Judith Stein on Dick Bellamy
Another Take on Figurative Expressionism
By: Charles Giuliano - Dec 22, 2014
Of the mainstream curators and critics Judith E. Stein has been among the few to deal with issues of the emergence of the figure in the 1950s. The niche between the dominance of Abstract Expressionism and its replacement by Pop Art is the movement of Figurative Expressionism.
When Pop emerged it was embraced by curators, critics and collectors. Its critical acceptance and market value eclipsed and marginalized other forms of figuration. The definition of the term and artists that it includes has been obfuscated by a lack of interest and scholarship.
In a dialogue with Stein we addressed these and other concerns. She is finishing Eye of the Sixties, A Biography of Richard Bellamy
which will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux early in 2016.
Charles Giuliano A recent article in Art in America (November 2014) presented your introduction of an interview related to research on a book about the art dealer Richard Bellamy. What motivated you for this project?
Judith E Stein As many biographers say I didn’t choose the subject it chose me. I was curator of a Franz Kline show and one day Alfred Leslie, Mark di Suvero and Dick Bellamy came to see it. I knew who he (Bellamy) was from my Red Grooms work. I was intrigued by how he looked. He looked like a homeless person. He had frayed cuffs. His eyeglasses were broken in the middle and scotch taped together. He was so self-effacing that it was hard to reconcile this man with the image that he had.
CG In the e mails that led to this dialogue you referred to yourself as the Queen of Interviews. Can you clarify that?
JES When I decided to write about Bellamy I soon realized that there was very little written about him. His name tends to be a kind of special seasoning sprinkled over texts. This is always prefaced by “The legendary Dick Bellamy.”
Since there are not than many documents I decided to do an oral history. I started to do interviews. Right away I interviewed (art dealers) Ivan Karp and Leo Castelli (the artist) Mary Frank. Each person I interviewed said “Have you spoken to so and so?” My list began to grow and they were conducted in every way you can imagine. There were interviews like this one (by phone) face to face, one on one. At art world gatherings when I was introduced to people and they heard that I was writing about Dick Bellamy they invariably said have you heard about this or that? A substantial part of my book is based on oral history.
CG How many people did you talk with and over what time frame?
JES It’s well over 200. It’s more than that but I don’t know exactly. The first interviews were in 1996. The most recent one was three or four weeks ago. So many people I’ve talked with have now passed on and those documents are precious.
CG What are some of the highlights of people you have talked with?
JES Bellamy’s name was like a golden key. He was so beloved that people who ordinarily blow off requests for interviews were extremely accommodating. I had a wonderful, in depth interview with Richard Serra, with Claes Oldenburg. Those were in person. Jim Rosenquist I spoke with by phone. It was the near the end of his life when I spoke with Leo Castelli. He said that “Dick Bellamy was younger than I but my teacher.” That was pure gold. I kept on finding things like that.
CG Castelli was late to the game.
JES When he opened his gallery in 1957 he was 50. When Dick opened the Green Gallery in the fall of 1960 he was 32. Castelli was three years ahead of Dick but he had already gotten Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg under his belt. That’s no small feat.
CG What will become of all the material you have gathered? Is there an archive for it?
JES I haven’t designated it. It’s an open question. I can think of a few places that would be quite interested. Dick’s archives and business records, which were pulled together by his stalwart business partner and friend, Barbara Flynn, she put a great deal of energy in getting his papers which were in no particular order, together. When he passed away Dick’s son, Miles Bellamy, the co owner of a bookstore in Williamsburg, he sold them to MoMA. They may be interested in my materials as well.
CG Some years ago many of us in the field thought that our papers would go to the Archives of American Art. I gave them tapes of interviews and as far as I know nothing has been done with them. They just collapsed at one point including the active office that Bob Brown operated on Beacon Hill in Boston. He was very busy gathering material and sending it along to DC.
JES The sad fact is that they are governmental and a part of the Smithsonian. There are very meager resources. Unless gifts come with money to support their processing they languish for a good long while. Until the staff can get to it in the normal course of things. That’s true for MoMA or any institute. I’ve been working with other artists trying to place archives. Institutions are reluctant to take them unless they come with extra funds to help with the processing.
