"The gallery is packed," said Adam Lerner, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. "I can't remember another exhibit in recent memory where there's been such a gravitational pull."
What has Lerner excited is "Orphan Paintings: Unauthenticated Art of the Russian Avant-Garde," a show that is also drawing some international attention as well as crowds of Denver art fanciers.
It contains 150 paintings, many or most of which have a direct connection with Anchorage. Very few Alaskans can say they've seen any of them, however. And absolutely no one is able to say who painted any of them -- hence the word "unauthenticated."
Some evidence points to Kasimir Malevich, a leader of Russia's brief avant-garde movement, whose work now sells for tens of millions of dollars.
But money was not on Denver photographer Ron Pollard's mind when he spotted intriguing "student" work in the style of Malevich on eBay. The seller said he bought a crate of such paintings that had been abandoned at German customs, its origin unknown. Trained as an artist, a fervid collector and fan of "modern" art from pre- and early-Soviet Russia, Pollard talked his brother Roger, a retired lieutenant colonel with the Alaska Air National Guard and Roger's friend Dr. Brad Gessner, both of Anchorage, into joining him and buying as many as they could.
Curious about their purchase, the trio approached experts for information about the trove. The responses were sadly uninformative. One appraiser set the value of 30 of the pieces at $50 million, assuming they were authentic. Others dismissed them as forgeries. Chemical analysts differed on whether the paint could be 80-100 years old. A handwriting sleuth thought a few words written on the back of one painting looked like the work of Malevich's hand. The physical elements of construction (some of the pieces are collages) were all consistent with the period and place.
Nothing, however, confirmed that these paintings were by Malevich, a member of his circle, a student, or a mere copycat. Nor did anything confirm that they were not.
Gessner, an epidemiologist, expressed frustration at the unscientific vagueness of these authorities. "They take 100 pages to say nothing," he said.
Further obscuring the matter, many artists in Malevich's clique disdained signing their work. Such elevation of the painter was too "bourgeoise" for artists dedicated to blazing a path to the Socialist Paradise.
Marxist enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Russian avant-garde did not fare well under Stalin. By the time of Malevich's death in 1935, such work was discouraged or suppressed in favor of the heroic illustrations of Soviet Realism. It languished underground until being rediscovered by the New York avant-garde in the 1960s, ironically inspiring waves of artists in the capitalist West.
In recent years a large Malevich canvas brought $60 million at auction, and the Russian government has refused to allow his paintings out of the country; they're now considered "national treasures."
Stories abound about who really painted the pieces in the Pollard/Gessner collection. Some warrant rational consideration, such as the contention that exiles smuggled them out. Others -- like the theory that the KGB hoped to undermine Western capitalism by flooding high end art markets -- sound downright daffy.
But without "provenance," the record connecting the artist with subsequent owners, the paintings are mere curios that enjoy beefed-up security. Future technology or revelation of documents might reveal them to be worth a fortune. Therefore, as Gessner put it, "I don't think any of us are interested in keeping them in our house until there's a determination on them."
In curating the show, Lerner accepted that the paintings could not be authenticated at this time and embraced it. "What exactly do we value when we value art?" he asked. "When we look at a picture on a wall, we're not looking at 'provenance.' "
Yet buzz often trumps content. "The 'Mona Lisa' is the most-viewed painting in the world," said Roger Pollard. "Is that because (viewers) like it? Because they're fans of Da Vinci? Or is it because all these people tell them they have to see it?"
" 'Orphan Paintings' makes two opposing points," said Lerner. "On one hand, why can't you appreciate an object if you don't know the story? If you love a thing, that's all that should matter.
"On the other hand, we can't help but be fascinated by what we can't see, the story behind the painting. But that doesn't have to be a the story of the artist. It could be the story of three art-lovers."
The show is designed so that visitors first enter a large gallery showcasing just a few paintings, all hung with studied formality and museum-ish interior lighting. Though MCA Denver "remains agnostic" concerning the authenticity of the paintings, in Lerner's words, this display triggers a reaction among viewers that anything so importantly displayed must be the real deal.
Around the corner, though, the rest of the 150 paintings are tightly arranged in stacked rows, along a hall with some natural light, as if one had entered a tourist shop.
The shock is palpable, said Roger Pollard, causing one's brain to instantly shift gears from thinking about art to thinking about collecting. The mind can't help but spin over whether the few and the many are all of the same piece.
"I was expecting my colleagues to scold me for doing an exhibition like this," said Lerner. "Curators are judged on their ability to make decisions about authenticity. To present an exhibit that deliberately avoids that goes against the grain."
But the reaction has been rewarding, he said. "People who are art lovers at heart love beautiful things." In an audio clip at the museum's website (mcadenver.org) he recounts an interview he had with Roger Pollard via an audio-visual Internet service. On the screen showing Pollard in Alaska, Lerner saw paintings he knew were supposed to be in Denver and, a little nervously, asked about them.
They were high-resolution photographs on canvas, Pollard replied. He liked the paintings so much that he didn't want to be without them while the originals were being shown at MCA.
"In 13 years of curating," Lerner said, sounding a little stunned, "I've never seen a collector who's done this."
"We bought them because we liked them," Roger Pollard told me.
Whether the "orphan" paintings are genuine Maleviches, the exhibit has its own kind of genuineness, Lerner said. "The devotion of the collectors gives it authenticity."
There are other reasons why "Orphan Paintings" is a hit. Lerner suggested that more people are flocking to see the paintings by party or parties unknown would likely come to a properly certified show of avant-garde Russian masters.
"It's the mystery," he said. "The mystery is compelling."
"Orphan Paintings" will remain on display through January 23 at MCA Denver, 1485 Delgany St., Denver, Colo. The hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
There are no immediate plans to extend the show or present it in other venues.
Sometimes even having the artist's signature and a panel of eye-witnesses who watched him paint it isn't enough, as Joe Simon found out when he tried to get his Andy Warhol original "authenticated" by the Warhol Foundation. Fascinating reports can be found online at andywarholartauthentication.blogspot.com.
Since a Warhol exhibition is now on display at the Anchorage Museum, we find it appropriate to note the passing of Andy's older brother, John Warhola, who helped raise the artist and later helped in establishing the museum that owns the art being shown in Anchorage. He is reported to have died on Christmas Eve of pneumonia in Pittsburgh at the age of 85.
Opera on the big screen
The Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcast of Verdi's "Don Carlo" will be shown at Century Theatres at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 5. The four-hour grand opera stars Roberto Alagna in the title role, Ferruccio Furlanetto as King Philip, Eric Halfvarson as the Grand Inquisitor, and two (more!) Russians in the female leads, Marina Poplavskaya and Anna Smirnova. This plot would take a year to unfold as daytime television drama, but the quick take is: Don loves Daddy's new wife and Daddy is already occupied with rebellious subjects, burning heretics and his one-eyed mistress, who just happens to have the hots for Don.
Later this month, at a Regal showhouse in Tikahtnu Commons, the first live big screen broadcasts of Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts will be shown. More on that next week.
Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM