Kim Smith Interview
Transcript of July 7, 2015 President Thomas J. Haas Interview
By Mary Isca Pirkola
You were recognized and highly praised by George Gordon and also in Jim Straub’s Alten Catalogue Raisonné for your depth of knowledge about and passion for the work of Mathias Alten. Currently you’re owner and director of Perception Gallery (established in 1989 at 7 Ionia, moved in 2012 to 210 Fulton). How did you get started?
My wife and I moved to Grand Rapids in late August, 1975 and I started working for an antique shop because when I lived up north, near Mt. Pleasant, I had started to buy and try to sell antique furniture and refinish it. I learned a lot and made no money. So in Grand Rapids I was worked at Imagination, doing pretty much the same thing, stripping and refinishing furniture and minding the shop because the owner had a second career; he played guitar in a rock and roll band and had late nights.
One day, in March 1976, he comes in and tells me about a job he didn’t want to do, stripping and refinishing the front panels and door on a piece of furniture for a gentleman who owns a gallery. I asked what he’d pay, and he said $35, and I said I’d do it. So he takes me over and introduces me to Frank Vander Mark, then owner of Hefner Galleries. They were moving from a downtown location where they started in 1913, and moving to Eastown. So I met Frank and did the job. Then he asks if I would like to put a finish on the door. Sure, what do you pay? $35. Okay, I’ll be back tomorrow. So I did that and he asked if I wanted to work for him. I asked what he’d pay - $3 an hour cash. Now you got to remember this was 1976. I said okay, because I thought it was an unusual situation. He didn’t seem to mind long hair and facial hair, as he also had long hair and facial hair. So I started and worked 60 hours a week for him. Started with say, general construction work and painting and helping him get the new place ready, then moving and organizing the new space – and I quickly realized that Frank was not a very organized type, but it offered me my entre into the business. So because they dealt with antiques, the also dealt with frames, paintings. Really it was a great initiation.
How did you get started learning about Mathias Alten?
One of my first jobs after we had done all the moving from 52 Market and setting up at 1440 Wealthy St. – well the Alten family had come to him in about 1964 and asked essentially if he would take the bulk of the Alten estate on consignment. I don’t know all of the details of that, but records show that this is when he started selling more Alten paintings. I believe what happened was that upon – there were three Alten daughters, his only children. In his (Alten) 2 wife’s will (she outlived the artist) she knew that one of her daughters was likely to put up a stink about something. That was the eldest daughter, Eleanor, Anita’s mother. In her will, which I have a copy of, stipulates that the estate be divided equally between the three daughters, unless Eleanor has an objection, then she is cut out completely. Mrs. Alten died in 1946.
Somewhere in the late ‘40s or so, Camelia, the second daughter, opens up a little gallery on Fulton St. and sells Alten paintings. Apparently she had some success, I really don’t know, I just heard this later from people who told me they went there and purchased paintings from her. 6:15 Her husband becomes ill five years later or so and they go to Florida so she closes the gallery. And then I think the paintings kind of languished until the time in the mid-‘60s when they contacted Hefner’s to see if he’d be interested in taking them on consignment. I would say the majority of those paintings were from Camelia and Viola, the third daughter.
So, enter me onto this scene. Right about this time, a gentleman named Kenneth Bergsma decides that he is going to open a gallery and starts talking to Frank, who told him that he ought to have paintings by Mathias Alten. So he ends up selling him one hundred paintings out of the estate. So one of my first jobs was to inventory them. Of course back then I knew nothing about Mathias Alten. I wish I had the opportunity today to look at those same one hundred paintings, because I would certainly be looking at them with different eyes, but that was it. I typed up lists and then the paintings were sold, I believe 100 paintings for $15,000 which – any of us would like that deal today, and then the other paintings were returned to the owners and so I had to inventory those. So that was kind of my beginning with the Altens. There were the three Gs: Gilleo, Gatzweiler and Gregory, which I thought were all daughters of Alten, but subsequently learned that Gloria (Gregory) is a granddaughter, Anita (Gilleo) is a granddaughter, and started to get the layout of the family. But at that point in time, all three of the Alten daughters (Eleanore Gilleo, Camelia Demmon, and Viola Gatzweiler) were still living.
At Hefner’s, that’s what we did for the most part. We did have some contemporary artwork, but a great deal of it was aimed at selling historic goods, so Alten fit right into that.
So did Bergsma become the gallery for Altens, or did Hefner’s retain that?
A-I would say it was about fifty-fifty. Ken actually put up an exhibition and published a minor – about 20-page – catalogue. That would have been in 1978 or 79.
A note in archives mentions a show…at Hefner’s in 1973.
Vander Mark had a tendency to recycle shows, so he could have had a show in 1968 and 1973. That would have preceded me. When I came there we did a couple shows, but 70-80 percent of the business was framing and restoration work. Art sales and art exhibitions were not necessarily his specialty. We did have a couple of exhibitions on Reynold Weidennar, because we were actually at that time the repository for all of his works.
Your Relationship with George Gordon
Describe your first encounter with George and your impressions.
