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Tag: abstract expressionism

Rabbit Hole #1

page from David Herbert’s gallery sales and address book, 1952. David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

When I’m not sure what I’m doing with my family history project I can always do more research. Mostly that means chasing down names in the endless stream of associations that veer further and further from my father. One person (from his school, from his gallery, from an exhibit he was in) knows another person who knew another person. It’s a rabbit hole, yes, and more fun than productive, usually. Except that it can circle back or show patterns. You never know. Here’s one example from the last few days.
I keep a list of names to research, adding them as they come up in sources and annotating them with bits of biographical information. David Herbert, a New York City gallery owner in the late 1950s, came up often in my constellation of sources. Herbert knew Richard Brown Baker, whose diaries I had skimmed at the Museum of Modern Art a few weeks ago. Those diaries had turned up James Harvey, which made sense because Baker interviewed Harvey for a 1963 oral history and later donated several of Harvey’s works to the Rhode Island School of Design’s museum. My father didn’t appear anywhere in Baker’s excerpted diaries at MoMA (the originals at Yale, Baker’s alma mater, are still on my To Do list). But Herbert circled around Baker and Harvey, so maybe following that trail would lead back to my father? Since Herbert had papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art they were worth skimming.
So I spent a few hours online looking through the finding aids, first, to evaluate what might be worth traveling back to D.C. to see in person. Born David Herbert Schmerer in 1920, Herbert served in World War II in Japan, and spent the 1950s in New York working at the prestigious Betty Parsons and Sidney Janis galleries. From 1959 to 1962 he ran his own gallery on East 69th Street. His collection at the Smithsonian stretches to nearly six linear feet of business records, correspondence, and notebooks. Some of the material was digitized so I clicked and waited for pages and pages of handwritten scrawls to load on my screen in Brooklyn. Someone had bundled and boxed these papers, transporting them from New York City to D.C. and sifting through them to organize and scan each one— in anticipation of my virtual arrival. It was humbling, and time consuming.
I found nothing on my father in the exhibition records, nothing indexed in the artist or subject files. And then, again!, the score: there was my father in Herbert’s address book. Proof…of something. The address book was an accretion of names and numbers and notes that Herbert kept for his own records, adding to them over many years and jotting down what a certain collector was interested in. The abbreviation next to my father’s name “N.F.L.” appeared elsewhere, but I couldn’t easily guess what it meant.

page from David Herbert’s digitized address book in the David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

