Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Dan Ruth - Among the Collectors

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Artist Stephen Montgomery Lives on, in his own Spectacular Oils


Stephen Montgomery (unfinished self portrait)
Moving is no easy task, especially for someone who’s lived in New York City since the 1960s.  Such is the case with my friend Margaret Montgomery, who after several decades residing in Hells Kitchen, decided it was finally time to move on and nearer to her family in Pennsylvania.  I’ve known Margaret for 17 years and had met her, along with many of her friends, while bartending in one of the local theatre district piano bars in the mid-1990s.  Take it from a pro; if you hang out in New York City bars and don’t initiate conversations with the locals, then you’re missing out.  I for one am always curious about the people who have lived in New York for a long time.  Hearing about the struggles they've had, the stories they keep and the treasures that they hold dear are but only a conversation away, if you’re just willing to listen. 

You would think that someone who’s been living and working in New York for over 22 years like myself, would know the ins and outs ups and downs and everything about every friend, colleague and coworker.  Actually, many long-time denizens of New York City like to keep their past and present private.  Such again is the case with my friend Margaret, who had just asked me to come by and look at some LP records of hers, along with some sterling silver and some other collectibles before she packed up her life for the move.  I was happy to oblige and met her at her apartment on 45th St. where I quickly separated her China cabinet, so that she might have a better idea of which pieces were of value and which were not.  I quickly looked through Margaret’s LP records and didn’t see much value in them either, which is a shame because her late husband Stephen was an avid collector of classical and opera.  Unfortunately, although his LP collection was in spectacular condition, it should come as no surprise that classical opera LPs are not exactly at the top of people’s wish lists these days.  It would take a special kind of collector to take all these LPs home. 

"Little Boy" 32" x 38" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
As I stand in Margaret’s living room looking through her glass, silver and LPs, I can’t help but notice that the paintings on the wall are pulling all of my attention.  Huge canvases with bold light and dark contrast, bright color and perfect symmetry, hang in stark contrast to the boxes and bubble wrap that clutter the space.  I’m certain Margaret had mentioned her late husband Stephen in the past, but I can’t recall her sharing any stories about him and I certainly don’t recall her telling me that he was an artist.  The paintings are amazing.  Each piece, it’s own personalized and stylized shade of photorealism, with tremendous use of color and light, just begging to be seen.  Margaret is quick to shine some light on her husband Stephen Montgomery by showing me much of Stephen’s work.  It seems that Stephen Montgomery and his beautiful works of oil on canvas, should have been illuminated a long time ago. 

"Untitled" 40" x 58" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
There’s a smaller painting of a little boy, sitting in a crude, wooden chair.  He is framed in beautiful dark wood, which compliments this dusty, earthy work.  She tells me that the painting was based on a National Geographic photograph, in an essay on the children of Appalachia.  She mentions that the work was always referred to as “Little Boy.”  “Little Boy’s foot used to drive Stephen crazy,” Margaret said, as we move onto the next canvas.  “This is me,” she smiles,  “this was in the 1980’s and we were in the subway station, on our way to the Bronx Zoo.  Look at the graffiti.  There was graffiti everywhere back then.”   I do see the graffiti, but I’m equally fascinated by the way that Stephen Montgomery managed to capture the rusted paint on the side of the steel beam.  It’s a very large canvas in high contrast and again, it’s an exceptional work.  “My hand would drive Stephen crazy too,” she said, “hands would drive him crazy.”  Finally we move on to the painting that had been capturing me all along.  It’s a boldly colored Hells Kitchen still life, painted in that very space.  I look in the kitchen and voila.  Yup, same kitchen.  With hair-trigger precision, Stephen Montgomery seems to capture one of the finest pieces of modern realism that I had ever seen, outside of a museum. 

"Still Life" 40" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
I cannot say it enough – I am not an expert or a critic.  I am a lover of things created by the human hand, be it art, antique or antiquity.  I only know what I like and I liked this piece a great deal.  I especially loved the radiator and the soft, Monet-like hues of the tablecloth.  I wanted to see more and most importantly, I wanted to know more about Stephen Montgomery.  Margaret agreed to the following interview about the life of Stephen Montgomery and their life in old-school New York City.  Their life flashes as a timeless, romantic yarn, not unlike the incredible worlds of Liszt, George Sand & Chopin, except in this story, we’ll have to transplant you into a wild world of down and dirty, New York City. 

