Her Art Was Once Viewed as “Obscene.” Now Martha Edelheit’s Nudes Are Finally Gaining Acclaim After Decades in Obscurity

I am rooting for Martie Edelheit.

At the age of 91, she’s finally emerging from years of obscurity. Her mind is clear and her body agile enough to enjoy every small step of it all—a bustling opening, a post-opening dinner at the fashionable restaurant Il Buco—while leaning on a cane, or a friend’s arm. Small, fierce, outspoken, Martha Edelheit keeps pushing forward, with new 11-foot paintings and a planned return to New York City, her hometown.

I first encountered Edelheit in the context of another story, which explored the asymmetry of market acclaim for female artists based on the findings of the Burns Halperin Report.

As I wrote in December: “The overwhelming majority of women, especially women of a certain age, are ghosts as far as auction sales go. The reasons for this vary, from the market’s preference for painting over conceptual and performance art to lack of access to the gallery system to individual choices to slow artistic production during child-rearing years.”

Edelheit came to my attention because she wasn’t listed among more than 2,000 women surveyed in the report. That’s because not a single one of her works has come up for auction since she started making art some 70 years ago. 

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery © Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Martha Edelheit, Tattooed Lady (1962). Collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody via Eric Firestone Gallery
© Martha Edelheit / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But things are changing. This week, Edelheit’s solo show “Naked City: Paintings from 1965-1980” opened at Eric Firestone Gallery in Manhattan, with prices ranging from $20,000 to $500,000. Her 1962 painting, Tattooed Lady, was a recently a star of “New York 1962-1964,” an exhibition at the Jewish Museum exploring the rise of Pop Art. A limited-edition print based on this work and priced at $2,200 just came out on Her Clique, with half of the proceeds benefiting Planned Parenthood and Doctors Without Borders. Next month Edelheit’s early abstract paintings will be part of “Action, Gesture, Paint: Women Artists and Global Abstraction 1940-70,” a survey of an overlooked generation of 81 international women artists at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Women in Landscape</I> (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Women in Landscape (1966-68). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“A lot has happened for her in the past five years,” said Eric Firestone, listing strong sales from her first exhibition in 2017, multiple museum acquisitions, scholarly texts, and upcoming institutional shows.  

Edelheit’s figurative paintings still shock, irk, dazzle. The naked body is there to behold in all its glorious detail— every pubic hair, skin roll, and nipple—on a scale that succeeds in being both monumental and intimate. The models look relaxed as they lounge and recline, enveloped by verdant foliage or sumptuous fabrics. One canvas, Women in Landscape (1966-68), consists of three panels and measures almost 17 feet across.

“She’s taking gestures, poses, compositional framework from the Renaissance and redoing them around these concerns of the body and the self,” said art historian Melissa Rachleff, who included Edelheit in “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952-1965,” at the Grey Art Gallery in New York in 2017. “When you look at her works compositionally, you see Dürer, you see Rubens, you see Botticelli.”

Edelheit said her interest in the naked body has been keen since childhood. She was one of those girls who immediately undressed and dismembered a new doll. “I was looking for genitals,” she said. “But all dolls were neutered.”

Martha Edelheit, <I>David x 2</I> (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, David x 2 (1971). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Her early works in the 1950s were abstract paintings that owed color sensibility and compositional patchwork to Michael Loew, an American artist who lived on the island of Monhegan in Maine. Edelheit and her first husband, psychoanalyst Henry Edelheit, visited Monhegan in the summers.

“We were sharing a house,” she recalled. “He had a studio on the first floor, and we were on the second floor. There was a balcony, and I would look down and watch him work. And I learned more about painting by watching him work than I learned any from any class. He was what they called back then a Neoplastic painter, a disciple of Mondrian.”

In New York, Edelheit was becoming part of the avant-garde scene, a member of the Tenth Street artist-run space and its offshoot the Reuben Gallery, where she had her first solo show in 1960. She was friends with Susan Sontag, the first person she met as a University of Chicago undergrad, and artists Carolee Schneemann and Rosalyn Drexler. Her male peers included Claes Oldenberg, Lucas Samaras, Jim Dine, Robert Rosenquist, and Allan Kaprow.

Installation view, "Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980" at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Installation view, “Martha Edelheit: Naked City, Paintings from 1965-1980” at Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“As she befriended artists who were engaged in performance and happenings, those exchanges opened up a space of possibility for her to consider the body,” Rachleff said.

Despite her active exhibition history, Edelheit sold very little art and was rarely reviewed while “the boys all got galleries and moved uptown and into the museums,” she said.

It didn’t occur to her that this had something to do with gender because she didn’t see herself as a female artist—she simply thought of herself as an artist.

The feminist movement opened her eyes to gender discrimination. Initially reluctant to join it—she was “dragged in kicking and screaming,” she said—she became an active member.

“I was forced into it because of what was happening with women artists,” she said. “Not just me, but all the women artists I knew.”

The overt sexuality of her artworks—later dubbed “radical eroticism” by art historian Rachel Middleman—was also a complication.

In 1966, a New York Times critic spent more than two hours at her exhibition at Byron Gallery uptown only to inform the gallery owner that he “can’t review that obscene woman,” she recalled. “Charles Byron had a show in his office of a guy who did postcard-size landscapes. So, he did a review of that.”

An event that had a profound impact on Edelheit’s life and art took place in 1957, when her younger brother, Robert Ross, suffered a horrific motorcycle accident while on vacation in Sweden. He spent months in a coma and years in rehabilitation. A Korean War veteran, he was treated in U.S. military hospitals that were filled with crippled servicemen. What she saw there while looking after him found its way into her works on paper from the early 1960s.