So what was my father’s connection to Herbert? Clearly they were in the same circles in the 1950s and early 1960s, but was there more to find out? When Herbert died in 1995 his estate went to Jaime Andrade, an Ecuadorean artist who also worked in New York City galleries. It was Andrade who later donated Herbert’s papers to the Smithsonian. A Google search led me down another rabbit hole: Andrade and Herbert played a role in the forgery scandal that brought down the long-esteemed Knoedler Gallery in 2011. It was Andrade who introduced Ann Freedman, director of the Knoedler through the 1990s and early 2000s, to the so-called “David Herbert Collection” of Abstract Expressionist masterpieces. Andrade introduced Freedman to Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art patron who claimed to be the mediator between an anonymous private collector who had inherited these previously-unknown works from his father, a wealthy Filipino (or maybe Mexican or Swiss?) businessman. The father, they said, had bought them directly from the artists back in the fifties, which is why there were no bills of sale and they appeared in no catalogues.
At first, Rosales claimed Albert Ossorio, a well-connected painter with a home in East Hampton, had been the conduit for these back-door sales. But later, when that story showed its holes, Rosales (and Freedman) claimed it had been David Herbert who had been having a secret affair with the married Filipino/Mexican/Swiss businessman and had arranged for the access to the artists. Rosales put the paintings by Pollock and Motherwell, among others, on commission with Knoedler, which ultimately sold forty paintings from this collection for some $80 million. Over the next fifteen years doubts arose about these new Diebenkorns, Motherwells, and Rothkos, but Knoedler continued to sell them. In 2001 Knoedler sold a Pollock for over two million dollars and when the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) refused to authenticate it the gallery was forced to refund the money. A few years later the FBI subpoenaed Knoedler to investigate fraud, which initiated a downward spiral of lawsuits and criminal investigations, with Freedman continuing to insist that the works were authentic.
In 2013 a couple who had purchased a supposed Rothko from Knoedler for $8.4 million dollars sued the gallery and several of its employees for racketeering, arguing that the gallery participated knowingly in a conspiracy to defraud buyers. Andrade was named as a defendant, and Herbert’s papers, by then in the Smithsonian collection, were examined for any evidence for any of the earlier stories. Nothing was found. The lawsuit transcripts describe the “Rothko” in quotes and claim the mystery collector acquired the work through Herbert, who was “so critical to many of the seminal artist and collectors of the 1950s.” In fact, Herbert seems a relatively minor figure in the art world of the time, though that address book speaks to the breadth of his connections.
Finally, in 2013 Rosales confessed that some sixty works she sold through Knoedler and another gallery were forgeries painted by “an individual residing in Queens,” according to her plea statement. The controversy, which brought up deeper questions about how art is authenticated and what responsibilities galleries have to their buyers, shone a spotlight on that world’s darker corners but also on one neglected figure among so many. What role did gallery assistants or go-betweens actually play in the production and distribution of art works, then or now, there or elsewhere? It’s not often asked and even less often revealed.
Herbert was a convenient fall guy for this plot: he died in 1995, as Rosales was first launching this scheme, and he was relatively unknown. Unlike Ossorio, who had surviving friends and associates to defend him, Herbert had only Andrade, his long-term companion who had also spent forty years working at Knoedler. The other reason Herbert was a good fall guy was the fact that he was gay, which made all this supposed secrecy plausible. The shame of gayness was conveyed through several details: the collector who was married, had children, and lived in Mexico (or the Philippines or Switzerland…). All of these factors contributed to the believability of the cover story, which fed on assumptions about homosexuality that may or may not have been true. How closeted were gay men in the art world anyway? How damaging would discovery have been? Now that I’ve gone down this rabbit hole, those seem like important questions to pursue.
This day-long detour also reveals how much posthumous reputations depend on so many factors outside one’s control: the name “David Herbert” is now a search term associated with a major scandal and criminal conspiracy. It pops up over and over in the very legal transcripts that confirm he had nothing to do with it: the “David Herbert Collection” they cite never actually existed. Likewise, the “Earle Olsen” entry in the address book makes my father one dot in a long-ago orbit. Again, an address book functions as a visual representation of a fluid and expansive network, even if it raises more questions than it answers.

Photograph of David Herbert (right), Jaime Andrade (center), and William Draper from the David Herbert papers, circa 1909-1996, bulk 1945-1995. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The case transcripts I read and downloaded from the internet a few hours ago end with a discussion of the term “scienter,” which I had never encountered before. Apparently it is a legal term key to fraud cases that describes a “mental state embracing the intent to deceive, manipulate, or defraud.” In other words, the case depended on whether the defendants, including Andrade and Knoedler’s owner and director and other employees, were aware of the forgeries and sold them anyway. Intention, though, as literary scholars and biographers have long known as well, is extremely difficult to prove. Here the case relied on established norms: did the defendants follow customary procedures for authenticating art works? Did they take the usual precautions to review and check information? The prosecutors produced experts who demurred, saying that in this case Knoedler’s procedures were fishy, even by the notoriously unregulated and loosey-goosey art world. The defendants countered with a “buyer beware” argument that the buyers did not do their own due diligence about the work (Note: it seems a risky strategy to simultaneously want the buyer to trust the gallery’s authority and doubt it at the same time).
Finally, Freedman, Knoedler’s director through this decade of sketchy sales and lawsuits, argued that she bought some of these works herself; therefore she could not have been aware of the forgeries. The judge at the trial concluded that the jury would decide Freedman’s motives, but “it is undisputed that she used the fact that she owned Rosales Paintings as a promotional device.” In fact, Freedman’s “state of mind” (or scienter) was a major factor in the judge’s decision to let this go to trial instead of issuing a summary judgment for or against them. Subjective states of mind are hard to evaluate and demand a “full exposition of the facts,” he concluded.
Although the term came up in this criminal context, scienter seems a notion well adapted for all kinds of double-thinking that may not be nefarious. Being closeted in a homophobic environment, for example, could well necessitate a “mental state embracing an intent to deceive.” Just as Freedman and her co-defendants struggled to distinguish between what they knew and didn’t know about Rosales’s scheme, gayness in those pre-liberation days was both known and not known, communicated and obscured.
In the end, the judge concluded that Andrade, for example, was duped too: there was no evidence that he knew what had happened after he introduced Rosales to Freedman and the Knoedler. He never made any money from the sales and he only speculated about Herbert’s association with Ossorio, not with the mysterious collector himself. The judge dismissed this as “guilt by association.” It was Freedman, he implies, who latched onto Herbert as a “significant and largely unsung hero of the art world” as a means to support Rosales’s cover story.
The trial of the remaining defendants, Freedman and Knoedler, began in January 2016 and was settled out of court one month later. Some of the articles published in the aftermath focus on the buyers’ pursuit of justice for its own sake, their insistence on airing their grievance “in public.” It is that definition of “public” that seems at stake: what does it mean to conduct business (or lawsuits) in public versus in private? What does it mean to be gay in public or private? And finally, how does the public sphere represent private lives? As a biographer, that question is especially important because I am making another such representation right now, even as I sift through evidence of others. I too am making something public that may never have been intended to see the light of day.

