Lou Meisel

Audrey Flack “Spitfire” 1973

#7 — Curating the Stuart M. Speiser Collection

Late in 1969, I coined the word Photorealism during an interview with Gregory Battcock. The term Photorealism really took off in early 1970 when Jim Monte, who was a curator at the Whitney Museum, used the word in his catalog “22 Realists”. From that point forward, I spent the next two years talking to all sorts of people—curators, collectors, artists, and writers—about what “Photorealism” was and what it meant to me. The word of mouth paid off.

Charles Bell
“Seaplane in Bathtub”

After hearing me speak about the subject a number times, my close cousin, Roger Moak, came to me with a proposition. At the time, he was employed by the law firm Speiser and Krause, which was founded by Speiser, one of the preeminent aviation litigators. It seems that Speiser had approached to Roger about obtaining a collection of realist paintings of airplanes, and that he had mentioned me by name.

Now, I will be the first to say that when Roger came to me with the request that I wasn’t immediately open to the idea, but, I decided to listen and learn what I could about Mr. Stuart Speiser. Well, he turned out to be a very special man, who was very learned and open minded. Speiser was a Jewish boy from the Bronx. He had been a bomber pilot in World War II and attended law school on the GI bill. In the early 1950s, he became one of the first lawyers to specialize in aviation law and personal injury, and later founded his firm with a fleet of attorneys who were all trained pilots. He was quite famous by the time I met him, having been involved in litigation in all of the high-profile plane crashes in the mid 20th century. And he was seriously interested in art and the NY art scene.

So, I developed a concept that would benefit my artists and Mr. Speiser. I explained to him that having a group of artists paint airplanes for him was something that could be done by hired illustrators or even art students, and that the results would simply be office decor. However, I could commission a collection by the top 20 painters in my new genre called Photorealism to make paintings; these paintings would make some subtle reference to aviation in their compositions, but each artist would still be able to work in their unique style.  This would give him a very special and important collection which might be written about, admired and might possibly be reputation-enhancing. He liked the idea and asked me to proceed.

I then added what the costs, conditions and commitments were going to be on both our parts. First of all, I was going to tell each of the artists and their dealers that we would want a major work done in 1972/1973.

We would pay 10% more than the most expensive painting any of them had sold to that point. This work was already in great demand, and this was one way I would be able to get their commitments. I told Speiser this could be done for $150,000, and my commission would be $15,000. It was my plan to open my new gallery in SoHo with this collection in September of 1973.

Audrey Flack

Speiser agreed to everything I suggested, and my ideas continued to develop. Having some inside knowledge about Speiser from Roger, I began to surmise ways to get this collection into the public eye. I theorized that if the collection were successfully assembled some public venues, that I might be able to secure the “art world” reputation that Speiser desired.

I decided to pitch Speiser another idea. I told him I would like to offer the collection as a traveling museum show over a 5-year period, and that the work could be viewed at as many as 25 venues. Since Photorealism was still in its early stages as a contemporary art movement, I explained that museums would likely be interested in mounting exhibitions for the genre, particularly if offered a very significant collection to display. BUT in order to facilitate this I would like to offer it with Stuart Speiser paying ALL costs for the museums. These costs included crates, shipping, insurance, catalogs, and, in some cases, publicity. He agreed to it all.

Richard Estes

Before continuing, I’ll take a moment to explain which artists were in the collection and what they each chose to paint…

Richard Estes was painting street scenes in New York City; he painted the Alitalia office on 5th Avenue with an airliner model in the window. Charlie Bell was painting oversized images of tin toys from the 50’s; he painted a toy seaplane floating in a bathtub. Robert Bechtle was painting rather common automobiles in rather mundane settings in Southern California; he painted a yellow Chevy parked at an airport with part of a Helicopter in the background. Tom Blackwell was painting chromed engines of cars and motorcycles; he painted the engine of an airplane at the Miami Air races, which he attended with Ron Kleemann courtesy of Speiser. Kleemann was painting fire engines and racing cars and painted a racing airplane. Audrey Flack was painting conglomerations of objects such as cosmetics, paint jars, crayons etc. She painted a collection of model airplanes. Ralph Goings was focusing on the common pickup truck found all over the west. He captured a photograph of a barn with a pickup truck and a Cessna. Richard McLean painted Ralph Goings’ daughter on her horse, with Ralph’s son standing there holding his flying model airplane. (This was McLean’s first painting from a photo he took himself.)

I guess that gives you a good sense of the creativity of the Photorealists with the provided subject matter.

While the artists were wrapping up the touches on their paintings, I had reached out to Cornell University. (Almost all my ancestors and living relatives were alumni.) The Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell was about to open their new I.M. Pei designed museum on the campus above Cayuga Lake. I made a proposal to Tom Levitt, the director, and lo and behold, the museum agreed that their first exhibition should feature the Stuart M. Speiser Collection.

Ultimately, the Cornell exhibition was a smashing success! The popularity of the Cornell exhibition helped to propel the Speiser Collection all over the country over the course of 5 years. In total, the collection was seen by 100,000 visitors at many, many museums, including my alma mater, Tulane. Speiser basked in continuing accolades with lots of reviews and commentary and was even called a modern Medici.

After a year and several of the first shows had passed, I felt Speiser was wholly enjoying himself. He was beginning to come to prominence in the art world, and he felt he was beginning to attain a certain social order. So, I asked him to give the Museum of Modern Art $100,000 so that they could acquire paintings by these Photorealists. Kynaston McShine a curator there had expressed interest, but claimed the museum needed donations for the purpose. Speiser complied, and MOMA acquired a major Blackwell, and great Kleemann, and Richard Estes’ “Double Self-Portrait”. Three months later, Speiser was invited as a recent donor to the home of Blanchett Rockefeller, the chair of the board of MOMA, where he met and began relationships with many of the people he really wanted to meet in THAT social world.

After the end of the Speiser collection tour, my job was done. For me, that was the beginning of working with curators and museums to assemble large-scale Photorealist exhibitions. To date, I have totally assembled or played a major part in bringing over 200 museum exhibitions to fruition.

You may wonder what happened to the Stuart M. Speiser Collection? After the close of the tour, the collection was historically important. I explained that to Speiser, and stressed that this collection was not destined to be in his home or office. It should be in a museum, namely the Smithsonian. He did donate the collection to the Smithsonian Institution, so it could be shared and seen in the National Gallery and the The Hirschhorn. To date, it is the most valuable gift of art from a private donor received by the National Air and Space Museum, and it was included in the museum’s grand opening. Many of the paintings are generously lent by the museum as part of Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibitions (SITE) to this day.

Speiser was awarded the GOLD Smithsonian Medal that year!