Aspen curator cultivates new talent for exhibition
August 2, 2011
ASPEN – When Barbara Berger was invited to curate an exhibition at the David Floria Gallery, she was hesitant, uncertain whether her career as an art consultant – building collections for corporations, and more recently, private clients – qualified her to create a gallery show. At 71, Berger, who had built a reputation for taking a chance on new artists, was cautious about getting into something new herself.
But though she may have been hesitant, uncertain and cautious, Berger was no coward. So when a friend brought up the c-word, Berger took action, and set about building a show for the David Floria Gallery.
“I don’t take lightly to being called a coward. So I said yes,” Berger said.
“Toward the Third Dimension,” which opens with a reception at 5 p.m. Tuesday, reflects on multiple levels, Berger’s 40-year career in visual arts, and where she now stands. The exhibition, with one work apiece by 11 artists, tilts toward the sort of emerging artists to whom Berger has always been attracted – not necessarily young, but still being discovered. Collectively, the work has an even stronger visual theme: Virtually all the pieces hover on a plane between two dimensions and three; to Berger, they are all pushing forward into another realm. “Garden Book,” by Jody Guralnick of Aspen, is a work on canvas – but with a sculptural element jutting out of one corner. “In the Event of Race Riot VII” is framed like a painting, but the frame holds a three-dimensional object, a hose.
“These artists are not working in two dimensions, and not quite three,” she said Monday afternoon outside the David Floria Gallery – and across from the patio from the restaurant, BB’s Kitchen, that she and her husband Bruce opened this past winter. “They’re working towards. It’s pushing the borders. And I like pushing borders. It’s always a reaching.”
Had anybody seriously accused Berger of cowardice, she well could point to the beginning of her career, marked by a bold reaching outside the comfort zone. Berger was a product of comfortable surroundings – Midtown Manhattan, Ivy League colleges. But she had a deep interest in contemporary art, so she made a habit of heading downtown to Soho, a netherworld at the time whose low rents attracted young artists. She happily ditched comfort for experience; without being paid, she packed boxes for Leo Castelli, simply for the privilege of hanging out with the art dealer and the people he represented.
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“Every day I took the subway down to Soho, and was there for the inception, watched it develop,” said Berger, who now lives part-time in upper Manhattan, across the street from the Whitney Museum. (Among the struggling young artists she met was her husband-to-be, who would soon trade painting for real estate development.) “I was an art-world groupie.”
In the early ’70s, Castelli and another influential downtown gallery owner, Ivan Karp, suggested that Berger go into business as an art consultant, advising corporations and professional firms on purchases of art. Never mind that there really was no such field at the time: Berger says she was the second art consultant in New York City. The business world was turning a corner; instead of flocked wallpaper and chair rails on their walls, they wanted art. In 1972, now with two young children, Berger started Confluence Inc.
From the outset, she focused her attention on younger artists, whose prices were more in line with what her clients budgeted for art. She made purchases of early work by Sol LeWitt and Cy Twombly; for her own collection, she traded a refrigerator for a sculpture by John Chamberlain. Prices aside, Berger found she liked the atmosphere that surrounded artists who were still finding their way to wherever they were headed.
“People thinking in a creative way – that’s what made my life rich,” said Berger, who switched from corporate to private clients when she moved to Aspen in the mid-’90s. “Their mind is in a different place than mine, so they’re bringing me to a different place. My job was introducing my clients to new ideas that were out there – and within their budget. Anyone can find something for a large amount of money. The trick is getting there and finding it before that.”
The doubts Berger had about doing the David Floria exhibition began fading when she started calling the galleries she has worked with over the years. They all showed faith in her, and allowed their artists to have pieces in the “Toward the Third Dimension” show.
The conversation was interrupted when Franklin Evans, a New York artist who was creating an installation around his piece, “Paintinganditsdouble,” for the exhibition, came by. Evans complimented the show, and said it looked like something that could be found in New York City.
“Great,” Berger answered. “Let’s figure out where.”