This is why I don’t write art reviews.
I was in an airplane flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a weekend rendezvous and as the plane landed I texted my friend Kerry to pick me up. I’ve known Kerry since my days as an Art major at UCLA. She is now an art historian.
Kerry was hungry, and so was I. She took me to Saison on Townsend Street for lunch. I had a salty halibut drizzled with a basil infused olive oil and drank a beer—a crisp, frothy lager. Down the hatch.
After paying the bill for me Kerry suggested, insisted actually, that I see Petra Kujau’s new show at the National Gallery of San Francisco. “You have to go see it”, she said.
The next day, after a morning macchiato, I took a Lyft to the National Gallery.
Petra Kujau: The Paintings is a chronological homage to the burden of influence. That’s what the booklet said on the cover, the one I picked up off the reception desk where a head with short brown hair bobbed up. Like Whack-A-Mole.
“Hello”, the young guy said. “Let me know if you have any questions.”
“Thanks. Are these to take?”
I rolled the booklet into a tube, clutched it like a baton, and stepped around the wall behind the desk and entered the showroom. It was huge. Airy and bright. A contemporary setting for a museological and historical visual narrative. The curator used a 19th century salon style installation but in a compressed linear fashion so that the paintings hung clustered together like a thick, pixelated horizon line. Every canvas was framed with dark wood, walnut I think. And there were black cantilever chairs on the dark wood floors, a sensibly spaced out viewing circle.
The first room were copies of classic heavy hitters. Artists like Claude Monet, Gustav Klimt, Mary Cassatt, and Artemisia Gentileschi. The raspy old voices coughing dust. Mostly Modern Masters, but minus the “Master” part because the proportions were all off and Petra’s control of the oil paint not great. Endearing in her effort, sure. But the surfaces were uneven as though a cobalt dryer, an additive that also has the side effect of accelerating the oxidation process, was haphazardly utilized and caused yellowing and cracks in a short period of time.
In a dimly lit hallway, framed sketches on paper browned by acid. Silvery graphite contours of figures and shapes and faint grids perceptible only up close. And then I entered the second gallery representing the next five years of Petra’s output. On the other side of the room there was a little girl and a mother sitting next to each other in chairs. The little girl’s legs, not touching the floor, bounced about while mom was typing furiously in her phone. She would look up at the paintings and then back down at the phone. Maybe she was another writer taking notes, a real critic.
The paintings displayed a technical leap forward, but I was numb to the famous images regardless of the sensory rewards of tactility, slick surfaces or waxy impastos that are felt with the eyes. I sat down on a chair and looked around at the Italian Futurist room. My thinking fell back on Postmodern notions of appropriation and a 1970’s and 80’s skepticism towards originality and authenticity. The work of Sherrie Levine, Louise Lawler, and Mike Bidlo came to mind and I leaned on the discourse around their work as a frame to help me understand Kujau. Had she shown in the 80’s? I didn’t know. I pulled out my phone and typed in Petra’s name and the first article in the search was an article published by The Guardian on September 10, 2010. The article was called “Art Dealer Convicted of Forging Forger’s Forgeries”. Uncrossing my legs, I sat up in the chair.
Turns out that Petra Kujau, now 56, was not an artist. Rather, she had falsely claimed to be the great niece of Konrad Kujau, the famous art forger. Petra was convicted of forging his forgeries. This thirty year period of fraud is the timeframe the National Gallery claimed to be her period of influence on art history, when her technical, chameleon-like skill could be said to have been perfect. Never mind that first room. In a handful of years her mastery of oil paint was such that she made it feel easy, no big deal. You just believed what she showed you. And this was also the period that she was selling paintings to collectors who believed they were buying the “original” forgeries. A two-year long trial in Dresden centered on 300 canvases. All of them had Konrad Kujua’s forged signature on them. Judge Joachim Kubista called the crime "hard-nosed fraud". Art forgeries are nothing unusual, he said, but the further falsification of the forger is really rather unusual. The 300 paintings were now on exhibit at the gallery.
Petra first came to the attention of art forgery investigators after they were tipped off by a collector that far more works of Konrad Kujau's had been sold than he could possibly have produced in his lifetime.
Now, my brain frothing in light of these unexpected facts, I flipped through the catalogue again. No mention of this bizarre history anywhere. The essay, I noticed, was written by my art historian friend. Her name was there at the bottom. Name and credentials.
I texted her: I’m at the show
Kerry: Oh yeah?
Me: We need to talk
Kerry: About what?
I didn’t know yet. I put the phone away.
The gallery was quiet. The mother and the little girl were gone.
I got up and walked to the next room in the gallery. Some of the same paintings were painted over and over again. Sometimes a group of copies were hanging all together in a cluster because they were made one after each other. Other times you saw them spaced out because years had gone by between the first copy of, say, Paul Klee’s Ad Parnassum from 1932 for example, and the more recently painted one. That was fifteen years and two gallery rooms apart. The show was a map in time and space.
In the final room, several hallways deep inside the cavernous gallery, between a horizontal cluster of smaller cubist paintings, there was Franz Marc’s Stables. Not really a Franz Marc but you know what I mean. The reds were punchy and the yellow felt earthly against the vivid blue. At first you wouldn’t notice the horses because their cubist forms are flat, the boundaries of background and foreground dissolved. The Modernist sensibility, a pictorial flatness as a formal device for undermining pictorial illusionism was on glorious display, a unified allover field of color and shape that spoke the universal language of feeling and sensory data. I looked at the cover of the exhibition booklet, the smooth glossy paper curling in my hands, and I recognized that the cover image was a section of this painting. Petra’s version of Konrad’s forgery was a believable enough of a copy and probably worth a lot of money now in the hands of the Gallery.
I opened up the booklet and skimmed Kerry’s essay. She refers to an article by Germano Celant, an Italian Art Historian, called “The Territories of Exhibition” published by The Exhibitionist a couple of years ago that discussed exhibition strategies in the Salon de Refuses in Paris in 1863, the Salon des Independants in Paris in 1884, and also in the first Venice Biennale in 1895. In those days art was often exhibited in spaces that resembled a cross between a living room and an art studio. Exhibition spaces at art biennales were fluffy with rugs and wall panelling, draperies and chairs, designed for an audience to inhabit and thereby “conditioning the emotional and physical, as well as the perceptual and conceptual, consumption of art.” Environmental communication and imaginary spaces that appear and feel like spacious 19th century residences. And now, returning to the reception desk at the National Gallery, newspaper clippings of reviews, binders with text I didn’t bother reading were spread out. The mole rose from his chair, a brown mop top I wanted to whack. Thank you for visiting he said and I gave him a regal nod while slipping out the door.
Art History, in my view, is an art historians medium, the output of competent inquiry, an organized activity for bridging facts however discontinuous and gerrymandered because what counts as good evidence changes over time. Facts trigger laws, and, for Petra, the facts triggered a set laws and consequential action that brought her work as an art forger to a close. The Paintings is not about the National Gallery’s opaque motivations for validating fraud, the expensive lunch that Kerry bought me in exchange for this review, or about the claims made about Petra—or about her work in particular. It’s about that thirty year period in which the art world widened its field of attention to include not only the notion of truth as matters of fact, but truth as what is most useful to believe.
The National Gallery of San Francisco is a visual arts institution that promotes art to the world. It has built a diverse permanent collection and exhibition program of past and present works by local and international artists.
Please visit the National Gallery of San Francisco’s website to learn more.