Parting is such sweet sorrow

PORTFOLIO

Sometimes emotional attachment so outweighs profit that artists just can't bear to sell their works.

September 09, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

Not long ago, an artist friend called me from her home in Paris. Some of her acquaintances were visiting the United States and wanted to meet my husband and me. Of course, we said, we'd be delighted.

But we weren't fooled. These people who our artist friend claimed were so eager to make our acquaintance had no real interest in us. In fact, they were spies: Our artist friend sent them to check on the painting that she had sold to my husband several years ago.

Her surveillance methods could have been annoying -- it's our painting, after all, and we can hang it wherever we want -- but we understood. When my husband purchased the painting, the artist, who at the time very much needed the money, nonetheless waffled about selling it. She wanted to sell her art. But she was not sure she wanted to sell this painting. Or that painting. Or any painting.

She made my husband promise to take good care of her work.

And now she missed it.

Though she has been showing and selling her work for decades, my artist friend worries about the pieces that are purchased -- and taken far away. She simply wanted to be reassured that the art she'd created was in good health, that it wasn't hanging in direct sunlight or over a radiator or -- horrors -- stuffed in a closet. "I just hope we passed the inspection," my husband whispered as we waved goodbye to her emissaries.

Our artist friend still speaks to us, so our installation of her work -- an abstract oil that hangs in a prominent place in the den -- must have earned a decent review.

She isn't the only artist to wrestle with the strange dichotomy formed by creation and commerce. Some artists polish off a work of art and show, sell and ship it without a moment's qualm. But for others, there's great ambivalence in spending days, months, even years creating something, only to say goodbye. Monet held on to his masterpiece Nymphias for years, claiming that it needed a few more finishing touches. And Degas made a point of including some of his own works in his personal collection.

"It is a very curious disconnect between making the art, where you really get into the work, and letting it go," says Baltimore artist Philip Koch. "It is a little bit, I imagine, like selling your children."

The case of Clyfford Still

Clyfford Still is one painter who truly hated to part with his art. The artist, who died in 1980, was a pioneer in American abstract painting. His works are monumental, craggy slashes of color that call to mind cliffs splintered by lightning.

When he was alive, Still rarely trusted anyone else with his art. If he showed his paintings, he wanted control of the exhibit. If he sold a work, he demanded that the collector purchase whichever painting the artist chose for him, like it or not.

Even in death, Still clings to his creations. Before dying, he stated that his estate, which includes 2,000 works, should be bequeathed to a museum dedicated solely to his art. (A wing would not be good enough.) In his will, the artist stated that his works should be given to "an American city" that could promise to house all of it forever. His terms precluded his estate being bequeathed to an existing museum.

Now, nearly 40 of his works are on display through Sept. 16 at Washington's Hirshhorn Museum. Though the exhibit includes works drawn from 14 museums and several private collections, none comes from his vast estate. It's all in storage, where it has been since his death, waiting for the terms of his will to be met.

Artists who are reluctant to sell their art give a variety of explanations. One artist may refuse to sell work to private collectors because he's hoping a museum will acquire it. Another may reserve an artwork in hopes that it will appreciate in value. Still another may become obsessed with his creations, going so far as to dodge potential collectors.

Sometimes not selling a work makes good business sense, says Steven Scott, owner of the Steven Scott Gallery. "I encourage my artists to hold on to some of their work rather than selling everything. I think it is important for artists to have works from all stages of their careers.

"If some of my mid-career artists get really famous, I would want them to have work to loan to museums or to have for their personal collections."

Photographer Annie Leibovitz, for example, creates editions of 40 prints -- and keeps several of them. "No. 1 and No. 2 are for her and the sitter," Scott says. "And Nos. 36 through 40, she holds on to for museums or benefits or for whatever reason she wants. They are never for sale."

The need to communicate

Bethesda artist Lisa Montag Brotman has no qualms about selling her work.

"I paint to communicate with other people. If people don't see the work, I can't communicate. Even if I am not there, I have the sense that I am communicating something to the collector," she says. "I think most artists feel this way."

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