On the way home from Washington, D.C. it’s hard to type on the swaying train, with a laptop on my lap. I’ve spent two days at the Smithsonian Museum’s Archives of American Art, where I had a great time but found little of value among the saved records of my father’s friends and associates in the New York City art world of the 1950s and 1960s. I searched five boxes of records from Grace Borgenicht’s gallery for references to my father, who showed there in 1958. I found exactly one line item: the sale of his painting “Orange Flowers” to the Whitney in 1956 for $100. Listed on a ledger page of sales to the Whitney from 1953-68, it was the lowest price of any of them. His friend Randall Morgan sold two works to the Whitney for $247.50 and $427.50. The highest price on that page was for a Leonard Baskin at $9,000. Of course, these were only the sales to one museum, from one gallery, for these specific years so how to generalize about the art market—or any one career— from that? But it looks bad. In retrospect, that sale was the peak of my father’s art career: he could ever-afterwards claim he was in the Whitney’s permanent collection but he never topped that. He mentioned it occasionally but not as often or as proudly as some of the other stories I heard growing up—like the one about his brother being the model on the iconic Cracker Jack box, for example. Maybe my father knew it was a mixed achievement, that his high would have been someone else’s low. The Borgenicht gallery’s stars at the time were Jimmy Ernst (son of Max), Milton Avery, Edward Corbett, Wolf Kahn, and Baskin…. Not household names, maybe, but they sold work consistently from the 50s to the 70s.
I had hoped to find correspondence between the gallery and my father—or correspondence with others about his work. But there was none of that. I also looked through eight boxes of material in the Barbara Kulicke collection and a reel of microfilm of Robert Kulicke’s papers because my father worked for Kulicke Frames for some fifteen years and was friends with the couple. I remember get togethers with them and their son Michael, who was older than me. Apparently we visited their house on the Jersey shore at least once (I don’t remember that). I do remember that we all went on a family vacation to St. Vincent’s in 1970, when I had a memorable sixth birthday. But there is no mention of my father in either Kulicke collection. Perhaps that’s because my father’s relationship with them was volatile: he quit and rejoined the company many times and later in life rarely referred to them. He had a tendency to drop people and he dropped the Kulickes (or was dropped) when he left to form his own picture-framing business in 1979. They may well have ended on bad terms (my father claimed co-credit for some of Kulicke Frames innovative designs on at least one resume and in his oral history at the Smithsonian Bob Kulicke mentioned the lawsuits he deployed to protect his patents).
It’s also maybe not surprising that my father doesn’t appear in these public records. People filter their papers before donating them and self-select for the “important” bits, the correspondence (however small) with the Robert Motherwells, Barnett Newmans, and Franz Klines, not the Earle Olsens. There is no mention of Michael Kulicke in his parents’ archives either and that hardly means he wasn’t important to them (or that he didn’t play an outsized role somewhere beyond theses archives). These absences may only remind us that archives are a kind of public performance, where donors represent their own histories for future scholars and make assumptions about what those scholars will want to study. Surely no one anticipated me coming to read through all these boxes over two spring days in D.C., as Robert Mueller’s redacted report was being released to the public. These days who cares about a minor figure in an art world elsewhere six decades ago?
But as journalists combed through the 400+ page report from the special commission into Russian interference in the 2016 election, I combed through a box of photographs by Hans Namuth, hoping to find a clue about how, when, and where he had photographed my father. Those images of the art world of the 1950s were carefully preserved with tissue paper between each print and multiple copies of each, stamped on the back with the address of Namuth’s E. 72nd Street studio. Spread out over the paper and contact prints were lively parties ranging from galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to crowded gallery openings. There were society folks in black tie at the Met and slouchy figures in shorts and cardigans at the galleries; everyone smoked. A few pictures showed women artists working or installing their work, bent over in head scarves and sneakers. I skimmed through, thinking that maybe my father’s face would jump out at me among the crowd, like a Where’s Waldo game. But it didn’t. I couldn’t recognize anyone else either, except for Pollock, whom Namuth had made into a visible celebrity.
My only other catch of the trip was an unlabelled reproduction of one of my father’s paintings, found amongst the collection of Thomas Hess, editor and art critic for Art News in the 1950s. In series 4: artist/subject files ca 1946-1978, box 8, in a folder marked “O c. 1960s,” there he was, abstractly. The painting was not one I recognized (would I have recognized my father’s work on the walls of one of Namuth’s photos either? probably not) but it was clearly related to the one I reproduced here last month and compared to a Franz Kline. This one is signed E. Olsen ’61 so it’s a year later and the black and white reproduction disguises the palette. What is it doing in this collection? I don’t know and there’s no clue. Perhaps Hess reviewed a show of my father’s so that’s the next lead to pursue.
As much as I love archives, the detective work of following leads and stumbling on clues, the process of handling files carefully saved and sorted, this trip ended up disappointing. When the helpful manager of the manuscript room at the archives asked me if I had found what I needed, I tried to explain what was missing. He sighed. “I wish people would just give us everything and let us decide what’s important. Researchers do want all the personal stuff that some people edit out,” he said. But then he caught himself: “on the other hand, some collectors provide only the personal….” And that’s the problem. No one can control what donors do with their material upstream, before it reaches the archive. And one can only guess what researchers will want in the future, not only because their daughters aren’t expected to ask these questions decades later, but because what’s important shifts and changes. In my women biographer’s group we talk often about the profound shift in the last few decades toward valuing women’s experiences, and how long it will take for archives and public records to catch up to preserving and valuing them.
But that’s not even the case here (though Robert Kulicke’s collection is better organized than Barbara’s). Here what happened is not explicitly gendered but a deep (and gender-inflected) devaluation of personal life: the family, the day-to-day, and social lives. Of the many oral histories with artists the Archives of American Art commissioned that I’ve read (and thank goodness they had the prescience to do that since 1958!) precious few mentioned the usual master narratives of biography, like marriages, family relations, feelings. They tended to be chronicles of professional achievements, detailed resumes told by one artist to another. The one that swerved the most from that template was in fact Grace Borgenicht, interviewed in 1963 by art historian Dorothy Seckler. The two women spoke more frankly than anyone else I read about the impact of mothering on artistic careers and the emotional contexts of their work. Borgenicht even mentioned her youngest daughter by name, Lois.
In an excerpt in The New Yorker of his new book on writing biographies, Robert Caro repeats the advice given him early on in his career as an investigative journalist: “turn every page.” This principle has already stood me in good stead too, though some of the pages I turned were clumsily done with the knobs of a microfilm reader. By turning every page, the research process becomes a treasure hunt, where you never know what interesting and irrelevant tidbit you’ll come across next—like the note Grace Hartigan wrote in 1957 on pink stationery to Audrey Hess, wife of the aforementioned Thomas Hess. Her note bypasses Thomas to write directly to her, but ends up in his archive at the Smithsonian anyway, digitized so I can read it from my home sixty years later. It would take Mary Gabriel’s in depth knowledge of those women artists and their circle in Ninth Street Women to unravel the context, the relationships, and the significance of that one pink note. For me, it was just one treat along the long road I’m just starting.