I first met George and Barbara when he brought in a painting to be restored, done by I believe a Chicago artist, of his mother holding him when he was a baby. Vander Mark was working with him and that was early on, maybe 1977, when my position was mostly as a gofer. So come meet these people and wrap up this painting. So, yeah, it was a casual meeting. George stopped in once in a while and looked around Hefner’s. I think in 1980, maybe, he purchased an Alten painting, I think of three teams of horses in a field. Then maybe three years later he bought what I’d say was a major Alten painting, a Cabañal scene, say 30-by-40 inches, very nice. But within about two or three years he became interested in Armon Merizon and had me sell the Altens. The thing I’ve tried to do is get people their money back, or their money back and a profit. So the good news for George, he got his money back and a profit. So hopefully that helped our relationship.
So one day he asked if I wanted to go to lunch with him – which I did. This is an interesting – probably our first real discussion. We went up to a place used to be nearby, the Eastown Deli. So he goes, “Let me ask you a question, on a scale of 1-10, how much do you think you know about art?” I said, “You know what? You answer that question first.” He said, “Well, I’ve read quite a bit and looked around quite a bit, I think I’m a good solid four.” And I said “Mr. Gordon, if I spend thirty or forty years in the business, sixty hours a week, doing nothing but being engaged in researching and dealing with art, I’ll be a good solid two.” He kind of looks at me and says, “You’re kidding me.” I said, “You have no idea how broad the field of art is. There will parts of art and artists we will never know.” That was the end of that discussion. We had many others, but I think that first one was a surprise to him. George is bright man, well read, even today. He calls me about every Tuesday. We even talk about the oil business.
When he was asking you about your knowledge of art, was he looking for a mentor of sorts? George mentioned to me that he learned a lot about art from Merizon.
I believe that is true. George by this point had met Merizon, who looked at art through his own eyes – which of course is what we all do. At some point in there, I think 1983-4, Merizon’s contract ends with the Bergsma Gallery, which is where he had been selling his work. There’s a 4 documentary that’s been made on Merizon when he was in his early to mid-eighties, and when you watch it, you would think this would be a great opportunity for a man who’s had a long career, doing pretty much what he wanted. He married a woman who should be a saint because she put up with him. Umm, but he doesn’t wax nostalgic. Unfortunately, a lot of it is him saying, “You know I went door-to-door when I was fifteen, selling paintings for a dollar each, and then when I sell paintings to these other people, they’d always want to negotiate me down.” The family to this day kind of continues that saga, umm, and I’ve told them, “Now look, your Dad took a painting to a client and asked for two hundred bucks, they offered him one hundred and he took it. He could have refused it. That’s kinda how this business works. If you let somebody know that you will take fifty percent of what you ask, you can set a dangerous precedent.” So he did, and Grand Rapids has never been a hot bed of art collectors in the beginning, so when his contract ended, the good news is his paintings were getting about a thousand dollars, but of course Bergsma was getting fifty percent, so again Merizon feels jilted. So George and Merizon strike an agreement that George will buy his paintings, I think their agreement was for five years. George had first pick of everything Merizon painted. If he turned it down, Merizon could sell it wherever he wanted. Then George would turn around and bring them to us. By then I was managing director of Hefner’s, and we would reframe them in good quality frames. I think George had a couple of exhibitions in his office and would sell things to a few clients. I think he signed up for something like $50,000 in ads in major art trade magazines then, which George footed the bill for, with contact information for buyers interested in his Merizon paintings. George also hired a writer. I think he put $50,000 into a book that was never completed. I read some of the book – I think it was a good thing it was never published. All of this was strictly for his collection of Merizons.
What can you tell us about George’s early “exhibits” and “auctions” in his GR office “gallery”?
George had an office in the Trust Building in Grand Rapids, for about forty years. Actually that was one of the greatest things I liked about him is that the first time I sold him that Alten – this was a deal I was doing outside the gallery, because I had bought the painting myself in Chicago, found it. This was the time when Frank Vander Mark no longer owned the gallery and I was not happy with the new ownership. But I had a family to support, so I advertised myself and bought and sold things independently. - So I had taken this Alten painting to George’s office and knocked on the door and he answers it. It’s not a big office, no secretary, no one else at all. He answers the phone himself, or has an answering machine on. We walk into another space in another room, the only thing there are file cabinets with all the leases he’s got. And he can find a lease from any time period. So then he decided, when he had this collection of Merizons that he’d lease the office adjacent to his and use it just as his gallery. He’d send out little invitations 5 for shows and invite people up. Got a little bit of press coverage. Yeah, he was very devoted to Armon.
When did George make the switch from Merizons to Altens?
