Sunday, March 31, 2024

Provenance Research

I have referred to provenance (the history of an object) often but now it has become more important than ever. The ideal would be to trace every work of art as it changed hands from its creation. It is no longer sufficient to establish that it has been in an important collection like that of the Rothschilds. Where was it before, or after that? Then the Rothschilds bought and sold to each other but not directly. My gallery was involved in a number of these transactions.

The question of provenance is not limited to art. Here is an example from my personal experience. If you are assisting your child in applying for German citizenship as the grandchild of a former German citizen who had to leave Germany under Hitler, you need to document (with marriage and birth certificates) that your parents had been German citizens, that they were married to each other, that you were born to them, that you were legally married to your spouse and that the applicant is your child.

All museums research their collections. For years provenance researchers for private collectors and curators in museums were tasked with making enquiries. They have often written to me to learn what I knew about the provenance of objects my firm sold, even if they were sold before I was born. That was one of the reasons I donated the gallery’s archive to the Frick Art Reference Library so people could do their own research and not ask for my services (which were without compensation).

The issue, however, has become so fraught that museums are now setting up their own research departments, not leaving it just up to the curators, though they are the primary researchers. Think about this one, be sure to read the caption ...

I started writing this on March 22, the day I received a press release from the Metropolitan Museum, THE MET APPOINTS HEAD OF PROVENANCE RESEARCH. For those who are curious his name is Lucian Simmons ... he was with Sotheby’s auction house for many years. He will lead a team of 11 in coordination with the curators in their own specialties.

However, the specific individual and institution are not what is interesting in itself.
It is part of a growing worldwide legal response to a current change in attitudes. In most cases, it is not an issue of theft as we usually think of it. Aside from cases of Nazi war loot, countries have started to make claims against museums demanding the repatriation of works of art, some of which were looted in wars and many more that were sold but had not left their countries in conformance with export regulations. In September of 2022, Ella Feldman wrote an article in Smithsonian Magazine titled “Investigators Seize 27 Greek and Egyptian Antiquities From the Met”. Here is a bronze statuette of Jupiter, dated circa 300 A.D., which was being returned to Italy.

In March of last year, Rhea Nayyar wrote an article in Hyperallergic, saying that over one thousand objects in the Met’s collection were linked to 18 known antiquities smugglers. Confiscations have recently extended to private collections, most notably in the case of antiquities collector Shelby White.

The United States has new and amended cultural laws such as NAGPRA (The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) which requires museums to review their collections in consultation with the relevant Native tribes regarding exhibition and research as well as repatriation. This image from The Guardian with the caption: “An Alutiq mask from 1870 given to the Met in 2017. Alutiq tribal representative told ProPublica it was appropriate to show an image of a mask”.

The Met has an inventory of 1,500,000 works of art to research in this new world, so a staff of 11 in provenance research does not sound like too many. More and more museums are finding themselves obliged to dedicate resources to the herculean task.

Sunday, March 24, 2024

TikTok, Tick Tock, Tick Tock

So goes the time that Congress spends on social media instead of the business and welfare of the People.

TikTok is focused on cell phone use but it is possible to use it on a computer as well. My older son put TikTok on my phone over a year ago because he knew my sense of humor and believed there would be a lot for me to enjoy. Frankly, I have hardly looked at it until now. When I do use social media, which is not that much, it is FaceBook and Instagram where my colleagues, friends, and family post. There I find still images with many works of art but rarely videos unless they are of family. To my surprise, the Metropolitan Museum was one of the first museums to make use of TikTok. All TikToks are short but here is a very short clip where I learned something about the Met that I did not know ...

During the COVID-19 lockdown, artists and museums alike wanted/needed to find ways to show their art and exhibitions. The videos on the TikTok platform are a better way than still images to bring their message home. A TikTok about the Victoria & Albert Museum gives some more information.

When I thought of this Missive, I put art dealer into TikTok and there were videos with guidance on how to become an art dealer! Put those words onto Facebook and you will see images but no videos on the subject. TikTok specializes in video, while Instagram and FaceBook can keep you in touch with specific individuals. TikTok seems to offer a far better opportunity of being found for what you do. Sotheby’s is ahead of the established art dealers.

Are there dangers in social media? Of course, there are, but there are existential threats from every advance of mankind, starting with fire. In more recent times, what about the automobile? Hundreds of thousands of various kinds of automobile accidents, and tens of thousands die. What do we do about it? We regulate the speed we are allowed to go. Headlights, taillights, and turn signals are in cars, plus a host of newer safety items such as seat belts. Still, police are charged with making sure we don’t do dangerous things with our cars.

Would eliminating TikTok simply be censorship? The Congressional hearings have raised the security danger of Chinese ownership of TikTok and the possibility of the Chinese government accessing our personal and professional information. I am quite sure, however, that the Chinese can gather all the information about us they want in many existing ways, as we do from them. What were those balloons traveling across the States a short while back?

