art if the copy hangs in the Louvre, because you are bound to lose that argument, no matter what.  As hard as it is still for me to believe this incredible “Virgin and Child by a Fountain” was not an easy sell!

Curating this exhibition and gathering these loans is a rather remarkable feat and it was done by Emma Capron, who is the current Anne L. Poulet, Curatorial Fellow at the Frick.  Judging by the show and catalog which includes far more material than in the exhibition, this budding professional is a definite keeper!  She did the catalog with two of my old friends, Dr. Maryan W. Ainsworth Curator in the Department of Painting at the Metropolitan Museum and Till-Holger Borchert, Director of the 16 City Museums of Bruges.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

New York, New York, It’s a Hell of a Town

There were 4 art fairs in New York during the 5 days we were there and we spent 7 hours at just one of them, and that was TEFAF, New York.  TEFAF, The European Art Fair, started in 1988 in the small town of Maastricht, The Netherlands and expanded to New York in 2016.  If you put TEFAF in the search engine at the upper left you will see a number of my Missives written about it over the last 8 years, first in Maastricht and now here in the States.  In New York  the Park Avenue Armory allows space for just 93 exhibitors while the Maastricht fair building held 288 in 2012.  It gives you an idea of the size of the European exhibit halls but also why there is a TEFAF, New York both in the fall, for art up to 1820, and spring, when they bring in the more modern and contemporary art from well-known dealers.  Meanwhile, TEFAF, Maastricht has not been abandoned.

It seems to me that the fair here has gotten better and better with more and more being spent by both the fair organizers and the dealers themselves who might spend as much as a quarter of a million dollars to participate including booth rental, installation, and decoration not including transport and housing .  TEFAF always starts off with champagne and flowers are a TEFAF hallmark and this time the Armory was hung with strings of purple orchids dripping from the ceiling.

Being there on a press pass I was early as people arrived slowly for the VIP opening from 1pm until 5pm.  When the benefit for Sloan Kettering began at 5, there were so many attendees that they had someone in charge of apologizing to people regarding the wait for the coat check.  Of course, if you are going to drink champagne you need to eat something so there were continuous small hors d’oevres passed around such as miniature crab cakes or duck wrapped in a miniature tortilla.   Another staple is the Oyster Man with his bucket of oysters shucking them on a first come first serve, basis.  He is present at so many TEFAF fairs that someone asked him if he had a favorite artist yet.  He admitted he had found something he fancied at this fair, but it was out of his league.  I ventured, “Do you ever trade oysters for art?” He said he had a few dealers he did work with in that manner. When the benefit began the food became more extravagant with two different kinds of smoked salmon and miniature pizzas etc.   Here, an image of the crowds beginning at 5 and the oysterman in Maastricht.

Of course, the reason to go to the fair is to see and consider the art and even with just 93 exhibitors there is plenty to think about.  I have picked a few pieces that caught my eye and made me curious enough to walk over and read what I could about them.  If you asked my wife what her favorite pieces were she would come up with a totally different list.  Years ago we played a game.  She picked what she would have wanted to buy for the museum she was working for at the time and I said what I wanted to take home.

The first work to capture my attention was a carved and painted wood Calvary scene.  It was  an 18th century Ecuadorian piece brought by Jaime Eguiguren from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It is stylized yet gripping the viewer to the scene.

At the booth of Carlo Orsi, Milan and Trinity Fine Art, London, I saw a lifesize 5 foot 8 inch marble representing “Milo of Croton,” a 6th century wrestler, by Giuseppi Piamontini signed and dated G.P./F./1740 and bearing the Arms of the Gerini Family.  It came alive for me as I could not be sure if he had won that round or not!

A real coup for Hirschl & Adler, a venerable old gallery in American painting, was to show the over life size Munro Lenox Portrait of George Washington, circa 1800, by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828).  You will have to take my word for this but standing looking at the painting was celebrity, Steve Martin; when he saw my iphone he spun around so quickly that I just got part of his silver haired head, far left.

One of the most important pieces in the fair, and one that Penelope and I would have agreed on both for the museum and our home, was a small figure that might easily have been missed. It was the so-called Galatea Salt, dated 1624,and signed  by the renowned Dutch silversmith, Adam van Viannen on the stand of A. Aardewerk, from The Hague, The Netherlands. In a tour de force of silversmithing it was hammered out of a single sheet with the only two almost invisible seams. Although designed as a salt dish it was created as an objet d’art, not part of a table service. You can imagine that works by Adam van Vianen are extremely rare but I have loved them since my visit as a child to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam which has the largest collection of his work.

Fairs are places to make discoveries, but if you go to the best fairs, true “discoveries” are rare. You will, however, have wonderful experiences.   It is great to have such a treat in New York as well.