The Art History Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the depressing yet great things about recent art history is how much of it isn’t documented or easily accessed. Depressing because it only takes a few decades to completely lose knowledge of a person’s position and influence on artists, collectors, and institutions; but great because a scholar’s research can reveal fascinating artistic, cultural, and historical information that redefines how to understand an era and the people who lived in it. This week’s selections feature two gallery exhibits that demonstrate how easily historical information can be lost and how difficult it can be to retrieve, record, and establish its importance to an existing narrative full of errors and omissions.

The ‘Opening This Week’ section presents Hollis Taggart’s show on the gallerist and collector Martha Jackson, whose eponymous gallery represented new and established artists working in various facets of Abstract Expressionism and experimental art practices. The sixteen-year run of the gallery brought Karl Appel, Sam Francis, Grace Hartigan, Willem de Kooning, Sven Lukin, Louise Nevelson and others to public attention, creating a more nuanced view of contemporary art than was available at such galleries as Leo Castelli and Sidney Janis or promoted by critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. With a client roster like that, you’d think the Martha Jackson Gallery would be lauded in every history of Abstract Expressionism in the US – but it isn’t.

The ‘Gallery Shows’ selection focuses on women printmakers who trained, studied, and worked in the print school Atelier 17 and/or The Art Students League of New York. The astonishing variety of talent and interests that passed through these two legendary institutions could only have happened with an enforced academic policy of accepting women artists with a strong interest in learning the various techniques of printing and with any level of artistic skill. Solid training, encouragement to experiment, and near equal representation in school exhibitions gave women artists a level of empowerment and professional credentials to push against the existing biases towards them with varying degrees of success and influencing future generations, whether they were artists, collectors, dealers, students, or historians. Shows like these are important: by reclaiming a history lost to dusty newspaper clippings and passing mentions in biographies, they demand that all of us learn about the long-neglected aspects of women’s contribution to the inter- and post-war American arts scene, especially here in New York City. And we hope that exhibitions like this are the start of a genuine trend to re-assess and offer a more rounded history of art.

What Becomes A Legend Most?

There are times when you have to wonder if legends should continue to be, well, legendary, especially people who are notable for their beauty. Tastes and styles change, after all, and what was considered the epitome of gorgeousness back in the day, is now just dusty.

We were thinking about that when we dropped by Staley-Wise the other day to see their latest show, Bert Stern: Marilyn Monroe, The Last Sitting, 1962. This formal photo session for Vogue magazine has always been famous, not just because it happened just three months before Monroe’s death at age 36, but because it featured dozens of nude and semi-nude images, something not so common for a mainstream fashion magazine at the time. Stern’s professional abilities were put to the test with Monroe’s outstanding skills of expression and the result was images that transcend their era. These photographs really do cement the reputations of Marilyn Monroe as a beautiful woman and Bert Stern as a photographer who could capture the elusive essence of a person.

 Another person who was expert at recording people was Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the premier artists of the 16th century. Working mainly in Basel and London, his skill in recording details of the face, clothes, and accessories impressed sitters and led to commissions from Erasmus and Henry VIII, among others. Holbein also did work in prints, book illustration, and jewelry design. Amazingly enough, this genius of northern Renaissance art has never had an exhibition in the United States until now, opening this week at The Morgan Library & Museum. Holbein: Capturing Character is an outstanding show, organized in collaboration with the Getty Museum, featuring rarely seen drawings from the Royal Collection Trust of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and paintings from museums from across Europe and America. Every image has an iconic quality: the poses often modelled on classical forms, the clothing and jewelry meticulously detailed, and the faces are vibrantly alive with beautifully rendered tones and textures. Hans Holbein captured the elusive essence of humanity in paint with as much precision as Bert Stern did 500 years later, both burnishing the legends and identities of their subjects while earning their own place in artistic history.