On March 17 of this year columnist Jennifer Rubin published an opinion piece in the Washington Post where she wrote that to address the issue of privacy, one that applies to all social media sites, Congress needs to regulate what private data these platforms are allowed to keep and what they do with it and who they sell it to.

Before I heard about the proposed legislation, I read an article that appeared in the Global Edge Blog on November 1, 2023, by Yagumo Morikawa called “How TikTok is changing the Music Industry” and the advantages it has for artists, particularly all the younger ones starting out. I am sure any platform that has almost two billion users, including, according to the web, close to half the population of the U.S., would offer a better chance of being “discovered”. According to that article, it is the place to introduce “new and trending music”. TikTok’s algorithms identify users who would be interested. I was surprised, but should not have been, that record labels are now paying attention to what is going on there. I picked one TikTok at random because I like guitar music, a bit longer than the others ... 0965467201

As I started writing this on March 18, an article from Artnet, “Artists on TikTok are Worried a Ban could set back their Careers”. Some of these artists have managed to gather hundreds of thousands of followers and in rare cases over a million. That is a lot of potential clients to lose. How about we shut down all the advertising from … fill in a company name.

Maybe these Missives should go on TikTok as well? Do you think the Chinese would be interested? Security? My cardinal rule in that regard is to never put anything on the net that you don’t want others to see… but… Amazon already has my name address and credit card number!

Sunday, March 17, 2024

Coast to Coast to Coast

If you have followed my Missives for a while, you know that we collect Native American Art, the vast majority of the pieces being Hopi with a fair number of others from Pueblos in the Southwest. Needless, to say there is Native American art from many other areas. “Coast to Coast to Coast; Indigenous Art from the McMichael Canadian Art Collection” currently on view at the Albuquerque Museum presents particularly striking examples. The title is not a misprint, for this exhibition looks at both historic and contemporary Indigenous art from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic coasts.

The source of the art in this show is a museum that was started by private collectors, photographer Robert McMichael, and his wife, Signe. They started collecting Canadian art in 1952 and in 1965 donated not only 194 paintings but also their house to the province of Ontario. At first, the McMichael’s continued to live there as unpaid curators and open by appointment and to the public on Sundays. Over the years both the building space and collections grew into many different areas of Canadian and Indigenous art ...

The exhibition is absolutely stunning with works of art in many media. There is so much to draw from that I am illustrating just a few of my favorite things.

One of the first to greet you is a painting by Kent Monkman, Cree, “Wedding at Sodom”, 2017. Here the artist focuses on the allegory of the American frontier to speak about transgender and gender nonconformity at the forefront of contemporary culture.

One of the earliest pieces in the show is a Raven Rattle created around 1860. Good that it was protected in a vitrine because I was so tempted to make off with it.😎. It is attributed to Albert Edward Edenshaw, Haida, because of its similarity to a similar piece attributed to the artist in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The label tells us that “This reclining bear figure usually signifies a shaman in the process of transformation from human into an animal form. It denotes the connected tongues of the transfer of esoteric knowledge between the animal and human spirit worlds.”

I am far from an expert, but this Transformation Mask made by Art Thompson in 2002 is the greatest I have ever seen. It was made for trade but recalls a ceremony in which one being can suddenly be transformed into another. The label informs that it illustrates a popular story in Coast Salish culture, “Here the whale on the exterior of the mask opens to reveal Pook-Ubs, the spirit of a drowned sailor who has been eaten by the whale”.

Button blankets are always fascinating and, as far as I know, it is a unique art of the Pacific Northwest. Here is one by Jut-Ke-Nay, Haida, in 1997 called “Legend of the Golden Spruce”. This button blanket is part of a series about a 300-year-old tree of special significance to the Haida which was cut down by a non-indigenous logger in that year.

“Iceberg Ice” is by Timootee (Tim) Pitsiulak, a skilled Inuit hunter as well as an artist. Unfortunately, he died the year after creating his masterpiece in 2015. He was a keen observer, and this is clearly a commentary on climate change in our world today. The large-scale image is created entirely with colored pencil on paper.

Finally, there are three stunning masks made in 2005 by the artist Henry Speck, Jr. hereditary chief of the Tlowitsis people. “They evoke 3 stages of transformation of the Hamat’sa Raven, a great cannibal bird that came from the north and would scoop people up and take them away”. Speck danced these masks in various villages in Alert Bay. The dance occurred at important occasions such as weddings when loved ones were lost, and at naming ceremonies.

You have one month left to see “Coast to Coast to Coast” and pick your own favorites. I urge you to make an effort to get to the Albuquerque Museum before the show closes on April 21, 2024.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Art of Nazi Propaganda Posters

Now that our country seems hell-bent on achieving a right-wing Maga autocracy, I have become obsessed with the comparison to 1930s Germany. The last members of my immediate family left their homeland after Kristallnacht, the first organized Nazi violence against all Jews, in contrast to their previous individual acts. On a single night, November 10, 1938, nearly 8,000 Jewish-owned businesses, schools, hospitals, and homes were destroyed.

