One man's crusade against the Philly art establishment
R. Brent Byrne says Philly's biggest museums and galleries have purposefully pushed aside the legacy of local artist Leonard Nelson. But the institutions say there's no conspiracy — not every artist can make it big.
R. Brent Byrne writes with an acid pen on the “Leonard Nelson Gallery” Facebook page, which is also the name of his real-life, small gallery space on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr.
From the posts, it’s clear that Byrne’s prime target is the Philadelphia art establishment.
May 28: “To the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: You may indeed escape my wrath, technically. The actions you took in 2001, however, will haunt you for years to come.”
Also from May 28: “To the Woodemere [sic] Museum of Art Board of Trustees: I haven’t forgotten about you. You are next.”
And on Oct. 5, 2013: “Dedicated to all my friends at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Woodmere Art Museum.” A link to the music video of the 1993 Nirvana song, “Rape Me.”
Byrne, 56, is the founder of the art gallery and owner of an investment firm that manages stock portfolios for very wealthy people. But his passion, some would say his obsession, is with a collection of work painted by the late Philadelphia artist Leonard Nelson.
The source of Byrne’s vitriol? He believes there has been a conspiracy, involving the administrators of a handful of major art galleries and museums in Philadelphia, to shove aside the legacy of Nelson, whom Byrne considers one of the most important painters to come out of our city.
Byrne and a group of investors, Colorfield Partners, own the majority of Nelson’s work. And Byrne’s on a crusade to see that Nelson gets credit — and major exhibitions in Philly — for being at the forefront of a unique movement of abstract Color Field painting that Byrne’s dubbed “The Philadelphia School.”
Along with a barrage of emails, Byrne sent City Paper some “titles to ponder” for this story: “Are You Ready? Barnes 2.0,” “Barnes Lives in Byrne” and “First Barnes, Now Byrne.”
But have the artist and his champion legitimately been wronged?
Leonard Nelson died in 1993 and Colorfield Partners purchased 99 percent of his unsold work from Nelson’s widow, Alma Neas, six years later for an undisclosed sum.
In the book Leonard Nelson: A Life in Art, written by Sam Hunter, Nelson describes Philadelphia as “the perfect place for an artist, because you are totally ignored.”
The copyright of that book is attributed to The Colorfield Partners, and inside, the author personally thanks Byrne. But Byrne says he did not give or receive any input on the book’s content or storyline, and Neas backs him up.
Hunter, who is said to be ill and could not be reached for comment, is a professor emeritus of art history at Princeton University and a co-author of Modern Art, an art history textbook used in classrooms since 1974. He was also an art critic for the New York Times and curated the first major exhibition of Jackson Pollock’s paintings in 1956 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Victoria Donohoe, a former Philadelphia Inquirer art critic, described Hunter in 2001 as “an Olympic-class athlete of American art history.”
Byrne and Hunter met in 2000, when a conservationist working for the Princeton University Museum introduced them. Hunter asked to see the Nelson collection, Byrne said, and then decided he wanted to write a book about the artist.
In it, Hunter writes that Nelson “was denied his proper place in this new constellation of talent” — that is, New York-based, postwar American abstract artists — because of “some personal reticence” and “his choice of Philadelphia over New York as his primary theater of operations.”
Hunter writes that Nelson “chafed at the retrograde insularity of the attitudes, styles and approaches at [Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), where he studied],” and “he refused to accede to fashionable dominant styles simply because they were accepted by reigning critics and famous artists.”
Hunter writes that Nelson was isolated by his own choice. Byrne sees a similarity to Albert C. Barnes, who preferred his collection of artworks to remain in Lower Merion, outside the bustle of the Philadelphia art establishment. Barnes strictly limited public access to his collection, rejected many guests who requested to visit it (like T.S. Eliot) and stipulated that his collection never be loaned or sold. Barnes was known for his outspoken criticism of established museums and public education.
As for Byrne’s Barnes comparisons? How the city handled the moving of the Barnes art collection to the Parkway was controversial to many, as well as the subject of the scathing documentary The Art of the Steal. But the Nelson estate is of concern to just a few, Byrne most primarily.
Nelson was not an unknown, by any means, in Philadelphia or in New York. His work was in several important galleries, and he had many one-man exhibitions.
