Sunday, May 31, 2020

Barbara Piazecka Johnson (1937-2013)

In my time in the art business, I have had a number of eccentric clients and probably one of the most eccentric was Barbara  (known as Basia) Piazecka Johnson (1937-2013).  She was born in Poland and came to the States in 1968.  A year later she was hired by Essie Johnson, second wife of J. Seward Johnson, Sr.  heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune.  She was to cook for them, but it turns out her cooking was not to their liking, so the story goes that she became the upstairs maid.

Within a year, however, she left their employ to take art classes at New York University.  She had been set up in an apartment in New York City by Seward himself and he eventually moved in, divorcing Essie to marry Basia. He was 76, she was 34!  The marriage lasted until his death in 1983.   Though there are differing stories, this image shows the relationship that I witnessed between the two.

Basia had studied art history and philosophy in Poland at Wroclaw University and with Seward’s funds, she built a world-class art collection of Old Master paintings and royal French 18th-century furniture.  Seward left his fortune to Basia and after his death, his children sued even though trusts had been set up for them during his lifetime.  After 3 years and 24 million dollars in legal fees, there was a settlement and Basia received the lion’s share.  Here is Basia after her victory in front of Jasna Polana, (Polish for Bright Glade) her Princeton, NJ estate.

In 1993 David Margolick, a  former New York Times reporter,  wrote the book “Undue Influence,” about the case. He wrote, “The Basia that emerged from the case was alternately compassionate and cruel, cunning and naïve, loyal and fickle, generous and selfish, explosive and meek, articulate and tongue-tied, helpmate and tormentor, cheerful country girl and urbane shrew …”. 

That is the woman I knew long before the trial.  As a client of ours, she was quite knowledgeable about art and a perfect lady.  However, ask the shippers who took works of art from our gallery to Jasna Polana (today a golf course) and they will tell quite a different story.  It seems she screamed at them until everything was done and placed exactly her way!  Here an image of Basia in her living room.

I can tell you one error in the evidence used against her.  The word for a chest of drawers in French is commode.  In English, the term usually refers to a toilet.  Basia bought from our gallery an important pair of Louis XV black lacquer commodes and to show her extravagance they were reported as French black lacquer toilets!

Basia was totally mercurial and here are some examples.  We sat together at an auction in Monte Carlo at a two-day sale.  After one day she got bored and left saying to me, “You know what I like, buy for me”… no instructions…nothing.  At that point, the sale was into late 18th and early 19th-century furniture so I had an idea of what she wanted but would not buy without her there.  One rule of the gallery was never to accept unlimited bids and without specific instructions that would have been the case.

Another time Basia let me know she wanted to return 5 pairs of French 18th century armchairs in natural wood that she had bought over many years.  Why? Because she had found a complete set of gilded ones for far more money at another dealer.  I remember reselling all but one pair immediately and that pair hung around forever. Try returning 5 suits from Brooks Brothers that you bought over a dozen years.

The ultimate in my mind involved an extremely rare Louis XIV giltwood console table that fit perfectly on a small wall at Jasna Polana.  She phoned one day saying she wanted to return it.  I was quite upset because I thought it was a superb piece.  I was not worried about reselling it.  Then I heard a line I will never forget.  Basia said, “the wall is going, so the console and the Mondrian painting (Hung on that wall) have to go” Piet Mondrian was one of the most important artists of the 20th century.  Here is Broadway Boogie Woogie which is in the Museum of Modern Art.

In 1990, Basia invited my wife and me on a junket to Poland to see “Opus Sacrum,” an exhibition of her collection of Western religious art, at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. It was the first major art exhibition to be held in Poland after the fall of the Communist regime and was universally praised.  She had two planes fly her group to Krakow for a tour of the city. While we were lucky enough to fly with Basia the passengers on the other plane arrived looking quite green. It turned out that our pilot was the head of the Polish air force but the other plane was flown by his students. There was little shopping to be done in the impoverished country but on the trip home many on the junket showed off their finds of traditional painted Easter eggs. Someone on the plane had a copy of the New York Times and as they were thumbing through it they saw a large add showing Polish Easter eggs were for sale at Macy’s!

