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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

50th Anniversary of the 1973 Robert Scull Auction

The 1973 auction of fifty works from the Robert Scull collection of abstract expressionist and Pop art brought outrageous prices that made it "arguably the twentieth century's most consequential sale of contemporary art," wrote art historian Judith Stein. Sotheby's Amy Cappellazzo said the auction marked "the birth of today's art market." Warhol biographer Bob Colacello noted it was the first time "the public at large, not just the dealers and collectors, attended and followed an auction of contemporary art." Yes, it was an art world bonanza, a circus and a spectacle and, most important to Jewish cultural history, a test of Jewish acceptance in the art world.  


It took place on October 18 at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York. On that night, over 1,000 art collectors, dealers, so-called Beautiful People, raggedy protesters, and members of the general public showed up eager to get their hands on or just gawk at the would-be owners of the greatest works of art produced in postwar America – paintings such as  Jasper Johns' "Target" and Willem de Kooning's "Police Gazette," valued today at $100 million and $63 million, respectively. They were drawn there by the quality of the collection and by Scull's charming mix of respectability and winking slyness.


It was certainly believable that the man loved art. He bought enough of it, and with a collection of more than one hundred works had more than met dealer Andre Emmerich's measure of a real collector: someone who buys more than can be displayed at home. "Until then, you're doing interior decorating," Emmerich said. Andy Warhol called Scull the one who "pulled off what everyone who collects dreams of—he built the best collection by recognizing quality before anybody else was on to it."


But Scull was not a highbrow connoisseur speaking in hushed tones about provenance. He was an American businessman, a Bronx taxi fleet owner who loved a bargain, a bonus, closing a sale, getting something for nothing. People knew of his antics. At the tony Hassler Hotel in Rome the manager spotted him pocketing an ashtray and assured him that if he had only asked the hotel would have gladly given him one. London art dealer James Mayor was there. Scull explained to the hotel employee, "That's not the point."


In September 1973, a month before the auction, Scull arranged for etiquette expert Gloria Vanderbilt to instruct the taxi drivers of Scull's Angels, his Bronx taxi garage, in good manners. Somehow, he had gotten one of his Checker cabs onto the floor of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The stunt paid off. The Times covered it. In the photograph Scull stands next to a smiling Vanderbilt wearing a straight man's deadpan.


Electricity in the room


And 50 years ago today he was at Sotheby's, accompanied by his slim wife Ethel in a Halston gown altered to display the name of their taxi company across her chest. She started a trend. The wives of other moguls soon followed suit. Her husband's hip, mostly grey professor's beard signaled a Sixties-era disregard for convention, while his businessman's cigar fit his no-nonsense role as president of a Bronx taxi operation. The man needed to make a living. He wasn't of the gentry.


Born on the Lower East Side as Rubin Sculnik in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in the cloak and coat trade, he was more familiar to the average New Yorker than auction attendee and art collector Ben Heller, a Jewish-American gentleman who looked natural in a cardigan. Scull was unrefined, expansive, high-spirited. "Sammy's Roumanian. That was cooking. That's what he liked," sculptor William Crozier said of his friend. Accused of being a social climber, Scull cheerfully admitted that social climbing through art collecting was the most fun way to do it. In 1970 he explained to the Times why he was then selling a few of his paintings by Johns and Roy Lichtenstein. "Because they're history, darling—and I'm not involved with history." Journalist Tom Wolfe wondered if it was okay to mention in his 1966 profile of Scull for the Herald-Tribune's New York magazine that his father was an immigrant, a Jewish tailor. "What should you say? He was an Irish banker?"


But what Scull lacked in social distinction and class he made up for with hard work. "I crawl into more [artist] lofts than fire inspectors," he told Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Hoving, who despised snobbery and loved the Sculls. "Bob and Ethel were the ultimate 1960s New York nouveau-riche, social-climbing art couple. Or so the trendy, bitchy press claimed," Hoving wrote in his memoir. "They also happened to be vibrant, funny, raw, and invigorating." Nearly every positive assessment of the Sculls came with an acknowledgment that many were against them. "He's not perhaps the finest and least vulgar man in the world," admitted Henry Geldzahler, the Met's first curator of contemporary art. "But I've learned a lot from him. He's got terrifically good taste within the artists that he likes. He always buys their best pictures." The best included Mark Rothko's "No. 16 (1960)." Geldzahler acquired it in 1970 for the Met's permanent collection.


