Friday, October 2, 2015

Weekend Finds: Amateur Art History Detective Edition (Paul Brach painting, 1959)

Good morning!

As promised, I'm back on this bleary, dreary Friday morning to share with you a whale of a find from my anniversary travels in Louisville. Weekend before last, we ran up to the northern most part of Kentucky to get out of town for the day and look around at what the bluegrass state had to offer in the way of second hand goods. What else do you think I would do on my vacation but exactly what I do when not on vacation? We visited a really cool bar that had a number of vintage pinball and arcade machines, but mostly, we ran around buying things because 1) it's what I like to do best and 2) my husband is very, very nice.

Do me a favor and pretend this wasn't taken at 6:40 this morning just before I had to rush out the door, haha. A blogger's work is never done!

The biggest attraction for me in Kentucky is that the place is LOUSY with places to shop for junk. As you know if you've read this blog more than twice, I'm the Tina-Turner-intro-to-"Proud Mary" of antiques acquisition-- "you see we never ever do nothing...nice, easy...we always do it nice and rough." This girl likes to be plunged into a situation where a critical eye is the only thing between you and untold bargains/treasures/etc. I often get disappointed in curated collections or resale stores because it's just not fun when everything is both retail priced and laid out for you, I like to get knee deep in a cardboard box of clothes someone pulled out of a disused barn, or dig around in an old supermarket turned thrift store full of 80% garbage, and 20% pure gold. So you can imagine how stoked I was to discover a few years ago, grace à a hot tip from Jamie of Owl Really, that the greater Louisville area has a bunch of stores called "Peddler's Marts" that are like indoor flea markets on steroids. Everything from canned food to ATVs to real antiques are under one roof, and ripe for picking! Seriously, if they had them in Tennessee, I might have a worse problem than I currently have in terms of collection management.

So. I was minding my own business, visiting the second of four peddler's mart locations we visited on Saturday, when I came across the above painting, and stopped in my tracks.

It looks more vibrant in person, I love the colors and the brushstrokes.
I have a documented weakness for wall art (to the point that I'm trying to unload a lot of surplus framed things on Craiglist right now...know anybody who needs great additions to a gallery wall?), and was drawn immediately to this oil painting leaned up against a stack of folding chairs in one of the booths. I crouched down and saw that the picture was one, really very good and two, had been treated V-E-R-Y poorly by whomever had it last and wherever it was before it hit the peddler's mart. My best guess is that the piece was either in an attic or a barn, maybe even under someone's house/in an unfinished basement, as it was covered in cobwebs, dirt, and those little cotton ball spider egg things... in three words: sick, sick, and sick. Somehow, this didn't deter me (though I did think at the time, who puts something up for sale like that without even dusting it off after they dig it out of a horrible place?), because again, ain't nobody afraid of rolling up their sleeves (and putting aside their natural aversion to grossitude) for a good deal.

As I hemmed and hawed, and looked the piece over, I noticed there was both substantial peeling/cracking/paint loss at the very bottom of the painting, and a signature:

Hm, well, that's kind of cool. Flipping the frame over, I saw something that REALLY struck me:

While it had been oil pencil'd through, and it was in as bad a condition as the rest of the picture, I could make out through the strikethrough that this is a gallery tag from "Leo Castelli". Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don't know a ton about modern art except what interests me, and Andy Warhol being one of those things, I knew that Leo Castelli was a gallery in New York that was the first to show a lot of the exciting things that came out of the art scene in the late fifties' and early sixties'. And this is labelled 1959? Interesting.

Further tags documented this painting's journey west to The Art Center in La Jolla:

And the Dwan Gallery in Los Angeles:

The deciding factor though, among these tags, was this one:

I think if it had been even $10 more I would have had to pass. As it was, I struggled with "ugh, is it worth $20 if it's all nasty? How do you even clean something like this? But what if it's some really important painter? I'm sure Leo Castelli didn't show just anyone...What if I just get it because I like it? But is it dumb to like it if it's in such poor condition? What if I don't like it when I get home because it's in poor condition and I paid $20 for it?" I'm telling you, people, as often as I fall in love at first sight with some items, just as many items send me into this tailspin of self doubt. My state of consternation is pretty much a given, here. However! My better judgment prevailed and I left the store with this and a large 1940's folding game table printed with a lithograph of flowers under either arm.

When I got home, I cleaned off the cobwebs as best I could (using no water and gently brushing dirt/dust off as far away from the damaged areas as possible) and started doing some digging on the internet to see what I could find about Paul Brach. 

The man himself.

From his NYTimes obit in 2007, I learned that Paul Brach was
..a painter and teacher who became the first dean of the School of Art at the California Institute of the Arts...[who] evolved from Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s to monochromatic Minimalism in the ’60s. [...] Mr. Brach was one of the first artists to exhibit with Leo Castelli, whose gallery he helped plan in the late 1950s.
He was married to artist Miriam Schapiro, and ran with an art world crowd that included Joan Mitchell and Michael Goldberg (see his LA Times obit here). While I'm not familiar with a lot of these names, they come up again and again in Google Books as people who were involved in the arts in California and New York in the 1950's and 1960's. Names I DID recognize included Robert Rauschenberg and Mark Rothko, who were featured in some of the same joint exhibitions as Brach. Guys, those are BIG. NAMES. I continued to comb through the internet for more info.