***

Stay tuned for Rabbit Hole #2: about a museum of art that disappeared from the Upper East Side of Manhattan but once owned a painting by my father…. Also note that this rabbit hole ended in me finding a New Yorker article on the evolving history of the phrase “rabbit hole,” which no longer means Lewis Carroll’s alternate reality (ha, I managed to get Victoriana in here!) but any old time-suck of distractions. Kathryn Schulz, who wrote the article, describes my kind of rabbit hole as “associative” and argues that the internet “breeds rabbit holes the way rabbits breed rabbits.” She concludes that they are a guilty pleasure but also paradoxically productive, “an end in itself.” As a metaphor, the term conveys an appropriate sense of time passing and lack of control. I would also add that it conveys a sense of secrecy, the digging that explores a darkness underneath.

Pre-story, a family memoir in art and artifacts

photo of babies, 1920s, water damaged
1920s baby photos, after the flood

The making of meaning starts with evidence, the data points that stretch like beads along a thread of thinking. In this metaphor pieces of evidence are like shells on the beach: three-dimensional objects of various shapes and sizes and origins that one might look for actively or come across by accident. But evidence can also be abstract, like a memory or a sensation, an experience that becomes a poem for an artist or an insight for a psychologist, a bodily symptom that leads to a medical diagnosis. It can be a story, a song, a smell, or a taste, like Proust’s madeleine. It’s easy to believe that when evidence is strung together into an interpretation—a theory of relativity or a version of history, for example—that the thinking, the thread, is the subjective part. After all, another thinker could take the same pieces of evidence and assemble a different necklace altogether, though the beads are the same. Evidence does not work like a jigsaw puzzle then, where the pieces only fit together in one way and produce one true picture, one solution to “whodunit.” The thinker who does the work of inferring, organizing, and assembling the pieces is doing creative work, even if it’s in a legal or scientific domain.

But pieces of evidence are not exactly like beads or shells either— or if they are, they don’t hold their shape. The decisive apples that Eve bit into and fell on Isaac Newton’s head are not around to re-examine. The bones of one epoch become fossils in another. A fertility figure once handled in a ceremony can become a statue behind a glass vitrine in a distant museum. Time, location, and context don’t just affect the interpretation of physical evidence (we know that), they affect the objects themselves (we can see that with our own eyes). Which makes it difficult to distinguish evidence from interpretation, the dancer from the dance from the audience.

