From Russia With Doubt: Adam Lerner discusses the risky exhibition of unverified art
In 2010, Adam Lerner was presented with what looked like a collection of pieces from the Russian Avant-Garde masters. Though the origin of the works was unverified, he showed them anyway -- a potentially career-shattering move for Lerner, who had recently taken the position of director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Lerner's new book, From Russia With Doubt, details how this work came to him, what he went through to exhibit it and what he learned along the way.
This Saturday, November 23, Lerner will host From Russia With Drinks, a celebration and conversation about his new book at the MCA Denver. In advance of that get-together, Westword spoke with Lerner about this strange tale and why he gambled on 181 paintings bought by collectors in an eBay auction.
See also: Now Showing: Adam Lerner and Adam Gildar
Westword: Why did you decide to do this exhibition in the first place?
Adam Lerner: It's hard for somebody who's not in the museum field to understand just how unusual it is to produce an exhibition and not know anything about where the objects that you're exhibiting came from. To not know if they were fakes, student works or works by the masters. I have to admit that it was frightening for me to go against all of the conventions of my field -- but I felt like there was something that was very powerful about a body of work that was so good, but also completely mysterious.
I overcame all of these fears of basically violating the rules of my field and decided to produce an exhibition because first, I loved the works. And second, I think the works say something profound about what it is we value when we value art.
You bring it up in the preface of the book, but there is so much authentication in our daily lives. And with art, I mean, art can mean a lot of things -- but one of those things is that we don't know. We don't know the origin of a piece, and maybe we just like looking at it.
Sometimes there is a tendency for museums to care so much about art, they forget about, like, why art even matters. I think that art matters because we want something that feels powerful and mysterious. It comes from some place that is beyond -- something that feels completely different from everything else in our lives. That's what these objects had.
I wouldn't assume that this kind of situation happens often, where work crosses your path that isn't authenticated, but what was it about these paintings that made you take the chance? Was it because there was so much of it? Or because you just really liked this period and style? Or?
What I try to address in the book is that, well, all of the above. First of all, the works are freaking awesome. Second, that period in art -- the Russian Avant Garde -- is just so exciting. If you asked me what my ideal dinner party is, it's where I get to sit around a table with a bunch of people who love Russian Avant Garde and we can just talk all night about how much we love it. There is something about that period that is really exciting to me.
It is also a very mysterious period, because all of these artists died young and there's not that many works of theirs that exist or are easy to see. The work was great and it had the energy of revolution -- and some of that feels rare and precious at the same time. Even, at times, spiritual.
The works are great, the time period is amazing. Then there's something that I try to tell in the story about them: Everybody -- and to some extent, including me in this book -- is a little bit crazy. The people who have collected 181 unauthenticated paintings are clearly crazy. The people who sold it to them -- if you could just see them, they are completely quirky individuals who are mid-level insurance administrators who love to tell these crazy stories and create almost like fairytale narratives. All of the art dealers who sell this stuff, they themselves have a little bit of eccentricity to them and they are always fighting with each other. The artists who made the stuff are fighting with each other. And me. I'm kind of crazy for doing this exhibition.
What I'm trying to say is, on some level, all of us are in this big, crazy enterprise together -- and there is something beautiful about that.