Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Incredible Journey of An Art Work

This is a story of an incredible journey of an artist’s art work, starting from its creation and ending in its accidental destination to an art student’s home. The work was created with much love and care, not to mention much experience, study and research put behind its creation. I painted Mahishasurmardini in mixed-media in 1984 inspired by a Kalighat painting of the same name from Chester & Davida Herwitz Family collection, an image of which was given to me by Mr. Herwitz for reference. Bringing an artwork from the Company School during the British period in India into a contemporary context was a work of admiration for the unknown street artist who originally painted the image of the Goddess Durga as Mahishasurmardini and it was also intended for a social commentary of sort on our time of mundane violence. The result was a stunning image of the Goddess juxtaposed with a photographic water buffalo head superimposed on a shiny granite surface shaped like another buffalo in front of the sword waving Goddess Mahishasurmardini in vivid photographic and water colors combined with crayon and markers. It was bought by Mr. Herwitz right away for his collection of contemporary Indian painting on its completion. The art work remained in the Herwitz collection from the time of its original purchase from me until after Mr. Herwitz passed away.

© Vinod Dave - Mahishasurmardini - Mixed-media - 16X20 inch - 1984 - From Herwitz Family collection - now with Michael Saunders, an art student from New Jersey.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art had planned an exhibition of Kalighat painting accompanied by a scholarly book researched and written by Dr. Jyotindra Jain which was also used as the official catalog for the show. Herwitzs had a sizable collection of Kalighat paintings and LACMA wanted to include them in the show. The major portion of works of both the exhibition and the book were from the Herwitz collection. Since the museum had also seen contemporary works in the Herwitz collection, they decided to include some contemporary works that were inspired by Kalight School. Hence, among other works, two of my works were chosen, one of which was Mahishasurmardini that I first painted in 1984 and then belonged to the Herwitz family collection. Another work, titled Thakorjee, was from Bose Pacia Gallery in New York, painted by me in 1998 which also was inspired by a Kalighat painting that was previously shown at the gallery. Thus two of my works from different ownerships were shown along with the traditional Kalighat paintings side by side at the LACMA in 1999. Both the works received impressive press coverage and favorable critique. The show was a popular hit at LACMA and so were my works. This Mahishasurmardini was the first of a series of three unique versions involving the same imagery, but painted differently, in different sizes and at different times between 1984 and 2003.

Mr. Herwitz often worried about the fate of his collection. He used to worry about what will happen to it after his death. He first tried to leave the collection to corporate India, which at that time was not interested. Indian museums were, during the late 1980s and early1990s, unsuitable because of the then quality of their storage facilities and their terms of exhibition He had no confidence in anyone who would inherit his pictorial estate. He often talked to me about this. For that reason he was planning to build a living museum to house his collection, first in Ahmedabad city in India and then, by changing his mind due to the religious fundamentalists’ attack on the gallery he endowed to build in that city, in Massachusetts where he had his business and residence. One thing he abhorred most was the idea of anyone selling his collection to or via a commercial gallery anywhere. He had already raised sizable funds for building a museum through auctions of a small portion of his estate. Additionally, he was loaning good amount of his collection to museums for exhibitions in order to create awareness for then not too well known contemporary Indian art in the United States. And the LACMA show was one of them.

Ironically, Mr. Herwitz died in a car crash during the LACMA show and his dream of building a museum remained unrealized. However, he managed to gift a portion of his collection to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts before his demise. But his fear became reality in a bigger way than he would have ever imagined after his death. About a year later, the major portion of his collection was sold to private buyers including an art gallery. The LACMA show was over and, afterwards, my Mahishasurmardini went back to the Herwitz estate and ended up being sold to the gallery that bought a sizable chunk of the Herwitz collection from the one son to whom they had left any artwork, Thomas, who seems to have had little interest in the collection apart from its cash value promptly unloaded his inheritance for cash. A repetition of the irony was that the owners of that gallery asked me first for contact information of Chester Herwitz’s surviving family who inherited his estate. This was by the time several months after Mrs. Herwitz had passed away. I had no idea why the son’s contact info from me was sought when it was sought, but soon I found out that hundreds of art works from the Herwitz collection were sold to this gallery by Thomas. I personally had been a witness to Mr. Herwitz’s fear of such an event, and I was saddened to know that it actually happened. Daniel, the son who had been deeply involved in the collection as writer and advisor, was disinherited by the mercurial Mr. Herwitz.

Daniel Herwitz, the son who was disinherited from Herwitz Collection estate, is a professor and head of history of art, art & design, and philosophy at the University of Michigan Affiliation(s) Comparative Literature, Institute for the Humanities, Philosophy and Art & Design. Daniel kindly and enthusiastically helped edit this article.

