April 06, 2010

A curator’s day

On Friday morning I had two appointments–at 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.–to visit the studios of  painters in Sacramento. I left home in Oakland for the 90 minute drive in a steady but light rain. The night before I had googled the directions for both places as I’m still learning the Sacramento sprawl, and noted down the phone numbers of both artists just in case. I even have gotten so cautious about this kind of thing that I remembered to google directions from the first studio to the second one, and then back to the freeway for the trip to UC Davis, where my office is.

Google sent me to Carmichael, on the far side of Sacramento; the street was one block long and the numbers were 4400, but Google insisted that my 3300 address would be there. It had never let me down so horrendously, so stupidly. I congratulated myself for noting down the artist’s phone number but when I called, the man who answered said it was the wrong number. As my heart sank–remember it’s raining, I’m in the suburbs of a city I barely know, and I have twelve minutes to get to an appointment–but before he could hang up, in desperation I said, “This is Renny Pritikin.” “Oh Renny,” he replied. “This is Irv Marcus. Who are you trying to get?” I had visited Irv recently–another noted local painter– and must’ve somehow substituted his number for the one I needed. “Jim Albertson,” I replied. “Oh, I have his number right here.” I grabbed a pen and as he related the number, in his elderly soft voice, the rain slackened and the windshield wiper was squeaking loudly, in perfect time to wipe out every other number he was dictating. Already deeply embarrassed, I had to ask him to repeat the number three times.

I was still convinced that I was only a block or two away from Albertson’s house, but when I got him on the phone he passed me on to his wife, better at directions, who let me know that I was miles and miles away.  I got her instructions and headed out two freeway stops back the way I’d come, then left at Jiffy Lube. Of course I drove for miles with no Jiffy Lube; she somehow conflated some other kind of Quicky Mart type place. So I had to double back down a long avenue of muffler shops and cheap, non-franchise fast food until I finally located the right cross street. I arrived at almost 10:30, making the mental note that I would have to make it a quicker meeting than I’d hoped, especially for a first visit.

I say especially because I felt badly that I have been working in the area for almost six years and it had taken that long for it to get through my thick skull that I needed to meet this artist. I actually know his long-ago partner, Louise Stanley, fairly well, and think very highly of her work. The odd thing is that Albertson’s work, and Louise’s, are very, very similar; it’s possible to mistake one for the other. I had not known of Albertson until I’d been at Davis a few years, when I saw what I took to be a Stanley at the home of a local artist, who disabused me of that notion, explaining that it was an Albertson. I have done two regional biennial surveys, in “06 and ’08, and I made a mental note to be sure not to continue to forget about him. There were also two other names of male artists over 60 whom I’d come to learn about and find quite worthy–in addition to Marcus, the third one, Jack Ogden, was my 11:30 appointment an hour from now.

Albertson turned out to be in his mid-sixties, though possibly appearing a bit older. In getting to know each other a bit, it turned out that we both shared the same two semi-serious health problems. That broke the ice. As is sometimes the case, this artist’s home, a small bungalow, was stuffed with art. There was some of his work, and friends’ work, but almost all of it was African tribal art; there must have been a thousand pieces on every horizontal surface, and every wall in every room. Almost all of it was museum-quality, non-tourist trade masks and figures. And Albertson could describe, using the appropriate language, the meaning and context of each piece. Which he started to do in great detail. I loved every minute of it, but was also increasingly anxious about the time. It was clear that he intended to walk me through his entire collection before he would take me to his studio.

I met his wife Julia, who in a very friendly way reminded me (and thanked me) that I had picked her work for an award at the California State Fair a couple of years earlier. I immediately remembered the work, and the difficult decision I had selecting it, as it was an eccentric, even maybe bad, but quite original collaboration with two friends. I felt tickled with myself in hindsight, that I’d made that decision. It turns out that Albertson was included in the legendary Bad Painting show at New York’s New Museum in 1978. He explained that he soon learned that the pressures and conundrums of that early success had driven him to withdraw from an active pursuit of  career ambition, and he had pretty much stuck to a quieter life of painting and teaching in Sacramento.

By ten o’clock we’d made it through the living room, dining room, bedroom, guest room, rear work room, and into the studio. There was a small work-in-progress on an easel, and three recent pieces on the wall, as well as what I assumed were older works in a rack. One of the finished pieces in particular was wonderful, and when he mentioned that he does numerous preparatory sketches for each painting, starting with pencil and working up to color, I wondered to myself if he’d be interested, and if it would be a good idea, to show the sketches along with the finished work. As the Nelson is a teaching museum, I like to take the opportunity to offer such pedagogical devices for students. (I recently showed two versions of the same Thiebaud print, for example, one from 1964, then one from 2006 that had been hand-worked, for students to see how a master tinkers.) A moment later Albertson, without my prodding, suggested the same thing. We agreed to do that, and I left feeling lucky to have the job I do. Already a tour of a wonderful, informed, coherent collection of beautiful art, and an inspiring studio visit, and it was only 11:15, plenty of time to get to Ogden’s. I thought.


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