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Tales From The Art Crypt

By Richard Feigen

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000, pp. 296, $30

On Guard!

Richard Feigen

Richard Feigen

By Carter B. Horsley

The art world consists of artists, collectors, art dealers, museum curators and directors and trustees, scholars, auction house department specialists, journalists/critics, conservators, framers, insurers, security personnel and movers, and, occasionally, legislators and governments.

Egos and money and reputations often collide in the art world, and its myriad activities are often mysterious and shrouded in secrecy.

Richard Feigen has been a prominent art dealer in New York for more than a generation, during which time he has handled a very wide range of art from Old Masters to contemporary art.

This anecdotal collection of essays is full of fascinating material and Mr. Feigen pulls few punches in his portrayals of some of the more celebrated figures in the art world and in his observations about many of its practices.

His primary concern is connoisseurship, which he nicely defines as "the love and study of objects fashioned by man."

In chronicling the "culture wars" he has seen, he does not much like "hack political opportunists, affirmative culture activists, strategic planners, management consultants, museum headhunters, box-office impressarios" and he argues that "elitists," like himself, the "anciens combattants," "wander about, hoping for better days, lighting candles, trying not the curse the darkness, spinning vestigial myths from the crypt…."

Mr. Feigen knows where many of the bodies are buried.

The title of the book presumably is meant to conjure dark secrets and certainly the ways of the art world need illumination. Mr. Feigen’s memoir does not turn over all the stones, and at times his path is rather circuitous and rambling, but his subjects are always interesting and one yearns to reach even deeper into his knowledge of the sometimes bizarre and clandestine business of art. While the book suffers somewhat organizationally, the author’s non-thematic, non-polemnical book is full of passion and the stuff of dreams. Mr. Feigen certainly rattles some bones and stirs in the dust in the closets of valuable acquisitions and does some with keen and uncommon good sense and not a little bit of humor. His "tales" are more bittersweet lessons than indignant rants.

This is by no means the definitive history of art dealing in the post-Duveen era and, indeed, these cryptic anecdotes are not as legendary as S. N. Behrman’s delightful biography of Lord Duveen, the famous dealer who had Bernard Berenson as his "expert" and "industrial-strength" clients who were able to amass collections unthinkable of assembly today. The book 76 illustrations, all in black-and-white, which is quite generous for such a relatively small and inexpensive volume, but it cries out for more as well as color reproductions. Many of the photographs, however, are of the interesting persons Mr. Feigen writes about and that adds a nice dimension as this is a book primarily about specific people and their ambitions and their obsessions.

Mr. Feigen begins his book with some "detective stories" about specific paintings, an appropriate starting point for an analysis of the complexities of the art business. "The most dependable way to figure out who painted a picture is to have an ‘eye’ - to have taste, that ability to enter an artist’s head, to see what he saw, to understand what he intended, as well as the intellectual climate of a period in history, to sense the age of materials like canvas or panel or pigment. Few people really have this flair. Although it has be trained and honed, an ‘eye’ seems to be born, not made. Many people become art historians, even well-known ones, without being so endowed," Mr. Feigen wrote.

Joseph by Fra Angelico

Large detail of head of "Joseph" by Fra Angelico

One of his discoveries was a Fra Angelico head of "Joseph," shown above, at an auction of Old Masters at Sotheby’s in London in 1995 that included works from the collection of Ernest N. Onians. It had been catalogued by the auction house as by "Giovanni di Francesco Toscani," a follower of Lorenzo Monaco, an artist that Mr. Feigen owned an example of and had hanging in his dining room. "Yet this was not by Lorenzo Monaco. Nor, from reproductions in my library, did it seem to be Toscani. There was too much personality, too much power. Whatever it turned out to be, I was determined to buy the little painting. Finally, after showing a FedEx’d transparency to three of the most eminent authorities on early Italian painting…., the answer emerged: the painting was by the young Fra Angelico, not long after 1418….Sotheby’s estimate was only £8,000 to £12,000. I was determined to buy the painting even it cost me ten times the estimate, and for some reason I was overcome by laziness. I decided, as I was about to leave for the airport that Saturday night, to bid on the Fra Angelico on the telephone without physically seeing it. In the end, the Fra Angelico was knocked down to me for £26,000, a great bargain. But my complacency had kept me from ever seeing the Onians pictures."

