Golden West? Co-Curator Interview

Interview with

Hanna Sawka & Frank Boyer

Co-Curators of Golden West?

Audio Transcript

Coyote Radio Interviewer: What I was reading about the exhibit is that you said you co-curated this together and you’re a relative of the artist, correct?

Hanna: Daughter.

Daughter, perfect. And so I just kind of wanted to get an overall idea of the inspiration of you guys working together and bringing all this art here specifically and kind of just your, you know how it all started.

Hanna: Well, it started with me talking with Frank about that there was a collection here that is in Los Angeles, which belonged to Claire Schulberg, which had been collected by her father Bob, and I said “You know I think that’s a really interesting collection and we should do something with it.” And then Frank was coming out to L. A. and he met with Claire, and I’m gonna pass it over to you.

Frank: Ok, I actually met with Claire’s boyfriend Craig, I contacted him ahead of time and we arranged to go to this storage unit where all the work was stored. And we pulled all the work out and we photographed it. And I was also going to come up and meet with Eva Kirsch, the director of the museum. So I had all these photos of this collection on my computer, and I started to think you know after I met with Claire and we talked a little bit, I knew Jan Sawka for many years and he’d always spoken of his relationship with Bob Schulberg with great admiration for Bob, with great affection for him. So…

Hanna: I think maybe we ought to tell that backstory really quick. My family lived in Poland. I was born in Poland, and my father was an artist, and at that time we were basically by proxy occupied by the Soviet Union. This was the Cold War, we were behind the Iron Curtain, and freedom of expression was not a thing. And actually my father was involved with the opposition and he created art that was critical of the system, that was provocative. And eventually things started to get very difficult for him, and for our family, and we were basically, to make a long story short, we were exiled. And the first stop as exiles was in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou, had just opened, that’s the big kind of factory building in downtown Paris, and my father was invited to be an artist in residence there. He had won an award the year before in the International Festival of Painting in France. So he’d been noticed, he’d been given this great opportunity, and we had a place to go. However the government in France changed in the meantime and also my father started to do well, he started to have some commercial shows outside of his residency, and the government in Poland changed its mind and said ‘We want him deported back.’ And my father got tipped off by somebody at the Pompidou Centre, who said ‘You’re going to be deported within three days. You need to get out of here.’ And a couple years earlier my parents had met Bob while he was traveling in Poland, and my dad had been kind of trotted out by people who were, you know, with the regime, as an example of an artist who represented the freedom of expression. Which, by the way, this was like a game they kind of played. An artist would try to express himself as much as possible. They would not show that work to the Polish public, but they would kind of export it. They would show it to people in the West and say ‘Look! We have freedom of expression, we’re not an oppressive system. So my dad got kind of trotted out before this visitor from the United states, and they made friends, and they became friends and started to correspond in spite of censors actually reading all the letters coming in and out of Poland. And so my dad kind of had this friendship already happening. He didn’t really know who Bob was, we would later learn that he was from kind of a Hollywood establishment family. His cousin was Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter who wrote ‘On the Waterfront.’ His uncle had been one of the top executives at Paramount. But anyway Bob, my dad called Bob and said ‘We’re about to be deported.’ Bob contacted an immigration attorney, who said ‘Just go to the embassy.’ Bob started arranging tickets, ‘Go to the embassy and we’ll see what will happen.’ We didn’t understand what happened, I mean my parents, I was very little. But they were given visas. Years later they would learn that my dad, there had already been press about him. He was making a name for himself in the world. He was on a list of outstanding people who could get an emergency visa, basically, in that kind of situation. So we were able to come to the United States and escape deportation. And Bob was instrumental. The friendship continued, we were cut off from our family and friends. So Bob and his family became kind of a replacement. And Bob for example introduced my dad to L. A. galleries, that’s how his gallery career got going there. And we kind of, well, and I don’t want to go into it too much, as I hope people will actually come to the show, read the wall text--cause we talk about that friendship, and also the selection of artworks and I’m going to pass it off here to Frank. Tell us kind of multiple layers of the story, how my dad also kind of looked at America, looked at California, So, it’s your turn!

Frank: So I came up to San Bernardino and met with Eva and as I was driving up I was thinking, and even the morning before or the night before I drove up, I was talking to Hanna’s mother, and I said you know ‘This show, we can do this great show about the relationship between these two people, this friendship.’ And also a show about the image of America that Jan developed actually in Poland. He did a number of works in Poland or before he even came to America. Like one of the works in the show is called California Dream no. 1, and that was done in 1977. He didn’t arrive in America until 1977 in November. So either that was done very very soon after he arrived, but I think it was done before he arrived.

Hanna: That one was done before. That lady with the car? That was 100% done before.

Frank: So he had developed this image of America, and an image of California, that he started to both invest in, as a dream, something that kind of attracted him, but he also had a very critical sense that that image was created from the materials that were available to him in Poland primarily. Which was propaganda. And anything that was available in Poland was suspect. So you know, these ideas were percolating, and as I came up here I kind of formulated it in the car, came here, spoke to Eva Kirsch, and I pitched the show basically in those terms. There’s this wonderful friendship that has to do with California, and persisted for many years. This collection of work that was developed from that friendship because Bob attended every opening in New York, and in L. A., and Jan would say ‘Pick a piece out of the show.’ And we’d just give Bob a piece. Many of the pieces that were in the collection were dedicated to Bob. ‘Happy birthday, Bob.’

Hanna: You could see them.

Frank: Yes, you could see the dedications on them. And you know, it just seemed like such a complex of ideas around a kind of dual body of work. And that’s how we came up with the idea. I went back to New York, talked it over as I do everything with Hanna and her mother, Hanna Maria and Hanna Sawka, and we wrote the proposal, and it was accepted.

Hanna: And I do want to add that just some kind of magic was happening, it became apparent, because only after the proposal, you know, Eva mentioned, the director of the museum, that she’d seen some of my dad’s works, while she worked at the Silesian Museum in Poland. But you know, we were all like ‘Yeah, of course!’ My dad had actually donated… Well when my dad was exiled, he was told by the Polish government to take everything with him. They were like ‘We don’t want you or any of your art works left in Poland.’ So after 1989 my dad was invited by the new minister of culture, there was a huge exhibition, and my dad gave a donation, it was you know, Poland had no money. It had just been under basically a colonial oppression where it had been drained of everything, right? He gave a big gift of art works. So we knew there were artworks, we didn’t think too much of it. But Director Eva Kirsch got a little curious, like, we're already working on the show and one day she emails me. And she’s like, ‘I found what the works were. I reached out to the museum.’ And they were a set of 6 California Dreams. Different ones from the ones here. But she had seen them years ago, you know, isn’t that weird?

It was perfect, it fell into place, right?

Hanna: It fell in place. She’d already seen it before in her life. And by the way, she’s also from the same city. She was born in the same city as my dad, and also the political circumstances around our families were kind of similar as well. So we didn’t know this though, going into it. We learned about these connections as we headed into it. I do want to talk just about some of the general themes, so, because it was part of how these two people connected, my dad and Bob. My dad saw irony and kind of the dark side sometimes in things, and so did Bob, he was part of actually the media machine in the United States, he was an executive at Columbia Radio, and he was a marketing specialist. So it’s very interesting that actually some of the works that he would pick were kind of critical of all of that. So it’s like he was in it, but he could look at it also with a critical eye. So some of the works talk about things like commodification, objectification of women, these guys with their souvenirs almost being like their main pride of their identity, like these little cheap items, right? There’s a theme of kind of abandonment, because if you’re in a society where everything has to be new and you have to get the newest things, you discard things. Because they very quickly lose their novelty. So there’s a theme also of abandoned things, of abandoned places, it’s like the dark side of this kind of system, right? Of newness, of novelty, of selling. So there are kind of multiple themes in the show, the space. We’ve used the spaces to kind of highlight that. The space we’re sitting in right now, this is more of that commodification theme, and then going in there you go into you know abandonment, and deep spaces, empty spaces kind of being symbolic of course of the emptiness inside, right? But it’s also—I’m kind of talking about the dark side—it’s a very bright and colorful show as well, and there’s a sense of humor in it. And even when my dad is talking about kind of like dark things, he was a very optimistic person, so that also always comes through, and I think there’s also kind of a lot of fun. Like these guys are fun. They’re ridiculous! [laughs] I love these guys.

Frank: There’s also a true empathy for people. Even these guys, you know? It’s how… what does it mean if for these people these cheap souvenirs are the brightest part of their personalities? I mean, how does that affect them? Because it’s not just, he’s not criticising the people so much as the mentality. And there’s a sense of empathy for human beings caught in a system that has all these sort of undersides and undertones to it. You know, people get pulled under. And objects get discarded, and people get discarded. Again, and it’s not… he’s not doctrinaire about it. He’s not didactic about it. It’s all on the level of feeling and empathy. And you can see it if you look at the pieces and ask some questions about them, or really spend some time with them. Like the painting of the woman behind us, if you look at it, it reads very quite--this is a woman pushing forty. And if you look at her, it reads very directly. There’s the woman, you see her--but if you look closely, she starts to disintegrate. And then half of the painting is this blank space. And you wonder, ‘Well is that blank space in a sense a metaphor for how she feels?’

Hanna: Yeah, if she’s just been reduced to, ‘You need to be young all the time.’

Frank: If you need to be young all the time, where are you? There’s a[15]  kind of anxiety that’s presented and expressed in the piece...

