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Tales from the Art Crypt:
the Painters, the Museums, the Curators, the Collectors, the Auctions, the Art

by Richard Feigen
296 pages with 76 photographs
Alfred A. Knopf, New York © 2000
ISBN 0-394-57169-X
$30.00 hardcover

"As museums began to commercialize, to adapt to 1970s inflation, exhibitions also veered away from emphasis on scholarship toward a preoccupation with the box office." - Richard Feigen speaks out in Tales from the Art Crypt

Tales from the Art Crypt mingles personal recollection, commentary, and art-business history in a rich blend of entertainment and appeal that is more than a simple memoir. Anecdotes of Old Master detection, art-auction coups, museum politics, missed-by-a-minute art deals, personal encounters with well-known artists and collectors, poignant comments on the art culture's transformations through the 20th century are represented in a book whose author's voice meanders, sometimes telling a single tale, sometimes spinning multiple tales in concentric rings. Richard Feigen's art adventures are liberally salted with opinions and views, with his griffin eye focused particularly - and warningly - on the changes occurring in American museums in the latter half of the 20th century.

The book delights on many levels, and the first, and simplest, is as a collection of art adventure stories and a lively memoir. A Chicago native, with galleries in both Chicago and New York, Feigen speaks from the perspective of a well-seasoned professional - an art dealer handling paintings crucial to artists' incomes and staking millions of clients' dollars on the drop of an auction hammer. The famous names fly: Miró, Kandinsky, Beckmann, Man Ray, Picasso, Bacon, Chagall, Albright and many more. With the 20th (and now, 21st) century's fascination with fame, Feigen's insider anecdotes about the artists alone can provide hours of grist for one's celebrity fixation. Journalist Fred Camper, reviewing the book in the July 14, 2000 edition of the Chicago Reader, noted, "After reading his new memoir, Tales from the Art Crypt, I wondered whether the 69-year-old Feigen was a name-dropper. Now I know he's simply describing his milieu."

Adventure and suspense also play a role here, with anecdotal gems such as Feigen's Holmesian detection of a Poussin; his being trapped for a week in a Paris hotel, unable to leave unattended a suitcase crammed to the brim with 30 million French francs; or the pursuit of a deal on a fabled Iranian manuscript - "the biggest deal I ever blew." At times the anecdotes sparkle, for instance, the image of Chicago art collector Mort Neumann, caught on a cruise ship with a waiting artist and a six-year-old reluctant to yield his art supplies: "Little boy, Miró wants to draw with your crayons! You naughty little boy! Miró wants to draw with your crayons! "

Such I-was-here, I-did-this material would be interesting enough on its own, but Feigen includes as well tidbits of art-business history preceding and during his 50-year tenure. The events he chooses to highlight, based as they are in his personal experience, provide reading material both vivid and interesting: how, and why, American museums were originally founded; how New York's SoHo district almost wasn't, and the author's own role in same; and the gruelling, politically-fueled struggles of the Barnes Foundation, and their results, to name a few. Of particular interest to artists is a vivid discussion of the effect of post-Vietnam inflation on the art boom of the 80's: art inflation, art superstars, and the effect of six- and seven-figure pricing on galleries, and on the careers of the artists who followed. Such explanation of the forces shaping the contemporary world is of value to the savvy reader, for it enables us to understand where we have come from, and where we might be heading; and why phenomena such as the art market are the way they are. This understanding makes us more powerful, whether we "dabble" in art, or pursue it professionally.

Gripping anecdote, and educated history: as if these two potentially rich subjects weren't enough, Feigen adds a third note to the blend, and turns his practiced eye upon the Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation of American museums, with a warning message for us all. The reader will find his assumptions about museums as repositories of education and erudition surprisingly and disturbingly challenged. In addition to gut-wrenching tangles of internal politics, Feigen speaks poignantly and urgently on the commercialization seizing the museum world and turning it into mere money business: the love of the turnstile over the love of erudition. He calls into question such "big money"-driven shows as Monet, such "popular" offerings as "Cartier jewelry and Versace dresses... BMW motorcycles and Armani clothes." With corporate sponsorship being rife, and corporate logos taking over everything from football stadiums to elementary school materials, the infiltration into American museums' missions of the corporation mindset and the bottom-line-minded CEO is something of which we should all take note.