My parents had already left in 1934. The only explanation I received from my father was that when he was thrown out of University in Munich in 1933 he knew he wasn’t wanted. When I finally decided to face it and learn still more about Germany in the 1930s, one of my sources was a book called, “The Death of Democracy: Hitler's Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic”, written by Benjamin Carter Hett in 2018.

Nazi was a derogatory German term for backward peasants that was applied to the extreme right-wing National Socialist German Workers Party. In the book, Hett brings up an interesting subject that I had never thought much about before. Propaganda was an important component in Hitler’s rise to power in the second half of the 1920s and the early 1930s.

The Nazi propaganda machine led by Joseph Goebbels, who became Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1933, was sending out clear messages addressing the German people's fear of uncertainty and instability with the Great Depression, and runaway inflation.

Much of this focused on Communists and Jews as enemies of the German people. Although Goebbels did not have television, or the internet (or Russian interference) he made use of the modern media of the time such as films and radio, as well as traditional tools of newspapers and art in the form of posters. The dual enemy is personified in one example, “The Eternal Jew”.

The poster showing a worker demolishing the Saxon Parliament Building which bears the label “International Finance” conveyed how the Nazi leader could solve Germany’s economic distress, which was exacerbated by the reparations that had to be paid under the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I.

This image of Hitler before a host of followers became known as ‘The Hitler Myth’. After all, he was only a private first class in WWI and was never promoted to sergeant because his senior officer did not think he could lead! The text reads “YES, Führer we are Following You”.

Most of my readers will have heard of the Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich in 1937 ...

What I did not know about, though it makes perfect sense, was that there was also a list of prohibited music. The banned composers were usually of African and Jewish descent but there was other music also proscribed.

Here is the poster for the 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of Will”, commissioned by Hitler and directed and produced by Leni Riefenstahl.

The striking graphic art of many of the Nazi posters made them as effective as they were meant to be. As I have written before, all art is political, and history proves that it can provide a powerful assist on the road to disaster.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Marcus Amerman

My wife, the curator, would tell you that a good exhibition will tell you a story. I would say a good exhibition is one you enjoy. We have seen one that does both so I would qualify it as a success.

The exhibition is called “Pathfinder: 40 Years of Marcus Amerman” and you will find it at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe. In the spirit of full disclosure, I am on the Wheelwright Board of Directors. However, I have been visiting the Museum for the past 30-plus years before joining the Board two years ago and this is one of the best shows I have ever seen there.

Marcus Amerman (1959-) is a multidisciplinary artist of the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma. He is known as a bead artist, glass artist, painter, fashion designer, and performance artist. Amerman received a BA in Fine Art at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, with additional art study at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. He also had a residency at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Here is Amerman at the opening of his exhibition.

He learned at the early age of 10 how to create art with beads from his aunt. Since his bracelets are sold commercially, he is best known in that category and has been referred to as a "photobeadalist". For more of my commentary on beading ...

Amerman has mastered the technique to the point of creating true portraits where the subjects are clearly recognizable. To illustrate the point here is an image of Buffalo Bill standing with a group of eight Native Americans. They are identifiable leaders of the Crow and Pawnee Nations. Amerman copied an 1866 photograph using 120,000 beads in 120 different colors! Here is Amerman’s work and the original photograph. He said in a video that accompanies the exhibition that “it is said that the photo steals the soul of the Indian and I believe my beading steals it back”.

For this exhibition, the Museum commissioned Amerman to create an image specific to the Wheelwright. He used historic photographs of the Museum’s co-founder, the Navaho artist and medicine man Hastiin Klah. In the lower half, he depicted the figure of Klah before the Museum building that he did not live to see, while in the upper field, he abstracted Klah’s features in the searchlight beams of the opening celebration.

Amerman has a wonderful sense of humor. His college roommate told us that he would play practical jokes and when his victims chased him into his dorm room they would find no one there because he had figured out how to “hide behind a wall”.

He often assumes the guise of his alter ego, Buffalo Man. In the photographic parody by Cara Romero, “The Last Indian Market”, he is posed at the center of other Indian artists participating in the Market. A life-size figure of in the outfit and mask he fashioned for his Buffalo Man stands In the Wheelwright show. He created the character around 2002 and in 2008 is quoted as saying, “Beadwork is my gun, painting is my bow and arrow, fashion is my lance and installation is my coup stick”.

Amerman can’t stop himself from turning the most mundane objects into works of art. Here is one of his hubcap shields. When we were invited to his studio/residence we saw the profusion of objects he hordes for use in one or another of his various creations.

He has said that he enjoys painting the most and finds it the most satisfying. Here are two images, before and after, where no explanation is necessary. Ameriman’s moving vision of 9/11 in two paintings that come at the end of the show.