Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #12: The Perfect Fit

By Carl Belz

Willem de Kooning, Woman, I, 1950-52. Oil on canvas, 6' 3 7/8" x 58"  © 2011 The Willem de Kooning Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York (Museum of Modern Art, New York)
MoMA’s John Elderfield, whose panoramic curatorial record is without equal in today’s museum world, and whose vision of modernism is exceptional in being fully worthy of the capacious emotional and intellectual sweep of its subject, will be mounting later this year a too-long-awaited Willem de Kooning retrospective. Willem de Kooning, whose name is synonymous with gestural abstraction—with Action Painting, as it was sometimes called—in the first generation of the New York School. Willem de Kooning, who in the 1950s was inevitably pitted against Jackson Pollock in barroom brawls and classroom debates about who was the number one painter in leading our troops to the triumph of American painting. Willem de Kooning, whose slash-and-burn woman paintings—in particular MoMA’s iconic Woman 1 (1950-52)—inspired and haunted an entire generation of young painters emerging at that time.

Pop artist Mel Ramos was one of those painters. Born and raised in Sacramento, California, Mel made his first trip to New York in 1956. He wasn’t a pop artist yet, he was 21 years old and was just getting into painting, just finding his way, and that’s when he first saw Woman 1, which flat out blew him away.  As he’s told me himself, he made a lot of de Kooning-inspired Ramoses after that, maybe a year’s worth, while in the process of finding his own identity. Which he did by the start of the 60s when he found his focus in the media heroes, heroines, and pin-up darlings we associate with his name. A couple of decades thus passed before he felt confident enough to confront, and exorcise, the de Kooning demons that lingered from his initial encounter with the modern old master.
Mel Ramos, I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1, 1976, Oil on canvas, 80 x 70 inches. (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University)
That encounter played out in an ambitious series of paintings and watercolors based on de Kooning’s early 50s images of women that Mel started in 1975. The cornerstone painting was I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1, a stroke by stroke, line by line duplication of every mark, including every drip and spatter that comprised de Kooning’s Woman 1, except that every mark was distinguished by Mel’s singularly lucid personal touch. Despite the weight of its legendary source, the painting’s impact was all Mel Ramos, an astonishing feat that I experienced for the first time shortly after its completion, when I visited the Bay Area in 1976. In fact, it blew me away—as a postmodern appropriation, as an ironic comment about the creative act, as an oblique yet moving tribute, as a pictorial exploit, you name it, it was all there—and I accordingly had it high on my list when I returned to Mel’s Oakland studio in December 1979 to discuss with him the details of the mid-career survey of his work that we’d scheduled for the Rose Art Museum in the spring of 1980.

(Pause here for an interlude of California Dreamin’: By 1979 I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1 had been acquired by Werner Erhard, a classic California entrepreneur who, like the 49ers before him, migrated to the Golden State to make his fortune, which he did by teaching people how to get in touch with their inner selves. He originated EST—Erhard Seminars Training—and it turned out he was giving his annual Christmas party over in San Francisco at the time of my visit. Mel and his wife Leta were invited, and they in turn invited me to go with them, so off we went for what turned out to be an unforgettable evening. The party took place in a large theater from which all the seats had been removed to make room for a hundred or more freshly cut Christmas trees that stood throughout the space and filled the air with their festive aroma. Oyster bars, fully stocked with a generous selection of vodkas, were conveniently sited to assure easy access to the pleasures they offered. And then there were Werner’s guests, about 200 of them, who were to a person friendly and considerate and who together gave off comforting feelings of affection. A stranger in their midst, I nonetheless felt as though I belonged, and I was momentarily transported back in time…it was 1967 again, the time we went to San Francisco and mingled with the gentle people there, when we wore flowers in our hair and drifted blissfully through the Summer of Love. Say what?)