Hanna: And it’s well known that commercials feed off that anxiety, right? Marketing stuff to make you look young or pretty all the time. But my dad was very concerned about ‘Well what’s going on with this anxiety?’ And you know, what’s happened to people’s souls and how they feel about themselves.

Alfredo: That gives me an impression of the past, and what’s behind her? Where did she come from? Where is she going? She’s disintegrating into the past.

Frank: Well yeah, a lot of his work has an element of a kind of phenomenological examination of consciousness and memory. In fact we’ve mounted a completely separate show, which is opening in less than a week in New York, in upstate New York, that explores just that. So yeah, it’s ‘How is the past present in her consciousness?’ In this person’s consciousness, on the path through life? You know, so he’s… and he really wants you to empathize and speculate. You know, what does it feel like to be this person?

Alfredo: At the same time, what you said earlier about the brightness, the colors, the accessibility, it’s pleasing to look at.

Frank: Yes.

Hanna: Yeah, it’s not a show that… I mean, you’ll think about important things. Or maybe not, you don’t even have to! [laughs] You can enjoy it without getting into it. But I think that if you spend some time with them, you know, you’ll think about these things but you’ll enjoy it too. There really is, there tends to be… still, always this spirit of even fun, I would say. You know? It’s like, yeah, here is what we’re dealing with. But we can still smile about it, and maybe get a little distance to these things before they eat us up, right? And he in general had kind of a joy in exploring the world, people, being with people, and observing them. And I think that kind of comes across. So it never, it’s not a show that’s going to kind of leave you feeling depressed. I think my dad tends to uplift in his work. And I really like that, because I don’t think we should, you know, we don’t need to get down. Yes, these things are happening, but life is so wonderful. And yeah these guys are into their souvenirs, but their lives will go on and they have other things happening, you know? So. They’re kind of like the lady, California Dream no. 1, who has it turns out, she’s so voluptuous! She’s kind of outrageous, it’s a work about commodification right there. And then you realize, her legs are cut off at the shin. And she’s actually made of plaster, she’s kind of fake. It’s a big joke, really. I love the outrageousness of her. She’s got like unbelievable makeup. You see this lipstick, her nails are really painted, and that’s fun too. It’s kind of outrageous, it’s very big. It’s like, ‘Boom!’ There she is. And then, ‘wait, what’s going on? Oh, she’s made of plaster.’ Right? So, that’s definitely, I think… there’s a light-heartedness in there. At the same time of course, that’s not a good thing. Sex shouldn’t be selling things in the first place, it’s sacred, right? And women shouldn’t be reduced down to these things. My dad was a pretty awesome feminist. [laughs] I enjoy seeing that, and the work, it was how he saw things. And he was the dad-over-daughter, you know.

Well I can’t wait to definitely look for the themes in the show, hearing you talk about it like that. I did want to ask, is this the first time this show has been put on? Is this the first time the collection is coming together?

Hanna: Yes.

Frank: This particular kind of framing of the two bodies of work and bringing them together to make one show, yes, this is the first time. A lot of these works were shown before, actually in L. A., but this is the first time it’s shown in this way in a museum.

Hanna: Yeah they were shown in the Joan Ankrum Gallery actually, mainly. That was my dad’s gallery for some years and a really, really great gallery where he was allowed to be creative and experiment. So it’s really cool to think, ‘Wow, these works were in L. A.’ For example the three guys we’re looking at here, there were once four, one sold. One lives maybe somewhere still in L. A., you know? So these came from our studio, for example, in High Falls. It’s very, there’s a fun kind of aspect for us, like ‘Hey, the works are going back to California!’ [laughs] You know? And it’s very exciting to put this, you know, for this to come together this way. And for people to be able to enjoy it kind of as a bigger story. It’s very exciting.

And are these for sale or are you planning to move the show, you know, across the country…

Hanna: We’re hoping to tour it, yeah. I mean this is a noncommercial show, this is a museum show. But we really would like to tour it, we think more people should see it. Because, yes, there’s a strong tie to California, but what is being represented, that part of California, is part of everyone in the United States. These issues are pertinent, really, you could even say all over the world, by this time. California was kind of where a lot of this was being pushed forward and developed, right, the center of this media machine. But I think all of these issues are really pertinent. There are teenage girls everywhere struggling with their body image, right? It’s pertinent everywhere. And we’re all now struggling with like all these plastics, and buying too much stuff and clutter, right? So the theme of things just getting abandoned… it’s pertinent everywhere. I mean you hear about beaches clogged with plastic all over the world. So they’re definitely rooted in California and there’s this very strong connection that these are global issues.