I will end with what sounds like a Polish Joke but is absolutely factual.  Our return flight from Warsaw was on Lot Airlines. Boarding was a unique experience as Lot simultaneously loaded first class through the back of the plane and the main cabin from the front. It was quite a tussle as we squeezed by each other to get to our seats!!!

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Art of Coronavirus Notices

An old friend on FaceBook posted a note saying someone should look at the homemade signs regarding the Corona Virus, Covid-19.  I went a bit further and looked at all kinds of notices.  At this point I think one could do a whole book on the subject, but I will try to discipline myself and pick just a few.

The first one that I noticed was in mid-March on the marquis of the Lensic, Santa Fe’s Performing Arts Center.  I laughed but this was just the beginning of the pandemic when the theater had to close since the President put the Governors in charge … thank goodness.

All over the world people are hoarding products, including the masks that are so badly needed in every country. Have you been searching for toilet paper or any paper products for that matter? Churches have been offering messages of advice and admonition.  One church put a biblical twist on their plea.

Another church had a few good words to give on the same theme and then there is just the miscellaneous sign.

There are lots of homemade signs as well on different aspects of the virus ...  and too many are not wearing masks to show how tough (and stupid) they are.  One New York City block put up their own sign on a phone booth.   Another homemade sign on a telephone pole offers a free cure for the virus.

Why this scourge on the world has become political I will never understand, but it has.  Since I recently wrote on that subject I thought I would just post one sign that is political and another that is a bit different.


A restaurant in Austin, Texas posts different comments regularly, but I just picked one of them to share with you on how nuts everyone is going with the isolation and continuously changing rules.  Then there is this church with a twist on it.

Finally, a couple of personal statements posted online.  Well, this woman is in possession of a precious commodity and she looks like she was determined to succeed.

And a wife who seems to have decided having her spouse at home 24/7 was just was just too much and hung this banner on her  balcony.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

More Words

It seems that readers enjoyed my words from artists last week so here are some more but this time in a more specific area:  the field of portraiture and pictures of people by photographers.

Artists and particularly photographers come from different points of view when it comes to depicting people.  I cannot resist starting with the words of a painter, John Singer Sargent, who said of portraiture, "What a business this of a portrait painter - you bring him a potato and expect he will paint you a peach."  While a contemporary New Mexico photographer, Tira Howard, who specializes in people writes, “For me, in the act of taking photographs, I often feel a sensation akin to falling in love with my subject. I can feel the hurts, desires, and fears of others as if it was a physical touch. It keeps the medium alive and exciting for me.”

Tira Howard (far right) and family

Robert Mapplethorpe said something similar with less empathy: “The important part for me, more important than the photographs, is the relationship I have with the people I photograph”.  As opposed to contemporary Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra who says, “When you take a photograph of somebody you have a relationship with the picture, not necessarily with them.  Most of the people you don’t ever see again”

Growing up in New York City, one of my favorite photographers was Arthur (Usher) Fellig better known simply as Weegee.  He was a street photographer, known for his photographs of crime scenes.  His work appeared in newspapers and even film stills and is represented in a number of museums. About his work he said, “Now the easiest kind of a job to cover was murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground.  He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental.  He would be good for at least two hours.  At a fire you had to work very fast.”  What he did not say here was he was often in a race with the police to get to the crime scene first!

Another street photographer who we actually knew because we went to the right parties was Bill Cunningham.  He was the fashion photographer who published in the New York Times from 1978 until his death in 2016.  He just loved fashion and he said about his work, “I let the streets talk to me. The streets speak to you - how you find out what's new, what people are wearing, what people aren't wearing”. Like me, Bill rode his bicycle everywhere in New York.  Here he is photographing at the Easter Parade when everyone walks down a closed-off Fifth Avenue in their best finery.

The German photographer, August Sander said, “I never made a person look bad.  They do that themselves.  The portrait is your mirror”.  Now that quote is worth a seminar!  Was it really the sitter or the camera or the eye of the photographer that was at fault?

Sekretärin, 1931

One of the most famous American photographers, Edward Steichen said, “I’d like to know who first got it into his head that dreaminess and mist is art.  Take things as they are: take good photographs and the art will take care of itself.”  However, he did not shy away from the mist when it suited his purposes: one of his most famous photos is of the Flatiron Building in New York which has plenty of mist and so does his Self-Portrait. 

