Roy R. Neuberger, who drew on youthful passions for stock trading and art to
build one of Wall Street’s most venerable partnerships and one of the country’s
largest private collections of 20th-century masterpieces, died on Friday at his
home at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan. He was 107 and had lived in New York City
for 101 years.
His death was confirmed by a grandson, Matthew London.
Mr. Neuberger had set out to study art, but ended up as a stockbroker, a life
path once likened to Gauguin’s in reverse. As a founder of the investment firm
Neuberger & Berman, he was one of the few people to experience three of Wall
Street’s major market crises, in 1929, 1987 and 2008. Although his artistic
ability left no lasting impact, his wealth did.
Believing that collectors should acquire art being produced in their own time
and then hold on to it, giving the public access but never selling, Mr.
Neuberger accumulated hundreds of paintings and sculptures by Milton Avery,
Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and others, becoming one of America’s leading
art patrons. Those works are now spread over more than 70 institutions in 24
states, many of them in the permanent collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art,
which opened in 1974 on the Purchase College campus of the State University of
The money to buy the works came from his investments at Neuberger & Berman (now
Neuberger Berman), the brokerage and investment firm he founded in 1939 with
Robert B. Berman. The firm catered to wealthy individuals but also took on a
less affluent clientele with the establishment, in 1950, of the Neuberger
Guardian mutual fund, one of the first funds to be sold without the usual 8.5
percent upfront sales commission.
His art collecting drew on the lessons he learned in the financial world. Each
year he would buy more than he had bought the previous year, often purchasing
large lots at a time. In 1948, for example, he bought 46 paintings by Milton
Avery, whom Mr. Neuberger counted as a close friend. He eventually owned more
than 100 Avery works.
“My experience on Wall Street made it possible for me to be comfortable buying a
lot of art at once,” he later wrote. “In my investment firm, when we like a
security after careful analysis, we buy a modest quantity. Sometimes after the
purchase, we will find that we like it very much. If a large quantity of the
stock then becomes available, and we are still enthusiastic about its value and
its future, we will buy in quantity quickly, even though the day before we had
no such plan and no knowledge that the stock would be available.”
“The same principle,” he added, “applied to my purchase of the Avery
paintings.”Roy Rothschild Neuberger was born on July 21, 1903, in Bridgeport,
Conn. His father, Louis, who was 52 when Roy was born, had come to the United
States from Germany as a boy. His mother, the former Bertha Rothschild, was a
native of Chicago, a lover of music (she played the piano) and a “nervous,
troubled woman from a large, well-to-do Jewish family, not related to the famous
Rothschilds,” Mr. Neuberger wrote in an autobiography, “So Far, So Good: The
First 94 Years” (John Wiley & Sons, 1997).
His father was half owner of the Connecticut Web and Buckle Company and had an
interest in the stock market, owning thousands of shares in a Montana copper
company. The Neuberger family moved to Manhattan in 1909, settling on Claremont
Avenue opposite Barnard College on the Upper West Side. Mr. Neuberger attended
DeWitt Clinton High School, where in his senior year he was captain of the
tennis team that won the Greater New York championship.
“Looking back on my youthful addiction to tennis, I find it not much different
from my fascination with the market,” Mr. Neuberger wrote in his autobiography.
“You have to make fast decisions. You can’t wait to think about it overnight.”
A similar impatience led him to leave New York University after a single year.
He felt, he wrote, “that I could learn much more out in the world of business.”
It was while working for two years as a buyer of upholstery fabrics for the
department store B. Altman & Company that he said he developed an eye for
painting and sculpture as well as a sense for trading. Both would greatly
influence his later life, as would John Galsworthy’s series of novels “The
Forsyte Saga,” which described the practice among well-to-do English families of
educating their children on the European continent, and “Vincent van Gogh,” a
biography by Floret Fels.
The first book led Mr. Neuberger to a sojourn in Europe. Using money inherited
from his father, he set out in June 1924 for a life of leisure. While living
mainly on the Left Bank in Paris, he spent afternoons at a cafe, played in
tennis tournaments in Cannes and traveled to Berlin and other European capitals.
In Paris, Mr. Neuberger was inspired by the van Gogh biography to collect and
support the work of living artists.
“Of course, to do so, I had to have capital of considerably more than the
inheritance that gave me an annual income of about $2,000,” he later wrote. “In
those days you could live very comfortably, almost luxuriously, on $2,000, but
you couldn’t buy art in quantity. So I decided to go back to work in earnest.”
He arrived on Wall Street in the spring of 1929, as the bull market was roaring
toward its peak. Hired for $15 a week as a runner for the brokerage firm Halle &
Stieglitz, he soon learned all aspects of the business, at the same time
managing his own money.
One of the first big trades he executed on his own behalf was designed to hedge
his own wealth against the possibility that the stock market might fall from its
precarious height. He sold short 100 shares of the Radio Corporation of America,
the most popular stock of the era, betting that its price would decline from its
lofty level of $500.
In October 1929 came the crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and while
Mr. Neuberger’s blue-chip stocks fell, his bet against RCA paid off well: the
stock’s price eventually fell into the single digits. He said he lost only 15
percent of his money in the crash, while many others lost everything.
On June 29, 1932, the Dow Jones industrial average dipped to 42 and Mr.
Neuberger married Marie Salant, a graduate in economics from Bryn Mawr who had
gone to work in the research department of Halle & Stieglitz two years earlier.
“I can report that by June 29, 1996, the Dow Jones industrial average had
climbed to 5,704 and Marie and I had had 64 wonderful years together,” Mr.
Neuberger later wrote. Mrs. Neuberger died in 1997.
Besides Mr. London, Mr. Neuberger is survived by his daughter, Ann Neuberger
Aceves; his sons, Roy S. Neuberger of Lawrence, N.Y., and James A. Neuberger of
New York City; seven other grandchildren; and 30 great-grandchildren.
Emboldened by his management of his own assets, Mr. Neuberger became a
stockbroker at Halle & Stieglitz in 1930, leaving nine years later to start his
own firm, Neuberger & Berman. The firm was later acquired by Lehman Brothers,
but spun off in 2008 as a stand-alone company with Lehman’s bankruptcy. Mr.
Neuberger continued to go to his Neuberger Berman office every day until he was
99, Mr. London said.
Mr. Neuberger began to build his art collection in the late 1930s, and although
he was asked to do so many times, he never sold a painting by a living artist.
“I have not collected art as an investor would,” he said. “I collect art because
I love it.”
He preferred to share his love by donating works to museums and colleges. In May
1965, Mr. Neuberger received an anonymous offer to buy his art collection for $5
million, a sum he considered a fortune at the time.
Years later he learned that the offer had come from Nelson A. Rockefeller, then
governor of New York. Mr. Rockefeller went on to play a key role in Mr.
Neuberger’s art collection. In May 1967, while Mr. Neuberger was visiting Mr.
Rockefeller at his Pocantico Hills estate in Westchester County, the governor
offered to have New York State build a museum to house the collection at the
State University campus at Purchase.
Designed by Philip Johnson, the museum opened in May 1974. Mr. Neuberger often
said that the true spirit of his collection could be found on the second floor,
which held seminal paintings by Pollock, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper and Georgia
O’Keeffe, as well as many Milton Averys.
Mr. Neuberger made an additional gift of $1.3 million to the State University at
Purchase in 1984 and other major gifts to the Museum of Modern Art and the
Metropolitan Museum of Art. He also served as a president of the New York
Society for Ethical Culture and the American Federation of Arts.
Mr. Neuberger’s second memoir, “The Passionate Collector,” was published by John
Wiley & Sons in 2003. At a White House ceremony in 2007, President Bush
presented Mr. Neuberger with a National Medal of Arts.
Like any collector, Mr. Neuberger rued the ones that got away. He remembered
passing up a Grant Wood painting as well as refusing to pay $300 for a Jasper
Johns in the late 1950s. One time a dealer offered him a Picasso sculpture for
$1,500, but he declined because he was buying works only by American artists. “I
was such a square that I stupidly didn’t buy it,” he told The New York Times in
an interview in 2003.
Mr. Neuberger bought all his works himself, usually through dealers. And his
taste ran toward the bold. “I liked adventuresome work that I often didn’t
understand,” he told The Times as he was celebrating his 100th birthday. “For
art to be very good it has to be over your head.”
But he said he enjoyed the challenge that the work posed to the viewer. “Those
who understand the mysteries of art,” he said, “are made happier by doing so.”
January 17, 2009
The New York Times
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Andrew Wyeth, one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the
history of American art, a reclusive linchpin in a colorful family dynasty of
artists whose precise realist views of hardscrabble rural life became icons of
national culture and sparked endless debates about the nature of modern art,
died Friday at his home in Chadds Ford. He was 91.
He died in his sleep, said Hillary Holland, a spokeswoman for the Brandywine
River Museum, The Associated Press reported.
Wyeth gave America a prim and flinty view of Puritan rectitude, starchily
sentimental, through parched gray and brown pictures of spooky frame houses,
desiccated fields, deserted beaches, circling buzzards and craggy-faced New
Englanders. A virtual Rorschach test for American culture during the better part
of the last century, Wyeth split public opinion as vigorously as, and probably
even more so than, any other American painter including the other modern Andy,
Warhol, whose milieu was as urban as Wyeth’s was rural.
Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Wyeth came to
represent middle-class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject, so
that arguments about his work extended beyond painting to societal splits along
class, geographical and educational lines. One art historian, in response to a
1977 survey in Art News magazine about the most underrated and overrated artists
of the century, nominated Wyeth for both categories.
Art critics mostly heaped abuse on his work, saying he gave realism a bad name.
Supporters said he spoke to the silent majority who jammed his exhibitions. “In
today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,”
one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints
wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed
trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.”
John Updike took up the same cause 25 years later: “In the heyday of Abstract
Expressionism, the scorn was simple gallery politics; but resistance to Wyeth
remains curiously stiff in an art world that has no trouble making room for
Photorealists like Richard Estes and Philip Pearlstein and graduates of
commercial art like Wayne Thibauld, Andy Warhol, and for that matter, Edward
A minority opinion within the art world always tried to reconcile Wyeth with
mainstream modernism. It was occasionally argued, among other things, that his
work had an abstract component and was linked to the gestural style of artists
like Kline, de Kooning and Pollock, for whom Wyeth expressed general disdain. It
is true that especially some of the early watercolors of the 30’s and 40’s, in a
looser style, inclined toward abstraction. Contrary to what detractors and some
supporters said, his style vacillated over the years, which suited neither those
who wanted to say he stayed in a rut his whole career nor those who championed
him as a model, as one art historian put it, “of continuity and permanence in
the face of instabilities and uncertainties of modern life.”
Wyeth remained a polarizing figure even as the traditional 20th century
distinction between abstraction and avant-gardism on the one hand and realism
and conservatism on the other came to seem woefully inadequate and false. The
only indisputable truth was that his art existed within a diverse American
context that encompassed illustrators like his father, N.C. Wyeth and Norman
Rockwell, and also landscape painters like John Marin, Winslow Homer, Albert
Bierstadt and Fitz Hugh Lane.
One picture encapsulated his fame. “Christina’s World” became an American icon
like Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” or Whistler’s portrait of his mother or
Emmanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” Wyeth said he thought the
work was “a complete flat tire” when he originally sent it off to the Macbeth
Gallery in Manhattan in 1948. The Museum of Modern Art bought it for $1,800.
Wyeth had seen Christina Olson, crippled from the waist down, dragging herself
across a Maine field, “like a crab on a New England shore,” he recalled. To him
she was a model of dignity who refused to use a wheelchair and preferred to live
in squalor rather than be beholden to anyone. It was dignity of a particularly
dour, hardened, misanthropic sort, to which Wyeth throughout his career seemed
to gravitate. Olson is shown in the picture from the back. She was 55 at the
time. (She died 20 years later, having become a frequent subject in his art; her
death made the national news thanks to Wyeth’s popularity.)
It is impossible to tell her age in the painting or what she looks like, the
ambiguity adding to the overall mystery. So does the house, which Wyeth called a
dry-bone skeleton of a building, a symbol during the Depression of the American
pastoral dream in a minor key, the house’s whitewash of paint long gone, its
shingles warped, the place isolated against a blank sky. As popular paintings
go, “Christina’s World” is remarkable for being so dark and humorless, yet the
public seemed to focus less on its gothic and morose quality and more on the way
Wyeth painted each blade of grass, a mechanical and unremarkable kind of realism
that was distinctive if only for going against the rising tide of abstraction in
America in the late 1940’s.
“Oftentimes people will like a picture I paint because it’s maybe the sun
hitting on the side of a window and they can enjoy it purely for itself,” Wyeth
once said. “It reminds them of some afternoon. But for me, behind that picture
could be a night of moonlight when I’ve been in some house in Maine, a night of
some terrible tension, or I had this strange mood. Maybe it was Halloween. It’s
all there, hiding behind the realistic side.”
He also said: “I think the great weakness in most of my work is subject matter.
There’s too much of it.”
Nonetheless, the perception of Wyeth’s art as an alternative to abstraction
accounted for a good portion of its enduring popularity during the mid-years of
the last century. Added to this was his personality: self-theatricalizing (his
biographer, Richard Meryman, described him as a “self-promoter” and a “closet
showman”), Wyeth was not a bohemian, or at least he behaved contrary to the
cliché of the bohemian artist. He was also a vocal patriot, which endeared him
to some quarters during the Cold War and dovetailed with a general sense that
his art evoked a mythic rural past embedded in the American psyche. “America’s
absolutely it,” he once said.
Never mind that he painted mostly bleak portraits of a barren country: he stayed
in the public imagination for nostalgic paintings like “Young America,” from
1950, of a boy cycling across a plain, which Wyeth in an interview in Time
magazine related to “the plains of the Little Bighorn and Custer and Daniel
Boone and a lot of other things.”
In later years, the press noted when he voted for Nixon and Reagan, not because
he was a particularly outspoken partisan in his political views but because he
differed in those views from other artists who were very outspoken at the time.
Bucking the liberal art establishment, and making a fortune in the process,
allowed him to play familiar American roles: the reactionary
antiestablishmentarian and the free-thinking individualist who at the same time
represented the vox populi. A favorite saying of his was: “What you have to do
is break all the rules.” And as bohemianism itself became institutionalized,
Wyeth encapsulated the artistic conservatives’ paradoxical idea of cultural
disobedience through traditional behavior.
Wyeth’s admirers made a point of tracing his roots deep into the American past,
to Nicholas Wyeth, who emigrated from England to Cambridge, Mass., in 1645.
Wyeths died fighting in the French and Indian War. Andrew Newell Wyeth III was
born on July 12, 1917, in Chadds Ford, Penn., the fifth child of Carolyn and
Newell Convers Wyeth, the great illustrator. Famous for his blood-and-thunder
magazine illustrations, posters, advertisements and illustrations for “Treasure
Island,” “Robin Hood,” “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Robinson Crusoe,” which
sold in the millions of copies, N.C. Wyeth became a role model, teacher and
inevitable point of comparison in Andrew’s pursuit of his own career as an
artist. The situation repeated itself a generation later when Jamie followed his
father Andrew as an artist.
N.C. was a big man with tremendous energy, a kindly tyrant as a father,
according to his children, who also remembered him for his flash temper. He
created a hothouse environment in which Andrew, a frail boy who came down with
one after another illness, was taught at home. His life was both sheltered and
obsessively focused. He learned to be a proficient draftsman before he learned
to read well. By his teens, he was doing illustrations under his father’s name.
Nevertheless, he resisted the goal that his father had for him of becoming an
“Pa kept me almost in a jail,” Wyeth recalled, “just kept me to himself in my
own world, and he wouldn’t let anyone in on it. I was almost made to stay in
Sherwood Forest with Maid Marion and the rebels.”
By the 1920’s, N.C. Wyeth had become a huge celebrity visited by other
celebrities like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mary Pickford. The insularity, the
familial competition, the theatrical personalities in and around the house, the
atmosphere of commercial success and popular fame with its taint of artistic
compromise — the presumption that realistic representation was intrinsically a
virtue: all these factors shaped Andrew Wyeth’s life and evolution.
While he admired his father’s intensity, which he hoped to match, his imagery
differed from his father’s. N.C.’s work was full of action and drama. Andrew’s
work often had no people in it. He painted snowy landscapes under leaden skies,
a barn with a door ajar, an abandoned house, tire tracks, a wedding tent in an
empty field, fishermen’s nets hung to dry in the breeze: images of absence,
silence, loss, abandonment, desolation but also expectation. One of his famous
paintings was a God’s eye view of soaring turkey buzzards. Another showed an
empty dory on a beach with a swallow swooping past.
He liked the idea that figures might be implicit in the image. He suggested that
“Christina’s World” might have been better had he “painted just that field and
have you sense Christina without her being there.” Occasionally, as when he
painted Christina head-on, he turned her face into a kind of landscape, the
weathered features being a topography.
His subjects were family, friends and his immediate surroundings in Pennsylvania
and in Maine, the reflections of the circumscribed existence he chose for
himself. Repeatedly he painted, besides Christina, his friend Walt Anderson; Ben
Loper, a black handyman, who posed for “A Crow Flew By,” and Karl and Anna
Kuerner, neighbors whose farm became the Pennsylvania counterpoint to the
Olson’s place in Maine. Karl was an avid hunter and a former German
machine-gunner in World War I who died in 1979, at 80. There were rumors that he
was a Nazi sympathizer, which drove Wyeth during World War II to search the
Kuerner house for a wireless spy transmitter.
Wyeth said he was intrigued by the combination of cozy domesticity at the
Kuerners’ and the knowledge that Karl had gunned down soldiers. One portrait of
Karl shows him cradling a rifle. It was done in a room at the house with a moose
rack on the wall. Wyeth recalled that while he was painting Anna walking into
the room to summon her husband to dinner, the barrel pointing directly at her.
He quickly rubbed out the antlers and painted her in. Wyeth’s wife later titled
it “America’s Sweethearts.”
Wyeth described several other portraits of Karl as surrogate portraits of N.C.,
whom he had never painted. His father died in 1945 with a grandson, Newell, the
four-year-old son of N.C.’s son Nathaniel and daughter-in-law Caroline, when
their car stalled on a railroad crossing. It was struck by a train, an event
that Wyeth linked to such melancholic and metaphoric pictures as “Winter,” of
1945. “The German,” a portrait of Kuerner in a helmet, was painted in 1975 when
he was dying of cancer. Wyeth said he was painting cold eyes “that have looked
down a machine-gun barrel, squinted great distances,” adding, “those are my
father’s lips — cruel.”
The young Wyeth’s hero, after his father, was Winslow Homer. He saw Homer’s
watercolors in the early 1930’s. At the time he was painting laborers and
landscapes in ways that related to American scene painters like Thomas Hart
Benton and John Steuart Curry but increasingly he emulated Homer’s
impressionistic watercolors. He moved to Maine, made a pilgrimage to Homer’s
studio at Prout’s Neck, and the vigorous, shimmering watercolors he began to
paint aspired to Homer’s fleeting effects of light and movement.
He first showed them at the Art Alliance of Philadelphia in 1936. His father
picked the works for him. The next year, through an associate of his father’s,
the Macbeth Gallery in New York gave him his first one-man show, which sold out
at the opening. Wyeth made $500. At the same time he began to work in egg
tempera, a technique that appealed to his fastidious, traditional and
tight-lipped side, with its dry, chalky, ghostly effects. His father was
skeptical about the medium, but Wyeth was encouraged to pursue it by a
strong-willed 17-year-old woman he met in 1939 in Maine. Betsy James grew up
picking nasturtiums from Christina Olson’s garden and playing in the Olson’s
ice-house. On meeting Wyeth she took him immediately to see the Olson house. “I
wanted to see if he would go in,” she recounted. “A lot of people wouldn’t — the
smell, the odor — and this was a summer day.”
They were married in 1940 and Betsy became his business manager and as strong an
influence on him as his father, with whom she often battled for Andrew’s favor.
“I was part of a conspiracy to dethrone the king — the usurper of the throne,”
she told Mr. Meryman, Wyeth’s biographer. “And I did. I put Andrew on the
throne.” She oversaw the publication of illustrated books, started a
reproduction business, produced a film documentary about Wyeth and created a
Wyeth archive. Over the years, especially concerning the so-called Helga
paintings, she also aggravated critics who thought she manipulated Wyeth’s image
inappropriately, an impression underscored by remarks like, “I’m a director and
I had the greatest actor in the world.”
After “Christina’s World” Wyeth’s fame skyrocketed. In 1949, Winston Churchill
asked for Wyeth watercolors to decorate his room at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston.
Harvard gave Wyeth an honorary degree in 1955. He made the cover of Time in 1963
when President Johnson gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He painted
portraits of Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon. A show of his work toured the
country in 1966 and 1967, attracting huge crowds at the Pennsylvania Academy of
Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the Whitney Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago.
The Brandywine River Museum in Pennsylvania opened in 1971, its main attraction
a collection of Wyeths, donated by Mrs. Wyeth. In 1976, Wyeth was given a
retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum.
Prices for his temperas escalated to $100,000 in 1962, triple that by 1980. And
later during the 80’s, Japanese collectors were paying more than $1 million for
In 1986, Leonard E. B. Andrews, a Pennsylvania publisher of newsletters, among
them Swine Flu Litigation Reporter, made front-page news reportedly spending $6
million for 240 paintings by Wyeth that had never been exhibited. They were
pictures of a woman, nude and clothed, named Helga Testorf. She was a sturdy
blond married mother of four, a postwar refugee from Germany who worked as a
housemaid to Wyeth’s eccentric sister Carolyn in Chadds Ford. Wyeth had been
painting her in a room at the Kuerner house for more than a decade, without his
wife’s knowledge, his wife said, before the works became known. When asked what
the pictures were about, Mrs. Wyeth fueled prurient speculation by saying,
Big money, the implication of sex and Wyeth’s celebrity propelled Helga onto the
covers of Time and Newsweek. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, which
rarely organized shows of living artists, leapt to do an exhibition of the Helga
pictures in 1987. The catalogue, with reproductions of Wyeth’s soft-core
renditions of his recumbent model, became a Book-of-the-Month Club best seller.
Mr. Andrews quickly turned around and sold the works and a few others to a
Japanese collector reportedly for $45 million, capitalizing on the publicity he
had helped to orchestrate and on the National Gallery’s prestige. J. Carter
Brown, the gallery’s director, having attracted hundreds of thousands of people
to the show thanks to the hoopla, then professed to be shocked by Mr. Andrew’s
At that point, Wyeth denied there was ever any sexual relationship. Mrs. Wyeth
explained that “love” was meant only to suggest the creative frisson between
artist and model and that in fact she had seen a few of the works before, so
they did not entirely come as a surprise, while maintaining that most of them
really had been kept secret from her — that they were her husband’s way of
breaking loose from her and were genuinely upsetting to their marriage.
Critics lambasted the Wyeths and Mr. Andrews as hucksters. Wyeth, horrified,
responded by saying the critics “were just looking to bop me on the head.”
Later Wyeth exhibitions were comparatively low key, and caused less of a fuss,
perhaps also because an increasingly eclectic art world, which celebrated Norman
Rockwell, found space to accommodate painters like Wyeth. In later years, he
became a familiar sight around Chadds Ford, driving his beat-up GMC Suburban
through the fields and riverbeds with a sketch pad on the seat. Menus at the inn
in Chadds Ford, where he had his regular seat at a corner table, were decorated
with his sketches of Washington and Lafayette.
He lost a lung, survived a near-fatal illness, and had a hip operation, but kept
working, energized partly by disdain for his detractors. “I’m not going to let
them disrupt my old age,” he said.
“I am an example of publicity — a great deal of it,” he also said. “I’m grateful
because it gives me the freedom to go and try to do better. But I never had any
great idea that these people are understanding what I’m doing. And they don’t.”
Wyeth added: “Let’s be sensible about this. I put a lot of things into my work
which are very personal to me. So how can the public feel these things? I think
most people get to my work through the back door. They’re attracted by the
realism and they sense the emotion and the abstraction — and eventually, I hope,
they get their own powerful emotion.”
November 18, 2008
The New York Times
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Grace Hartigan, a
second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose gestural, intensely colored
paintings often incorporated images drawn from popular culture, leading some
critics to see in them prefigurings of Pop Art, died on Saturday in Baltimore.
She was 86.
The cause was liver failure, said Julian Weissman, a longtime dealer of hers.
Ms. Hartigan, a friend and disciple of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning,
subscribed to the Abstract Expressionist notion of the painterly brushstroke as
existential act and cri de coeur but, like de Kooning, she never broke entirely
with the figurative tradition. Determined to stake out her own artistic ground,
she turned outward from the interior world sanctified by the Abstract
Expressionists and embraced the visual swirl of contemporary American life.
In “Grand Street Brides” (1954), one of several early paintings that attracted
the immediate attention of critics and curators, she depicted bridal-shop window
mannequins in a composition based on Goya’s “Royal Family.” Later paintings
incorporated images taken from coloring books, film, traditional paintings,
store windows and advertising, all in the service of art that one critic
described as “tensely personal.”
“Her art was marked by a willingness to employ a variety of styles in a
modernist idiom, to go back and forth from art-historical references to
pop-culture references to autobiographical material,” said Robert Saltonstall
Mattison, the author of “Grace Hartigan: A Painter’s World” (1990).
Grace Hartigan was born in Newark in 1922 and grew up in rural New Jersey, the
oldest of four children. Unable to afford college, she married early and, in a
flight of romantic fancy, she and her husband, Bob Jachens, struck out for
Alaska to live as pioneers. They made it no farther than California, where, with
her husband’s encouragement, she took up painting.
“I didn’t choose painting,” she later told an interviewer. “It chose me. I
didn’t have any talent. I just had genius.”
In the mid-1940’s she left her husband, placed their son, Jeffrey, in the care
of his parents and moved back to Newark, where she trained in mechanical
drafting and took painting lessons with Isaac Lane Muse. After moving to the
Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1945, she became part of the postwar New York
artistic scene, forming alliances with the Abstract Expressionist painters —
although de Kooning reduced her to tears by telling her she completely
misunderstood modern art — and poets like Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth
Ms. Hartigan won fame early. In 1950, the critic Clement Greenberg and the art
historian Meyer Schapiro included her in their “New Talent” show at the Kootz
Gallery, and a one-woman exhibition at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery soon followed.
“Persian Jacket,” an early painting, was bought for the Museum of Modern Art by
Barr and the Museum of Modern Art curator Dorothy Miller included her in two
important shows, “12 Americans” in 1954 and “The New American Painting,” an
exhibition that toured Europe in 1958 and 1959 and introduced Abstract
Expressionism abroad. In 1958, Life magazine called her “the most celebrated of
the young American women painters.”
After starting out as a purely abstract painter, Ms. Hartigan gradually
introduced images into her work. It was O’Hara’s blending of high art and low
art in his poetry that influenced her to cast far and wide for sources.
In 1949 she married the artist Harry Jackson, “not one of my more serious
marriages,” she later said. The marriage was annulled after a year. In 1959 she
married Robert Keene, a gallery owner, whom she divorced a year later. In 1960
she married Winston Price, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University who
collected modern art and had bought one of her paintings. After injecting
himself with an experimental vaccine against encephalitis in 1969 and
contracting spinal meningitis, he began a long descent into physical and mental
illness that ended with his death in 1981.
Ms. Hartigan is survived by a brother, Arthur Hartigan of Huntington Beach,
Calif.; a sister, Barbara Sesee of North Brunswick, N.J.; and three
grandchildren. Her son, Jeffrey Jachens, died in 2006.
Ms. Hartigan’s move to Baltimore coincided with a drastic shift in artistic
fashion, as Pop Art and Minimalism eclipsed Abstract Expressionism. Out of the
spotlight, Ms. Hartigan embarked on what she later recalled as “an isolated
creative life.” For decades she painted in a loft in a former department store
and taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The college created a
graduate school around her, the Hoffberger School of Painting, of which she
became director in 1965. She taught at the school until retiring last year.
As historians and curators reassessed the history of postwar art, she
experienced a resurgence of sorts. Her use of commercial imagery led her to be
included in “Hand-Painted Pop,” a 1993 exhibition at the Whitney Museum, despite
her loathing for the movement.
“Pop Art is not painting because painting must have content and emotion,” she
said in the 1960’s. On the other hand, she reflected at the time of the Whitney
show, “I’d much rather be a pioneer of a movement that I hate than the second
generation of a movement that I love.”
Her work was exhibited as recently as May at the Jewish Museum in New York, in
“Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning and American Art, 1940-1976.”
On an artistic path marked by twists and turns and restless experimentation, she
maintained a fierce commitment to the modernist agenda and a belief in art’s
“Now as before it is the vulgar and the vital and the possibility of its
transformation into the beautiful which continues to challenge and fascinate
me,” she told the reference work “World Artists: 1950-1980.”
“Or perhaps the subject of my art is like the definition of humor — emotional
pain remembered in tranquillity.”
October 17, 2008
Filed at 1:59 p.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- The nature of ''outsider'' art may be debatable, but
self-taught artist James Castle was an outsider of sorts from the day he was
Castle, subject of a new exhibit organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
was born profoundly deaf and never learned to read, write, sign or speak. But he
spoke volumes through art, which he created ceaselessly from early childhood
until his death in 1977 at age 77.
''James Castle: A Retrospective,'' which opened this week and remains on display
through Jan. 4, brings together more than 300 evocative drawings, handmade
books, collages and sculptural pieces from 60 public and private collections.
The first comprehensive museum exhibition of Castle, it will travel to Chicago
and San Francisco in 2009.
An hourlong documentary, developed in tandem with the exhibit, tells Castle's
story through his family, artists, historians and others.
''In comparison to other self-taught artists, he has this wide range of work --
it goes into quite conceptual stuff,'' curator Ann Percy said.
The exhibition shows a rich body of work that transcends what is commonly
referred to as outsider art, a term often used to describe self-taught artists
with physical or mental illness.
Born in Garden Valley, Idaho, Castle attended a school for the deaf for five
years but resisted his instructors' efforts and was sent home at about age 15.
Encouraged by his family, who describe him as gregarious and highly inquisitive,
Castle took to making art inspired by the people and places of his past and
Other than occasional use of crayon and chalk, Castle preferred making his own
ink of stove soot and saliva. His pens and brushes were sharpened sticks and
wads of fabric. His color washes came from laundry bluing, makeup and crepe
paper soaked in water. His canvas was scrap paper or cardboard, available in
unending supply and variety from his family's general store and post office.
With those rudimentary art supplies, he developed expert technique and masterful
composition and perspective, Percy said.
''He is tremendously skilled with these simple materials,'' she said. ''He was
given paint and brushes but he preferred materials with a history.''
Many of Castle's soot-and-spit drawings depict his familiar Idaho farmscapes,
but his entire body of work is broadly varied in style and subject matter. It
also has elements used by many well-known 20th-century artists.
His themes include surrealistic portraits of human figures with chairs or
animals as heads, hand-stitched books, collages and three-dimensional abstract
assemblages of complex shapes torn and stitched onto contrasting backgrounds.
''All these devices are right with what's happening in the 20th century,'' Percy
said, ''but presumably he's doing it himself, with no knowledge of the
professional art world.''
Among the most striking are drawings of product packaging arranged in grids,
logos in kaleidoscopic repetition, codelike ''calendars'' of Roman, Greek and
Cyrillic letters, and text copied from newspaper headlines.
The Pop Art association is unavoidable in pieces such as ''SLASHING ALL
PRICES,'' ''SHORT RIBS'' and ''Last Call!'' Their sophistication have led
scholars to question whether Castle, unbeknownst to his family, knew some words.
''How do you make these pictures without knowing what the words mean? Nobody can
quite crack the dilemma of what's going on here,'' Percy said. ''No one knows
what he was up to -- or will.''
There is humor, contemplation, wistfulness, joy and a sense of freedom in
Castle's work, which was shown (to his great delight) at regional art galleries
in the 1950s and 1960s but began attracting national attention only a decade
ago, Percy said.
''Whatever he was doing,'' she said, ''he was doing it before a lot of the
people we know.''
May 14, 2008
The New York Times
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
Robert Rauschenberg, the irrepressibly prolific American artist who time and
again reshaped art in the 20th century, died Monday night. He was 82.
He died of heart failure, said Arne Glimcher, chairman of PaceWildenstein, the
artist's gallery in Manhattan.
Mr. Rauschenberg’s work gave new meaning to sculpture. “Canyon,” for instance,
consisted of a stuffed bald eagle attached to a canvas. “Monogram” was a stuffed
Angora goat girdled by a tire atop a painted panel. “Bed” entailed a quilt,
sheet and pillow, slathered with paint, as if soaked in blood, framed on the
wall. They all became icons of postwar modernism.
A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set
designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the
traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded
and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.
Building on the legacies of Marcel Duchamp, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell and
others, he thereby helped to obscure the lines between painting and sculpture,
painting and photography, photography and printmaking, sculpture and
photography, sculpture and dance, sculpture and technology, technology and
performance art — not to mention between art and life.
Mr. Rauschenberg was also instrumental in pushing American art onward from
Abstract Expressionism, the dominant movement when he emerged during the early
1950s. He became a transformative link between artists like Jackson Pollock and
Willem de Kooning and those who came next, artists identified with Pop,
Conceptualism, Happenings, Process Art and other new kinds of art in which he
played a signal role.
No American artist, Jasper Johns once said, invented more than Mr. Rauschenberg.
Mr. Johns, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and Mr. Rauschenberg, without sharing
exactly the same point of view, collectively defined this new era of
experimentation in American culture. Apropos of Mr. Rauschenberg, Cage once
said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”
Cage meant that people had come to see, through Mr. Rauschenberg’s efforts, not
just that anything, including junk on the street, could be the stuff of art
(this wasn’t itself new), but that it could be the stuff of an art aspiring to
be beautiful — that there was a potential poetics even in consumer glut, which
Mr. Rauschenberg celebrated. “I really feel sorry for people who think things
like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because
they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them
The remark reflected the optimism and generosity of spirit that Mr. Rauschenberg
became known for. His work was likened to a Saint Bernard: uninhibited and
mostly good-natured. He could be the same way in person. When he became rich, he
gave millions of dollars to charities for women, children, medical research,
other artists and Democratic politicians.
A brash, garrulous, hard-drinking, open-faced Southerner, he had a charm and
peculiar Delphic felicity with language that nevertheless masked a complex
personality and an equally multilayered emotional approach to art, which evolved
as his stature did. Having begun by making quirky small-scale assemblages out of
junk he found on the street in downtown Manhattan, he spent increasing time in
his later years, after he had become successful and famous, on vast
international, ambassadorial-like projects and collaborations.
Conceived in his immense studio on the island of Captiva, Fla., these projects
were of enormous size and ambition; for many years he worked on a project that
grew literally to exceed the length of its title, “The 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong
Piece.” They generally did not live up to his earlier achievements. Even so, he
maintained an equanimity toward the results. Protean productivity went along
with risk, he believed, and risk sometimes meant failure.
The process — an improvisatory, counterintuitive way of doing things — was
always what mattered most to him. “Screwing things up is a virtue,” he said when
he was 74. “Being correct is never the point. I have an almost fanatically
correct assistant, and by the time she re-spells my words and corrects my
punctuation, I can’t read what I wrote. Being right can stop all the momentum of
a very interesting idea.”
This attitude also inclined him, as the painter Jack Tworkov once said, “to see
beyond what others have decided should be the limits of art.”
He “keeps asking the question — and it’s a terrific question philosophically,
whether or not the results are great art,” Tworkov said, “and his asking it has
influenced a whole generation of artists.”
That generation was the one that broke from Pollock and company. Mr.
Rauschenberg maintained a deep but mischievous respect for these Abstract
Expressionist heroes like de Kooning and Barnett Newman. Famously, he once
painstakingly erased a drawing by de Kooning, an act both of destruction and
devotion. Critics regarded the all-black paintings and all-red paintings he made
in the early 1950s as spoofs of de Kooning and Pollock. The paintings had
roiling, bubbled surfaces made from the torn scraps of newspapers embedded in
But these were just as much homages as they were parodies. De Kooning, himself a
parodist, had incorporated bits of newspapers as flotsam in pictures, and
Pollock stuck cigarette butts to canvases.
Mr. Rauschenberg’s “Automobile Tire Print,” from the early 50’s — resulting from
Cage’s driving an inked tire of a Model A Ford over 20 sheets of white paper —
poked fun at Newman’s famous “zip” paintings.
At the same time, Mr. Rauschenberg was expanding on Newman’s art. The tire print
transformed Newman’s zip — an abstract line against a monochrome backdrop with
spiritual pretensions — into an artifact of everyday culture, which for Mr.
Rauschenberg had its own transcendent dimension.
Mr. Rauschenberg frequently alluded to cars and spaceships, even incorporating
real tires and bicycles, into his art. This partly reflected his own restless,
peripatetic imagination. The idea of movement was logically extended when he
took up dance and performance.
There was, beneath this, a darkness to many of his works, notwithstanding their
irreverence. “Bed” was gothic. The all-black paintings were solemn and
shuttered. The red paintings looked charred, with strips of fabric, akin to
bandages, from which paint dripped, like blood. “Interview,” which resembled a
cabinet or closet with a door, enclosing photographs of toreros, a pinup, a
Michelangelo nude, a fork and a softball, suggested some black-humored encoded
There were many other images of downtrodden and lonely people, rapt in thought;
pictures of ancient frescoes, out of focus as if half remembered; photographs of
forlorn, neglected places; bits and pieces of faraway places conveying a kind of
nostalgia or remoteness. In bringing these things together, the art implied
Mr. Rauschenberg, who knew that not everybody found it easy to grasp the
open-endedness of his work, once described to the writer Calvin Tomkins an
encounter with a woman who had reacted skeptically to “Monogram” and “Bed” in
his 1963 retrospective at the Jewish Museum, one of the events that secured Mr.
Rauschenberg’s reputation: “To her, all my decisions seemed absolutely arbitrary
— as though I could just as well have selected anything at all — and therefore
there was no meaning, and that made it ugly.
“So I told her that if I were to describe the way she was dressed, it might
sound very much like what she’d been saying. For instance, she had feathers on
her head. And she had this enamel brooch with a picture of ‘The Blue Boy’ on it
pinned to her breast. And around her neck she had on what she would call mink
but what could also be described as the skin of a dead animal. Well, at first
she was a little offended by this, I think, but then later she came back and
said she was beginning to understand.”
Milton Ernest Rauschenberg was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in Port Arthur, Tex., a
small refinery town where “it was very easy to grow up without ever seeing a
painting,” he said. (In adulthood he renamed himself Robert.) His grandfather, a
doctor who immigrated from Germany, had settled in Texas and married a
full-blooded Cherokee. His father, Ernest, worked for a local utility company.
The family lived so frugally that his mother, Dora, made him shirts out of
scraps of fabric. Once she made herself a skirt out of the back of the suit that
her younger brother was buried in. She didn’t want the material to go to waste.
For his high school graduation present, Mr. Rauschenberg wanted a ready-made
shirt, his first. All this shaped his art eventually. A decade or so later he
made history with his own assemblages of scraps and ready-mades: sculptures and
music boxes made of packing crates, rocks and rope; and paintings like “Yoicks”
sewn from fabric strips. He loved making something out of nothing.
He studied pharmacology briefly at the University of Texas in Austin before he
was drafted during World War II. He saw his first paintings at the Huntington
Gallery in California while stationed in San Diego as a medical technician in
the Navy Hospital Corps, and it occurred to him that it was possible to become a
He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on the GI Bill, traveled to Paris and
enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he met Susan Weil, a young painter from
New York who was to enter Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Having read
about and come to admire Josef Albers, then the head of fine arts at Black
Mountain, Mr. Rauschenberg saved enough money to join her.
Albers, a disciplinarian and strict modernist who, shocked by his student, later
disavowed ever even knowing Mr. Rauschenberg, was on the other hand recalled by
Mr. Rauschenberg as “a beautiful teacher and an impossible person.”
“He wasn’t easy to talk to, and I found his criticism so excruciating and so
devastating that I never asked for it,” Mr. Rauschenberg added. “Years later,
though, I’m still learning what he taught me.”
Among other things, he learned to maintain an open mind toward materials and new
media, which Albers endorsed. Mr. Rauschenberg also gained a respect for the
grid as an essential compositional organizing tool.
For a while, he moved between New York, where he studied at the Art Students
League with Vaclav Vytlacil and Morris Kantor, and Black Mountain. During the
spring of 1950, he and Ms. Weil married. The marriage lasted two years, during
which they had a son, Christopher, who survives him along with Mr.
Rauschenberg’s companion, Darryl Pottorf.
Mr. Rauschenberg experimented at the time with blueprint paper to produce
silhouette negatives. The pictures were published in Life magazine in 1951;
after that Mr. Rauschenberg was given his first solo show, at the influential
Betty Parsons Gallery. “Everyone was trying to give up European aesthetics,” he
recalled, meaning Picasso, the Surrealists and Matisse. “That was the struggle,
and it was reflected in the fear of collectors and critics. John Cage said that
fear in life is the fear of change. If I may add to that: nothing can avoid
changing. It’s the only thing you can count on. Because life doesn’t have any
other possibility, everyone can be measured by his adaptability to change.”
Cage acquired a painting from the Betty Parsons show. Aside from that, Mr.
Rauschenberg sold absolutely nothing. Grateful, he agreed to host Cage at his
loft. As Mr. Rauschenberg liked to tell the story, the only place to sit was on
a mattress. Cage started to itch. He called Mr. Rauschenberg afterward to tell
him that his mattress must have bedbugs and that, as Cage was going away for a
while, Mr. Rauschenberg could stay at his place. Mr. Rauschenberg accepted the
offer. In return, he decided he would touch up the painting Cage had acquired,
as a kind of thank you, painting it all-black, being in the midst of his new,
all-black period. When Cage returned, he was not amused.
“We both thought, ‘Here was somebody crazier than I am,’ ” Mr. Rauschenberg
recalled. In 1952 Mr. Rauschenberg switched to all-white paintings, which were,
in retrospect, spiritually akin to Cage’s famous silent piece of music, during
which a pianist sits for 4 minutes and 33 seconds at the keyboard without making
a sound. Mr. Rauschenberg’s paintings, like the music, in a sense became both
Rorschachs and backdrops for ambient, random events like passing shadows. “I
always thought of the white paintings as being not passive but very — well,
hypersensitive,” he told an interviewer in 1963. “So that people could look at
them and almost see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or
what time of day it was.”