Her “Children’s Games” series of ink drawings are filled with headless, limbless figures doing horrible things to themselves and each other. Masked amputees appear in her ink-and-watercolor works like Bird House With Baby (1962) and Dream of the Tattoo Lady (1961). The chains and masks in these works are suggestive of sadomasochism.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Self Portrait with Tools</I> (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Self Portrait With Tools (1975). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I wasn’t thinking about S&M,” Edelheit said, explaining instead that “masks were a way of not having to show the emotions of the figures represented.”

The circus, which she loved as a child, was another frequent theme.

“Back then, before you walked into the circus, there was what they called the freak shows,” she remembered. “That’s where you’d see the world’s tallest man, the world’s fattest woman, a two-headed dog or a two-headed cow.”

That’s where she also first saw tattooed people.

“I was hypnotized by them,” she said. “The idea of painting your body, of marking your body forever was really a powerful image for me.”

Martha Edelheit, <I>Boating Central Park</I> (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Boating Central Park (1973). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

She began exploring tattoos in earnest in 1962 with a series of “Tattoo Paintings.” She painted tattoos on mannequin hands, arms, and legs as well as in her “Back Paintings” of 1972 to 1975. Several of these works are now on view at Eric Firestone Gallery.  

Tattoos were not just a decorative trope, according to Jennifer Samet, who works closely with Edelheit and organized both of her shows at the gallery.

“The paintings become this arena in which she can depict not only their bodies, but their ideas and dreams,” Samet said. “She used imagined tattoos as a way to tell those dreams.”

Edelheit spent the past 30 years in Sweden, where she moved after her first husband died and she remarried. She met her second husband, Sam Nilsson, years earlier, after her brother’s accident. A budding journalist, he would go on to become the head of Swedish public broadcasting and a prominent figure in the media and culture circles. Edelheit unexpectedly found herself in a new role, attending Nobel Prize galas and having dinners with the country’s king and queen.

“It’s like someone handed me a movie script,” she said. “All of a sudden I had a closet full of evening gowns.”  

Her art had to adjust as well. She settled in a remote area on an island, with the nearest bus stop seven kilometers away. This wasn’t the kind of place where she could ask a neighbor to strip and model for her.

Martha Edelheit, <I>Seals, Central Park Zoo</I> (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

Martha Edelheit, Seals, Central Park Zoo (1970-71). Courtesy of the artist and Eric Firestone Gallery, New York.

“I think it was Rubens who said, ‘I paint what’s in front of my nose,’” she said. “And I looked out the window and what was in front of my nose was sheep. So, I did. I’ve been working with sheep and landscape for the last umpteen years.”

She used materials she found in her environment, making canvases out of chicken wire and papier-mâché and creating a lot of wire sculptures of sheep.

Now another change is looming. Following Nilsson’s death in 2020, Edelheit wants to return to New York. She spent several months in the city coinciding with her exhibitions at the Jewish Museum and Eric Firestone.

The stay brought back the memories of all the people who used to be part of her life, the models who became her friends, the 5,000-square-foot studio at the Hotel Wales on Madison Avenue and East 92nd Street (where she paid $125 a month in rent).

Once again seeing the paintings she created in that studio has been intense.

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‘A Face Is Not Just a Face’: Is It Finally Time for the Gay Gaze of Unsung Portraitist Gilbert Lewis?

“I didn’t realize until recently what a profound effect he had on my life,” Anthony Rullo said of the Philadelphia-based figurative painter Gilbert Lewis. He first posed for him in 1986, and would do so, about twice a week, for $6 an hour for the next ten years.

At the time, Rullo was 23 and working at a clothing boutique on South Street, which was still a buzzing bohemian and nightlife area. “My life was total chaos,” he recalled. “I was struggling to pay the rent, going out to clubs, and partying.” Lewis’s studio was nearby, and Rullo would come by after work for two-hour sessions. It didn’t even look like anyone lived there. Paintings were stacked all around. The few pieces of furniture looked scavenged from the street. No TV. No answering machine. The artist was only about 41 at the time, but seemed much older to Rullo.

An undated photo of Gilbert Lewis. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

An undated photo of Gilbert Lewis. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Gilbert Lewis always wore a uniform of khakis and a chambray shirt and was almost as broke as Rullo. It confounded Rullo that selling his work was not part of Lewis’s process. He didn’t even seem to try and would deflect any suggestions. “I know that I’m a good painter,” he said to him. “When I’m dead somebody’s gonna find my paintings and then I’ll be famous and I’ll be appreciated.”

Each day, Lewis painted the pendulum of life. He worked as an art therapist in a nursing home. By day, he painted portraits of the elderly, engaging with them as he rendered them.

Tribute, September 5, 1984, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 39 x 59 1/2 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Tribute, September 5, 1984. Gouache on paper, 39 x 59 1/2 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2017)

“One of my motivations in painting has been to celebrate the beginning of adulthood for the young and the final period of life for the old,” Lewis said in a 2004 catalogue interview. “What struck me is that both young men and the old are ignored by society. Despite our ostensible focus on youth, young men are in a sort of nether world, no longer teenagers and yet not full adults. They’re in transition with no established identify and no real place in society.” After work, his salary went to paying the male models who populated his vision.

Both jobs could bleed into each other. “When I’d sit for him, it felt like a therapy session,” Rullo said. “He’d want to know all about you. Going to Gilbert’s was the only thing in my life that was normal, consistent, and calm.” These sessions were reciprocally beneficial to Lewis. Most of the portraits took place in his studio and say as much about the painter as they do the subject, documenting intimate human connection and exchange and a pathway of desire.