In New York, he showed at the Mortimer Brandt Gallery, where Betty Parsons was director (she later showed him at her 57th Street gallery), the Brooklyn Museum and at Peggy Guggenheim’s the Art of This Century Gallery.
In Philly, he showed his early work at the Dubin Gallery, the Print Club (now known as the Print Center) and Moore College of Art. Nelson taught at Moore for 30 years, beginning in 1951, and at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) from November 1948 through the following April.
“Leonard Nelson was one of the least appreciated, though deserving, artists of indisputable quality in the legendary New York School,” Hunter writes. “In one major stylistic particular he has also been overlooked as a primary contributor to an influential new genre of American ‘colorfield’ painting.”
Byrne also points to a 2012 email he provided to City Paper from Matthew Palczynski, who was at the time the curator at the Woodmere Art Museum. In response to Byrne’s email about Nelson’s work and Hunter’s book, Palczynski wrote, “Indeed. Nelson prefigured Rohrer, Dessner and others. Odd that he’s not represented in the PMA or MoMA collections. … What a fascinating painter.”
Later, Byrne learned that the Woodmere was opening a debut exhibition for Murray Dessner. Byrne reached out to William Valerio, director and CEO, about whether there would be mention of Nelson in the Dessner catalogue. Byrne says Valerio never responded. (Palczynski was then no longer working at Woodmere.)
Repeated attempts to reach Palczynski went unanswered.
Valerio would not comment on interactions with Byrne or Palczynski, but did explain that the Woodmere was in the process of working with Dessner to create a show when he died. It then became a posthumous retrospective. The works Dessner hoped to include in exhibition, Valerio said, were turning-point works of art, like his Hard Edge Gray Maroon.
Speaking to Dessner’s influences, Valerio mentioned de Kooning and Rohrer among others, as well as many Philadelphia abstract painters who came before him. Nelson was not specifically mentioned.
“I think of Murray as one of these very generous spirits who took a lot from a lot of places in terms of evolving his own vision,” Valerio said.
He said he knew a bit about Nelson.
“Leonard Nelson is one of so many artists who experiment with Color Field painting,” Valerio said.
“I think that Leonard Nelson is a wonderful artist, too. I have no negative feelings about Leonard Nelson as an artist at all. He’s a different artist though.” He continued, “I think it’s great for Leonard Nelson to have somebody who’s so passionately interested in that work. What he should do is get that work out there and get it visibility.”
Valerio said there’s no particular reason for the Woodmere not showing Nelson’s work, and there is no conspiracy against the work of Nelson. As for Byrne’s desire that Dessner credit Nelson, Valerio says artists don’t always include their influences in an artist statement or catalogue. The evolution of an artist’s ideas, he says, is presented in a number of ways, but it’s “not a black-and-white process.”
“We do our very best, as we did in the Murray Dessner show, to provide our visitors with a sense of the context of this artist’s production,” Valerio said. He said he doesn’t see “the history of art evolving in such a way that I feel it was necessary for me to acquire that knowledge [of Nelson’s work] in order to present Murray Dessner.”
Nelson’s New York works on exhibition in the 1940s and ’50s, Hunter wrote, “placed him at the forefront of the emerging New York Abstract Expressionist avant-garde.”
The New York School of Art, according to online documentation by MoMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is synonymous with the Abstract Expressionists: It wasn’t a physical school, but a group of artists in the city making this type of art mid-century. This first wave of Abstrtact Expressionist painting shifted the art world’s focus from Paris to New York and to such now widely known artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko.
Rothko, like Nelson, worked in the Color Field style, that is, “simplified, large-format, color-dominated fields,” according to the Met. “For Rothko, his glowing, soft-edged rectangles of luminescent color should provoke in viewers a quasi-religious experience, even eliciting tears.”
Nelson’s Color Fields, Hunter writes, are characterized by “a thick buildup of luminescent, pointillist marks,” “vehement brushstrokes,” subtle manipulation of light and “translate equally into a romantic vision of boundless energies and limitless spaces.”
Byrne calls Nelson “the sole [local] link to the New York School of Art” and says Nelson, having fled New York to set up shop in Philly, thus established The Philadelphia School. Byrne says Nelson led the way for other artists in that school who lived and worked here — particularly Warren Rohrer and Murray Dessner. Rohrer had many of his exhibitions at the Locks Gallery, and much of Dessner’s work was shown at the Woodmere.
