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How Leo Castelli, MoMA, and Two Wealthy Collectors Charted Today’s Rocket-Fueled Art Market

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 12:56

We might never have known about it, if it weren’t for the boast. Just as collectors brag about their acquisitions, art dealers have been known to brag about their sales, even the legendarily genteel Leo Castelli, widely considered the most important contemporary art dealer of all time. He was interviewed in 1969 by Paul Cummings from the Smithsonian, for an oral history. Knowing the interview would be sealed for years, Castelli felt at ease confiding his heroic tale from six years back.

In 1963 Castelli was in a jam: two of his biggest clients, the Sculls and the Tremaines, wanted the same painting by the 32-year-old Jasper Johns, Castelli’s breakout star. It was new money versus old: Ethel and Robert Scull’s money came from a fleet of taxis in the Bronx, Emily and Burton Tremaine’s from inheritances and General Electric. For five years both couples had been demanding first pick of the best Johnses, and, Castelli said, they both wanted Map (1961). It was a trophy: an expressionistic painting of the map of the United States that, at a whopping 10 feet across, was the largest Johns had ever made.

“[T]o cut the Gordian knot,” Castelli told Cummings, “Jasper said nobody could have it. It has to go to a museum, and whoever offers better conditions will get [to live with] it during their lifetime.” The Tremaines were famously planning to donate their collection to the National Gallery of Art—someday, and on their terms. The Sculls won by wasting no time: they donated Map to the Museum of Modern Art right away, as a fractional gift—even before they had finished paying for it.1

The Sculls’ enthusiasm may have been fueled by more than mere philanthropy. That transaction—and the tax deductions behind it—recently became the subject of a paper on tax policy in the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts. Art historian Michael Maizels and University of Arkansas School of Law associate dean William Foster argue that the previously unexamined financial manipulations by Castelli and the Sculls around Map and its donation to MoMA were as material to the story of postwar art’s growing market as the painting itself. I recently used their paper as a jumping-off point for a deep dive into the Castelli archives, held by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. What I found was that the Sculls’ purchase and gift of Map stands as a singular transactional masterpiece, an exemplary product of the remarkable relationship between Castelli, Johns, the Sculls (and their heated competition with the Tremaines), and MoMA, that shaped the course of art and the market for it over decades.

Jasper Johns’s Map (1961): The Sculls likely made a profit by donating the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

If we are to believe Robert Scull, the origins of the Map transaction trace back to a brash offer he made at the opening for Johns’s first solo show at Castelli’s New York gallery, in January 1958, and what happened afterward. It was then that all the constituents were coalescing to embrace Johns, and launch his market: the dealer, the museum, the collectors, the press. And Scull tried to horn in on it all.

Castelli had offered the 27-year-old Johns a show less than a year before—the first artist at his fledgling gallery, along with Robert Rauschenberg. Johns was the first to take off. Leo included Johns’s 1954 Flag in a group show in May 1957, two months after signing him, and he sold a few works to adventurous young collectors that year, including a number painting and a flag drawing to Donald and Harriet Peters, and a flag drawing to Wynn Kramarsky.

Johns was poised for liftoff, and the art press was fueling him. In December, less than a month before Johns’s solo debut, Thomas B. Hess, then managing editor of this magazine, stopped by the fourth-floor apartment on the Upper East Side that the Castellis—Leo and his wife, Ileana, whose family money was bankrolling the venture—had converted into Leo’s gallery; Hess had come to borrow Johns’s Target with Four Faces, so he could photograph it. There is no persuasive account of how it ended up on the cover of the January 1958 issue of ARTnews, or how Fairfield Porter reviewed the show weeks before it opened, but there it was.

ARTnews’s January 1958 cover anointed Japser Johns a star.

Robert Scull, with signature bombast, would later claim that at that opening he offered to buy every single work. Castelli said that would be vulgar, and refused. As it happened, he had a more important customer to whom, over the next few days, he would sell half the show. Johns’s first solo show was a revelation for the Museum of Modern Art’s director, Alfred Barr. In a 1997 interview for MoMA’s archives, Ileana said, “The first time I saw Barr really excited was at Jasper’s opening . . . I thought, oh well, he does have blood like the rest of us.”

The way Leo told it to Paul Cummings, Barr saw the show only after it opened, when he promptly summoned Dorothy Miller, his assistant curator, to join him and select works to acquire. Other retellings involve intense discussions with Johns, who either just happened to be in the back room or who was summoned uptown to meet Barr and Miller on a weekend.

One thing various accounts share is Barr’s determination to guide Johns’s shocking work into MoMA. He worried that conservative trustees or political groups concerned about Johns’s patriotism in the Cold War environment might interpret Flag negatively. Another thing poking at him was a sculpted penis in his favorite work of them all, Target with Plaster Casts (1955). Johns’s refusal of the curator’s demand to hide the penis by closing the small door on a compartment that housed it had kept the painting out of a 1957 group show at the Jewish Museum in New York. Barr was more diplomatic, asking Johns whether closing the little door would go against his intentions for the work. “Well, if it’s entirely casually closed, I really don’t mind,” Johns replied, “but I do not want it to be programmatically closed. . . . I would rather prefer that you . . . not take the painting.” (Leo ended up buying the work for himself. Years later, the dealer recalled how Barr and his colleagues feared that “this limply hanging green penis would excite peoples’ susceptibilities.” There remains much work to be done to understand how Jasper Johns’s penis unsettled the men of New York’s art establishment.)

But Barr would not let a painted penis or the Cold War stop him. Johns’s symbols and figures showed painting an exit out of the roundabout of Abstract Expressionism. He made the unprecedented decision to acquire for MoMA four works from the debut show of an unknown painter. Castelli’s February 17, 1958, invoice for Flag (1954), Target with Four Faces (1955), Green Target (1955), and White Numbers (1957) came to $2,835 (a 10 percent discount on $3,150). The latter two were purchased using acquisition funds created by trustees Richard Zeisler and Elizabeth Bliss Parkinson, respectively.

As one of two paintings priced at $1,000, Flag would have required trustee approval; instead, Barr got architect, collector, former curator, and museum trustee Philip Johnson to buy it for himself, with the understanding he’d give it to the museum. Target with Four Faces, the first of the works to be formally accessioned, was purchased through a gift of $630 from Ethel and Robert Scull.

Barr was not alone in his admiration; the buzz about Johns traveled quickly within the MoMA family. More than half the works in the 1958 show ended up with MoMA, museum employees, or their affiliates. In addition to Barr and Miller, who both bought 1957 paintings for themselves (Book and Gray Numbers, respectively), trustee and acquisitions committee head James Thrall Soby bought White Target (also 1957). Drawings curator William Lieberman bought a flag drawing that Castelli made available through the Modern’s popular Art Lending Service, a rental/consignment program run by museum volunteers to encourage collecting. Ben Heller, Mrs. Thomas Watson, and John and Barbara Jakobson, all either trustees or members of MoMA’s International Council or Junior Council, bought works from the show.

Ileana bought Flag on Orange Field (1957), and the last available work, Tango (1956), an encaustic monochrome with a tweaked music box embedded in it, went to Emily and Burton Tremaine, members of the International Council who also later bought White Flag (1955–58) and Three Flags (1958), the latter while it was still unfinished in Johns’s studio.

Despite Robert’s brazen opening offer, and their funding of MoMA’s Target acquisition, the Sculls themselves got nothing. They would soon make up for lost time.

Robert and Ethel Scull set out to build a social life through art collecting.

The Castelli Gallery Ledger Books for the Sculls are more tangled than any Pollock drip painting. Scull was an active client even before Leo opened the gallery, when he was sourcing and brokering deals on paintings from European modernists like Kandinsky, Dubuffet, and Arp. The Sculls, whose outer borough crassness and taxi-cab fortune didn’t exactly endear them to Manhattan’s condescending classes, used art to fuel a social life and to improve their standing. Between 1958 and 1962 they bought dozens of works from Castelli, including many Johns paintings, drawings, and prints. At least two were listed as commissions, including Double Flag from 1962.

During this period, Johns, a young art star, was the recipient of the Sculls’ intense attention, gifts, and invitations to dinner parties at Scull’s Folly, their home on the North Shore of Long Island. When Johns refused the Sculls’ requests for additional commissions or invitations, they solicited Leo’s help to plead their case. Such aggressive wooing was surely a factor—along with the end of his and Rauschenberg’s relationship—in Johns’s decision to escape for part of the year to the remote South Carolina island town of Edisto, beginning in early 1961.

The Sculls courted publicity for their collecting and were aggrieved when they didn’t get it. They turn out to be involved in a classic tale about the 1960 sculpture Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) that Johns made after hearing Willem de Kooning joke about Castelli: “That son-of-a-bitch, you could give him two beer cans and he could sell them.” Castelli did sell them: to the Sculls. “A keen disappointment to see our beer cans in Art International [Magazine] without our name,” Robert wrote to Leo in 1960. “Ethel and I are nonplussed. . . . Ethel suggested we change our name to Tremaine, and things would go O.K. (She’s probably right!).”

The Tremaines, for whom art served less as a means to enhance their social standing, than as an affirmation of it, vexed the Sculls—and vice versa. Robert and Ethel complained repeatedly to Castelli that he was slighting them and giving preferential treatment to the Tremaines. In one excoriating letter to Leo from Paris in October 1962, Robert Scull wrote: “I just spoke to Ethel on the telephone and for some reason she seems completely angry about something far more complicated than you not making our son’s bar mitzvah. Of course I was hoping to hear from her that you might have asked her over for dinner during my absence, but instead when I asked something about something related to the sale of one of our works, she became furious at the mention of your name.