Rullo insisted he wasn’t a muse, just one of the legion of models who posed for Lewis. The 60 or so portraits produced over the decade prove otherwise and are a fascinating, varied series. The artist would give Rullo slide images of the completed paintings. Many years later, Rullo lined them up in chronological order.

A selection of the slides Gilbert Lewis would give Anthony Rullo after completing a portrait of him. There are around 60 completed works. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

A selection of the slides Gilbert Lewis would give Anthony Rullo after completing a portrait of him. There are around 60 completed works. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

“I could see the trajectory of my life,” he said. “The beginning pictures, I look very young and innocent. And then my attitude toward life changed.” Anthony Rullo was diagnosed with AIDS. “There was no medication, there was no treatment. You could lose your job, your friends, your family,” he said. “I never told Gilbert. You wouldn’t even tell a gay brother or anything. My boyfriend and I and people at that time that were positive, kind of had this ‘fuck it’ attitude. You’d open credit cards and max them out. I’m never paying for this stuff! I was buying expensive clothes, and what I was doing, maybe subconsciously, was creating my legacy. This is how I wanted to be remembered, in these gorgeous clothes. Like I was some important person, which I wasn’t.”

Anthony Rullo wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier top in 1987. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

Anthony Rullo wearing a Jean-Paul Gaultier top in 1987. Courtesy of Anthony Rullo.

On the day his boyfriend Keith died in 1990, Rullo went to Lewis’s for a session and the truth came out. “He was shocked. Why didn’t you tell me? For the whole year of 1990, every picture looks like I’m crying. Then over time the next five years, you see another change. By the end I’m doing nude paintings and they’ve become more sophisticated.”

Like much of his work, Lewis’s series of Anthony Rullo is a meditation on male beauty and form. But he also captured the gay emotional condition in the throes of the AIDS epidemic. “But he wasn’t making a political statement,” Anthony says.

Lewis was out-of-step with the straight art world for being too gay, but his longing gaze was anachronistic in the queer art of the time—lacking the transgression and hypersexuality of Robert Mapplethorpe or the clarion militantism of David Wojnarowicz and other firebrands in the Act Up 1980s. The tide has now shifted where the quieter voices from the era are now being recognized.

In an undated artist state, Lewis wrote: “The painting of a face is not just a face. My feelings are expressed through these images. My paintings speak to anyone in touch with their own humanity; to anyone else my art may be dismissed as ‘too personal.’”

Rullo stopped sitting for the artist in 1996 and moved to Miami in 2008. They remained friends and kept in touch until they couldn’t. Gilbert Lewis is in a Pennsylvania nursing facility with advanced stage Alzheimer’s. His large body of work must speak for him, and it seems the world is now ready to listen.

Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], December 2, 1981 (L) and Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], October 10, 1981, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2020)

Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], December 2, 1981 (L) and Untitled [Dennis Dunwoody], October 10, 1981, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2020)

“The special part of Gilbert’s work is just how contemporary it was,” said Daniel Kapp. “As young gay men just looking around the room, we see ourselves in all of these works.” Earlier this month he was at Kapp Kapp, the Tribeca gallery he co-founded with his brother, installing “Portraits 1979–2002,” the Gilbert Lewis solo exhibition they curated (until February 25). It’s an inspired and intimate primer.

Installation View: Gilbert Lewis Portraits 1979 – 2002. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Installation view, “Gilbert Lewis Portraits 1979–2002.” The Swimmer is in the foreground. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Anthony Rullo makes some striking cameos, and the charcoal sketches carry emotional resonance and are installed atop a Gilbert Lewis nautical wallpaper design. Some portraits seem like quick, casual neighborhood visits in his daily painting routine. He’s most compelling when he’s serenely grandiose, as in the languid, sumptuous Untitled (Basking Nude) of 1985 and The Swimmer (1984). The latter is on loan from Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, who presented a solo Lewis show of 49 paintings in 2004 when it was a much smaller institution. It was his first and only solo show in the city, and the museum is the only New York institution to have his work in their permanent collection.

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Basking Nude), 1985 Signed and dated '5-19-85' Gouache on paper 60 x 44 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Basking Nude), 1985 Signed and dated ‘5-19-85’ Gouache on paper 60 x 44 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

“A big part of why we’re so interested in his work is this anonymity to New York City, at least in the last 20 years,” said Daniel Kapp. “He flew under the radar in Philly too. There really wasn’t a market for his work. The male nude is still not the most popular thing to buy. Lewis had contemporaries working in similar ways in New York, and those artists have gotten more of their dues.”

If the Kapp Kapp show doesn’t edge Gilbert Lewis into greater art world acceptance, it should at least push him into the greater gay canon beyond being a regional luminary.

The year 2020 should have been the year Gilbert Lewis broke into the mainstream. A quadruple blitz of overlapping solo exhibitions in Philadelphia coincided with the pandemic, which limited the impact of the joint efforts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (“Only Tony” was comprised solely of Anthony Rullo portraits), the William Way Community Center, Kapp Kapp’s prior locale. The Woodmere Art Museum’s robust survey, “Many Faces, Many Figures” captured the painter’s expansive scope.

Untitled, February 2, 1982, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 22 1/4 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Barton Rymshaw, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled, February 2, 1982. Gouache on paper, 22 1/4 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Barton Rymshaw, 2017)

“Gilbert was thought of in the arts community as one of the major figurative artists working in his time,” Valerio said, “and somebody who managed to define a compelling idea of what realism could be. Historically, the mainstream of the arts in Philadelphia is realism. We’re the town of Thomas Eakins and Charles Wilson Peale. Gilbert Lewis attended PAFA. He went through the curriculum that was designed by Eakins: Paint what you see, paint what you feel, don’t be afraid of your sexuality. It all comes out in his work.”

