Thursday, December 27, 2012

Sold! Antiquities that Surfaced via Robin Symes, a Name Mentioned in Illegal Trade Cases, Bring Prices Above Estimates at Christie's

The name of London dealer Robin Symes, which has been associated with people tied to illegal trade in looted antiquities, apparently doesn't dampen collectors' appetite for artifacts that passed through his hands -- at least judging from the Christie's antiquities auction in New York earlier this month.

Handled by Symes, sold at Christie's
Symes brokered such notorious deals as the sale of the Morgantina Aphrodite to the Getty Museum, one of its prize possessions until it returned the statue to Italy in 2011.  Other museums that bought works through Symes have also sent them back to their countries of origin.

Just this year, the Dallas Museum of Art deaccessioned a looted terracotta head that it had bought from Symes in 1999, which, if Italy agrees, will remain at the DMA on long-term loan before its eventual repatriation.  The head originated with Giacomo Medici, who was convicted in Italy of receiving stolen goods,  illegal export of goods, and conspiracy to traffic.

Although Symes has never been criminally indicted, he was sentenced to a two-year prison term for contempt of court for not disclosing his assets in a civil dispute.

Christie's offered three works whose first known provenance was with Symes.  A fourth that was handled by him was, according to the auction catalogue, "said" to have been collected earlier.

Three of the items sold.  Shown here is a Greek marble head that was with Symes in 2001 and that bore an estimate of $70,000 to $90,000.  It brought $182,500, including the auctioneer's premium.

Update:  Blogging has been light because I have been working on some long articles that will be published soon.  I have more posts planned and should be blogging regularly before too long.

Photo from the Christie's catalogue.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Art Expert Contradicts Scandal-Plagued Knoedler in Fraud Case

"Untitled 1956":  Is it a Rothko?
The now-defunct and scandal-plagued Knoedler gallery keeps getting hammered.

In the latest development, art luminary Jack Flam, president of the Dedalus Foundation, which oversees Robert Motherwell's estate, said he reacted with “astonishment” when he learned that Knoedler had listed him as a Mark Rothko expert who had viewed the painting at issue in a high-profile court case.  

That painting, "Untitled 1956," the plaintiffs, Eleanore and Domenico De Sole allege is a counterfeit Rothko that Knoedler, its former president Ann Freedman, and others sold them by using a sales pitch that included a list of Rothko experts who had viewed the painting.  The "sales pitch, while convincing, was a scam," they allege.

Read more in my article in The Art Newspaper,here.

Image from a court document, via The Art Newspaper.  Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Court Victory for Sotheby's and Artist Cady Noland

"Cowboys Milking," formerly by Cady Noland
A major victory for Sotheby's and artist Cady Noland today -- the New York State Supreme Court ruled that when an artist objects to the sale of her work because that work has been damaged, the auction house can withdraw the work from auction without being liable to the would-be seller.

In September 2011, Sotheby's and dealer Marc Jancou entered into a consignment agreement to auction Noland's "Cowboys Milking," a fragile print on aluminum -- materials that don't mesh well -- that Noland had made some 20 years before.  The description of the property in the contract read "Cady Noland, Cowboys Milking," a description that was important to the court's decision.

Sotheby's estimated it would bring $250,000 to $350,000, but as the auction date approached Jancou may have looked forward to much more, since a Noland had sold at auction for about $6 million in early November.

On November 7, 2011 Noland viewed her work at the Sotheby's exhibition that immediately preceded the auction, and invoked her rights under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act -- that is, because the corners were bent and had been repaired but not restored to their original condition, she claimed the print was materially damaged and therfore under VARA she no longer wanted it attributed to her.

She requested that Sotheby's withdraw the work from auction, which Sotheby's did.

Jancou sued Sotheby's for breach of the consignment contract and sued Noland for interfering with the contract.  Sotheby's moved for summary judgment, and the court granted that motion, ruling that since Noland had objected, Sotheby's rightfully doubted that "Cowboys Milking" could be attributed to her.

And the court went farther:  "Absent the author's name, the print was not the 'Property' listed on the . . . consignment agreement and there was more than doubt as to attribution:  there was no attribution."

Although technically Jancou's claim against Noland is still alive, "she should win," said her lawyer, Dan Brooks.  "There can't be tortious interference with a contract when there hasn't been a breach."

Image from the internet.  Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Exclusive Glimpse of the Met's Renovated Old Masters Galleries; Museum to Announce This Major Project in a Few Weeks

The overstuffed gallery of Venetian Renaissance art before renovation with red walls that competed with the paintings.
Venetian art now occupies twice the wall space, with paintings hung at eye level and more space around each work.  Renovation continues behind the screen.
The Met will soon announce its construction and renovation endeavors, as was first reported here September 22, to rehang and expand -- by about 20% -- its European Paintings galleries of Old Masters.  A celebratory press release is expected within a few weeks.

It is not yet clear how much the project will cost, whether any large donations will result in naming rights, or whether the rehanging of the collection will reflect any rethinking of art history.