A painting "attributed to Pietro Testa" in the catalogue sold for £155,000 to a syndicate of dealers coached by the great scholar Sir Denis Mahon, with another London dealer as underbidder. It would be eventually authenticated as a lost "Capture of Jerusalem by Titus" by Nicolas Poussin and it would be sold in 1998 to Lord Rothschild, who donated it most appropriately, to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

"Discoveries like this are made only occasionally, and no one of us, regardless of an ‘eye,’ can spot them all, even after physically seeing them. No one’s viscera reacts to every artist’s ‘handwriting,’" Mr. Feigen reflected, noting that he spent almost two decades trying to authenticate a painting he bought as a "Filippo Napolitano, a contemporary of Poussin, in 1975 from Malcolm Waddingham in London as "Saint Denis Frightening His Executioners with His Head," shown below. Feigen finally had the work widely accepted as a Poussin in 1994 when he exhibited it as part of his Poussin Before Rome exhibition.

Saint Denis by Poussin

"Saint Denis Frightening His Executioners With His Head" by Nicholas Poussin

Mr. Feigen grew up in Chicago and for several years his next-door neighbor was Ivan Albright, the artist who Mr. Feigen described as "the city’s greatest native son. When Mr. Feigen and got married and moved to New York in 1965 he sold his house to "old family friends from the South Side, Rose and Mort Neumann, who he remembered having walls "stippled beige stucco." The Neumanns had a mail-order cosmetics company, Valmor Products, and in 1948 visited Paris and the gallery of Pierre Loeb that Mr. Feigen described as "one of the cradles of twentieth-century art."

"The version of the story that was long given credence," Mr. Feigen continued, "had it that Loeb was in the process of hanging a show, and the paintings were on the floor around the gallery. A bearded man in a black suit and pincenez was immersed in the paintings. Mort was said to have interrupted the man’s reverie, in the broken French he retained, even aver countless visits to France, to the end of his life: "Monsieur, ces tableaux, est ce qu’ils son bons?’ [Mister, the paintings, are they good?] As the bearded man dropped his pincenez and turned, he joned his right forefinger and thumb, placed them on his lips, and loudly kissed them, exclaiming, "Monsieur, ils sont des merveilles?’ [Mister, they are marvelous] whereupon Mort turned to Rosie: "Look, Rosie, look what he did He kissed his fingers! In French that mean’s they’re good!’ The bearded man, it turned out was, was Henri-Pierre Roché, legendary critic, the man who inspired and guided, among others, John Quinn [a famous American collector from New York]. Mort approached Loeb, who by this time was dashing across the room, visitors in those lean postwar days being a rarity, and said, "Monsieur, ces tableaux’ [Mister, the paintings] waving his hand around the room, ‘ces tableaux, ils sont combien?’[the paintings, show much are they?] Loeb, with understandable excitement, fetched a pad and started quoting prices for each painting, whereupon Mort interrupted, "Non, monsieur, pour tous les tableaux." [No, mister, for all the paintings] Loeb then toted up the prices and quoted the total. Mort had by this time apparently became quite frightened and was wondering how he had gotten himself into this mess and how he could get out of it. Rosie was, as usual, saying nothing. In an effort to terminate the whole thing and flee, Mort offered half. He was shocked when Loeb said, ‘d’accord’ [alright]."

