By: John Dorfman
One might imagine that at this late date there are no more discoveries to be made in the art world, or at least no discoveries outside the realm of what the trade likes to call “emerging artists.” And yet some more or less forgotten artists continue to emerge from the obscurity into which they have been cast by prejudice or by happenstance. In this issue, we consider a few of these.
In researching the story of the Synchromist painters (page 64), Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Morgan Russell, who did as much as anyone and more than any other Americans to “invent”—if that is the word—abstract art, I was struck by how a “perfect storm” of factors can conspire to effectively bury a very worthwhile school of art. Before World War I, when everyone in the avant-garde art world was a brash new kid on the block, churning out over-the-top manifestoes, it seems that Macdonald-Wright and Russell were simply too obnoxious. Their habit of denouncing everyone but themselves ended up alienating the Parisian art world and causing them to slip gradually into the cracks of art history. In addition, experts in the field say that Synchromist art was too hard to understand, too theoretically complex, to really take off in the public estimation—so much so, in fact, that the theory wasn’t fully understood until 2001! Perhaps now that we understand the theory and that it doesn’t really work as advertised, we can stop puzzling over these stunning, intricate symphonies of color and just enjoy them. Even if the artists would have been intensely annoyed by that approach.
In our Collecting section this month, Sheila Gibson Stoodley takes us into the world of African-American art (page 52). While such modern masters as Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence are hardly obscure anymore, and a contemporary star like Kara Walker needs no introduction, African-American art as a category is a newcomer to art market, championed by Swann Galleries of New York, which has the only specialist department solely devoted to works by African-American artists, for which it has achieved notable prices. As some of Gibson Stoodley’s sources observe, these artists are such an integral part of American art, especially modern and contemporary, that perhaps the ultimate success for the Swann department would be to close up shop, because one day it will no longer be necessary in the marketplace.
Another set of obscure, indeed humble, laborers in the art fields are celebrated in a genuinely unusual feature story by Edward Readicker-Henderson (page 84). He recounts the little-known history of the so-called Indian traders, small businessmen of the American frontier who, at first inadvertently, played a pivotal role in creating the market for American Indian art and artifacts. Readicker-Henderson, who grew up in Arizona, in close proximity to trading posts, takes us into the world of some descendants of the originals, who still ply the trade, as well as into the galleries of the high-end Santa Fe dealers of classic Native American material.
There’s plenty more between these covers, of course, including Jonathan Lopez’s column Talking Pictures (page 48), which discusses the epoch-making publication of a definitive edition of the letters of Vincent van Gogh, truly the obscurest of the obscure at the time he wrote them, and an eye-opening story on the lost-and-found art of gold granulation, by jewelry expert Ettagale Blauer (page 76). Intrepid reporter Sallie Brady travels the globe reporting on the ever-changing world of art fairs (page 40), from New York to London to Florence, where gorgeous objects like the one shown on this page can be procured—if the Italian government lets them out of the country!
Finally, when you turn to the last page, you’ll see that we have a new regular item called Record-Breaker. Even in these uncertain times, it seems auction records are broken so frequently that they can become a blur, leaving the observer somewhat befuddled as to just what about the artwork was so compelling. On this page, we’ll be showcasing the pieces at large enough size, and with text more substantial than was often possible in our Market section, as to leave you in no doubt.