Sunday, October 30, 2022

Operation Paperclip

What a strange name, Operation Paperclip. I had heard the name but could not remember it until I listened to a book called, “The German Wife” by Kelly Rimmer. It is the story of a German family heading toward and through World War II Juxtaposed to an American family that lost so much in the Dust Bowl. This is one I suggest you listen to rather than read since the accent changes from German to the American South helps to distinguish where the reader is in the world.

Operation Paperclip was a secret United States intelligence program, given its name for the paperclips that U.S. officers attached to the folders of German experts they wished to employ. German scientists, engineers and technicians were spirited out of Germany as the war was ending, and for many years afterward, to be conscripted for a certain amount of time in the interest of the American Government.

The concept originated with the U.S. military effort to take the advanced weapons from the Germans, including biological and chemical agents. Soon government officials realized they should also bring the Nazi scientists, doctors, physicists, and chemists. The Germans were so far ahead of the Americans that it is believed that if they had had time to finish the programs, that were nearing completion, the war might not have ended for quite a while.

You can imagine that Nazi scientists were not going to be warmly received by the American public who became aware of the gas chambers found at the end of the war, so the American military did its best to wipe clean the records of these individuals.

The book is, of course, historic fiction but serendipitously I discovered that an old friend, a former curator and director at a university museum, was closely connected to a real-life story. Though I have known her for decades I only recently learned that she was born in Germany at the end of WWII and her father had been part of this program. He was an engineer and, in 1948, when he had the chance to come to the United States, he leaped at the opportunity. No, not because he had always hoped to come over, but it was known that the Russians, actually kidnapped scientists to bring them to work on their rocket programs and other scientific projects. The Americans, of course, wanted the scientists for the same reason. It was part of the Cold War arms race. Here is a photo of Werhner von Braun, who had a very dark past, but then was “heralded as the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century” with John F. Kennedy.

My friend told me that her father had joined the Nazi Party with the hopeful thought that if they heard some more reasonable voices, it could stop the extremists. [Sound familiar]? He wanted nothing to do with them after attending one party meeting. She also told me how close her parents came to being annihilated by an allied bomb and only survived because it turned out to be a dud and they could escape before the second one actually went off.

Her family came to the United States on a cargo ship and did not live in luxury. Building their own house they, “became the first doomsday preppers (food and shelter – basic security) was all that mattered”. Her father, by my interpretation, became an indentured servant to the U.S. military for a time. He worked at the predecessor to what is today the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton Ohio. As an engineer his specialty in simple terms was as a “plasma physicist” i.e. an expert in the ionosphere. If I repeated what I read in his obituary only another scientist would understand it. Half the words I had never seen before! His work became highly valued after Sputnik went up in 1957 and he won several civilian honors.



The book I referred to at the beginning recounted how the families of German scientists were shunned by the Americans and children would not play with the Germans. My friend did not refer to this specifically but said that for her family it had been a very lonely experience.

I often check first with Wikipedia before delving deeper. In this case, after a short article I found 158 footnotes, a whole bunch of references as well as further reading. If you are curious there is plenty more out there.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

The High Road to Taos

I have not written about Taos, New Mexico, for some time but this take is a little different from the others. A couple of days away from town was a birthday present from my wife, Penelope. The idea was not only to get away for a night but to do it in the fall which, like in many places, is so beautiful at this time of year. 

There are two ways to get to Taos from Santa Fe. One is relatively direct and takes roughly an hour and a half. The other, the high road, takes about an hour longer. Of course, it depends on your speed but with all the hills and switchbacks it also depends on your driving skills and, I’m afraid, your age! But boy is the high road worth it.

It is hard to take photos from a moving vehicle on a curving mountain road but there were a few, very few, places where a car could safely go off the road as photo opportunities. From this one view I took you can see why in 1975 the High Road was listed in the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.

In 2016 Mike Butler published a book called “The High Road to Taos” with about 200 black and white photos dating from the 1930’and 40’s from The Library of Congress. The High Road has always been a tourist and pioneer attraction.

