Monthly Archives: May 2009

Authenticity: Cotopaxi and the Quest for Artistic Truth

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Thomas Hoving begins his shibboleth-shattering book, False Impressions, with a quote by the Roman poet Horace: “He who knows a thousand works of art, knows a thousand frauds.”
The net cast by Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not so wide as Horace’s, but he does estimate as many as forty percent of the fifty-thousand works of art he examined in his professional career were either outright fakes or of questionable origin.

With such a wholesale indictment of the international art market and indeed the history of art collecting, how does the honorable curator, much less the truth-seeking connoisseur, find his or her way through the quagmire to find what is true and authentic in the world of art?

One way to solve the problem – somewhat more inscrutably Zen-like than simply following one’s gut instincts – is described by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book entitled, Blink. It seems Gladwell would have us trust the first several seconds of the well-seasoned expert’s most educated glance.

The problem with Gladwell’s advice is that experts are often wrong, boards of authentication sometimes miss the mark, and foundations can be motivated by agendas other than the pursuit of truth. Art history is replete with many examples of such shenanigans.

Ultimately, there is nothing better than the test of time to separate the wheat of what is real from the chaff of what is not. Given sufficient time and collective wisdom, authentic art rings true and fakes are revealed for what they are.

History urges us to cultivate patience, live with uncertainty for some time, and appreciate artifacts while their true natures are in gradual process of revelation.

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Given the existential inexactitude of curatorial realities and the difficulty of certain knowledge, it is not surprising the Reading Public Museum is no stranger to controversies of authenticity. For example, for decades, the museum presented its large Cotopaxi painting as having been created by the hand of the great nineteenth-century American landscape painter Fredric Edwin Church.

However, soon after the arrival of Ron Roth, the museum’s current Director and CEO, the authenticity of the painting was seriously questioned. Roth quickly made it his priority to research the history of the work. Over the years, this study has included an independent appraisal by Christie’s auction house and research by art historian Gerald L. Carr.

The painting is currently on view in the show, Old Works in a New Light: Favorites from the Permanent Collection, at the Reading Public Museum through June 21. Its label now states the work is a commissioned copy of Church’s painting, executed by De Witt Clinton Boutelle, and reworked by Church himself. There is an entire wall dedicated to information on the work’s provenance. And on Friday, May 29 at 6:00 p.m. in the museum, Mr. Roth will present the most up-to-date information relating to this historically significant work of art.

The vicissitudes of the reputation of just this one painting make it clear that in matters of truth – especially aesthetic truth – keeping an open mind is an operational necessity.

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Image: Cotopaxi, Ecuador, De Witt Clinton Boutelle, (with repainting by Fredric Edwin Church), 1862, oil on canvas, Reading Public Museum

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Catching stories and letting them breathe

 

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This week, filmmaker Victor Lallouz, producer Ross Bracewell, and cinematographer Grigori Ozerski arrived from Montreal and have been working in our part of the world capturing many hours of visual imagery and sound. The experience of being followed by a film crew for 5 days – beginning Sunday evening and finishing up in the early hours of this morning proved to be at once inspiring and grueling.

The first narrative to emerge from Victor’s direction will be the story of The Project, a collaboration I shared with Keith Haring and have continued since his death. Toward that end, I offered access to my home, studio, personal collection, and archives for the opportunity to talk about and document the decade Keith and I were within each other’s sphere of consciousness and influence. Now, multitudinous digitized aspects of our work and our world share space on a few hard drives in Canada awaiting adjustment, arrangement, and editing.

Additionally, Victor continues to document the exciting story of his collection of art said to be a part of Keith’s early work that has been kept from public view for almost three decades. I have seen examples of Victor’s meticulous research and I believe it is time to bring the works to the attention of the art world, the audience, and ultimately to the Keith Haring Foundation for authentication.

As the two separate projects are moving forward simultaneously during this period, we worked with and met with representatives of the Reading Public Museum, Kutztown’s New Arts Program, and WEEU Radio to discuss current news and ongoing plans on both fronts. I was pleased to announce progress toward expanding the scope of my ongoing collaborative work. And Victor took the opportunity to provide additional background information on his research into the history of his collection.

The next iteration of work for Victor and crew involves creating short video destined for YouTube. Initial work is intended to stand alone and also preview more extensive projects being created for international distribution.

I’m back in the studio – and will be for a large part of the summer – working on new series of drawings, paintings, and multimedia projects. I am also consulting with Victor on the aspect of his work that involves documenting The Project.

At one of our meetings with James Carroll, founder of the New Arts Program, in discussing our mutual interest and involvement in Keith’s legacy, he urged us to “let it breathe.” As the Latin root for the word “inspiration” means “to breathe,” I can assure you that right now, both Victor and I are breathing most deeply.