This is a roundabout way of introducing a new research project, which attempts to make sense of evidence in front of me, whether I sought it out or it was thrust upon me, whether it was found in a library or a battered briefcase monogrammed APO. This pre-story provides a brief rationale for my method, which is both academic and personal. In short, this potential family memoir will be my attempt to make a coherent story out of certain artifacts relating to art and advertising that I inherited (from my father and his father) or stumbled across (in my research into nineteenth- and twentieth-century visual culture). It centers on those two men—Earle Olsen, artist, and Andrew P. Olsen, graphic designer—to investigate their particular relationship and more general cultural assumptions about art. It spans Europe and Chicago, as well as New York City in between. It enters department stores in 1920 and visits art galleries the 1960s, but begins with me in a basement in present-day Brooklyn.

I do laundry every week but I never noticed the drip before. So it was too late when I realized there was water seeping over and under the piles of papers on the table in my basement. Those papers included:

    • four photo albums of my father’s family in Chicago, ca. 1920-40.
    • a random assortment of prints and drawings my father had collected over his years as a picture framer in New York City, from 1980 to his death in 2011.
    • a scrapbook of advertisements designed by my grandfather, a graphic designer in Chicago for products like Kleenex, Allstate car insurance, and Planter’s Peanuts from the 1920s to 1960s.
    • loose photos of family members that didn’t fit into the scrapbook or folders, like the 9×12 close up of my father’s brother as a cadet at the Citadel, before he was killed training to become a combat pilot during World War II.

Now that I noticed the water I also noticed the smell— rank as dead leaves.

I threw away my father’s collection of prints and took photos with my phone of the ruined photos, their age newly on display in the mold creeping in from the corners. My father’s brother, Andrew P. Olsen Jr., was alive with green and black spots. The series of four smiling baby photos (was it my father or his brother?), taken in Chicago in the 1920s and carefully preserved for almost one hundred years, curled into itself as it dried. I tried to save the Indonesian puppet my father moved from his Brooklyn loft to upstate New York, tacked to a wall of his painting studio. Its moveable arms akimbo, it survived better than the photos.

photo of Andrew P Olsen Jr, water damaged
Andrew Jr cadet photo, water damaged

How stupid to leave all that paper in that vulnerable spot, exposed beneath the pipes pulling water through the house. But it was January and I had a new idea: to write a history of my father’s family, a story of art and advertising in America as my grandfather’s design career rose with consumer culture and as my father defined himself as an artist just as modern art discovered popular culture in the early 1960s, when I was born. It would be a story of a father and a son, American consumerism, Chicago business, and the New York art world. It would explain my grandfather’s and father’s successes and failures, and enable me to write another book after a fifteen year gap, though I still call myself a biographer. Somehow I’d link it to the project I told people I was writing: a biography of the dancer Jane Avril, dancer of the Moulin Rouge in Paris in the 1890s and model for Toulouse-Lautrec. After all, she was a poster girl for art and advertising, wasn’t she? Somehow it would explain how that project had inexplicably stalled and why I didn’t write “for myself” at all any more.

That’s why the photos and papers were all left out on that table. Because I was “working on them.” But now they were soaked through. As pieces of evidence they were changing (and disappearing) before my eyes.

Biographers are used to the historical record’s gaps; working in archives, we are used to pages that crumble as you turn them, as well as signs of mold and decay. But historical evidence is not only in libraries and not only on paper. The end of the nineteenth century saw the burgeoning of a collector’s culture. Wealthy art patrons like Isabella Stewart Gardner or Henry Frick began to amass the collections that bear their names today in the mansions transformed into museums. Successful industrialists like Henry Ford bought up furniture, farm equipment, even outmoded machinery, creating a three-dimensional archive of Americana. Mass production allowed even average Americans to collect ephemera like baseball cards, postage stamps, or vintage toys. For most of us this vast heap of stuff may seem random, but historians can see a pattern in it. They can read all the beads and shells, the photographs and scrapbooks as well as the collectibles, for the signs of an individual’s values, a culture’s obsessions, a society’s priorities. They can read what’s there and what’s not there. My father’s house overflowed with stuff he picked up at yard sales and antique stores, in trips to Europe in the 1950s and on Saturday nights at the country auctions in upstate New York through the 2000s. He left very few letters, the biographer’s usual gold. His ashes were dispersed years ago but his material self is still, weirdly, buried in my basement.