Byrne’s gripe? Rohrer and Dessner were lauded in exhibition and print — Rohrer’s 1995 obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer, written by Edward Sozanski, called him a “major painter” and “one of the most talented,” and PMA art director Anne d’Harnoncourt said he was “one of the best painters and one of the most profound artists in the Philadelphia community.” But neither of these people were called on to comment at Nelson’s passing, despite Hunter’s characterization of Nelson as “trail blazing.”
Just as the New York School pulled focus from France to New York, Byrne believes Nelson pulled focus from New York to Philadelphia — or should have. Inquirer critic Donohoe also wrote in 2001 that Nelson’s art and life “have been overshadowed by leading Color Field abstract painters who came later.”
But while a few others join Byrne in championing Nelson, many in the know in the Philadelphia art scene who spoke to City Paper had little (or less than charitable) things to say about the painter. Some local museum administrators don’t know his work at all.
Neither Ingrid Schaffner, chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art, nor Harry Philbrick, current director of the museum at PAFA, had heard of him. Kelsey Halliday Johnson of the Locks Gallery and Kim Sajet, former deputy director of PAFA, said they know only a little about Nelson. Sajet also was unfamiliar with the term “Philadelphia School.”.
The fact is, in the local art scene, when it comes to Color Field, Dessner and Rohrer are nearly household names, and Nelson isn’t.
Nelson’s art began trading at Sotheby’s in the mid-2000s, Byrne said. Just last week, at an auction in Tel Aviv, two latter-period Nelson Color Field paintings sold in the five digits — one for $65,000 and the other for $80,000.
After Hunter had seen and endorsed Nelson’s works, Byrne began approaching large Philadelphia museums about showing Nelson’s Color Fields. This is when, Byrne says, that he began to see what he calls the museums’ conspiracy.
“The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) was interested, and offered Nelson a major retrospective,” Byrne writes in his initial email to City Paper, which he titled “Art Brawl on the Parkway.”
Derek Gillman, who was president and director of PAFA from 2001 to 2006, confirms that PAFA considered a proposal from Colorfield Partners to exhibit the art, even going as far as to outline in a letter the estimated expenses of a Nelson exhibition.
But there was conflict, Byrne says, between PAFA administration and Colorfield Partners about money, and the exhibition never happened.
But Gillman says, “It was reviewed on the merits, as we saw them, of Nelson’s work. Collectors (and investors) don’t always converge with museum professionals, or critics, in their opinion of the strengths of a particular artist.”
After the PAFA exhibit did not happen, Byrne says he contacted Anne d’Harnoncourt, then executive director at PMA.
“Her response was nonexistent,” Byrne writes in his “Art Brawl” manifesto. In mid-2001, at least.
In 2002, however, the PMA did express some interest. Michael Taylor and Susan Rosenberg, then both assistant curators at the museum, visited the Nelson works Byrne had in storage.
“We both liked a couple of the paintings,” Taylor says. “Although we agreed that they felt a bit too derivative of Rothko and others.”
Taylor and Rosenberg, Taylor says, brought the proposal to hang a Nelson painting, Colorfield (N9A), to d’Harnoncourt and PMA curator Ann Temkin.
“It was a lengthy discussion, but in the end they concluded that the works were not good enough for the PMA collection. Finis. End of story,” Taylor says. “The fact is that not every work that is offered to the PMA will be accepted.
“These emails are more than 10 years old and Brent should get over it,” Taylor continues. ”There’s no conspiracy here.”
In an Aug. 22, 2002, letter to Byrne, Taylor writes: “Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is not in a position to accept this work as a gift or purchase. We are currently reviewing our storage facilities and I have had a hard time persuading the powers that be that we should acquire such a large painting. I do think Mr. Nelson is an under-recognized artist and hope that at some point in the future we can return to the question of finding the right painting for our collection … perhaps after this body of work has been given greater exposure in exhibitions and books it will be easier to explain the necessity of having his work represented in our museum’s permanent collection.”