Of significance to Chicagoans is Feigen's considerable coverage of the development of Chicago art, artists, and collectors. Twined in and among his tales are stories of Chicago's hidden Anti-Semitism, and its contribution toward the founding of the Museum of Contemporary Art; the contrast between the social ambition of the Leigh Blocks and the homey, influential collecting of Rose and Morton Neumann, and the ripple effect of the actions of both these influential pairs; Chicago architecture now lost to us, with an acidic aside on the monstrosities that replaced it; and the career of Chicago artist Ivan Albright, including Feigen finally arranging a gallery show for the 80-year-old artist, only to be blocked by a turn of events both surprising and sad.

This is not a book one can breeze through. It contains tales within tales and at times a reader must tease them out strand by strand. The author freely takes little side roads from his main topic, the pleasant ramble of the raconteur. Throughout his topics Feigen speaks with an unabashed "I", a voice decisive, and, some would say, arrogant, but perhaps the natural result of a lifetime of separating the sheep from the goats, of having multiple millions of dollars riding on the acuity of his perceptions and opinions.

Tales From the Art Crypt suffers from lack of an index, which, though not strictly de rigueur in a book essentially marketed as a memoir, would increase its value to the art aficionado or student who wishes to use it as a reference, especially as it is so liberally salted with famous names. As well, a reader is dumped into - and out of - the text with a disconcerting abruptness. The "Introduction" is written (inexplicably) in third-person, and its jumble of mysterious comments do little to properly get the reader's feet wet in the text - it would have been better and breezier to have Feigen plainly introduce it himself: "Here are some of my memoirs, some stories which can finally be told..." The ending drops off after the last chapter, with no "Afterword" or "Epilogue" to provide a simple summation or closure on all a reader has just read, or to lead one outward fermenting with imaginations for the improvement of the art world. Minor complaints, yet such would have made the book that much more accessible, lending power to the messages that are integrated within Feigen's work.

Physically speaking, it is a handsome book, a pleasure to hold and to read. The hardcover edition features a lovely cover, a medievally spooky detail of Pieter van Laer's Self-Portrait, from Feigen's own collection, no less. Within, a marvellous, creamy-textured, cream-colored paper with deckled edge delights the eye and hand. The text is set in Adobe Garamond and well-spaced, easy on the eyes and a pleasure to read. 76 crisp black-and-white photographs are distributed throughout the text and illustrate paintings, buildings, and individuals mentioned. This is a good book to give as a gift - it looks and feels impressive.

An excerpt is available for viewing at the Alfred A. Knopf (Random House) site at http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=039457169X&view=excerpt; however, it is from the "Introduction", and is hardly representative of the flow and interest of Feigen's first-person text.

Feigen states, "At the end of the day, an art dealer is usually left with two assets: a collection of objects he could not or would not sell, and a collection of stories he could not tell." At the end of the day, Tales from the Art Crypt presents us with value on multiple levels: anecdotes for a good art-world adventure-story read; history for a greater understanding of the development of artists, galleries, museums, and collectors (with a special focus on the early Chicago art scene, with its own collectors and the development and inside workings of some of its prominent museums); and, most importantly, a Cassandra-like warning about the directions into which we are steering the art world, museums specifically. The "skeletons in the closet" which Feigen brings to light of day have important things to say, for artists and for the general public whom the mission of the museum serves. Tales from the Art Crypt can be recommended for artists and art lovers, art collectors and gallery owners. More than just the memoir it initially appears to be, it recounts the past, and it speaks to the future: a useful addition to one's art library.

--Katherine Rook Lieber

Katherine Rook Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual and Performing Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be ordered through this site's Barnes and Noble link.



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