Some guidebooks give you up to seven hours to take the High Road because there are so many historic villages and pueblos along the way. In 2012 I wrote about our tour of Taos Pueblo ...

Penelope had picked our luncheon spot called Sugar Nymphs Café in the village of Peñasco.

To give you an idea of the vintage of the place, these old fashioned washing machines stood outside.

The café shares the building with an old time theater which I could only peak into. In the “lobby” was a vintage movie projector.

It did not look like a great place to eat but i was in for a very pleasant surprise.

I ordered my favorite chili cheeseburger and Penelope a BLT, simple but delicious, mine was no patty but a thick burger cooked to rare perfection. It came with a large bowl of cauliflower soup. Did not sound that great to me but home made with lots of vegetables. If I return some day, I hope they have that soup again. We had to sample their signature drink made with syrups and berries like I have never tasted before. Adding to the atmosphere was a totally black cat with bright green eyes.

Coming into Taos we passed Saint Francis Church, Rancho de Taos, a famous subject for Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe. When we were there six years ago, we were pretty much alone but the church was closed. This time the parking lot was full and we did get into the church, as guests for a wedding were just dispersing, everyone decked out in their Sunday best. Here is Ansel Adams’ 1929 photo of the church.

We stayed at the Historic Taos Inn, which opened in 1936 and has retained its style. Its restaurant, Doc Martin’s, lived up to its reputation with a great chili relleno and margaritas. Our room was small but really cozy, with fireplace in a reading nook.

The next morning, we visited the Taos Art Museum at the Fechin house, home of Nicholai Fechin (1888-1955) a Russian painter who specialized in portraits. Here is a 1933 portrait of his daughter, Eya.

Born in Kazan, Russia he came to the United Sates with his wife and daughter in 1923. The family lived in Taos from 1927 until 1933. During that time, he transformed and added to an adobe house which is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. He not only carved the furniture but incorporated architectural ornament recalling Russian folk art.

Returning home via the low road, the pouring rain made us very happy that we had come in on the high road on a beautiful sunny and warm day.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

The Line Between Galleries and Museums is Blurring

Not so long ago I might have questioned the blurred lines between galleries and museums, but now i am not so sure. Some of us go to museums to learn more about a certain field but most of us go because we saw an ad for a special exhibition that might interest and/or entertain us. We can now find the same in some commercial art galleries.

In my last blog I quoted Michaela Boland from an article she wrote about Gagosian’s Gallery Exhibition of Aboriginal Paintings from Steve Martin’s collection, “Desert Painters of Australia will be one of Gagosian's regular non-selling exhibitions held as a way of influencing tastes, expanding art collecting and testing the market.” Why is that different from what museums do?

The Eden Gallery, a modern art gallery on Madison Avenue in New York published a whole blog on the subject. The author says there is a growing grey area between the Museum and gallery. She/he goes on to say, “An art museum will usually have a permanent private collection of artworks, which they have purchased or been gifted, that the museum will have on display on a long-term basis. An art museum will also display artworks that are on loan, either from other museums or by individuals. These artworks are usually part of short-term exhibits that will change several times a year.”

I cannot deny that the Museum has a permanent collection, and the art dealer does not (unless you count the dealer’s unsold inventory!). But it is not as if museums don’t sell from their collections. Museums traditionally have sold duplicates and works they feel are no longer worthy of there collection. In recent times they have been “permitted” to sell even major pieces to make ends meet. In the museum’s case they use an intermediary which is usually an auction house or maybe they “gift” the work to another institution.

My New York gallery was known, in particular, for its French 18th Century decorative arts and once in a while a piece was sold but then it was replaced so there was a rotation and clients learned from what they saw and what we could teach them. This Planisphere Clock (Pendule à planisphère) 1745-49 was sold by my Gallery to the Getty Museum.

Why is the museum different? They too rotate their collection for special exhibitions or for conservation considerations. The British Museum has a collection of 8 million objects where only 8,000 or 1% are on view at any one time.

My wife, a former curator, points out that the goals are different: the dealer seeks to find the best works and place them with new owners, while the museum curator seeks (or used to seek) to build on an institution’s representation of what they believe is the best artistic products (past and current) for future generations.

The museum rarely experiments to see what might catch on with the public. The contemporary gallery, however, will take chances that this different art might catch on. Major contemporary art galleries are becoming more adventurous and that seems to be attractive to curators who want to get away from positions that may seem rather static or not in line with their vision. It seems to me that there is a certain cross pollenating here.

When second in command, Sylvie Patry, failed to get the top job at Paris's Musée d'Orsay, she left to become artistic director at Kamel Mennour which has several galleries in Paris dealing in contemporary art. There Patry can continue to work with living artists. She is not alone as far as Museum curators “moving to the dark side” as one pundit put it and she is not the only one to go into the private sector.

In 2019 Pace Gallery lured Curator Mark Beasley away from the Hirshhorn Museum to head a new department called Pace Live. Beasley, was formerly curator of media and performance art at the Hirshhorn and was hired “to oversee the new multi-disciplinary program that includes music, dance, film, performance, and conversation. Pace Live aims to give artists, scholars, and critics the opportunity to experiment across a range of disciplines and find new ways to connect with the public.”

I don’t think that galleries are going to take anything away from museums, but the lines are becoming more blurred. For some art lovers it may be more exciting to visit a gallery where you can, at least, have the illusion of being able to acquire the work you are looking at which makes it a more exciting and participatory experience, today known as “experiential”.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Steve Martin and Collecting Australian Aboriginal Art

The excitement of collecting for a museum is vividly recounted by Tom Hoving in “The Chase, The Capture: Collecting at the Metropolitan” that accompanied an exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum’s acquisitions 1965-75, Together with various curators he wrote of the need to haunt auction houses, visit dealers regularly and pay personal attention to potential donors. He also loved to lecture on the thrill of the successful pursuit.

Similar adrenalin must run in the veins of actor/author Steve Martin as I discovered in an article by Sarah Cascone in Artnet News. Martin and his wife Anne Stringfield are lending 6 Aboriginal paintings from their 50 that they have collected since 2015 for a small exhibition currently at the National Arts Club in New York called “Selections from Australia’s Western Desert”.

There are some fine points but to make it simple, Aboriginal artists are to Australia what Indigenous Peoples are in the United States and Canada. The field is not well represented outside Australia although there is one museum collection in this country devoted to collecting art in this area, The Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Of its 1,800 works 1,600 were donated by the John W. Kluge in 1998, the product of the late media mogul’s passionate collecting.

Steve Martin has long been known in the art world as an important collector. He has said he particularly collects 19th and 20th century art since it is so difficult to buy great Old Masters today. A few of the artists in his collection are Edward Hopper, Giorgio Morandi, David Hockney and Andy Warhol.

In 2019 Martin/Stringfield exhibited 10 of their Aboriginal paintings at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. Larry Gagosian has 17 galleries around the world from Beverly Hills to London and from Paris to Hong Kong. When Gagosian has an exhbition it has influence beyond his domain. Covering that show, the culture reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Michaela Boland stated “Desert Painters of Australia will be one of Gagosian's regular non-selling exhibitions held as a way of influencing tastes, expanding art collecting and testing the market.” This image is from Gagosian’s exhibition.

Bolan wrote of Steve Martin’s history of collecting in the field: “Four years before, he had read a New York Times article about an exhibition of Western Desert painter Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri's artworks on display in New York and by the end of that day he'd acquired one for his home”. Quote from Martin, "I'd truly never seen anything like it before. I still have it hanging in the house."

Martin returned to that initial Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri acquisition in the recent interview with Ms. Gascone, “We hung it, we loved it… we found that there is a whole culture around these paintings, and slowly, through osmosis, I began to learn more and more.” Here is another painting from the collection.