Well he would actually come to exhibitions we were now having at Hefner’s. When Lon Barr purchased Hefner’s in 1982, his thing was, he was going to show us how a gallery really should be run. So then we started having a lot of openings and got a lot of people to come. George was one of those that would come and actually purchase paintings. It could be a couple of Alten paintings. In fact, wherever “North Park” is (A Bayou at North Park), he bought that at one. We used it on the cover of the invitation. He bought a couple other works by a couple other artists, but was still mostly devoted to Merizon. When their contract ended, I believe they entered into another five-year contract. Somewhere during that time George found out that Merizon was not offering him first chance at some of his paintings. Here and there he was selling paintings essentially behind George’s back. And George, if he’s anything, is straight forward and honest. So for George, that was the end of that. He of course still had quite an inventory of Merizon paintings, but he was not obligated to buy another one ever, and he didn’t. This is just about the time I opened Perception in 1989. Here and there he started to buy again a couple of paintings that intrigued him by Alten or other Grand Rapids artists. It just kind of gained steam, in part because there were certainly more Alten paintings available in the market than any of the other GR artists. And George, like most people, is his own curator. Just because I’d suggest a painting, didn’t mean he was going to buy it. We’ve had conversations where he’d ask me, “Remember that Alten painting – why didn’t I buy it?” I said, “Well, because you are your own curator.” And he’d say, “So why didn’t I buy it?” 22:35 [laughs] He still thinks about some of them that got away.
Can you describe George’s thrill of the hunt vs. acquisition vs. sharing?
I think that George has always been interested in sharing, even beyond art. He’s an avid reader. A lot of our discussions don’t ever get to art. He and I read a lot of history and share that. I think when he had his gallery up in the Trust Building, it shifted little by little from being just Merizons, to being artists of Grand Rapids. A certain amount of these were of course by Alten. He’d have people up all the time. He’d talk about them and answer any questions.
So for the GRAM 1998 Alten retrospective, discussions got underway by about 1995-6. A committee was assembled; I was on it along with Jim Straub. At that point Judith Sobel was director of GRAM, and had just turned in her resignation. Her attitude toward the exhibition was, go ahead and have it. There was a woman on the Board, Anita Carter, who was very active and I think she had gotten tired of me complaining that the Art Museum did little to galvanize 6 community support. They wanted to do something for community support that would bring people in and I suggested Alten as a great starting point. And so she, I think on her own, went ahead and asked David Frey if NBD would be interested in sponsoring something like that. And he came back after some time to say they’d put up $185,000. So now the exhibition was underway. At this time Jane Connell was the curator and we met monthly, at this point to gather information and photographs. And George of course, had one of the larger groups of things Alten, so she went up to his gallery to look at them.
Then Celeste Adams was hired as the new GRAM director, Jane, I think knew her days were numbered, and they were. And then Celeste went up to George’s gallery and, as he told me later, the first thing she did was say, “Oh, you’ve got these hung all wrong,” and she took paintings off the wall and was re-hanging things. He’s standing back, thinking this is pretty interesting. Then she tells him that he has four good paintings, which was her way of telling him you have 34 that aren’t good, not understanding how that would work. Not that George, I think, had any idea that he was giving his collection away to anyone. He was still having fun with it. But I think that might have cemented in his mind, “I don’t think I want to give them to the Art Museum, because what do they care about them?” Although he did, for the retrospective, end up giving them a very nice Alten self-portrait, which they still have.
Then, I think, the whole Grand Valley scene kind of came out of nowhere. George had gone down to Florida. He said Barbara wasn’t a big fan of the picnic scene (Picnic at Macatawa). I had a gentleman who had seen it and actually was ready to pay a world’s record for it. So when George got back, I thought, “This is going to be a great thing. We’re going to sell it for $100,000, this guy’s going to be happy, George is going to be elated, and I’m going to make real money. George gets back and says, “Oh, by the way, I gave my paintings to Grand Valley.” So I said, “Oh, well, isn’t that nice.”
I had heard that that was one of Barbara’s favorites.
It actually kinda flipped back around. And I don’t know – it was George who related the information. And after the gift was made I think she said, “Well, I don’t know that I wanted to give that one.” Of course George had – he has a way of making deals and then letting Barbara know after the fact.
What else do you know of the story of how George decided to gift Altens to GVSU?
During the discussion when he told me about his giving Altens to Grand Valley he explained that (GV President) Don Lubbers was building this new part of campus in downtown Grand Rapids. They are putting up this building that will have a room dedicated to this 7 collection. I think that’s what really appealed to him. So, and of course, there are various stories that went around about how George was introduced to Don, because I don’t think they had ever met, except perhaps casually. But, so they set them up in a golf foursome and put George and Don in the same cart. The way George tells it, I think it was by the second whole he’s thinking, well I’ll give my collection to Grand Valley. After they played, Don opened a bottle of scotch, he said it was a good bottle of scotch. After that, he was definitely getting those paintings.
I had heard that it was someone else that actually played golf with George and then introduced him to President Lubbers.
Well it might have been Bernie Young, who introduced them and set it up. Bernie and Betty Young are friends of the Gordons. I believe they may have a connection to Grand Valley. I really don’t know enough of the particulars. I just knew they were on their way to this first room at Grand Valley. They were hung kind of salon style and I think George was very happy – for a few moments, by which I mean a few years. He realized some of the paintings were hung too high to really be able to see them well. Then the decision was made to build on another gallery. I’m not sure of the particulars about that, but I think George was instrumental, by giving some money and guess what? – We still need to buy paintings. And I think this may have been instrumental in the expansion; that he continued to buy paintings because there is a place they can go.