My basement is both a physical place and a metaphor, of course. It is the basement too, an imaginary place for repressed memories and emotions one would rather avoid or deny. There is evidence there that I still haven’t confronted— like the lists Andrew Sr. kept of the money he gifted his son through the 1970s, supporting my father after my parents’ divorce. During that decade my father turned fifty, bought a summer house on Long Island, and regularly reneged on his childcare payments. Inevitably, the basement leads to other basements, creating a trail of connections forged from a single mention in a newspaper article or a first name dropped into a letter. My father’s letters have led me to “Fred” and “Flora,” who presumably have basements of their own. A conventional studio portrait of my father in 1952 is a slim connection to the artist Walter Pach; another photo links him to Hans Namuth, who famously filmed Jackson Pollock painting in Springs.

My father lived on the peripheries of abstract expressionism, which is back in the news with a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City: he was there in the rooms, in New York City, but never central to the movement. Wandering through that show yesterday, I felt the echoes of all the times I went to the Met with my dad (did I actually see that Clyfford Still retrospective with him there in 1979? I would have been fifteen and it’s possible.) My father’s abstract canvas from 1960 (shown below as it hangs in my bedroom, reflecting the window near my desk and crooked like all my snapshots) resembles the Franz Kline in the Met’s exhibit (“Black, White, and Gray,” 1959), but the implication that his work was derivative would have stung my father. He exhibited in the 1950s, then stopped painting in the 1960s when my sisters and I were born, then started again after divorcing my mother in 1972. He continued painting until his death in 2011, leaving behind hundreds of early canvases and thousands of foam core boards that he produced nearly every day after his early retirement. (“Early” a pun on Earle!)

abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960)
abstract painting by Earle Olsen (1960), photographed by the daughter who is not a photographer

When we emptied and sold his house my sisters and I threw many of those late works away— there were too many! We stored others at the art center in his small town in upstate New York. We kept some in our basements in Brooklyn and Williamstown, Massachusetts; we displayed a few on our walls in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Saint Ambroix, France. The archive was frankly overwhelming and stayed pretty much unexamined for the past eight years. Maybe once a year I’d unearth my grandmother’s jewelry and the abundance of females in the family would look over the diamond rings and paste brooches, wondering how to divide them up, then put them away again (where they remain still).

Then last summer I renovated my basement and pulled everything out, then put everything back— forcing a certain confrontation, I suppose. Now, as I write, I regularly run downstairs in search of… something. The folder of exhibit flyers from the 60s (found! marked “Stuff for Earle” in my mother’s handwriting) or that Namuth portrait to insert here.

portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth
portrait of Earle Olsen by Hans Namuth

When I look at this today my father looks wary, a little hunched. He’s so familiar (family) but this was before my time. One can’t tell the blue of his eyes, a grayish shade my youngest sister inherited. This photo too is damaged, as you see from the tears and folds. I carried it upstairs just now with a load of clean laundry, tucking it under my chin because my hands were full, and snapped a photo of it with my phone. As an image it’s crooked and the layers are visually confusing— my father peering at us from behind his own plexiglas artwork, itself at an angle to the table it rests on. The photo curves off the white desk I lay it on, and that sliver at the bottom edge reveals the gray carpet and wood floor beneath, which mimics the slivers within the photo: the geometries formed by the diagonal arc, like my father’s right shoulder…. Which is when I realize that this is *not* a photograph of my father sitting behind a spray-painted piece of clear plexiglas but a portrait of my father in the mirror of his own artwork. Because otherwise my father’s shoulder would reach to the edge of the black background, right? On my left the sun streams through the window across a stack of folders. If I’m literally bringing the past into the light, reflecting on reflections, it’s all too obvious.

But it’s a start. So here’s what to expect from this project: there will be too many Andrews and Andys and ands. It will take pieces of evidence, seemingly fixed in place, and move them around into new configurations, adding photographs, sketchbooks, school records and army discharge papers, signet rings and costume jewelry. It will chase down dead ends and long-dead relatives. And it will try to make a personal story into something historical. Stay tuned. I’ll be sharing bits of writing here and on Medium as well as images on Instagram as victoria_c_olsen.