Kirsten Hover speaks with Ron Pollard (unpublished)
ARCA, Association for Research into Crimes Against Art.
1. When did you start collecting art? What sent you in the direction of Russian avant-garde?
My brother and I have always been collectors of one thing or another, and our partner Brad Gessner is also a self - described collector. As children, Roger and I collected bottles and glass insulators, and arrowheads that we would find. We learned the ropes of buying, selling, and trading from our collecting friends and visiting flea markets. There was a lot of camaraderie between us and other collectors. It was always a game though, with someone always trying to get the upper hand in a deal. While it was really fun, it could get vicious. I think you have to be a certain kind of person to be a collector, you have to have a little pirate in you and we were little pirates.
During the late 1970s, I had just left high school and was feeling aimless. I attended a community college in Littleton, Colorado and when I took an art history class, I found my passion. I went on to study art history, painting, and photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While there, I worked for the Art History Department as a slide projectionist. During a lecture, a professor showed an image of Malevich’s black square and I intuitively knew that there were ideas in that work that I needed to explore. I’ve been exploring these ideas ever since.
That the work was Russian certainly added a psychological dimension. Growing up, our father was a nuclear bomber pilot who flew in the Strategic Air Command during the height of the Cold War. All of his friends were B-52, B-47, and U2 pilots who all were really nice and humble guys. As a child, it was always a mystery to me as to what kind of threat could turn such people into someone who would drop a nuclear weapon. What menace exactly did the Soviet Union pose? When I saw the wonderful art made by the Russian avant-garde, and learned of its suppression during Soviet rule, it resonated with these childhood memories.
Another element that almost certainly played a role in our compulsion to purchase the artworks from the German sellers was probably rooted in a story our mother would tell us when we were children. Shortly after WWII, our father was flying cargo in the Berlin airlift and our mother was left to her own devices while he was working. She and my father lived in a conscripted house arranged by the US Army that had been used during the war by a former Nazi party member. One day, she discovered a newly patched area in the home’s attic and when she opened it, she found a handgun and a cache of Nazi propaganda books, one of which was inscribed by Hitler. That was one of the stories that Roger and I were told as children! Similarly, growing up we were surrounded by precious items that our mother had acquired on the German Black Market: cigarettes for statuettes. Certainly, these experiences must have made buying these paintings a sort of continuation of a process.
2. You have been concerned about your collection being unauthenticated. This is a very real concern that can have a lasting impact on your collection. You have been making very conscious efforts to remedy this situation. Can you tell me about these efforts?
At one point, we hired an art authentication expert to try to have our paintings considered. That was a strange and transparently duplicitous experience. In her efforts to have the works reviewed by a bona fide Malevich expert, the expert - acting as our representative - ended up meeting the Malevich expert on the bench of the second floor landing of the New York Public Library. Her efforts at authentication consisted of reviewing for 30 minutes in dim light (I have a photo of the meeting area) inkjet images of five works in the style of Malevich. Bizarre.
I don’t think that any of us are overly concerned with the authenticity of the works in the collection. Our assessment is that with the standards dictated by the art market today, very few new discoveries will be allowed to be accepted. In part, I think this is because the current market system – in which art is viewed primarily as a commodity – requires scarcity. With that in mind, we prefer to think of the works more as enigmas. They are so strange, so beautiful that their appearance in our lives is itself the big question: why are they here, how did they get here, who made them?
On a related point, none of us has ever made the claim that any of the paintings are genuine. That is just not something we would do. Nevertheless, almost every person who has personally examined and touched the works – a group that includes conservators, curators and museum directors – believes them to be genuine period pieces or genuine works of the masters of the avant-garde. Adam Lerner, the director of MCA Denver, who wrote the book “From Russia with Doubt” about the collection, has gone on public record stating that he thinks that at least some of the works are by Russian masters. These are his words, not mine.
3. Can you elaborate on what seems “odd” about the history of these works? I realize that they do not have the best provenance (“Russian basements”); what other conditions have made you think they have a fishy background?
Everything is odd about these paintings! That they seemed to be being dumped on EBay for starters. At one point the sellers sent us paintings that we hadn’t even paid for, they just arrived one day: a gift from Aachen. One of the paintings has a hand-carved inscription on the frame that reads “U.S.ARMY”. The surfaces and edges of the paintings are covered with grime from years of storage. There are a variety of stamps on the paintings, some of which correspond to schools or groups of the avant-garde period. One has an inscription that reads “Woman with a Saw” that a hand-writing expert identified as indistinguishable from that of Malevich; despite this, not a single painting has a signature. Many of the paintings have newsprint or pages from magazines, all of which are consistent with the period. Many of the paintings have repairs, appearing to be objects that were maintained rather than loved, presenting as some sort of debris. It’s hard to explain how the paintings scream of a lost past, they just do.
