Filed under: Gallerist at Home | Tags: Deborah Gribbon, Ellen C. Caldwell, Gallerist at Home
Former Director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, and recent Interim Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Deborah Gribbon is by no means a gallerist or collector in the typical sense of the words. But she is most definitely a quick-witted, intelligent, and gifted scholar in the art world, both in and outside of Los Angeles.
For this column, I use the term “gallerist” loosely in order to explore the ways in which people involved in the art world in various capacities collect and showcase personal art in their private homes (see previous features Heather Taylor and Catlin Moore). Our interest in such personal showcases certainly has a voyeuristic undertone, but it is also my hope that this column uncovers a deeper and more intricate connection between art historians, cultural curators, and gallerists and the art they collect. – Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
Gribbon emphasized that she and her husband are in fact not serious collectors, but what interested me most was the way in which she remains an art historian and curator at heart; her textile and handkerchief collections are stored in flat boxes, with single sheets of labeled tissue paper separating, categorizing, and titling each. She even has a column of frames in her living room that showcase a rotating display of handkerchiefs. Gribbon emphasized that, “what we have really are simply things we enjoy and hold special meaning for us.” And although Gribbon refers to this as more of a hobby, I really enjoyed seeing and hearing about her private practice of collecting and curating. It is inspiring, to say the least, to see Gribbon engaging in an informal and fun museum practice in her very own home.
Ellen Caldwell: I loved seeing your home office and the earliest pieces you collected. Could you describe the prints and lithographs and their special significance to you and your studies?
Deborah Gribbon: The prints in my office are mainly French 19th-century etchings or lithographs that represent different art critics. I bought most of them in Paris when I was living there in the early 1970s doing research for my graduate thesis. The thesis was on Eduard Manet and a large portion of it focused on the contemporary critical reaction to his work. So, really on a lark, I bought some prints that were portraits of the critics I was reading. None had (or have) any great value; often they were made as illustrations for 19th-century Parisian newspapers or magazines. But I like the idea of working and having images of Champfleury, Astruc, Huysmans, and Baudelaire (my favorite: it is an etching by Manet) looking over my shoulder.
EC: The Braque print is an amazing story in itself too. You mentioned that you and your husband got it at an auction – would you recap your auction story and explain what drew you to this piece?
DG: I met my husband when we were both graduate students in art history and from the start, one of the things we loved to do was to look for undiscovered “treasures”—probably only “treasures” in our eyes. One day we went to the preview for a very ordinary auction in Boston (the kind of auction where the auctioneer would describe something as “having a lot of age on it”). My husband was looking through a box of used frames and noticed that one frame had in it what looked to be a real print, not a reproduction. We both agreed that it looked like the work of Georges Braque, so we went to the library and did some quick research and, sure enough, it was one of a series of etchings Braque produced toward the end of his career, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. We were hoping that no one else had noticed it at the auction preview and agonized over what we could bid, because we had no money. During the auction we could barely contain ourselves; since it was a box of old frames it was one of the last lots to be sold. When it finally came up, we put in a low bid, and to our surprise someone immediately offered a higher bid, so we had a brief bidding war. The auctioneer and audience was even more surprised; they couldn’t figure out why the frames would be of interest to any bidder, let alone two bidders! Ultimately, we won the print—at one bid higher than our previously agreed-upon top bid, which was well below its value had it been recognized as an original Braque but higher than we would have paid had no one else noticed it. I learned an important auction lesson: it only takes one other person to make it a bidding war.
EC: The Braque piece is part of such a nice and unique vignette in your home. How did you decide to pair this and showcase it?
DG: We still love the print: it’s a stark image of an antique head, the kind you might find on an ancient coin, and Braque’s use of the etching medium is richly textured. It takes pride of place in our living room, hanging next to the earliest pieces we own, two small gold-ground paintings of a male saints. The latter are northern Italian, painted around 1500, and probably parts of a larger, multi-panel altarpiece. It may sound like an odd group but they seem very happy together.
EC: They do seem happy together! In addition to your prints, it was fascinating to see that you are working on various collections so avidly, whether it be the ceramic pitchers, fish motif dishes and sculptures, dishtowels, table cloths, or handkerchiefs. Could you discuss this a bit?
Lately, I’ve begun collecting American textiles from the 1950s: tablecloths, dishtowels, and hankies. I started with an anniversary gift I bought for my husband who loves mid-century furniture. It was a tablecloth I saw at the local farmer’s market that was made in Southern California in the late 50s or early 60s, and decorated with fish that look like wire sculpture made by Alexander Calder. I’ve bought many tablecloths since then–mostly on eBay. While trolling eBay for tablecloths I started looking at handkerchiefs of the same period and became fascinated with them—both for the design, the subjects, and they way that they evolved. For centuries, handkerchiefs were not simply practical but also an important part of a well-dressed woman’s (or man’s) outfit. In more recent times, they also became popular mementos of travel or of celebrations such as birthdays or Valentine’s Day. During the first half of the 20th century, hankies were virtually always pastel and, whatever the subject, had floral borders. In the 1950s, a new aesthetic and a much broader range of subjects emerged.
EC: The handkerchiefs really are special. And your interest in designer Tammis Keefe really drew me in. Could you discuss your interest and discovery of her work a bit?
DG: Yes, I’m particularly interested one designer, Tammis Keefe. She had a very brief career—really no more than a decade before she died at 46 in 1960—but during that time she produced more than 300 designs for handkerchiefs as well dishtowels, tablecloths, and playing cards. In her hands, the traditional souvenir handkerchiefs became small portraits of the modern city portrayed in a stark graphic style and bold color. She worked in series, producing, for example, more than a dozen scenes of New York City—The Public Library, the Zoo, Park Avenue, Rockefeller Center—and almost as many of California sites, including Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Hollywood Bowl, and Palm Springs. Because textiles are fragile, I store the handkerchiefs away from the light, but I frame and hang 6 or 8 at a time for a couple of months, curating my own, private little shows.
DG: I started collecting textiles after I retired from full-time museum work. I suppose I’ve enjoyed it because it is both an extension of what I did professionally and entirely different. Whether you’re purchasing a 16th-century painting or a 20th-century handkerchief, you do research and develop your eye so that you have an understanding of the object—its place in the artist’s oeuvre and in its period, its relative importance, its rarity, and its condition; and, whether you are bidding at Sotheby’s or on eBay, you must know the market. On the other hand, with the handkerchief the stakes are obviously much lower; you’re buying for yourself, not a broad public; and, really, it’s not serious—just fun.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, editor, and writer.
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