The Met would not comment on the project pending its own announcement.  But Met spokesperson Elyse Topalian did assure this reporter that Duccio's Madonna and Child, the Met's most expensive acquisition (at a reported $45 million) which has been off-view since July, will soon be back on display in a gallery set aside for works temporarily displaced by the renovation.

The project is expected to be completed by May of next year.  Meantime, a few Italian Renaissance galleries have already reopened, and if what's seen there is any indication of what's in store -- well, it will be like seeing familiar Old Masters for the first time.

"Rediscovered": Pietro da Rimini, Crucifixion, 1330s
In the few renovated galleries, you can now actually see a fair number of paintings that were out of sight because they were hung over doorways like an architectural ornament or above other paintings in a pell-mell jumble.  Some of this art has been rehung at eye level.

There's also more space around the artworks, so each can be seen without distraction.  Concentrated viewing is facilitated by gray walls instead of the sometimes vibrantly colored ones that competed with the art.

How dramatic these changes are can be seen in the before and after photos (at top) of  the display of Venetian art, which now occupies about twice as much real estate.

Equally dramatic is the "rediscovery" of a large fragment of the Crucifixion by Pietro da Rimini after years of near-invisibility above a door frame.  Now that it is at eye level, it is sure to be valued as one of the glories of the Met's early Italian Renaissance paintings.

Some works in a renovated gallery of secular art this reporter can't remember having seen before -- perhaps because of better lighting or recent cleaning.  One hopes that the series of portraits now hung there just below the ceiling are an experimental placement that will be reconsidered.

Portraits hung below the ceiling: Back to the past?
Something new and of questionable value -- some labels now refer the viewer to the Met's website, even for such essential information as the translation of a brief inscription.  The Met's website is a rich resource, but not everyone carries a computer or an iPhone to look up information on the spot.

Top photo from Met website.  Other photos and text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

In a Potentially Game-Changing Decision, New York Appellate Court Rules that Auction Houses Must Name Seller

This box "sold" for $400,000 but the winning bidder can't be forced to pay.
An auction house must disclose the name of the seller -- in writing -- if it wants to collect on the sale when the purchaser refuses to pay up, a New York State appellate court has ruled.  This comes upon the auction industry as a shock, given the universal practice that keeps the seller's identity confidential -- upon the seller's request.

The lawsuit that resulted in the ruling was brought by one of the smaller auction houses, William J. Jenack Estate Appraisers & Associates in Chester, New York, to force the winning bidder for an elaborately decorated box to pay up, and the September 19 decision has been largely ignored outside the specialized antiques trade.

But it is such a potential game-changer that Christie's is reportedly joining in Jenack's appeal to New York's highest court.  Christie's declined to comment.

If the ruling is upheld or not heard on further appeal, "it seems to me that it will be a radical change because so many people want their identity to be confidential," said Peter R. Stern of the New York law firm McLaughlin & Stern, who advises collectors and artists' estates and for nearly 25 years was outside counsel to a major auction house.

Privacy, Tax Evasion, and Money Laundering

The reasons for anonymity range all the way from simple concern for privacy to tax evasion and money laundering -- tax evasion is "a regular occurrence" and money laundering "a driving force in certain territories," according to the Economist's art market writer Sarah Thornton (the quotes are from her widely cited recent article in TAR magazine).

In the litigation, Jenack sued a telephone bidder, Albert Rabizadeh, to recover $400,000 that Rabizadeh had bid in 2008 for what was described as a 19th-century Russian gilt-lined box.  Rabizadeh had neither paid for the box nor taken possession of it.

The lower court decided in favor of the auctioneer, but a unanimous four-judge panel of the Appellate Division's Second Department ruled that the contract of sale was not enforceable because it did not name the consignor.  It dismissed the complaint, leaving Rabizadeh with no obligation to make good on his bid.

Burden on Consignors and Auction Houses
The court acknowledged that its ruling is contrary to longstanding industry practice, but stated, "this Court is governed not by the practice in the trade, but by the relevant statute."

That statute is Section 5-701(a)(6) of New York's General Obligations Law, which describes the components of enforceable auction agreements.  It states that "if the goods be sold at public auction, and the auctioneer at the time of the sale, enters in a sale book, a memorandum specifying the nature and price of the property sold, the terms of the sale, the name of the purchaser, and the name of the person on whose account the sale was made, such memorandum is equivalent in effect to a note of contract or sale." (Italics added.)

The sale documents that auctioneer Jenack sought to force Rabizadeh to pay on did not reveal the name of the person on whose account the property was sold -- that person was identified instead only by a number -- and therefore, in the court's view, Jenack did not have an enforceable contract.

To the extent that the statute "may be at odds with the general industry practice, and may be burdensome to consignors or auction houses or both, a change in the law to eliminate that requirement may be warranted.  However, consideration of the propriety of that change is not for the courts, but rests with the Legislature," the court wrote.