That is exactly the way my wife and I became serious collectors of Native, read indigenous, American Indigenous art. Discovering new areas in which to collect is, in my experience, one of the most exciting adventures one can have. It allows one to discover new cultures and gives a sense of discovery and victory when you land your targeted work of art.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

The Outsider Art Fair at 30

Even though the first Outsider Art Fair (OAF) in New York (there is also one in Paris) was 30 years ago. I first wrote about it in 2011, and returned to the subject three times*. The last time in 2017 the title was “25 years of the Outsider Art Fair”. Antiques and the Arts Weekly’s at the time of the fair, last march, headline was “Outsider Art Fair Celebrating 30 Years is Back Better than Ever. (2020 the show was virtual). Reading some reports I became curious how attitudes had changed over the years. For one thing it no longer caters to a niche audience.

In my first Missive on this subject i wrote that my father pulled out a book from our library called, “Bildnerei de Geisteskanken” (Artistry of the mentally ill) published in Germany in 1922 by Dr. Hans Prinzhorn. In France it was named Art Brut or raw art by the artist Jean Dubuffet in the 1940’s. The term Outsider Art was first coined in the United States in 1972 as the title of a book by art critic Roger Cardinal. The main credential of an outsider artist is one who is self taught and has had no formal training.

Some Outsider Art is made from discarded pieces of trash, none of it is in the traditional vernacular of art. Still, it is extremely creative, and though it used to be put down by the cognoscenti, you can now even find it in some of the big name galleries. It was reported that at this year’s OAF some universally accepted artists showed up to see what was going on and possibly be inspired. Over the years there have been dealers who have specialized in the field and according to the current owner of the Outsider Art Fair, Andrew Edlin, these dealers “stuck with it through thick and thin.” Here is a work I love from this year’s show.

It is no wonder that a number of art dealers do not care for the term Outsider Art because it makes it sound like it is not to be considered seriously. Mr. Edlin even pointed out that there were curated exhibitions within the fair. One such exhibition was ccurated by Paul Laster an artist, critic, curator, editor and lecturer. He borrowed from a number of galleries and called the exhibition space, “Beyond Genres: Self-Taught Artists Making Contemporary Art” In my opinion, that demonstrates how seriously this art is considered.

Acceptance has grown in a major way, and it is safe to say that Outsider Art is definitely IN! This can be demonstrated by the museums that have done exhibitions related to the subject such as the Smithsonian, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum… bastions of respectability! More museum curators are attending the show, another sign of acceptance.

While the vast majority of exhibitors were from around the States (55) there were two from France, one from Great Britain and even one from Japan. This year eight nonprofit art studios and galleries who work with, or showcase, disabled artists participated. The addition of these centers provides a fresh, accessible and important counterbalance alongside the legends of Outsider art like Bill Traylor (1854-1949), James Castle and others. The latter (1899, Garden Valley, Idaho; died 1977, Boise, Idaho) was born deaf and found art his way of communicating. He would use paper, materials like packing tape and cardboard supplied by his parents, who were postmasters. He cut out images from packages, magazines and other printed material. His works can be found in 19 museums including a number of major ones such as The National Gallery, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Art Institute of Chicago. Here is an illustration of his use of deleterious materials in his model of a baby carriage.

Prices, of course, follow more notable and recognized artists so even though you might find some work at a fair like this in the thousands or even hundreds of dollars, these days some of the work can be priced well into the tens of thousands of dollars and one report said even into 6 figures. A work by Bill Traylor whose art carreer spanned the last decade of his life brought $507,000 at Christies in 2020.

As with any art fair, galleries that may not have been accepted into the fair or just decided it was not worth the effort and expense kept their galleries open during the run of the fair and advertised the fact . So, for those willing to spend some shoe leather, there was an awful lot to see. Like in any field of art you need to educate your eye, not for what is best because who can tell you what that is, but what, as one art dealer used to say, “races your motor”. Here is one that raced mine!

*My earlier Missives on Outsider art can be found by going to and putting Outsider Art Fair in the search engine and scroll down through them. If you wish to copy one, first click on the title to bring up the correct URL.