“The point I’m trying to make,” Scull continues, “is that sometimes even aside from friendship, one should make some little concessions, even if it hurts, to treat a customer like Ethel with the same degree of respect and care as you would the Tremaines or some other customer that you have on occasion asked me to vacate your back room for. Please hold off on any transactions concerning the Pollock until I can get some more coherent facts from Ethel when I mention your name.”

The Tremaines, for their part, did not correspond with Castelli about their apparent disdain for the Sculls, though they wrote to him constantly about the conservation of Tango which, like all of Johns’s early encaustic and newsprint works, was immediately discovered to be terrifyingly fragile. Emily Tremaine’s biographer, Kathleen L. Housley, characterizes the relationship between the two couples as “frosty competition,” adding that, “if a dealer had the audacity to show a work to the Sculls before showing to the Tremaines (or vice versa), he ran the risk of jeopardizing all future sales.”

In an undated interview transcript in the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation archives, Tremaine contrasts the callow “opportunism” of her unnamed rival collectors for Johns and subsequent Pop artists with her own connoisseurship and intellectual engagement with art history: “The very boldness of the work attracted early publicity,” Tremaine said, “and I think that some people who did not really think too deeply were attracted to it because it was new.”

If, as Scull imagined, Castelli treated his two biggest clients differently, perhaps it was because only one of them brought chaotic churn and drama that repeatedly put his business at risk of insolvency. (Scull did this elsewhere, too: Castelli makes no mention of it in any interview or archival correspondence, but he surely knew that beginning in 1960 Scull was the secret financial backer of the Green Gallery, which closed abruptly in 1965 after Scull cut off his support.)

Besides the perceived disrespect it mentions, Robert’s letter from Paris is notable for its reference to a sale—and its cancellation. The Sculls were as likely to pay for their art with art as with cash. They traded or consigned to the Castelli Gallery Pollocks, Klines, and Giacomettis they had purchased only a year or two earlier. A flurry of invoices for gallery artists’ works would go out, only to be canceled en masse a few months later. The transactions generated an immense amount of bookkeeping, but they must also have put intense strain on Castelli’s cash flow. This was particularly acute for a new gallery whose innovation was to free emerging artists from the vagaries of sales pressure by paying them a monthly stipend, and one capitalized with funding from the wife’s family—a wife who divorced Leo and remarried in 1959, decamping to Europe while retaining joint custody of the gallery’s artists and real estate.

If Scull was a cause of the gallery’s liquidity challenges, he was also their occasional solution. Castelli left it out of his self-congratulatory account of the Map deal in the Cummings interview but, in June 1963, a week before he issued the invoice to the Sculls, he repaid a $20,000 loan Scull had extended a year before, for which Castelli had pledged several Johns paintings as collateral. Further exploration of Castelli’s archive reveals that in 1965, he would take another one-year loan from Scull, this time for $45,000, secured by a giant James Rosenquist painting.

Leo’s complicated relationship with Scull, and Scull’s competition with the Tremaines, came to a head with Map. In contrast to the Tremaines’ reluctance, the Sculls’ funding of MoMA’s acquisition of Johns’s Target with Four Faces back in 1958 showed they were sanguine, even eager, to make high-profile donations to the museum. With a fractional gift, the Sculls could live with and show off Map—while reaping the benefits of a substantial tax break. The key to it all would be the appraisal.

In June 1963, the Sculls agreed to pay $15,000 for Map in three quarterly installments. According to Castelli’s ledger, the invoice went to East Hampton, where the Sculls were summering. Before he paid the second installment in September, and before the Modern formally accessioned Map into the collection, Robert Scull obtained an appraisal through the Art Dealers Association of America (ADAA), prepared by the association’s leading Johns experts: Castelli himself and his gallery director Ivan Karp.

Castelli and Karp set the value of Map at $150,000—a full ten times the purchase price. When fellow board members at the ADAA suggested this might be ambitious, Castelli got second opinions from, as he put it in the 1969 interview with Cummings, “some independent sources, maybe the German dealers who handle [Johns] and perhaps a Swiss dealer who has a real sense of value, is well informed. So we did that, and we got replies back. One said 120, and another said 140. So we decided to have it registered at 130.”

According to Maizels and Foster in their Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts paper, here’s what that $130,000 appraisal meant for Scull’s taxes: At the 77 percent marginal rate in place at the time, his donation of Map to MoMA would have generated more than $100,000 in tax reductions, netting $85,000 after the original purchase.

Though the museum registered Map as a 1963 accession, its earliest known appearance at MoMA2 was not until 1971—in a show of so-called recent acquisitions. And though it was ultimately included in Johns’s 1964 survey at the Jewish Museum, and credited to MoMA as a fractional gift of the Sculls on the exhibition checklist, it was very much in the Sculls’ possession and control. (According to a 1994 Johns interview at MoMA, the temperamental Sculls threatened to withhold their works from the Jewish Museum show for so long, the artist remade some key paintings as potential replacements.)

In the five-volume catalogue raisonné of Jasper Johns paintings and sculpture, Roberta Bernstein sheds light on how the Sculls’ fractional gift was structured: they donated 25 percent of Map to the Modern in 1963, and the remaining 75 percent in 1970. It is likely that, thanks to Castelli’s appraisal, buying and donating Map netted the Sculls at least $10,000 in 1963.

Castelli’s archive shows he was a prolific and aggressive appraiser for the ADAA, but nothing approaches Map for rapid appreciation and financial impact. As Maizels and Foster note, however, change was coming. Castelli issued his extraordinary appraisal a few months after the IRS approached the ADAA for comments on new regulations being devised for valuing charitable donations; apparently there had been some abuse. The ADAA’s self-managed system remained in place for a couple of years, but in 1968 the IRS established its own panels of experts for independent appraisals of charitable donations.

Collectors Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine: the avant-garde’s golden umbilical cord.

This tale is not just art history. What becomes clear in retrospect is how this competitive swirl around Johns, this relentless pursuit of the new, and even the audacious accounting of Map’s appraisal, presaged the burgeoning market for contemporary art that continues into the present. As some of the first stewards of Johns’s key paintings, the Sculls and the Tremaines would set them on trajectories that would see them establish important critical and market milestones in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond.

In 1973, on the front edge of a divorce, the Sculls cashed out a large chunk of their collection at Sotheby’s/Parke-Bernet. This was the first major auction of contemporary art, and the first single-collector sale, and it was highly controversial. Works purchased for a few hundred or a couple thousand dollars from then emerging stars brought the Sculls hundreds of thousands in profits. Johns’s Double White Map, purchased in 1965 from Castelli for $10,000, sold for $240,000, a record price for the artist, and almost double Scull’s 10-year-old appraisal for Map. In 1986, after eleven years of lawsuits against her ex-husband, and then his estate, Ethel Scull was awarded first pick from what remained of the art they’d collected together. She took the best work remaining: Johns’s 1959 painting Out the Window.

As for the Tremaines, after being courted by museums who wanted them to donate their collection, they spent years trying to craft a deal that would leave their art on permanent display, not in storage, presaging deals that powerful collectors like Doris and Donald Fisher and Stefan T. Edlis would reach decades later with, respectively, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. The Tremaines pressured the National Gallery to manage a Tremaine Collection lending service for museums across the country, but the gallery balked at their demands.

Meanwhile, Emily Tremaine proved not to be immune to the attention the market brought. In 1980 Jasper Johns became the first living artist whose work sold for $1 million after dealer Arne Glimcher, founder of Pace Gallery, brokered the sale of the Tremaines’ Three Flags to the Whitney Museum. Whitney director Thomas Armstrong checked first with Castelli, who had not been aware the painting was for sale, but who envisioned selling it to the Japanese. “I was sort of hurt because he didn’t think I could accomplish the purchase,” Armstrong told Tremaine biographer Housley. “His attitude was sort of, ‘forget it, whippersnapper, I’ve got other plans for this picture.’ ” Eager for the attention the sale would bring to the museum, Armstrong rallied his board (led by Leonard Lauder), which paid the $1 million over three years.

Next, the Tremaines anointed a younger dealer, a hustler who worked with Castelli. In 1985 the Los Angeles–based Larry Gagosian, then less than a decade into his art-dealing career, convinced the Tremaines to let him exhibit a selection of works from their collection, apparently by cold-calling them in Connecticut. Gagosian told the journalist Deborah Gimelson in 1989, “I looked up their phone number from Connecticut information. I offered them a lot of money for a Brice Marden painting. Mrs. Tremaine liked me on the phone; she thought I was funny. Or maybe she liked the money I offered for the painting.” As Gimelson put it, “The exhibition of work from the Tremaine collection was almost more important than a single sale from it, since it proclaimed Gagosian’s association with the collectors. . . . [T]he result of the Tremaine show was instant credibility.”

Neither were the Sculls done. In 1986 Ethel sold her Johns Out the Window for $3.63 million at Sotheby’s, setting new records for both a work by a living artist and for a postwar painting. The Tremaines went on to reset those records again two years later when they sold White Flag at Christie’s for $7 million on November 9, 1988. A few days later, another Johns broke the living-artist record yet again. Sotheby’s sold his 1959 painting False Start for $17 million, the second-highest price ever paid at auction for any artwork. The winning bidder was Gagosian, buying for Condé Nast owner S. I. Newhouse, who sat at his side.

