When modern art was monkey business

Baltimore Glimpses

October 11, 1994|By Gilbert Sandler

THE BALTIMORE Museum of Art is celebrating, on as big a canvas as it can manage, the grand opening of its New Wing for Modern Art. After two years of construction, the museum's latest addition, a space of 35,000-square feet, will open to the public this weekend.

The New Wing will display the works of such renowned 20th century artists as Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Brice Marden, Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, and, of course, Baltimore's Grace Hartigan.

Baltimoreans who can keep a sense of humor in the midst of such awesome company will notice that the work of at least one celebrated local artist, whose career is bound up with Baltimore legend and lore, is missing.

Who is it? Why Betsey, of course.

A native of Liberia, her career as an artist and a media celebrity began and ended in Baltimore. During the peak of her brief career, she was the talk of Baltimore. She even made an appearance on national television (the Garry Moore show), and her colorful and abstract paintings were to hang in galleries at home and abroad, as far away as Australia.

Her paintings sold for as much as $110 each (in 1950 dollars). Her work was likened to that of the famous abstract artist Paul Klee. Reuters News Service called her "A painter of genius!" A newspaper in Canada commissioned her to paint a picture (titled in advance), "Winning In Winter." The Russian magazine, Soviet Culture, taking Betsey's popularity as a sign of capitalistic decadence, remarked, "Her work is more highly appreciated in the United States than are those of many American painters of modern art."

The subject of all this fame was a chimpanzee who resided at the Baltimore Zoo in the mid-to-late 1950s. Betsey's art career was the brainchild of then zoo director Arthur Watson, who insisted that Betsey's abstract paintings were a "major contribution to modern art." Betsey was, Mr. Watson insisted, not only expert, but also prolific. "She could turn out four or five salable paintings in half an hour."

Betsey's art career began serendipitously one afternoon at the zoo. Mr. Watson recalls, "She was watching Dr. Tom [another chimp] trying to paint. I was experimenting, trying to see what a chimpanzee might turn out by way of finger painting. Suddenly Betsey grabbed the jar of magenta and began to eat the paint. She apparently liked it because she then began to eat the yellow."

Then without Mr. Watson's coaxing, Betsey began smearing her paint-laden fingers around on a nearby sketch pad (happily supplied by Mr. Watson). The result: a creator of modern art.

Mrs. Adelyn Breeskin, then director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, joined the controversy raging about Betsey's art. She was not amused: "I've always thought finger painting was the most worthless and messy type of painting for children. But maybe it's all right for chimpanzees." Amalie Rothschild, renowned Baltimore artist then and now, said of Betsey's work at the time, "If you ask me if Betsy could exhibit at the museum, I'd have to say, 'No.' She's underage. You have to be 16." (Betsey was only 7 at the time.)

In response to the growing interest in Betsey's work around the world, in March of 1957 an exhibit of her work was held at the Mammal House at the zoo. More than 500 people turned out to view her work. Her paintings moved well: buyers included James B. Karukas and Temple H. Pierce and an anonymous patron who said he was from Dallas.

Betsey's paintings bore such titles as "Red Witch Besieged By Vampires." One of the most famous of all her works, which seems to have gotten away, was "Alligator Chasing Ducks While Flamingo Watches."

When she died in 1960 the headline on her obituary in The Sun reported: "Betsey, Zoo's Internationally Recognized Painter, Is Dead."

Writing in this month's Baltimore Magazine about the opening of the New Wing and of the energy and vision of deputy director Brenda Richardson, author Jim Duffy remarks, "[She] wants to throw the curatorial version of a perfect dinner party. Invite all the right artworks, sit them at all the right places, and start all the right conversations." Well said. But in these right conversations, one of the artworks has not been invited, and will not be heard in the conversation: "Alligator Chasing Ducks While Flamingo Watches."

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