He continued, “A lot of people have said that Gilbert didn’t achieve the success that he should have because his subjects were perceived to be gay. Gilbert wanted people to pose in the way they wanted, the way they wanted to be seen.”

After getting his BFA from Philadelphia College of Art in 1974, Gilbert Lewis worked at the Aramis cologne counter at the Wanamaker’s department store, which at the time was a gay hotbed. He decamped to New York for a stint at Bloomingdales. It was a disastrous detour. He lived in a hovel, had no money, and was mugged. He returned to Pennsylvania for a career pivot and in 1978 received his master’s degree in Creative Arts Therapy from Hahnemann University (his thesis was “The Spontaneous Art Productions of an Institutionalized Geriatric Population”).

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Designer Jeans), 1982 Gouache on paper 30 x 22 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Designer Jeans), 1982 Gouache on paper, 30 x 22 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

“Therapists become therapists because they need their own therapy,” said Eric Rymshaw, who met him 1979. “He had an odd, unsupportive family. His father was in the military. They lived near a military base in Norfolk, Virginia. Gilbert’s brother never acknowledged him after he came out.”

Rymshaw and Lewis dated for three years. Art was a lynchpin. “A lot of our time was going to museums,” Rymshaw recalled. “In 1982 we followed David Hockney around the Metropolitan Museum. I wouldn’t go up and say hello. Gilbert loved Hockney. He liked paintings that looked fresh and, didn’t look overworked. Immediacy mattered. So, when Gilbert was painting, it was about what he saw, and immediately putting it on canvas, there were never layers and layers and overworking and reworking.”

Still Life with Tulip, 1984, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on Arches paper, 22 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Rymshaw and James Fulton, 2017)

Gilbert Lewis, Still Life with Tulip (1984). Gouache on Arches paper, 22 x 30 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Gift of Eric Rymshaw and James Fulton, 2017)

Rymshaw remembered bringing a lily home from a wedding Lewis wouldn’t attend with him. “Flowers would inevitably go to the studio, he loved them,” Rymshaw said. Lewis spent the following days drawing a series of the bloom decomposing.

“Gilbert painted every day,” he said. “One of the reasons that we didn’t survive was that he so intensely wanted to be in his studio, painting. There was never any time for me. He was always having people come in. He did everything from live models. He never did any photography.”

He added, “Gilbert was sexually driven. I was always very aware that often. I’m sure he had sex with many of the young men.”

Reclining, 1987, by Gilbert Lewis. Gouache on paper, 40 x 48 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2016)

Gilbert Lewis, Reclining (1987). Gouache on paper, 40 x 48 in. (Woodmere Art Museum: Museum purchase, 2016)

Lewis’s business acumen mixed obstinance with self-sabotage. “He hated commissions. A couple of friends commissioned him to paint their kids and he never finished the paintings.” The artist was a perennial at local art shows and group shows. “He’d always cause a problem by what he chose to put on the walls,” Rymshaw said. “He hated the gallery system and how they treated him.”

Rymshaw would overlap with Lewis socially sporadically throughout the years and remembered Anthony Rullo. “Tony was a fashionista and very much an aesthete,” Rymshaw said. “That was their commonality. I would party with them a little bit, and he met many models through Tony’s social circle. All of Gilbert’s attempts at finding his art seemed to happen through Tony. Whether it was a sketch or finished work, if you put them in a row you can see Gilbert trying out one style to another through Tony and it allowed him to experiment.”

Rymshaw met his current partner James Fulton (the two have an architecture and design firm). They’d buy paintings from Lewis when he’d run out of money, and place some with clients.

Gilbert Lewis in 1988. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Gilbert Lewis in 1988. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Lewis eventually settled down with an abstract painter named Doug Bealer whom he met when he was an art school senior. Doug moved into his sparse row house. Each occupied a separate floor and painted in symbiotic isolation. Their relationship lasted many years. After Doug moved out, he committed suicide about a year later. “That’s sort of when Gilbert started to change, and I think not appreciate life as much,” Rymshaw said.

In 2015, the painter Bill Scott ran into Lewis, who hadn’t shown up at the opening of a group show Scott had recently put him in. Scott greeted him. “He was standing there very politely, kind of with armor on, like he had a boundary. He finally said very politely, ‘Excuse me, but have we met?’ And I said, ‘Gilbert, I’ve known you since 1974.’” Scott contacted Rymshaw and the two began meeting at the artist’s house, which was in a state of severe disrepair, to assist him.

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Laying Man), c. 1980 Charcoal and graphite on paper 22 1/4 x 30 inches

Gilbert Lewis, Untitled (Laying Man), ca. 1980. Charcoal and graphite on paper 22 1/4 x 30 inches. Courtesy of Kapp Kapp.

Even when they were boyfriends, despite being younger, Rymshaw was the caregiver of the pair. That dynamic maintained after their breakup throughout their friendship and would evolve to a higher plane. “I don’t think we actually ever fell out of love,” Rymshaw said. Lewis’s dementia progressed and he had to be moved to a full-time facility. Rymshaw and his husband Jim supported his round-the-clock nursing care for over five years.

Rymshaw became director of his estate, and he and Bill Scott began cataloguing the estimated 400 artworks that filled his row house. For the first time in Lewis’s career, there was a concerted sales effort behind him with funds raised going directly to his care. Many works were donated to museums, such as the Woodmere, to maintain his legacy. “These were important pieces that I didn’t want to end up going into some mysterious collection,” Rymshaw said. Their efforts led to the 2020 exhibitions in Philadelphia.