CG There’s a problem today with the demise of print media and the expansion of the internet. While arts coverage shrinks at major newspapers there is an enormous amount of on line critical thinking. Mechanisms are in place to preserve major daily newspapers. When a website closes, for whatever reason, the material immediately disappears.
For future scholars there will be an enormous loss of on line material about the arts. There will only be the skewed history of how it was covered by the major daily papers. It will be a distortion if all we know about a generation of Broadway is how it was reported by the Times and Wall Street Journal. The lively commentary and dissent of bloggers will be lost from the critical overview.
JES It’s a real issue that you talk about. I would probably disagree with you that everything in print gets saved. There are obscure periodicals I have tried to track down and they are very few and far between.
In January I’m organizing a panel for AICA on art critics’ websites. Part of what I want to do is talk about legacy and how many of us do things as labors of love. Sometimes we write for catalogues and things that are not widely distributed. To have a website of your own where you put up PDFs of things that you don’t want to be forgotten or artists you don’t want to be forgotten is good. If you pass away you need money, as modest as it is, to pay the annual fee (for hosting a website). If you don’t the site can be lost.
CG My plan, not yet finalized, is to endow the site for ten years after I’m gone. So there is that small window. The concern is that a generation of lively internet coverage of the arts will be lost to students and researchers. Rich ephemera will have disappeared.
We appear to share a passion for documenting movements and artists which are not mainstream. The work that we and Adams Zucker are doing to discuss and understand figuration is important and needs to reach a wider audience. As resources and primary sources diminish, movements that are poorly understood and inadequately researched will just fade away. It’s as if the Rosetta Stone got lost.
JES We do what we can do. That’s the best that we can offer. Think back to the 19th century and consider what’s lost from first person interviews to broadsheets. The art has survived and the works of the 20th and 21st century have to deal with this on their own terms.
In the future they may not have the resources but scholars will be asking new questions. Taste changes and the taste for this kind of art may come to the fore.
CG That’s wishful thinking.
JSE Be that as it may.
CG I can’t share that optimism. The norm is for movements and artists to be curated and critiqued by those of their own generation. When the artists and critics pass on, unless the work has reached a plateau of broad recognition, it is not obvious that others will find the thread. Their training is such that they are not attuned to the critical issues.
We see this all the time in the criticism of an emerging generation. While they may look back with a critical apparatus, you would argue with fresh insights, but there is a sense that they are often clueless regarding what the work is about. There are no herbs and spices in the sauce.
JES Let’s agree to disagree. Things change. I got my doctorate in ’81. I got out of school just ahead of the tsunami of critical theory. It became necessary to engage with a whole new vocabulary of ideas. Initially you had to get on board or not. Now younger people are expanding things. Scholarship has trends and fashions. I’m more optimistic than you are.
CG I’m looking at how the art of my lifetime has and has not been written. The official accounts generally exclude many of the artists that we appear to be interested in. Your Bellamy piece in Art in America it fascinated me to catch a glimpse of his Provincetown years. That entailed a direct involvement with Jan Muller who was essential to our understanding of the Figurative Expressionist movement. That work deserves to be more widely known and valued than it is.
JES Jan was so important to Dick. Richard Brown Baker interviewed Dick for the Archives of American Art in the early sixties. It was one of the first (for AAA) and Dick talked about how one of the highpoints of his life was waking up at the Hansa Gallery. He always viewed his galleries as second homes. Especially if he was having relationship problems he would be living in his gallery. He talked about waking up in the gallery surrounded by Jan’s paintings. Opening his eyes and looking at them.
So yes, Jan Muller. And he loved Lester Johnson’s paintings. Bob Beauchamp (Lester’s brother in law) had a solo show in Bellamy’s Green Gallery.
There’s a letter which I’m referencing in my book that’s addressed to Bob (Beauchamp) when he was in Florence on a Fulbright. He wrote it in April, 1960 and he tells him that 'it’s now clear that I’ll be opening my gallery.' Don’t let any other dealers sweet talk you, or words to that affect. I would like you to show at my gallery. Beauchamp was in a couple of group shows then he had one solo show. Then Pop art happened. In an AAA interview Beauchamp talks about how at first he hated Pop art. Then came to respect and like it. The tenor of the times changed and Beauchamp left Dick who wasn’t selling too many of his works after 1963.