Changing How Collectors Sell
Could the decision change how collectors sell?  "It could quite well happen that sellers would choose to go through a dealer, who doesn't have to disclose a name," said attorney Stern.

Steven Thomas, head of the art law practice at Irell Manella, who negotiated the Andy Warhol Foundation's consignment agreement to offer its inventory at Christie's, sees the decision as "not very significant because it's a narrow ruling on an odd and unique set of facts" that may well have turned on the auction house's failure to argue that naming itself as the seller's agent was enough to make the contract enforceable.

And the court itself may have set out the agency argument as the roadmap for the appeal.  It noted that Jenack "does not argue, and, therefore, we do not consider, whether the requirement that the memorandum specify 'the name of the person on whose account the sale was made' was satisfied by inclusion . . . of its own name or the name of an agent of the consignor."

It is by no means certain, however, that an appeal will be heard.  Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals picks its cases carefully and hears relatively few, so the Second Department decision may well remain undisturbed as the highest court ruling.

For now, said Stern, "if you want to maintain confidentiality [in an auction house sale], you might run the risk of a bidder reneging.  Reneging is not that common," though, he explained.

Image from

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Sunday, October 7, 2012

"Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery" at the Frick; Can An Abundance of Greatness Ever Be Too Much of a Grand Thing?

Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment
Who can take issue with a surplus of the sublime, even if it's contained in two small rooms in the Frick's shoebox of a basement and a tiny room on the street-level floor?

It's a relatively small show of drawings by Michelangelo, Durer, Rembrandt, Rubens, Ingres -- and that's just the beginning of the cornucopia of great artists represented in 58 works on loan from London's Courtauld Gallery.

That's not to ignore Bernini, Canaletto, Watteau, or Fragonard -- they're here too.  As are Goya, van Gogh, and Manet.

Parmigianino, Seated Woman
It's like a ten-pound box of chocolate truffles -- way too many sweets to savor in a single sitting.

As might be expected in a show that covers art from the late Middle Ages to the early 20th century, the styles and purposes of the drawings are all over the place.  There are Leonardo's scribbled studies of Mary Magdalene, Pieter Breugel the Elder's detailed line drawing of a peasant scene that would be used to make a print, and a watercolor by Cezanne meant as a finished piece.

Rembrandt's drawings here are a quick visual record of whatever interested him.  Parmigianino seemed to pick up the chalk because he liked a woman's pose.  Goya's drawing inhabits his private world of witches and demons.  Mantegna struggled to get the posture of Christ just right and used both sides of the same sheet.

Workshop of Hugo van der Goes, Seated Saint
Then there are the works significant as part of art history:  The Dream by Michelangelo, one of the first drawings conceived as an independent work of art; one of the earliest Italian landscape drawings, by Fra Bartolomeo (ca. 1505-09); and the extremely rare, delicate pen and ink drawing of a saint from the workshop of the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1475-85).

There's not much context to learn about a particular artist or a period of art or a technique.  Exceptionally high quality is the glue that holds the show together.  So this is an exhibit that presents art as pretty much ahistorical and at its most fundamental -- pure visual pleasure, of which there is plenty.

A few drawings stand out, even amid this elite group.

Rubens, Portrait of Helena Fourment, ca. 1630-31 (top).  Rubens' drawings of his family are among the greatest drawings in the history of Western art, and this portrait of his young second wife is sublime.  The viewer sees a sensual woman revealing herself -- lifting her veil to reveal soft skin; even the sleeve of her dress falling ever so slightly around her wrist is sensual -- but she herself is modest, seemingly unaware of her effect on the viewer, her husband.  A love letter without words.

Michelangelo, The Dream, ca. 1533.  The Dream is always described as "enigmatic."  A man is surrounded by figures that seem to illustrate the seven deadly sins, but who is he and what's he dreaming about?  Like much of Michelangelo's work, the drawing celebrates the male body -- here, in a sexual way, with the legs spread wide open.  It's thought to have been made for a Roman nobleman the artist was passionately in love with, Tomasso de' Cavalieri.

Ingres, Study for La Grande Odalisque, 1814 (below).  Ingres always knew how to concentrate the eye.  In his portrait drawings anything other than the face and hands -- the most expressive parts of the body -- might as well not exist.  Here his sensuous line, which modern masters like Picasso and Matisse were smitten with, focuses on the breast and buttocks, although one rarely thinks of the cool Ingres as a T&A man.

Bernini, Design for East Wing of the Louvre, 1664 (above).  Bernini had an international reputation, not just as a sculptor but as an architect as well, and he was asked by the French government to submit a design for the Louvre.  Like his sculpture, his architecture animates the space around it.  This design, with its exuberant bulge, was rejected in favor of Claude Perrault's flat and boring facade.

Ribera, Man Tied to a Tree, ca. 1630-35.  In this brutal red-chalk drawing, an old man is tied to a tree, helplessly reaching out, and another man is seated, perhaps in despair.  It's not known what provoked this drawing, what its purpose was, or what it means, but it's gripping, disturbing, and beautiful.