Newhouse would sell False Start in the early 1990s to entertainment mogul David Geffen, who would in turn sell it in 2006 to hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin, for $80 million. In 2010 Leo Castelli’s son, Jean-Christophe, sold a 1958 Johns Flag to another hedge-funder, Steven A. Cohen, for $110 million. In 2015 Jasper Johns sold Painted Bronze, a 1960 sculpture of paintbrushes in a coffee can that had been on loan from the artist to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for more than three decades, for an undisclosed sum to MoMA president Marie-Josée Kravis and her private equity fund manager husband, Henry, on the condition that they donate it to the museum upon their deaths.

J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery for more than 20 years, until 1992, who talked to Housley about letting the Tremaine collection with all its entanglements go elsewhere, said that the collectors had been “mesmerized” by the rising market value of the artworks Emily Tremaine had found. “When it got expensive, it was a justification that she was right and they were wrong. But without selling it, she couldn’t establish the degree to which this monetary value was indexed and how right she was,” Brown said. “She was asking for applause, and she was bound and determined that she was going to get a number that would prove her correct.”

Whether the currency is attention and applause or auction results, the marketplace incentives end up influencing everyone involved, from artists and dealers to collectors and institutions. Explaining the aftermath of that momentous $1 million sale of Three Flags in 1980, Housley wrote, “The irony is that by selling it, Emily got the recognition for which she longed at the same time she fueled the very market she detested.” What could be more American than that?

1. This past May, Johns confirmed Castelli’s account via email.
2. MoMA did not respond to multiple inquiries about the Sculls’ donation, and the museum’s archives are inaccessible to researchers during its current construction.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of ARTnews under the title “Treasure Map.”

The Trickster Art of Pope.L Draws Power from Negation

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 11:44

In 1978, Pope.L got on his hands and knees in a suit and safety vest, and made his way through the bustling crowds of Midtown Manhattan. Titled Times Square Crawl a.k.a. Meditation Square Piece, his performance combined a disturbance in public space with abjection and perverse humor, setting the tone for his subsequent experiments with what it means to make art and move through the world as a black man.

William Pope.L, who exhibits under the name Pope.L (his mother invented it by appending the first initial of her family name to his father’s surname), was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1955. He was raised and educated in the tri-state area, attending the Pratt Institute, Montclair State College, the Whitney Independent Study Program, and the MFA program at Rutgers University. He broke into the New York scene during that period, making Times Square Crawl while still a student.

Pope.L: Times Square Crawl a.k.a. Meditation Square Piece, 1978, C-print, 10 by 15 inches.

In subsequent works, Pope.L has repeatedly used his own body as medium and material. As part of the project How Much Is That Nigger in the Window (1991), he sat in the storefront of the now-shuttered location of the New York nonprofit Franklin Furnace and smeared mayonnaise all over his body to make himself white. The ongoing Black Factory Archive (2004–) is less immediately confrontational, but nevertheless provocative. It’s a nomadic participatory work, in which Pope.L asks people to donate “black objects”—anything that “a person believes represents blackness to him or her.”1 The archive has traveled the United States in a van and also lives online. These works, each in its own way, interrogate the public nature of blackness. With a title and setting that framed the artist as a product, How Much Is That Nigger in the Window addressed the black individual’s historical status as a commodity as well as the impossibility of his being anything other than black. As the mayonnaise dried it became clear, revealing the color of Pope.L’s skin beneath it. In the Black Factory Archive, the very construction of “black” as a meaningful category is put to question. In both cases, the character and value of blackness are shown to be defined through social and economic relationships. Personhood is always subject to negotiation.


Pope.L asks incessantly: How much can I, a black man, be for myself? In his work, he becomes both object and effect, equally a denigrated pseudo-subject and a force that repels those around him with his own disconcerting embrace of indignity. The question of how the self is produced through encounters with the other has preoccupied many black thinkers, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Fred Moten, and Frank B. Wilderson III. It has also fascinated nonblack writers like Maurice Merleau-Ponty, whose insights Rosalind Krauss applied to the art historical analysis of sculpture. She paraphrases Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of a subject’s paradoxical interface with the other as “the way in which the picture of the self as a contained whole . . . crumbles before the act of connecting with other selves.” Merleau-Ponty-via-Krauss tells us that “for each of us . . . there are two perspectives: I for myself and he for himself; and each of us for the other.”2 For Merleau-Ponty, the “I” can come into existence only upon interaction with the other and a world of embodied sensations.3 Krauss invokes Merleau-Ponty to get at the continuities between Minimalist and Post-Minimalist sculpture, namely an investment in exploring the “externality of language and therefore of meaning” and in turn the externality of the self, “a self completed only after it has surfaced into the world.”4 Pope.L uses his own body instead of crafting mute sculpture to reflect on the treatment of the self as an object. “Am I, a black man, for myself? How much?” his oeuvre asks. And it offers a pessimistic answer: potentially not at all.

In this way, Pope.L’s relationship to blackness—or, dare we say, his use of blackness, whether his own or that of others—departs from the precedents set by the Black Arts movement of the early 1970s, glimmering with rhetoric of empowerment and pride. For Pope.L, affirmation is always couched in negation. His Hole Theory (2002) is an artist’s book that may or may not be the key to understanding all his output.5 He defines the book’s project thusly: “Hole Theory is / Theory in process engaging / Lack as an ongoing interaction.”6 Pope.L’s engagement with lack goes back to the “have-not-ness” of his difficult childhood in Newark.7 It also rewires Lacanian psychoanalytic thought—which figures lack as a fundamental aspect of desire, and of being itself—to speak to a racialized condition. Maintaining a relationship with trauma and absence is what generates creative force. For Pope.L, blackness’s lack has value. It’s a having of nothing, which is worth holding onto.

Wordplay and paradoxes such as the valued void that is Hole Theory run throughout Pope.L’s work. His “Skin Sets” are another example of his fascination with the malleability of meaning. Pope.L has created countless iterations of these drawings and paintings, each with a different phrase rendered by hand: WHITE PEOPLE ARE GOLD, BROWN PEOPLE ARE THE GREEN RAY, WHITE PEOPLE ARE THE CAMEL AND ITS NEEDLE, BLACK PEOPLE ARE CROPPED, RED PEOPLE ARE A PHOTOGRAPH, GREEN PEOPLE ARE KAFKA CONSTRUCTION QUEENS, NEW YORK, NEW YORK, and so on. The phrases swerve toward and away from intelligibility. Poetic lines from Hole Theory can be read as descriptions of what happens in the language of “Skin Sets”: “Beneath this sentence is a hole.”8 And: we have left “the ground of meaning.”9

View of the exhibition “member: Pope.L, 1978–2001,” 2019–20, showing work related to The Black Factory Archive, 2004–, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

This kind of play recalls a tried-and-true brand of absurdism in the Western modernist canon but is equally indebted to a position, almost a transhistorical philosophy unto itself, found throughout black folklore: the trickster. Much has been made of the trickster in African and black diasporic vernacular traditions, which are populated by clever characters like Anansi the Spider, Papa Legba, and Brer Rabbit. Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote about the “signifyin’ monkey” of black folklore who “speaks figuratively, in a symbolic code; the lion interprets or reads literally and suffers the consequences of his folly.”10 The trickster succeeds by outwitting his oppressor. The monkey bobs and weaves around the lion, King of the Jungle, who can only lumber through the trees, at least one foot always on the ground. 

Like the trickster, Pope.L wages his war with a wry sense of humor. It’s a way of inviting viewers in, he has said, rather than alienating them with more acerbic wit.11 The Crawls and other performances and videos could be massively and one-dimensionally heavy if not for the proverbial wink, a jaunty hop-step in the artist’s disposition, augmented by cartoonish props like the Superman suit he wore while crawling for The Great White Way: 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street (2001–09), or the potted flower he held during Tompkins Square Crawl (1991). Pope.L aims to create discomfort, but the audience is rarely the butt of the joke. Yes, we’re tackling difficult questions, but it doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while doing it. Humor becomes a form of generosity. “Hey,” Pope.L seems to say, “we’re here to make meaning together.

Though performance is the molten core of Pope.L’s practice, he also works in sculpture, writing, video, theater, drawing, and rumor. This varied production does not merely supplement his performance work, like the material output of many other performance-oriented artists. Rather, the objects/entities circulate in some sort of fucked-up baroque Gesamtkunstwerk. Take, for instance, a lesser-known Pope.L work: distributingmartin (2000–). It’s a net art piece accessible through a trapdoor of sorts within the Black Factory Archive website. Simply constructed web pages linked in a labyrinthine structure detail a head-spinning but straight-faced fabulation about Pope.L’s quest to infect the US population with the DNA of Martin Luther King Jr. In addition, distributingmartin entered the texture of New York through a media campaign involving posters, billboards, magazine ads, and mail, as well as gossip that Pope.L spread about his fictitious feat. For years the project lay dormant, until he incorporated it in Du Bois Machine (2013). That work is a ten-foot-tall wooden sculpture of a man’s legs, positioned upside down on a stand, with a speaker at the crotch broadcasting the voice of a young girl, who narrates a linearly coherent version of the distributingmartin web-story.12

There is a recursive, circular relationship between works like these. The gravitational center is Pope.L himself. This is the case not simply in the sense that, like any other artist, Pope.L is the generator of all this activity, but in that his fashioning of Pope.L as an entity is itself an artwork. “I do not picture the hole, I am the hole,” he writes in Hole Theory. This hole has the power to generate other holes, material or immaterial, full or empty: “a voodoo of nothingness.”13

View of the exhibition “member: Pope.L, 1978–2001,” showing Sweet Desire a.k.a. Burial Piece, 1996, inkjet prints and video, at the Museum of Modern Art.

