Monday, April 23, 2007

The Collection of Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen

Lauren Rice

My opportunity to tour benefactors Dr. Cyrus and Myrtle Katzen’s apartment was certainly a rare and generous honor. That said, I am certain that any person that experienced claustrophobia in Whistler’s Peacock Room experienced it twofold under these circumstances. I am reasonably comfortable in tight spaces, particularly those crowded with inanimate objects as opposed to people so I was engaged instead of overwhelmed by the situation. The Katzen’s art collection is so large (and continues to grow!) that every spare wall surface was covered with examples of work by artists as diverse as Nancy Graves’, Pablo Picasso, Larry Rivers, Dale Chihuly among many, many others, including AU’s own Don Kimes and William Willis. Sculptures and glass works sprouted out of every corner. Most table surfaces were also used as exhibition areas. Furthermore, the artworks were surrounded by fantastically ornate furniture and patterned rugs, which added to the eccentric personality of the Katzen’s home. I find it extremely difficult to base this review on the quality of every individual piece of work at the Katzen’s apartment, or even give a complete sense of the breadth of work on view. Although, a few works stood out in particular, such as lovely little drawings by Modigliani and Milton Avery in addition to a Bill Willis painting entitled Heroes, I believe it to be much more relevant to discuss the Katzen’s space as a whole, specifically considering the Katzen’s collection of chachkas or kitsch collectibles. Furthermore, I believe it relevant to discuss kitsch’s relationship to fine art in general. Several questions come to mind based on the Katzen’s display of both kitsch and fine art. What are the differences between the two? Is there a different system of value for each type of work? Finally, how significant is humor’s role in an artwork? ( I don’t think I can answer these questions in a short review. However, I believe they are important to consider in relationship to the Katzen’s collection.)

Kitsch is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as “Sentimentality or vulgar, often pretentious bad taste, especially in the arts,” whereas the term fine art is described as “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics and architecture.” Clearly these definitions value high art over kitsch. However, given many significant artist’s use of kitsch as their works subject matter and/or the “productness” of art as their works content, the matter becomes stickier than the above definitions allow.

In addition to being kind enough to open up their home to such a motley crew of art students, the Katzen’s also lead the tour, providing myriad anecdotes along the way. Dr. Katzen was most engaged with his stories about his chachkas, delightedly showing us his collection of battery-powered dolls, including a furry gorilla that sang “I don’t want to work, I want to play drums all day” as it naturally banged on two miniature bongos. A metal sculpture of Picasso with a girl bathing in his stomach sat beneath several Picasso drawings and ceramic works. Many of the works were slightly off-color, not my grandmother’s Hummel figures by any means. My favorites of these were a series of sculptural works made by a Texas artist depicting scruffy, southern bandits hiding in trees, waiting to shoot the good guys. When I said this aloud, Myrtle, who is a painter herself, decidedly stated that she preferred the serious works while her husband liked the humorous trinkets. So I got to thinking about art and seriousness. Although I do believe that making art should not be taken lightly (and neither should looking at it), I have found myself looking more and more for humor in my work and the work of others.

Considering that the Katzen’s collection was overridingly Modernist, I began to wonder why the paintings (except perhaps for a few Larry Rivers relief paintings) and chachka collections were so disparate. Why, for example, aren’t the Katzen’s collecting Jeff Koons whose work focuses on “Art” and kitsch? Or even John Currin (I say this through gritted teeth)? For indeed, the close proximity of the chachkas and the paintings made a simple statement: art and chachkas are both products. The Katzen’s display of their collection knocked down the intellectual and emotional effect of the painted works while it built up that of the chachkas. However, the crammed apartment and the display of the chachkas added humor to the otherwise sober collection of paintings.

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