Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Louise Nevelson's Wood Assemblages

Braving a minor storm and scores of downed trees in Golden Gate Park on Tuesday afternoon...

...I ventured to the deYoung Museum to see a Louise Nevelson sculpture exhibit that was organized last year by the Jewish Museum in New York.

I was always aware of the flamboyant artist from the 1970s onward just because of all the iconic photographs taken of her as an old woman wearing outrageous outfits while equipped with her trademark long, black false eyelashes (the above photo by Mapplethorpe is Louise at 87 in 1988 just before her death).

Still, I was never quite sure what had made her famous, so the show at the deYoung was a revelation, especially the huge assemblages of painted wood that she and friends scavenged for her in New York, starting in the 1940s.

The sculptures/assemblages are all monochromatic, usually black but there are a few white and gold series as well. Reproductions don't do the odd, remarkable pieces justice, so if you can possibly get to the museum this final weekend, I can't recommend the show highly enough.

The exhibit was viscerally so interesting that I was getting ready to forgive the Fine Arts Museums for all the crap they've been shoveling at us recently, such as the Nan Kempner dresses fiasco.

Unfortunately, at the end of the Nevelson exhibit, you turn a corner and are confronted with one of the most grotesque exhibits I've ever seen, a trio of collections of ceramic teapots, contemporary drawings, and African beadwork. Sandy Besser is a gangster businessman in the Don Fisher mold, originally from Arkansas where he was a crony of Bill Clinton, and then he moved to Santa Fe where he shared a large house with his late wife Diane and his huge, eclectic and horrible art collection. Somehow, he also ended up on the "President's Council" of San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums.

There is a long, revealing article about Besser by Elizabeth Cook-Romero at the Santa Fe New Mexican (click here for the whole thing) that explains a lot about the art/museum racket which is mostly about cheating the taxman. Here's an excerpt:
Buy low, give high

Besser describes himself as having grown up in St. Louis with "less than zilch." He moved to Little Rock in 1944 at age 8 and lived there until 11 years ago [when he moved to Santa Fe]...

Tax deductions from donating work from his ever-appreciating collection have allowed him to continue his lavish buying, Besser said. Back in the 1960s, he set a price limit of $500 for any one artwork. Over the years, that has risen to $5,000. Besser claims he has seldom broken that self-discipline and has always searched for art that was undervalued. For instance, he first became interested in tribal beadwork in the 1980s. Fine examples of Native American beading were too expensive, so he collected works from Indonesia and Africa. "I didn't buy art because it was going to go up in value," he said. "I bought it because they were giving it away."

Although many collectors keep their acquisitions in warehouses, Besser's entire collection has always been in his home. Each year, after vetting his collection, he donates work to museums. He calls his art a legacy, and now that he is struggling with several illnesses, he is focused on giving art to institutions where it will be exhibited and preserved. Besser's voice breaks with emotion when he shows visitors around his collection or talks about this last round of large donations."
There are more than a few ethical issues here, starting with a member of the board getting tax breaks on his overvalued art, but I don't really care. Just stick the junk in the basement, please.


sfwillie said...

The last photo really captures the awefullness of the architecture.

zoo said...

dear M,
happy 2008

here's a real cracker!

Nancy Ewart said...

There's a good essay on Nevelson over at:

Jerry Jarvis said...

you were on a roll with the pic's Mike.