Obscure Objects of Lapsed Desire

What is the value of a painting that has outlived its appeal? An exploration of what happens when art becomes stuff.




MY aging in-laws are trying to decide what to do with their collection of contemporary art. Among the hundred artists who created these 300 works, the painter Friedel Dzubas has the biggest reputation. Though the late German émigré did not achieve the fame of his friends Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler, his works are sought by some collectors, and are handled by a New York gallery. My in-laws, Dan and Ruth Frishman, also own serigraphs by Josef Albers, Walter Darby Bannard, and Jules Olitski, and a lithograph by Sam Francis. Like the Dzubas paintings, these will be sold without much difficulty. It's the rest of the collection that presents the challenge.
Over the past few years my husband, Bob, and I have approached auctioneers and gallery owners with the Frishmans' long printed list. All said the same thing: The art, which was produced in the 1950s through the 1970s, is "too new." Worse, most of the artists aren't "listed" -- that is, they don't appear in the multi-volume Benezit and other standard reference books, or on artprice.com and other Web sites that publish brief biographies of artists and their auction records. Often without even looking at the works, many of these dealers declined them. They have seen many such collections. It is a secret question of collecting: What does one do with art that is no longer wanted?

More than once Bob and I have moved the collection for Dan and Ruth, and the experience has made us aware of art as something other than expressions of the human spirit. It is that but it is also stuff -- stuff that must be schlepped like anything else with dimensions, weight, volume, and sharp corners. On the day we hauled 200 pieces to a basement vault in a former bank building, Bob eyed a Dumpster in the alleyway. "It's conveniently located," he said, as we wearily brought in one more load. Some of the canvases were too big for our van. We lugged them through the streets.

When I admitted to the artist Gerald Shertzer, whose work is in the collection, that I had come to think of art as bulk, he nodded knowingly. In 1976, he told me, he had traveled to what was then the Soviet Union, where artists were paid to produce, were supplied with studios and materials, and were given shows twice yearly. The result was a nation of warehouses filled with art. For a time, refuseniks illegally sold art to diplomats, who smuggled it out of the country. Shertzer said the Soviets encouraged the illegal traffic, unofficially, "just to get rid of some of it."

Ruth Frishman wondered if some artists would want to buy back their works. I thought that offering to give them the art might be a more diplomatic approach. But when I posed the question to Vin Grabill, whose Wu Wei I, an abstract acrylic on canvas, the Frishmans had bought in the early 1970s, he said he would not want any of his paintings back. In the past someone had tried to sell a painting back to him, and he refused the offer. Grabill told me, "I felt it was demoralizing to have to consider taking back a piece. It seemed like losing ground in my effort to make headway as an artist."

In the early 1980s Grabill switched from painting to video art. His latest works are easily shelved in his office at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, where he teaches in the Department of Visual Arts. Meanwhile, canvases from his former days are stored in the basement of his mother's condominium in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Eventually Grabill, who likens his works to children, will have to reclaim them and add them to the pieces in his own basement.

Stockpiling art where conditions are less than ideal allows it to decay, however. Neglected art is sentenced art. Bob and I have seen the effects in "the art room," as we have taken to calling the storage space in the bank. Last year Shertzer asked to accompany us on one of our visits. An art teacher for forty-two years at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, he was soon to retire and was preparing an exhibit to mark the occasion. Shertzer thought that one or two of the sculptures the Frishmans had bought from him might be suitable for the show, to be held at the Addison Gallery of American Art, on the Andover campus.

A layer of grit covered everything in the vault. Plaster dust was part of it. Burglars had broken into the art room, not because they were looking for art but because the alarm wires for the building are located there. Once inside, they had torn away ceiling tiles and dismantled the alarm system, tossing the art aside in the process. Then they went upstairs to steal something actually valuable: office equipment.

We located four small brass-mesh Shertzer pieces, packed in boxes. Two of them had been snapped off their rather delicate stands. Happily, the other two were intact, and Shertzer, who hadn't seen them since he had made them, decided they would fit nicely into his show. Almost thirty years old, they seemed freshly done. We were sorry we had never noticed them.

Now and again Bob and I have "rescued" pieces and brought them home -- most notably three surrealistic paintings by the French artist Emile Gaud that are reminiscent of works by Magritte. We encouraged Shertzer to tell us if he saw anything else we should spring from the vault. Tipping a canvas away from the others in a stack against the wall, he said he liked it very much. That painting was an abstract piece by a British artist, Ann Finlayson. Center of the Square is the title Finlayson gave it in 1972, but Bob and I have always called it Pick-up Sticks, because that's what we think it resembles. Shertzer also found intriguing the work of another British artist, Christopher Clairmonte -- clear Plexiglas boxes filled with rows of colored cardboard tickets. He made no comment on charcoals of birds and bare tree branches by Gibbs Milliken, a professor at the University of Texas. An oil portrait by Edna Hibel, whose Madonna-and-child images adorn collector plates and similar products, made him grimace. Then he noticed a small serigraph. "That's something," he said. A geometric pattern of red and blue lines framed in retro chrome, it appeared to pulse as the three of us looked at it. "That's by a real artist," Shertzer said. It was As From Inward Eye, by Richard Anuskiewicz. Bob and I have never been partial to it, but because Shertzer pronounced it "something," because it was, apparently, by a name-brand artist, we took it home.

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Jeanne Schinto has written about history and culture for numerous magazines. She is the author of Huddle Fever (1995).

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