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.