"Although never consciously, Mort had been an early beneficiary of the black self-hatred fueled by a bigoted society, the desire of African Americans to be more white, to dekink hair with ointments and wigs. Valmor’s mail-order advertisements, composed by Mort himself, were visionary. When one of his wig ads was used by the Rolling Stones on the Some Girls album cover, though Mort had never even heard of the Rolling Stones, he filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement and won a large settlement. Later, [Claes] Oldenburg included one of Mort’s catalogues in his ‘Mouse Museum,’ another took its place in the Andy Warhol Museum, and one was recently included in the Museum of Modern Art’s High-Low exhibition. To the artists, Mort had become a sort of cult figure….One afternoon in the early sixties, I was sitting with a group of colleagues at Heinz Berggruen’s gallery on the rue de l’Université, a few blocks from the Hotel Pont-Royal, the hotel of choice of the art world at the time, and where the Neumanns were then in residence. Rose and Mort had already become internationally known for their art collection, and the presence of collectors this active, in an era when there were barely any buyers, was cause for heated discussion among the assembled dealers. One of them exclaimed, to no one in particular, ‘Ce Neumann, comment est-ce qu’il a gagné la fortune pour ramasser tous ces Picassos?’ [This Neumann, how did he earn the fortune to amass all these Picassos?]’ Another dealer ventured, "Moi, je said, il fait des médicaments pour défriser les noirs! [I know, he makes medicines to dekink blacks’ hair!]’ When I got back to the Pont-Royal for dinner with Rosie and Mort, I told them of the conversation at Heinz’s that day. Mort wheeled around in terror. ‘Rosie, I never said it took the kinks out! I didn’t say that!’ I never knew, until a discussion with their son Hubert in 1997, of Mort’s fear of a black anti-Jewish backlash."

"During Chicago’s golden age of collecting in the forties, fifties and sixties," Mr. Feigen wrote, "the collectors, courted by dealers all over the world, were ignored at home, even insulted….Of all the collectors, none were more ignored, even ridiculed, by the establishment than Rose and Mort Neumann. The social climbers, like the Leigh Blocks, were embarrassed by the Neumann’s naiveté; they saw it as the gauche underside of their own ambitions when in fact Rosie and Mort had no ambitions at all….Mort died in 1985 at the age of eighty-seven….Most of the art remained with Rose until 1997, when her sons began to remove it to safer quarters. No one in the art world, which Rosie and Mort loved so much, or even in Chicago…even noticed when Rosie died on May 13, 1998….The art world continues to speculate on the collection’s destiny. Auctioneers hover incongruously around Hubert at the cutting-edge openings he frequents. Before Mort died, the National Gallery staged a Neumann collection exhibition and gave a dinner in Rose and Mort’s honor, but it was a half-hearted effort, a small affair in an upstairs room with a few of their friends, quite obvious in its objectives."

"To Mort, who like a child wouldn’t have understood ‘elegance’ at all, the Stage Delicatessen was the greatest restaurant in the world. On one of the their European trips, Jan Krugier, a vastly refined art dealer who knew all about fine food and who ran with a very grand crowd, told Mort that he was imminently arriving in New York, and asked him what was the best restaurant in town. Without hesitation, Mort told him ‘the Stage Delicatessen.’ Soon after he landed in New York, Krugier arranged a black-tie dinner party and, grateful for the sophisticated recommendation of so eminent a collector, booked the whole Stage Delicatessen without so much as a visit. The guests, bejeweled and betitled, were flown in from all over the world, and what trasnpired when they filed out of the flotilla of hired limousines onto Seventh Avenue has also passed into legend. To his credit, it still brings tears, of one sort of another, to Krugier’s eyes some thirty years after the event."

The Neumann’s dining room was lined with paintings by Joan Miró and on a cruise on the France Mort insisted that Miró sign copies of books about him, including one that happened to have only blank pages. The artist asked Mort to get him some crayons when he discovered the blank pages and Mort quickly began to search the ship for crayons. A steward showed him the nursery and Mort tried to convince a boy sitting with his nanny to relinquish his crayons. The boy, Feigen recounts, "burst into tears." "Mort said, ‘You naughty little boy! Miró wants to draw with your crayons!’ grabbed the crayons, and ran out onto the deck looking for Miró. He found him still sitting there and handed the crayons to Miró, who proceeded to fill the blank book with drawings. What the terrified nanny didn’t understand was that this was a squabble between two six-year-olds."

Mr. Feigen’s greatest praise is for Dubuffet, whom he regards as the most important artist of the second half of the 20th Century:

"To Dubuffet, ‘culture’ was the dead language of mandarins. What mattered to him was the ‘art of the streets,’ of daily life, of nature. He disavowed elaborate ideas and complicated analysis, the written word in favor of the voice. He discarded the myth of plastic beauty, the concept of beautiful objects and ugly ones; for Dubuffet, there were no ugly people, objects, or materials. Cinders, gravel, leaves, were as beautiful as marble or bronze. Art, for Dubuffet, addressed the mind, not the eye. It was, as for the primitives, for children, for the mad, a language. Painting was richer than words, capable of revealing inner voices and hidden values."

