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.

Exhibition News: First Posthumous Museum Retrospective Announced

Biala,  Blue Interior with Man and Dog , 1979, Oil on canvas, 64 x 51 in. (162.6 x 129.5 cm)

Biala, Blue Interior with Man and Dog, 1979, Oil on canvas, 64 x 51 in. (162.6 x 129.5 cm)

Flushing, NY – The Godwin-Ternbach Museum, Queens College, is pleased to present Biala: Vision and Memory, September 12-October 27, 2013. The exhibition is the first posthumous museum retrospective of American painter Janice Biala (1903-2000) ever held in New York. This historic and comprehensive exhibition brings together paintings, collages, and drawings from across seven decades the artist’s career from the late 1920s to the 1990s. It includes important loans from public and private collections, including two paintings from the Godwin-Ternbach Museum’s permanent collection as well as significant loans from the Estate of Biala. Additionally, the exhibition will display books by celebrated author Ford Madox Ford for which Biala provided illustrations, as well as personal photographs, exhibition catalogues and announcements that document her social and artistic circles in New York and Paris. The exhibition will also feature a documentary about Biala, filmed in  the artist’s studio in 1994. A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with an essay by its guest curator Diane Kelder, Professor Emerita of Art History at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

An opening reception on Thursday, September 12 from 5-7 pm, will feature an informal exhibition walk-through by Diane Kelder, beginning at 6 pm.

Born Schenehaia Tworkovsky in a town near the Polish Russian border (c. 1903-2000), Biala pursued a career that spanned more than seven decades and brought her critical recognition in New York and Paris. In both cities she formed close friendships with legendary figures of modernist art and literature. She witnessed the eclipse of Paris as the international center of modernism, the rise of Abstract Expressionism, and the dizzying succession of movements that radically transformed the very concept of art during the second half of the 20th century. Through it all, she continued to paint exquisitely crafted canvases in a personal style that, even now, resists classification.

On a visit to Paris in 1930, Biala met and fell in love with the British novelist Ford Madox Ford. She created illustrations and dust covers for several of his books and managed his dealings with publishers until his death in 1939 when she became the Executor of his literary estate. Returning to New York the following year, she reconnected with her brother Jack Tworkov, who introduced her to Willem de Kooning and other artists who would subsequently transform American painting.  Throughout the 50s and 60s, while spending extended periods in Paris, Biala was one of a select group of women who participated in the activities of Studio 35 and The Club and exhibited at the Stable Gallery, a cooperative that showed many artists of the New York School and enjoyed the support of critics Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. She briefly explored gestural abstraction during this period, but her abiding fascination with the world around her proved more compelling. After taking up permanent residence in Paris, she continued to exhibit regularly in New York until her death in 2000. Since 2005, the Tibor de Nagy Gallery has presented three solo exhibitions that have generated renewed critical interest in her work.

In her opening essay for the catalogue Diane Kelder writes: “Overcoming the hardships encountered by legions of Eastern European immigrants and years of precarious existence as an aspiring young artist, the painter known as Biala (1903-2000) pursued a career that spanned more than seven decades and garnered broad critical recognition in New York and Paris. In both cities, she formed lasting friendships with many of the legendary figures of modernist art and literature. Tough-minded and fiercely independent, she created an idiosyncratic body of work that reflected her peripatetic life, resistance to prevailing art trends, and extended dialogue with the School of Paris. After settling in that city permanently in 1965, Biala continued to exhibit in New York. However, her aesthetic concerns and expatriate status gradually isolated her from the increasingly fashion and market-driven priorities of the late twentieth century art world. In 1989, when asked by a critic to contemplate what her career might have been had she remained in New York, she replied “If I had it to do all over again, I’d do exactly the same thing.”[1]

Continuing, Kelder explains, “In canvas after canvas, she displays remarkable visual intelligence and absolute control of her medium. If Biala’s paintings offer immense gratification to the eye, they also are reservoirs of feeling and memory, lyric affirmations of the life she chose to lead.”

A series of lectures will follow during September and October—dates will be confirmed. Dr. Kelder will discuss Biala’s themes and variations, poet and art critic Mary Maxwell will speak about Biala and the Provincetown Art colony; Biala Estate curator Jason Andrew will discuss Biala and Ford Madox Ford; and GTM Director Amy Winter will comment on women artists in the New York School in the post-WWII period. The museum will also screen the BBC film series “Parade’s End,” based on Ford Madox Ford’s 1924-28 novel about WWI, hailed as “possibly the greatest 20th-century novel in English.”

For further information about the exhibition and program times and dates, as well as upcoming exhibits and events, call 718-997-4747 or visit Godwin-Ternbach MuseumGodwin. All exhibitions and public programs are free.

By car, the Godwin-Ternbach Museum is 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan. Directions are:

About the Godwin-Ternbach Museum:
The Godwin-Ternbach Museum, a part of Queens College’s Kupferberg Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, presents exhibitions and programs that provide significant educational opportunities and aesthetic experiences to residents of the borough and neighboring Long Island and Manhattan. As the only comprehensive collection in Queens, housing over 5,000 objects dating from ancient to modern times, the museum introduces many individuals to art and artifacts they might not otherwise encounter. The breadth of these holdings, and the rich resources of the college, allow presentations that speak to the interests and needs of the diverse audiences of the communities the GTM serves. Lectures, symposia, gallery talks, films and workshops, and an active website, complement and interpret the art on view. All exhibitions and programs are free and open to the public.

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[1] Michael Brenson, “Three Who Were Warmed By the City of Light,” The New York Times (June 25, 1989): 32.