Not only this had happened, but also so many of my works were part of this sale including my Kalighat painting inspired Mahishasurmardini. MY works remained with the gallery for about eight years during which some were sold, some were given to charities and some works remained with the gallery unsold. My Mahishasurmardini was among the works that remained unsold.. Eventually, the gallery moved to another location and the gallery’s inventory had to be moved from their storage warehouse to their new location. Many things were given away including some art works that were difficult to sell and many things like frames were discarded in order to ease the difficult task of moving. I was offered back some works of mine that were hard to sell and I readily accepted them back. I got back many canvases, but I had seen many of my works on paper in their storage warehouse four years back that did not come back to me. So I inquired about what had happened to them and I was told there were no paper works of mine left with them. So I assumed, may be they were sold over these four years since I had seen them.

That seemed to be the end of the story only until I heard from a stranger via Facebook. An art student named Michel Saunders connected me on Facebook around few days before May 14, 2009. And after I confirmed him as a Facebook friend, he sent me an email with two attachments that were cell phone photos of front and back of my Mahishasurmardini. The Back had my name, title of the work, inventory number etc. The front was obviously the image of the art work. Michael Saunders happens to be the new owner of my Mahishasurmardini.
Now I am copying and pasting some emails that I and Michael exchanged.
The first email read:

“Mr. Vinod Dave,

I have a copy of your piece "Mahishasuramardini" and was wondering if you would give me some information on the piece. It is absolutely wonderful and I have it hanging above my bed. The piece I have is a print but it has been painted on with some pinkish brushstrokes and perhaps a blue paint marker (?). I was curious about the number of prints made and if the piece I have is an original. I have attached two pictures with the email. One is of the identification sticker on the back and one is of the actual piece. Please forgive me for the poor quality of the pictures and they are reversed. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME!!
Greatest Thanks!
Michael Saunders

Surprised by this, I wrote back:

“hi, michael:
thanks for email. what a surprise to see this work ending up with you. how did you get it? i originally sold it to chester herwitz, a collector of indian art from worcester, ma. after his death, part of his estate ended up with ----- gallery (formerly --- ----- gallery). did you buy it from there? it is a unique painted photograph. it has two more versions, but they are all individually painted. so there is no edition of this work. the image is similar in all three works, but they are all painted separately, hence, no exact print edition and all of them vary in size too. the one you have has provenance of being in the chester and davida herwitz trust and it was shown at los angeles county museum of art, along with another work of mine, in 1999 in an exhibition of kalighat paintings from herwitz collection. this work was included in that to show the influence of traditional kalighat art on contemporary works.
nice to know you as a new owner of my work.

Front and back photographs that Michael Saunders took of Mahishasurmardini with a cell phone and emailed to me for verification.

Then we had an exchange of a couple of more emails as following:

Michael to me:

“Mr. Vinod Dave,

I am very honored to own an original piece of yours! It is wonderful and very exciting to hear it is one of a kind. I am an art student in New Jersey studying right now. I love your work and subject matter. My work has a lot to do with metaphysics and the spirituality of existence. It is very inspiring to have your work with me.

To be very honest with you, I stumbled upon your work in the doorway of a Brooklyn apartment. As my friend and I were leaving a studio of a band that my friend was making an album cover for, we noticed a number of large frames at the doorway next to some bags of garbage. We couldn't pass up free frames so I grabbed two and he grabbed two. We ended up lugging them all the way back to his apartment in Jersey City. One of the frames I grabbed had your piece. I researched the information on the back of the frame and discovered you and your work.

As an artist, I am extremely picky of the artists I feel have relevance and are truly thinkers. I truly respect you as an artist and thank you for taking the time to inform me of this piece.

Michael Saunders”

Then my last email to him:

“wow, michael:
what a story of this work's "journey". mr. herwitz would have never preferred to part with my work, but it was sold after his death. i am glad finally it ended up with someone like you who really likes it as much as mr. herwitz did.

Thakorjee, another work of mine created after a Kalighat image in 1998 from Bose Pacia Gallery that was shown at LACMA as part of the Kalighat Painting show in 1999.

Mahishasurmardini was created in a studio in the Westbeth Artists’ Community in New York City in 1984 (when I was living in Westbeth as a fellow of Asian Cultural Council). Then it went to Worcester, Massachusetts to be part of the Herwitz collection the same year. It was shown to many curators from various museums, artists and scholars till 1999 by the Herwitz family. In the same process, it was shown to Dr. Pratapaditya Pal in mid 1990s when Dr, Pal was a major presence in the LACMA staff. As a result, Mahishasurmardini went onto the prestigious walls of LACMA during the Kalight painting exhibition. It was still there when Mr. Herwitz passed away. After the show, it went back to Worcester somewhere in a warehouse where Herwitz’s family stored his collection. Sometime after the year 2001, after 9/11, Mahishasurmardini traveled back to Manhattan where it was originally created in 1984, but this time to an art gallery and not my studio. It stayed there for eight years, most of the time in their storage warehouse, till the gallery moved at the end of the year 2008.