Dubuffet’s revolutionary ideas are not the only ones examined by Mr. Feigen.

Much of Mr. Feigen’s book is about museums and he recounts how many famous museum directors were trained at Harvard by Paul Sachs, "a snobbish German Jewish banker from Goldman Sachs":

"Since the days of Charles Eliot Norton in the 1870s, Harvard had been the preeminent institution in the country, if not the world, for the study of cultural appreciation. The great British universities, Oxford and Cambridge, did not have departments of art history. Oxford even now has but one chair in the discipline, and there have thus far been only three occupants. I once asked the second of these, Francis Haskell, why this was so. He told me that the gentlemen students, who had come down to the university from the English country houses, had been surrounded by pictures all their lives and were expected to know about them. Art history was therefore not considered a legitimate academic discipline….Academic training in connoisseurship, the identification of a work of art by its qualities, was therefore really born in the United States, at Harvard….These studies in connoisseurship reached their apogee in the eras of Paul Sachs and Sydney Freedberg [to whom Mr. Feigen dedicated this book]. In their later years, in the 1950s, the Sachses would invited socially acceptable young people to Sunday lunches I their Cambridge apartment atop the Commander Hotel. The walls were covered with great drawings from the Fogg, drawings for which Sachs was responsible and to which he took free access. Lunch was served by a platoon of old German maids. I still remember my panic when Professor Sachs asked me, before one of those lunches, to identify a drawing on the wall. To these inquiries there was always a catch. In this case, as I recall, it was a Delacroix dopy of a Holbein. I have never forgotten this moment I the dock, having for the first time to bore I on a work of art. This kind of atmosphere, this concentration o the qualities of an object - on connoisseurship- would now, even at Harvard, be deemed elitist, irrelevant, politically incorrect."

"Things had started to change at Harvard in the 1970s," Mr. Feigen continued, "as a new aesthetic doctrine took hold under Michael Fried, an associate professor who had arrived in 1969 - the doctrine of theory over beauty, of contemporary ‘hard-edge’ and ‘color-field’ painting. This was the theology of Clement Greenberg, whose disciples had already captured the art history and studio art departments of Sarah Lawrence and Bennington colleges in the sixties….Then, in 1980, Timothy Clark, a young British professor, arrived at Harvard. His fiery lectures were wildly popular. He preached a Marxist functionalism for art, not unlike the Stalinists’ and Nazis’. Hundreds of Clark’s acolytes fanned out into the art world, immersed in his theories. Although Clark left Harvard in 1988, his theology survives in a general insistence on ‘political correctness,’ ‘cultural diversity’ and anti-‘elitism,’ and this in turn now permeates many of our museums….A new era was ushered in by Thomas Hoving at the Metropolitan Museum. The trustees, led by Douglas Dillon, thought they were getting an art-loving, trustworthy connoisseur director in the old mold. What they found themselves with instead was a power-hungry politician, an aspirant to a cultural commissariat in the Kennedy ‘Camelot.’ Ostensibly to cope with ballooning costs, Hoving launched what would become a national nightmare: giant mail-order businesses retailing reproductions of museum artifacts and neckties; rental of museum premises for social and business functions; retail shops in shopping malls. Hoving still went after important objects - in retrospect, it seems, largely for the sport and the publicity - funding the purchases by selling off paintings, some of them irreplaceable and of great importance, in some cases against the specific wishes of the donors. The most heinous example involved the collection of Adelaide Milton de Groot, who had, in a precatory clause in her will, specifically stated that should the Metropolitan Museum wish to dispose of any of her pictures, she did not want them sold but conveyed to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. Cavalierly ignoring her wishes, Hoving presided over the sale of a number of her pictures in 1971 and 1972, including Henri Rousseau’s great Monkeys in the Virgin Forest, one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century painting, as well as three paintings by Max Beckmann. The disposition of the Rousseau was conductor by the curator of paintings, Theodore Rousseau, who sponsored its sale to his friend Frank Lloyd of the Marlborough Gallery, ostensibly for Giovanni Agnelli, but in fact resold under mysterious circumstances through the Nichido Gallery in Tokyo to Mitsui & Company. The mystery was intensified by the fact that the museum reportedly received only $600,000, after Rousseau had been offered a price in excess of $775,000 by a California collector, Jack Levin….Eighteen years later, by which time the Metropolitan Rousseau had long since disappeared into the chairman’s office at Mitsui, Mitsui brushed aside an overture in the $75 million range….In 1972, Hoving and Rousseau sold to their friend Lloyd - who years later, as a convicted felon in the Rothko scandal, went into hiding in the Bahamas to escape prison - Van Gogh’s The Olive Pickers, which had been bought for the Metropolitan by Mr. and Mrs. Richard J. Bernhard, generous patrons and collectors. The painting was passed to Lloyd for $850,000. It is now conservatively worth $50 million. Dorothy Bernhard was dead by 1972, and in offhandedly mentioning the impending sale to her son Robert, and in stressing the redundancy of The Olive Pickers, Hoving and Rousseau, for reasons that are still shadowy, deliberately misrepresented the museum’s van Gogh holdings. The family was told that the Metropolitan owned three versions of The Olive Pickers, including the Bernhard picture, when in fact this, the first and prime version, was the only one the Metropolitan had, the others being in the National Gallery and the Enid Haupt collection."