How did you and Stephen meet?           
Stephen was living in Abington Square in the penthouse with his friend Clay, who was a friend of another friend of mine.  We had done summer stock together.  I went over, Stephen and I hit it off immediately and I fell in love in about five seconds.  Stephen and Clay then moved up to Lake George, where his family had their summer home.  Stephen came from money, but his father wasn’t exactly approving of an “artist.” 

Did Stephen have any formal training in the arts?
He came from a very artistic family.  His mother was artistic, she did watercolors and such, not as good as Stephen, but his uncle Frank Milan who was on Broadway in the 50’s and 60’s, made his living painting miniatures for society ladies.
Broadway Actor, Frank Milan, 1950's
Stephen did the war in Vietnam, and was very lucky, he was in the medical corp. so he didn’t have to go to Vietnam, but he served honorably.  He actually became the Captains right hand man because he could take shorthand.   After the service, he went to different schools, but never really studied art per se.   Stephen and his younger brother Bobby, who’s an attorney now, started doing puppet theatre up in the Lake George area.  It was called the “Montgomery Marionettes.”  He really started pursuing his artist career in earnest, when he moved up to Lake George with Clay.   I would go up a lot and we would go out onto Glen Lake and watch meteor showers and of course with the times, we were all starting to experiment with pot and the drug culture.  Stephen and I became intimate at that point and I found myself in New York, unhappy.  He was up at Lake George with his Mother coming in and out of the cottage all the time and his Sister was always up there too.  He didn’t mind the cold but when the mud season hit, when everything started to thaw, he started calling me all the time and eventually he moved back down to New York City into an apartment on 47th Street, and I moved in across the hallway.   We would go up on our roof a lot and that’s when he started painting a lot of the rooftop paintings.  That’s also unfortunately, when we got burglarized.   His cello was stolen, they smashed everything up. 
"Rooftop Painting" and Poloroid (ca. 1978)

So he was good at a number of artistic mediums besides theatre and art?
Well he did play the cello and he went to Julliard for a while, he also played orchestras in and around Lake George for the local theatre company up there.  Stephen was always torn.  He could play the piano as well and could also write and transpose music.   We had a piano and he would give voice lessons but then he would always come back to the painting.  I was quite taken with the painting and the music.  I guess I was an enabler in the fact that I would always go with the flow, whatever he was into at the moment, because I was always very impressed with all of it. 

You were in love with the person.
Stephen was gorgeous but I realized that I was really taken with his whole grouping of talent and I really didn’t mind being a muse.   I guess he said I was.

That was one of my questions, were you his muse?
He said I was.

Did he consider himself a crackerjack?
I don’t think he considered himself good at anything.  His Mother was quite artistic but quite unpredictable.  He was not close to his father who did not approve of him.  Stephen would start to paint and his Mother would come in and say, “You know, I really think you were probably better when you were doing…”  So he was always back and forth with all of these things he could do.  He would also talk about entities coming to him.   He would say sometimes, “I don’t know where all of this is coming from, I really don’t.”

What was your world like in general and in New York City specifically, in the time frame that you were together?  What parts of that world did you both embrace together?
New York was raw.  It was raw and it was creative.  I had come from a more creative world in the Lower East Side in the 60’s where I did La Mama and New York Theatre Ensemble, etc. and I knew a lot of those early playwrights, Bob Patrick used to sleep in my living room, all of that. 
    
"Nude" Oil on Canvas
We used to go to all the clubs, we used to go down to Marie’s Crisis, we used to go to all the sleazy places, spent some time over here at Jimmy Ray's but not a lot.  We actually spent a lot of time in our apartment.  We did go out, but we had specific days that we would plan what we would call “special trips.”  Sometimes they were trips and sometimes they were “trips” (laughs).  The Gilded Grape was on the corner and there was porno everywhere.  Backstage was across the street too, there were piano bars everywhere, there was creativity, the theatre was cheap, even though we were quite poor, we saw every show.   I don’t go to the theatre like that anymore, I can’t afford it.   I wouldn’t say that I was running the streets at night alone much, although nothing ever happened to us besides the burglary.  We never got mugged because Stephen was tall and actually pretty strong because he did yoga constantly.  He actually used to do his yoga and then paint.  He did a lot of the painting at night, under elaborate lights. 

