For the past two years, Jennifer Bartlett has been a free agent. Without regular gallery representation, the 57-year-old artist has found herself in a position to pick and choose between galleries that want to show her work, and the galleries have been coming up with some interesting proposals. In January, Betty Cuningham, a dealer who recently joined the Robert Miller Gallery, mounted a show of Ms. Bartlett’s work in an effort to resell her most famous piece, Rhapsody (1976). Before the show even opened, a buyer offered over $1 million, and Ms. Cuningham gave Ms. Bartlett a cut of the sale.
One of the signal art events of the 1970′s, Rhapsody , a 153-foot-long series of 987 steel plates, has been compared to Monet’s water lily paintings and Mark Rothko’s Four Seasons murals. It was exhibited in 1976 at the Paula Cooper Gallery, where Ms. Bartlett was represented for more than 20 years. During the 1976 show, the painting was purchased by Sid Singer, a collector who lives in Mamaroneck, N.Y., based in part on a New York Times review of the show by John Russell. “The most elaborate review I ever remember reading,” Mr. Singer told The Observer . In 1985, the painting was still being celebrated when Harry N. Abrams Inc. published a book about it, called Rhapsody , in which critic Roberta Smith called the work, “Bartlett’s great and imperfect epic, a visual event that unfolds and refolds in real time, real space, and above all, real thought, without ever leaving the wall.”
Mr. Singer never quite knew what to do with such a magnificent piece. He had the painting in storage for a while and occasionally lent it to museums for exhibitions. Five years ago, he built an addition to his house, in part to display Rhapsody . He said that he decided to sell the painting because, at 65, he is thinking about the future and his children are not interested in art.
Last fall, when Mr. Singer asked Ms. Cuningham to help him sell the painting, she decided to put together a small show of Ms. Bartlett’s work in order to attract a buyer. In December, she visited Ms. Bartlett’s studio and picked four new pieces to fill out the show. It took three men 40 hours to install Rhapsody at the Robert Miller Gallery in early January. The day before the installation was complete, Ms. Cuningham sold the painting to Ed Broida, a private collector who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., and tried to open a contemporary art museum in SoHo in the mid-80′s. Mr. Broida had never seen the painting, but bought it based on the 1985 book that Ms. Cuningham had mailed him.
“I think it is a fabulous, a monumental, fabulous work of art,” Mr. Broida told The Observer . A source familiar with the deal said Mr. Broida paid just over $1 million. “I have to find a way for it to end up in a museum, obviously. That much I can say because it is certainly not going to go in your home, my home or any home.”
Ms. Singer, who said he has been able to hang 200 paintings in the space that Rhapsody once took up, was relieved to hear that the piece would end up in a museum. “I have always felt–and I know that Jennifer feels–that it belongs in a museum,” he said. “She probably would have been a lot happier if it had gone initially right into a museum or some public space.”
The Miller show was the first time Ms. Bart-lett’s 13-year-old daughter or her current studio assistants had ever seen in person the artwork, which is considered to be the crowning achievement of her career. “It made me feel so old,” she said.
Meanwhile, despite getting such a high price for Rhapsody , the Miller gallery does not want to be stuck with the precedent set by the deal. Artists normally get 40 to 50 percent of the first sale of a piece and nothing thereafter. Ms. Bartlett would not say how large her cut was. “I don’t believe in being locked into giving commissions to artists on resale,” Ms. Cuningham told The Observer . “[In this case,] both the previous owner and the gallery wanted to be sure that we had her blessings and also that the piece was handled in the correct manner.” The gallery would like to convince Ms. Bartlett to exhibit her work there on a regular basis, she said.
Ms. Bartlett did not seem sold on the deal. She said that she would “just continue what I am doing”–she also has work on exhibit at Richard Gray Gallery on Madison Avenue right now–”because I don’t have anyone to blame when things go wrong.”
Martyrdom on the Upper East Side
In a quiet moment while he was getting ready for the Jan. 27 opening of Illuminated Manuscripts , an exhibition of illustrated religious books and pages from the Middle Ages, art dealer Sam Fogg told The Observer that it’s getting easier to sell a crucifix. “There is a new kind of collector coming from contemporary art who doesn’t mind owning religious art,” Mr. Fogg said. “There is not that much difference, in subject, between one of these illustrated books and a Francesco Clemente. The esthetic of contemporary art is not unlike that of medieval art. It is intended to be spiritually charged.”
Through Feb. 12, Mr. Fogg is showing what he has billed as the most important exhibition of illuminated art in New York in 30 years, at the Blumka Gallery, East 72nd Street.