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Rediscovering a Revolutionary Gallery Show of Black Women’s Art – The New Yorker

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A translucent blue art piece hangs in the middle of a gallery show.
Mysticism is the prevailing mood of the exhibition, in art that feels informed by tidal pulls and intuition.Photograph by Timothy Doyon

On the Fourth of July, in 1970, six American artists declared independence in an Echo Park loft, in Los Angeles. The occasion was the opening night of an exhibition devoted exclusively to the work of Black women—which is now considered by art historians to be the first of its kind in L.A., and probably in the U.S. The show was organized quickly, by the artists themselves, in response to another L.A. showcase of Black art, backed by a corporate sponsor (the Carnation Company) and overwhelmingly focussed on men. The women called their event the “Sapphire Show,” after a character in “Amos ’n Andy”—the shrewish know-it-all Sapphire Stevens—transforming a racist and sexist stereotype of women into an avatar of feminist revolution, just as one of the show’s best-known participants, the magnificent Betye Saar, would do two years later in her assemblages, when she began arming Aunt Jemima figurines with rifles.

Today, the “Sapphire Show” represents both a milestone and an unsolved mystery. It may be hard to imagine in the Instagram age, but no photographs of the exhibition exist, nor is there any written record of what was on view. The only known paper trail is housed in the Archives of American Art, at the Smithsonian: a copy of a flyer announcing the show. Its design is echt seventies, using more fonts than the exhibition had artists, and features photographs of the six artists, from grinning baby pictures to pensive head shots. The list of the artists—Eileen Abdulrashid (now Eileen Nelson), Gloria Bohanon, Sue Irons (now Senga Nengudi), Suzanne Jackson, Yvonne Cole Meo, and Saar—misspells one name (“B. Sarr”), suggesting the haste with which things came together. The flyer also takes a lighthearted dig at corporate culture and its cynical exploitation of the women’s movement, borrowing the tagline of a cigarette advertisement: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

The “Sapphire Show” was installed for six days at Gallery 32, thanks to a serendipitous gap in the gallery’s schedule; the experimental space was run by Jackson in her painting studio. Jackson, now based in Savannah, Georgia, was then a twenty-six-year-old student of the influential African American artist Charles White, at the Otis Art Institute. She had a parallel life as a dancer: professionally trained in pre-statehood Alaska, where she grew up, she had performed in South America, on a tour organized by the State Department, before arriving in L.A. (Jackson later also became an accomplished stage-set designer.) She wasn’t interested in a career as a gallerist, but sometimes artists need to make their own luck. Her guiding principle might be summed up by Shirley Chisholm’s famous line: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair”—or, in this case, sign a lease.

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An abstract piece of art featuring a central circular shape and layered linear shapes.
Gloria Bohanon’s “Rio on My Mind (Corcovado, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars)” is a bossa nova for the eyes.Art work courtesy Estate of Gloria Bohanon / Ortuzar Projects

Jackson ran Gallery 32 for two galvanic y­ears, from 1968 to 1970, showing works by both men and women—David Hammons exhibited his body prints there—and not every artist who showed there was Black. As Jackson observed in a recent interview, “We became involved in the Black Arts Council, which was trying to really let people know about African American artists, but I showed everybody, people of all different colors. It was just a matter of any good work that was not being exhibited elsewhere.” Jackson’s own paintings similarly resist pigeonholes, shifting over the decades from delicately lush canvases, made in the seventies, that feature extravagant birds and fairy-tale trees whose trunks have heart-shaped faces, to new, genre-defying abstractions, in which colorful acrylic paint is mixed with bits of cotton cloth and dried into massive, wobbly, translucent forms that are suspended in space and seem poised to engage in some alien ritual.

Examples of both bodies of Jackson’s work are on view in New York through the end of July, in the beautiful and imaginative exhibition “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: The Sapphire Show,” at Ortuzar Projects. The gallery represents the septuagenarian artist, who is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. The curator, Kari Rittenbach, wisely avoids the impossible task of re-creating the original project. Instead, she encapsulates the career of each artist in a few works made across decades. Of course, the flyer is here, in an ephemera-packed vitrine at the entrance. And Saar’s radical Aunt Jemima is present, in the coruscating 1973 assemblage “Auntie & Watermelon,” as is the one work that art historians agree was on view at Gallery 32 the first time around, an astrologically themed 1967 intaglio-and-watercolor by Saar, titled “Taurus.” Mysticism is the prevailing mood, in art that feels informed by tidal pulls and intuition, a world away from the rigid, industrial ethos of Minimalism, whose artists were being hailed as masters (could that term use a rethink?) in 1970, at the same time that the women of “Sapphire” were largely ignored.

