I’m not particularly involved with art and am writing at the suggestion of my sister’s lover. My great-grandfather made his living as a bookbinder in New York, but he was also a talented painter in the Surrealist vein. He had a few solo exhibitions and was in many group shows, including one at the Julien Levy Gallery, which specialized in Surrealist art. I’ve been told that he met André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, on a few occasions and had a correspondence with artist Joseph Cornell (which has sadly been lost). The works my family have in storage date from the 1930s to 1960s, and, after visiting the Met’s recent Surrealism show, I really think he should have been in it. It would be great to place his works with a gallery, or even a museum. How do I get the right people to recognize my great-grandfather’s importance?
Imagine a crater-filled landscape filled with marzipan palm trees that have oversize baby-corn arms. Picture this painting on a wall at Tate. Look closer and notice your great-grandfather’s signature on the canvas before gazing up to see him flying above you with a vindicated Cheshire grin. Now open your eyes. This will likely never happen.
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We haven’t seen the dusty paintings crowding your attic, but it sounds like your great-grandfather’s talent was never fully recognized within the crowded field of Surrealists. He may have been a unique painter, but a spotty CV and loose societal connections will go only so far in convincing others of his significance now that the canon has been so firmly established. His work once hung on Julien Levy’s walls, but did he get into a legendary fistfight with Man Ray at the opening? Was he shtupping someone other than your great-grandmother, and was this person more famous than he? Did he ever cause a public outrage by flinging feces at a priest? If not, then you are facing an uphill battle.
Galleries that deal with dead artists are up to their ears in needy estates and orphaned canvases, so your great-grandfather’s narrative must be as revelatory as his actual art. His bookbinding work is cool, since it’s not a profession people really do anymore, but this alone won’t especially elevate his status. You need to dig deeper to come up with more biographical dirt. Remember, Surrealists were nutty. They smoked opium. Shit happened. Armed with tales of madness, you need to craft anecdotes and storylines about his life in order to entice curators, gallerists, and art historians. Piquing their interest may help elevate your great-grandfather from just another dead painter to an exquisite corpse.
An artist very generously gave me a copy of her monograph. She’s nice and we have some mutual friends, but I’m honestly just not very interested in her paintings. The book has been sitting in my apartment in its wrapper for about a year. I realized it’s actually expensive and I could probably sell it for at least forty dollars. Would that make me a huge jerk?
Only a deluded narcissist foists their book into the hands of a friend’s friend and expects them to keep it, much less read the damn thing. The real gift here is that she doesn’t seem to have inscribed it. Consider yourself safe to sell this self-promotional giveaway, or better yet trade it in for credit at a used-book store. If she comes across a copy on the two-dollar rack outside the Strand, she will suspect only that one of her friends has a low estimation of her work or maybe needed pad thai money.
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