National News

The Struggling Artist at 86

Posted January 6, 2018 4:55 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Like most struggling artists, Harry Bertschmann is hoping to be discovered. Unlike them, he has a pedigree: he has shown his work alongside Mark Rothko, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell while they were still alive and in their prime. In 1958, a large Bertschmann canvas was featured in the Carnegie International exhibition in Pittsburgh, a rarefied achievement for any artist, let alone one in his mid-20s. Since then, Bertschmann has painted or drawn nearly every day of his adult life, producing a body of work that has been praised by some of the art world’s foremost tastemakers. Yet he has remained virtually unknown.

“I had to make money,” Bertschmann, 86, said one morning in late November as he sat at the dining table of his light-filled, art-filled apartment-studio near the South Street Seaport. And he did, working as a freelance graphic designer creating logos, packaging and advertising for brands like Pond’s cold cream and Bufferin. His success at his day job ensured that he wasn’t hungry, and while he has produced thousands (he has no idea how many thousands) of fine-art paintings, drawings and collages in wildly varied styles, he never persistently sought gallery representation.

“Harry’s never been a salesman,” said Mary Bertschmann, his wife of more than 50 years. “He didn’t get his art out there for them to see.” Nor did he carouse with his more exhibitionistic contemporaries at Cedar Tavern, participate in splashy happenings or attract art-world gossip. “Also, we had started our own small press, and Harry was doing great designs for Harper & Row, like this wonderful thing,” she said, pointing to a illustrated poetry anthology published in the 1970s. " We were so into our world, plus, of course, with a child.”

Over the years, there were some exhibitions and acquisitions, notably a 140-work retrospective in 1997 of both his commercial and fine art in Basel, Switzerland, where Bertschmann was born and raised. But these accomplishments never amounted to a self-sustaining fine art career. As he reached his 80s, humility and obscurity started getting old, and costly.

Now the Bertschmanns find themselves in a tenuous financial position. Bertschmann no longer does much graphic design, and Mary Bertschmann, 85, recently retired as executive director of the Huguenot Society of America. She said they have been “suffering financially.” Despite living in a lofty one-bedroom apartment, they are retired renters who will not benefit from the gentrification of the neighborhood.

On the bright side, she added, a man named Peter Hastings Falk had arranged for a couple of gallery owners to visit in December.

Falk, an art historian, curator and appraiser who has spent much of his 40-year career promoting unknown, highly accomplished artists, considered Bertschmann an unrecognized master. “There couldn’t be a better example,” he said. Bertschmann’s work, he added, “is at such a high level that it is as compelling or more so than his more famous peers’, all of the members of the New York School of the ‘50s and ‘60s.” With one crucial difference. While a large Bertschmann painting might, by Falk’s estimate, sell for about $25,000, for an excellent Rothko you could add three zeros to that figure. And then multiply by three. Bertschmann is an elfin man with comely features and a warm smile, and Mary Bertschmann is a strikingly beautiful woman. Last month, both of them were neatly dressed in similar gray V-neck sweaters as they nervously prepared their apartment for the gallerists’ visit. He rarely fails to apologize for what he calls the mess in the living room, where his artwork rests against walls and sits on and in numerous metal cabinets. But the space isn’t remotely untidy. His wife explains his fastidiousness by pointing out, “He’s Swiss.”

Long before the arrival of Art Basel, the international art fair, Bertschmann’s hometown was an ideal city for a budding artist, with world-class museums, a great university and, most important, an express train that reached Paris in under three hours. “We would hop on the train,” Bertschmann recalled. “I was 16 or 17. These trips to Paris were very enlightening for me.” Right after World War II, he said, “everybody was poor, and along the Seine there were booths, and you saw such fabulous stuff.” He showed off four 18th-century Japanese prints and an African bronze that he’d bought back then for next to nothing.

“Imagine being that age,” Mary Bertschmann said, “and having a taste for those things.”

From 1947 to 1951, Bertschmann attended the Basel School of Design. He studied under Armin Hofmann and apprenticed with Fritz Buhler, both giants of Swiss graphic design. After graduation he moved to the United States, eventually landing in Cleveland, where his artistic output became more inventive and prolific. His work appeared in several galleries, a painting was selected for the Carnegie International, and the Cleveland Museum of Art invited him to submit a painting for its annual group exhibition. It won first prize.

Cleveland was also where Bertschmann met Mary, who at the time was married to an adman who was part of a prominent Cleveland Heights family. “One day Harry said he wanted to do some sketches of me,” Mary Bertschmann said. “So I sat for Harry, and he did some sketches, and then he suddenly got up and came over and gave me a kiss. I was very proper, brought up in the Victorian way.” She continued, “Something happened — I guess the coup de foudre, as they say in French — and we became lovers. Harry and I were lovers for 10 years before I finally got disentangled from my husband. Before I got the courage.”

Her husband’s agency transferred him to New York, she said, and he adapted quickly to Madison Avenue. “He turned into a ‘Mad man,'” she recalled. “Two martinis for lunch.” The couple rented a three-bedroom duplex with a deck in the West Village that had just been vacated by the actress Tammy Grimes, who had recently separated from Christopher Plummer. Before the move, Mary Bertschmann recalled, “I said, Tom, we’ll never be able to afford this apartment — it’s $350!”

In 1962, she persuaded Bertschmann that as an artist, he, too, should come to New York. When her marriage finally ended, her husband moved out of the duplex, and in 1966 she married Bertschmann — “my true love,” she said. They stayed in the duplex for four decades, until about 15 years ago, when the landlord died and their rent (then $3,000 a month) was about to jump.