The show’s most eye-catching piece, created by Nengudi in 1969–70 and remade in 2018, is a quartet of very long, clear, soft vinyl tubes, filled with blue, turquoise, green, and yellow water; it’s tempting to see the work’s askew geometry and liquid allure as playing a teasing game with the rigidity of a Donald Judd stack. But “Water Composition V” wasn’t conceived as a static installation—it was meant to be handled, and is a precursor to the artist’s best-known works, in which she incorporates her body into weblike, womblike sculptures and installations made of elastic. A striking photograph on one wall at Ortuzar documents Nengudi performing in her Colorado back yard in 2020, during the pandemic; her body, draped in purple cloth, becomes just another found object in a Delphic assemblage that also involves a circular grid of wire, which may have once belonged to a grill.

On a white platform on the floor are four long yellow and green art works.
“Water Composition V,” by Senga Nengudi, is a precursor to the artist’s best-known works.Art work by Senga Nengudi / Courtesy the artist and Ortuzar Projects

In 1995, Nengudi wrote, “An artist’s supposed greatest desire is the making of objects that will last lifetimes for posterity after all. This has never been a priority for me. My purpose is to create an experience that will vibrate with the connecting thread.” Posterity has other ideas: Nengudi is currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum (until July 25th)—which also travelled to Munich and São Paulo.

The great revelation in Ortuzar’s tribute to the “Sapphire Show” is the reintroduction of the exhibition’s lesser-known artists. A penumbral painting on paper from circa 1970, by Bohanon (who died in 2008), titled “Rio on My Mind (Corcovado, Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars),” is a bossa nova for the eyes, centered on a mysterious orb that is at once a moon, an eye, a breast, and the bell of a trumpet. The most transporting piece here is “Wood City,” which Nelson, who is Nengudi’s cousin, made sometime in the seventies. Inspecting the talismanic construction—which is just twenty-two inches tall—is like being let in on a secret, discovering little hideaways and spying alchemical vials of soil. “Generations,” a sky-and-earth-toned collagraph print from 1993 by the art historian and artist Yvonne Cole Meo, who died in 2016, portrays what appears to be an Asante Akua’ba (female fertility figure) as the powerful matriarch of an extended family—the ancestral spirits of the six artists here.


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McPherson Library art opening

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The new exhibition explores relationships and togetherness

Photo by Manmitha Deepthi.

Photo by Manmitha Deepthi.

When you walk into the McPherson Library, your first thought would rarely be about the art that’s displayed beneath it. However, tucked in the lower level is the Legacy Maltwood Gallery, a space dedicated to artists and their works.

On Nov. 25 the McPherson Library held an opening reception for Shaping Relations, Tethered Together, a new collection of art housed in the Legacy Maltwood Gallery that explores relationships and togetherness.

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The event celebrated the exhibition by emerging Edmontonian curator Mel Granley. They are Metis on their mom’s side and a fourth generation Ukrainian settler on their dad’s side. The UVic alumni, now works as a guest curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

The event began with Granley reading their curatorial statement. They spoke about how relationships hold an important place in every individual’s life. Shaping Relations, Tethered Together aims to explore this by highlighting BIPOC work, experiences, and relationships.

The exhibition was originally curated for the First People’s House in 2019, however it was delayed until early 2020 and then again due to the pandemic. Three years later, Granley was finally able to see their first show open.

A lot of the art in the exhibition is from the Legacies collection which belongs to the university. The collection includes a variety of mediums and is interdisciplinary in nature. The works range from ceramics, a video piece, and charcoal work to prints, posters, and a magazine.

Rain Cabana-Boucher, whose art is included in the exhibition, also spoke at the event. Cabana-Boucher is a Michif and British artist from Saskatoon and a recent recipient of the Takao Tanabe Prize for emerging British Columbian painters.