Edward Steichen Self-Portrait,
Art Institute of Chicago

We all come up with reasons for why we do things to explain ourselves to ourselves and as you see come up with many answers to the same question.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

The Artist’s Word

I am supposed to be writing missives about the art world but find that difficult while museums and galleries are closed. The art news is slim, as well, so  I thought I would look at some quotations from artists.  Artists express themselves with their creations but some also speak as creatively as they paint, draw or sculpt.

Bridget Riley is a British artist whose work is in many museum collections from the Tate Britain to MOMA, New York.  She has said, “My work is completed by the viewer”.  What a wonderful concept since if there is no viewer there, is there art?  It is not unique to Riley. You might even understand the quote better when you see a painting she did in 1963 titled simply, “Fall”.

Mark Rothko put it a bit more poetically, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them”.  I know there is a Rembrandt or two that my wife has wept in front of, but I have never seen anyone weep before a Rothko.  In a group, however, such as in the Rothko Chapel in Houston they can be moving.  Though, it is practically impossible when the Chapel is full of people. Also, It is impossible to take a good photo of the Chapel with Rothko’s nuanced colors, but here is a photo from the internet.

Artists, naturally, speak a lot about color but some feel their work is not about the colors used.  Edward Hopper said, “I am more concerned with light than color” and his paintings prove it.

Edward Hopper, 1940, Museum of Modern Art

Pablo Picasso looked at it this way, “The blue period was not a question of light or color.  It was an inner necessity to paint like that.”  If it had been anyone other than Picasso saying that I might think this was the only color he could afford at the time!

Picasso, 1903,The Phillips Collection

Very few artists can make a living through their art and all had different jobs to keep them going, even the successful ones started out struggling. Mixed media artist Jane Hammond advised, “Find something to do that will make you some money, that can support your art, and that you can become good at so you can make a decent wage and that you actually don’t hate.” 

Here is what a few had to say about it:

“At one time I was a bill collector in Harlem”, Alex Katz

Sol Lewitt wrote: “One summer I worked in a factory, and that was pretty bad, I didn’t last too long.  Then I got a job in the Street Department and digging a ditch…“

“I didn’t start photography until about 1929 and up until that time I had worked as a waiter on the railway, a bartender and road gangs, played semi-professional basketball, semi-professional football, worked in a brick plant, you name it….” That from the wonderful photographer, Gordon Parks

Indomitable ambition is surely essential to the success of any artist. Let me end with a quote from the abstract sculptor, Richard Serra, “I was in analysis, and I told my analyst I wanted to be the best sculptor in the world and he said, “Richard, calm down”.  Here is his 2005, Reverse Curve, shown at the Gagosian Gallery last year.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Political Humor at the Expense of You Know Who!

For your sake, if you are a big fan of our President don’t read any further and save yourself the anguish.  Instead, either read my previous Missive or the next one.  But there is too much humor out there not to share it during these crazy times. This Missive will take you longer than usual for though the writing is slim, some of these links are a bit longer than usual.  Also, remember that there may be adds before the actual humorous event is played which can be deleted after about 5 seconds.

Can you imagine what would happen if the president would come over to visit Ralph Cramden and the Honeymooners. This is a pretty good possibility.

Do you remember what the original song called “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” was about? 
Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (known as the Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens, who all died in a plane crash in 1959.   It was memorialized in the song by Don Mclean and what he called “the day the music died”.  Here is an updated version regarding the day democracy died sung by our founders:

People have been so happy with Governor Cuomo of New York that they are proposing him as a candidate for president, which he has rejected.  Here is what would happen if he would sing directly to Trump.

Remember the old African folk song that Peter Seeger made famous, Wimoweh: The Lion Sleeps Tonight?  Here is a more up to date version: The Liar Tweets Tonight.

Here is a slightly different take on the Battle Hymn of the Republic which we may need more than ever. 

I am going to end with a bit that is longer than all the others, which has lost some of its humor but just as sharp as it was at Barack Obama’s final White House Correspondence dinner.  It is over 30 minutes long but I think you will enjoy it if only for nostalgic reasons, remembering when we never even dreamed there would be a time like this when we’d be without leadership: