Sunday, November 26, 2023

I’m Scared As Hell And Can’t Take It Anymore

My wife tells me that one of my former readers believes that I only write about politics. Yes, I have written a few Missives on politics but only a small percentage in comparison with the circa 750 I have posted since 2009.

In all good conscience, I feel I need to do it again and it always seems to be about the same issue that has only gotten much worse since 2016. Therefore, I have adapted my title from the 1976 film “Network”.

The news is full of the growth of antisemitism that is building in this country and for that matter all over the world. The fear is that “they want to replace us”. I honestly don’t understand how such a tiny minority of the world population could accomplish that? This is not a new phenomenon, and it rears its ugly head from time to time. However, this and the new republican party (no capital letters here) have reached a much scarier pitch than ever before.

I thought that nothing could get worse than when I wrote a second time about Trump over five years ago. I even said that I did not think he was a Hitler, German magazines say otherwise.

In the referred to Missive there is also a cartoon showing Trump’s love of Putin. Now, however, the situation has gotten so, so much worse. A short while ago the former president and his army of acolytes started to speak of “CAMPS”. Why is that word so familiar? Oh yes, Hitler created work camps not just for Jews, though they were by far the most afflicted, but for all those he felt were inferior or a threat. In a speech in the Reichstag on 30 January 1941, Hitler claimed that the Nazis had only copied from earlier British camps, which had existed, but as you know the Nazi concentration camps became unique in one respect!

Like Hitler Trump wants to get rid of the undesirables. If you think that is an exaggeration here is the headline from CNN, “Trump plots mass detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants should he regain power”. In May Reuters wrote that if elected again “he would seek to end automatic citizenship for children born in the United States to immigrants in the country illegally” and further he “said in a campaign video posted to Twitter that he would issue an executive order instructing federal agencies to stop what is known as birthright citizenship”.

Never mind that the latter is codified in the Constitution. But he also said regarding the 2020 election “A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution”.

We want freedom of speech but there used to be limits, such as, you can’t cry fire in a crowded theater. Now the public seems to want screaming and sensational statements. Situations have to go to extremes for the press to call it like it is, but foul rhetoric is spewed across our headlines every day while congressmen criticize social media for not policing hate speech.

I am damn right to be scared and you should be too.

Sunday, November 19, 2023

The Frick Collection’s Last Exhibition at the Frick Madison

As a writer, a number of museums grant me privileges that I wish I could make full use of. I get press notices and releases and can, at least in theory, go to press previews. Living in Santa Fe I cannot easily take advantage of many.

Recently I received an invitation from the Frick Collection for the preview of their final exhibition in their Madison Avenue space. By the time you read this, the exhibition will have opened. It will neither be the largest nor the most complicated they have ever done though it definitely must have been a masterstroke of International Diplomacy. The exhibition is called “Bellini and Giorgione in the House of Taddeo Contarini”.

If you have read these Missives for a while, you already know that “St. Francis in the Desert” by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516). has been my favorite painting in the Frick, since I was a child. It is being placed “in dialog” with Vienna’s Kunsthistoricsches Museum “Three Philosophers” by Giorgione. Only six works are generally accepted by Giorgione’s hand, and it is not a common occurrence for a museum to lend a prized work of such importance. Think of the risks involved in transatlantic shipments and the concerns of having another institution dealing with one of your precious “children”. Should, god forbid, something happen to this picture that is being sent to an institution over 4,000 miles away, the political fallout alone would be seismic!

Giorgione (circa 1477/78 – 1510), is one of the earliest and most influential Renaissance painters although there is little known about him. Since he died young at 32 or 33, Giorgio Vasari (1512-1574) in his Lives of the Artists, stated that the cause was probably the plague of that period.