By the time the paintings were here, I think George started to look at the Alten paintings in terms of the totality of his career. What should it be that we have there? Do we need to duplicate some of the subject matter? Are there paintings that would suddenly start to flush out the collection more – to continue to tell the Alten story? So then that became sort of my marching orders. These were the things I’d be calling George about. Now interestingly enough, he himself had already done some of that. But some of those paintings, like Tarpon Springs over here, were not his favorites, but he understands that it needs to be part of the complete collection.
What were/are some of his favorites?
I believe his favorites are the Michigan landscapes. “Misty Morn” (actual title is Morning Mist) which was done in 1908, which he bought, I’m going to say back in the early to mid-‘90s. That just somehow hit him. And actually, I don’t know if you’ve been to his house, it’s not a large house. But he and Barbara have chairs, and I think they sit in them every night with a cocktail and they’re looking down at six to eight paintings, one of them is “Misty Morning,” (actual title is Morning Mist) he even had gallery lighting installed. “Gosh,” he’d come in and tell 8 me, “I was looking at that painting last night...” so now he is able to do what you do when collecting, which is the opportunity to study your paintings all the time and really look at them. He understood too, when he looked around the gallery, that not all of the paintings are as strong as others. So we don’t necessarily have to have all of those paintings, but rather the best, and how often do the best come up? And just as soon as he says, “I think I’m done,” I don’t ever believe it. Jim Straub will tell me that he thinks George is done and then the next week George comes by and says, “Gosh, that’s an interesting painting.”
This whole book thing started – with Eerdmans, who wanted to do books on major artists of Grand Rapids: Alten, Wydinaar and Merizon. Someone who knew about Jim Straub’s Catalog Raisonné said, why don’t you publish that? And well, it was just too bulky, with so many images, it is really better for an online presentation. So Jim had gotten invited to this meeting and it was discussed about doing something with the Gordon Gallery collection. George was in Florida at this time. But he got all excited about it. Then when Jim talked to him about it, George said he wasn’t really interested. So when Jim comes to tell me that I say, “Jim, you went about it out of context. You only bring things like this up when you know the answer is going to be yes, and you have to lay the ground work for all of this.” “Oh.”
So how long did it take before the whole idea presented? Henry tells George about it and he says, “Okay, let’s do it.”
How has the value and recognition of Alten works grown over time, and what have George, yourself and others contributed, directly or indirectly, to the artist’s legacy?
I think the way that most people think that an artist has hit their stride is prices. So when prices get to a certain point, that’s when they draw interest. So when I started at Hefner’s, in 1976, let’s say a 16x20 painting might cost you $125, so by 1982 that could go for $1,500 and today maybe $10,000-$20,000. The thing about Alten, I would say he is mainly going to be collected in West Michigan, which I still don’t quite understand why people throughout the state are not as interested, simply because he did such a wide variety of subject matter and was well known in the Detroit area during his lifetime – just not collected as much.
But I can say that the market in general is changing in general. I have one client under age 60, and one under 50. I wish there was the next generation of collectors, and I’m not even saying Altens, but just people who came in and want to buy something for $200. Does it happen? No. The not so funny joke going around galleries: Is the next generation collecting anything but 9 debt? Not funny, but unfortunately true. So are we seeing the last generation of people like George Gordon? I don’t know yet.
He has certainly been the one client I have seen that has taken real interest, by assembling a collection, and then having the luck of getting together with Don Lubbers and Grand Valley, having this gallery being opened. I think you can see from the events that are held – with a couple hundred people, generally – Do they come to learn more about Alten? I think many do. The one aspect about the art business, of course is the social aspect. I certainly learned firsthand trying to sell contemporary art. You have an opening with five hundred people yet have no sales. You have to sit back and think, hmm, I just spent $6,000 and got nothing in return? Except for everybody saying, wow, when you have another opening, let me know. Then you get to things like this (the Gordon Gallery) and this is not Disneyland, it is for people who have a true interest in art. An interesting thing here is a painting that was just donated by a gentleman from California who was in town one day, looked in the gallery, looked and thought, “I have an Alten painting and this is really where it needs to be.”
Do you see more of that happening in the future?
There are going to be some people like that. It would be great if some of the other institutions around here participated at the same level. The GRAM has, I think, fifty Altens, but they put up 6 or 8. They have their own ideas there, which I’m not really sure about since they have a lot of blank walls.
I think the publication of this book is another thing for people to look to continue to learn about Alten, to add to their library, um, and of course I’ve been pushing on this for a long time as a committee member, is to have some type of traveling exhibit that hit some of the western states. Some of this is, you gotta get out there and kind of I think, bang the drum a little bit to perhaps open people’s eyes. Alten is still…he’ll never be a first tier American painter. As I’ve told George, that train left the station before he really got established as a painter. There were guys that were into the full bloom of their careers before Alten even began to study. And if you whip through auction results, their prices certainly prove that true.
Alten hits more of what we’ll say are the second tier of regional artists, and some of those areas of collecting, the California Impressionists, the eastern Pennsylvania Bucks County artists, the Boston School artists, their prices got to the point that most people can’t afford to buy them. That’s where we’re really lucky with someone like Alten. I mean there are still some of his paintings that come up at $4-5,000. Granted that’s not in everyone’s budget, but it’s more affordable than people who start at $50,000 or $500,000. Most of us will never be in that situation. And you can only hope that galleries like this and the publication bring out a few more collectors, and that really makes a difference. Hey, I can go to an exhibition, but I can walk into my house and see my collection, too. It might not include Alten material, but some type of art that I enjoy looking at.