As the auction crowd gathered, Scull was keyed up, anxious. "He was a wild man that night," remembered auctioneer John Marion. "He was feeling the pressure. It was all going to happen." New York's unruly spirit was clearly responsible for at least some of the nervous thrill. The night's atmosphere was charged and reminiscent of the spontaneous street antics that accompanied the Brooklyn bank robbery that inspired the Hollywood movie, Dog Day Afternoon. Only a little more than a year had passed since that eruption of guerilla theatre by 3,000 members of the public. It was a sign of a general unraveling that had been going on for years. As early as  1969, the threat of chaos prompted the Sculls to buy property in rural Connecticut. Escape routes had to be planned.


Street protestors from the Taxi Rank and File Coalition, a youthful, leftwing group with a Leninist attitude toward art supplied a dose of unruly threat with demonstrators that harassed the Sculls as they entered the auction house. Their fight song began, "He is a pig/Robert Scull is his name," and continued with a condemnation of counter-revolutionary art. "Their culture stinks/Their art doesn't say a thing/'Bout the way we have to live/Or the changes we will bring." The Women in the Arts Foundation was also there, upset that sculptor Lee Bontecou was the only woman represented in the sale. Scull was furious at the lack of crowd control and after skirting the angry groups with a smile that suggested sympathy with the indignant he snapped at Sotheby's staff. He had insisted on a police presence. Where were they?


Mood is crucial to a live event such as an auction, Marion said, and that night folks were "just full of pressure and full of excitement . . . electricity in the room." In fact, his attempt to control the pace of the sale could have benefitted from a chair and a whip. People applauded and cheered buyers' bids, many of which broke records. The auction was the first devoted solely to contemporary American art and its success legitimated the notion that the work of living, mid-career artists could be investments as safe, solid, and lucrative as Impressionists or Old Masters. Ben Heller paid $240,000 for Jasper Johns' "Double White Map," making it the most expensive work of 20th century art ever sold at auction. The Sculls had purchased it eight years earlier for $10,500.


Such profits rankled. As massive sums were exchanged for art Robert Rauschenberg, winner of the 1964 Venice Biennale and the first American artist to take top honors there shouted, "What does the artist earn?" The answer was nothing, which really hit home when his paintings "Thaw" and "Double Feature" sold for $85,000 and $90,000, respectively. Scull got them both for $3,200. "I've been working my ass off for you to make that profit?" Rauschenberg demanded of Scull. (The exchange became famous exactly a year after the auction when a documentary film of the sale premiered at the Whitney Museum.) The auction brought in $2.2 million, a record for contemporary art.


"It was a perfect, perfect auction," auctioneer Marion said. But disapproval came quickly and seemed to focus on the event's similarities to the Sculls themselves. The evening "possessed as much decorum as post-game activities at Shea Stadium," was the judgment of the next day's Times. The Village Voice ran the story on the front page under the headline, "Money and Art Marry." Barbara Rose also decried the sale. In New York magazine she announced that it augured the end of days. The art world collapsed at the auction. "The audience was full of hooting, giggling, gossiping fans" as money took the spotlight away from the art it carried off.


That much was true. The bohemian values that accepted and even embraced poverty had during the 1940s and 1950s allowed artists the freedom from market pressures needed to create abstract expressionism, an American invention that excited and refreshed the whole international art world. But by 1973, those days had passed. Pop art announced, at the very least, a lively engagement with everyday American culture, where money rules. The Sculls became the fall guys for this art historical development. Barbara Rose saw them as the brutal dockworkers that dumped the old virtues into boats and then sank the precious cargo into the realm of endless night. The couple embodied everything "lowbrow, déclassé, grasping, and publicity-seeking," wrote Rose. "They made a thing out of being vulgar, loud, and overdressed."