Kicking around Europe and North Africa with the artist Cy Twombly for a few
months after that, he began to collect and assemble objects — bits of rope,
stones, sticks, bones — which he showed to a dealer in Rome who exhibited them
under the title “scatole contemplative,” or thought boxes. They were shown in
Florence, where an outraged critic suggested that Mr. Rauschenberg toss them in
the river. The artist thought that sounded like a good idea. So, saving a few
scatole for himself and friends, he found a secluded spot on the Arno. “‘I took
your advice,’’ he wrote to the critic.
Yet the scatole were crucial to his development, setting the stage for bigger,
more elaborate assemblages like ‘“Monogram.’’ Back in New York, Mr. Rauschenberg
showed his all-black and all-white paintings, then his erased de Kooning, which
de Kooning had given to him to erase, a gesture that Mr. Rauschenberg found
astonishingly generous, all of which enhanced his reputation as the new enfant
terrible of the art world.
Around that time he also met Mr. Johns, then unknown, who had a studio in the
same building on Pearl Street where Mr. Rauschenberg had a loft. The intimacy of
their relationship over the next years, a consuming subject for later
biographers and historians, coincided with the production by the two of them of
some of the most groundbreaking works of postwar art.
In Mr. Rauschenberg’s famous words, they gave each other “permission to do what
we wanted.’’ Living together in a succession of lofts in Lower Manhattan until
the 1960’s, they exchanged ideas and supported themselves designing window
displays for Tiffany & Company and Bonwit Teller under the collaborative
pseudonym Matson Jones.
Along with the combines, Mr. Rauschenberg in that period developed a transfer
drawing technique, dissolving printed images from newspapers and magazines with
a solvent and then rubbing them onto paper with a pencil. The process, used for
works like “34 Drawings for Dante’s ‘Inferno’,” created the impression of
something fugitive, exquisite and secretive. Perhaps there was an
autobiographical and sensual aspect to this. It let him combine images on a
surface to a kind of surreal effect, which became the basis for works he made
throughout his later career, when he adapted the transfer method to canvas.
Instrumental in this technical evolution back then was Tatyana Grossman, who
encouraged and guided him as he made prints at her workshop, Universal Limited
Art Editions, on Long Island; he also began a long relationship with the Gemini
G.E.L. workshop in Los Angeles, producing lithographs like the 1970 “Stoned
Moon” series, with its references to the moon landing. His association with
theater and dance had already begun by the 1950s, when he began designing sets
and costumes for Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown and for his own
productions. In 1963, he choreographed “Pelican,’’ in which he performed on
roller skates wearing a parachute and helmet of his design to the accompaniment
of a taped collage of sound. This fascination both with collaboration and with
mixing art with technologies dovetailed with yet another endeavor. With Billy
Klüver, an engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories, he started Experiments in
Art and Technology, a nonprofit foundation to foster collaborations between
artists and scientists.
In 1964, he toured Europe and Asia with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the
same year he exhibited at the Whitechapel Gallery in London and the Venice
Biennale as the United States representative. That sealed his international
renown. The Sunday Telegraph in London hailed him as “the most important
American artist since Jackson Pollock.’’ He walked off with the international
grand prize in Venice, the first modern American to win it. Mr. Rauschenberg
had, almost despite himself, become an institution.
Major exhibitions followed every decade after that, including one at the
Pompidou Center in Paris in 1981, another at the Guggenheim in 1997 and yet
another that landed at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005.
When he wasn’t traveling in later years, he was in Captiva, a slender island off
Florida’s Gulf coast, living at first in a modest beach house and working out of
a small studio. In time he became Captiva’s biggest residential landowner while
also maintaining a town house in Greenwich Village back in New York. He acquired
the land in Captiva by buying adjacent properties from elderly neighbors whom he
let live rent-free in their houses, which he maintained for them. He accumulated
35 acres, 1,000 feet of beach front and nine houses and studios, including a
17,000-square-foot two-story studio overlooking a swimming pool. He owned almost
all that remained of tropical jungle on the island.
“I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop,” he said
in an interview in the giant studio on Captiva in 2000. “At the time that I am
bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has
formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept
the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”
He added: “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics. I
think you’re born an artist or not. I couldn’t have learned it. And I hope I
never do because knowing more only encourages your limitations.”
April 19, 2008
The New York Times
By ROBERTA SMITH
Small may be beautiful, but where abstract painting is concerned, it is
rarely fashionable. Big has held center stage at least since Jackson Pollock;
the small abstractions of painters like Myron Stout, Forrest Bess and Steve
Wheeler are mostly relegated to the wings, there to be considered eccentric or
overly precious. Paul Klee was arguably the last genius of small abstraction to
be granted full-fledged membership in the Modernist canon.
But what is marginalized can also become a form of dissent, a way to counter the
prevailing arguments and sidestep their pitfalls. It is hard, for example, to
work small and indulge in the mind-boggling degree of spectacle that afflicts so
much art today. In a time of glut and waste on every front, compression and
economy have undeniable appeal. And if a great work of art is one that is
essential in all its parts, that has nothing superfluous or that can be
subtracted, working small may improve the odds.
Small paintings of the abstract kind are having a moment right now in New York,
with a luminous exhibition at the New Museum of Contemporary Art spotlighting
the wry, fastidiously wrought work of the German painter Tomma Abts; and
PaceWildenstein presenting in Chelsea the latest efforts of James Siena and
Thomas Nozkowski, two older American whizzes at undersize abstraction. Even
post-war Modernism could be downsized a bit, with a show titled “Suitcase
Paintings: Small Scale Abstract Expressionism” opening next month at Baruch
Four young painters who embrace smallness are now having solo shows — three of
them New York debuts — that challenge the importance of the big canvas.
Small abstractions avoid the long realist tradition of painting as a window, and
also the shorter, late-Modernist one of painting as a flat wall. Instead these
smaller works align themselves with less vaunted (and sometimes less masculine)
conventions: the printed page, illuminated manuscripts, icons and plaques.
And yet, as each of these four exhibitions demonstrates, abstraction allows a
serious exploration of process despite the limited real estate. This expands the
already considerable pleasure of looking at paintings that are not much larger
than your head.
The intently improvised geometries of Scott Olson’s paintings, seen in his New
York debut at Taxter & Spengemann in Chelsea, evoke manuscript illumination
filtered through Constructivism and other abstract styles. His colors have a
slightly watered-down, retroactive subtlety; frequently they are translucent, to
reveal the complex decisions and elaborate processes packed into each work.
Different physical supports (canvas, fiberboard, heavily gessoed wood) further
complicate Mr. Olson’s processes. In “Untitled (N. 7)” and “Untitled (N. 32)”
taping and retaping have left shards of sharp color that stand out like little
ruins against absorbent grays and blacks. In “Untitled (N. 31)” and “Untitled
(N. 8)” the forms are laid on in thin glazes with fine, varied textures,
creating echo chambers of form that suggest faceted jewels, flattened out.
Mr. Olson clearly wants to make paintings whose smallness doesn’t rule out
finding something new each time you look.
The little paintings in Katy Moran’s first New York show, at Andrea Rosen in
Chelsea, plug into another tradition — the plein-air oil sketch. But she turns
her canvas, which always measures 15 by 18 inches, into a very tiny arena in
which to act. Her spirited brush work creates a sense of gesture and movement
that is almost comical, as if a Lilliputian artist of overweaning ambition were
rushing about, dispensing profusions of feathery curls and slashing lines of
These marks frequently add up to little Rococo set-tos that imply rushing
figures themselves — scuffles and skirmishes between beings moving too fast to
be identified. They may be humans (see the horizontal roll of “Meeting in
Love”), birds (the confrontation of “Pecking Order”) or some other animal
entirely (“Orton”). Or they may be nothing of the sort.
The twin brown-on-mauve peaks of “Hoopers Retreat” suggest a cobbled-together
shanty, with Hooper as the pink dot at its center. Sometimes hints of seascapes
or still lifes emerge from the confusion.
Ms. Moran’s colors, on the other hand, are reserved and shot through with light:
a wide range of delicate grays, mauvish browns, yellowish tans and a variety of
whites that keep the painting action distinct. Their goal seems to be to lend an
air of dignity to the proceedings, but it is the tumult, hanging in the air,
Colors brighten and geometry returns in “Enjambment,” Matt Connors’s enticing
show at the downtown gallery Canada, where his boxy compositions are constructed
from planks or ribbons of contrasting hues.
Mr. Connors’s work can at times venture toward mid-size, at least relative to
the other three artists. “Third Wave Cubism (no touching),” for example,
measures 34 by 36 inches — but it is an exception. As its title implies,
Modernism is much on Mr. Connors’s mind. The grid, the monochrome, the minimal,
the concentric and the parallel are all given a nod, but also a wink. But when
plentiful, his colors are festive and a little cheap-looking.
There’s a cheerful secondhandness here, a sense of vague appropriations and
unnamed sources at work. And abstraction is considered as a kind of object. An
untitled work floats a green-bordered black square on raw linen: it’s not so
much an abstract painting as a painting of one.
And smallness doesn’t rule out installation art. The motifs of “Reading Room”
are actually painted on two different canvases, a smaller one leaning against a
slightly larger one, both sitting on a narrow shelf built into the wall. Another
work, whose dark veils evoke Color Field painting, hangs on a black rectangle
painted directly on the wall.
Michaela Eichwald is from Cologne, Germany, where abstract painting has been in
a fruitfully deviant mode for nearly two decades, thanks to artists like Jutta
Koether, Michael Krebber and Kai Althoff. Ms. Eichwald’s New York debut at Reena
Spaulings Fine Art downtown is titled “Ergriffenes Dasein: Artist Writer
Mentalist.” (The gallery’s release translates the first phrase as “Moved by
Ms. Eichwald’s work continues the deviation but pushes it in a direction of her
own choosing. There’s a happenstance quality to both her paintings and the
handful of small sculptures she is showing: they often incorporate found objects
or images and exude an outsider air. Lacquer is frequent material, which means
that the colors are rich and that the surfaces tend toward shiny, bringing to
mind ceramic plaques or cloisonné.
Ms. Eichwald’s imagery veers toward a playful, vaguely figurative expressionism.
The mostly purple, crackled surface of “N.Y.C.” harbors a face with big
turquoise teeth. It might almost be a plate by Picasso. Certain features — like
the brown blob touched with red in “Struck” or the capital A and calligraphylike
tree of “A-Abre,” framed in pink, red and blue — qualify as neo-Expressionism,
but they add another layer of self-awareness by shrinking the style to a
manageable size. It exemplifies one of the many joys of small.
Published: 10 April 2007
By Sadie Gray
Sol LeWitt, the American artist who helped establish Minimalism and
Conceptualism as major movements of the post-war era, died yesterday in New York
after complications from cancer. He was 78.
LeWitt was the opposite of the celebrity artist and tried to suppress media
interest by refusing to pose for pictures or give interviews. He turned down
awards and particularly disliked having his photograph published in newspaper
LeWitt's deceptively simple geometric sculptures and drawings and brightly
coloured wall paintings established him as a high priest of modern American art.
