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.

I ENVY people who manage to remain naive lovers of art, unaffected by monetary value or critical opinion. The portrayal of such an innocent love is at the heart of a 1991 film directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. The story is about a couple of American yuppies, Tina and Jake (played by Andie MacDowell and John Malkovich), who are living beyond their means in London. Needing money to pay their hotel bill, they debate selling Tina's lovely miniature Henry Moore -- or pretending that it has been stolen and collecting the insurance. Not quite the figure of a man (the piece looks like a thumb wearing a face), it nonetheless has an uncanny vitality and charm.

As they're deciding what to do, the piece disappears. It has been lifted by the chambermaid, not because she has any inkling of its monetary worth but because it "spoke" to her, as she later explains. Seventeen or eighteen years old, the girl, Jenny, is deaf, and shares a dreary basement flat with her brother, an unemployed punk. Nothing in her background could have prepared her for the Moore, but her aesthetic hunger is intense, and her response is pure.

When Jenny's brother, without her knowledge, attempts to sell the piece, and failing that, leaves it on a trash heap, Jenny is inconsolable until he leads her to it, whereupon she cuddles it to her cheek, as if it were a lost kitten found. How crass is Jenny's brother, unable to recognize art! But Jake and Tina resemble him in at least one regard. They see the sculpture as a commodity, and when it's returned to them, they auction it to help maintain their costly lifestyle.

Undeniably, the Frishmans would like to have in their bank account the money they once hoped their art would make for them. But they would also like to have their taste validated. That's why Dan himself sometimes sounds like an artist who, concerned about his reputation, maintains his belief that fate will be kind. "I still have faith that something might happen," he says. What he longs for is not merely that Shertzer or somebody else will come along and compliment his choices. Though Dan has already paid more to rent the vault than he could get for selling the art room's contents, he says, he hopes that one or another artist will "pay off." It's the art gambler in him, the American steeped in our commercial culture. As he sees it, the dogs are still running around the track.

Just recently Dan voiced this regret: "We really should have tried to turn everything in and buy one important piece, carefully selected, which would be affordable and would appreciate over time. If you do that, I think you can do well." He has, of course, described every art investor's dream. (And isn't his inability to "turn everything in" precisely what created the present difficulty?) Dan says he would have asked museum curators what one piece to buy. He forgets that it is not a curator's job to advise private buyers.

Perhaps he forgets that museums, too, have basements full of stored art, and not every piece is equally adored. The temptation must be great to "deaccession" some of it, and museums often do succumb. When Edward Hopper's widow, Jo, an artist in her own right, made a bequest of her husband's work to the Whitney Museum of American Art, along with her own work, the Whitney was only half happy, according to Gail Levin's (1995). Jo Hopper's art, judged "unworthy" by Whitney officials, vanished, Levin wrote. What happened to it is unclear. "They arranged for some of her paintings to be given away; they simply discarded the rest," Levin contended.

In conversations about art, people regularly say "It's a Hopper" or "It's a Moore," rather than "It's by Hopper" or "by Moore." The idea that the art is synonymous with the artist seems to apply despite actual value. Only artists can ever destroy their own work without compunction, it seems. Maybe we would all feel better if sanctioned rituals existed for destroying unwanted art. As a Catholic, I learned in childhood that it was a sin to throw away a crucifix, even a broken one. If I wanted to dispose of something like that, the old nuns who taught me said, I had to burn it. I'm lapsed now, but living in our secular society, where art so often substitutes for religion, I think ceremonially incinerating excess art would make a kind of skewed sense.

We might also want to push for a new recycling scheme, whereby we would be urged to bring our extraneous art to recycling centers. There it could be transformed into salvage. Canvases could be repainted; sculptures could be dismantled and their materials used for making new art. That solution appeals to the Yankee in me. I can imagine, as well, Art Rescue Leagues, whose dedicated members would distribute cast-off art to schools, hospitals, and other institutions, getting it back into circulation again.

And yet I would not urge collectors to restrain their acquisitive ways. Nor would I urge artists to watch their output. Instead, perhaps, the Swiss-born artist Jean Tinguely could be held up as a model to inspire at least some of his colleagues. In the 1950s and 1960s Tinguely began to build art from old machinery and other things with moving parts. The work perhaps best known to Americans, Homage to New York, was put on display and set running in the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art in 1960. Two more of Tinguely's kinetic constructions were exhibited in Denmark and the Nevada desert. All three shared this trait: for a period of time they were enjoyed, and then dramatically, obligingly, they destroyed themselves.

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

Illustration by David Pohl.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 2000; Obscure Objects of Lapsed Desire - 00.12; Volume 286, No. 6; page 32-35.