Now they face a similar fate with their current apartment. The once-modest Seaport neighborhood is getting fancier. The Best Western a few doors down is transforming into a Cipriani boutique hotel. With both of them on fixed incomes and with no retirement plans to speak of, their high monthly rent, Mary Bertschmann said, has them “hanging by a string.”

Of course, at some point they should have bought an apartment, an option that Mary Bertschmann said they considered “so many times.” But they were busy leading creative, exhilarating New York lives. They spent 40 years in an affordable duplex in the most cinematic part of the West Village, so why move? They raised a daughter (Isabelle Kellogg, now a luxury marketer with a grown daughter of her own) and had interesting friends and neighbors, like an editor who worked with Diana Vreeland at Vogue and later Graydon Carter, the longtime Vanity Fair editor, who bought the townhouse next door. Every summer they took a hiking vacation in the Swiss Alps and visited Harry Bertschmann’s family in Basel.

But now their need to pay the bills is overshadowing even their desire for Bertschmann’s work to get its due. He still draws every day, but he no longer paints. “He doesn’t have the money for art supplies,” Mary Bertschmann said.

So the couple are putting their hopes in the hands of Falk, promoter of the undiscovered. Bertschmann first met him in 2013 after reading an article about a show of works by another overlooked painter, Arthur Pinajian, and deciding he would like some recognition before he met the same fate. (Pinajian had been dead 14 years before he was discovered.) Falk had organized that show, and when Bertschmann approached him, he was skeptical at encountering yet another hopeful. “I thought, Oh, no,” Falk said. “Because I can only take on one or two a year.” Still, he agreed to look at Bertschmann’s work. The reaction was immediate. “I was astounded,” Falk recalled. The more he saw, the more he liked. “Harry’s special,” he said. “I knew it as soon as he was showing me digital images, and then I was absolutely convinced when I saw thousands of works over 60 years in his apartment.”

Through his company, Artist Discovery Group, Falk brings together museum curators, gallery owners, critics and collectors — the art market’s power centers — and works to catalyze interest in the artists. The main obstacle, as he sees it, is the “pathological myopia of the art world.” In its narrow view, an artist, especially an older one, whose work hasn’t already been certified by the market barely even exists. If Google and auction records scarcely know that Bertschmann is alive, it hardly matters that in 1986 Henry Geldzahler, the larger-than-life curator at the Metropolitan Museum, visited his studio and found his work stellar. Geldzahler put in a good word at several major galleries, the Bertschmanns said, but when Bertschmann pursued those leads nothing came of them.

To help fill the data vacuum and provide scholarly legitimacy, Falk enlisted Robert Morgan, a member of his company’s advisory board of scholars and curators, to write an essay characterizing and validating Bertschmann’s work. He also found a small gallery on the western edge of SoHo called Studio Vendome to mount a show in 2014. But it was poorly attended, partly a result of a small marketing budget. Such are the challenges of promoting underrated talent.

Since the Studio Vendome show, Bertschmann has had some qualified success — the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art recently acquired one of his travel posters for its permanent collection — but more setbacks. He read about a gallery that specializes in older artists, submitted his materials in person, and was told that there was a waiting list of 250 artists ahead of him.

Then in November, Falk told him about Christy and Chester Murray, lifelong collectors and neophyte gallerists. One night about five years ago, a friend and some wine persuaded the Murrays, who had recently retired, to buy a store in Quogue, on the East End of Long Island, and turn it into an art gallery. Falk thought their taste for New York School painters might draw them to Bertschmann’s work.

In 2015, Falk had helped the Murrays bring an exhibition of more than 20 Pinajian works on paper to the Quogue Gallery, and it sold out. (To date, total Pinajian sales from all venues have exceeded $3.5 million, according to Falk.) Hoping to repeat this success, he set up a meeting with the Murrays last month at the Bertschmanns’ apartment.

The Murrays spent more than two hours there, and left feeling transported. “We walked in thinking that maybe Harry would be part of a group show,” Christy Murray said, “and left planning a solo show during some of the busiest weeks of the summer.”

Less than a week later, they sent an email clarifying those plans, which center on a solo exhibition filling the Quogue Gallery for three weeks next summer. They also decided to double the size of their booth at Art Palm Beach, a fair that starts Jan. 17, to accommodate seven large Bertschmann canvases. And, as with their previous shows, they expect to buy one or more of Bertschmann’s paintings for their private collection, which, in addition to emerging and overlooked artists, includes works by Picasso, Miro and Giacometti.

The Bertschmanns were almost afraid to believe that their hoped-for lifeline had arrived, but they allowed themselves to celebrate with a bottle of wine. “It was so wonderful to meet them and to have them be so interested in everything that Harry had done,” Mary Bertschmann said. “They just kept looking and looking.” She called the visit “flabbergasting” and “magical.” Even Bertschmann, always affable but rarely effusive — again, he’s Swiss — was visibly happy. Could it really be true that all his years of “painting like a demon possessed,” as Falk put it, could finally be rewarded?

Falk called the Murrays’ plans “a good fresh start for Harry.” Small galleries, he noted, can be more adventurous, less in thrall to youth and trends, than large ones. “Ultimately, what I’d like to see for Harry is a museum exhibition,” he said, ideally at the Swiss Institute in New York, which should “finally pay homage to one of their own, an artist who’s really, really deserving.” Representatives of the Swiss Institute have met with Bertschmann and expressed an interest in working with him, but they plan their shows far in advance, probably too far to help the Bertschmanns out of their current financial plight.

While Falk views the big picture, Bertschmann trains his eye on the sketch pad directly in front of him. Every day without fail, he continues to put pencil to paper with such single-minded focus that he doesn’t see his own career arc, or plan for the future. The other day, a guest raised the subject of where he hoped his body of work would end up after he was gone. He appeared genuinely stumped. “Actually,” he said, “I’ve never given it a thought.”