Interview: Curator Diane Kelder on Biala retrospective

Curator Diane Kelder with biala's  Black Interior (Cold Water Flat) , 1955, Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of an anonymous donor [55.44]

Curator Diane Kelder with biala's Black Interior (Cold Water Flat), 1955, Collection of Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of an anonymous donor [55.44]

With only a few weeks left to catch Biala: Vision and Memory, the historic retrospective of Janice Biala’s work at Godwin-Ternbach Museum at Queens College, curator Diane Kelder opens up about her very personal connection with the work of Janice Biala and the struggles that come along with mounting the first museum retrospective of Biala’s work.

Kelder is Professor Emerita of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY. She taught at Queens College from 1960 to 66; Finch College from 1967 to 1971; College of Staten Island from 1971 to 2000 and the Graduate Center from 1980 to 2000. She was Curator of the Art Gallery of The Graduate Center from 2000 to 2008 where she mounted many notable exhibitions. Her research interests include Baroque Stage Design, the art of the French Revolution, 19th and 3arly 20th Century French painting and Early American Modernism.

Kelder was the Editor of the Journal of Art from 1973 to 1979 and Acting Editor of Arts Magazine in 1988. A a well published author her publications include:

  • The French Impressionists and Their Century. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1967
  • Stuart Davis: A Documentary Monograph in Modern Art. New York: Praeger Publishers, 19712
  • Aspects of “Official” Painting and Philosophic Art (1789-1799). New York: Garland Publishing, 1976
  • The Great Book of French Impressionism. New York: Abbeville Press, 1980 (French and German editions, revised edition 1997)
  • The Great Book of Post-Impressionism. New York: Abbeville Press, 1986 (French and German editions)
  • Lowery Sims et al. Stuart Davis, American Painter. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990
  • Stuart Davis: Art and Art Theory, 1920-1931. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 2002
  • Jim Dine. Selected Prints, 1996-2006. Göttingen: Steidl, 2007

The Biala exhibition at the Queens Museum is somewhat of a homecoming for Kelder as she explains, “I graduated from Queens College with a B.A. in History, but was very interested in Art History. Happily, on graduation in 1955, I received a fellowship from the University of Chicago where I mainly did Art History and got an M.A. Subsequently, I received a fellowship in Art History at Bryn Mawr and received my Ph.D in 1966.”

How did you become interested in curating?

DK:  I have always been attracted to curating, and as an Instructor in Art History at Queens, in the early 60s, I organized exhibitions such as Scenes and Spectacles, which was devoted to Baroque stage design. To my great good fortune, it was reviewed in the New York Times by Brian O’Doherty. In 1966, I was offered the position of Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Philadelphia Museum –  and had the opportunity to curate four major exhibitions. However, I missed teaching, the freedom to write and being  in  New York so I gave it up and returned to teaching at CUNY.

Nancy Graves  photographed with  Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms,  1971. Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash

Nancy Graves photographed with Variability and Repetition of Variable Forms, 1971. Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash

In the eight years I was Curator at the Graduate Center we did 24 exhibitions, plus 7 collaborations with the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study  Exhibition Program. In retrospect, I’m proud of quite a few, but for different reasons would cite “Elective Affinities: Prints by Goya and Manet” (Spring 2001) featuring works from the Arthur RJoss Foundation and the NYPL; “Nancy Graves: Breaking Boundaries, Sculptures, Paintings and Drawings on Loan from the Nancy Graves Foundation” (Spring 2002). Nancy was an amazing artist and one of my dearest friends who left us too soon; “Splendors of the Renaissance, Princely Attire in Italy” (Spring 2004). This exhibition of  fifteen splendid examples of 16th century courtly dress was one of the most theatrical and ambitious shows we did. It featured mannequins sporting clothes that appear in portraits by Bronzino, Giulio Romano, Titian and others and for seven glorious weeks the gallery’s Fifth Avenue windows returned to the Altman Building’s original mission of showing beautiful things; Unquestionably “Technical Detours, The Early Moholy-Nagy Reconsidered” (Spring 2006) was the most challenging show we undertook. Featuring 216 sculptures, paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and films it involved an enormous number of loans from private and public collections in the U.S. and Europe. I worked with the Guest Curator, Oliver Botar on every aspect of the show and our installation was sensational. Moreover, we produced a 208 page, fully illustrated catalogue that subsequently became a collectors item. I still receive inquiries from people who are looking for a copy.

Another great experience was “Jim Dine Selected Prints, 1996-2006.” Jim is unquestionably one of the most gifted and innovative printmakers of the late 20th and earl21st century. I’ve always loved his imagery and he generously designed the 148 page catalogue which was published by Gerhard Steidl.

One of the great things about running the gallery at the Graduate Center was the interaction with students in our program who served in many capacities – as Research Assistants, helping with the installations, giving weekly gallery talks. I started teaching when I was twenty-four, and I enjoyed it immensely.  Working with our very bright young scholars has given me a perspective I might not otherwise have had.

For sheer pleasure and satisfaction I would say that my most exhilarating curatorial experience was “Stuart Davis: Art and Theory, 1920-31” at The Pierpont Morgan Library (Fall 2002). It was a jewel-box of a show, only about 20 paintings, drawings, prints and notebooks, but we produced a gorgeous catalogue and it got an extraordinary reviews in The New York Times, The New Criterion, and even the London Times Literary Supplement.

It seems like your career and the work of Janice Biala have been intertwined for some time, Can you describe the first time you came in contact with the work of Janice Biala?

DK:  I met Biala and Brustlein in l980 while I was a tenant of their friend, the painter Giorgio Cavallon. I’d seen Biala’s paintings in exhibitions at Tom Gruenebaum’s gallery and when she had the first of her many exhibitions at Kouros in 1990, I was asked to write the catalogue essay.

Biala “The Flower Pots,” 1985, Oil on canvas, 51 x 38 in., Private Collection, NY

DK:  There were a number of challenges in undertaking a retrospective. Biala died in 2000, her work was no longer with the Kouros Gallery and they were not particularly helpful in providing information about the whereabouts of works. A trip to Paris was imperative, since I needed to connect with her professional milieu and personal contacts, visit her home. The people I contacted couldn’t have been nicer including the doctor, who knew her from childhood, and purchased her home, the painter Shirley Jaffe, friend and collector Nicole Kugel, etc. It was a great experience.

The challenges came when I realized that I would have to raise a great deal of money if the exhibition were to include substantial numbers of works from Europe and collections outside of  New York. My hope that the Jewish Museum might be responsive was extinguished after three months of waiting for the “curators” to come to a decision.  The fact that my proposal to a variety of museums and university galleries came at a time of considerable financial stress didn’t help. However, the enthusiasm of the Godwin-Ternbach Museum with its two, unexpected Biala bullfight paintings, and Joseph Brewer’s friendship with Biala and Ford, was a godsend.

While we managed to represent works of Biala’s from the 20s through the 90s, the sheer difference in scale presented a challenge.

Is there any one period or aspect of Biala’s work that interests you most?

Biala was a painter of impeccable taste and remarkable intelligence, She had an intuitive feeling for composition and her orchestration of color was, at times, breathtaking. I respond particularly to the interiors, the Venice paintings, and her marvelous blacks.

What do you see coming in the future? And maybe you can offer a glimpse of a dream curation?

I haven’t any particular plans, but I wouldn’t mind doing an exhibition of some of the magnificent Baroque Theater drawings in the Morgan collection. Maybe cook up something that joins manuscripts, scores in their Music collection with the fabulous sheets given to the Morgan by Donald Oenslager, Janos Scholz and others.