(In general Bellamy was not an aggressive salesman. Because of disappointing sales the gallery closed when it lost its backer the collector Robert Scull.)
CG I spent a lot of time with Lester Johnson working on the catalogue for the traveling show organized by the Westmoreland Museum of Art in 1987. We talked about his role in the Artists’ Club which was dominantly oriented to Abstract Expressionism. An issue was the Return to the Figure which was widely discussed among artists. Key to that issue was MoMA’s exhibition New Images of Man (1959). Lester was out of New York on a teaching gig and wasn’t included. I strongly feel that Peter Selz got it wrong and bungled the essence of the return to the figure which continues to be misunderstood. When you don’t get it right a major museum exhibition can result in more harm than good. In general the show was not well reviewed.
JES No it wasn’t.
CG It served to derail the artists we now identify as the Figurative Expressionists.
(Selz did not appear to be sufficiently aware of the artists debating a return to the figure and what that entailed. The MoMA exhibition was an opportunity to present the leading artists of an emerging movement. He largely avoided taking that on including some but not all of the leading Figurative Expressionists. Selz also included European artists further diluting the focus on an important American phenomenon. The Selz show included such established European artists as the sculptor, Giacometti, the CoBrA painter, Karel Appel, the French Art Brut painter, Jean Dubuffet, the sculptor, Cesar, and England’s Francis Bacon. He included a muddle of American and European artists whose critical reputations subsequently lapsed: Leonard Baskin, Reginald Butler, Kenneth Armitage, Cosmo Campoli, Balcolm Green, James McGarrell, Theodore Roszak, Rico Lebrun, Germaine Richier and Fritz Wotruba. The exhibition included the leading Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as well as the seminal Figurative Expressionists, Richard Diebenkorn, Leon Golub and Jan Muller. Significantly, he overlooked key Figurative Expressionists Bob Thompson and Lester Johnson.)
JES One way to look at it is that irony trumped earnestness. Pop art was pretty figurative. So it wasn’t an issue of whether it was abstract or figurative. It was about the artist retaining sincere feelings. Expressionism which is a subjective way of making art was part of what changed. There was a move away from subjectivity.
CG There is a perception when the return to the figure is debated that pop, as the new realism, represented the return to the figure. That was resented by many of the artists that we are interested in. They felt that it’s not true. Pop was a subversion of the return to the figure.
There is a Warhol video with a scene in which Ivan Karp discussed visiting the studio early on. It entailed a discussion about the drip of abstract expressionism. Andy felt that to be respected one had to drip. Ivan argued that he didn’t need to drip.
JES Yes. That’s right. Whether it was Ivan or Emile De Antonio who told him to lose the drip.
CG You can see a lot of Abstract Expressionism in Pop particularly in the work of Rauschenberg.
JES Of course.
CG By using encaustic Johns deliberately slowed down the gestural process and fluid brush stroke. That put the brakes on his expressionism.
The question is what happened to other figurative artists who were emerging when the focus of the art world turned to Pop? By then Jan Müller (December 27, 1922 – January 29, 1958) was deceased. Bob Thompson (June 26, 1937 – May 30, 1966) died young. Lester Johnson (January 27, 1919 – May 30, 2010) was widely respected but among the many marginalized by the dominance of Pop and other movements. You have discussed Robert Beauchamp (1923 – March 1995) as represented by Bellamy in his seminal Green Gallery. This morning I was reading your catalogue essay on Jay Milder (born 1934) who was in the thick of things. The young scholar Adam Zucker has been working with Jay and recently posted a piece on him for our site.
JES I read that piece today. It’s interesting that Adam quotes Peter Selz who was a curator at MoMA at the time. Selz really did not like Pop Art. I think it’s because he came out of a socially engaged perspective. His whole heart was into expressionism whether figurative or not. Pop Art was offensive to him. You couldn’t tell what side people were on. He was behind Jean Tingueley’s “Homage to New York” a sculpture in the garden of MoMA that was essentially expressionist.
There was a MoMA symposium on Pop Art in December, 1962. Peter stacked it with people who were against the art. Leo Steinberg and Henry Geldzahler were the two who were for it. There were more people talking against it than for it.
