In retrospect, the museum should not have allowed me to get a taste of what it feels like to acquire artwork so early in my career. As I recounted in my last post, my first piece of art acquired for the museum occurred before I was even a staff member. So did the second. Only that one was mural sized and cost a lot of money.
Those of you who know my work as it relates to the great 20th-century folk painter Ralph Fasanella will not be surprised that his work was at the top of my list of must-haves for the Fenimore Art Museum folk art collection right from the start (see my previous posts on him). I met Ralph in the fall of 1981, my first semester in graduate school, and saw all of the incredible paintings that he had in his studio.
As I planned my first folk art exhibition here in the summer of 1982, I pressed the issue of a major acquisition. Our Director at the time had just come on board and, I think, was eager to make a statement, so he encouraged me. It didn't hurt that he had been Director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program when I started my studies, and so he knew me quite well.
At any rate, imagine that same 23-year old summer intern again, only this time with money to spend. I went back down to Ralph's studio in Westchester County with a different eye. In the end, the work I chose had it all: it was one of Ralph's best urban scenes; it was autobiographical; it was large and colorful; it was New York; and it included his trademark political viewpoints without being overbearing. It was "Dress Shop," oil on canvas, 1972, 45" x 90". After a few months of getting the necessary approvals, we purchased the painting as our first accession of the year 1983.
The painting depicts the garment factory where Ralph's mother worked in the 1920s and 1930s, but it is more conceptual than that. On the right is a neighborhood from the early 1920s, when Ralph was a youth getting up at the crack of dawn to help his father deliver ice. On the right is the Bronx as Ralph knew it from the 1960s. As he put it: "This painting took fifty years to create."
The price? Hefty for that time, a grand total of $23,500. Our Director got a kick out of saying that the price had him hyperventilating but he did not hesitate to support the purchase. And I felt like a conquering hero. It was only much later that I understood the full complexity of this painting, and the deep personal meaning it held for its maker.
At the lower right Ralph included a plaque dedicating the painting to the memory of the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Just above the sign he has placed his mother and sister working away in the dress shop. The proximity is not coincidental; for Ralph, the union organizer and antifascist, the notion of family was a universal expression of love for a whole people. I think I really got it when Ralph was talking about the painting over the phone with one of our upper-level administrators and said "that one is right from the belly."