What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the Alten collection at GVSU?
We could go at this point by point. Some of this you could even look at and say, “Okay, on a scale of 1-10, where does that specific painting hit?” So like with the painting here, the Chrysanthemums, that’s a ten. It’s from a specific time period and specific subject matter, but what also makes it so great is the execution itself and its original period frame all make it a real star.
There are a couple of other still life paintings like that. George has done well I think covering Alten’s three trips to Valencia, so he has paintings from each trip – the fisherman going out, coming in, kind of speaking to the peasants. It gives you a bit of a sense of what was going on over there, that all these people had it tough to make a living. Some of his Dutch paintings are very nice.
There are still some things that we’re looking for, such as something great from his trip to Paris in 1889. He really did not do large paintings, he mainly did small paintings; they come up very seldom. I know where there are two or three. Even though they are small, still they would be a great addition to the collection. But, we’ll see if they ever come on the market. Or there might be something that comes out of left field that we say, “Oh my God, we never knew this existed.” And there are paintings like that. Jim Straub, in the Catalog Raisonné, has titles of paintings out of a show in Boston in 1908, what would that look like? I’d like a great scene of downtown Grand Rapids. You have some nice ones along the riverfront, but there’s one out there of the Wonderly Building, that I believe was exhibited at the National Academy of Design, but we have no idea of where it is today.
By and large, George has done a quite a good job of assembling things. Are there paintings that could add a little nuance? Yes, there are probably some, but other than Paris, I don’t think there’s places he’s missed at this point. I just got in a new painting that I won’t tell him about until he comes back in April. He’ll come by to see what’s new and then ask the price. George is not a negotiator. He’ll ask the price and say yes or no. I know when he bought the Taos painting, he was a little surprised by the price I quoted – had to call some people to come look at it. Initially he said, no, probably not for me. Then a week or so later came back and wrote a check.
Didn’t the reverse also happen, where he bought a painting from someone else, and they called you to check on what was a good price?
That was the self-portrait from the Ken Bergsma Gallery.
How did you first connect with Alten family members?
A-I think probably the first person I met was Gloria Gregory. This was back before I had the family figured out and I thought she was a daughter of Alten. Then I realized she wasn’t old enough, that she was his granddaughter. I’d only been at the Hefner’s for only a short time. I met Charlie and Carmen Quarter – one of the granddaughters you hardly ever see. That happened as I was inventorying all the paintings Mr. Vander Mark was selling to Bergsma, and also those paintings that were being returned to the family. So that was the first time I met him and her, but 20 years passed before I saw them again. That first time, after I showed him the list I typed of the inventory, and I had all the paintings wrapped and brought them out to his car, he turns to me and pulls out a $5 bill and he tries to give it to me. I say “No, that’s okay.” But he says, “You are the most organized thing I’ve seen about this business.” “So okay.”
(Discussion about other grandchildren) There were a total of six: Mathis Alten Gilleo, that was Anita’s brother and I think he was the oldest grandchild. He died, about 1980, he lived out East, so I never had an opportunity to meet him. Anita stopped into the gallery somewhere perhaps 1977-78, I believe that was when she moved back to town. Then I remember my first conversation with her was really at the Alten exhibition opening at Bergsma Gallery, I believe in 1979. She would then sometimes stop by. If you get a letter or postcard that looks like it’s from 1920, you know that Anita sent that to you. Gee, is that a stamp from 1945 that she put on there, with other postage to augment it? Actually I was just sorting through some things. I’ve got all these hand written letters, notes. I love her letters because she’d fill the whole page and then write up the side, then finish on the envelope. She has been probably the person I’ve spoken with the most. She was a little older than her other cousins. Her mother, (Eleanore Gilleo) and brother (Mathias Alten Gilleo) and her lived in the little house behind Alten’s main house, so I believe they just had a little more connection? And she used to go out painting with her grandfather. I believe her memory is fairly sharp.
And at some point I also met Dianne and Mathias Alten Gatzweiler, which would have been the sixth cousin. Actually the first time I met him was at a GV event, because he lived down in Jackson. And I met all three daughters. I think I had the lengthiest conversation with Camelia when she was out at Porter Hills and I’d been out there a couple times to sit and visit with her. She was still a little sensitive about the Vander Mark deal of 100 paintings for $15,000. She thought that was maybe a little less than they should have gone for. She said, “Well my husband was sick and we were in Florida, I just said, go ahead and sell them.” So at this time 12 Vander Mark had sold the business. She had a really nice painting from California. I told her it really needs to be cleaned and put in a new frame. She said, “Well you’re right. I just don’t know if I can afford it.” I said, “You know what? Why don’t we just do it as a kind of thank you to you?” She was very appreciative and enjoyed it for quite some time. I think she was 101 when she died.
Which painting was that?
I think Gloria owns it now, or one of her family. It was just that, I look back and wonder about that whole deal and people wonder if it shouldn’t have been done some other way.
Did you ever talk with any of the grandchildren about the gallery at Grand Valley? Were they happy about it?