That was going to be one of my questions, was, I realize the art was made a long time ago. But do you still see that theme of California Dream now? Would you say that this art still relates to what’s going on now? I mean you kind of answered it, but that was really one thing that I wanted to ask you guys about, was, okay you put this collection together, but is it still relevant now? Are people going to be able to come here and think that, “Oh, that’s happening to me. I feel that way.”

Hanna: I mean, unfortunately, I think some of it…

Frank: Unfortunately, yes.

Hanna: I think he was very good at sensing things, often before people really started talking about them. For example, you know, as far as women are concerned, the ‘MeToo’ era is now upon us, and we’re really talking about these issues more now. So I actually think that perhaps when they were shown, years ago, someone like Bob got it, because he was in it. But people might have even missed, really, what it was about. Now I actually think people would get it more now. That’s not necessarily a happy thing, because we are struggling with these issues much more openly now, and they’ve gotten worse in a sense. And they’re more out in the open. So, not always for good reasons, you know. I feel it’s been relevant for a long time, but now the urgency is really upon us.

Frank: And we still have a lot of work to do. Again, his artwork comes from a real penetration to, and high level thinking about, what he’s experiencing in the world. And you know, Ezra Pound once said ‘Great literature is news that stays news.’ And the same can be said of great art. And I think people would see that here as well, it’s still absolutely relevant. You know, we have to do our part in keeping it relevant by really looking at the work, and really thinking about it. Another source of praise here with the work is that he was a consummate artist, consummate colorist. And he drew incredibly well. And what he does is in the way that he does the pieces, he also reveals the themes, and the thoughts of the pieces. Nothing is done without really a lot of thought. This doesn’t mean he worked slowly, he worked very quickly. He’s just always thinking about what things meant and how he felt about them particularly. And how we could make meaning out of them, and how he could engage our feelings through the pieces.

So would you say that, you were saying that there was very clear themes in each piece, but it’s still very open to interpretation then?

Frank: Oh yeah. I mean, it’s clear… but subtle, and it also… you know, there are layers and layers and layers of meaning in these pieces. There’s a lot to sort of reveal, and I think that that will be unique for every person who comes to them. And you know, I feel particularly from having known him for many years, that he was completely aware of that, and he really wanted it. This art is made for you, it’s not about his sort of arrogant self-expression at all. It’s a real transaction between the viewer and the art and the artist.

That’s really great! Thank you for taking the time to explain that. Did you have anything you wanted to ask?

Alfredo: No, I think we talked about it. We talked about how beautiful and how colorful and how accessible it is, it’s deep. It’s thoughtful. But it’s also… appealing.

Frank: It’s appealing and it reads immediately. And then as you’re attracted to it and as you really continue to look at it, the message just keeps unfolding. The work keeps unfolding for you. Both as essential experience and as intellectual and emotional experience.

Yeah I think learning the background of where your family came from and the struggles also, puts a deeper meaning on this. Because I did read from the website his biography, and I saw about that. So yeah, thank you for taking the time to explain it. But I’m glad you did, because I was going to ask about the background, but you explained it perfectly. I was able to understand it. But I think that gives the viewer a deeper meaning of all the struggles, and how he’s able to express himself.

Hanna: And again unfortunately these struggles are relevant. We were refugees, and I don’t think I even have to expand on how that is relevant still today. And it was a really close call for my family. And how many talented people are out there right now, who may be lost? Who will never write the book, or paint a picture, possibly because no one reached out. So, you know, we definitely… I always like to remind people I’m a first generation immigrant. This was part of our experience. And definitely I think I like people to know that, and think about that as well.

Alfredo: And it sounds like you’re very grateful for having that experience, positive experience. Or the...

Hanna: Do you mean in the broader sense…

Alfredo: In the broader sense of the opportunities that were given, as compared to some people who would never get the chance or who don’t get that break…

Hanna: Oh I’m very grateful, I’m very grateful. In that gratitude though I worry about others very much. I think about it a lot.

Alfredo: And this is a good place for it because a lot of our students here are also first generation. Some may even be refugees. You know, so.

Hanna: You know, I just wanted to express my solidarity and my hope for all of you, if you’re listening. [laughs]

Frank: My family has been here since the 1600s on both sides, and they were refugees too. So. On one side of the family is French Huguenots, who were forced out of France from religious persecution. And the other side of the family, they were south German Pietists, who were forced out because of religious persecution during the Thirty Years’ War. So… there you go.

Hanna: Unfortunately these themes continue, so let’s be kind!

Frank: There’s a tradition in America of welcoming the stranger. And there are other traditions in America that may not be, I may not feel quite so positive about, but I think we can continue that one. I’d like us to keep welcoming people to this country, because I think that’s what makes the country great.

Thank you so much for meeting with us!

Hanna: We’re gonna start a revolution, we’d better stop now!

[Laughter]

Alfredo: That’s what art is all about, you know, it’s revolution through art.