Unadulterated chutzpa


This coded language was not the first time the art establishment warned the Sculls against breaking the rules of behavior governing Jewish participation in the art world. The Jewish presence there was as great but not as casual as that found in New York's garment center. The first warning came in 1961, when famed art dealer Leo Castelli refused to attend Jonathan Scull's bar mitzvah. Castelli's decision was a costly one. He had been negotiating to sell Scull a Jackson Pollock, but his absence infuriated Ethel Scull and scuttled the deal. It must have been worth it, because Castelli continued his practice of keeping mum about his Jewish origins. Art dealer Ivan Karp worked for Castelli for seven years "and I didn't know he was Jewish. Somebody had to tell me. . . . He completely hid it," Karp told Emile de Antonio, director of the film Painters Painting. Ben Heller knew that many modern art Jews avoided open Jewish identification. This had been the established practice since the late 19th century, when East European Jewish immigrant Bernard Berenson refashioned himself into a perfectly refined, continental, and admired esthete and art connoisseur. This was part of art's allure for Jews. It promised what historian Todd Endelman calls "the flight from Jewishness."


But the Sculls themselves, with their three sons' bar mitzvahs and Bronx manners revealed the connection between Jews and modern art decades before contemporary historians marshaled the evidence. The Sculls' native ground was not café society but "Nescafe society," to quote playwright Noel Coward's inspired put-down, and the couple's oft-cited vulgarity drew scorn from more cultivated Jews in ways that recall the late 19th century German Jewish distaste for the Eastern European Jews then arriving in America. German Jews feared the unruly newcomers would damage their standing. The Sculls presented the same threat to more assimilated art admirers and were sometimes hated for it. Barbara Rose was so incensed by them that in her article she briefly abandons code words to attack Scull transparently as an unsavory Jewish huckster. His gift was a genius for "sheer, unadulterated chutzpa."


What made the Sculls especially frightening was that their appearance spurred and overlapped with a moment of growing recognition of the vital role played by Jewish collectors. As late as 1968, Rose could ask Jewish art dealer Ivan Karp what gave rise to New York's art leadership, and he could evasively answer that it was "the tumult in Europe at a certain time" that brought "creative people" to the city. That was all these two Jews permitted themselves to say to each other about the Holocaust and the flight of Jewish refugee scholars. By 1970, such a conversation was becoming impossible. That year Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler, himself a child refugee from Hitler's Europe, told an interviewer from the Smithsonian that most of the great collectors of contemporary art were Jewish. The interviewer was not shocked by the frank statement. In fact, he informed Geldzahler he had already heard the same thing from several museum officials. "All the people who collect very avant garde or modern art are Jewish."


Patronage of the avant garde allowed Jews to identify with the most advanced segments of society, those at odds with the mass forces of populism, nationalism, and folk traditions that were inimical to the safety and well-being of a Jewish minority. But the value of this artistic refuge was undermined where the avant garde was identified with Jews, as occurred in Germany in the 1930s. As a result, this fact remained an open secret. It was not until March 1986 that critic Robert Pincus-Witten in Arts magazine called attention to the prejudice against collectors, by which he meant Jewish collectors, though he did not dare be that explicit. He only pleaded, in more coded language, "Enough Already."


That article came too late to vindicate Robert Scull, who died in January 1986 at age 70. Resentment and condescension has in large part remained the verdict on Scull. It is a view that obscures his true significance. His rapid ascent from the Bronx to Fifth Avenue meant he never had time to be schooled in so-called good taste. He was not, as philosopher T.W. Adorno put it, "regimented by what happens to be the cultural norm." Instead, Scull entered society armed with what Adorno called the "faculty of spontaneous response." This precious quality breaks the spell of conventional opinion and allows the art prospector to discover gold by consulting his own response to the work, a response made reliable and powerful because it is "unsophisticated, involuntary, uninhibited by reflection," wrote Donald Kuspit.


Those traits allowed Scull to combine an unembarrassed Jewish identity with a keen acumen for building a great postwar art collection, and his triumph reveals that it was Jewish collectors – and art critics, historians, dealers, and curators – who guaranteed the success of America's greatest 20th century art movements.

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