The story of the incredible journey of provenance of Mahishasurmardini from 1984 till 2008, nearly for a quarter of a century, was well documented. That is what I described so far. But by mid 2009, there are some links missing and mysteries unsolved. Where was it from December 2008 till May 2009? Who had it before Michel found it near a dumpster? How did it travel to Brooklyn from Manhattan? Did someone find it on a Manhattan sidewalk dumpster and take it to Brooklyn only to dump it again? Or did someone buy it, took it to Brooklyn, and later lost interest in it and dumped it? Did the gallery also have a storage space in Brooklyn near where it was found by Michael? Or it was given away to someone who later discarded it? Was it originally thrown away by the gallery who owned it during their move? Was it taken by an employee from the gallery? Was it dumped by mistake or was it because it was thought to be worthless? These questions do not have answers, but any answer to any of these questions has one fact in common: whoever did whatever to this art work did not know its provenance, hence, he/she did not know its historical value. Its artistic value could be a matter of not knowing art from trash. What could be art is a liquid debate and can not be proved mathematically. But its historical value, if known, could be even calculated mathematically because an art work’s prestigious provenance increases not only its importance, but also its price tag. Obviously, no one behind Mahishasurmardini’s recent dumpster-to-dumpster ordeal knew the history of its provenance. Otherwise, who would let go something of value?

The art gallery’s name is intentionally omitted as it is not my purpose in writing this article to blame anyone. Everything that happened may have been an error. I am writing this only to show how interesting story of even an inanimate object could be in its journey. Similar events have happened in the history. A Jackson Pollock work too was once found in a sidewalk dumpster. One work of Francis Newton Souza’s works was found on a Manhattan street by someone who auctioned it at Sotheby’s only for $3000 just before Souza died and his prices sky-rocketed to millions just a year later! And a friend in Westbeth Artists Housing last year found a Jean Michel Basquiat from a SoHo street (its authenticity is yet to be verified). Hey I am not in these artists’ league, but I have done good works and bad works and Mahishasurmardini is one of my many good works. And it has an impressive provenance. The point is: the stories of art works, though often sad, could be dramatically interesting. That is the sole purpose of writing this story.

My special thanks to Prof. Daniel Herwitz who kindly and enthusiastically helped in editing and making suggestions for this story. He wrote to me while sending me the edited draft:
” Amazingly I did it just now and was about to write you just at this moment. This is kismet, a lunar unity of two minds! The story is one I did not know and it pains me extraordinarily to read it. I’ve added some details to your extremely well written blog which you can accept or reject, using TRACK CHANGES. I send it to you now. This is a totally awful story and I’m totally appalled.
Yours Daniel”
When asked if I could include his reactions in the story, he wrote back: Tell them I am appalled and horrified. Best and so very sorry. - Danny

Stop Press:
This just in: The last version of this Mahishasurmardini which was created in the year 2003 has been selected by the Department of State for the United States Embassy in New Delhi, India and their mouthpiece Span magazine for upcoming 2010 calendar soon to be published and distributed nationwide in India. In one way or another, this art work’s provenance still continues to be more and more noteworthy.

One more thing that I almost forgot: Gujarati writer/poet Preety Sengupta has used the same image of my first Mahishasurmardini as an image on the cover of her book titled Aparajita - meaning one that can not be defeated (obviously that has to be a Goddess like Durga/Mahishasurmardini) which was published in 2007.

Michael Saunders, an art student from New Jersy, who found Mahishasurmardini on a Brooklyn street.
-Vinod Dave


spiritualpanther (Vinod Dave) said...

When I informed Dr. Jyatindra Jain of this story, he wrote back to me:

Dear Shri Dave,
Thanks for drawing my attention to Herwitz story. It is a sorry state of affairs. What can one say?
Jyotindra Jain

spiritualpanther (Vinod Dave) said...

Renee Montegomery of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art wrote back to me after being informed of this story:

“Thanks. I’m forwarding this information to our department of South and Southeast Asian Art”

spiritualpanther (Vinod Dave) said...

Daniel Herwitz, when informed of the post being active, writes:

“Thank you, Vinod.”

spiritualpanther (Vinod Dave) said...

Michael Saunders, after reading this story:

Subject: !!!!!

Mr. Dave!

I am extremely flattered that you included me in the account of your piece. It truly makes me feel the relevance this piece has now more than ever. It is quite inspiring to be the proud owner of this work and I will assure you the utmost care will be taken of it. Thank you again and please keep me updated on you artistic journey as I will of mine to you.

Michael Saunders