Mr. Feigen writes a bit about architecture, praising Frank Gehry’s celebrated Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao but noting that some structures, such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, do not work well with art: "Bilbao is a ringing call for dialogue, for insemination of each discipline by the other….Gehry’s building is a shout of optimism, a call for this fusion of art and architecture, of form and function, with neither following the other."

Of Josef Kleihues’s Museum for Contemporary Art in Chicago, however, Mr. Feigen has rather harsh feelings. Describing the architect as "an urban planner little regarded in his native Berlin," Mr. Feigen wrote that "most critics and architects have found the building to be an architecture disaster" and notes that it is "on one of the finest museum sites in the world."

Mr. Feigen commissioned Hans Hollein in 1967 to redesign a townhouse on East 79th Street for his gallery. "After the building was completed in 1968, the architectural statement was so strong - the chrome, the fabric, the colors - that some purist artists, like Bridget Riley, quit my gallery. Hollein, competing for museum commissions, has since mellowed and learned how to modulate his work to accommodate art." Several years later, Mr. Feigen would sell the building to designer Hanae Mori and the very modern design remains, one of the few excellent intrusions of modern architecture on the Upper East Side.

One of the most interesting chapters in this delightful book is about artists’ wives such as Eugénie Kupka, Jacqueline Brauner, Marguerite Hagenbach Arp, Olga Tamayo, and Julie Ray.

Some of Mr. Feigen’s most important observations are about painting conservation.