Pope.L’s ambivalence toward form, his creation of works that generate multiple versions and embodiments that elude art historical classification, is his way of slipping past barriers that divide art and life. Looking to Hole Theory for guidance, we can see Pope.L’s vision of art as a vortex where meanings come loose and anything can happen. Flint Water Project (2017), an installation, performance, and intervention staged at What Pipeline gallery in Detroit, is an example of how Pope.L has worked to activate art in the world, and vice versa. Pope.L bottled contaminated water from Flint, Michigan, a majority black city that has suffered for years at the hands of what could generously be called “criminal negligence” and more accurately “environmental racism” or “leaving the poor to die.” He sold the bottles as an edition, the proceeds of which benefited relief efforts. The work directly shifted material conditions by leveraging the economic systems of the art world. Flint Water Project accepted the terms of art’s circulation, mobilizing the spiritual alchemy of the readymade (read: capitalist voodoo) toward an end other than pocketing the cash. The gesture was decidedly different from artworks that “shed light on” a problem or tweets like “reminder that Flint still doesn’t have water.” Instead, it exploited structures that show no signs of crumbling soon. Détournement, but make it nasty.

Work like Flint Water Project casts a long, melancholic shadow over Pope.L’s performances in the 1970s. Oh, how things have changed in the intervening years. At a press conference in advance of “Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration,” the trio of major events in New York dedicated to his work this fall (a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a new installation at the Whitney Museum, and a new Crawl commissioned by Public Art Fund), Pope.L spoke about the city then and now: “New York City has a cute dress on, but underneath there’s still darkness.”14 The new Crawl, titled Conquest, did not have the electrifying and horrific force of the artist’s early actions. It felt as sanitized as the tony West Village neighborhood that grounded it. An official parade permit buffered the event from the regular goings-on of downtown Manhattan. Pope.L himself did not crawl; instead, he recruited dozens of volunteers to participate in a relay. Groups covered separate, short distances, with attendants cheering them on and providing water bottles at the end of each segment. This relieved participants of the grueling labor that made the Crawls so compelling in the first place. The lightening of the work is certainly not Pope.L’s fault; rather, it’s a function of the times we live in, when chance is minimized and activity highly regulated. Ours is a hypermediatized world of flashmobs and Instagram stunts, where public spectacle is not unusual, and documenting it is even less so. The slippage of this dynamic places Pope.L and his practice at a crucial juncture in the story of this city, of the art world, and of culture at large. How can art carry the disruptive force of a man dragging himself down 42nd Street? How can it speak to us, when the language of “disruption” has been snatched up by corporations and state actors?

Pope.L’s cross-institutional survey reminds us that the question is still on the table, even though it seems harder than ever to answer. Museums operate in a mode of continuous growth that depends on economic inequality for funding, while presenting programs that emphasize dissidence and social justice. Provocatively called “member,” MoMA’s portion of Pope.L-palooza holds its own amid the media storm of the museum’s expansion and rehang (which a friend summed up as “bigger and with more blacks”—not untrue). The exhibition reminds us that performance is always hard for museums to handle, but “member” captures the energy and irreverence of Pope.L’s work much better than I’d expected. No effort is wasted trying to activate the artist’s archive by restaging his past actions. Instead, the show is matter-of-factly museological, presenting video works alongside photo and video documentation of performances, and bolstering the pictures with costumes, drawings, and props related to the work. These objects not only help furnish a holistic understanding of what the past forty years have been for Pope.L, but they also serve to illustrate the ideas and forms that interest him. The only downside to this approach is that it sometimes feels a bit like an overdetermined scholarly effort to place him, the unplaceable, in a clear art historical niche.

Pope.L: Choir, 2019, 1,000-gallon plastic water storage tank, water, drinking fountain, copper pipes, and mixed mediums; at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Shown at the Whitney, Choir (2019) is a large installation that finds Pope.L working once again with water. An upside-down fountain (a reference to Jim Crow–era segregation) drips water into a massive white tank, which is hooked to copper pipes that run through the galleries and up the walls, into the building’s engineering and ending, unseen, somewhere on the inaccessible second floor. A microphone pointed at the tank’s belly amplifies its rumbling throughout the gallery; burbling and dripping sounds play in the lobby, where dented glasses of water perch on narrow shelves by the admissions desk and the elevator as part of the related installation Well. Choir builds on Pope.L’s engagement with the politics of water, as expressed in Flint Water Project. It manages not to wither under the residual heat of the controversy that led board chairman Warren Kanders to resign this past summer. In classic Pope.L fashion, politics—realpolitik and air-quotes-politics alike—are deftly handled. Choir stands in for the systemic yet diffuse, sometimes violent machinations that lurk behind the museum’s galleries and insulate its walls. It takes a very particular kind of artist to be able to wade into these waters without sinking. Some would say it takes a nihilist, yet Pope.L is anything but.

Though the tradition of the trickster informs Pope.L’s work, it would be a mistake to tie him to its lineage too assuredly. The trickster operates as though his speed and wit can liberate him and his people from their oppression. Pope.L is a different kind of figure entirely. He knows things are far more complicated. If anything, Pope.L crystallizes the trickster’s problematic. He engages traditions that imbue objects with the energies of a spiritual realm, from capitalism to voodoo. His own objects crackle with the spirit of the trickster. What I mean to say is that Pope.L, after forty years in the game, does not embody the trickster, but rather explores and illustrates what is at stake in such a position. On the trickster hang hopes and fears about institutions, oppression, and survival. Can we navigate dexterously enough to triumph over the powers that be? Or do we resign ourselves to find solace in our ever-narrowing ability to imagine an alternative? Most frightening of all: if the trickster cannot outsmart the oppressor, then what chance do the rest of us have? 


1 Project statement,
2 Rosalind Krauss, “Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post ’60s Sculpture,” Artforum, November 1973, p. 49.
3 See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
4 Krauss, p. 49.
5 Pope.L, Hole Theory, facsimile reproduction in Mark H.C. Bessire, ed., The Friendliest Black Artist in America, Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2002, pp. 76–110.
6 Ibid, p. 85.
7 Pope.L uses the neologism in an interview with Martha Wilson, “William Pope.L,” Bomb, Spring 1996, p. 53.
8 Pope.L, Hole Theory, p. 81.
9 Pope.L, Hole Theory, p. 85.
10 Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The Black of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing, 1998, pp. 990–91.
11 Pope.L, at “Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration” press breakfast, New York, Sept. 18, 2019.
12 As a curator at Rhizome, I worked on archiving and cataloguing distributingmartin for the Net Art Anthology.
13 Pope.L, Hole Theory, p. 79.
14 Pope.L, at “Instigation, Aspiration, Perspiration” press breakfast.


This article appears under the title “Value in the Void” in the December 2019 issue, pp. 38–43.

Trevor Shimizu’s Painter Persona Spoofs Masculine Ideals of Artistic Genius

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:59

Throughout his expansive body of work, New York–based artist Trevor Shimizu has been “willing to reveal highly personal and potentially shameful things” while simultaneously “cultivating a Fantasy Self—an ideal self-image.”1 I’ve excerpted those characterizations not from a piece of art criticism but from a description of Type Four individuals, one of the nine categories defined by the Enneagram personality test popularized in the 1970s. Shimizu’s exhibition “Performance Artist,” opening this month at Kunsthalle Lissabon in Portugal, includes a new work titled Personality Research Center, comprising a collection of slides and printouts dedicated to understanding his Enneagram type—also known as “The Individualist.” This is the artist’s second work in this format; he more typically makes paintings or videos.

Trevor Shimizu:proud-father, 2014, oil on canvas, 30 by 22 inches.

Famous Fours highlighted in Shimizu’s “research center” include Vincent van Gogh, who inspired Shimizu to become a painter: the artists share a birthday as well as a personality type, plus Shimizu’s grandparents had a dog named van Gogh.2 Fours’ greatest fear is that they “have no identity”; they strive to compensate for “negative self-image and chronically low self-esteem.”3 Countless fantasy Trevor Shimizus have appeared in the artist’s work over the past two decades: for example, a sex symbol in the painting Self-Portrait Asian Heartthrob (2008), a tech bro in the “Lonely Loser Trilogy” videos (2013), and a decadent late-career artist in the “Made by Assistant” paintings (2013). Shimizu’s paintings typically illustrate a scenario, and the title often gives as much information as the rendering. The Japanese-American artist considers Molly Ringwald (Self Portrait) (1999) his first performative self-portrait. Shimizu painted himself as Anthony Michael Hall, with Molly Ringwald looking at him lovingly—a nod to the duo’s performances in John Hughes’s films Sixteen Candles (1984) and The Breakfast Club (1985). As Shimizu told me in his Queens studio this past August, he identified with Hall’s nerd characters, though Hall never won Ringwald’s favor in either.4 At least, he related to Hall more than the off-putting Asian stereotypes in Hughes’s films, as he noted to C. Spencer Yeh in an earlier interview.5 Even in his fantasies, Shimizu’s ambitions are often more banal than wondrous.

These imagined selves recall the work of another famous Four represented in Shimizu’s installation: Cindy Sherman, whose “Untitled Film Stills” (1977–80) show the artist posing in staged stills for movies that never existed, relying on well-known female character tropes. Although Shimizu wasn’t exposed to much contemporary art growing up, he became enamored of the artist persona after seeing the film Basquiat (1996). Yet, unlike some of the characters he performs, he isn’t completely sincere in aspiring to becoming the next great artist, and his quick style of rendering outlines—often achieved with a dry brush—suggests that he is making no effort toward technical mastery.

Still from Trevor Shimizu’s Snowboard Gear, 16 minutes, 56 seconds, as part of “The Lonely Loser Trilogy,” video, 2013.