CG You appear to be one of the few mainstream critics and art historians with an interest in the niche of figurative artists who remain under the art world’s radar. Why is that?
JES What to say? Perhaps it started by working with Red Grooms. I was fascinated by the artists who touched on and influenced him. He took it in a different direction using humor. Where did Red come from? Who were the people who influenced him? That’s what led me into researching The Figurative Fifties.
(“Figurative Fifties: New York Figurative Expressionism” (1988) for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA, which traveled to Newport Harbor Art Museum, Newport Beach, CA and the McNay Museum, San Antonio, TX. The accompanying monograph featured her essay “Figuring Out the Fifties: Aspects of Figuration and Abstraction in New York 1950-1962.” The artists in the exhibition included Robert Beauchamp, Elaine de Kooning, Willem de Kooning, Robert Goodnough, Grace Hartigan, Lester Johnson, Alex Katz, George McNeil, Jan Muller, Jackson Pollock, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers and Bob Thompson.)
When I was working on that show artists I contacted would say “Did you know that there is another curator working on this?” It was Paul Schimmel. He was coming from another position. He was taking a non canonical look at that period. It interested him but from a very different point of view. We got together and co curated the show. Questioning the major narrative of the time. There is always more than one thing going on at any given time in the art world.
(In a December 23, 1988 New York Times review of the exhibition Michael Kimmelman wrote “…Perhaps no decade in the history of American art continues to generate quite so much debate as the 1950's, when the United States, and in particular New York City, supplanted Europe as the primary focus of international attention… 'The Figurative 50's: New York Figurative Expressionism,’ an exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia…brings together works meant to illustrate the persistence of an art in New York containing recognizable images at a time when abstraction was supposedly pre-eminent.
“That this comes as news to no one remotely familiar with American art in the 1950's has not much troubled the show's co-organizers, Judith Stein, associate curator at the Pennsylvania Academy, and Paul Schimmel, chief curator at the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach, Calif. Their intention, they state in the exhibition catalogue's introduction, is 'to rectify the lingering impression that New York avant-garde painters eschewed the figure in the 50's and to refute the implication that artists who used the body as form and subject produced work that was the less for doing so.'
“Artists like Milton Avery, Stuart Davis, Richard Diebenkorn, Romare Bearden, David Park, Raphael Soyer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Alice Neel and Jane Freilicher have consequently been excluded either because they did not happen to live in New York or because they did not conform to the curators' conception of the avant-garde.
“What remains are 13 artists related only in that each claimed to be engaged in some kind of dialogue, occasionally antagonistic, with Abstract Expressionism…As it happens, among the roughly 80 works on view more than one-fourth date not from the 1950's at all, but from the 1960's, by which time a second generation of Abstract Expressionists had already gained a foothold in the art world...
“What emerges most clearly from this otherwise rather muddled show is the apparent influence of Mr. de Kooning, in particular, on a wide range of his fellow artists, even ones as dissimilar as Mr. Porter, Mr. Rivers and Ms. Hartigan. And far from breaking with Paris and setting on a course entirely of their own making, many of the artists in 'The Figurative 50's'’ looked hard at the European tradition and felt free to draw inspiration from it. Their dialogue, it turns out, was as much with the art of the past as with the art of Abstract Expressionism....”)
CG Adam and I have had ongoing discussions of Figurative Expressionism as a national movement. He has researched New York artists. I have dealt with the Sun Gallery group in Provincetown. Have you read the Judith Bookbinder book “Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism?” It discusses Hyman Bloom, Karl Zerbe, Jack Levine and the Boston school.
JES No I haven’t read it.
CG There is an attempt to include the Boston painters into the paradigm of figurative expressionism. Of course that describes the Bay Area Figure artists like David Park and Richard Diebenkorn. I’m interested where Leon Golub and Nancy Spero fit in during their early years in Chicago.
If you connect the dots there is a feeling of a zeitgeist even though there was no direct communication or dialogue between these loci of figurative expressionism. There was an aesthetic commonality that they were drawing upon. That’s East Coast, West Coast, Chicago, Boston, Provincetown. It is an emerging view of a national movement of artists.
