Curatorial Flashbacks #9: Disasters Averted, MostlyBy Carl Belz
Incident: You remember my telling you in CF #1 about the break-in at the Rose Art Museum when one of the apprehended felons bitterly complained that there was “nothin’ in the building but art.” What I didn’t include in the story was that one of the thieves cut himself while climbing through the broken clerestory window atop the gallery wall and proceeded to splatter blood on one of our paintings as he jumped to the floor below. Which would have been bad news in any case but was especially alarming in this case, as the painting in question was an air-brushed, super-realist Paul Sarkisian image of a postcard lying on several sheets of creased paper, all of which were resting upon an abstract, immaculate field that was pure snow-white. The sight of blood on the picture was frightening, it looked terminal.
Outcome: We called Morton Bradley, an independent conservator who lived in the area and had done work for us on other occasions, told him our story, and he calmly instructed us to send the picture to his place first thing in the morning. Which we did, and it was back in the museum in less than a week, looking as good as new, as if the incident had never happened. Among the members of Team Rose, Morton Bradley was henceforth referred to as The Magician.
Incident: For about 10 years after becoming director of the Rose, I reported to Brandeis Vice President David Steinberg, an exact contemporary of mine who was knowledgeable about art, genuinely believed in the museum’s mission and well-being, and effectively protected our interests within the highest levels of the university’s administration. He was also development-minded, forever on the lookout for opportunities to “make the museum a tub on its own bottom,” his rather unappealing metaphor for saying that if the museum were separately endowed it would be insulated from the budgetary cutbacks that periodically descended upon it from on high and threatened its very existence. In any case, one memorable developmental opportunity that David arranged entailed our visiting Ben Heller at his spacious Park Avenue residence where we encountered major Rothkos and Motherwells among other contemporary masterpieces—not altogether surprising, as Ben Heller was well known as the early owner of Pollock’s Blue Poles, but seriously impressive all the same. After looking around, I remarked to Mr. Heller that I especially liked his early Motherwell, it had an edge to it, it was a tough picture. To which he responded, “Yes, like the Motherwell I gave Brandeis back in the 1950s, the yellow one I personally delivered in my car.” Which totally stunned me, because—and you can take my word for this—I knew by then every picture in the Rose collection, and there was only one Motherwell in it, an Elegy, and Ben Heller had not given it. In helpless consternation, I asked if he was sure. He said he was sure, and he said it firmly. I told him I’d look into it when I returned to campus. I said I’d get back to him. We left. I could feel the gate to his philanthropy closing behind us. I was reeling, I was dejected.
Outcome: I dug deep into the files and discovered in one labeled Early Correspondence the carbon copy of a letter from Walter Spink, acting curator of the university’s art collection before the Rose existed, to Ben Heller, expressing regrets that on his recent visit to campus Mr. Heller had been unable to see the Motherwell painting he’d donated to Brandeis, because it was hanging in a student’s dormitory room. OMG! Whatever was this, and what could it mean—a Robert Motherwell painting hanging in a student’s room! But then the light over my head went on and, flashing back 25 years, I was able to see what happened. Like many of the pictures given to the university during the early 1950s, the Motherwell had been added to the student loan collection, from which undergraduates were able to rent artworks for $5 apiece for the academic year. (NB: Albeit informally, art was integral to Brandeis’s early institutional mission.) With the passage of time, the collection naturally required periodic editing as many of the objects accrued the aura of high-priced commodities—I personally discovered an exquisite little 1940s David Smith bronze lounging in it—but back in the distant, misty days of the innocent 50s they were merely educational delectations—you might say they were nothing but art—and a few of them seem sadly to have slipped through the cracks and disappeared—like the Motherwell. So, on behalf of Brandeis University, I wrote a letter to Ben Heller acknowledging our responsibility and lamenting our misfortune. We never heard from or approached him again.
Incident: Jake Berthot and I worked together on an exhibition of his paintings that took place at the Rose Art Museum in May/June 1988 and then traveled to the Lannan Museum in Lake Worth, Florida and the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, California. It was a mid-career survey comprising about 40 pictures from the late 1960s to the present that chronicled Jake’s ongoing and unfolding passion for the materials of his art, for the pleasures of mark-making, for painting as painting. Color, always in oil, was somber and earthy at the start, but it increasingly blossomed in the 80s, becoming thick, ebullient, and palpably radiant in the newest pictures we included. Irresistibly so—as I learned to my astonishment one day while walking through the galleries and noticing that the identifying label on one of the recent paintings had been smudged with something red. A closer look revealed—yikes and again yikes—that a visitor’s finger had probed the picture surface, as though swiping a dollop of icing from the top of a freshly frosted cake, only to discover that the paint hadn’t fully dried, and thus needed to be wiped clean. And where to do that? On the label, of course!
Outcome: Though the surface of the painting was everywhere restlessly active with brushwork, I couldn’t talk myself or anyone else on Team Rose into believing the finger probe wouldn’t be noticed. What, then, to do? We needed a creative solution. And who was the best candidate for that? The artist himself! So I called Jake and explained what had happened, and he didn’t get angry or upset, he just calmly advised me to get the picture to him ASAP and he’d see what he could do. Whereupon our registrar hand-carried the painting to New York that very afternoon, delivered it to Jake at his studio, and it was back in the museum in less than a week, looking as good as new, as if the incident had never happened. Jake had worked his magic, but his legerdemain was fully transparent—nothing but the meaning of his painting remained visible.
(This is part one of a two-fer. Part two will appear before you know it)
Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.