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The Predicament of “Unknown” Artists: Preserving Their Legacy

 

Artist create their work in the hope of sharing it with the world. But in all practicality, even if an artist manages to achieve a considerable degree of exposure during their lifetime the challenge remains—what will happen with their work after they are gone?

 

If the artist has achieved a great degree of financial success or seminal work they can establish a trust or donate it to a museum that is interested in their achievement. However, if they happen to be like the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder—who exhibited his work and was even in the historic New York Armory Show of 1913, but eventually wound up a recluse, penniless, and died in obscurity—it inevitably falls to family and friends to see that the work finds its way to the proper institute.

 

In a previous post titled Creative Obsession I wrote about Jacob Lipkin, an American sculptor who exhibited widely from 1940 to 1979 with artists Chaim Gross, Louise Nevelson, David Smith, and William Zorach amongst others, and whose work resides in museums and private collections. I have written Lipkin’s biography, Creative Obsession: Reflections on the Life & Art of Jacob Lipkin, and photographically documented all of his work. The question always arises in my mind, what happens to the work of other highly talented yet relatively “unknown” sculptors? How is it preserved?

 

The irony of preserving sculptural work is that because it is a presence in durable materials that occupies physical space, one would think that preserving it would be a non-issue. And yet because of its very nature, that sculpture is heavy and difficult to move, it presents a different set of problems than preserving paintings or photographs, which can be stored and transported flat.

 

When Jacob Lipkin was a young man he witnessed what happens with an unknown sculptor’s work in the cruelest way possible:

“After his stint at the Cooper Union, Lipkin studied with a Dutch sculptor named Von Beek, a stone carver who owned a small plot of land on the edge of the Bronx and tutored him in the nuances of carving.…

 

He could not escape the chilling memory of his one-time teacher Von Beek, and how he died suddenly, leaving his wife and daughter penniless. Jacob had been there soon after his death, helping the widow sort out what could be sold to ease the financial burden.

 

Several days later, after trying to call but receiving no answer, Jacob decided to go and see how things were. Von Beek’s beautiful stone sculptures had always been outside, decorating his property. As Jacob turned the corner he saw that a demolition team had dug a deep trench, filled it with Von Beek’s sculptures, and were bulldozing everything until it was buried. He was shaken. It was an image that haunted his nightmares for years.

 

He resolved that it would never happen to his work, and began to formulate a way that he might be able to donate his sculptures to the township, thereby safeguarding his work for other generations more favorably disposed to his contribution.”

—from Creative Obsession

 

The brutal lesson of Von Beek was never lost on Lipkin. It is an event that is likely to occur with artists of little financial means who never attain fame. In this day and age it would not be a trench but a dumpster that claims such artwork. Thankfully for many artists, digital technologies have provided some methods, although flawed, of addressing the preservation of their art.

 

 

Seacoast in Moonlight by Albert Pinkham Ryder, 1890