That history has become very confused. Did you read April Kingsley’s book “Emotional Impact: American Figurative Expressionism” (2013)? Many of the artists included in the book and identified as figurative expressionists were a part of her social circle in New York and Provincetown.
JES No I haven’t read her book.
CG Kingsley exerts no rigor in defining who belongs in the movement. Once artists are identified and published in this manner they become a part of something they don’t qualify for.
JES It’s true. That’s a noble endeavor that you set for yourself. What are the terms? Cleaning up the discussion? Let’s be more precise about what we’re talking about. At the time I did our show I was interested in Chicago but had to defer to Paul to make it more manageable in a show by focusing on the New York area.
Look at it from a different point of view. Abstract Expressionism or a move to expressive abstraction came in during the Post War period in Europe and the U.S. and had an historical resonance. It came after the war when representation and descriptions of the things of this world seemed an inadequate way to address the horrors of what people had gone through; somehow non representational fit the times. It opened up a new language for everybody.
Do you say that they rejected abstract expressionism because of their contact with the figure? I interviewed Dody Muller when I was doing the Figurative Fifties.
(Dody nee Dolores James. Died April 17, 2001 in New York City. Born in Dallas, TX, she came to New York to complete her Master's Degree and to paint. Along with her husband, Jan Muller, she was a founding member of The Hansa Gallery and a vital force in the arts scene during the 1950s and ‘60s in New York & Paris….Jack Kerouac met Dody Muller, an artist who at that time lived in this building at 81 2nd Ave in the East Village, at a party in October 1958. He wrote to Allen Ginsberg on October 28, 1958 ‘As for new chick (new, NEW, I had no old chick) Henri says because she Indian and French she knife me if I ever kid around other girl’ (Jack Kerouac “Selected Letters 1957-1969”). The relationship only lasted until February 1959.)
She wasn’t in the show. I understand her paintings are not bad. Have you ever seen them?
JES In any case I was asking her about Jan Muller and Hans Hofmann. She said they had arguments about this very issue of figuration and abstraction.
CG That’s what I understand.
JES Dody is gone but there might be something to be further researched. We haven’t finished researching this. From what I understand Hofmann would have a still life or nude as a jumping off point for all of his classes. At least in theory he didn’t mind if you (students) kept figurative references.
CG There is figuration in his work. He did landscapes in Provincetown as well as still life paintings. There is the story of his visit to Pollock’s studio when the artist stated “I am nature.” So that underscores the importance of nature to Hofmann. Many of the artists who showed at Sun Gallery either studied with and left Hofmann or were vividly aware of his concepts.
Today there is so much misuse of the term Figurative Expressionism. It is being too broadly applied with no real definition. I see how works from estates of obscure artist come to auction or are displayed in galleries and for no real reason they are described as figurative expressionists. It is diluted by becoming a one size fits all category.
I feel that you have to work the other way around. That entails creating a list of artists whom you feel are definitively Figurative Expressionists. Then derive markers of their work. That then builds signifiers of how the term is properly applied. To be included artists must be identified with certain criteria. What group shows and galleries, for example, did they participate in? Was every artist shown by Sun Gallery by definition a Figurative Expressionist?
Some of the paradigmatic artists would include Jan Muller, Bob Thompson, Lester Johnson, Jay Milder, Tony Vevers from Provincetown, Leon Golub for Chicago, David Park, Joan Brown, Richard Deibenkorn in San Francisco.
JES What about Yvonne Andersen? (With Dominic Falcone, a poet, co director of Sun Gallery.) I’ve seen very little of her work but the people she showed at Sun Gallery reflected her own taste.
CG I interviewed her and I don’t know if you read those pieces.
JES I did.
CG My question is what are the characteristics of those artists whom we clearly identify as Figurative Expressionists? Using their essential characteristics can you construct a profile? If you discuss the linear and lyrical qualities of Bob Thompson don’t they also apply to the early work of Tony Vevers who was of the same generation? They both showed with Sun Gallery.
When you go beyond the inner circle, as is the case in the April Kingsley book, there are artists included who just don’t belong there.
What I ask Adam, and now you, is can we define Figurative Expressionism? What are its primary characteristics?
JES I don’t know. I’m not able to. I’m more philosophically sympathetic to a more open ended definition. But that doesn’t help you with your quite legitimate quest to refine and clarify the term. I’m not sure I can help you there. How do you define it?