The Dwan Gallery in 1960.
From the digitzed Archives of American Art entries below, you can see a little more about Brach and his exhibition at the Dwan Gallery held in  April of 1960:

I was initially bummed out at this seemingly false lead, thinking the exhibition didn't include my painting, but wait! The last listing on the typewritten inventory mentions "PAPER 19. though 22. Untitled oils. Each: 250." Using my ever handy inflation calculator, I can tell you that $250 in 1960 has a 2015 value of $2,012.80. Jaw. Dropped. Meaning the most expensive painting on that list was almost $10,000 in today's money! Again, no amateur hour here, but a real working artist's painting. Color me shocked. The Castelli gallery archive materials are listed but not digitized-- I was able to find out from their list of exhibitions that Brach had solo shows there in December of 1959, which would place this picture there.

This interview from 1971 covers Brach's early life, career, and his tenure at Cal Arts as dean of the Art school (edited, shorter version here). I thought this was interesting:
PB: In comparison with some of my very good friends like Lichtenstein and Bob Rauschenberg, etc., my success has not been that much 
BS: But still for an artist growing up in New York, you made it.
PB: Right, I made it. So that leaving New York was not a sour grapes situation. Although, if your friends are selling a quarter of a million dollars a year and buying buildings downtown and taking off to Europe at the drop of a hat to have another show, etc., you begin to feel a little stuck. And you begin to wonder how corrosive a competitive mentality becomes anyway. 
Good for you, Paul Brach, for not letting other's success eat you up-- he was able to be a pivotal figure in his own right as an educator out west, and continued painting right up until he passed eight years ago.

Biggest unanswered question: how did this thing get to a peddler's mart in Kentucky?! And where was it in the gap between being in Los Angeles in 1960 and being in the back of my car returning to Nashville? If this painting could talk.... 

After satisfying my biographical requirements and sleuthing down the provenance of these gallery tags on the back of the painting, I started looking for comparables. I know you guys must do this from time to time to make sure you didn't get gypped on some impulse buy of a 1940's teapot or vintage earrings-- I usually pull up eBay and heave a sigh of relief when I see that the lowest priced item of a similar make and mark is $10-$40 more than however much I paid for it. Ebay, though, came up with goose eggs. I tried just "paul brach untitled painting 1959" and came up with these two paintings, which sold through Rago Auctions (YES, THE SAME GUY FROM ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, I was wow'd) the year Brach died. They're the same medium (oil on paper), same colors/series, same size, with no paint loss but with some buckling where the paper has come away from the board, like mine has:

And how much did they sell for?


So! Now I've reached the "dead end" part of my story-- what in the hello do you do with a potentially important painting like this?

I've tried researching professional cleaning and restoration, but looking over some of the prices, I really don't have the resources to spend $1,000 having a painting worth possibly about $1,000 restored, and many sites warn that a bad restoration is worse than no restoration at all. DIY seems pretty out of the question-- while some people have had success using bread (seriously, like sandwich bread) removing grit and grime from oil, or even human saliva (I'm not sure if the internet is pranking me or what at this point), I would hate to ruin it by trying some dumb internet solution without any kind of background in it. If it was some fun $20 amateur painting from an estate sale of a collie or a woman in a beehive, I think either of those would be fine, but I don't want to risk messing up something significant by my own "good intentions". How am I to stabilize/keep it in ok condition without going super out of pocket on my $20 investment? I'm thinking about calling around to art schools locally to see if anyone wants to take it on as a class project-- even a semi-professional restoration would be better than these useless hands of mine at this specific task.

For now, I'm just going to hang it carefully on the wall in the office and bide my time. Maybe a solution will present itself! Until then, isn't that about the craziest thrift store find I could have made on my trip? I love the background on it almost as much as I love the picture itself.

How about you? Have you found anything bonkers out at the sales lately? Have any experience/know anybody with experience in art restoration? What have you bought for $20 that ended up being worth 10x that?

Gotta get going, but listen, have a fanTASTIC weekend and I'll talk to you next week! Til then.


  1. Great find! So glad you love peddlers' malls - they're the best!!!

  2. Whaaaat?!?! That's fantastic!!! I guess you know what you're taking to antiques roadshow next time. Maybe you should call up the frist and just ask someone in restoration for some advice. I know it sounds a little nutty, but for real I think they would have huge art boners for this kind of thing

  3. I love your story on this painting! So fun! What if you called a local university to see if they could help clean or make a recommendation on a restorer. Many universities have art collections and curators. Perhaps they could be of assistance or maybe a local art museum. Good Luck!



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