Shimizu has been so embarrassed by a few of his works that he has destroyed them. He made the painting Serving Ryan Gosling Coffee (2010) after spending a summer working as a barista in an LA coffee shop frequented by the male star of The Notebook. But he covered up his fanboy moment, turning the canvas into one of his “Sunburn” works—a series showing people getting sunburns, which serve as humiliating markers of trying to look more attractive by getting a tan. He told me that he recently found a forgotten charcoal self-portrait with the torso ripped off, and remembered he had drawn himself wearing a T-shirt that promoted Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel, a band he was, years later, so ashamed ever to have liked that he felt compelled to eliminate any evidence. But he’s coming to terms with his embarrassing phases, even mining them for artworks: Retrospective Self-Deprecation (2019) is a postcard featuring two photographs of the artist: in one, from around 2010, he’s in his early thirties and slightly overweight. This unflattering photo is paired with a more recent one of Shimizu with his daughter, where he looks like a healthy, proud father.

Shimizu made the postcard for the Lisbon launch of Broadcasting: EAI at ICA—a book edited by Alex Klein, a curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia, and Rebecca Cleman, director of distribution at Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. At the ICA in 2018, Klein and Cleman organized a show about the history of EAI, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation and distribution of media art. The exhibition included a video from Shimizu’s “Lonely Loser Trilogy.” The artist, who graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 2002 after transferring from UC Santa Cruz, was formerly the technical director of EAI, and the organization recently acquired many of his video works. Following the EAI/ICA collaboration, Klein organized Shimizu’s Lisbon solo to call attention to his video practice. The artist’s first video—the 840-minute Spice (1991–2013)—comprises recordings of the adult television programs he watched as a teen at night while his parents slept. The pornographic scenes are interrupted by quick switches to other shows: he changed the channel to hide the content when his mother or father got up for a glass of water or to use the bathroom. He edited this footage into a work later in life, voluntarily showcasing what he used to hide.

Still from Trevor Shimizu’s Mountain Bikes, 18 minutes, 14 seconds, as part of “The Lonely Loser Trilogy,” video, 2013.

When Shimizu discusses his experiences or makes work about his past, it’s with the distance typical of an elderly person, as if telling stories of an entirely different version of himself, way back when. His Jimsonweed Research Center (2017) comprises a video and folders of printouts warning of the dangers of consuming the psychoactive plant. In the video, a friend of Shimizu’s recounts a bad trip that Shimizu experienced as a teenager after accidentally ingesting jimsonweed. The witness describes how Shimizu screamed at a kid who had teased him and spit on the cops who arrested him. As with much of his work, the piece is sincere though not moralizing. “There’s always an impulse to make [my work] somewhat entertaining,” Shimizu told me. The detachment with which he treats his various phases, whether personal or painterly, makes sense given the vast quantity of work he’s produced, due in part to the speed with which he renders his sketch-like paintings, and the low-budget, DIY nature of his video productions.


For more than fifteen years, Shimizu’s video and painting practices were separate, until he made his first video painting in 2017. He began to hang unstretched canvases, typically painted monochrome, on the wall, cutting a hole in the center to make room for a monitor mounted on the wall behind. He has reworked earlier videos to appear in this format. The best known of these video paintings incorporate the “Lonely Loser Trilogy,” for which Shimizu took on the persona of a tech bro who is really into extreme sports. Shimizu used a Google Glass camera—a short-lived device worn almost exclusively by tech enthusiasts—to record himself watching skateboarding videos for one part of the trilogy, and snowboarding and mountain biking for the other two. The point-of-view filming and subject matter recall athletes wearing GoPros, though the artist is not outside doing tricks—he’s just watching other people do them on his laptop.

Trevor Shimizu: Made by Assistant (watching porn), 2013, oil on canvas, 18 by 23 inches.

In 2018 Shimizu added a fourth piece to the series, which he still calls a “trilogy”: a video of a concert he found online. During his aspiring rock musician phase, he attended a Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers benefit concert for the Free Tibet movement. Just a few songs in, he entered the mosh pit, only to get elbowed in the face, and had to sit out the rest, sporting a bag of ice. He found the concert on YouTube and recorded his screen, a nod to the ways in which concertgoers tend to mostly film other people’s phones when attempting to record a performance. Shimizu wears headphones while watching the concert on his screen, so the video’s soundtrack is actually the dishwasher in the background, making him what he calls “this pathetic character that doesn’t leave the house.” It’s not hard to draw parallels between the tech-bro character and the modernist male master in the “Lonely Loser” video paintings, implied by Shimizu’s proud, gigantic signature, which sometimes takes up nearly a quarter of the canvas. Both personas’ grand ambitions are easy to mock.

While the video paintings were Shimizu’s first material melding of the two mediums, his painting practice has always been as performative as his videos. Two years after seeing Courbet’s self-portraits in a 2008 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Shimizu decided to paint himself doing all the non-art jobs he’d had: telephone engineer, personal assistant, computer technician, video store clerk, pizza delivery driver, Chinese buffet server, US census enumerator, nightclub photographer, carpenter, one-hour photo developer, barista, and telefundraiser.

In addition, he emulated famous artists in his “Late Works” (2012) and “Made by Assistant” series. For “Late Works”—which constituted Shimizu’s first show at his New York gallery, 47 Canal—the artist imagined himself as a senile artist who made unsigned, undated paintings, never meant to be shown and supposedly found only after he died. The pictures include sexual fantasies about his nurse, several of them images of her sunbathing, plus self-portraits with crow’s feet and wrinkles. For “Made by Assistant,” he created paintings attributed to a fictional studio assistant who became obsessed with Shimizu’s wife, and painted countless portraits of her. Made by Assistant (Watching Porn) shows Shimizu viewing smut on a big screen as evidence that his assistant does all the work. Those scenarios didn’t really happen, of course; the works were all made by Shimizu himself. “I’m actually a feminist, so I think porn is disgusting,” he told an interviewer in 2015. “I’m also a wholesome guy.”6 It’s difficult to take either that statement or his fantasy of watching porn as completely sincere: conventionally, one fantasizes about reenacting porn or winning extreme sports, not watching either on a laptop. The layers of screens that recur throughout his work serve as stand-ins for levels of remove.

Trevor Shimizu: Made by Assistant (Sit Ups), 2014, oil on canvas, 15 by 12 inches.

Shimizu worked with many aging artists and artists’ estates during his time at EAI, and was also an assistant to such veterans as Dan Graham, Shigeko Kubota, and Carolee Schneemann. These activities fostered what he calls his “conceptual art wannabe” phase, which includes an ongoing body of work dedicated to Graham. The video Highlights (2018–19)—a computer screen recorded on an iPhone, then saved as an Instagram story highlight reel that’s displayed in the gallery on a monitor—shows a screen playing country music videos, with Graham’s voice occasionally singing along off-screen. Another painting from the series illustrates the true story of one afternoon when Shimizu and Graham’s wife, artist Mieko Meguro, were meant to meet Graham at a matinee movie in Times Square. They grew worried when Graham didn’t show up and wasn’t answering his phone, though it turned out he had gone to the cinema’s Union Square location and watched the film without them. The painting shows Graham enjoying popcorn and a movie, while Meguro files a missing person report.


While all of Shimizu’s work retains a distinct deadpan humor, a number of recent pieces are outright jokes, practically painted memes. They’re often paintings of Instagram screenshots, social media being a perfect platform for the artist’s interest in persona performance. Some have the humor of a teen boy, like his fart series (2015): numerous paintings of fart clouds with smiley faces. His “Groupies” series (2018) comprises portraits of the women eager to get with him or, more precisely, of their Instagram profiles, since they are actually spam bots that seek to lure and scam men. The paintings in his “Unfollowers” series (2019) depict screens showing accounts that have unfollowed him. He told me that after downloading an app that tracks unfollows, he “started to become like a sociopath, checking to see who unfollowed me so I could unfollow them.” When he showed the paintings, they created “a lot of awkward interactions with friends who unfollowed [him]”—including his own sister. Now, he just doesn’t follow anyone. Two videos, Deleted Stories (2018–19) and Unused Stories (2018), are being shown in Lisbon. Instagram stories auto-delete after twenty-four hours, but the compiled items Shimizu posted then deleted suggest that he found his own stories so boring, dumb, or embarrassing that he had to take them down earlier. “They’re usually stupid weed jokes,” he told me.

Vape Dad and the Nannies (2018) was his last joke painting before taking a hiatus from the series, fearful that his work might become as uncool as dad jokes. A number of earnest pieces about fatherhood complement these, though. Fatherhood is a surprisingly rare subject in art history, given how many artists have been dads. Five years before becoming a father, Shimizu started making work about his parenting hopes and fears: Girlfriend Wants a Baby (2010) shows a couple lying in bed while a baby floats in a cloud above them. The cloud is colorful and bright, though in many places the colors mix and become muddy, producing a dark gray fog and making it unclear whether the cloud is happy or ominous. The “House Husband” series includes House Husband (Dog), 2014, which shows the artist smoking a pipe, ignorant of the fact that the dog has just pooped all over the house and the baby. Goofy, from the same year, is a portrait of the Disney character—a widower and single father—rendered as jejune (and, well, goofy) as ever. When Shimizu showed the work alongside Girlfriend Wants a Baby and House Husband (2013) in a 2014 show at 47 Canal, he presented Goofy as a tragic figure, swirling together the serious and silly in a manner characteristic of his oeuvre.

Trevor Shimizu: Vape Dad & The Nannies, 2018, oil on canvas, 15 by 19 inches.