Scott said of the vast archive, “He was out of step with the world and with the trends. It was like looking at a bunch of portraits by Hans Memling for me. You know how you can look at Renaissance portraits and write ten novels about them from what you intuit from seeing them. Gilbert created a whole world of characters.”

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Art Dealers at Intersect Aspen Say the Pop-Up Fair Was a Roaring Success—and a Great Chance to Finally See Collectors Again

The absence of most in-person art fairs in the past year and a half appears to be making the white-hot art market even hotter.

That’s the takeaway from the opening day of the pop-up Intersect Aspen art fair, which takes place in a city overrun with billionaires.

The fair, which features 30 galleries from 26 cities and was described by one fairgoer as “tiny but exquisite,” attracted a bevy of collectors, including Andrea and John Stark, Janna Bullock, and heiress Elizabeth Esteve.

Sales were fast and furious, organizers said. Galerie Gmurzynska, whose director Isabelle Bscher made a concerted effort not to presell works (as galleries often do at major fairs), sold a Joan Miró painting, Tête (1979), for $2 million in the first hour of the opening day.

Two days later, Gmurzynska reported selling another work, a small Picasso titled Compotier avec raisin (Pigeons) (1927) for over $1.5 million.

Image courtesy Intersect Aspen.

Image courtesy Intersect Aspen.

“Where better to be than Aspen?” asked Christine Berry of New York’s Berry Campbell Gallery. “We have a renewed appreciation for being at an art fair in person.”

Seattle dealer Greg Kucera reported selling work by Chris Engman for $5,000 and by Humaira Abid for $8,000. The gallery is also showing two new works by Deborah Butterfield that were made specifically for Intersect Aspen, and are on view for the first time.

“The fair opened on Sunday morning at 10 with a bang,” New York dealer Nancy Hoffman said. “Starting with energy is key to the success of the event, and this is a success. This is our first in-person fair since the pandemic, and it has been great so far, positive on all levels. The right size, the right place, the right audience, the right fair director and organization.”

Hoffman said responses have been strong to the gallery’s booth theme of wild flowers, which is inspired by Aspen’s floral landscape. With prices for works ranging from $1,800 to $75,000, she said the gallery sold works priced from $5,000 to $30,000.

Installation view of Edward Cella Art & Architecture at Intersect Aspen. Image courtesy Intersect Aspen.

Installation view of Edward Cella Art & Architecture at Intersect Aspen. Image courtesy Intersect Aspen.

Half Gallery sold out a booth of works by Hiejin Yoo (prices ranged from $12,000 to $20,000), Young Lim Lee (priced around $8,000), and Umar Rashid (priced around $25,000). Director Erin Goldberger said she was using the opportunity to meet new clients, see old clients, and talk about the artists on view with visitors.

Goldberger said many of the collectors at the fair have not been back to New York since the start of COVID, so this is the first time many are seeing artworks from galleries they work with in person.

Emmanuel Perrotin sold works by Daniel Arsham from two different series, including one featured prominently in the booth, Quartz Eroded Basketball Hoop (2021), which sold for a price in the range of $60,000 to $90,000.

Edward Cella Art and Architecture gallery sold a painting by Wosene Worke Kosrof, House Full of Words (2014), for $46,000, with strong interest from buyers in additional works.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the quality and intelligence of the collectors, who are geographically dispersed throughout the country,” said gallery owner Edward Cella.

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Works From the Fabled Collection of Late Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee Are Finally on Public View in South Korea

This week, the Korean public got its first chance to see a smattering of artworks from the multi-billion-dollar collection amassed by the late Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee. 

Two shows dedicated to Lee’s former possessions went on view at major venues in Seoul Wednesday, July 21. The events marked the first time that any pieces from his collection have gone on public display since being conferred to two institutions in April. 

The National Museum of Korea unveiled a presentation of historical artifacts from the Lee collection, including 28 pieces designated by the state as National Treasures. The 77 objects on view represent just a fraction of the more than 21,600 items donated to the institution by Lee’s heirs. 

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) opened an exhibition of 58 Modern and contemporary paintings and sculptures by 34 Korean artists selected from the almost 1,500 artworks gifted from the Lee collection. 

Jeong Seon, <i>Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang</i> (1751). Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

Jeong Seon, Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang (1751). Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea.

“We selected items that have artistic and historic value for this exhibition,” National Museum curator Lee Soo-kyung said during a press preview, according to the Korea Herald. “Our main purpose is to show the characteristics of Lee Kun-hee’s collection.”

On view in the two-month-long National Museum exhibition are rare examples of paintings, porcelain, metal statues, and wooden furniture dating from the prehistoric era to the early 20th century. The highlight of the group is Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang, a 1751 landscape painting by Joseon-period artist Jeong Seo. It’s thought to be the Samsung chairman’s first major art purchase.

“A large part of the 1,488 artworks donated to our museum from Lee’s collection is Modern art, which our museum has a shortage of,” Park Mi-hwa, curator of the MMCA exhibition, explained in a preview of that institution’s show.

“Accordingly, for the first of our special exhibitions featuring the donated Lee collection, we selected Modern art pieces by Korea’s most popular artists.” Among those represented in the exhibition are landscape painter Byeon Gwansik, abstractionist Kim Whanki, and sculptor Kwon Jinkyu.

The historic gifts to the two museums this spring ended a months’-long debate about the fate of the more than 23,000 works of art following Lee’s death in October of 2020.