Of course we’ve done a great deal of reading about recent Russian history when the Berlin wall fell and economic shock therapy was imposed. This in turn gave rise to corruption and looting. Apparently, everything that wasn’t nailed down was for sale; for example, there are accounts of millions of religious icons leaving Russia during the mid 1990’s. I don’t know why the same fate wouldn’t also hold true for avant-garde works. I would imagine avant-garde art would have had an even lower status than religious icons, since the historical significance of such works seems to have been unappreciated.
4. You yourself are a photographer. Has your experience as an artist colored the way you view the situation concerning your collection?
That’s a fantastic question.
As a photographer, I’m paid to be a professional observer. I sometimes joke that the only way to keep from getting bored is to approach my work as an anthropologist. My specialty is architecture so one day I may be photographing a mental institution and the next day the home of a wealthy financier. I’m hired to tell visual stories about some aspect of a place, so I always need to talk to the client to gain an understanding of what they wish to convey. It’s all about interpretation.
As you can imagine I’ve photographed all of the paintings extensively. I’ve photographed them using transmitted light, infrared, raking light, you name it; if it’s something I’m able to do with my own equipment I’ve done it. Beyond this, Roger has a physician friend who has taken x-rays of several works with very interesting results.
As far as the Art with a capitol A aspect, I’ve always viewed the collection in its totality as an individual monumental work of art. That’s how Mark Sofield, the architect who designed the 2010 MCA Denver exhibit, envisioned the collection and this vision led to a spectacular display. Currently, we’re having an exhibit of the collection in miniature at a gallery created by Michael Velliquete called Lovey Town in Madison Wisconsin. For the exhibit, I made 181 miniature copies of all of the paintings in our collection. Michael then invited 15 artists to create miniature works reacting to our collection and informed by the ideas explored in the Russian avant-garde movement. This illustrates that in a real sense the paintings still have the ability to perform a social function, to add meaning to our world.
Years ago when I was a graduate student at UCLA, Chris Burden was telling a couple of us students about a collector who had purchased one of his works. The collector told Chris that he, the collector, viewed his collection as his work of art and himself as an artist. I remember how much that angered me. The solitary struggle of making art can’t be purchased by writing a check. Now here I am with this collection, trying to make it art, and maybe after all this is art too.
So, forget the market and all the people who have approached our collection from the market prism. Despite all of the obvious problems that the collection has, in Mark Sofield’s world, in Michael Velliquette’s world, in my world, these orphan works can find a home. They have meaning outside of the market driven perspective that views the collection as at best a headache and years of effort and at worst destabilizing and dangerous.
5. As you are aware, the art market is full of fake works of Russian art. You’ve said that you’ve never claimed that any of your art is authentic, but does it still worry you that one or more of your works could potentially turn up as a forgery or stolen?
I can’t speak to the issues of fakes very well since I haven’t seen enough of what’s out there to know. All I can really speak to are the paintings in our collection. I do know that the narrative gets pretty thin when explanations are given as to who might be forging such beautiful works, leaving them unsigned, and selling them for $800-1000. Accounts from the press and other sources state that works similar to ours were done by refusenik Jews, the KGB, or even Russian mobsters. The question that I have is why would anyone forge these paintings and do this so perfectly that they fool everyone who sees or touches them and then sell them for so little? At least with our collection something just doesn’t compute.
I have always been concerned that the paintings might have a nefarious past. Early on, we went to the FBI who took our situation seriously; however, no evidence of anything illegal was discovered. We also went to the Art Loss Registry, but none of our paintings were reported as missing or stolen. We’ve always been far more concerned with ownership than authenticity. I think the only certainty is that someone is lying. I know it’s not us and I don’t think it’s the art.
6. You’ve mentioned that it seems odd that while Vincent Van Gogh painted 900 works in his life, that Kasimir Malevich only painted 300. As an art historian, I can understand the oddity of this but history tells us differently. Look at Leonardo da Vinci: one of the most renowned artists in the world and he didn’t even complete 100 paintings. Can you expound on what it is that particularly concerns you about this issue
I misspoke when I stated that Malevich only painted 300 oils, the actual number by my count is 262, 35 of which are only known from documentary photographs (this is an approximate number; if you decide to run this, I’ll tighten up the numbers).
Da Vinci seems like a poor comparison. Malevich worked almost exclusively as a painter, whether executing paintings, doing sketches, teaching others, or writing about painting and his methods. Da Vinci, though, was not just a painter but also a sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist, and writer. He also lived 500 years ago. During the ensuing period, how many fires, wars and pillages has Europe experienced that might have consumed a more substantial body of work? I specifically chose Van Gogh because he seemed like an artist with similar passions and urgency as Malevich, a similar focus on painting, and from roughly the same period.