Cezanne, Apples, Bottle, and Chairback, ca. 1904-06 (below).  This watercolor painted at the end of Cezanne's life has everything admired in his paintings -- things are slightly off kilter, the table is impossibly tilted forward, the outlines make no sense, yet the painting hangs together as a wonderful whole, full of tension and visual incident.

"Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery,"  Frick Museum, 70th Street at Fifth Avenue, through January 23, 2013.

Images from the Courtauld Gallery website.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay" at the Met: How'd He Do It?

Bernini, Charity with Four Children, ca. 1627-34
This knockout, old-style exhibition which opens today at the Met yields up plenty to learn about Bernini, the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, whose work -- from the double colonnade in front of St. Peter's to the fountains that dot the city -- changed the face of Rome.

The show gathers together some 50 clay models and 30 related drawings for many of Bernini's sculptures, and traces the artist's thoughts as he rejected some ideas and developed others.

Bacchanal, ca. 1616-17
Forget fancy curatorial theorizing.  This show has science combined with solid art historical analysis, reflecting the unusual collaboration of Harvard Art Museums conservator Anthony Sigel, who studied, stabilized, and conserved much of the work; Frick director Ian Wardropper (ex-chair of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts at the Met); and C.D. Dickerson III, curator of European art at the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, the exhibit's only other venue.  It was Dickerson's work with Sigel on Bernini's model for the Moor that sparked the show.

The exhibit begins with a marble sculpture, a bacchanal with a faun teased by children, by a young Bernini and his father.  It gives just a glimpse of what's so appealing in much of Bernini's work -- a dynamic liveliness that makes the viewer want to walk around the statue and a total mastery of the human figure, as though the artist were painting in stone.

Lion (Four Rivers Fountain), ca. 1649
Bernini quickly became a favorite of Rome's most powerful patrons, including a few Popes, and became in turn the city's most powerful artist -- and with commissions for massive projects in St. Peter's he employed a lot of other talents, including Borromini, who would rival him as an architect.

The bacchanal is the only finished sculpture on view (it's from the Met's own collection).  The rest are small models that show Bernini working out his ideas, both the rough models early in the process (called bozzetti) and the more finished pieces that might be shown to the client or serve as a guide for Bernini's workshop (called modelli).

Some of these are wonderfully expressive -- St. Longinus, for St. Peter's; the lion and the Moor, for the fountains in the Piazza Navona; Charity with four children; Daniel, for Santa Maria del Popolo; a life-size head of St. Jerome.

St. Longinus, ca. 1628
Made of extremely fragile terracotta, a type of red clay, relatively few models have survived -- the artist Joachim von Sandraert saw 22 in Bernini's studio for his statue of St. Longinus, but only two are known today -- and many of those that have survived bear the damage of a hard life.

Additional insight into Bernini's thinking and working methods can be had from his drawing, and the fullest demonstration of Bernini's process is where both drawings and clay models have survived.

One example is the preparatory studies for the ten angels that line the bridge from Rome proper to the Castel Sant'Angelo and Vatican City, a Papal commission that Bernini undertook when he was 70.

Angel with Superscription, ca. 1667-68
He seems to have begun by drawing a live male model -- you can see his jockstrap -- and then sculpting a nude figure in clay to which he attached wings before developing the drapery and instruments of the Passion.

Those seeking the dazzle of Bernini's finished sculptures -- the portraits that seem to breathe, the female saints in an almost sexual ecstasy -- may be disappointed.  Those works that take your breath away are here only in large black-and-white photographs.

But if you want to see the modeling done by a supreme artist's bare hands, facial expression masterfully made with wooden tools, and surfaces sometimes smoothed with wet or dry brushes or the artist's own fingers, the intimacy gained from that experience will be ample reward.

St. Jerome, 1661
"Bernini: Sculpting in Clay," Metropolitan Museum, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, through January 6, 2013.

Text and images (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Friday, September 28, 2012

In Russian Art Embargo Case, Jewish Sect Chabad Insults the U.S. and Says the State Department Should Be ". . . Embarrassed . . ."

The Brooklyn-based Jewish sect Chabad has, in ersatz legal terminology, gone nuts, damning the same U.S. government that in 1940 rescued its supreme leader from Poland, and that for the last two decades has worked at the highest diplomatic levels to resolve Chabad's ongoing property dispute with Russia.

For eight years now that dispute -- over whether Chabad or Russia owns two separate collections of books and manuscripts that are in Moscow -- has been playing out in the federal District Court.

In papers filed in that court today, Chabad, referring to Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums -- an embargo triggered by Chabad's lawsuit -- asserted that the U.S. government "should be embarrassed if . . . it gives any credence whatever to this empty Russian charade."  Chabad also criticized the government as "singularly passive and unsuccessful" in convincing Russia to comply with a court order to turn the disputed collections over.