Anita is sometimes hard to know if she’s excited, she plays her cards pretty close to the vest. Dianne was very excited. In fact she walked around and noticed “You don’t have a large selfportrait, I think I’m going to give you one. You don’t have a nice late 19th/early 20th century still life. I’m going to get you one. And she did. So that was her excitement. Matt Gatzweiler, we talked about it and I think he thought it was a nice thing – he came to every event that was held. Carmen and her husband I don’t think participate in a lot of those things. They came to the retrospective, in 1998 at GRAM, but that’s really I think the last time I saw them. I believe Gloria is very excited about this because she continues to give things to the archives.
Do you know of contributions by others that have followed, because of theirs?
Well, the one that I’m certainly well aware of is the one that was recently given of the large scene of the Netherlands. There have been other donations of paintings. I’ve actually suggested some of them. Some were probably not going to go to the Gordon Gallery, some portraits. But I knew that Henry (Matthews) likes paintings all over campus and they could be part of the Grand Valley collection.
What about the lunettes from GRAM?
Well those were things that GRAM didn’t want to take with them when they left the Federal Building. I don’t think Kendall, when they took that over, was interested. Everyone thought it would be good to give them to someplace that would display them. That’s one of the things you’ll find, it seems, about a certain portion of museums. A lot of things are in storage – why? My idea is, if you aren’t going to display it, why accept it? There are two main reasons people donate things. One is a tax break, the other is because they want to see it on display and appreciated.
Question's from George Gordon's Interview Kim Might Answer
George Gordon mentioned some backstory about The Slush Scraper saying a man in his building claims his father had “it” in his barn still after all these years. The painting or the slush scraper?
The slush scraper. It works like a planer. Those were used for the most part to dig foundations. When I had that painting, my parents were at the gallery and my dad said he used one in about 1950 to help dig our basement and gave up after eight hours…
What are some of the areas “up north” and elsewhere that George recognizes in Alten paintings? Such as Old Homestead. Was that part of his passion – locating sites?
If you talked to George much about his career, he initially started out with Standard Oil. He studied geology in college. His parents wanted him to be a lawyer, as were most of his family. By the late 1950s was working for Standard in southern IL, and that’s where he met Barbara, she worked in one of the offices. SO they kept sending him to sites and into MI. Loosely, from what I remember of the story, he was discussing with his father that he felt there was a whole opportunity for oil exploration being missed in Michigan. Not a lot of people have taken advantage yet. So they moved to Grand Rapids to begin his own oil exploration. I think he was from north of Chicago or southern Wisconsin originally, hasn’t been mentioned specifically. By the late 1950s when he moves here, he goes up north and talks to all these farmers up north about an oil lease on their land. I’m sure he got to know the landscape up there. I’m sure a lot of it looks the same, whether it was where Alten painted or not. We never came up with evidence that Alten painted near Cadillac or Hart. We know he painted along Lake MI, but that was near Montague area. It is really difficult to pinpoint any area unless it was titled on the back of the painting.
What about Picnic at Macatawa? Did Mathias Alten title that?
Actually that was titled by Eleanor. I bought that painting. I became acquainted with that painting in 1988-9. I got called to Central High School. In a janitor’s closet was the picnic scene and another nice painting of Provincetown by Gerrit Beneker, who was a graduate of Central High School and Helen Moseley, who was also a Grand Rapids artist. They were sitting in their states of disrepair. And the school really wanted to sell them. I think it took about a year and a half for the principal to go through what he needed to do. I’d pitched him a number. Picnic scene, of course was the star. I had it restored and it was part of an exhibit we did in 1991, which is where George first sees it. But Jim Straub, who – when you interview him ask more about Eleanor. He knows a lot about her – used to chauffer her around. So he brought her in to see it and she walks in and says, “Oh yes, that’s me, that was my cousin, a self-portrait of my father, my mother holding my youngest sister, and this was like another aunt. That was at Macatawa.” She was at an age where she still remembered it.
Are there any others that we do know where they were painted?
Well, some we’ll just know the locale.
George Gordon talked about buying an Alten self-portrait from Kenneth Bergsma’s gallery, saying Kenneth called Kim to find out what a good price would be to ask for the portrait. Do you remember that? What year? Were you at Hefner’s then or Perception?
A-This must have been post 1998. I’ll back up a bit. In 1989, an Alten self-portrait came up in, I think a Sotheby’s arcade sale –it’s one of their lesser types of sales. So it was a self-portrait, I believe it was from the Milwaukee Art Museum. Ultimately we found out Alten had donated it to them. It was a smaller portrait, so you can see why Milwaukee might not want to display it or keep it. This was in Dec. 1989. We had just opened our business in November. I kept meaning to bid on it and didn’t and realized I missed the auction. I called and asked how much it went for and found out it didn’t sell. I offered $400 and along with the fee, was able to purchase it. It’s called Self Portrait (Pintor) because of the type of eyeglasses he’s wearing in it. And I thought, oh my God, George is going to love it. I clean it up and put it in a new frame. When he comes in I ask $2,000 for it and George says he’s going to think about it. He turns me down. Five years later, he asks me about it again and I ask $1800. It hasn’t sold, so I’ll take a loss. So when they had the retrospective at GRAM, he decides he’ll donate it to them. Well, now that he’s donated it, he doesn’t have an Alten self-portrait. So he goes to Ken Bergsma’s and there’s a self-portrait there, which is nice enough. Ken calls me up and says he has someone interested in it. I say maybe he can get $4,500. He says he was thinking more like $6,500. I say, well give it a shot. Two days later, in walks George with the self-portrait and he’d paid $6,500 for it.