Giovanni Bellini painted a dozen times as many paintings. I venture that “St. Frances in the Desert” is his best and most famous. By now you are wondering, so, what do these two works have to do with each other? The answer is quite simply that they were owned by the same collector, a Venetian nobleman, Taddeo Contarini (circa 1466-1540). It is thought that quite possibly “The Three Philosophers” was commissioned by Contarini as the companion piece to “St. Francis in the Desert”. According to the Vice-Director and Chief Curator of the Museum, Xavier F. Salomon, Contarini is best known for owning these two masterpieces. Let me not forget to say that Salomon has written an accompanying book about these two masterpieces and their owner, available at the Museum and on Amazon.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum entry on their painting says that it has been seriously cut on the left-hand side. In a paper by Patrick Boucheron, he writes, “The cavern clearly once dominated the original picture, of which 20 centimeters of the left side was chopped off in the eighteenth century – which explains why the first accounts of the workplace such emphasis on the scenery.”

The many questions that surround these complex works may be illuminated either in the show or in the accompanying book. Why the title of Giorgione’s “The Three Philosophers” is accepted today though it had had other titles such as The Three Astronomers, The Three Ages of Man, and The Magi in the past. Why was the painting cut?

There are other questions regarding St. Francis. Are we viewing a “stigmatization by light,” a symbolic portrait, or Francis singing a hymn of his own composition? There is so much symbolism in the landscape. He may be in the desert, but you can see a town very nearby.

Viewing these two paintings together as their original owner did provides the opportunity to study and analyze their meaning, or simply look and enjoy two masterpieces. The exhibition will be on view until February 24, 2024, at which time the Philosophers will go home to Vienna and St. Francis will head home to his mansion on 70th Street.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Is the Old Masters Market Dead and Gone?

From time to time there is an article like the one in the New York Times published by Scott Reyburn in January of this year. “Obsessed by the Present, Who’s Got Time for Old Masters?” The great majority of works sold by the auction houses are from this century or the last. The category of Old Master paintings, traditionally ranging from the 13th century to 1800, has recently been extended to late in the 19th century as well. I was astounded when someone said to me when speaking of Old Masters, “You mean like Picasso?”. I found it a bit absurd at the time but now I am beginning to wonder.

Life decisions are rarely made for one reason alone but rather are due to a whole lot of contributing thoughts and actions. However, in my case, the closing of my gallery, Rosenberg & Stiebel, aka Stiebel, Ltd, the primary factor was that collectors did not seem to be interested in old art anymore. I saw more and more of my colleagues going into more recent art.

When I started in the business in the mid-1960s, if you had a good Old Master painting or drawing almost every major collector and many museums came knocking on the door to take a look. Of course, there were a number of galleries with good pictures which made for a healthy market.

Today, it seems that everyone wants the newest in an iPhone or a contemporary artist’s work. I believe that to some extent it was always the case that many want to be of the moment and at the forefront of whatever is going on. Of course, in terms of art it is easier to understand and deal with what has been created here and now, rather than long ago.

Last August Artnet’s Lee Carter did an interview with Paul Henkel, who is a dealer in contemporary art and collects in that field. Although he is the son of Katrin Bellinger, the renowned art dealer, and expert in Old Master drawings, I was still surprised to learn that when asked if he could steal a work of art with impunity which one it would be, he said Caspar David Friedrich’s (1774-1840) “Two Men Contemplating the Moon” (circa 1825-30) in the Metropolitan Museum. Friedrich happens to be one of my favorite artists as well and I would put him in the Old Master category.

Needless to say, there will always be more available from the present and recent past than from centuries ago. Ergo, there are more collectors in this area.

I honestly don’t think that has changed, but what has changed is the fortunes that collectors are willing to spend on these recent works of art. While money used to be a word one spoke of quietly, today wealth is flaunted. What better way to show off than to outbid everyone in the auction room and sales of modern art offer many more opportunities.

Everyone is attracted to celebrity, be it the name of the artist or the collector. Sometimes both bring added value. If you have material from a name like Rothschild everybody pays attention. In this fall’s sale at Christie's New York of works from the French Rothschilds, the highest-priced painting was Gerrit Dou’s (1613-1675) “A young woman holding a hare with a boy at a window” (ca.1653–57), which was estimated at $3 to 5 million and brought just over $7 million. At the Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, auction Sandro Botticelli’s (1444/5-1510) “Madonna of the Magnificent” brought $48,480,000. My father had a sarcastic expression in German that translates, “For some people that is all the money they have”!!!