The harsh language came in Chabad's response to a statement by the Obama Administration urging the court not to impose the substantial monetary sanctions on Russia that Chabad had requested.  The government's position is that such sanctions would be impermissible under American law, unprecedented under international law, and contrary to U.S. foreign policy interests.

Chabad's lawyers did not respond to inquiries.

There is much more to be told.  Check back later.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Met Museum Expands Old Master Galleries; Meantime, Its Most Expensive Acquisition Disappears from View

Duccio's Madonna and Child, which cost the Met a reported $45 million, is nowhere to be seen
The Met, without any public announcement, is expanding its Old Master galleries by converting adjacent space previously devoted to such large special exhibitions as "The Renaissance Portrait" last spring.  To get an idea of the expansion's size -- it should add 20% to 25% more square footage -- consider that the portrait show displayed some 160 works.  So it's an exciting prospect.

At the same time, the tiny painting of the Madonna and Child attributed to the late 13th-, early 14th-century Sienese master Duccio -- the Met's most expensive purchase ever, at a reported $45 million -- has disappeared from view.

Closures hit the Italian Renaissance galleries
Supposedly, that's because the galleries currently devoted to Old Masters are being renovated, and so far Italian Renaissance art has been hit hardest -- at last visit, five of those galleries were closed, bare walls just barely visible behind tall screens.

But why was the much-vaunted Duccio put in storage rather than displayed elsewhere in the museum?  Perhaps because very few visitors stop in front of this unengaging sad sack of a painting when it is on display.

The Old Masters project follows the likewise unannounced disruption in the Met's Egyptian galleries, where a staggering 18,000 objects have been taken off view to protect them from vibrations caused by reconstruction of the Costume Institute below.  (More about Egypt's being a fashion victim can be found in my article here.)

The expansion of the Old Master galleries is expected to be complete sometime next May.  As far as the renovation goes, I can report that two existing galleries have been combined into one long space and that the walls where the Duccio and other Italian Renaissance art used to hang are now a rich slate gray.

Check back here for updates.

Duccio image from the Met's website.  Other image and text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Onassis Cultural Center Suddenly Closes Its New York Museum; Future Unknown

Installation view of "Transition to Christianity" at the Onassis Cultural Center.  At left are three of the famous David Plates from Greece.  Also seen are a rare early wood fragment of Christ's face next to three mummy portraits.
New York has lost one of its jewel-box art spaces, at least temporarily.

The Onassis Cultural Center, located in prime real estate in Midtown Manhattan, closed its exhibition space last spring at the end of its stunning show, "Transition to Christianity."

The museum was known -- although not nearly well enough -- for putting on challenging thematic shows with sometimes hard-to-obtain loans from monasteries and museums in Greece and elsewhere.

The official word it that the space is being "renovated," a project that will take one year or two, depending on who is answering the questions.  When a Cultural Center staffer was asked soon after the closing what type of renovations would be done, the staffer declined to be specific.

A restaurant and a snack bar in the building's atrium are also closed for renovation.

A sculpture from the Center's last show
The gallery was below ground level in the Olympic Tower -- a building developed in 1975 by shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis -- when it last welcomed visitors.  It first opened in 2000, and the Cultural Center has used it rent-free under a lease that expires in June 2014 -- the building's owner, Olympic Tower Associates, and the Cultural Center are related entities.

Shortly before the space closed, Olympic Tower Associates sold a 49.9% stake in the building to Crown Acquisitions, reportedly to tap Crown's expertise in increasing the value of retail space.

Is the timing just a coincidence, or will the gallery be turned into some money-making commercial operation?

The seller, the buyer, the broker, the building manager, the Cultural Center's president, and the gallery director either refused to respond to inquiries or said they didn't know the answer to questions raised about the gallery's future.

The gallery, L-shaped with two sides facing an interior courtyard, was small in size but big in impact.  A recent exhibition tracing the roots of El Greco's art persuasively emphasized his ties to Greek and Byzantine art traditions.  It was a revelation.

Its last show was a sensitive exhibition of Christian and pagan religions coexisting and in conflict in late antiquity, provocatively examining such ideas as the defacing of ancient Greek statuary with Christian symbols and the Christian adoption of pagan motifs.

The loss of the Cultural Center's exhibitions, even temporarily, will leave a huge hole in the city's cultural fabric.

Images are from the Onassis Cultural Center website.
Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

U.S. Says No to Sanctioning Russia in Art Embargo Case

The Obama Administration has asked a federal court to keeps its nose out of U.S. foreign affairs and Russia's internal affairs in the case brought against Russia by the Jewish sect Chabad.

The Department of Justice urged the court not to impose monetary sanctions against Russia on the grounds that they "would be contrary to the foreign policy interests of the United States," impermissible under the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, and, on the facts of the case, "entirely without precedent internationally."