Can we talk a bit about how George’s taste in Altens changed over the years? He made a comment that some of his new favorites, wouldn’t have appealed to him earlier. He mentioned one that was coming to your gallery that “had rain between the mountains and he’d not done anything like that before.” (House with Stream and Mountains, Taos, 1927)
It’s like a little house in the Taos Mountains, with a little stream and it’s raining. Yes, it surprised the heck out of me. I had two paintings that I thought should be in the collection. One he zeros right in on. The second one he zeroed in on was this one with rain in the mountains in Taos. To me it was out of the blue. What was it he saw? Like you said, his taste has changed. George is a guy that studies nature, different types of climates and weather patterns. His Christmas cards for the past ten years have been nature photographs he has taken. He has enjoyed that. Sometimes he has had some of his photos framed to give to friends who commented on them with admiration. He spent a lot on frames, but that’s George.
Can you talk about what his tastes were early on and how they’ve changed.
His early interests were pretty much the Michigan landscapes. North Park (A Bayou at North Park, 1898) was one that captured his interest early when he got back to collecting Alten. And you can hear George talk about – oh it’s got that standing outcrop that I really like, so you know it’s Michigan. So anything that has any connection to the Michigan landscape he knows and loves were initially his favorites. Then he broadened out a bit getting paintings done in a different locale. Still lifes never appealed to him. He said he didn’t know a good one from a bad one. This one – Chrysanthemums, was one from John Logie, Grand Rapids’ former mayor, that had come down from his family. He knew if it went through me, there’d be my fee. He was trying to help out his family, so he called George directly and told him he ought to come take a look it. George and Barbara had dinner the night before with and Marge and Paul Potter. George swore up and down that he didn’t have any interest in that painting. But George drove over out of courtesy. Jim said, we got inside and looked at that painting and two others. Not five minutes had passed when George says, so what are you thinking? John says, well I was thinking $7,000. So let me write you a check then. But again, that’s George. So he comes to tell, you won’t believe how beautiful that painting is. I think what happened was that his eyes got opened. I truly think it probably was the painting – it’s a very nice painting. But the presentation, the frame and lighting, were also exceptional. I think George felt that he finally understood it and saw the beauty of it.
That goes along with another question I had. Did individual pieces interested him in some way, or did he start with a deliberate idea that Alten was a Michigan artist, or that George wanted a particular subject of paintings, or a particular site where Alten was doing landscapes?
I think it was more initially what appealed to him was the variety of Michigan landscapes in different seasons, which are like scenes we can still see today. That’s why when George goes up to Cadillac he can spot a scene that looks like an Alten painting. When my wife and I pass a farm field full of cows up north, she’ll ask, did Alten paint here? We don’t know, but it was his typical scene, with the little river running through and the cows in the field. Cows are the greatest models because they don’t move very much.
He also talked about horses in paintings upstairs and how he knew the farmer in Ada who had them.
Again, how do you distinguish one brown horse from another? Or a black horse from another. Now there are some, it could be possible that the same horses were used in several paintings. There is one painting of horse and a man that was used on the cover of the GRAM retrospective exhibition. There was a farmer, Plume Locke was his name, and we knew that 16 that was him, because his widow, who was quite a few years younger than him, came into my gallery when I had it and identified him.
She said, “Oh yeah, I remember when Alten came out. And that’s my husband.” And over time we see horses in his paintings that appear similar. His place was going out toward Ada, I believe where Forest Hills Drive and Ada Drive come together. You know, I think that’s fairly reliable material. In this business there’s a fair amount of reality, but even more mythology.
Some family letters in the archives include a note saying that “…the Bergsma brothers are possibly the oldest people living who knew (M.A.) Grandfather.” Did they start/own Bergsma Gallery? Do you know anything of their early relationship to the artist?
Well, that could be who she was speaking about, but they actually came from Colorado and didn’t come here, I think, until about post war, so more mythology than reality. I met a woman who came to my gallery in the early to mid-90s. She was maybe 90 and there with her son. “Oh I heard you had Altens and wanted to come in.” Oh did you know about Alten? “Oh yes, I used to place bridge at their house when I was about 16 or 17 and liked to play bridge at their house. But that was during the war and my father said, ‘you stay away from those Germans,’ so I didn’t go back there anymore.” So there are people. There was a woman who I bought a few paintings from, Anita Malek.
She was the daughter of a gentleman named Ottokar Malek, he was the conductor of the first Grand Rapids Symphony. He’d come to Grand Rapids, oh, I don’t know, about 1913. (Per GRSO online history Ottokar was conductor of a group of musicians who became the Grand Rapids Civic Orchestra in the early 1920s, a forerunner of the GRSO.) Anita told me she was two years old when her parents moved here and they were very good friends with the Altens, based on three things they had in common. They were all from Germany and spoke German. Alten was an amateur musician and liked to play the violin, and Otto was conductor of the symphony. And they loved to play bridge. She said they’d go over once a week and play bridge.