Did you and Stephen ever rub elbows with the artistic elite of the day? 
When he started painting the larger paintings, we met this dealer named Fred Checker who was dabbling in art and thinking of making us all money.  Fred took Stephen to meet Alice Neel.  Alice
  
"Fred" 32" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
adored Stephen, didn’t like Fred Checker too much, but was quick to yell after her caretaker Nancy, “Nancy, come in here right now, interesting things are being said.”   Fred talked to a couple of society people in Philadelphia to try and sell some of Stephen's work and things were going pretty well.  I was thinking I was finally going to be able to get out of New York.   I was getting tired of New York, I was a little tired of teaching in parochial school, I was a little tired of not having any money.  This building in itself in those days was quite different.  It was full of ex-Vaudevillians and radio people.  They seemed very old to me at the time.  We moved into this apartment after the burglary when I was about 32 years old, but there would be Alfred Ryder, Tennessee Williams could be in the revolving door with you, we would walk home Olive Deering, drunk out of her mind and I found it all very interesting.  I don’t regret living in New York in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s I loved it.  I was very happy with the whole world here until AIDS.  My friends just started dropping like flies.   Stephen certainly went through the whole gambit of sexual freedom, as we all did.  The world we lived in was completely different, we had an open relationship and it was very honest.   I don’t really have those issues I never really did.  I can’t stand the way New York is now.  

Apart from Fred, what was his relationship with the art world and where did he see himself in that framework?
He loved the art world.  He was enamored with the impressionists and he loved the museums and the artists were like gods to him.   I don’t think he thought he was going to be a successful artist, I think he had an idea that maybe fate was going to shine on him, when Fred was selling some of his art and some money was coming in.  He never said to me that he thought he was a specific kind of artist.   He never said I think I’m a photorealist or I’m an impressionist.  He never said the term.

"Napalm Sonata" 30" x 40" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)
Did he follow photorealists?  Did he follow Chuck Close or Ralph Goings?
I know he looked at all of them at The Modern, but Stephen actually preferred The Met.  Stephen was very fascinated, oddly enough, with the Egyptians.  I don’t think it was so much the painting as it was the antiquity of it.  He liked Georgia O’Keeffe, he loved Monet, he loved Manet, he really liked the Impressionists.  He loved Joseph Cornell too.  I don’t think he saw himself as connected to any of them, necessarily, but he did understand it all, he loved the idea of light and color and how it affects the eye. 
"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)

I've seen some very fun abstracts, studies and risqué subjects, and you’ve shown me some of his cartoon animated paintings as well.  Was there a specific time when he decided to move to the bigger canvases and embrace this type of photorealism?
Yes. That cartoon art was done very early in conjunction with his family who has most of it, because his Mother was helping, they were writing a book called “Rubin the Rat.”   His Mother lost interest and “Rubin the Rat” never got made.  When I was with him, the cartoon art sort of ebbed away.   He started working on bigger canvases when we were on 47th but nothing like these.  These big ones were created here, with me.  He was really hard on himself with his paintings.  Really a lot of temperamental depression, but he was painting up until he lost his eyesight.  The self-portrait was going to be the last thing.  He actually came back from the hospital and tried to continue.  We had put up these elaborate lights, we thought it would help him, there were spot lights and I remember that day when he said, “I can’t see.”  We knew that he would never finish the self portrait.

"Unfinished Self Portrait" 53" x 68" (Stephen Montgomery)
 
What would Stephen want to have happen to his work?
I think he’d like to have people see it.
                                 
Stephen Montgomery died of HIV-AIDS at the young age of 38.  Margaret plans to move Stephen's collection with her to Pennsylvania.  Even though the works of Stephen Montgomery will remain with Margaret, I truly hope that you have enjoyed this look into parts of his collection. I hope that this interview helps to at least establish Stephen Montgomery as a legitimate artist, with exceptional talent.  Margaret made it very clear to me and it was very refreshing, to hear that Stephen worked freehand from photographs, using only his own personalized sense of perspective.  Please enjoy these additional photographs, all of which are representative of the works of Stephen Montgomery.  Thank you Stephen.  