Later paintings in his 2016 show—which was called “New Works” and held four years after “Late Work”—depict him engaged in such domestic acts as massaging his pregnant wife’s feet (Foot Massage, 2016). The show included a “Baby Expert” series replete with renderings of handy baby-carrying devices, as well as Breastfeeding in Public (1), 2016, a cartoonish, straightforwardly titled portrait of his wife, Erica Papernik-Shimizu, an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art. “New Works” also featured a mini golf course—an exaggerated acceptance of his new “dad” role—and a series of paintings of stuffed animals belonging to his daughter, Goldie (b. 2015). More recent paintings reproduce the child’s drawings. Goldie’s bedroom houses Goldie’s Gallery, where Shimizu has curated exhibitions for artists like Meguro, Ken Kagami, and Antoine Catala. Earlier this fall, Galerie Christine Mayer in Munich did a gallery swap with Goldie’s, hanging all the paintings at child level.

Most recently, Shimizu has leaned into the painterly tradition of drawing from what he knows: “portraits of my wife, daughter, cat, still lives of objects in our apartment, and landscape paintings of places we enjoy visiting.” The switch was inspired by Shimizu’s recent purchase of the catalogue for MoMA’s 1998 Pierre Bonnard retrospective, which he visited when he was studying video and performance in art school. Shimizu remembers feeling “somewhat underwhelmed” by the show, but he purchased the Bonnard catalogue to revisit his early thoughts on painting. His recent landscapes use significantly more paint than his earlier works, which often left large swaths of canvas visible.

View of Shimizu’s exhibition “New Work,” 2016, at 47 Canal, New York, showing, left to right, Baby Expert (Walking), 2016, oil on canvas, 58 by 55 inches, and Koala bear, 2016, oil on canvas, 72 by 68 inches.

Though Shimizu follows the Impressionists in painting his surroundings, he doesn’t aim to romanticize or beautify his environment. Rather, his depiction of the natural is more mundane, replete with chipmunks, turtles, shrubs, hills. A city dweller seeking out flowers and chipmunks can be understood as a form of finding the good in the everyday, as manifested in the artist’s 2015 exhibition “Trying to Be a Good Person” at Rowhouse Project in Baltimore. The show focused on the less glamorous and never easy aspects of trying to be good, like doing the dishes, walking the dog, or going to therapy. The show took place in a house undergoing renovations and featured rooms of paintings, some on unstretched canvases that filled entire walls. Ceramic animals populated what would be the child’s bedroom, a painting of someone washing dishes hung above the kitchen sink, and the master bedroom featured fart paintings. Happy Farting 2 (2015) shows a couple passing gas in bed together without shame, smiling and enjoying one another’s company: the kind of intimacy where you don’t have to perform a persona.

But the show had a tragic element: Autoerotic Asphyxiation (2015) shows a man dying of the eponymous state. “You try really hard to be a good person, but then you fail and die in some embarrassing way,” Shimizu told me, calling his viewpoint at the time “cynical.” Still, the show reflects the ways in which being a goody two-shoes is kind of a joke and nearly impossible to do earnestly, and so offers an alternative to art’s moralizing function. Shimizu lends sympathy to those trying in earnest to be good, while making fun of those trying too hard to be great. Maybe the most embarrassing thing you can do is believe sincerely that you are a great artist. But even worse would be to not bother pursuing meaning
and goodness.


1 “The Individualist: Enneagram Type Four,” The Enneagram Institute,
2 While lists van Gogh as a Four, classes him as Type Five, “The Investigator.”
3 “The Individualist: Enneagram Type Four.”
4 Interview with the artist, New York, Aug. 9, 2019. All Shimizu quotes are from this interview unless otherwise noted.
5 Trevor Shimizu, “Confusing and Accurate and Deadpan,” interview by C. Spencer Yeh, Bomb, Feb. 19, 2019,
6 Shimizu in Jacob Fabricius’s interview book Trevor Shimizu Season 2, Episode 8, Copenhagen, Pork Salad Press, 2015, p. 35.


This article appears under the title “Painter Persona” in the November 2019 issue, pp. 70–75.

Welcome to the New

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:30

Stop the Presses!

In one of my favorite scenes in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, the reporter character, Peter Fallow, experiences “a feeling that journalists live for. Before the mind can digest what the ears have just heard, an alarm puts the nervous system on red alert. A story! It is a neural event, a feeling as palpable as any recorded by the five senses. A story!

Here at ARTnews, we get that exact kind of thrill from delivering you the top stories in the art world—the breaking news, the most incisive criticism, profiles of the most compelling people in the field. We’re there at the protests, the auctions, the art fairs. We cover the controversies and the collectors, the artists and the activists, the museums and the galleries, and the art that pops up in the wildest places. With this brand new website we are able to bring you all of that with considerably more visual clarity—and additional pizzaz. You’ll find that the enhanced navigation makes it easier to find top stories and key news, and the clean layout makes it easier to read them. Plus, we have a much-improved showcase for images, so you can see for your own eyes what we are writing about and reporting on.

This magazine—which also publishes a robust quarterly print edition—is nothing without engagement from our readers. I look forward to hearing from you about what we are doing right, and what can be improved—and what you’d like to see more of. And while I’m at it—got a tip? Send it over It might just be a story!

A New Website for Art in America Asserts the Relevance of Art Criticism Today

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 10:27

Why relaunch a website in 2019? The question feels too obvious to answer but too fundamental to avoid. Part of the reason is that a new website allows us to look our best. Our new online home is more readable, easier to navigate, and visually sharper than any of Art in America’s previous digital incarnations. Consistent with the print redesign we introduced this summer, this site is meant to be more inviting. On the backend we’ve established systems that will allow us to grow rapidly in the future and, in time, provide visitors with access to our full archives.

But what may look from the outside like a standard design overhaul reflects a fundamental behind-the-scenes transformation. After more than a year of discussion, we’ve reset our priorities to establish a sustainable future for the kind of incisive critical writing A.i.A. has been publishing for more than a century. By joining with ARTnews on this new platform, we can reach an expanded audience without sacrificing the critical voice and analytical rigor that make A.i.A. distinct.

This publication is about art and artists, and we continually seek out writers whose ideas illuminate contemporary culture. That hasn’t changed. What’s different now is that we’re inviting more readers to understand why we are passionate about what we do. Investing in a new website isn’t merely an aesthetic choice. It’s a public argument that art criticism matters now—and that the potential audience for it is larger than ever before.

This relaunch has been a long time coming. Writing in a 1995 issue of A.i.A., Robert Atkins predicted that “future art historians will mark the 1994–95 season as the year the art world went on line.” He reported on his attempts as a critic to adapt to new formats like message boards and email:

“Art buffs with the requisite computer-and-modem hardware and Internet access could discuss the Whitney Biennial and Lacanian theory, inspect an international array of museum schedules, search the International Repertory of the Literature of Art (RILA), and peruse auction prices from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. They could also view artworks—some for sale and others designed for electronic, interactive formats—by artists ranging from paleolithic daubers to Laurie Anderson.”

You can almost hear the crackle and squawk of a dial-up connection in Atkins’s description, but it’s also possible to discern the outline of the art publishing landscape we know now. The 1994–95 season may have been a momentous one for technological development in the art world at large, but it was not the year that Art in America actually went “on line.” In fact, it wasn’t until the start of the Obama administration that A.i.A. established a robust digital presence, and even then the publication operated primarily as a print magazine with a website on the side.

The reluctance to embrace digital publishing at the turn of the millennium might have meant going against the grain to some extent. Yet it also allowed A.i.A. to skip some of digital media’s growing pains: pixelated images, clunky web browsers, hastily written blogs, and comments sections that often looked like intellectual cesspools. Our cautious advance to the Web was also informed by legitimate skepticism: how would people get paid for their work if it was being given away for free? (It’s a question that could have gotten a publisher branded as a party-pooper during the dotcom years, but that publications and readers are now confronting with a more sober sensibility.)

Cover of the December 1995 issue of Art in America.

There was probably also a touch of snobbery in an art magazine’s anti-digital stance, the assumption that a rarefied discourse about recondite objects was most appropriately delivered in a gorgeous print object. I love our print publication. I’ve gushed about it—in print. Yet the Web vs. print divide that once seemed to hold existential implications now appears to be easily bridged. The relationship between formats is better understood as a continuum that also includes social media and live events. A publication is really the public it creates, and this new site is another step in the process of expanding the audience for art even beyond our current global readership.

We are investing in a thriving online platform because we think we can continue adding to a broad conversation about culture that’s been happening all around us and intersecting with the art world. Even as our online presence has been relatively muted and art criticism in general has begun to look like a niche practice, we’ve witnessed an explosive growth of other kinds of cultural criticism. Sophisticated discussions of television shows, for instance, sometimes borrow the analytical tools honed by art critics. Working within our narrow sphere, art critics have developed methods for assessing complex aesthetic objects that often trenchantly comment on or are directly connected to systems of real-world power. But it’s time to come out of the niche. We have a lot to say about questions central to the most pressing debates today, and we now have a larger megaphone with which to say it.

I want to thank everyone who worked on this project at Penske Media Corporation and my colleagues at ARTnews. Together we have created what will be the primary online destination for criticism, analysis, and art world news.