Therein lies the conspiracy against Nelson, according to Byrne. He believes d’Harnoncourt, Locks Gallery owner Marian Locks and Inquirer art critic Sozanski — all of whom are now deceased — favored Rohrer, and didn’t want Hunter’s explosive scholarship of Nelson to undermine him.
“[The establishment], they favored him [Rohrer], but they favored him before the Hunter book. When the Hunter book came out it shocked them, because Hunter’s calling [Nelson] pathbreaking for a style they’ve already awarded to Rohrer,” Byrne says. “Rohrer is her [Marian Locks’] prize artist.”
Byrne says his anger is largely about credit being given where it’s due. He believes Nelson’s name should be mentioned in any Rohrer or Dessner exhibit.
“I never argue Nelson blows away Rohrer and Dessner, OK, I never argue that. My bitch all along was credit. They ignored Nelson … pretending like Nelson didn’t exist. You can have your opinions, but you can’t change the facts,” he says.
Rohrer, Byrne says, didn’t start painting in the Color Field style until three years after Nelson. Asked if he believes Rohrer’s style was derivative of Nelson, Byrne replies, “Absolutely.”
Kelsey Halliday Johnson, who coordinates exhibitions at the Locks Gallery, says it’s difficult to know who influenced whom, and points to how Rohrer was influenced by other artists. Nelson, Dessner and Rohrer were, after all, working in the same city, in the same circles, in variations of the same style during the same few years.
“He [Rohrer] was definitely looking at work like Agnes Martin and other contemporaries. He certainly was aware that a lot of that [similar Color Field] stuff was happening a couple decades beforehand,” she says. “He was a lifelong educator.
“Leonard Nelson definitely has pieces in major collections, he’s not totally obscure,” Johnson continues. “There is a fascination with things that were happening that are alternative art histories to the New York dominant narrative. There’s something very genuine about that.”
She says that it was in the 1980s that Rohrer began making very subtle [Color Field style] paintings, variations on the same color, leaving the outside edges exposed.
Nelson’s Color Fields currently are represented in New York at the Wally Findlay Gallery, where an exhibit of dozens of Nelson’s later works, dating from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, just closed.
Wally Findlay is the second-oldest art gallery in America, established in 1870, with locations in New York, Palm Beach, Los Angeles and Barcelona. City Paper visited the New York gallery and spoke to James Borynack, chairman and CEO of Wally Findlay, and his daughter, Stephanie Borynack Clark, vice president and international director. Wally Findlay has an exclusivity on Nelson’s estate.
Borynack says he saw Nelson’s work some years ago in Hunter’s book, and reached out to Byrne to look at the works up close.
“I went through the inventory, and I thought, ‘Oh my, God, these are really fabulous,’” Borynack says.
The gallery has mounted what Borynack says are “several very successful” Nelson shows in New York and Palm Beach.
What sets Nelson’s work apart?
“I think the play of the dashes,” Borynack says, referring to the very obvious heavy strokes of colors in Nelson’s later Color Fields. “Much more than anyone else. The other Color Fields are handled in washes, handled in squares, Ellsworth Kelly with his blocks.”
As to whether Nelson, as Byrne attests, came “first” in Color Field, Borynack says, that while Nelson’s been very successful, “I don’t know if you can give him that much credit.”
But what makes for an artist’s success in New York, but not so much in Philadelphia, where his Color Fields aren’t on display?
“They don’t know anything about him,” Borynack says of Philadelphia galleries. “He wasn’t out there. You have to know people at the top. It’s who you know, at any museum, or, how big is your donation.”
That doesn’t mean, though, that Nelson’s work isn’t indeed worthy of gallery exhibition in New York and Philly, Borynack and Clark say. They also take Hunter’s scholarship very seriously.
Championing Nelson has made Byrne some enemies, Byrne admits.
“I’m sure he has,” Borynack says. “You’re dealing with a personality here. If you have someone knocking on your door — or, kicking on your door — you’re not going to bend favorably to him.”
Despite the anger, the bitterness and the Facebook messages, Byrne says what’s important to him is championing Nelson.
“I’m not trying to piss anybody off,” he says. “I’m just standing up for my artist.”
Mark Moskowitz, a local filmmaker and director, was there when PMA curators Rosenberg and Taylor visited the Nelson works. Moskowitz got in touch with Byrne around the time that Hunter’s book on Nelson was published.