DR


"Untitled" detail (Stephen Montgomery)
 





"Head" 7" x 7" x 8" Clay Sculpture






"Untitled" 12" x 18" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)







"Untitled" 15" x 20" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)







Stephen Montgomery with "Unfinished Self Portrait"






"Fred" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







"Head" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







"Untitled" 14" x 18" Oil on Canvas (Stephen Montgomery)







"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)








"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)








"Still Life" detail (Stephen Montgomery)








"Little Boy" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







"Little Boy" detail (Stephen Montgomery)








"Head" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







"Napalm Sonata" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







"Untitled" detail (Stephen Montgomery)







Stephen and Margaret Montgomery



Saturday, May 10, 2014

American Carnival Glass's Love Affair with European Victorian Themes

Herring's "Pharaoh's Horse" and Fenton's "Horse Medallion"
Here's a terrific example of American Carnival Glass (1907-1925), reflecting the fashion and style of classic Victorian themes.  Fenton's "Horse Medallion" pattern is an homage to John Frederick Herring's Victorian masterwork, Pharaoh's Horses.  "Horse Medallion" is a favorite among Carnival Glass collectors, and comes is a large array of colors, from this Pumpkin Marigold ruffled bowl, to Red, Red Slag and Vaseline Opal.  A ruffled bowl in Celeste Blue sold for $8,000.00 in 2012 at the Heart of America Carnival Glass convention (info courtesy of David Doty's Carnival Glass website). 
 
Fenton's Carnival Glass "Horse Medallion" pattern.
The horses in Herring's masterwork are wrought with unbridled tension and fear.  In Frank Fenton's Carnival Glass version, each grouping of horses is within a circular cartouche and are somewhat sweeter and more decorative.  The pattern is stunning and can be found on plates and rose bowls, as well as footed Jack in the Pulpit (JIP) versions, so be on the look out for this beauty!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Antique Jewelry & Collectibles Shopping Lessons Learned


After weeks of slush and cold, there was a break in the weather and I decided to go shopping.  I hadn't been to the Antique Garage since the snow started falling at the beginning of the month.  Not only was it a beautiful day, I seemed to have tremendous train luck as well and although I arrived at the Antique Garage somewhat late in the afternoon, I still managed to score some incredible finds.  What happened later at the market was a truly astonishing for me, and a lesson for anyone who reads this.

First off, there was a gentleman who was selling two very large EAPG decanters.  These weren’t your typical crystal decanter from Eastern Europe intended for wine, these two were certainly American pressed glass, they were very heavy, were intended for whiskey and they were gorgeous.  Because of a discussion about patterns recently on one of the Facebook Carnival Glass collector pages, I knew that one of the decanters was Cambridge’s “Wheat Sheaf.”  It seemed that the online gentleman purchased a green Carnival Glass whiskey decanter in this very pattern and as luck would have it, the decanter wasn’t marked.  It wasn’t a reproduction, it was actually old, authentic Carnival Glass and it was indeed a pattern that has rarely been seen in any color, let alone in green.  I believe it may very well have been the only whiskey decanter documented by collectors in green, because the gentleman had purchased it from one of the original owners for a very high price.  
 
Northwood's "Memphis" & Cambridge's "Wheat Sheaf" EAPG whiskey decanter.
The decanter I found today however, was in clear glass and like many whiskey decanters that show up at flea markets, it was missing the stopper.  Whether in Carnival Glass or EAPG, I still believed the piece to be rare, so I purchased it, along with another beautiful decanter for five dollars each.  Did I tell him I knew the pattern?  Not in a million years.  The Cambridge decanter alone should sell for $80-110.  That wasn’t a bad score for my first time back at the flea market since the winter storms hit. 

Around Christmas time, a gentleman showed up at the Antiques Garage, that I had never seen before.  He was selling polished crystals, silver plate, ornate rococo items, large pieces, candlesticks, porcelain, paintings etc.  I had purchased several pieces of silver plate from him last year and they truly were wonderful, wonderful items.  Both were highly aesthetic and in incredible condition.  I was glad to see he had returned.   On his shelf he had several items that interested me.  There were a few pieces of cut crystal, a few larger bronzes and my new downfall: Victorian white bisque porcelain vases.  They were nothing to him but everything to me.
Victorian white bisque porcelain miniature vases.
I’ve been building a small collection of white bisque corn items at home, in fact I guess you could say that a whole corn corner was growing in my cabinet, including several white bisque corn vases, two Imperial Carnival Glass corn bottles, a Northwood Carnival Glass corn vase and a green EAPG corn creamer.  These bisque corn vases that I found today however, we’re more ornate.  One vase had thick stalks going up each side and the other, had two peculiar groupings of grapes on either side.  I purchased the two vases, along with another beautiful white bisque vase in the shape of a woman’s hand, holding a cupped flower.  I purchased all three for $40.


