Sunday, April 25, 2021

Musings on an Exhibition

We just made our first trip out of Santa Fe in a year plus.  Our journey was a mere hour drive to the Albuquerque Museum to see, “Frida Kahlo – Diego Rivera & Mexican Modernism – From the Collection of Jacques & Natasha Gelman”.

In one carnation or another the Gelman exhibition has been showing around the country for many years now but every museum can put their own spin on it.  In the case of the Albuquerque Museum, they have amplified the Gelmans’ works with photographs from Throckmorton Fine Art gallery.

At the beginning of the show, we get to see Frida’s masterpiece. “Diego on My Mind”, 1940. I particularly like the photographs of Frida  and Diego together.  Here is a photo by Bernard Silberstein taken while Frida was painting “Diego on My Mind” with Diego watching.

Hung next to that painting  is one of Diego’s most famous paintings of The Calla Llly Vendor (1943).  In this the vendor all but disappears behind the wall of lilies he holds; see his hat upper center.

Flowers figure in many of Diego’s paintings and further on in the show we get his “Sunflowers” where children are playing in front of a huge vase of the over-sized  blooms.  Now, may I disagree with the curator of the show? Sure, I can. That is what art is all about, losing oneself in a picture and making up your own stories.  Clearly the boy on the right is choosing among two masks, which one will he pick for his costume?  To me the individual on the left looks like a girl while the label says it’s a boy and my immediate thought was that having made the two dolls (one is completed under the tree) she is now taking them apart.  Isn’t that what all young kids do, first they put things together and then enjoy destroying them again?

Did you ever wonder how an exhibition is funded?  There is a lot involved beyond hanging the pictures.  A curator and possibly the director, as well, must see the collection that they wish to show no matter where that may be.  Then shipping back and forth plus insurance must be paid. There is a lot more than that, but we can leave it there.  Although most museums charge for special exhibition tickets, which most museums do, they still need to apply for grants which are often not easy to come by because there is so much competition. There may be what my father called, a “sugar daddy” who for one reason or another may decide to fund a major part of the costs of the show.

Then there is another way; increasingly venues ask individuals to sponsor a picture or two.  We are fans of the Albuquerque  Museum and when we were asked to be a sponsor we decided on a few photographs as well as a painting my wife picked. It is a self-portrait by the muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, painted in 1930.  The dark, powerful painting shows the character of the artist who was what we would call today an activist. A Communist to boot, he was arrested for being a labor organizer and spent time in prison.

A photo we sponsored was by the Mexican Modernist photographer Lola Alvarez Bravo, called the “Dream of the Drowned”, circa 1945.  My wife having been a former ballet dancer, of course, loved this picture. It is actually a composite work put together with images of dancers from the Mexico City Ballet.

The Gelmans wanted their portraits painted as well. This portrait of Jacques Gelman from 1945 was painted by Angel Zårrga.  Here Jacques is seen as the confident movie producer he was, on a set, the movie light, cables and camera giving him the image he had of himself.

This portrait of Natasha was commissioned from Diego by Jacques, in 1943, where his wife looks as if she is a star in one of his films.  I would guess it was loved by the Gelman’s and snickered at by their guests behind their backs!

I think a fitting way to close this Missive is with a more serious portrait by Rafael Cidoncha showing her as a life-long collector, seated in front of one of her prize Frida self-portraits. It was painted in 1996, just  two years before Natasha passed away.

There is so much more to see, and the show is well worth the visit.  There are only a few more days to see it in Albuquerque as it closes May 2  and you will need to book a reservation. 

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Unlimited Dimensions

Almost 60 years ago I went to C.W. Post College, part of Long Island University.  I was never a great student and most studies bored me to tears.  I had dreamed of becoming a criminal lawyer – in my dreams! I decided on art history. Post offered no such course but there was a fine arts course with a professor who included art history in his classes. Thank goodness, because I could not draw a circle and still can’t!  

The professor turned out to be a known artist, by the name of Walter Gaudnek.  As luck would have it, he needed a ride between Manhattan and Long Island, so I often drove him in my Volkswagen Beetle. Walter turned out to be most interesting. We had no trouble finding lots to talk about and became friends.

I remember once he asked me to come back to his studio to help him give titles to some of his paintings because he had an opening at a gallery the following day, and they insisted that his paintings have titles.  I doubt I was much help, but, in return for my efforts, he rewarded me with a few of his drawings which I have to this very day!