Chabad had requested that Russia be sanctioned for failing to comply with the court's order to turn over two collections of books and manuscripts to the U.S. embassy in Moscow or to representatives of Chabad.  The judgment in that case triggered Russia's embargo on lending art to U.S. museums, which has passed its second anniversary.

Read more about the U.S. position in my story in The Art Newspaper, here, and more about the dispute and the embargo in my New York Observer piece, here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years": Some Artists Were Wary of Being Included in the Met Show -- and for Good Reason

Andy Warhol's dollar signs and flowers with Jeff Koons' puppy vases
"I can't speak for the dead," Marla Prather, the exhibition's co-curator, told this reporter.  But some artists among the living weren't sure they wanted to be in the Metropolitan Museum's sometimes superlative, sometimes problematic exhibit about Warhol's influence over the last half century.  The show opens September 18.

Take Alex Katz.  "I talked with Alex, and he was reluctant to be in the show," said Prather, pointing out that unlike most artists in the show, Warhol and Katz were contemporaries.

I.e., they could credibly argue over who had bragging rights to various practices.

Alex Katz, "Lita"
Katz told Prather that "Warhol didn't influence me, I influenced him."  Katz was referring to the flat background both artists favored, the double portrait, and the square portrait format, Prather said.

Both artists did a portrait of art collector Lita Hornick, but Katz's came first, and he claimed that he saw Warhol studying his version at Hornick's house before doing his own.

"Influence is a tricky thing," Prather remarked.

Eventually Katz came around to being in the show, and his "Lita" made the cut.

Warhol's Birmingham riots, based on a news photo
Prather asked Vita Celmins, who is represented by her 1965 oil of a Time magazine cover, "On a scale of 1 to 100, what's your comfort level for being in the show?"  Initially Celmins said 75%, but later asked Prather, "Can I change that to 50%?"

Another artist, whom Prather declined to name, told her that "his color came from Warhol, but he didn't want to be in the show because he didn't want to be in Andy's shadow."

He has a point.

The show has some 45 major works by Warhol.  They range from his recreation  of Brillo soap-pad boxes and paintings of Campbell's soup cans, to his silkscreen electric chair series and portraits of Liz and Jackie, to his screen tests of Nico, his dollar sign works, and his cow wallpaper.  The show is worth seeing if only to catch the seminal moments in Warhol's career.

Ed Ruscha's Standard Oil gas station on fire
But inevitably the other artists, represented by only one or sometimes a few works, seem like footnotes to the main event -- even those generally admired like John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha or those with several well-known works in the show like Jeff Koons, whose Hoover vacuum cleaners, sculpture of Michael Jackson with his chimpanzee, and identical puppy vases all make an appearance.

The show is organized around five themes:  daily news, celebrity and power, queer (the curators' term) studies, something called "consuming images," which is an umbrella for appropriation, abstraction, and serial imagery, and finally "no boundaries," which deals with art as business, collaboration, and spectacle.

Tuymans' portrait of Condi Rice
Plenty of outstanding works are on view aside from those by Warhol -- Luc Tuymans' portrait of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example.

And the show also satisfies some "what's the big deal" questions.  Richard Prince, for example, has been much in the news lately because of a court case accusing him of infringing a photographer's copyright, and for those who haven't seen his blown-up photo of a photo of a cowboy taken from a tobacco ad -- well, here it is.

Sometimes the connection to Warhol is strained, which tends to minimize the other artists' work. For example, what do Warhol's neutral electric chairs have to do with Felix Gonzalez-Torres' intimate pile of candy, an allegorical tribute to his lover dead from AIDS?  The theme of death, a constant in Western art, is quite independent of Warhol.

Still, in a cynical all-Warhol, all-the-time art world, "Regarding Warhol" is a reminder of how impressive his art is, how many of his works have become part of the cultural heritage, and how as he was continually remaking himself, he was also in many ways remaking art.

"Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists Fifty Years," Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, September 18 to December 31

Text and photos (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Met Takes on Warhol, MoMA Runs Martha Rosler's Flea Market, and Other Must-See Fall Events

Rubens' portrait of his wife

Here are the hot New York museum shows this autumn.

Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years, Metropolitan Museum.  With the season's surefire hit, the Met steps into an uncharacteristic role, that of writing contemporary art history.  The show takes on Warhol's influence on artists who are actually alive -- grouped around such themes as celebrity and repetition -- and features creaky standbys Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and Richard Prince but also artists we don't see enough of like Vija Celmins.  Opens September 18.

Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, Metropolitan Museum.  The greatest sculptor of the 17th century -- and perhaps the greatest master of public art -- made small clay models for his statuary, and the Met is gathering together 50 of them, including some for his fountains scattered about Rome and the angels along one of Rome's bridges. Opens October 3.

Mantegna to Matisse: Master Drawings from the Courtauld Gallery, Frick Collection.  Sixty drawings over a 500-year period sounds ridiculous, but this show presents the greatest hits from a great English collection by the masters of the craft -- Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Cezanne among them -- both sketches and finished works.  The Rubens at top is a luscious mix of sensuality and modesty, as he depicts his young wife lifting her veil.  High expectations seem sure to be exceeded.  Opens October 2.

