News from America that Edward Albee, one the 20th Century’s greatest playwrights, has died aged 88. I had the good fortune to meet him six years ago and talk to him – not about playwrighting – but about his art collecting; especially Aboriginal art. This will probably be his only obituary mentioning that fact! The following is the article I wrote for the still-lamented Art Market Report magazine:
It’s the abstraction in Aboriginal art that interests me primarily…not the design; that’s way off kilter, and very exciting.
The gracious, now-82 year old playwright, Edward Albee, was in a setting almost as absurd as the bench in Central Park where two men fail to communicate in his debut play, ‘Zoo Story‘. We were eating a burger on Bondi Beach in the lunch break from a masterclass he was giving Aussie playwrights upstairs in the Pavilion. Think, too of the play where a man falls in love with a goat; or the one where the cruel battle between husband and wife achieves catharsis when he kills off their imaginary child. Albee won Tony Awards for both ‘The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?’ and ‘Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf’. Now he was talking wildly about his large collection of Australian Aboriginal art – as reported in the Wall Street Journal. The trouble is that Mr Albee only has 5 pieces “ two small Pukumani Poles and three unidentified canvases!
Perhaps the Wall Street Journa>l was hyperbolically hoping to boost attendance at the $1000 a head fund-raiser Albee was holding in his Tribeca (NY) loft for the LongHouse Reserve on Long Island “ a 16 acre nature reserve and sculpture park. Albee’s partner of many years was Jonathan Thomas, a sculptor. But the event was no mere dandy’s peccadillo. Albee was interviewed about his art that night by no less a figure than Robert Storr, Dean of the Yale School of Art and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum.
And the art under discussion included Picasso, Klee, Voulliard, Malevich and a Kandinsky Bauhaus-period drawing that he bought for $8000 many years ago . There are African masks and Dogon doors, Milton Avery and Rob Nadeau from contemporary America, and a rare figurative work “ a 1907 Chagall showing a woman in green holding a feather pen. It was an early work “ before Chagall turned into a guy who copied his earlier stuff.
Mr Albee’s tongue is as sharp as his pen!
And he’s NOT a collector. I’m an art accumulator, he distinguishes nicely. Collectors “ especially the nouveaux riches ones “ put names on their walls; and usually third rate examples of those names. Their agents are only interested in their 20%! Whereas I have no idea what my art’s worth. I rely totally on my own taste and experience and the most important thing is to show the art in context so that an African head next to a Cubist canvas can teach each other something. I’m always moving things around to get new contexts. I’ve also got more than a hundred pieces of ‘found’ art “ African game boards, for instance, which look like beautiful sculpture to my eye. They had an enormous influence on artists in the 20th Century.
But where does Aboriginal art come into this panoply? Well “ as with so many Americans “ it was ‘Dreamings‘, the Bicentennial show that received no official support, which sucked him in. This brilliantly contextualised 1988/9 exhibition “ commissioned by the Asia Society in New York, then toured to Chicago and LA “ fascinated serious-art Americans like Albee through its capacity to introduce remote Aboriginal society via the art. I saw the sand painting that was made there, and it made me realise that so-called primitive art is actually so sophisticated.
The work was made by Billy Stockman Tjapaltjarri and Michael Nelson Jagamarra and attracted 700 paying viewers over its two-day creation. In all, ‘Dreamings‘ was the Asia Society’s most successful venture to date “ 27,000 viewing the work.
But for Albee, the follow-up has perhaps been less successful. Despite a friendship with Aussie Ann Lewis, who has a major Indigenous collection, he can declare that Aboriginal art is now all too commercial. The artists have been told what to do, corrupting their native talent. My old poles, though, are breathtaking. And it was thrilling to see the Pukumani poles come back out at the Art Gallery of NSW “ I was afraid that after they’d been hidden away for two years I wouldn’t have the same ‘Wow!’ reaction to them. But it was just as intense…fucking good stuff! Perhaps that’s because they were never intended to stand in a museum. Artists think differently if they know that’s what will happen to their work.
It would seem that the sheer absence of specialist Aboriginal art galleries in the States has limited both Albee’s progress and the development of his accumulation. For he wouldn’t dream of buying online: I have to see a work, have to touch it. But at 82, he’s still prepared to learn: I’ve made no remote travels yet in Australia; but I want to get to Arnhemland and that West Australian headland with rock art (Burrup).
Not that Mr Albee is blinkered by a purely ethnographic approach to his acquisitions. The story interests me, he admitted. I like to know why an artwork happened. But I accumulate primarily because I get something in absolute terms…I believe I understand its thoughts about art. And whether it’s European, African or Aboriginal “ with hugely different causes for making their art – the ultimate aesthetic is the same in all art. You can see that if you’ve got the eye.
Which he has.
Talking of which, Albee polished off his burger with some fine theatrical dialogue linking his eye to Picasso’s: One of the transformative events in 20th Century art came in 1909 when the Musee de l’Homme opened in Paris, and Picasso and Braque walked in and saw their first African masks. That changed the face of Western art “ because the Africans invented Cubism. Picasso comprehended it though. ‘Georges, Georges “ look; then look again’. ‘Ah, now I see’, the playwright responded for Braque, the man credited with the co-invention of Cubism.