Picasso’s Electrician Gets Suspended Two-Year Jail Sentence, Hélio Oiticica Estate Heads to Lisson, and More: Morning Links from November 20, 2019

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 09:00

Reanimating History

An appeals court in France has upheld a suspended two-year jail sentence given to a former electrician to Picasso, who was convicted of having stolen 271 works by the artist. [Al Jazeera]

The publication of artist Celia Paul’s new book about her time with the painter Lucian Freud, who has long dominated her narrative, is “of great significance,” writes Frances Spalding. [The Guardian]

Lisson Gallery now represents the estate of Hélio Oiticica, one of Latin America’s most important artists. [ARTnews]


The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hiring Denise Murrell, the art historian behind the lauded exhibition “Posing Modernity: The Black Model From Manet and Matisse to Today,” as associate curator of 19th- and 20th-century art. [The New York Times]

Reem Alsayyah, an artist with work currently on view at the British Museum in London, has said that the institution is using its programming to “artwash” funding from the oil giant BP. [The Guardian]

According to Charlotte Ashamu, an associate director at the National Museum of African Art, one of the biggest challenges facing institutions across Africa is a general lack of state funding. [Smithsonian Magazine]

ARTnews Top 200 Collector Cheech Marin’s museum of Chicano art has received a $10,000 gift from the TV network Ovation and Charter Communications. [The Press-Enterprise]


A collection of German art said to be worth €300 million (about $331.7 million) and containing works by Markus Lüpertz and Anselm Kiefer has disappeared. [Süddetusche Zeitung]

After it laid off at least 60 of its workers, the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles closed with “no present plans to reopen.” In a new essay, Jori Finkel writes that it was always a “shell of a museum.” [The Art Newspaper]


Painter Eugenio Chicano, who represented Spain at the 1982 Venice Biennale, has died at 83. [El País]

Estate of Hélio Oiticica, One of Latin America’s Most Important Modernists, Goes to Lisson Gallery

Wed, 11/20/2019 - 08:30

Hélio Oiticica may have lived to be just 42 years old, but over the course of his short career, his restlessly inventive spirit made him one of the most important Latin American artists of all time. He effectively helped define modern art in his home country, Brazil, though his interest in chance operations and utopian societies earned him a global audience. And now a major gallery is taking on the artist’s estate with the hope of growing that audience even more.

Lisson Gallery, which has five spaces spread across New York, London, and Shanghai, will now represent the Oiticica estate worldwide. Through the new arrangement, Galerie Lelong & Co., which has long shown Oiticica’s work, will no longer represent the estate.

Alex Logsdail, the director of Lisson, told ARTnews that the gallery’s interest in the artist goes back decades—almost to its very beginnings. “My father, Nicholas, saw his show at Whitechapel [Gallery in London] in 1969, two years after the gallery opened,” Logsdail said. “He was somewhat intimidated by him at the time—he was a wild guy. So, it’s been a long time.”

Oiticica may be best known for works that seek to merge painting and sculpture with everyday life. Having started as a painter with the Group Frente movement during mid-1950s in Rio de Janeiro, he went on to create three-dimensional abstractions that are associated with the Neo-Concretist movement. Many of these pieces feature brightly colored geometric forms that seem to fold or hang above viewers; some even appear to move as people walk past them.

Hélio Oiticica, photographed in 1965.

During the 1960s, Oiticica became a key figure in the anti-authoritarian movement Tropicalismo, which combined music, theatre, film, and sculpture in an attempt to envision a more tolerant form of Brazilian society that was opposed to consumerism. After the movement dissolved, Oiticica became active in the New York scene, and one work from his time in the city, A ronda da morte (The Rhythm of Death), 1979, will be realized for the first time as part of the forthcoming Bienal de São Paulo this July.

As for Lisson, the gallery is planning to bring one of Oiticica’s interactive works, a walk-in sculpture made of gridded metal called Penetrável Macaléia (1978), to the Art Basel Miami Beach art fair in December. In the fall of 2020, the gallery will stage an Oiticica show across its two New York spaces.

Since the artist’s death in 1980, Oiticica’s work has found a wide audience in recent years. In 2017, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and the Whitney Museum in New York mounted the first Oiticica survey in the U.S. in two decades. Since then, it has appeared in important exhibitions about decolonization in Latin America and nonsensicality in art of the 1960s, as well as in a show of works from a Patricia Phelps de Cisneros gift now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Speaking of Oiticica’s wide influence, Logsdail said, “I don’t think people are fully aware of it. It’s really time.”

Hugo Boss Prize, One of the World’s Top Art Awards, Names Shortlist for 2020

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 16:00

The Hugo Boss Prize, one of the world’s top art awards, tends to seal the success of artists, as evidenced by past winners including Anicka Yi, Simone Leigh, Matthew Barney, and Danh Vo. Now the Guggenheim Museum, which facilitates the prize, has revealed the shortlisted artists for the prize’s 2020 edition, which comes with $100,000 and a solo show at the institution in 2021. Those shortlisted artists are:

  • Nairy Baghramian
  • Kevin Beasley
  • Deana Lawson
  • Elias Sime
  • Cecilia Vicuña
  • Adrián Villar Rojas

Unlike most other art awards, the Hugo Boss Prize doesn’t place limitations on the age, nationality, or career stage for its nominees, and the shortlisted artists run the gamut from emerging Americans to well-established but under-recognized foreigners. Beasley, who is based in New York, is the youngest nominee, having not yet turned 35, while Vicuña, who hails from Chile and is now based in New York and Santiago de Chile, is the oldest, at age 71.

The nominees are among today’s most celebrated artists. Lawson, who could become the first photographer to win the award, is set to show a new series of work about the African diaspora in Brazil in July as part of the Bienal de São Paulo, and Baghramian is showing new works merging mechanical and organic forms at the Venice Biennale in Italy. Vicuña is currently exhibiting a painting about her political involvement in New York in the Museum of Modern Art’s new rehang, and Sime, an Ethiopian artist known for his tapestry-like assemblages formed from disused computer pieces, is now the subject of a traveling survey currently on view at the Wellin Museum of Art in Clinton, New York. (Sime is also building a public garden at a palace in Addis Ababa.) Villar Rojas recently showed a new installation about the transience of certain materials at collector Qiao Zhibing’s private museum in Shanghai, and Beasley made headlines last year with a sound-and-sculpture installation at the Whitney Museum in New York fashioned from a cotton gin motor.

“After a rigorous examination of today’s artistic landscape, the jury identified a group of artists whose practices are beacons of cultural impact,” Nancy Spector, the Guggenheim’s artistic director and chief curator, said in a statement. “While diverse in their approaches and themes, they each exemplify the spirit of experimentation and innovation that the prize has always championed.”

The jury included Spector as well as Naomi Beckwith, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Katharine Brinson, a contemporary art curator at the Guggenheim; Julieta González, an independent curator; Christopher Y. Lew, a curator at the Whitney; and Nat Trotman, a performance and media curator at the Guggenheim.

6 Pounds and 1,600 Pages of Art Writing! New Calvin Tomkins Collection Chronicles Postwar Art in Intimate, Albeit Incomplete, Fashion

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 16:00

“Art of the City” is a weekly column by Andrew Russeth that runs every Tuesday.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Calvin Tomkins’s first artist interview. He was in his early 30s at the time, and working for Newsweek, which asked him to go visit Marcel Duchamp. They met at the storied King Cole Bar in Midtown Manhattan. “I’d had about 45 minutes to prepare for it, so my questions were predictably dumb,” Tomkins writes in a preface to a new collection of his work, “but his answers were not. Everything surprised me.”

The rest is the stuff of legend. Tomkins would go on to become the premier chronicler of the age’s art scene, right up to the present, with the New Yorker publishing most of his artist profiles. “I knew very little about art, so my on-the-job learning curve was steep and haphazard, but the timing was close to perfect,” he writes. Things were about to get very interesting in the art world. Pop was on the horizon. The Castelli Gallery was 2 years old, and the Green was about to open.

Titled The Lives of Artists, the handsome new Phaidon tome—six volumes in a fluorescent red case that recalls Sterling Ruby’s Desert X sculpture—clocks in at about 1,600 pages and weighs a healthy 6 pounds. It sports 82 articles, stretching from a 1962 adventure with Jean Tinguely to a sit down with Vija Celmins that just appeared in August. An essential and highly pleasurable record of the era, it also amounts to a sprawling, lifelong investigation into what it means to be an artist. Why does a person become one? What is their role in society? How do they continue on?

There are not always straightforward answers—or any at all. In the 1970s, with Tomkins at her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe, then well into her 80s, recalls telling a friend at the age of 10 she would become an artist. “I had no idea where that came from,” she says. “I just remember saying it.” Later in that decade, at the unveiling of his 101-foot-tall Batcolumn sculpture in Chicago alongside Second Lady Joan Mondale, Claes Oldenburg admits to having doubts about making public art. “One thing leads to another,” he says, “and you find yourself sitting on a platform like a politician.”

An indefatigable listener whose pieces regularly involve months of reporting, Tomkins has a remarkable talent for eliciting big reveals, or simply catching them when they come. Architect Philip Johnson concedes “we could have designed better buildings” at Lincoln Center, in a profile that doesn’t shy away from his fascist and Nazi period. And even while discussing her creatively fertile relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe remarks, “Of course, you do your best to destroy each other without knowing it—some people do it knowingly and some people do it unknowingly.”

The robust length of many Tomkins pieces, especially early on, invites the reader to luxuriate in details and stories that might get cut nowadays. Buckminster Fuller uncorks one improbable stemwinder after another, alternatively enervating and captivating. Romare Bearden tells about an eight-foot-long python that an “exotic dancer” brought to his studio one night, and shares that Hannah Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher encouraged him to stop dabbling in music and focus on painting. Robert Wilson, in an especially elegant profile that is intercut with a play-by-play of his hulking 1973 performance The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, discusses giving a press conference in Yugoslavia where he repeated the word “dinosaur” for 12 hours while chopping an onion.