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Image: Victor Lallouz, Tullio DeSantis, and Grigori Ozerski filming outdoors at Tullio’s studio, May 20, 2009. (Photo credit: Susan Duby and Grigori Ozerski)

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Documenting the Project

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Beginning this Sunday, May 17th, Victor Lallouz, the Canadian collector and filmmaker, will be in the area to initiate the filming and documentation of the project initiated by Keith Haring and me during the 1980s.

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Lallouz’ interest in The Project, as Keith and I referred to it, was piqued by a study he initiated of Keith’s work and life. He began this work in earnest after he acquired – in partnership with two other art collectors also based in Canada – a collection of nearly 300 pieces of heretofore unknown artworks and a bill of sale – all bearing the signature “Keith Haring”.

The story of my involvement with Victor began with a phone call he made to me last spring. He said he had read my manuscript relating to The Project, entitled Reading Lies Dreaming. As the book represents my own efforts to come to terms with the esoteric and philosophical essence of the relationship I shared with Keith, it is esoteric and philosophical in the ways it conveys its messages.

Victor understands much of the content of these messages and during the subsequent months I have become convinced that he is a fellow traveler on the ancient path of esoteric wisdom.

As regards the works in Victor’s collection, I examined them during a trip to Montreal last year. My reaction was to urge Victor to continue his efforts toward researching their provenance and to move toward authentication by the Keith Haring Foundation.

Whether or not the works said to be by Keith are ultimately found to be authentic, The Project and the story of The Project continue. This is my interest in Victor’s work – and his interest in mine.

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Between May 17 and May 20, Victor Lallouz and I will be meeting with individuals and arts organizations and on Tuesday, May 19, we can be heard on WEEU’s Newsmaker feature at 10:05 a.m. on the FEEDBACK show. (WEEU can be found at 830 on the AM dial).

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Image: Keith Haring (detail) on inside cover drawing of Tullio’s copy of the catalog from Keith’s exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York, 1982; collection of Tullio Francesco DeSantis

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Emergence into the Light: Keith. Me. I Am We.

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Within the Great Pyramid the chamber walls are dust dry. Aligned before me stands a row of attendants – perfectly proportioned young men in radiant robes. They smile in knowing ways. Their uncanny expressions compel a sense of wonderment.

Immediately, I know I am dreaming. I ask each one in turn what he sees.

“This is my dream. What do you see?”

“Are you also dreaming?” “Can you see the others? Can you see me?”

Their faces change, turn stolid, and fade away. In that moment, I glimpse a lone acolyte. He is carving figures into the stone simply by moving his hands over the walls. Pointing here and there, he evokes sharp lines. Touching and rubbing with his palms, he smoothes the lines, bunches them up, creates free-form curves. Images appear.

Watching him, I note the utter immobility of his eyes. Though he is apparently sightless, the visions he wafts over the walls are graceful, impeccable, and immaculate. As the figures he creates become more lifelike, they tremble and begin to move. The acolyte stumbles, loses his strength, strains to speak…

Gesturing toward me, he whispers, “Move closer, Art. I need…your breath…”

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I awaken in an emergency room of the Reading Hospital. The lullaby played in every hallway upon an occurrence of birth fills my ears. A seemingly huge African man hovering over me grips my left shoulder. An antiseptic odor pervades the place. The walls are bilious green. They sway, move forward, and press in on me.

“This is going to hurt,” he says as he plunges a metal tube straight into my chest. I gasp and hold on fast to the cold sides of the gurney. The servo-mechanisms of the vacuum pump echo throughout my body. I hear the groan, gasp, wheeze of my breathing. A sudden onrush of pressure and I am using both lungs. The room expands. Sunlight streams into the room. I breathe!

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I call Keith as soon as I am able to get to a phone. In that year, he rises to art-world ascendency and he sees his friends die around him; I suffer a pneumothorax, lose a professorial post, and succumb to depression. We speak about the world and how it is always ending and always beginning.

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I carry forward the project initiated more than twenty years ago between Keith Haring and me for several reasons. Because we conceived of it together, it contains the germ of a collaborative idea – an idea whose existence transcends both of us as separate individuals.

A manifestation such as this is rare and valuable. Human existence is defined by notions of transcendence. Throughout our history as a species, humans have conceptualized sensory and somatic experience in cerebral (philosophical) ways. Our senses provide blind, deaf, mute input in the form of electrochemical patterns of data to our brains. It is our mental process that recreates whatever it is our bodies experience. This subliminal gestalt defines for us the “who, what, where, when, and why” of our lives.

These identities of ours are prisons. Trapped by our very selves, we struggle for a glimpse of freedom – a sense of transcendence. Once that sensation is achieved, it gives meaning, shape, form, substance, and structure to entire lifetimes.

These moments of shared transcendence resonate.

I am not who I was.

I am we.

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Image: Project-resampled visual mashup/digital collage with 1986 communiqué from Keith Haring to Tullio DeSantis, 2009

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