So I go see her place, and I’m sitting there, up near Dean’s Lake where she had about twenty acres and a somewhat rustic cottage she lived in. Anita at this point is on oxygen. She had about four or five paintings. I told her that I’d heard Alten was somewhat of a sickly man. She said, “Oh, no, not at all. He was about your height and had big, thick workingman hands. No, he was a very fit person. I can tell you, when we moved in here, he was painting that door. It was a Sunday. He’s got a white shirt and tie on, a cigar in his mouth and he’s talking the whole time. He paints around all the windows in the door and the door. I remember after he got done, there was no paint on his shirt, none on the floor and none on the glass windows. I looked at him and said, my you are a good painter. And of course she laughed.
And he painted her. I later handled a portrait of her he did when she graduated from high school, when she was 18. (Portrait of Miss Anita Malek, 1932.) Now Anita, I believe, what she 17 shared with me are realistic facts. There was a painting I bought from her of a woman holding a baby with some apple trees and blossoms and the little house, which sits behind Alten’s main house. And she said, “That’s Mrs. Alten holding Anita.” (Bertha Alten Holding Her Granddaughter Anita 1924.) Now in the family there has been some disagreement about this. Both Jim and I say, now look, this is Anita Malek who knew this, who would have been 13 or 14 years old when her parents bought it. So we have to take it as factual.
Well Gloria and I have had disagreements about a couple of things. Or, I’ll put it this way, she’s had disagreements. When I first met her she said that “Grandfather never varnished a painting.” Well I’m not a big believer in absolutes. I tell her to look at a painting, say from 1906, and it has to be cleaned because it has varnish that has yellowed. She’d tell me that some else varnished it later. OK. Well, as we all know, most artists that displayed art anywhere varnished them. But I think she was making that declaration based on the fact that none of the paintings he had left over were varnished. He painted on loose pieces of canvas tacked to a board and stacked to dry. Then, if he was going to sell it, he’d mount it to a board then varnish it. So I think she was aware of a lot of paintings that weren’t varnished and that became he never varnished.
Also in the archives there is an AV script “approved by Anita Gilleo on December 17, 2004” for “Mathias J. Alten – A Personal Portrait” that incudes comments by Kim Smith. Can you comment on it and/or excerpts below?
This was Anita’s. She did make a documentary on Alten. I had been talking for years about making a documentary, because I thought that was really something that could be done. So I started to gather some information on it. Gloria had shared with me this 8mm film that had been made about Alten. It was home movies and I saw only parts of it, but it hit me, this is documentary material, because here he is right in front of his house. But I knew no one that was really involved in film, so I collected some things. Then my sister got remarried and her husband was involved in filmmaking. His field was robotics. He would go to a factory and take film and still photos of the factory and of equipment and put them together to make personal sales pitches. So I tell Anita about this and one week later she comes in and says she’s going to make her own documentary. I say, well we need to work on this. She says, no, I got my own ideas about this, but you can always add to it. I said, that’s not how it’s done, you go big, then cut down. Well then she wanted to borrow things I had collected, like I’d come up with a period postcard of the ship the Altens came over from Europe on. Can I borrow your postcard? Yes. And then of course she had her own ideas. Anita would come down. She hired Cynthia Kaye. Anita’s thing was, you don’t start with a big story, you start with a small story and just keep adding to it. And so I’m sure that’s what that was about.
Can you verify what was said in a script comment? “M.A. closed his last downtown GR studio, located in the Peck Bldg. on the NW corner of Monroe and Division, during the Depression and transformed the family’s den into a home studio. This is where his last self-portrait, ‘Myself at 66,’ was painted.”
There’s no doubt that he used that home studio for several years. But I really don’t know. It was maybe by the mid-20s when he stopped using the downtown studio. There are some 18 window curtains in many still life paintings and some portraits that you can recognize as the home studio. I know when he painted nudes, he didn’t paint them downstairs, but rather on the second floor. The thought there was that he didn’t want anyone walking by and looking in and wondering what was going on in there. I know all those were more into the 30s because as the Depression hit a lot of his business and clientele dried up. It was his wife’s suggestion, why don’t you go back and do some more nudes and still lifes, so he did and that appeared to be a little more of a concentration than it was in the 20s.
Also self-portraits? Another script excerpt says:
“Demand for portraits by M.A. seems to peak in the 1920s as his eldest daughter [Eleanore Gilleo] took on the job of seeking out such commissions.”
It also mentioned that at slower times he went back to self-portraits.
The best source for that is to go back to the Catalogue Raisonné and search self-portraits. The earliest were perhaps 1909, 1910, and 1911. Not a huge amount. By 1921 he did four or five. But I’m thinking by then it might have been more of a winter thing, because, even though there are snow scenes, there are not a tremendous number of them, so I don’t think he liked going out in the snow. I think that is when he did more still lifes and self-portraits and portraits. There are, I think, potentially four or five fairly sizable self-portraits from that time period, ‘34, ‘35, ‘36