Much of his art was based on variations of spheres, triangles and other basic
His sculptures were often based around rows or stacks of open, connected cubes
and used precise, measured formats and carefully developed variations.
He gave them titles such as Modular Wall Structure and Double Modular Cube, and
some were huge towers or pyramids that were displayed outdoors.
Joanna Marsh, a curator at the Wadsworth Athen-eum in Hartford, Connecticut,
where LeWitt was born in 1928, said: "It is not an overstatement to say that he
was one of the most influential American artists of the 20th century. His work
has had a profound influence on future generations of artists and will continue
to have an impact."
In the catalogue for his 1978 retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art,
the curator of drawings Bernice Rose said his drawing directly onto museum or
gallery walls "was as important for drawing as Pollock's use of the drip
technique had been for painting in the 1950s".
LeWitt was born to Russian immigrants. His father died when he was aged six and
he was brought up by his mother and an aunt.
He completed an art program at Syracuse University in 1949, telling a reporter
years later that he studied art because he "didn't know what else to do". LeWitt
then spent two years in the US Army during the Korean War but he never went into
In 1953 he moved to New York, just as abstract expressionism was gaining public
recognition. He held a variety of short-term jobs, including working as a night
receptionist at the Museum of Modern Art.
His first solo art show was at the John Daniels Gallery in New York in 1965 and
he taught at several New York art schools. By the mid-1960s, LeWitt had begun to
experiment with wall drawings, an idea which was considered radical because he
knew they would eventually be painted over.
The drawing was done by a team of assistants following instructions based on an
idea outlined in a diagrammatic sketch.
"An architect doesn't go off with a shovel and dig his foundation and lay every
brick. He's still an artist," said LeWitt, explaining why he did not do them
"When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning
and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The
idea becomes a machine that makes the art."
He produced some 1,200 wall drawings throughout his career. The idea behind them
was to merge the drawing with the architecture, and call into question ideas
about permanence, value and conservation.
But his first wall drawing, part of a 1968 display in New York, was so striking
that the gallery owner could not bring herself to have it painted over as LeWitt
had intended. She insisted that he did it himself, which he did without
LeWitt lived for much of the 1980s in Spoleto, Italy, before returning to
Connecticut in the late 1980s. He is survived by a wife, Carol, and two
January 17, 2007
The New York Times
By GLENN COLLINS
Once upon a time, the 30-foot-wide mural shone brilliantly, and its fairytale
king stood forth colorfully, flanked by knights, musicians and assorted minions.
Now, the painting suffers from cracking and from a scattering of dents, even
splashes of alcohol.
Worse, it is coated with a decades-old layer of brownish grime and nicotine
residue that has not only hid the artist’s technical mastery, but has also
obscured a century-old joke embedded within the image.
And so, yesterday, Old King Cole descended from his storied perch at the St.
Regis Hotel along with his pipe and his bowl and his fiddlers three. And he
seemed none the less merry for the experience.
The 1906 oil painting by Maxfield Parrish, from which the hotel’s King Cole Bar
took its name, was removed from its esteemed location on the barroom wall for
its first extensive restoration since the 1950’s, when its cleaning and repair
were overseen by the artist himself.
After a six-person crew toiled for hours to remove the 8-foot-high painting —
rendered on three 10-foot-wide panels — a full-size temporary reproduction was
hoisted into place, and the bar — where the bloody mary was first introduced to
New York in the 1920’s — was able to take drink orders by the stroke of noon.
“The painting has had a place in New York history for a hundred years, and
people tell us they had their first legal drink before it, or that it was where
they first proposed,” said Scott Geraghty, the hotel’s general manager. “Now,
without cigar and cigarette smoking, we thought it was just the time for a good
The $100,000 restoration of the painting is part of a nearly completed $400,000
makeover of the bar, a backdrop for scenes in “The Devil Wears Prada” and “The
First Wives Club.”
The upgrade is part of a grander 18-month, $35 million refurbishment of the
The mural’s dents will be mended and the grime removed along with “some
accidental bartender splashes through the years,” said the restorer, Harriet
Irgang of Rustin Levenson Art Conservation Associates.
The king was trucked to a studio in Chelsea, where he will be ministered to for
the next six weeks or so before his grand restitution.
“This is a painting of civic significance for New York, and needs to be
preserved for future generations,” said Eric P. Widing, head of the American
paintings department at Christie’s auction house, which advised the hotel on the
mural’s worth ($12 million) and its conservation issues. “It’s always been a
touchstone object, and has been almost public furniture for New Yorkers.”
The painting was commissioned for John Jacob Astor as an adornment for the hotel
he financed, the Knickerbocker, at the southeast corner of Broadway and 42d
Street. Parrish’s Quaker upbringing made him reluctant to paint a mural for a
bar, Mr. Geraghty said, but the artist was offered a kingly sum for 1906,
$5,000, to complete it.
However, he added, Astor felt that for that amount of money he should be
portrayed as the king himself, and Parrish acquiesced. After the Knickerbocker
was converted to an office building, the painting was moved to the St. Regis, at
2 East 55th Street, in the mid-1930’s, Mr. Widing said. It became the
centerpiece of the bar, which already had a claim to fame: the bloody mary, with
its basic mélange of vodka, tomato juice and pepper, is believed to have been
brought to the St. Regis by Fernand Petiot, who invented it in Paris.
The painting became a signature feature of the hotel that would later be
inhabited by Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich, and where Salvador Dalí
stayed for a decade. Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio lived there, Mr. Geraghty
said, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono took up residence in 1971 before moving to
“This painting launched his career,” Mr. Widing said of Parrish (1870-1966), an
artist and illustrator whose position, thanks to the painting, “became assured
as America’s most popular illustrator up to that time.” Mr. Widing said he
believed King Cole’s face was that of Astor.
Parrish’s works have been newly appreciated during the last decade, he said,
when some of his paintings have sold for millions.
Through decades of mixed-drink conviviality, bartenders have shared with their
regulars a secret of the painting that is considerably less elegant than the
hotel, the bar or indeed the mural itself. The legend, repeated by generations
of bar patrons, is that the king’s sheepish grin, and the startled reactions of
his knights, were occasioned by the flatulence of the monarch.
Some versions of the this tale, passed on through the decades, hold that there
was a satirical competition among the well-known artists of Parrish’s era to
find a way to depict this condition in a painting, a contest that Parrish is
reputed to have won. Whatever the truth of that version, “it’s a good story, and
part of the legend of the painting,” Mr. Widing said.
The full-color reproduction that has replaced the painting — applied to canvas
using a digital photographic process, and stretched over wood — faithfully
depicts the original’s brownish tinge, its cracks and even its dents. “After
all,” Mr. Geraghty said, “we could not leave the wall blank.”
NEW YORK (AP) — A 13-year-old boy had just finished painting graffiti near
railroad tracks he was struck and killed by a commuter train, authorities and
friends said Saturday.
A Long Island Rail Road train hit Ari Kraft between stations in Queens during
the evening rush hour Friday, police said. The city's medical examiner said he
died of "blunt impact injuries to the head, torso and extremities."
The teen and three pals had been painting on the elevated tracks near a station,
his friends said. As he crossed the tracks to head home, the train, carrying
about 1,000 people, slammed into him. Train service was suspended for hours.
Friends said he often created large murals with inscriptions like "Remember
9/11" — under the tag name "Corporal."
October 24, 2006
The New York Times
By DENISE GRADY
When he learned in 1995 that he had
Alzheimer’s disease, William Utermohlen, an American artist in London, responded
in characteristic fashion.
“From that moment on, he began to try to understand it by painting himself,”
said his wife, Patricia Utermohlen, a professor of art history.
Mr. Utermohlen’s self-portraits are being exhibited through Friday at the New
York Academy of Medicine in Manhattan, by the Alzheimer’s Association.
The paintings starkly reveal the artist’s descent into dementia, as his world
began to tilt, perspectives flattened and details melted away. His wife and his
doctors said he seemed aware at times that technical flaws had crept into his
work, but he could not figure out how to correct them.
“The spatial sense kept slipping, and I think he knew,” Professor Utermohlen
said. A psychoanalyst wrote that the paintings depicted sadness, anxiety,
resignation and feelings of feebleness and shame.
Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco,
who studies artistic creativity in people with brain diseases, said some
patients could still produce powerful work.
“Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important
for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas,” Dr.
Miller said. “The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague,
more surrealistic. Sometimes there’s use of beautiful, subtle color.”
Mr. Utermohlen, 73, is now in a nursing home. He no longer paints.
His work has been exhibited in several cities, and more shows are planned. The
interest in his paintings as a chronicle of illness is bittersweet, his wife
said, because it has outstripped the recognition he received even at the height
of his career.
“He’s always been an outsider,” she said. “He was never quite in the same time
slot with what was going on. Everybody was doing Abstract Expressionist, and
there he was, solemnly drawing the figure. It’s so strange to be known for
something you’re doing when you’re rather ill.”
Dr. Miller, Professor Utermohlen and others will lecture about art and
Alzheimer’s on Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the New York Academy of Medicine. For more
information: (212) 822-7272;
CRESCENT CITY, Calif., July 16 — The morning
after the opening of a show of his recent work, the artist was in his studio, a
concrete cell in the Pelican Bay State Prison, where he is serving three life
terms in solitary confinement for murder and for slashing a prison guard’s
throat. He was checking his supplies, taking inventory.
His paintbrush, made of plastic wrap, foil and strands of his own hair, lay on
the lower bunk. So did his paints, leached from M&M’s and sitting in little
white plastic containers that once held packets of grape jelly. Next to them was
a stack of the blank postcards that are his canvases.
On Friday night, more than 500 people had jammed into a gallery in San Miguel de
Allende, Mexico, to assess 25 of Donny Johnson’s small, intense works. There was
sangria, as well as big bowls of M&M’s. By evening’s end, six of the postcard
paintings had sold, for $500 each.
“They are made with these chocolate pigments,” said Adolfo Caballero, an owner
of the gallery. “He has really created a new kind of technique, because he
doesn’t have access to conventional materials.”
Most prison art, the kind created in crafts classes and sold in gift shops,
tends toward kitsch and caricature. But there are no classes or art supplies
where Mr. Johnson is held, and his powerful, largely abstract paintings are
something different. They reflect the sensory deprivation and diminished depth
perception of someone held in a windowless cell for almost two decades.
They pulse, some artists on the outside say, with memory and longing and
madness. Others are less impressed, saying the works are interesting examples of
human ingenuity but fall short of real artistic achievement.
Mr. Johnson, 46, has something of the middle-aged biker about him, with long
slicked-back hair, unfortunate tattoos, a growing paunch and an unruly beard
that puts one in mind of ZZ Top or a garden gnome.
He was in a changeable mood on Saturday, eager to hear about the opening but
also aware that it was, in the scheme of his life and future, a small thing. He
spoke with easygoing and sometimes lighthearted candor, punctuated with wariness
and flashes of despair. He declined to discuss the details of his crimes, though
he admitted to a past attraction to drugs and violence.