CG Let’s discuss the artists in "Figurative Fifties." You included Grace Hartigan and Elaine deKooning. No. You included Pollock and Willem de Kooning. (One Pollock painting and several de Kooning drawings.) They don’t belong to Figurative Expressionism. They are Abstract Expressionists. That’s an older and different dialogue.
JES What happens when Ab Exers return to the figure? What do you call them?
CG I call them Abstract Expressionists who return to the figure. With de Kooning’s women it was always a part of the work. For Pollock it was there in the beginning and end of the oeuvre.
What strikes me as essential are artists like Lester Johnson who are in Provincetown, knew and were influenced by Hofmann, but moved away from that. You have talked about that with Red Grooms. They were all influenced and perhaps studied or started with Abstract Expressionism but for me it is essential that they moved away from that to do something else.
JES The question is what was that something else?
CG That I would like to know. To me it seems to be the essential conversation. If artists remain within Hofmann’s realm that makes them a second or third generation Abstract Expressionist. If you touched on it, interacted with it, but felt a need to do something else.
JES And what was that something else?
CG That something else is the interface between the apogee of Abstract Expressionism and the emergence of Pop Art. Figurative Expressionism falls into that niche. So the issue is who should be included in that group and what were their mandates and impulses. How do we look at and define their work?
Even if you look at a movement like Abstract Expressionism there is a great range and diversity. It includes artists as different as Pollock and de Kooning, Rothko, Newman and Reinhardt. They have been described as Action Painters, The New York School or American Type Painting.
But we have to work on standards to help define who is in and who is not as well as what does and doesn’t work. Until that point we drown in ambivalence.
JES Well. I’m not going to be too much help for you.
JES I’m fascinated by the clarity as well as the confused areas. Have you ever seen some of Alfred Leslie’s transitional works?
(In a 2007 interview between Stein and Leslie he said “Figuration and narration were then contentious issues for many painters, but these concerns didn’t exist per se in the film, theater, literary or still photography worlds, all of which I was a part of. The virtual banishment of figuration and narrative from the vocabulary of so many thoughtful artists was one of the legacies of the modernists, who handed them over to photography in all its forms. I never accepted this, and considered film and photography to be part of the continuum of painting.
”My ongoing work in all those areas exposed the intellectual impoverishment of those conceits, even as I agreed with the doubts of my friends who were forever asking ‘can we, should we, why?’ Those were serious and important questions to counter the potential arrogance of certainty. But they left out the ‘X’ factor of the individual, making it an academic question. The flux of the real world is mostly, after all, fear and uncertainty, tempered by the chance elements of intervention.”)
CG Yes but of course most of it (Leslie’s work) was destroyed in his studio fire (1966).
JES Here you have an incredibly smart painter living in these changing times. He understands the language of Abstract Expressionism that served him so well. It is no longer the language he wants to be speaking in. In the new decade. He starts doing imagery and so on. He comes out the other end with a hyper real style.
CG You could talk about the transitional works of George Segal, Wolf Kahn, Alex Katz or Claes Oldenburg.
JES The paintings of George Segal. I’ve just been reading the critiques of Donald Judd on Segal’s first show at the Green Gallery. In his first show at the Green Gallery he showed paintings and sculpture as he did for his last show at the Hansa Gallery. So yes they were Figurative Expressionist paintings and these clunky plaster of Paris sculptures which were created around chicken wire armatures.
Reading Judd I don’t know when but I think by the second show he has figured out putting the cast on the body. So it still had that rough expressive surface. It also expressed the nuances and contours of human form. I paraphrase but I think Judd said something like “Lose the paintings.” Sidney Tillim did not like George’s paintings. By the time George figured out the casting I don’t know how much more painting and drawing he could do. He found a magic spot for himself.
CG A couple of weeks ago I was in the gallery of Claes Oldenburg’s painted plasters at LA MoCA. It had been some time since I had last seen them. For me they absolutely belong within the realm of Figurative Expressionism.