The entrepreneur and collector Thomas Kaplan (1962- ) said in an interview with Cheyenne Wehren this past March at TEFAF (The European Fine Arts Fair) that when, as a child, his mother trying to expand his horizons took him to the Museum of Modern Art he told her that he wanted to go back to the Metropolitan Museum to see the Rembrandts. When he became head of an investment firm, he figured there were no more great Old Masters to collect. In 2003, however, he happened to be seated next to Sir Norman Rosenthal, then exhibition secretary at the Royal Academy of the Arts, who encouraged him to look again. In subsequent years, with the help of some of the major dealers in the field, he built a collection of 250 Dutch 17th-century paintings and drawings. He dubbed it the Leiden Collection, after Rembrandt’s hometown. You can measure the importance of his holdings by his loans of numerous paintings to museums including the Pushkin in Russia, the Louvre, and the Met. And yes, his collection includes 11 Rembrandts and a Vermeer.

In an article in the Magazine Apollo of January 30, 2023, “How Healthy is the market for Old Masters?” Jane Morris summed it up nicely: “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Old Master market has remained the same while everything around it has grown. The rarity of great works by the most famous Old Masters means they can compete in value with expensive impressionist, modern, and contemporary works.”

Sunday, November 5, 2023


Last week we went down to the Albuquerque Museum to see an exhibition of the work of both Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and Henry Moore (1898-1986). This is a traveling exhibition called logically enough “O’Keeffe and Moore” originated by the San Diego Museum of Art and curated by Anita Feldman, San Diego’s Director for Curatorial Affairs.

As I have quoted a former museum director before, the art museum “is a small corner of the entertainment world”. It follows that the curators and/or director are responsible for enticing the art interested public to come for a visit. They must think of exhibitions that either show a new concept or a twist on something old to achieve this goal. Even though bringing together works by an artist like Vermeer can be a big draw, that can only be attempted once in a generation.

For the current exhibition Ms. Feldman brought together works by O’Keeffe and Moore because they “pioneered and shared a coherent vision and approach to Modernism.” She sees a common denominator between them in their reliance on found objects. I liked the fact that the exhibition centered on recreations of the artists’ studios, O’Keeffe’s in New Mexico and Moore’s in Hertfordshire, England, both filled with a number of those found objects. No need to identify which is which here.

The two artists lived and worked almost 5,000 miles apart and met only once at the Museum of Modern Art during a Retrospective of Henry Moore’s work in 1946. O’Keeffe had her retrospective there a few months earlier. Hers was the first MOMA retrospective ever done for a female artist.

I must admit I have trouble understanding what O’Keeffe and Moore have in common beyond the fact that at a time when most abstraction was geometric theirs was more organic. True they both found inspiration in the forms of bones they collected. However, the basic difference I discern in their art is confirmed in the two interviews shown in the exhibition: Moore’s work is born in his head while O’Keeffe’s comes from her gut. His is analytical while hers shows love and passion.

O’Keeffe clearly loves the Southwest and the land and feels before she paints. Here is her Black Place II from the Vilcek Collection and “Pelvis with Distance” from the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Moore plays with forms and models in his studio. When blown up in bronze in situ, they do come alive and have a calming effect. In the show is this “Reclining Figure” (1968) in wood almost 8 feet wide, one or Moore’s working models for a work which was to be over 40 feet at I.M. Pei’s Dallas City Hall. The final work was split up so that the public could walk through it. Here is the model and an image of the final altered work in situ.

Ending on a whim this image of Moore’s “Moon Head” of 1964 in porcelain with O’Keeffe’s painting of a “Clam Shell” from 1930 in the background appealed to me. Here works by the different artists do seem to have something in common. If you don’t see what I do, join my wife!