He is making a documentary about “how art changes people” and Byrne and his Nelson pursuits are part of the narrative. The film, Art Stops Here, is still at least a year away from being complete, he says.
“I’m interested in why does someone hang a painting on their wall? Or why does somebody buy an entire collection of an artist’s estate, and then spend the rest of their life trying to get people to buy?” Moskowitz says.
Years ago, when a Bucks County gallery exhibited Nelson’s work, Moskowitz sent a small film crew to check it out. He was working on a series of films for PBS, including one focused on art. When his crew reported back with positive reviews, Moskowitz says he ended up learning more about Nelson, and how Byrne fit into the story.
“There’s a thousand people he [Byrne] could have gone and championed, but this guy [Nelson] touched him, and touched him enough that he’s helped push it [Nelson’s art] to some sort of acceptance. What makes that happen?”
Moskowitz isn’t interested in Byrne’s “conspiracy” theory. He said he’s more concerned with why Byrne cares so much about having Nelson’s Color Fields in every major gallery in Philadelphia, or at least recognized as an influence in other artist’s works.
Asked if he made a good investment in buying the Nelson collection, Byrne said: “It’s been a very successful situation for the investors. But for me, as an investor as well, I’m more about the art. I’m more about the artist. I think it’s appalling that he hasn’t gotten acknowledgement the way he should in Philadelphia.”
But Moskowitz wonders why Byrne isn’t satisfied with the broader acceptance of Nelson his advocacy already has achieved. “Now that Brent has moved the needle [from] no one ever seeing Leonard Nelson to lots of people seeing him, being auctioned at Sotheby’s, having people buy canvases in New York and places for 40, 50 and 60 [thousand] or more, and that people love them and are putting them in their homes, why does he care or not if it’s in a museum? What does that do for him? What authentication will be enough for Brent? When is enough?”
The story, Moskowitz said, is the passion, however manifested, that Byrne, or anyone, has for art.
“It’s always remarkable to see somebody go to bat for somebody like this in the arts, and it’s sort of a good thing, I think, in the long run. He actually has a burning, heartfelt desire for some sort of artistic and academic justice,” Moskowitz says. “How many people have that? It’s a remarkable thing.”
Alma Neas, Nelson’s widow, now lives in Santa Fe. She was Nelson’s student at Moore and they married in 1963. Many of his works, including Alma Noon, Alma Night and Alma’s Garden, were influenced by her, her gardening hobby and their life together in Philadelphia, where Nelson had a large studio and access to more sprawling grounds than could be found in New York City.
Neas, 76, says she doesn’t know why Philadelphia museums don’t own Nelson’s work, but added that the attention on Rohrer, along with Nelson’s reluctance to “play the social scene … kind of closed up deals for Leonard.” She explained that when Marian Locks opened her gallery, which was first in the back of a Chestnut Street card shop, she spoke to Nelson about the space and asked his opinions.
“She obviously valued his thoughts, but never carried his work,” Neas says.
Neas, who left Philadelphia in 2010, has only good things to say about Byrne’s crusade for her late husband’s work.
“I think Leonard would be very happy,” she says. “He always knew he was good. He would be delighted to have a champion.
“I just think it’s a shame that Leonard can’t receive the due respect that he should have.”
In the “Art Brawl” manifesto he sent to City Paper, Byrne urges Philadelphians to continue to lobby for the debut exhibition of Nelson’s Color Fields in Philadelphia.
“One day, we’ll break bread together and remember happily the good fight for recognition,” he writes.
In person, he gets seriously fired up about what he says is an injustice in art history.
“I want to smack those sons of bitches,” he says of the museum administrators who didn’t accept Nelson’s work. “You owe something to the public, OK? It’s about art history. If you’re going to ignore art history, who are you? Who do you represent? Is this all about some club that you all belong to, all the billionaires in Philadelphia, they all figure out, ‘OK, this is who we want, screw the public?’ While you’re taking taxpayer monies?”
Woodmere’s Valerio says the important point is that “the history of art evolves in many different ways. It’s not exclusive. It’s not Murray Dessner and Warren Rohrer as opposed to any other artist, none of us believe in that. It’s not that it’s ‘this or that,’ it’s always ‘both, and.’ That’s the history of art.”