Collection of Gerald Stiebel

As you would expect we lost touch after I graduated college and went on to Columbia for my MA in art history.  But at my age, and with Covid on top of that, I have taken to reaching out to old friends, so I looked up my college professor who responded immediately.

Walter Gaudnek has had an amazing career. On one bookstore website I found 20 catalogs which included his art. Born in 1931 in the then Czechoslovakia, he moved to study art in Germany and then in 1957 received a Fulbright Scholarship to UCLA (University of California, Lost Angeles) to study and teach. A decade later he received his PhD from New York University.  His thesis was “The symbolic meaning of the cross in American Contemporary Painting”.  He continues to delve into the area of religion both for his teaching and his art.

In the 60’s he was part of the current movement of “Happenings”, with his model and later his wife, Audrey Gail Goldman. Here is an image from that period.

At age 90 he has just retired after 50 years of teaching at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Now, he and Audrey split their time between Florida where their daughter, Yve, is currently studying film arts at the University of Central Florida and Altmünster, Germany where, in tribute to his mother, he has a small museum where his art is shown.

Between 1960 and 1986 Gaudnek worked on an installation called “Unlimited Dimensions” which consists of 112 paintings in 3 different sizes forming an immersive labyrinth which is mesmerizing in many ways. You will see how my drawing relates.

1986-87 the installation was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Unlimited Dimensions” was the final exhibition under the Director Henry T. Hopkins, who brought the Museum to national prominence. (In 2009 the headline of one of his obituaries was “Henry T. Hopkins dies: Put ‘Modern’ in SFMOMA”.) Hopkins wrote of Gaudnek’s labyrinth “One is reminded of the settings for German Expressionist films of the 1930’s, where the scale and density of the images reduces the adult viewer to child scale and re-introduces to him the fantasy and insecurity of child-hood dreams.”

Now, Walter would like to donate the work to an American museum. When I asked him why, he replied, “I want to give it not only because I do want to give something back---but it was created in New York City--it's totally American--and it belongs in the USA. “

I want to write so much more but I have always promised to keep these Missives short.  If I have stimulated anyone’s imagination as to an appropriate museum to acquire this remarkable work (which is made to fold into relatively little space), please let me know at:

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Family Feud

This is going to shock all my readers; my wife and I don’t always agree and that has been going on for about half a century. In other words, it started even before we got married!

What happened:  for many years the American Association of Museum Directors (AAMD) has accepted the concept of de-accessioning art from a museum’s collection as long as the proceeds went into buying other works of art.  Then came Covid and museums lost major parts of their funding and are surviving by contributions from charitable donors and trustees.

After Covid hit, the AAMD amended their rule saying that funds received from deaccessions could also be used for care of the collections, including conservation or security and other aspects that fall under that rubric, or the funds could go into the museum’s endowment.  This change was to last for just two years.

Art critics such as Christopher Knight for the Los Angeles Times asked questions like, the market is doing great why, can’t all those wealthy trustees put up the funds.  One museum director, Ann Pasternak, at the Brooklyn museum asks why, should the trustees alone support a public institution.  Further, she makes the point that donors will support the Manhattan museums, think the Met and MOMA, rather than the ones in the outer boroughs, no matter how much they may have to offer the public.

One of many flash points in this debate was the deaccessioning of a small Jackson Pollock, Red Composition (1946) Oil on Masonite, 19 1/4 x 23 1/4 inches from the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York.   Though it was one of Pollocks early drip paintings. The Everson still has an important Pollock drawing in its collection.

The director of the Everson, Elizabeth Dunbar, said that they did not have a large collecting base in the Syracuse area nor billionaire trustees. She asked, rhetorically, “if this picture is so important why has it never been requested for a major Pollock retrospective?”

Jessica Arb Danial, the president of the museum’s board of trustees, which has the ultimate responsibility for deaccessions said the sale would “enable the Everson to significantly intensify our strategic efforts, particularly during this critical time in our nation’s history.”  Therefore, they plan to use it, in part, to acquire art by minority artists.

In further defense of the museum’s decision, though Christie’s estimated the painting to bring between 12 and 18 million it “only” brought the minimum, still a huge injection of capital for the Everson.

To quote my wife she argues “that the purpose of an art museum, centers on its permanent collection as opposed to a kunsthalle which exhibits but does not collect. A museum holds works in public trust. That is why a donor of a work gets a tax deduction. Selling duplicates or lesser works to buy better examples and improve the collection is one thing. Selling to keep the institution afloat, however, is contrary to the purpose of its existence. She argues the case of the Everson Pollock was presumably donated to expose Syracuse residents to the aspect of his art which has earned him a place in art history. The Everson has an important Pollock drawing, but due to light restrictions, only the painting could be accessible on permanent view. An influx of dollars may be a boon to those drawing up the institution’s balance sheet, but future art-interested citizens of Syracuse will have to evaluate Pollock’s drip paintings from reproductions. The Everson cites wanting to fund a full-time conservation position, but conservation of what if not what is generally agreed to be the most important work in their collection?”

I do not agree because a deaccessioned work of art is not being destroyed.  Title is just passing to a new owner and that owner just paid Christie’s twelve million dollars so they too will not destroy the picture and in the scheme of things who is to say that it may not someday enter another museum.  Here is a famous painting ”Rainy Day” by Gustave Cailebotte that was owned by Walter Chrysler, Jr. which he did not wish to put in his museum so it eventually ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Additionally, taste and expertise change on a regular basis and who is to say what will be considered more important in the future … maybe it will be an NFT!

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Working Remotely

Both by desire and happenstance I am writing about a subject that I had not planned on and that is “working from home”.  What if you must work remotely because your employer has emptied your offices for concerns of contagion. This must be particularly difficult if you are used to an open office plan. Working from home has normal advantages and disadvantages and I am sure each of my readers can make their own list.

Even before the pandemic I had found, a small office for myself in a downtown Santa Fe building where no one needs to interact. I found, however, friendly faces in the offices down the hall and we soon became friends. (All have been faithful mask wearers.).

We are of course hugely dependent on email. Think of the havoc an interruption in service could cause in each of your lives. What if your employer were writing asking why you have not supplied whatever he or she needs? One of my daily activities is working on these Missives I rely on replies from the many institutions and colleagues that I need in order to gather the information to write.  

As it happens, last week, the tech company partially responsible for my email (who should have known better) disconnected mine. For 14 hours I was out of luck until a couple of friends who are techies restored me to normal, but still I have lost a day’s worth of emails. I experienced just how stressful the loss of email was, even for a day!  My Missives go out on Monday and many readers respond on the same day, and those are the emails I lost.  I feel that not answering is bad form but beyond that, some emails could be vital.

I almost said, picking up the New York Times, but, of course, I was thinking of reading it on-line, I saw an article on the subject of working remotely and that it is not going away.  To my surprise I l earned the music and media streaming company, Spotify Technology, whose headquarters are in Stockholm, Sweden with offices in 17 countries, occupies 16 floors in a lower Manhattan office building. Those floors will never be fully occupied again as Spotify has told its employees that they can work from anywhere they wish.  Why? Because businesses have learned that it is not necessary for everyone to be working together all the time. The compromise is to have staff come in a few days a week such as Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.  Real estate owners, of course, do not want to see this emptying of office buildings, not to mention the restaurants and food vendors in those neighborhoods.  It is estimated that at this time 90% of workers in Manhattan are now working remotely.  Even though the Mayor of New York and the Federal Government need the economy to be healthy it is doubtful that things will go back to the “old” normal.  We have found out that there are alternatives, and we will have to pivot to get used to it.

 Having said all that, I know that there are exceptions such as, you can’t run an art gallery remotely.  Some one has to get the art in order to show the art and then cater to the patrons who might make a purchase.   You probably have heard the statement that some buyers will buy with their ears more than their eyes.  Those individuals need to hear the whole story of what they are looking at. This is not just sales talk, but collectors want to know provenance and history.  For instance, a statement that this work of art that hung in a museum for 50 years was finally restituted to the family from which it was taken.  This confirms that the work was not stolen from the museum that it had hung in and does not make a bad story for the owner to tell his friends, even if it doesn’t add value. The image of a work and its documentation can be relayed online but, when education is involved, a one-on-one relationship is always the more effective and better option.  Here is an image of famed art dealer, Leo Castelli, explaining to clients Andy Warhol’s Brillo & Cornflakes Boxes.

I am glad that I do not have to make difficult decisions for the younger generation.  The choices they need to make will give the following generations a new paradigm which they will accept and function under. It’s the transition that is difficult.