(In 1961, Claes Oldenburg began working on The Store, a storefront on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where he made and sold his work. He presented himself as both a shopkeeper and a manufacturer, cramming the store windows with brightly painted objects he made by layering plaster-soaked muslin over chicken-wire armatures. These items constitute non-wearable clothes and inedible food displayed for sale. Putting into question each object’s function, Oldenburg sought to blur the line between sculpture and commodity, viewer and consumer, and art and life. LA MoCA statement.)
JES You are exactly right. Dick Bellamy said that in the interview you read (A.i.A.). He talks about the “Double Hamburger” in painted plaster of Paris. (Sam Hunter bought one for the Rose Art Museum in the 1960s for $250.) When Bellamy flipped over Oldenburg that was the work that engaged him. That was the work he loved most. I agree with you that that work falls within Figurative Expressionism.
CG Recently we were in the Phoenix Art Museum where we encountered works by Bay Area artists including David Park and Joan Brown. I haven’t often seen her work but the painting was astonishing. She is an artist deserving of wider attention.
JES I agree.
CG What I’ve seen of her work knocks me out. I’m also a fan of David Park who hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves.
(When Thomas Messer, the director of the ICA Boston, was ‘advising’ the MFA on acquisitions the museum purchased a major Park painting which it rarely displays.)
JES That has a lot to do with the East Coast vs. West Coast thing. We’re such snobs on the East Coast. It’s rare that West Coast artists get their due.
CG That’s why the time has come for an exhibition of Figurative Expressionism as a national movement. I don’t know who or why or how but it just has to be done. If you provide an overview of New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Provincetown that represents a chapter of Post War American Art that has been looked at in a divisive and fragmented manner. It has never been looked at as a whole. Until now it’s been a matter of five blind people describing an elephant.
JES It’s really hard to know where that might be. I don’t know.
CG If you reverse engineer the question it comes down to how much the paintings are worth. The work of some of the best known Figurative Expressionists may command prices from $100,000 to $300,000. Compared to the current art market, however, that’s small change. So it is difficult to attract the kind of funding for a major museum level show. The big shows generally are driven by a motive of increasing the value of the works for its owners from museums to major private collectors.
In that sense the art market works against art history. If a scholar wants to write a book on Andy Warhol’s nail clippings there is money for a lavish coffee table book. But it is impossible to publish books and catalogues about artists who are not already famous.
Why do we need more and more books about the same short list of artists with the complete neglect of all others?
JES What you are saying is a part of the bigger issue of taste and money. Take a curator like Paul Schimmel he had to balance his exhibition plan when he was a LA MoCA by doing shows with popular appeal and shows that were more didactic and instructive. He did shows that were not particularly popular because people didn’t know about them. They were educational. In theory all museum shows are educational but some tap into current taste. Some go back to periods that are not a part of the menu of things that we think we like to eat.
(Under LA MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch it has variously been reporter that Schimmel, was forced out, fired or resigned. Some speculate that it was an effort to save money by the financially strapped museum. His salary was $235,414 in 2010. Or the result of a conflict with Deitch and his mandate for programming. The tenure of Deitch, a New York gallerist, was controversial and ended after three years in 2013.)
CG There was a time when the Whitney Museum of American Art regularly did historical shows. That changed after David Ross became director. Then there were retrospectives for market driven mid career artists. Take for example the Jeff Koons show. Is the world really crying out for a Koons retrospective? Is there anything about that work that we don’t already know? Would you call that a scholarly, educational effort?
JES I saw it during its last weekend. For me it was interesting to be reacquainted with his earliest work, and I was impressed all over again with how interesting and fresh it was. It was confrontational in a good way. I liked it. As his career went on I became further and further away from being in his corner.
CG When the Whitney was founded it was from Colonial times to the present. That’s the field of American Art. Today the reality is The Whitney Museum of the Last Twenty Years.
JES Institutions change Charles. Initially they did not collect or exhibit photographs. Whether you like it or not institutions morph. The mission may stay the same in words but how they interpret that mission changes.
CG Where does Crystal Bridges come in?
JES I haven’t visited yet. I look forward to that.
CG We have commonality and differences.
JES We come at it from different perspectives. It’s nice to have done my work on artists who already had been vetted but the greater challenge has been working on the ones who don’t have the full approval of the narrative. The received wisdom of what’s important. Some of us like to make up our mind of what’s important ourselves. Rather than having it dictated to us.