Media outlets had previously speculated that Lee’s heirs, including his son Lee Jae-yong and widow Hong Ra-hee, might sell some of the prized artworks to international buyers in order to cover the $11 billion (₩12.5 trillion) inheritance tax bill on the $20 billion (₩ 22 trillion) fortune the chairman left behind.

Ultimately, the heirs chose to keep the collection in the country, distributing its pieces among state institutions, including the National Museum, MMCA, and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.

But the artworks, owned by the state, won’t stay in these institutions for long. Earlier this month, the South Korean minister of culture, sports, and tourism, announced plans to build a new museum solely dedicated to the Lee collection. 

Reservations to see the National Museum show are booked for the next month, a spokesperson for the museum told the Herald.

Tickets to see the MMCA show aren’t quite as hard to get. There, reservations are unavailable through early August, per Korea JoongAng Daily

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Western Museums Are Finally Reconsidering Their African Collections. We Gathered 3 Experts to Explain Why—and What Needs to Happen Next

After many decades of inaction, many museums in the West have been forced to recognize that tucked into their storage facilities are a stunning array of wonders that were forcibly taken from the Benin Royal Palace in 1897 by the British on a so-called punitive expedition.

And now, finally, changes seem to be underway.

After the publication of a groundbreaking report in France by Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy advising President Emmanuel Macron to return the Benin Bronzes in national collections, a portal opened, catalyzing other European nations to do the same. Suddenly, after so much silence, restitution finally seems like a real possibility.

Germany, which has some of the largest collections of the Benin bronzes after the U.K., announced last month it would begin returns in 2022. It is likely that many of the work will end up in the David Adjaye-designed Edo Museum of West African Art after it opens in 2025.

To better understand this critical turning point, Midnight Publishing Group News brought together three key figures for a conversation about the restitution of the Benin bronzes: Victor Ehikhamenor, a Lagos-based artist and trustee of the Legacy Restoration Trust, an organization working on the Benin bronzes’ return; Pitt Rivers Museum curator Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums; and Marla Berns, director of the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles.

Here’s what they told us.

From left, Dan HIcks, MB, and TK.

From left, Dan Hicks, Marla Berns, and Victor Ehikhamenor.

Victor, you came to know about this art as a young person. What does the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) mean, and how can it show these objects in a way that other museums cannot?

Victor Ehikhamenor: The EMOWAA museum is many things. I realized through recent conversations that some only look at its being built because we expect the Benin Bronzes to be returned. We are forgetting that after 1897, creativity did not stop. Benin has always been a kingdom that innovates and builds. The Western narrative is that there is no history if it has not been told by a Western historian. But there are questions for the whole of sub-Saharan [Africa] too: how did our artworks reference each other? How did we feed off each other creatively?

We are building this museum for many reasons. Its absence has become an excuse for some people who don’t want to return the stolen items. “Where are you going to put them?” they ask. These people forget that they were not stolen from a museum. These objects were taken from a particular place where they were meant to be.

The punitive expedition and the reality of colonialism has largely been omitted from education in the Global North. How is this history addressed in your educational systems?

VE: It is not something that is present. We knew that the kingdom was attacked, burned down, and rebuilt. We knew that we didn’t have an oba [hereditary ruler] for 14 years while the British were trying to skew things. Those are all oral narratives. As a young student, we studied the empires: the Ghana empire, the Yoyo empire. The education we were fed was also a colonial education. Certain facts were omitted. We can even go back to the language of a “punitive exhibition.” What is a “punitive expedition”? I know that Dan [Hicks] has also questioned that. Language and education were part of the tools of colonialism.

Dan Hicks: What I learned in writing [The Brutish Museums], which was a shock, in some ways, was how many of these “punitive expeditions” were undertaken. At the time, the so-called Little Wars that the Victorians wrote about were immense military interventions. Yet they describe them as individual events. They did not underline how connected these events were after the Berlin Conference of 1884 [in which European powers partitioned Africa], which is a sort of ground zero for this history. In what is now Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Sudan, there was the removal of chiefs, kings, or obas who outlived their usefulness and who were getting in the way of an increasingly aggressive and capitalist corporate colonialism. This was happening in a so-called “protectorate.” The language of the protectorate is the language of the mafia. “We’re going to protect you—or else.” So the language of the “punitive expedition” defines these attacks as a punishment. Whether in the case of the Benin attack, or in the case of a whole host of other attacks, the notion is about reprisal, and that there is some earlier act that justified this ultraviolence. 

This happens for restitution conversations now as well. The idea is that those who want restitution are attacking museums. We have to understand how the logic of late Victorian colonialism continues into the present.

Photograph of an ancestral shrine at the Royal Palace, Benin City taken during the visit of Cyril Punch in 1891. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. EEPA.1993-014.

Photograph of an ancestral shrine at the Royal Palace, Benin City taken during the visit of Cyril Punch in 1891. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. EEPA.1993-014.

Marla, can you speak about what you have been doing at your institution?

Marla Berns: Just two years after the Fowler Museum was established in 1963, through a kind of serendipitous meeting, the chancellor of UCLA and a member of the Wellcome Trust had a conversation about how much money it cost to store this phenomenal collection that Sir Henry Wellcome had amassed around the turn of the 20th-century. There were dispersals of this vast collection—especially the ethnographic component of it—after World War II, and a lot of work went to the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

In 1965, we received 30,000 objects from that collection in one fell swoop, sent by ship to this fledgling museum. Among those objects are about 7,000 from Africa, including a number of pieces that are from Benin. We knew about those objects since they arrived on our doorstep. Since those early moments in the 1960s, the museum has never focused on provenance research on this collection. This is a major shift in the curatorial work of museums in recent years. We have an objective of knowing what we have, where the objects came from, and how they came to us. We are the secondhand or even fourth-hand owners of these objects. 