Fore, Studio Museum in Harlem.  Every few years the Studio Museum puts together a show of emerging artists of African descent living and working in the U.S.  This year's show of 29 artists -- including Jennifer Packer (whose work is shown at left) and Toyin Odutola -- looks like a winner.  Opens November 8.

Martha Rosler, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale, Museum of Modern Art.  Haggle with a real artist!  Rosler, MoMA's staff, and the public have donated stuff to be sold in the museum's atrium the last two weeks of November.  Rosler, reputed to be a hard bargainer, has held garage sales several times before -- first in San Diego in 1973 and then in various European cities -- but MoMA's will be the largest.  Expect to be elbowed by serious buyers.  November 17-30.

Fantasy and Invention: Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing, Morgan Library.   The Morgan is showing approximately 20 drawings by the likes of Bronzino and Pontormo from its own collection, but the real draw is a painting of the Holy Family with the Infant St. John the Baptist (left) on loan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of only three paintings in the U.S. by this major Mannerist artist.  Opens November 10.

Images from the museums' websites.

Text (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

On View in Brief: Summer Loans to the Met, Including a Van Dyck Sold Last Year for $1.1 Million

Van Dyck, Portrait of a Carmelite Monk
It's the annual Invasion of the Briefly Loaned Old Masters, the season when private, mostly anonymous individuals send some of their finest paintings to the Metropolitan Museum.  Whether the owners are off on holiday or renovating their homes, they've decided to let the rest of us see these works on the walls of the Met.

Leading the way this year is a magnificent portrait sold as a Van Dyck last year at Sotheby's in London for more than $1.1 million.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the museum had annual exhibitions called something along the lines of "Paintings from Private Collections:  The Summer Show."  You can see references to them in auction house catalogue giving a work's exhibition history -- no doubt about it, a museum exhibit gives the work not just cachet but added value as well, though some lenders undoubtedly shuttle paintings to the Met for safety's sake and out of generosity.

Cavalori, Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist
The museum no longer puts on these official summer shows, and it's also stopped making available a list of the summer loans and where the visitor could find them scattered about the museum, a practice that survived at least into the 1990s.

Now it takes a bit of sleuthing to discover them.  Here's a guide to this summer's highlights -- so far:

Anthony Van Dyck, Portrait of a Carmelite Monk, 1617-1620.  The glint of light in the eyes, the visible brushstroke, the creamy flesh tones -- this work has all the marks that make 17th-century painting so splendid.  Add to these the awkward-looking ears and the bold blocks of color, and the painting looks remarkably modern.

Van Dyck has always been recognized as extremely precocious, and the dating of this work puts it when he was perhaps all of 20 years old and still in Rubens' workshop.  This portrait had in fact previously been attributed to Rubens.  Sotheby's, which sold the painting, has a nice video about the reattribution here.

Vasari, Pieta
Giorgio Vasari, Pieta, 1549.  The fame of Vasari's Lives of the Artists, the foundational history of Renaissance art and artists, obscures his importance as . . . an architect -- he designed the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  Those familiar with his hack work as a painter may wonder how he could ever have ousted Bronzino as the Medici court artist.  His Pieta, a "recent rediscovery," as the label informs us, is unlikely to change anyone's mind -- it's displayed in the same gallery as the Met's Bronzino -- but it's an engaging and intimate work of classicism that, following a Gospel text, shows the sun and moon in the same night sky.

Mirabello Cavalori, Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Infant St. John the Baptist, ca. 1570.  Cavalori is not a familiar name, but judging from this work it's perhaps a name to be reckoned with.  What makes this painting remarkable, aside from its being a noteworthy example of Florentine Mannerism, with its cool unnatural colors and twisting and elongated figures, is that a glance at St. John shows that he is hardly the "infant" of the title but more akin to the tweener St. Johns that Caravaggio would paint a couple of decades later.

Ribera, Sts. Peter and Paul
Fewer than a dozen works are attributed to Cavalori, and if the attributions are correct, the Met now has three of these rare works in one gallery, including a second loan from the same anonymous owner (who has, all told, parked four paintings at the Met, including the Vasari.)

Jusepe de Ribera, Sts. Peter and Paul, ca. 1613.  A European collector has loaned this work, thought to be an early one by the Spanish master and painted in Rome, where Ribera was absorbing all things Caravaggio.  It's displayed in one of the Met's Spanish galleries but could be more profitably shown next to Caravaggio's religious paintings about ten galleries away.

Delacroix, Christ at the Column
Eugene Delacroix, Christ at the Column, 1849.  This small painting has been loaned by longtime Met patron Wheelock Whitney III. Let's hope it lands at the Met permanently.  The museum has what might be euphemistically described as a tedious overabundance of Corots and Courbets.  If this work were donated, it would strengthen the Met's weak holdings in great French Romantic painters like Delacroix.

