Sunday, November 28, 2021

Color and Black & White

No, this is not a blog about photography but about some very real issues politically and socially and how they play out in the art world. Last month I wrote about the 1971 acquisition of the portrait by Velazquez of Juan de Pareja by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What has changed since then?

For one thing, like everyone else who watches television we have noticed how many people of color are now featured in commercials. Then there is a television series started in 2016, “Lucifer”, where the hero from hell, i.e. the devil, (Tom Ellis) is played by a white individual, while his brother, an angel, (D.B. Woodside), is played by a black man. If you’ll excuse the expression, “what a contrast”. We find that these two disparate characters are underneath, extremely similar.

Quite rightly we are being acclimatized to equality of color and the sexes. As the younger generation who are still being molded into maturity, hopefully more will become both color blind and less sexist. It has been pointed out to me that there are now more female anchor people on television, albeit in the daytime and at night more male. It would seem that the networks are catering to their perceived audiences as to when more women or men watch the telly ...

The staid museums come a bit late to the party but slowly and surely they too are realizing their lack of inclusiveness. I learned something interesting after writing the Pareja Missive from Nancy Hoving, widow of the then Director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving. She wrote, “Looking at all the great painting and painters we see today I can't figure out where (TH) and I were. Kerry James Marshall and others were around but we never saw them. I can’t understand how this happened because I know (TH) would have liked him as much as I do. And there are others.” In 2015 the Met did finally buy a painting by the artist of his Studio. It was painted in 2014 and acquiered through the art dealer David Zwirner. The Met then followed up with a Marshall retrospective the year after.

Why? It would be easy to say that the museum curators were just not interested or was it that the name dealers who they relied on were not showing art by people of color. Of course, there were many below 57th street but that was a country away.

I also wonder whether it was thought of as appropriate that the art of the other be in a separate museum. Who knows? “They” had their own museum such as the Studio Museum in Harlem. From their website: “The Studio Museum in Harlem was founded in 1968 by a diverse group of artists, community activists and philanthropists who envisioned a new kind of museum that not only displays artwork but also supports artists and arts education.”

Another example of this concept one might call euphemistically, separate but equal is The Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation which was established by wealthy collector George Gustav Heye in 1908. Heye began collecting American Indian art as early as 1897. His collection rapidly increased over the next several years but was devoted to traditional tribal material. Only since it became the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989/96 did it expand its focus to contemporary work.

My father who started out his life as a strictly orthodox Jew and only became conservative after his son was born as he did not want him to be extreme in this democratic country. He did not support the Jewish Museum because he said there was no such thing as Jewish art. Art was art far as he was concerned. Maybe it is because of that last bit I too believe all art is equal and paintings are paintings, furniture is furniture and jewelry is jewelry, etc. and sometimes they may rise to the exulted heights of the current definition of art.

Art is a reflection of people and their life experience. Visitors to museums can ask how works of art by artists of different ethnicities relate to their life experience. What better way to teach than to show the different approaches that African American, Native American or Japanese Artists see the world or even similar subject matter?

Traditionally our encyclopedic museums turn out to be a series of separate fiefdoms each of which are separate but not equal. The galleries that get the most space are often the European Paintings and the Chinese art or African art are given less gallery space. You can mix those priorities in a different order for different museums but the attitude is that never the twain shall meet. You hear people visit just one section of a museum never being exposed to another. In my opinion the main galleries should have a mixture of cultures then you can have sections that specialize for those who wish to concentrate on a specific field. I am pleased to say that the Metropolitan Museum’s relatively new Director, Max Hollein is now encouraging curators to communicate with those in other departments to this end.

Just think of how thought provoking it would be to see the Anglo traditional image of Thanksgiving by Norman Rockwell and this one by Paula Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Members of the tribe gathered near Plymouth Rock in 1991 for a day of mourning in response to the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving.

Suzanne Kreiter—The Boston Globe


Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Strange Lives of Works of Art

I have written on similar subjects before but am always fascinated how works of art have lives of their own. Often it is just a question of moving from collection to collection be it private or public. Over time any work of art may not seem as desirable as it did when first acquired. Private collectors may deaccession for financial need or a change of taste. In our case, our former collections did not seem to fit our lifestyle in Santa Fe as they did in New York.

Even museums wish or must sell from their storerooms. A museum may acquire a work from a donor in hopes of getting more from them. Later on, it may be felt that the donation is not of the caliber of other works in the collection or better examples have been obtained. So, the original donation goes into storage and when it reaches the bottom of the ladder, or the museum no longer needs so many similar works, it gets deaccessioned for the next collector to acquire.

But there are other ways in which works of art have their own lives. What prompted this Missive is an article I read last week, entitled “The Girl with a Pearl Earing’s Lavish Jewel May be a Fake and 4 Other Secrets Scholars Have Uncovered in the Work of Vermeer”. What word stuck in your mind from that long title? I will bet it was the word “fake”! Sometimes I don’t concentrate enough when I read and I read the title, as I would bet many others did, that the painting was a fake. That is not what the article said, but it did get your attention.

The article goes on about how the most popular painting in the Mauritshuis in the Hague and four other Vermeers may have been altered or “edited”, either by the artist himself or others later in some cases because of possible suggestions of impropriety. For example, The Girl Standing at the Window reading a letter in the Museum in Dresden, when cleaned revealed the painting of a cupid on the wall which might imply that the girl at the window was reading a love letter from a suitor. In 17th century Holland that might have been considered scandalous. Does that make the picture worth more or make it more attractive? The good and evil is in the mind of the beholder, and it depends on the standards of the era.

Here are images of the painting before cleaning and after.