Provenance research is important for us to know what we have, but also to tell the histories of colonial collecting. We were able to do this because of funding that we received from Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, specifically for collections research—which is really significant, because museums don’t typically have the resources to hire archival researchers or conservation specialists. It’s very resource intensive. Because of that, we’re now able to learn more about the pieces we have. We have at least 20 objects that we think were plundered from the palace, and we have confirmed that six of them actually came directly from that event via a colonial officer or someone else who took it out of Nigeria. This has become really an important part of what we’re doing.

Interior of the Royal Palace during looting, showing Captain Charles Herbert Philip Carter (1864–1943), ‘E.P. Hill’ and an unnamed man, February 1897. Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1998.208.15.11).

Interior of the Royal Palace during looting, showing Captain Charles Herbert Philip Carter (1864–1943), ‘E.P. Hill’ and an unnamed man, February 1897. Pitt Rivers Museum (accession number 1998.208.15.11).

Germany has made some leaps and bounds in regards to funding. They are now giving grants for provenance research to institutions. I’m curious what you think about the pace of Germany versus other nations?

MB: I just think we haven’t gathered over these issues in the way that Europe has. The Benin Dialogue Group has been meeting for about 10 years and has been discussing these matters, Germany included. We’re coming into this a little bit later, but we are beginning to form a consortium and we’re trying to work together because reaching out to communities is paramount. Talking to people like Victor and understanding what our responsibilities are and being collaborative is at the foundation of the work we’re doing.

The U.S. should take guidance from NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which has governed how American reckon with our colonialism and our history of domination of Native American peoples. There are two main lessons from that. One is inventories, knowing what you have. And the second is communication, collaboration, and respect.

DH: The work we just heard about so eloquently from Marla is at the heart of what restitution means. It starts with an acknowledgement of how much was taken and destroyed. Much of that was knowledge. What some call the decolonization of museums, I prefer to frame as the unfinished work of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. I think that’s fundamentally what we learned in the U.K. This means looking not only at the looting by 200 soldiers, sailors, and administrators who simply took what they wanted for their own gain, but looking at the art market and museums’ acquisition programs, which both worked for purposes of cultural supremacy.

A lot of the German debate is framed around the notion of being transparent. But transparency is one aspect only. Accountability is something else. When we heard the verdict after the trial related to the racist murder of George Floyd, there was an interesting moment where [U.S.] Attorney General Keith Ellison said he wouldn’t call it “justice, because justice implies true restoration. But it is accountability.” He said that accountability is a step towards justice. That is what this work is about in our museums.

Victor, there are all these different stakeholders in a complicated network to get these objects really moving. Can you speak a bit about the Legacy Restoration Trust’s work in that regard?

VE: I was invited to become part of it in 2020. This whole restitution debate has become part of the mandate for it, but the Legacy Restoration Trust is actually many things. We know how complicated this subject can be. The board members come from different angles—some are from history, from art, from finance. We try to be a central point of conversation for all the moving parts of this issue.

DH: What’s incredibly exciting for Europeans and Americans is that we are taking ourselves out of the conversation. We’ve been taking up space about returns for so long. There are different agents in Nigeria from the nation-state, to the governor to the Royal court—these conversations within Nigeria should be happening without neo-colonial interference. It’s wrong for us in the West to expect closure.

Retired hospital consultant Mark Walker (R) hands over two bronze artefacts he returned to the Benin kingdom to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, during a ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria, on June 20, 2014. Photo: Kelvin Ikpea/AFP via Getty Images.

Retired hospital consultant Mark Walker (R) hands over two bronze artefacts he returned to the Benin kingdom to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, during a ceremony in Benin City, Nigeria, on June 20, 2014. Photo: Kelvin Ikpea/AFP via Getty Images.

In the Sarr-Savoy restitution report, they said that if an object is stolen, it should be returned. In the case of Benin, as you said, Dan, the ransacking is well-documented. In Germany, in the case of Nazi-looted art, works have been returned when duress is proven. There are so many instances and situations where that would likely turn out to be true all across Africa. This should and will grow to become really big in scope.

MB: It’s a lifetime of work. We’ve talked about it at Fowler. We have objects that came from the Ashanti Wars in the early 1870s. We want to work directly with the Ashanti Palace in Kumasi. We need to know who to go to, but it’s complicated. There’s no other word for it, other than it’s complicated. We have objects from South Africa. To whom do we speak when we have objects that belong to villages or former kingdoms? It’s really such a difficult situation, but one in which we still profoundly want to make progress and want to do the right thing. From my point of view, it really is going to reshape the role of the curator, the importance of archival work, and the priorities of curatorial work.

Victor, I can imagine colleagues in neighboring countries are probably looking to adapt and create their own versions of the Legacy Restoration Trust.

VE: Colonization of Africa didn’t happen at once. Even though these are not new conversations, this is the first time we are having some traction. But if restitution is going to continue to work, we have to build a model. Like Marla said, it is going to be a lifetime of work. But it is starting. Martin Luther King was in the 1960s. Obama was in the 2000s. But you cannot, we could probably say, have had Obama without having King before. So the models that are being created right now are kind of like the pillars for futures. If other people see what is being done with the Benin Bronzes, and if we are successful, then there will be precedents to reference.

That could also be frightening to a lot of museums. “Where does it stop?” one might say. We have to do a balancing act. We’re doing it correctly when we’re addressing the provenance. We’re not asking for people to just give everything, as if a museum is being raided. This is not a revised punitive expedition. The objects you can trace must be addressed in a way that is beneficial to both parties. 