Cabana-Boucher’s piece French Exit was made in April 2021. The charcoal piece is about losing community spaces during the pandemic. The work was inspired by one of many parties that Cabana-Boucher attended at a friend’s apartment, where a lot of her friends during university met and interacted. These were queer parties where everyone knew each other and created a safe space. In the piece, Cabana-Boucher wanted to convey the longing she felt for those places and the feeling of isolation that queer people and everyone experienced during the beginning of the pandemic.

Granley and Cabana-Boucher also spoke about the relationship between an artist and a curator and the possibility for a power imbalance between them. The curator is an arbitrator of whose art is shown, yet their relationship is mutually beneficial. Maintaining relationships with artists is essential for curators to showcase art to their community. As well, working together to apply for grants and supporting each other has helped both Granley and Cabana-Boucher to grow in their own careers as curator and artist respectively.

Before the reception came to an end, Granley invited the crowd to ask questions. One attendee asked, “When you were looking through the collection, what were you looking for? What was attracting you to different pieces?”

“I was looking for what I can see and perceive as relationships,” Granley responded. “The show is filtered through my bias of what a relationship is.” They explained that with around 20,000 pieces in the Legacy database, finding BIPOC artists to feature in the collection was a challenge. “[They] have a lot of colonial remnants in them so it is difficult to unravel all the layers of the museum,” Granley said. They tried to not only find relationships but celebrate BIPOC relationships in a non-voyeuristic way. As a result, many BIPOC works were included without labels. Granley felt it was important to avoid imposing their voice on the work, since they can’t speak to where the artists are coming from or why they made the work.

Granley also talked about an upcoming exhibition called Symbiosis that they are working on at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The collection is all about mushrooms and will open in late March of 2023.

Cabana-Boucher also has a new show in the works for next year as part of her residency at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver. She is also an artist in residence at the Contemporary Art Gallery of Vancouver which is a research-based residency for which she is working on a podcast.

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Forgeries, frauds and Canada’s great fake art debate

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Jon Dellandrea’s new book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries, was published this fall.Handout

This is a tale of two shabby containers: one a six-quart basket, the other a broken-down bankers box.

The six-quart basket belonged to Miss Winnifred Trainor of Huntsville, Ont. It held a dozen or so small paintings that were unsigned but had been given to her by her very close friend Tom Thomson.

Review: Buyer beware: Book warns Group of Seven forgeries might resurface

She kept them in the basket inside a steamer trunk on the second-floor of an old home on Minerva Street. She did not have running hot water or a proper heating system, yet she would never part with any of the paintings during her long life, which ended in 1962.

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Whenever she travelled to visit relatives in upstate New York, she would carry the six-quart basket across the street to the house of Miss Addie Sylvester, the town’s night Bell operator. Addie would stash them behind her wood stove.

Fortunately, these national treasures never caught fire.


The bankers box belongs to Jon Dellandrea of Toronto. He has spent a lifetime collecting Canadian art and publishing articles on fakes and forgeries. The box was found at a city art dealer and contained paintings and journals of William Firth MacGregor (no relation), an obscure artist who came to Canada from Scotland and failed to make his intended mark on the Canadian art scene. While his brother Charles became a successful portrait painter, Willie found no success at all as a landscape painter and turned to teaching art in Ottawa and Vancouver until he vanished.

But that is not to suggest that “Willie” MacGregor did not have an impact – at times a major one – on Canadian art.

In 2016, Dellandrea had been offered the contents of the box at a modest price but had turned it down. He couldn’t stop wondering about the contents, however – Who was this person? – and finally his wife, Lyne, sent him back to the dealer to buy the box. “If you don’t,” she told him, “you’re going to drive me crazy.”

He returned with the box and began picking through it. He was particularly taken with multiple miniature paintings by MacGregor that he thought were rather well executed. Some time later, he found himself at Waddington’s, the prestigious Toronto art auction house, where a painting entitled Study for Spring Thaw, signed by Clarence A. Gagnon and dated 1909, was up for sale, the estimated value $700 to $1,000.

“It was like seeing a ghost,” Dellandrea recalls.

He returned home, dug through the MacGregor box and found a miniature almost exactly the same as the larger painting on sale. (“I have a very good visual memory,” he says.) When he took the miniature to the auction house, the “Gagnon” was immediately removed as a fake. “They of course did the right thing,” says Dellandrea. The coincidence led to Dellandrea’s new and excellent book, The Great Canadian Art Fraud Case: The Group of Seven & Tom Thomson Forgeries, published this fall.

Jon Dellandrea is a Canadian author and art historian.Doug Nicholson/Handout

Dellandrea believes the art market is easily open to fraud. “I have long held the view that the art world is a crazy, illogical enterprise that seeks out, creates, and then celebrates a small group of ‘stars’ who are worshipped to the exclusion of artists of equal or greater talent,” he writes in his book. “Individual collectors fall prey to buying art from a name-brand artist, focusing on the signature at the bottom (or top) of the canvas rather than the quality of the art. This collective impulse to worship the stars typically has a distorting effect on the art market around the world, as it does in Canada.”

One such celebrated artist would be J.E.H. MacDonald, Thomson’s friend and a founder of the Group of Seven. At an auction held 60 years ago this month, 15 oil sketches were being offered in his name. Respected Toronto Star art critic Elizabeth Kilbourn challenged the auctioneer, standing up at one point and shouting, “They’re not J.E.H. MacDonald and you know it!”

The art dealer responded by saying that “An auctioneer’s job is to sell what is sent to him” – and the house cannot be expected to guarantee the authenticity of every painting it sells.

Thus began the great fake-art debate in Canada. Writing in Maclean’s in December, 1962, Robert Fulford contended that “… a great many who believe they own distinguished art are actually in possession of nearly worthless junk.”

Much of Dellandrea’s book concerns a dramatic Toronto court case from the early 1960s, when two shady dealers were charged and convicted of selling forgeries of Canada’s most-famous artists. A great many of those forgeries had been painted by Willie MacGregor.

In the winter of 1963, the Toronto Telegram put on an “art authentication night” at a downtown hotel, where 18 of the nearly 80 paintings brought in were declared fake by a panel of experts, including Group of Seven member A.J. Casson (who was himself a consultant in the court case).

Many powerful people were upset to have been duped, but those familiar with the art world were not surprised. As Sara Angel, executive director of the Art Canada Institute, says in a note for Dellandrea’s book, “… for decades scholars, auction houses, galleries and museums have turned a blind eye to felonies in plain sight.” The preliminary inquiry that began in November, 1962, ended on March 4, 1963, with the two shady dealers pleading guilty. They received jail terms of one and two years.

Willie MacGregor, a witness in the case, was critical to the great deception. MacGregor, who split his time between Algonquin Park and an apartment on Toronto’s Church Street, would paint pictures from books supplied by one of the dealers and thought he was just doing cheap copies that would be sold as such. He signed none of them, yet, when forged, signatures would appear. The dealers had even created two facsimiles of “TT” stamps that Thomson’s friends had created for his many unsigned works.

“There are more Tom Thomson paintings out there than he could possibly have painted in his lifetime,” says Dellandrea.

Before Casson’s death in 1992, he was interviewed extensively by artist Alan Collier; the interviews filled an entire box of tapes that Casson’s daughter, Margaret Hall, kept and gave to Dellandrea.

“We could have found another 500,” Casson believed, adding that he thought that “Willie knew what was going on, but he was smart enough that he never signed anything.”

Dellandrea disagrees. “I don’t think he knew, for a couple of reasons,” he says. “He was certainly not party to a conspiracy. He was never charged.” MacGregor would get a few dollars for his paintings, unaware that they might be sold for upward of $1,000 – big money for an artist in the early 1960s. The judge decided he was an “innocent victim.”

“He was penniless,” says Dellandrea. Willie MacGregor was later taken in by a family and lived on Toronto Island, in obscurity. He died in 1979 and is buried in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

“Virtually no one has any recollection of the scandal,” says Dellandrea. He believes such fraud still goes on: “It’s everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.”

To wit: Dellandrea found an A.Y. Jackson canvas on sale earlier this year for $40,000. He went to examine it and subsequently informed the dealer that he was “100 per cent certain it was a fake.”

“They would not listen to me,” Dellandrea says.