Sorry, this is not an issue of fakes but part of the history of the paintings. In the case of “The Girl with A Pearl Earring” jewelry experts said the pearl was too big to be an authentic jewel of Vermeer’s time. Happily, the few brush strokes that enlarged the pearl have been found to be consistent with the artist’s highlighting. From a dealer’s point of view, this kind of question would affect the value if this painting were on the market. If a buyer were to think the pearl had been enhanced later to make it more prominent, he might not want to pay the “full” price of a Vermeer. The senior partner of my gallery, Saemy Rosenberg of Rosenberg & Stiebel used to say in German, “They can kill you with their science”. Which certainly could be true as far as value is concerned.

What should a museum do if a painting in their collection is called a fake or painted by a less important artist? I have probably mentioned before the “Polish Rider” by Rembrandt in the Frick Collection. The “experts” decided at one point that the picture was not by Rembrandt, but the Frick, in a courageous act, refused to take it off wall. Low and behold, the next experts came around to once again fully attribute the picture to Rembrandt.

Also revealed recently is that Jacques Louis David’s portrait of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Marie Anne Lavoisier, donated by Jayne & Charles Wrightsman to the Metropolitan Museum in 1978 had also been reworked. This was done by the artist because of the changing politics of the time. I will let you read the Met’s analysis for yourselves and see the transformation in the painting.

There are so many more examples of revising art history through scientific discovery. Whether this is progress or just disturbing the status quo is up to your own way of thinking and possibly your age as well!

Sunday, November 14, 2021

The Library is Leaving

Almost exactly a decade ago I wrote a Missive titled “The Library Arrives”

A couple of months ago I wrote about deaccessioning not only my gallery archive but also our art history library. Now it is happening! 

The library is on its way to the Birmingham Museum of art. We meet the librarian, Laura Woodard from the Birmingham Museum of art at the Albuquerque airport. Next morning, she picks up a huge rental truck from Penske then settles in to check which books will go in addition to those already listed.

My wife and I have a last-minute panic that we can’t part with this book or that.

Four fellows from Zen Movers come to begin packing the books in our basement as well as in our studio:

Coming up from the basement library with the packed and taped book boxes they begin loading the truck. The cartons are so heavy they need to bring the dollies up the ramp backward onto the truck.

While we thought the job would take 3 days or more, but the men finish in 7 hours.

The next morning Laura with her friend, renowned keyboard artist Matt Slocum, take off for the 18 hour drive back to Birmingham.

Sunday, November 7, 2021

The Thanksgiving Play

The other night we went to the theater for a play, a treat we have had precious little of in the last 18 months other than in the box in our TV room.

Up front, I need to mention that it was an extra pleasure because our son was in the play. This is not a review; however, I am sure you are well aware that any theater piece that one’s son or daughter are in, is perfection. Here is the cast from left to right, Kate Bergeron as Logan (the teacher) – Patrick MacDonald as Caden (the Professor) - Jess Haring as Alicia (the actress) and Hunter Hans Stiebel as Jaxton (Logan’s Paramour).

What interests me for the purpose of this Missive is the concept and ideas behind the play. “The Thanksgiving Play” is a comedy written in 2015 by a Native American, Larissa FastHorse, who had received the coveted MacArthur Genius Grant. It has been staged across the country from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles to off-Broadway, at Playwrights Horizons’ Peter Jay Sharp Theater. It is playing now at the Santa Fe Playhouse timed with Native American Heritage Month. Here is a trailer from Playwrights Horizon:

I feared it would be a heavy exposition on how historically wrong the Anglo celebration of Thanksgiving is. Instead, knowing it would have a mostly Anglo audience, the author took a far more accessible approach, a satire making fun of the Anglos for their naivete, their pride in their fantasies, as well as their ignorance of history. I have rarely laughed so much in a theater. In fact, some of the audience laughed so loud one would miss a line here and there. Seems we have the same issue regarding “Critical Race Theory”. Come to think of it there is not much difference.

Surprising myself, I only thought of the messages that the play had after the piece was over. This 4-person play is a send up of Political Correctness. The premise is that a fourth-grade teacher must put on a play for her students for which she has received a grant that specifies that she will have Native American input. She used the money to hire a Native American only to find out she is an actress who only plays the part of an Indian when she is not playing other ethnicities (Jess). Larissa FastHorse says one reason she wrote the play was in response to people who said they could not find Native American actors. It did not take me long to think of the first one I saw: television in the 1950’s and The Lone Ranger and his side kick Tonto who in real life was Jay Silverheels a Canadian Mohawk. 

One of the men in the play is a history professor (Caden) who has always wanted to work in theater with “real” actors, though he is not sure in what role. He joins the group having already written a script with no idea that the concept of the teacher/director (Logan) is that they would come together with the Native American to develop it from scratch. Every once in a while, he inserts uncomfortable facts about the “settling” of the United States. The teacher keeps worrying, will she lose her grant; is this concept too difficult or not appropriate for the kids; how will the school board react, --- all issues that every teacher must now worry about. This dilemma is exemplified by one of the characters who says, “We don’t need actual Native Americans to tell a Native American Story. I mean, none of us are actually Pilgrims, are we?” Here are frustrated Logan and Jaxton in a similar scene in Santa Fe and at the Geffen Playhouse.

Larissa FastHorse requested that each theater where the play was produced do something that connected to their local Native community. In the case of Santa Fe, at the end the four actors come to the front of the stage, stretch out a sheet for projected images that relate to the Tewa, tribes with pueblos along the Rio Grande. who share a common language.

A theater professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has said, “The importance and value of this play is theater being this mirror to hold up to society.” Isn’t that what good theater should always do and as a result make us think? In this case it also makes us laugh.