Then there were the rings.


Directly in front of me was a woman asking to see the seller’s jewelry.  He pulled out a small tin and proceeded to show her some items.  I noticed through the corner of my eye that they were two gentlemen’s rings.  I wear rings a lot and I collect them.  Me likey.  I really wanted to examine them but I couldn’t get a good look and I didn’t want to be rude (yet).  What I really wanted was for the woman to walk away and never come back, but she didn’t.  She started haggling with the seller, who then took out a gram scale.  He weighed the two rings and quoted her price of $175 for the two.  The woman started looking at the rings again, this time through a loupe.  She started complaining that they were both 10K gold and didn’t weigh very much.  Then she broke a flea market golden rule.  She said that she thought the rings were “ugly.”  Wha??  She just insulted the seller.  Sayonara bargins for you.  At this point, I really wanted to just grab the rings out of the woman’s hands and push her out of the way, into an oncoming rolling rack of used vintage clothing (y’all know how it is).   Instead, she finally mumbled something about never getting $175 for the rings and she turned to walk away.  I quickly pushed by her as she exited, knelt down to the seller who was sitting in a chair, and politely whispered to him that I’d like to see the two rings. 

What do you see?


Both of the rings were intaglio-carved Hematite gentleman Cameo rings and they were both stunning.   The smaller of the two was surrounded on all four sides by gold rosettes and although both rings were indeed 10K gold, they both seemed to have a hue of Rose gold to them, placing them both, squarely around 1910-15.  The larger of the two rings had a fancier setting and was complimented on both sides by cushion cut Diamonds.   

They had all the bells and whistles and it was now clear that both rings were from the early 20th century and for their age, were in immaculate condition.  Antique gold rings tend to bend unmercifully into ghastly shapes when not properly cared for, but these two rings were superb.  I saw no chipping in the stones, I saw no bending, no dents, no major scratches, gouging, nothing that would make me want to put the rings down.  Both came in vintage cases and although both cases displayed damage, they were both very cool.  How could this woman have called these two gentleman’s items “ugly?”   The answer was obvious to me and it should be to you as well, if you buy at flea markets.   She was clearly calling the rings “ugly” to color their value and to make them seem less than they were, so she could get a better price, which she didn’t.  By calling into question the weight of the gold, she also didn’t know the other golden rule of buying antique jewelry at a flea market.  If you find a piece of antique jewelry at a flea market or jewelry store that’s in good condition, you’re not going to want to purchase it for its melt value.  You purchase it for its age and aesthetic.  Sellers know this.


Years ago at Jozef and Sons, my favorite Greenpoint, Brooklyn jewelry store, I had brought in a handful of old antique jewelry items and wanted Jozef to weigh the pieces and tell me what they were worth.  He simply told me, “my friend, these pieces are antique.  You’re not going to want them for their melt value because they’re worth much more as they are.  Leave them be.”  I never forgot that.  So today, I purchased the two “ugly” antique rings for $175.    


Both cleaned up beautifully and thanks to my Uncle Don Sellers’ book, “Trademarks of the Jewelry and Kindred Trades, Fourth Edition 1922,” I discovered that a company named Baskin Bros., here in New York City, manufactured the smaller ring.  The larger ring with the diamonds has a maker’s mark “JF” but I couldn’t find the maker in the book.
    
 

Still, when faced with the question of spending good money, a buyer has to look at all the options.  The woman at the flea market today was going to take the rings, rip out the stones have the gold melted down and walk away with her $120 melt value.  As it turns out, both rings are in remarkable condition neither have issues, and I’ve already identified the manufacture of one of the two and will keep looking for the other.  Whether I keep them or sell them remains to be seen, because neither fit me.   I do know however, that in a retail setting, the Baskin Bros. ring would easily fetch $235.00 and the larger ring with the diamonds, $575.00. 


Do as much research on your collectibles as possible.  Stand up against the destruction of legitimate antique items.   Buy for the love of the aesthetic, not just for metal melt value.   Keep your antiques safe and only pass them on, into caring hands.