Dellandrea maintains that the large, well-known auction houses are “absolutely fastidious about providence and authenticity.” His advice: Stay away from the smaller houses that deal only partly in art – “and never, ever buy off eBay.”


What, then, of that six-quart basket of Tom Thomson sketches?

They were not signed but were given, in person, to Winnie Trainor, who would never part with them and would eventually leave them to a nephew in the United States.

Dellandrea says there is a genuine Tom Thomson coming up in an early December auction at Cowley Abbott Fine Art in Toronto. He has no doubt it is a legitimate Thomson. The house catalogue estimates it will go for between $1.2- and $1.5-million.

Today, that six-quart basket would be worth around $18-million.

To a woman with no running hot water.

And only a creaky space heater to carry her through the winter.

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Paired exhibitions showcasing Sask. art history at MacKenzie Art Gallery

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A set of connected exhibitions opening at the MacKenzie Art Gallery are offering a window into a “critical moment” of Saskatchewan art history in the 1950s.

The two shows, titled Anthony Thorn: A Portrait, 1927–2014 and Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited, have been curated in tandem by head curator Timothy Long and open at the gallery on Thursday.

Long began conceptualizing the retrospective on Thorn first, after receiving a large number of works from the private collection of art dealer Tony Colella, including art and essays from Thorn’s later years.

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“It’s one of those opportunities we have to look back and observe a lifetime of achievement, from very early days to a painting that was sitting on his easel at the time when he died,” Long said.

Thorn is a nationally renowned abstractionist whose career began in Regina, where he was born, before continuing in B.C. as he forged a path through the evolution of Canadian contemporary art.

“He was an artist who was attached to his studio, attached to representational practices, at a time when abstraction was in its ascendancy,” Long said.

“His independence of thought really went against the grain.”

Conceptualizing Thorn’s ties to his home province led Long to thinking about the show that introduced Thorn to Saskatchewan audiences as an emerging artist: an exhibition in 1955 titled Ten Artists of Saskatchewan.

The show debuted just two years after the MAG opened, as the first public art gallery in Saskatchewan, including Thorn and other artists who would go on to similar successful prominence like Dorothy Knowles and members of the Regina Five Ken Lochhead, Arthur McKay and Douglas Morton.

Long has revived this past show, re-collecting works as close to those featured in the original show as possible, to “recreate the feel of that exhibition” in Ten Artists of Saskatchewan: 1955 Revisited.

“I’m always thinking about how to tell the story of art in this province,” Long said, about the idea.

The collection partners with the exploration on Thorn’s career, tethered by a painting titled “Moses Diptych,” which was included in the original 1955 Ten Artists show.

“Moses” is from a period when Thorn worked under Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, before it became part of a travelling art show program in Regina the 1960s. Long had it restored specifically for the exhibition.

“It’s like a time capsule of art in Mexico City in 1955. The image of Moses — he looks like Che Guevara holding the Ten Commandments in one hand, but that hand is a fist that’s punching into the future. It’s an incredible painting.”

The MAG is approaching 70 years since opening doors, and Long said these shows are an “opportune time” to consider how contemporary art in Saskatchewan has evolved.

Historically, the ’50s were something of a precursor era, as many artists from this time are better known for works from the ’60s and ’70s, the later years of their careers.

It’s a decade that “hasn’t received a lot of attention, in terms of our history,” but Long feels offers insight into how these artists existed and grew together, as a group.

“Saskatchewan artists weren’t breaking new ground, at that point, but this was an important foundation for what they would explore in future years,” he said.

“Artists don’t work in isolation; they look at what each other and others are doing in their community, and so you get a sense of the shared effort to become modern, in terms of art in the province.”

In tying together the shows, the hope is audiences will get a sense of the province’s history, through the lens of Thorn, who revelled in the craft and had a penchant for retrospection.

“He really was an artist who followed his own internal vision, and spent more time looking back than forward,” Long said. “As we’re looking back at history, we’re looking at an artist who himself is always looking back, seeing what can be recovered, what can be brought forward from a very long history of art.”

The shows will be accompanied by a free talk on Thorn’s life and career with art historian and curator Ihor Holubizky on Saturday afternoon.

lkurz@postmedia.com

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