This year's lenders hardly rival in the number of works loaned the magnificent spoils of a New York collector who permitted seventeen paintings she owned to grace the museum's walls a few summers ago (there was reputedly an eighteenth work, but I never could find it), but in quality they aren't far behind.

Text and photos (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A Small Spectacular: Bartolo di Fredi and Other Sienese Artists at the Museum of Biblical Art. Exclusive Photos Here, Article at

Franceso di Vannuccio, Crucifix ca. 1370

It's the must-see yet unsung show of the summer -- a tightly focused exhibit of 14th-century Sienese altarpieces -- and it's at one of Manhattan's under-visited jewel-box spaces, the Museum of Biblical Art on Broadway near Lincoln Center.

Naddo Ceccarelli, Madonna and Child with Saints, mid-14th c.
The exhibit, with only seven works, is stunning in its simplicity and beautifully conceived, and it shows off one of this museum's strengths -- displaying art that is either new to the viewer or placed in a context that makes it seem new.

For this show, the museum is emphasizing an uninterrupted viewing experience.  "We didn't want a lot of text on the wall where people are reading instead of looking," said acting executive director Patricia Pongracz, so MOBIA, as the museum is known, provides a free take-it-home handout that identifies the figures in each work and includes the religious text it is based on.

Bartolo di Fredi, Adoration of the Magi, ca 1385, detail
Bartolo's altarpiece demonstrates something that is often overlooked in narrative religious imagery -- telling a story to people who don't know how to read.  The artist, for the first time, depicted with the Adoration four narratives of the kings' journey across the upper part of the painting.

Installation view
MOBIA, which opened in 2005, has a steady trickle of only 15,000 to 17,000 visitors a year. 

Become one of them.  The exhibition is free. 

Read more about the difficult-to-obtain loan from Siena -- which involves antiquities smuggling -- and about the exhibition and museum in my article in today's New York Observer, here.

Bartolo, Adoration of the Magi, detail of Siena's cathedral behind medieval walls

Bartolo, Adoration of Magi, detail of kings and Joseph

Bartolo, Adoration of the Magi, from the Pinacoteca Nazional, Siena

Ceccarelli, Madonna and Child with Saints, detail
"Bartolo di Fredi, The Adoration of the Magi: A Masterpiece Reconstructed," Museum of Biblical Art, Broadway at 61st Street, through September 9

Text and photos (c) Copyright 2012 Laura Gilbert

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Bellini, Titian, Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo" at the Met

Moroni, "Portrait of a Girl"

Some Renaissance masters have taken up residence at the Met while the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo undergoes renovations.  There are only 15 paintings on loan, but what marvelous paintings they are.

Giovanni Bellini, "Pieta"
There's a dead Christ with the Virgin Mary and St. John by the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini -- emotional and simply yet subtly colored -- and a mythological scene that some think is an early Titian.  But the excitement in this small show is in discovering great works by artists who are obscure compared to those titans.

Foremost among them is Giovanni Battista Moroni, who worked not in the wealthy cities of Milan and Venice but in the relative backwater of Bergamo.  Even so, Moroni was esteemed by his contemporaries -- Titian is said to have recommended that a couple of Venetians on their way to Bergamo have their likeness painted by him -- and based on the two portraits by Moroni here it is easy to see why.  They are so engaging that for awhile it may be hard to look at anything else in the room.

Moroni combined an aggressive realism -- in his portrait of a young girl, for example, the costume, pearls, and red beads of her bracelet are all meticulously rendered -- with a sympathetic intimacy.  Both the girl and Moroni's portrait of a man have a direct gaze one can't help but return.

Foppa, "The Three Crosses"
Another knockout is "The Three Crosses" by Vincenzo Foppa, which in a virtuoso display shows off the artist's mastery of the male nude, perspective, landscape, and architectural detail (the painting isn't nearly so monochromatic as appears in this image provided by the Met).  Oddly, the Crucifixion occurs immediately beyond a triumphal arch -- complete with portrait roundels -- that springs from Corinthian columns, has floor tiles, and opens onto Jerusalem in the distance.

Lorenzo Lotto is represented by four works: an ingenious portrait in front of a dark moonscape -- how many nighttime portraits were there in the Renaissance? -- and three brightly colored religious narratives that formed part of an altarpiece for a church in Bergamo.

Moretto di Brescia, "Christ and a Devotee"
And there's a lovely, delicate Moretto di Brescia painting of Christ and a devotee whose book tumbles to the ground as he drops to his knees.

The history of Italian Renaissance painting tends to concentrate on works in the cities of power and riches -- Rome, Florence, and Venice.  The art of Northern Italy has its own delights, as these loans beautifully show.

"Bellini, Titian, and Lotto: North Italian Paintings from the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo," Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Ave. and 82nd St.  Through September 3.

Images:  Moroni and Bellini (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert.  Foppa and Moretto courtesy the Metropolitan Museum.

Text (c) 2012 Laura Gilbert