Even at their most obtuse and curmudgeonly (hello, Frank Stella!), Tomkins subjects are sympathetic. There are no takedowns, and only the rarest moments of disapprobation from the author. (Post-structuralism is “an exceptionally glum line of thought,” he writes at one point. He is also skeptical of the lasting relevance of Minimal and Conceptual art.) As New Yorker editor David Remnick says in an introduction to the boxset, “He is the least academic writer imaginable, possessing no theories, no philosophies of art. But he sees magnificently, both the work and the creator.”

If there is one obvious complaint to make about this majestic anthology, Tomkins at least anticipates it. “The relative scarcity of women reflects, I’m sorry to say, the reality of the art world until quite recently,” he writes. That is true only insofar as women artists were not often present in art’s halls of power during the start of his career. They were certainly active.

This is a project devoted, fundamentally, to the winners of their times, a hall of fame that omits numerous women and non-white artists, whose stories Tomkins has taken up with a great deal more regularity in recent decades. One wishes he had more often gone in search of less-lionized figures.

A lot has changed in Tomkins’s decades on the beat. For one, he notes that “the increasing flight of advertising money to other media forced cutbacks in the magazine’s page count.” His pieces have gotten shorter, though a solid percentage of his portraits still instantly rank as definitive when they appear.

It is easy to bemoan the state of arts journalism today, as periodicals fold, papers nix coverage of culture, and blue-chip galleries mount their own luxe editorial projects. The era of book-length magazine profiles is certainly over, and there is some sadness in that, but also a silver lining. As the art world has become vastly larger, more international, and more interconnected, enterprising digital outlets have emerged—like Topical CreamArts.BlackSex, Disand innumerable podcasts—that cover a far wider range of subjects than the old media ever did.

“The great artist of tomorrow will go underground,” Tomkins’s lodestar, Duchamp, once said. Something similar is perhaps happening now in regards to art writing. One role of legacy outlets like ARTnews could be to try to piece together the innumerable fascinating things happening around the world, charting interplays between specific scenes and a mainstream, mass audience (whatever that is, exactly).

In any case, Tomkins’s prose exudes the sheer joy of writing about art: holding on tight as Stella blows past the speed limit in a sports car, or watching on, in Osaka, Japan, as inspired artists blithely burn through the budget for Pepsi’s pavilion at Expo ’70, or just sitting with an artist for many hours, trying to understand how they see the world.

Starting out, Tomkins writes, he aimed to keep himself out of stories, as a kind of reaction to New Journalism. Later, though, he changed his approach. “I eventually realized that being part of the action was more fun for me,” he says, “and probably for the reader.”

UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing Cancels Exhibition Amid Fraught Relations Between U.S. and China

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 15:30

With relations between China and the United States growing strained, the art scenes of both countries have been directly impacted. This week, the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing—which is widely regarded as one of the most important contemporary art museums in China—was forced to call off a planned exhibition of work by Hung Liu, who had been due to have a solo show opening in December. The cause, according to the museum’s director, Philip Tinari, was “an increase in tension” between the two countries.

“Topics that were once relatively open for discussion are now increasingly scrutinized,” Tinari wrote in a letter addressed to “colleagues, lenders and admirers of Hung Liu” that was obtained by the Art Newspaper. “An exhibition that might have been greenlighted a few years ago—such as this one—must now be canceled.”

In his letter, Tinari said that loans to the show were denied import permits. To stage an exhibition of foreign artwork in Beijing, Tinari explained in his letter, the institution must present images of the work for formal approval from the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture. The Bureau reviews the proposal, then issues documentation that must be submitted to Beijing Customs, who issue an import permit. According to Tinari, UCCA filed the necessary paperwork with the Bureau months before the scheduled opening before reciting news that their request had been denied.

Liu was born in Changchun City in China’s Jilin Province and emigrated to the U.S. in 1984; she is now based in San Francisco. Her paintings often incorporate images or themes from Chinese historical photographs, particularly those of women, children, and refugees, and address notions about power and authoritarianism. Some works in the UCCA show had previously been shown in Beijing and Shanghai.

“I’m disappointed my show was cancelled by the Beijing Bureau of Culture, especially at the last minute,” Liu told the Art Newspaper. “I was looking forward to exhibiting at the Ullens Center because they had planned a more comprehensive look at my work, involving both Chinese and American subjects.”

6 Pounds and 1,600 Pages of Art Writing! New Calvin Tomkins Collection Chronicles Postwar Art in Intimate, Albeit Incomplete, Fashion

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 15:15

Marking the 60th anniversary of his meeting with Marcel Duchamp, the volume includes pieces on Jean Tinguely, John Cage, Jennifer Bartlett, and many more. Read More

The post 6 Pounds and 1,600 Pages of Art Writing! New Calvin Tomkins Collection Chronicles Postwar Art in Intimate, Albeit Incomplete, Fashion appeared first on ARTnews.

Sotheby’s Withdraws Banksy Sculpture After Rival Artist Claims It Was Stolen from Him

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 14:30

Earlier this week, British artist Andy Link made headlines for claiming that Banksy’s sculpture The Drinker (2004), which was set to hit the block at Sotheby’s in London, was stolen from him in 2006. Now the auction house has responded—by yanking the sculpture from the sale altogether.

After maintaining that the seller had the right to put the work up for auction, Sotheby’s withdrew The Drinker from a curated contemporary sale taking place in London today. The sculpture had carried the highest estimate—£750,000–£1 million, or about $972,000–$1.3 million—of any work in the sale.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said, “The work has been withdrawn in agreement with the consignor.” The auction house did not offer further comment on its change in course.

The Art Newspaper reports that Sotheby’s had told Link in a letter that it “would require a cogent and persuasive case, with appropriate evidence before—after taking instructions from the consignor—altering the planned sale process on any legal grounds relating to purported title claim by you.”

In a previous statement, Sotheby’s said it had “consulted both the Metropolitan Police and the Art Loss Register” to confirm that that the seller, who purchased the work from dealer Steve Lazarides in 2014, could legally offer it up for auction.

Link, whose longstanding feud with Banksy has previously been chronicled, has said he stole the street artist’s sculpture from its original location in central London in 2004. Link said that the work, which he had put on view in his own garden, mysteriously went missing in 2006 before it resurfaced at Sotheby’s this week. He claims he contacted the Metropolitan Police at the time of the theft.

The Metropolitan Police has said that it could not comment, as it does not have an active investigation into the matter.

Hugo Boss Prize, One of the World’s Top Art Awards, Names Shortlist for 2020

Tue, 11/19/2019 - 11:06

The winner will receive $100,000 and a solo show at the Guggenheim in 2021. Read More

The post Hugo Boss Prize, One of the World’s Top Art Awards, Names Shortlist for 2020 appeared first on ARTnews.

Helen ‘Leni’ Stern, Sculptor and Patron Who Championed Washington Color School, Is Dead at 89

Mon, 11/18/2019 - 17:04

A short-lived museum that she founded exhibited seminal D.C. artists such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Paul Reed. Read More

The post Helen ‘Leni’ Stern, Sculptor and Patron Who Championed Washington Color School, Is Dead at 89 appeared first on ARTnews.

‘The Crown’ Spotlights Queen Elizabeth’s Surveyor of Art—Who Was Also a Soviet Spy

Mon, 11/18/2019 - 16:47

The first episode of the latest season of the show traces a scandal involving the art historian Anthony Blunt. Read More

The post ‘The Crown’ Spotlights Queen Elizabeth’s Surveyor of Art—Who Was Also a Soviet Spy appeared first on ARTnews.

‘The Crown’ Spotlights Queen Elizabeth’s Surveyor of Art—Who Was Also a Soviet Spy

Mon, 11/18/2019 - 16:30

Samuel West as Anthony Blunt in The Crown on Netflix.

The third season of Netflix’s The Crown, which traces the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth II from the years 1964 to 1977, premiered last night with a look at the salacious past of the monarch’s former art surveyor, Anthony Blunt. Veteran English actor Samuel West plays the part.

Blunt, a British art historian, is believed to have been recruited by Soviet spies while he was studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s. The KGB agent went undetected for years, and was appointed the art surveyor at Buckingham Palace in 1945 by Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI. He was charged with overseeing the royal family’s collection of works by Rembrandt, Monet, Artemisia Gentileschi, Leonardo da Vinci, and numerous other figures.

In the dramatized portrayal of Blunt’s tenure at Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip encounter the art historian’s preparations for an exhibition of early modern European artworks from the royal holdings at the Guildhall Gallery in London. Pointing to a work by Annibale Carracci, Philip inquires, “Who’s that by?” When he learns the Baroque painter’s name, Philip replies, gruffly, “Never heard of him,” adding of the family’s knowledge of art, “We’re country people, really.”

Blunt, whose secret dealings the episode also touches on, served as director of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and he published a number of important texts, including a monograph of painter Nicolas Poussin and the book Art and Architecture in France, 1500–1700.

In 1964, the year that episode one kicks off, Blunt was discovered by MI5 intelligence officer Arthur Martin, though the art surveyor was given immunity in exchange for a full confession. So as to protect the British intelligence community from humiliation and criticism, Blunt was allowed to maintain his position at Buckingham Palace for 15 more years, until Margaret Thatcher divulged his political treachery to Parliament in 1979. He was subsequently stripped of his knighthood by the Queen. (In The Crown, Blunt concludes a lecture on Carracci’s 1585 painting Allegory of Truth and Time when MI5 shows up to interrogate him.)

He said at the time that he felt he’d “made an appalling mistake,” and explained that he was initially drawn to work for the Soviet Union as a way to “serve the cause of anti-fascism.” Blunt added, “This was a case of political conscience against loyalty to country. I chose conscience.” He died in 1983.