He recalls that conservation had been treated until the 1930’s as a craft, not a science. "Out of the conservation courses at Harvard’s Fogg Museum came the new technologies best-known practitioners, Caroline and Sheldon Keck, and they came to personify the science of conservation….Their theories seemed to make the first sense in a field in which much damage had been done to paintings in the past, mainly in the late nineteenth century, and then during Lord Duveen’s huckstering in the 1920s and 1930s. One has only to visit the painting collection at Harvard’s own postdoctoral center, the Villa I Tatti in Florence, to see how oblivious even the great connoisseur Bernard Berenson had been to the condition of paintings and their conservation, and to realize how the study of art conservation was a logical product of Paul Sachs’s Harvard courses in connoisseurship and museology….For if from history and iconography we can situate a work of art geographically and chronologically; from documents perhaps ascertain its existence and that of its putative author, then it follows that if that handwriting is obscured, whether through grime, overcleaning, overpainting, or flattening of the artist’s brushstrokes, the artist’s message is at best muted, at worst obliterated. So it becomes as logical, if not urgent, an academic enterprise for a university’s art history department to address the treatment of the illnesses of works of art as it is for its medical school to address the illnesses of people. At its best, painting conservation had been, in times past, a cure for a problem a painting had suffered; at its worst, in Duveen’s time, it had been a tool for gussying up a painting to make it more salable. If a painting was dirty, it was cleaned, and little care was taken to consider the strength of the solvent used to clean it. If it had a hole or tear in it , another canvas was glued to its back under great pressure, and the restorer hadn’t a clue that the impasto being flattened contained the essence of the artist’s personality….As it tragically evolved, it would take almost forty years for the powerful influence of the Keck’s scientific bias to be shaken off and for science and aesthetics to be brought into balance….At the very outset, there were those who felt passionately that old paintings should remain as time had weathered them, with yellowed varnish, with only the surface grime removed and any holes and tears repaired, just as there are those who feel that old people should leave their hair gray and unpainted, their pates shiny and unadorned with transplants and hairpieces, their wrinkles - all that reveals experience and character - undisturbed by plastic surgeons. There were others who approached the problem more scientifically. Paintings consisted of their material components and should be stripped of all changes to the artists’ original construction, areas of loss should be restored to what was there when the painting left the artist’s hands, and steps should be taken to prevent further deterioration. This was the scientific approach on which the Fogg based its curriculum and which the Kecks, trained at the Fogg, taught at the school of conservation in Cooperstown to scores of painting conservators….The problem is that science, when applied to subjects like the human mind and the art it dreams up, does not always work as planned. When a conservator, ignorant of an artist’s personality and idiosyncratic techniques, attacked a painting to reduce it to the original surface, removing all the dirt, discoloration, and later restoration, he sometimes went too far, because he did not understand the artist’s intentions, and also removed original glazes, thinking they were later varnish layers. This is the tragedy that befell the James Jackson Jarves collection at the Yale University Art Gallery….In a medical school, the sort of work that was performed on the Jarves pictures would have been reserved for cadavers in an anatomy class, not living human beings….Nothing was left but the maimed cadavers….It was tragic that the…experiments on the Jarves collection could not have waited just a few more years, for by the mid-1970s the flaws in the Kecks’ theories had become manifest; their methods were discredited, and modern techniques of painting conservation refined and codified. Basic new tenets had been adopted: that restoration be necessary; that it be the cure for existing problems, not a preventative against future ones; and that it be reversible. Insofar as possible, a painting was to be left alone. Old varnish, surface grime, discolored or unnecessary old restorations were to be removed only when possible without risk….One of the most destructive of the Kecks’ disciples was Alfred Jackstas, the conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago. He subscribed to the theory that a painting should be relined, even if cracks due to age had not developed into surface cleavage, as a reinforcement of the original fabric support to prevent future cleavage and potential paint loss. Since only organic varnishes existed prior to the 1950s, and these tended to yellow with age, the Kecks initiated the use of non-organic varnishes that did not yellow and were supposed to remain clear. As for relining pictures, older techniques had involved the binding together of the old and new canvases with glue by applying great pressure, and in the days when conservation was a craft rather than a science, this often resulted in the squashing of the painting’s impasto, essentially the artist’s handwriting. The Kecks’ technique used wax, and the two canvases were bound together not with pressure but with heat that melted the wax. These theories led Jackstas, in a frenzy of prevention, to run rampant through the museum’s collection, apparently concentrating on the most important paintings rather than just the ones that were in an acute state of deterioration….although those clear, non-organic varnishes, applied to hundreds of important paintings throughout the country, indeed did not yellow and remained white, they became opaque and milky instead. The was that had been melted to bind together the original canvas and the lining canvas…was often found to permeate the canvas, bleed into the painting’s surface, and alter the aesthetics. Sometimes, when the canvas was porous, such as burlap, the wax could not be removed."

One wishes that Mr. Feigen could have devoted more space to this important subject as his insights surely would be fascinating. One suspects that are great connoisseurs whose fabled "eye" still may not penetrate through the discolored varnishes and grime on many paintings and that there are others who are able to conjure what lies beneath with considerable accuracy, obviously a great advantage for those who scour the auction rooms and estate sales for "discoveries."

One suspects that Mr. Feigen could write many more books examining the art world. One wants to go through museums with him and have him at one’s side in the auction room, and the dinner table.

Art dealers bridge the academic and the commercial worlds. They are scholars and salesmen, custodians and collectors. They are daring and dashing, discrete and sometimes devious bargain-hunters and promoters. They are curious, and that is what art is about - discovery.

Art clearly is Mr. Feigen’s priority, focus, and love.

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