A plaque which decorated the palace of the Obas, Benin warriors are depicted in battle. Nigeria. Edo. Probably late 17th century. Benin City. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

A plaque which decorated the palace of the Obas, Benin warriors are depicted in battle. Nigeria. Edo. Probably late 17th century. Benin City. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Speaking about different strategies, I wanted to bring up the activist Mwazulu Diyabanza, who has been actively removing objects from European museums. I wonder what your reaction is to his actions?

VE: There is no one cookie-cutter approach. If you look at colonialism, Belgium was different in their approach; Germany was different in their approach; France was different in their approach. People asking for restitution are going to have different approaches to it, too. At the same time, we have to bring humanity and civility to that conversation. How do we go about it lawfully, even though a lot done during colonialism was unlawful? You do not stamp out fire with fire.

DH: The Rhodes Must Fall protest was happening outside the [Pitt Rivers] museum. When your audience comes to your front door and protests your institution, you have to try and understand. I think Diyabanza’s interventions were designed to expose the question about legitimacy. The French culture minister said the objects in French museums are inalienable. Well, they were also inalienable to the oba of Benin. So whose system of justice is right? Who is the thief? Who is the criminal?

I don’t know the details of these interventions or whether laws were broken, but what I know is that, as a performance art intervention, it seems to me  that it is a rightful challenge to the legitimacy of the museum, especially when it presents itself as under attack.

What about private collections? The number of works in private collections is totally unknown.

MB: Museums can educate their audiences and work with collectors so that they understand the issues in a dispassionate way. Ownership is not static. They need to think about how they personally are obligated to contend with problematic histories of these objects they own. It’s up to museums to educate not by sitting them down and saying, over drinks, “You really need to think about your collection,” but by doing exhibitions, public programming, and really trying to frame these arguments to the fullest degree that we can. There are collectors who are doing the right thing. But some are caught up in the investments they made to buy these objects. That’s part of what’s going on in their minds. I think they have to be led to go beyond that, and to think about what’s right.

VE: Auction houses have a lot of work to do, too. They need to turn some of these objects down. They keep coming up for sale and auction houses keep selling them. Dealers have work to do too, because they deal in these objects. I would even exonerate the museums from this specific conversation, because it is really the dealers and the auction houses who know where objects might be, and who have the responsibility.

DH: There was an interesting piece in the Financial Times last weekend, which I appeared in, that talked about the changing questions over the value of the looted Benin art. There are questions of the saleability of these items. In many cases, maybe half the cases, we are looking at objects where people made an investment, but maybe half of what’s out there has been inherited. These are the descendants of those who took it. In those cases, we are seeing returns. We’re seeing exactly what we see in museums: not a legal process but rather a coalition of the willing. That phrase is from a different and rather horrendous context of the Iraq War… But maybe we can reuse and reclaim it to describe how many are acting today.

MB: In the case of Albright-Knox Art Gallery, in 2007, the museum decided to deaccession a Benin bronze head at auction for almost $5 million to use that money to buy other art. It raises really thorny issues about the fact that that institution gained that resource from that one piece that was stolen. They didn’t even own it in the first place. Auction houses are now becoming very reluctant to get into the middle of what is, in fact, an illegal transaction.

Carved elephant tusks looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 are displayed in the "Where Is Africa" exhibition at the Linden Museum on May 05, 2021 in Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images.

Carved elephant tusks looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 are displayed in the “Where Is Africa” exhibition at the Linden Museum on May 05, 2021 in Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images.

Hopefully it doesn’t drive it underground, though, because there’s a growth of these private sales at auction houses.  

MB: But when you find out, there’s the shaming aspect. People put it right into the press and that helps, actually.

DH: I don’t think we can imagine a European or American Museum actively purchasing a looted Benin artwork now. We have passed that point. Some wonder whether, when the Aberdeen object is returned to Nigeria, the British government will attempt to intervene and force a sale within the U.K. I don’t think the British Museum or any U.K. institution is going to take that Aberdeen object at this point, though. I think we are seeing a sentiment change in a very interesting way. These are no longer being understood as just “assets.” They’re royal, sacred, stolen objects.

View of main entrance and courtyard garden © Adjaye Associates.

View of main entrance and courtyard garden of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Benin City, Nigeria. © Adjaye Associates.

What is one of your hopes for the next steps in this debate?

VE: Museums shouldn’t be afraid to return works that are problematic. If you can trace the provenance to the fact that it was looted, a lot of them should do the right thing and figure out a way to return them to their original owners. They can always acquire new artworks to continue that history.

MB: What the museum field needs are resources to do this work. I would like to advocate for philanthropy turning its attention to helping curators at institutions that are committed to knowing more about their collections. We are not just taking on the high-profile cases like the Benin Bronzes. We must address all the other material we have that we need to know more about. Institutions need multi-year grants, they need to cover staff time, travel, all the ways that we need to further the work. It’s never good to say, “We can’t do this, because we don’t have the money.” We have to find the money. We have to make the persuasive arguments. We have to  make these issues public. So bravo to those who support the work, and let’s find more foundations who can do this in the future.

DH: One of the real challenges for us is to be able to lower our standards of evidence. The men in the expedition took photographs and documented and wrote down everything. You couldn’t ask for more accuracy. In other cases, there won’t be that level of documentation, but that doesn’t mean the case for return isn’t any less compelling. That’s the challenge for us as we do the provenance research. We have to make sure that all these other historical incidents do not get brushed under the carpet. 

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