Private art collection goes on public display

Perhaps more than any other period in modern history, art exhibitions and events are proliferating rapidly, bolstered by entire networks of professionals and institutions whose influence is growing accordingly. Culture and possibly sports are primary fields for absorbing capital while also creating turnover and, needless to say, exerting power. This is an aspect of the contemporary world that explains why the context in which art is produced has become so decisive in the way it is marketed, produced and perceived, let alone documented in the registers of art history. Art criticism, a country’s cultural politics and museum policies are all part of this context. So are private art collections; Alexandros Iolas or more recently Charles and Maurice Saatchi serve as vivid examples of a collector’s power in establishing an artist’s name, creating entire movements or affecting the dynamics of the art market. It is against this background that the recent decision by Zacharias Portalakis, one of Greece’s biggest art collectors, to open his own exhibition space should be assessed. Owner of a stock brokerage firm, Portalakis has been an important but low-profile member of this country’s art scene whose reputation as a devoted and conscientious art collector has been gradually built up since he began collecting art in the mid-1980s. But besides the two exhibitions that featured part of his collection (the first on Kapralos at the Athens Academy, and the other on Baikas, held at Iraklion last summer), Portalakis has kept his collection away from the public and has been active mainly in sponsoring large-scale exhibitions. As the exclusive sponsor of the retrospective exhibits of Akrithakis, Caniaris, and Stamos, all held at the National Gallery, the retrospective exhibition on Kessanlis at Crete, and that of Sakellion at the Pierides Foundation, he is also known as a collector with a strong commitment to art. Just recently, however, he took his public persona a step further by deciding to open this collection to the public. Inaugurating his new venture is an exhibit on the late abstract expressionist Theodoros Stamos, an artist with whom Portalakis enjoyed a long friendship. Roughly three exhibitions, held annually, will gradually unravel the breadth of the collection. All of them will be held on the top floor of a building on Pesmazoglou Street, just a few steps away from the Athens Stock Exchange, a space which Portalakis has converted into a stark exhibition hall. Other exhibitions also from the collection will be held in Crete, from where the collector hails. Considering that Greece is a country that only recently awoke to the idea of having a museum exclusively devoted to modern and contemporary art and that the permanent collections of its art institutions are still being developed, private art collections such as Portalakis’s could become influential in shaping our perception and understanding of art. Moreover, because it is customary for many of these collections to end up in state museums as donations, the question of how private art collections gradually shape the profile of state institutions should also be considered. For while it is true that art collectors are often romantically driven to donate their collections to the state, such plans can eventually be abrogated for various reasons including limited budgets for supporting the collections or insufficient museum space for exhibiting them. One cannot predict where the Portalakis collection will end up, although the collector’s own wish is to donate it to the Greek State, preferably in Crete, and to see it all housed in a museum specially built for that purpose. The breadth and variety so typical of his art collection could indeed form the basis for an outstanding museum. During the past 15 years, Portalakis has indeed been collecting works with the aim of documenting Greek art of the latter part of the 20th century as well as charting contemporary international art movements. His collection comprises paintings, sculpture and photography from many of Greece’s most important artists as well as Greek artists of the diaspora (Kounellis, Chryssa and Lucas Samaras are among them). Included in the list of contemporary artists are names such as Christofer Wool, Peter Halley, Lina Bertucci, Jan Danvenport, Helmut Middendorf and Lucio Fontana. Among the many highlights of his collection is one of Andy Warhol’s paintings called «The Last Supper,» a work for which Portalakis has recently received escalating offers by international collectors. Portalakis, however, never sells the works he has bought, as his main objective is to document art rather than invest in it. Another rule Portalakis abides by is acquiring a series of works by a single artist in order to form a comprehensive representation of each artist’s work. Theodoros Stamos is perhaps the best-represented artist in his collection. With almost 200 pieces by Stamos in his possession, Portalakis has the largest collection of the artist’s work, and the current exhibition is the most comprehensive display of a single period in the his career. Almost 40 of Stamos’s biomorphic works, some very recently acquired, have been chosen for this exhibition to chart the early career of an artist who was one of the youngest members of the postwar abstract expressionist movement. Stamos started painting his biomorphic works in 1945 at the age of 23, and continued working in the same style until the late 1940s. The reason they are called biomorphic is that their subject matter derives from nature and that they were meant as abstract depictions of the organic world. Nature, primitivism and myth were in fact notions central not only to the work of Stamos but to most of the prominent members of the abstract expressionist school as well. In a letter addressed to The New York Times in 1943, for example, Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottlieb expressed their «spiritual kinship with primitive and archaic art» and for subject matter that is both timeless and tragic. (It is no coincidence that many of Stamos’s biomorphic works bear the adjective «archaic» as in «Archaic Release» or «Archaic Sentinel»). Barnett Newman, a prominent theoretician among the abstract expressionists who helped compose the letter to The New York Times, echoes similar views in his essay for the show «The Ideographic Picture,» which he curated at the Betty Parsons gallery (known for pioneering abstract expressionism) in 1947 and, a few months later, in the foreword he wrote on Stamos’s first significant one-man show that was organized a few months later at the same gallery. The idea of the emerging American artist who identifies with nature in an almost mystical way («true communion» in the words of Newman), and which in this respect shares much in common with the primitive artist, is one of the strongest points Newman makes. This fascination with mysticism also explains why the abstract expressionists were drawn to Asian spirituality and Zen Buddhism. Stamos himself spoke with admiration of how the Asian artist was preoccupied with finding the truth behind nature rather than settling for a mere description of facts. Stamos was also deeply respectful of the work of two American artists, Milton Avery for his use of color and Arthur Dove for his abstractions of nature. Like his contemporaries, Stamos was also deeply influenced by surrealism – particularly the use of automatism and the idea of mining into the collective unconscious – as expounded by the large number of surrealists who immigrated to the United States after the war. What gives Stamos’s biomorphic works broader significance is that they capture all those concerns that are central not only to his own work but also to an entire movement that became symbolic of American modernism and the claim of a new artistic identity freed from European tradition. In that sense, the exhibition «Theodoros Stamos, The Biomorphic Works» takes the viewer back not just into an isolated period in the artistic output of Stamos but to an entire period in art. Alexandra Koroxenidis is curator of the exhibition on Stamos.

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