In the strange physics of human lives, time equals mass. The longer you stay in one place, the more remnants of personal connections pile up. For the average person, it might not amount to much, but if art history is your game, treasures lurk.
Houston-based art historian David Brauer fits that bill. Roughly 100 pieces from his half-century compilation comprise a Mobile Museum of Art (MMoA) show running Feb. 7 – Sept. 6 at the showplace in Langan Park. He eschews the collector label.
“I keep saying it was an accumulation, not a collection in the classical sense. They’re works of friends,” Brauer insisted.
Raised in post-World War II London, Brauer studied studio art and art history at Saint Martin’s School of Art in the early 1960s. The period was rich with sounds and sights seminal to London’s resurgence from the Blitz’s bombs.
“If you know artists, you know they would rather do anything than part with money,” Brauer laughed about his bartering compatriots. “I’d say, ‘Fine, I’d rather have the [art] work than the money.’”
Still, his conversation ticks through heady names in his possession: Eugène Delacroix, Francisco Goya, Georges Braque, R.B. Kitaj, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Derek Boshier and Gerald Laing. The latter four are contemporaries.
“It’s a very personal collection. Laing, Kitaj and Finlay are all dead. Derek said he didn’t want to be my best, oldest friend anymore because they keep dying. I said, ‘Rather them than me,’” Brauer chuckled.
One Laing piece — a famed print of sex kitten Brigitte Bardot — became a staple of British pop art and Brauer witnessed its genesis. The pair of young students shared a studio when it was rendered.
“[The print] sold very, very well. In the last four or five years, unfortunately since his death, it’s become a much-reproduced work. In London, you see it everywhere, in posters and T-shirts and what have you. It’s become the British pop art equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn here,” Brauer said.
The art historian headed to the United States in the mid-1970s and became head of the History of Art Department at the Glassell School of Art at The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He also taught at the University of Houston, Rice University and The Women’s Institute of Houston.
Among Brauer’s curated exhibitions was the 2001 exhibition “Pop Art: U.S./U.K. Connections: 1956 – 1966” at Houston’s Menil Collection. That’s where he crossed paths with current MMoA Director Deborah Velders, then head of exhibitions and public programs at the Menil Collection. Her knowledge of Brauer’s “accumulation” inspired the current show and they collaborated on its curation.
“I’ve been a teacher a long time so I don’t have money and can’t buy a real Braque for $3.75 million, but I’ve been a relentless bottom feeder. I go to auctions and read auction catalogs, so when I see something I know is underpriced and I like it, then down I swoop like a vulture,” Brauer said.
The exhibit is divided into geographic cultures: U.K., Asian, American and European. Brauer said many of the Asian works exemplify the caginess of his acquisitions. He once helped a London colleague who owned an Asian gallery with expensive wares.
“The Japanese then put so little value on Japanese prints that they used them as packing material for the good stuff. So sometimes I would keep watch over the shop for him while he ran errands. He’d say, ‘Here take this,’ and give me a handful of Japanese prints, which I kept,” Brauer said.
He saw the Braque in an auction house preview. He wet his finger, cleared a bit from the dirt-obscured image and recognized it. He paid just $200.
Brauer said the internet has devalued his specialized knowledge. The easy access of information for the average buyer makes things harder.
“It used to be known as connoisseurship; you either knew your stuff or you didn’t. You can’t find bargains the way you used to because if anyone has anything, they go online and discover its value,” Brauer said.
But his value lies in the heart anyway.
“I’m not a collector-collector. I don’t have an Andy Warhol. One, because they’re very expensive and two, because I prefer the work of other artists like James Rosenquist and Jim Dine, so it’s really a personal accumulation,” Brauer said. “I used to have a Picasso and I let it go. I used to have a Hockney and I let it go. I didn’t feel I needed them anymore, you know?”
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