When the conversation turned to his paintings, though, he held his own in the
art-speak department. “I love myth and chaos and space,” he said.
Mr. Johnson was 20 when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in 1980,
drawing a sentence of 15 years to life. According to court papers, he and two
friends had stabbed an acquaintance to death after a party in San Jose, in a
dispute over the sale of cigarettes laced with PCP.
Nine years later Mr. Johnson was charged with the nearly fatal stabbing of one
guard and with assaulting another. That case went to trial, with Mr. Johnson
saying he had been startled and, thinking he was under attack by a gang member,
had acted in what he thought was self-defense. He was convicted and sentenced to
two additional terms of nine years to life. His chances of ever being paroled,
he said, are small.
The prison here is an expanse of grim concrete bunkers, spread out over 275
acres not far from the California coast and the Oregon border. It is as sterile
and monochrome as Mr. Johnson’s paintings are bursting out with color.
About 3,300 of the state’s most dangerous prisoners are held at Pelican Bay,
which is among the toughest prisons in the nation. But even here there are
varying levels of security. The problem prisoners, including Mr. Johnson, are
held in the Security Housing Unit, which everyone calls the SHU (pronounced like
He lives in an 8-by-12-foot concrete cell. His meals are pushed through a slot
in the door. Except for the odd visitor, with whom he talks through thick
plexiglass, he interacts with no one. He has not touched another person in 17
Asked about his circumstances growing up, Mr. Johnson assessed his current state
instead. “I am of the dungeon class,” he said.
In “Donny: Life of a Lifer,” a short book he wrote in 2001, Mr. Johnson said the
lack of sensory stimulation and human contact in the SHU was a form of torture.
“I’d cut off my right arm,” he wrote, “to be able to hold my mother.”
His art, he said on Saturday, is a solace, an obsession and a burden.
He orders his supplies from the prison commissary once a month. The M&M’s are 60
cents a pack, and he gets 10 packs at a time. He puts from one to five of the
candies in each of the jelly containers, drizzles a little water in and later
fishes out the chocolate cores, leaving liquid of various colors, which get
stronger if they sit for a couple of days.
He has tried other candy, but there are perils. “It’s the same process with
Skittles,” he said, “but I end up eating them all.”
Sometimes he experiments with other materials. “Grape Kool-Aid in red M&M color
makes a kind of purple,” he wrote in a letter to a reporter not long ago.
“Coffee mixed with yellow makes a light brown. Tropical punch Kool-Aid granules
can be made into a syrup and used as a paint wash of sorts. But it’s a bear to
work with and it’s super-sticky and it never dries.”
And there are frustrations. “If lint gets in a piece, I feel like screaming,” he
While prison officials will not allow Mr. Johnson to have conventional art
supplies or much of anything else in the SHU, they have not interfered with his
work or stopped him from mailing his paintings to his family and friends. The
prison will not let him keep the proceeds from his sales, Mr. Johnson said, and
he intends to donate the money to the Pelican Bay Prison Project, a nonprofit
group that will use it to help the children of prisoners.
On the outside, the paintings have drawn admiration and even awe.
“It has the vibration of color you find in van Gogh’s work,” said Mr. Caballero,
the Mexican gallery owner. “Sometimes it looks like Motherwell. Sometimes it
looks like de Kooning. And there is also something of Munch.”
Stephen A. Kurtz, a semiretired psychoanalyst who has worked with prisoners and
helped arrange the show in Mexico, said he generally had no use for their art.
“The prison art I’ve seen is very stereotypical: women with breasts out to the
next block and beefy guys with them,” Mr. Kurtz said.
Mr. Johnson’s work, he said, is a different matter. “It reminds me,” he said,
“of Pollock in the early-to-mid-1940’s, when he was in Jungian analysis.”
Mr. Johnson’s circumstances and materials may influence viewers’ perceptions,
and not everyone is convinced that he is the real thing.
“I’m not really responding to it aesthetically,” said Brooke Anderson, director
and curator of the Contemporary Center at the American Folk Art Museum, “but I’m
totally responding from its place of origin. It kind of reminds me of spin art.
It feels very psychedelic, like the 1970’s hippie culture.”
Mr. Johnson is working in a rich tradition of art produced in prisons and
asylums, Ms. Anderson continued.
“Time and the availability of time,” she said, “has an awful lot to do with an
explosion of expression.”
PRETORIA, South Africa — In 1975 a white
Australian diplomat named Diane Johnstone invited Michael Maapola, a black South
African artist, to her apartment here to show his drawings to her guests. Within
days Ms. Johnstone was evicted and her apartment ransacked. But what happened to
Mr. Maapola, whose drawings of police clubbings and prison scenes recorded the
ugliness of apartheid at its peak, was worse.
For years he was harassed. In 1988 he was imprisoned. In 1989 an arsonist
torched his studio in Hammanskraal, a township north of Pretoria. Years of
paintings and sculpture went up in smoke.
So it was more than a bit remarkable that a selection of Mr. Maapola's
apartheid-era drawings were exhibited in Pretoria in 2004 and in Johannesburg in
"I thought that they had gone forever," Mr. Maapola, in his Hammanskraal studio,
said of his work from that time. Now 57, he is an established artist.
Some of it survived because of Ms. Johnstone and like-minded foreigners. Decades
ago they bought his works and those of other black township artists who could
not freely exhibit. Now, in an unusual and well-orchestrated burst of
generosity, these collectors are giving the art back to South Africa, helping to
restore an important part of the country's historical record.
The returns come courtesy of the Ifa Lethu Foundation, a nonprofit group first
set up in 2004 under the name Homecoming Foundation to retrieve apartheid-era
art and memorabilia from around the world. The organization has brought in about
50 objects, mostly artworks, and hopes to retrieve hundreds more, primarily from
Western diplomats, journalists and businesspeople who removed them from South
Africa from the 1960's to the 80's.
Ifa Lethu — Xhosa for "Heritage" — has identified about 120 artists whose works
it wants to locate and display, as well as a number of objects, from paintings
to oral histories and films, Narissa Ramdhani, the foundation's chief executive,
said in an interview here.
Some of these works will be placed in a mobile exhibition that will travel,
along with apartheid-era artists, to remote villages. Eventually the art will be
placed with exhibitors selected to make it broadly available to ordinary South
"We don't even know what left the country," Ms. Ramdhani said. "It left at such
turbulent times that there was no process in place to keep track. Some of it may
not have great artistic value. But they have great historical value, because
they give us a glimpse of life in the townships in the 70's and 80's, and even
Such glimpses are less common here than one might think. Black artists' work was
rarely exhibited under apartheid, and politically minded artists like Mr.
Maapola were persecuted. Much township art and other artifacts were destroyed by
security forces or spirited away by foreigners, leaving what Ms. Ramdhani calls
a yawning gap in the nation's cultural legacy.
Both South Africa's government and its dominant political party, the African
National Congress, have programs to recover historic memorabilia. Ifa Lethu,
however, is private and relies entirely on the generosity of foreigners for
donations of artworks and other objects. Potential donors' only reward is the
knowledge that with their gifts, many South Africans will be seeing blacks'
contemporary views of apartheid and township life for the first time.
Although they are now being hailed as saviors of a critical part of South
Africa's collective history, some of the foreign collectors said their motives
were less altruistic at the time.
"We didn't take the art to save it," Bruce Haigh, a writer and retired
Australian diplomat who served in Pretoria after Ms. Johnstone, said in a
telephone interview. "We purchased it because we thought it was good. Had we
been smarter, we would have grabbed everything we laid our hands on, because I
didn't know how much the security police were wrecking."
How he, Ms. Johnstone and a handful of American diplomats helped save township
art in the 1970's is a story that leads directly to Ifa Lethu.
Ms. Johnstone, a third secretary in the Australian Embassy, came to know
township artists in 1973 through Jock Covey, then a consular officer at the
United States Embassy. Mr. Covey and an American cultural officer, Frank
Strovas, had been bringing black musicians to the embassy from nearby townships
for regular jazz sessions.
"Many of the musicians were also artists, so I eventually offered to show some
of their works at the concerts," Mr. Covey, now an executive at Bechtel
Corporation in San Francisco, recalled in an e-mail message. The works sold
well, so he and James Baker, the embassy's first African-American diplomat,
staged an art show at Mr. Baker's home.
The show was a sellout, and a boon to the artists: a painting or drawing might
fetch $70, enough to sustain an artist's family as well as the purchase of
paints and brushes.
By the time Mr. Covey left in 1974, the Americans had held several shows and the
artists had built a Western clientele. He asked Ms. Johnstone to carry on with
"I felt it was a wonderful opportunity," Ms. Johnstone said. "And because these
people trusted Jock, they trusted me." So at her apartment in Sunnyside, a
Pretoria suburb, she staged another show, with one difference: a promise that
the art would someday be openly displayed in their homeland.
"These works of art were going to be walking out of the country, never to be
seen again: a whole body of art, marvelous works," she said. "So I said to the
artists at the end of the exhibition, 'I undertake to you to make sure that
these works are returned to a public institution so they can be seen by all
South Africans.' "
The show provoked her neighbors and South Africa's security establishment. Ms.
Johnstone's landlord evicted her, but before she could move, unidentified white
men ransacked her place, telling her roommate that it contained "something very
Still, the art sales continued. After Ms. Johnstone left the country in 1976,
Mr. Haigh carried on through one of apartheid's bleakest periods. Mr. Maapola
lived and worked in an outbuilding at Mr. Haigh's home for a year.
Noting that 1978 and '79 "were very hard years" in South Africa, Mr. Haigh said,
"You often didn't ask the artists to come to you. You'd go and pick them up and
drive them to your house," knowing that diplomats' automobiles could not be
With apartheid's end in 1994, Ms. Johnstone said, "I decided the time had come
to fulfill my commitment." In 2003, after much negotiation, her collection of 32
works was entrusted to the Pretoria Art Museum. Mr. Haigh's 17 pieces followed
The gifts inspired the creation of Ifa Lethu, whose chairwoman, Mamphela
Ramphele, was the partner of Steve Biko, the black rights advocate murdered by
the police in 1977.
The foundation has since won financing from South Africa's government, the
Australian mining company BHP Billiton and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company,
among others. It has enlisted former diplomats and others in the United States
and Europe to lobby for the return of art and historical items.
At a South African factory, Goodyear is building the mobile art exhibition, and
efforts are under way in several countries to return other collections to
Of the return of the Johnstone and Haigh collections, which include his works,
Mr. Maapola had but two words: "Exciting, exciting." For all he endured under
apartheid, many other black artists were less fortunate. Some fell to alcoholism
or the stress of persecution. Thami Mnyele, a graphic artist from Alexandra, a
Johannesburg township, whose works documented apartheid's abuses, met a more
Mr. Mnyele went into exile in Botswana in 1978. In June 1985 South African
soldiers raided his home there and shot him to death. Then they turned their
guns on his art.
Ms. Ramdhani, who lived in Connecticut before returning in 1993 to set up the
archives of the African National Congress, remembers visiting a New York bank's
boardroom in the early 1980's and seeing "a beautiful piece of art" depicting an
anti-apartheid protest. It was by Mr. Mnyele.
"I told them, 'One day we're going to take that back to South Africa,' " she
Ifa Lethu hopes to enter negotiations soon to do just that.
As a boy,
Lucian Freud experienced a sudden, irreversible uprooting. Determined to escape
the Nazis in 1933, his family moved to London from his native Berlin. And even
now, more than 70 years later, his paintings still seem to reflect this
childhood sense of dislocation.
The people he depicts never occupy surroundings they can call their own.
Uprooting them from a domestic context, he transplants his sitters to a bare
room somewhere in the metropolis. Here, among dilapidated furniture, unruly
plants, paint-encrusted walls and a remorselessly expanding heap of smeared
rags, they submit themselves to his prolonged, uncompromising gaze. Once he has
settled on the object of his scrutiny, nothing deflects him from investigating
it with the zealous curiosity of a detective.
Freud's latest canvas, now on show at the National Portrait Gallery, is no
exception. Even though it is a self-portrait, the octogenarian painter appears
to have been startled by an intruder. The painting's wry title, The Painter
Surprised by a Naked Admirer, hints at self-mockery. But it also reflects
Freud's belief that his studio in north London is a place where anything can
happen - including the inexplicable advent of a nude woman sitting on the floor
and grabbing his leg. Is he trapped by the anonymous invader, or beguiled by her
seductive power? We do not know, and Freud clearly relishes the painting's
ability to tantalise us with its ambiguity.
Among those ambiguities is the question of who the model is. Speculation has
been rife this week, and has included Alexandra Williams-Wynn, 32, a sculptor
and the daughter of a Welsh baronet; Emily Bearn, 31, a former lover of Freud
who posed for Naked Portrait, shown at Tate Britain in 2002; and Verity Brown,
28, who works at Momart, the art transport firm.
The only certainty lies in his fascination with the profound feeling of disquiet
found in all his work. Like his grandfather Sigmund before him, Lucian invites
men, women and children to enter his sanctum. Many of the figures he has painted
are seated or stretched out, and seem to be absorbed in private thoughts. But
there is nothing relaxed about these reclining dreamers. They still appear tense
and expectant, uneasily aware of the observer who tries so tirelessly to define
their essential isolation.
Unlike his grandfather, though, Freud refuses to stay within the prescribed
limits of a psychoanalyst's session. Sigmund would never have encouraged his
patients to strip off and expose their blanched, defenceless flesh. Nor would he
have positioned them in such bleak rooms, unalleviated by the rugs, drapes and
rows of companionable statuettes which lined his consulting rooms in Vienna and
There is no suggestion that the people in Freud's paintings suffer from the
mental turmoil afflicting his grandfather's clients. But they are far from
blithe. Nobody smiles. The children who make rare appearances in his work end up
as sombre as the adults. Sometimes, figures shield their faces with arms or
hands, in an apparent attempt to hide some vestige of themselves from the
painter's avid stare. Most of them, though, accept the inevitability of
exposure. Because they have often posed for him before, they know that Freud
will subject their flesh to an almost clinical examination. And he sees them,
above all, as solitary. Nothing can deflect him from a constant desire to
explore their underlying loneliness.
The key to his formidable rigour lies in Freud's early work, where the
disciplined observation evident in his art today took root. At first glance, the
small painting called Hospital Ward is quite unlike the work of his maturity.
Produced in 1941, two years after the teenage Freud became a naturalised British
subject, it is not a self-portrait. But the young man in bed conveys the
artist's own experience of illness. And there is a frankness in the gaze
directed by the patient that anticipates the piercing scrutiny favoured by the
Knowing that he spent his childhood in Berlin, many writers have been eager to
detect in his early work the influence of the most searching German artists of
the time. But, however affected the young Freud must have been by growing up in
the feverish atmosphere of the Weimar Republic, it is too easy to suggest that
he derived his artistic stimulus from such sources alone.
Cedric Morris, his first art teacher in England, proved just as influential.
When the 18-year-old Freud painted Morris in 1940, his admiration for the
teacher's own art was clear. The portrait need only be compared with Morris's
painting of Freud, executed in the same year. The link between them is
inescapable, and only later would Freud learn how to replace this roughly
summarised approach to portraiture with a more penetrating, minutely observed
By 1944, when he produced a bizarre canvas called The Painter's Room, Freud had
certainly developed a more exacting technique. Everything in this mysterious
image is defined with hairsbreadth clarity, and his precision makes the
dream-like contents of the painting even stranger. An outsize zebra striped in
yellow and maroon thrusts its head through the window. The apparition
immediately reminds us of Surrealism's shock-tactics. But while its impact on
the young Freud cannot be discounted altogether, he never became a Surrealist
Increasingly determined to train his eyes more closely on his chosen subjects,
he painted the astonishingly precocious Girl with Roses while still in his
mid-twenties. Freud's model sits on her chair clutching her flower with the
self-conscious care of a 16th-century woman holding a symbol of her emotional
state. And the huddled, defensive pose mirrors Freud's response to the girl's
uneasy feelings. The broken rose lying on her lap suggests that she has already,
in her overwhelming anxiety, snapped its stem. She may do the same with the
flower in her hand, gripped so tightly that the thorns could even be piercing
"The task of the artist," Freud once declared, "is to make the human being
uncomfortable, and yet we are drawn to a great work of art by involuntary
chemistry, like a hound getting a scent; the dog isn't free, it can't do
otherwise, it gets the scent and instinct does the rest".
Freud gradually became dissatisfied with the amount of closely observed minutiae
in his work. The small 1952 portrait of his friend Francis Bacon is the most
masterly example of his work up to that point. The art critic Robert Hughes once
pointed out that "Bacon's pear-shaped face has the silent intensity of a grenade
in the millisecond before it goes off." But it is almost a miniaturist's
achievement. Freud had only to look at the paintings which Bacon himself was
producing: they proved that there were other ways of revitalising the figurative
tradition, if only he could succeed in finding one of them.
His subsequent ability to do so means that he is now ranked among the finest
painters at work anywhere in the world. The multi-million-pound prices Freud's
work can fetch at auction today reflect his ever-rising reputation. He is still
best-known for his images of women, and he has never been afraid to reveal
sagging flesh, blotches, birthmarks and all the other blemishes that distinguish
real female bodies from their idealised, airbrushed and invariably titillating
counterparts in pin-up imagery.
Although his pictures of women are invariably described by some commentators as
"ugly", Freud himself certainly finds them anything but. In addition to his two
marriages, he has had well-documented relationships with some of his models, not
to mention acknowledged children, whose portraits he has painted and exhibited.
For example, there is his Reflection with Two Children (Self-Portrait) 1965,
that depicts him with his daughter and son, Rose and Ali Boyt.
It is true that his women's bodies can match the ungainliness of the worn-out,
bursting furniture where they rest their weight. But it is too often forgotten
that, in Freud's later work at least, men are treated with an equal amount of
directness. In one arresting canvas, a male nude lies on a bed with his hand
over his eyes. A black sock, trailing from the tip of his foot, echoes the curve
of his rawly exposed penis. There is a keen and amused awareness, here, of how
absurd a man's body can look when caught off-guard and unable to muster any
But Freud's detractors persist in censuring him for portraying women in
submissive poses, and supposedly reserving all the lordly stances for his male
sitters. His riposte to these critics can be found in Painter and Model, where
gender stereotypes are neatly reversed. This time, the woman is clothed, and
presides with quiet, unforced authority over a naked man lying in a passive
position on the sofa. His legs are parted, ensuring that the genitals proclaim
his sex without false modesty or embarrassment. But the woman does not stare at
his body. She looks down at her brush, as if deciding what her next move as a
painter should be.
Freud himself acts with a similar sense of deliberation. The maturity of his
late work is self-evident, and he gives every indication of continuing to pursue
his vision with just as much incisive vigour for years to come. But he has no
intention of slipping into predictable formulae. "I've always had a horror of
method", he once declared. "I don't want to paint a picture by me: I always try
to do things in new ways."
A Life in
BORN 8 December 1922 to Lucie and Ernst Freud, an architect, in Berlin; grandson
of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.
FAMILY Moved to London in 1933, with his parents. Married Kathleen Garman,
daughter of sculptor Jacob Epstein, in 1948 - marriage dissolved, 1957. Second
marriage to Lady Caroline Maureen Blackwood, daughter of the Marquess of
Dufferin and Ava - marriage dissolved 1957. He famously guards his privacy but
has acknowledged several children by other women.
HIGHEST PRICED WORK Freud's painting of the naked, pregnant Kate Moss sold at a
Christie's auction in February for £3.9m.
A tall, slouching figure came to
my gallery in Manchester 27 years ago. He shot from one corner to another, then
he settled down. I knew it was Mr Lowry — the hat, the walking stick and the
raincoat was, I think, the same as he wore two months ago.
He bought an awful painting from my gallery on that encounter — I think to lift
my morale. He never forgot that he was well over fifty when his paint ings were
exhibited in London. I used to tease him in Manchester, saying, 'Come on Mr
Lowry, let's go to Fullers cafe and see the beautiful women.' His reply was
always: 'Oh you are a one.'
We had a dinner arrangement with Christopher Bibby and his sister and some other
young people. 'Where shall we take Mr Lowry?' Mr Lowry gazed with delight at the
perfectly cast head waiter. When he had taken our orders and left he turned to
me and whispered: 'What would he have said if we had ordered egg, chips and
'My three most cherished records,' said Lowry, 'are the fact that I've never
been abroad, never had a telephone and never owned a motor car.' It would seem
that he was a recluse from the twentieth century. Yet in 1965 a Government
report on the North-west raised the question 'whether the turn of another
century will find Lancashire still struggling under the grim heritage of the
industrial revolution'. This heritage, still existent, was the stuff of Lowry's
He painted what he felt at home with, in order to keep himself company. He said,
'I've never been able to get used to the fact that I'm alive. The whole thing
frightens me. It's too big, you know — I mean life, sir.' He was always
surprised. He had a wisdom which never gave rise to proverbs or precepts. He was
wise enough to paint without asking why.
We have lost a man as unique to art in England as Constable. He was also unique
to the world. I began painting before I had seen Lowry's work but from a
different approach. The same thing appealed to us both. People pushed and
crushed by the very places they kept going. The mills and all that it entailed.
Northern people don't go much for eulogies but I think he should be buried in
Westminster Abbey. He will be remembered when a lot of the soup tins of today
Once I went around a show of the chimpanzee paintings with him. At the end he
said: 'Well, they have a good sense of balance, but they have to.'