Thursday, August 28, 2014

Great Find! A Study for Fasanella's "Dress Shop"

As I have recounted here in an earlier post on this blog, Ralph Fasanella's 1972 painting "Dress Shop" (above) holds a special place of importance to me. Earlier this year I had a startling find that has enhanced our understanding of this great work.

In 1972, Ralph Fasanella became famous when New York Magazine featured him on its cover. I always wondered about the painting at his feet, which looked like a study for "Dress Shop," which I purchased for the Fenimore Art Museum in 1983. Although I first saw this cover image in 1981, I was never able to locate the little painting that looked so much like our large one. 

Earlier this year I received an email from Tom Laemmel in Seattle informing me that he was the owner. He had inherited it from his parents, who had heard about Fasanella in 1972 and went to his first major exhibition that same year. Actually, Laemmel's mother sent his father to the exhibition with orders to buy one of the paintings. Laemmel picked the small study for "Dress Shop" because it would fit in their apartment. 

Laemmel wanted to sell the work, and so of course I bought it for the museum. It shows how Fasanella was thinking about the dress shop where his mother worked in the 1920s. The most interesting aspect about the work is that there is no trace of politics anywhere. Later, when he got into the larger work, Fasanella included quite a few social and political references in the windows of the shop to indicate the workers' awareness of the world around them.

It's always interesting and telling to see what an artist realizes over time, and how great works evolve. Now we have tangible evidence of the making of this masterpiece.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An Epic Shoe Shine Stand

Those of you who follow me on other social media outlets already know this, but earlier this summer I had a really stunning bit of luck with an important acquisition to the folk art collection here at the Fenimore Art Museum. In early May, while I was out of town on a family get-together, I received a call from my good friend Joe Sciorra, who told me that he just found out that a long-lost piece of Italian-American art had been found in New Jersey and was coming up for auction. The very next morning. Short notice!

It was "Joe Milone's" Shoe Shine Stand, a famous piece of found-object folk art created by an Italian immigrant in New York, discovered by sculptor Louise Nevelson in the early 1940s, and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art for the Christmas season in 1942. Joe Sciorra's research had revealed that "Joe Milone" was a fake name given to Giovanni Indelicato for the MoMA display. Anyway, I knew the piece because it appears or is mentioned in every history of MoMA, including the well-known book The Good Old Modern by Russell Lynes.

Apparently, the piece was owned by Indelicato's descendants, and was nearly set aside on the curb for trash removal, before being consigned to auction. There wasn't much I could do at such short notice, so we decided to contact the winning bidder to see if we could purchase the item from them after the sale. This is where we got extremely lucky.

The winning bidder was a local antiques dealer named Pat O'Shea. She bought the piece for $3,000. I offered her $10,000. Since I was a museum, she sold it to me instead of to a collector who had offered her $30,000! This woman deserves a medal. The New York Times got wind of the story and wrote it up in grand fashion here.

Indelicato's magnificent shoe shine stand,called "an epic of Mediterranean culture" by Nevelson, is now in our folk art gallery. It is a perfect complement to both the 19th-century and 20th-century pieces we own, and bridges the early and later periods while speaking eloquently of the mid-century fascination with self-taught art that brought a lot of this material to the public's attention. A fitting tribute to a whole chain of brilliant, committed people who shepherded the process of placing this treasure in a permanent home for public enjoyment. Kudos to Giovanni, Joe, and Pat.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Close to Home in San Francisco

I recently had the pleasure of visiting San Francisco to give a lecture on William Matthew Prior to the American Decorative Arts Forum. This is a great group of collectors and enthusiasts who invite scholars from across the country to come and speak to their members once a month. It really was an honor to be invited, especially given the calibre of the speakers who have presented there over the years.

While in San Francisco, I took the opportunity to visit the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. What a fantastic place! They have a great collection of American art, which is where I spent quite a bit of time. They also have a very good folk art collection, which included one piece that struck me as being very close to home.

It is James Bard's portrait of the Steamship Syracuse, representing the city just about two hours west of Cooperstown. A great Bard, like our own Steamship Niagara. The Syracuse, of course, celebrated the rise of a new industrial city in the wake of the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825. America was changing rapidly when this painting was completed in 1857. In a few short years a major war would be fought to resolve issues that had divided the country for decades.

Which is why the history behind this painting intrigued me. It turns out that the Syracuse was owned by the Schuyler Steam Towboat Company, which was founded in 1825 by the sons of Samuel Schuyler (1781-1842). You can read more about the company and this boat here. Why is this so interesting? Schuyler, despite his famous last name (from one of New York's oldest Dutch colonial families) was African American, listed in the census as a "free man of color." There is more detail on his life here. He went from dock worker to towboat operator to real estate developer and businessman, all while New York was debating whether to abolish slavery within its borders (which it did for those born before 1799 in 1827).

Quite a story, and quite a boat.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Folk Art Car Encounter

You never know where you are going to encounter spontaneous expressions of individuality that qualify as folk art. While on a recent trip to New York this car pulled up next to mine while I was stopped at a red light. I grabbed my iPhone and snapped away, feeling lucky that it was not necessary to do so while steering through busy Manhattan streets. The car reminded me of the Art Car post from a couple of years ago. I only wish I could have gotten a few words from the owner, but they may not have been printable :-)

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