Robert Colescott,  I Gets A Thrill Too When I Sees Dekoo, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 84 x 66 inches Gift of Senator and Mrs. William Bradley (Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University) 
A second offspring of de Kooning’s Woman 1 was welcomed at the museum as a gift just a year after Mel’s picture—the older sibling of the two—had been there as a temporary loan: Robert Colescott’s I Gets A Thrill Too When I Sees De Koo (1978), the title indicating the artist’s full awareness of Mel’s tour de force riff. But the pictures otherwise parted ways. Colescott’s painting belonged to an ongoing series of art historical appropriations through which he raised issues of racial exclusion, as he does in I Too Gets A Thrill by substituting a grinning Aunt Jemima for the spectral face of de Kooning’s demonic femme fatale. Still, I invariably thought first of Mel’s painting when, in subsequent years, I hung the Colescott in the galleries or showed it to guests in the vault—I even kept a reproduction of it handy just to demonstrate a back story in Colescott's creative process.

(Pause here for a little name-dropping and self-aggrandizement: The Colescott was a gift of Bill Bradley, Princeton alumnus, author, Basketball Hall of Fame member, and three-term U.S. Senator from New Jersey, who made a bid for the Democratic nomination in the 2000 Presidential election. We met on the hardwood of Dillon Gym in 1961 when he was a freshman and I was pursuing a doctorate in Art History. From there he went on to demolish and write anew just about every Princeton basketball record—except the one for most rebounds in a single game, which stands at a phenomenal 29 and is held by, you guessed it, me! But I was disappointed when Bill didn’t get the Democratic nomination for 2000, because it meant abandoning some of the dreams we’d hatched years before when we became friends at Princeton—like the one where he’d become President and appoint me our country’s first Minister of Culture. So I had to adjust my career ambition on that one, which I was able to do in 2008 when, as Chairman of our town’s Board of Selectmen, I unilaterally appointed myself to a lifetime position as Franconia Culture Czar. Now how about that!)
Willem de Kooning, Woman (Seated Woman I), 1952, charcoal, oil and graphite on paper, paper 14.5 x 11.5 ins.
An original Woman 1 family member came to the Rose as an extended loan in 1994, a fabulous little drawing of a seated woman executed by de Kooning himself in 1952 at the height of the excitement and controversy generated throughout the art world by his new series of pictures. As you can imagine, I used every possible opportunity to show the drawing when hanging the permanent collection—in connection with our Abstract Expressionist pictures, or a figure exhibition, or postmodern quotation via the Colescott (I still kept a reproduction of Mel’s picture nearby), or whatever.

(Pause here for a note about Extended Loans: ELs, as we called them, were objects that didn’t belong to the collection but were entrusted to our care—our storage space, our insurance, our expertise—by their owners in exchange for the opportunity to exhibit them in connection with our mission. Which we appreciated. And it naturally happened that we’d hope the objects would eventually become gifts and join the collection permanently, because that was the model of a mutually productive museum/donor relationship that we believed in. While some of our members harbored that hope with the de Kooning drawing, I always figured it was a long shot. Art like that, at that time, in a market spiraling ever upward, had simply become too valuable to give away. Its value no longer represented a vacation place Down East or a getaway farm in upstate New York, it represented trusts for the children, the grandchildren, and their children. And I was right: the de Kooning was sold at Christie’s in 2005 for more than $9 million! Yikes! And again yikes!)

I would now like you to take all of the above—the three key pictures that intersected with the Rose Art Museum between 1976 and 1994, along with the story of each, including the museum’s collection profile and exhibition history—enter it in your mental computer and tell me how you think I responded when I picked up a Christie’s auction catalog in 1996 and saw that Mel Ramos’s I Still Get A Thrill When I See Bill #1 was about to go on the auction block. I did a double take, I was beside myself with excitement, and I resolved to buy the picture. Which, with a go ahead from our Collections Committee, I then did—because it was hands down a beautiful acquisition that had everything going for it, because it brought all of the pieces of the puzzle together, because it was a perfect fit.

(And because I really loved the picture, too)

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, simply wonderful. It combines an art historian's perspective with the meaningfully personal to offer up an experience that feels fresh, authentic and compelling. Reading this account, full of new information and insights for me, will transform my view of De Kooning's Women series from this day forward.

You would have made a great Minister of Culture. In the next life?

Also the fascinating bit about Werner Erhard's role in this--who knew? Great piece of history preserved in that vignette.

More, more!

Kyle Gallup said...

Another GREAT one Carl! I especially like reading your personal pieces on your experiences at the Rose. It adds so much to my understanding of the collection.