JAN BAUM GALLERY
by John O'Brien
Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of her gallery and reflecting on twenty-plus years of dealing in, studying and collecting fine arts, Jan Baum remains optimistic about the strength of contemporary art in Los Angeles and even about the market that exists for that art.
At the origin of her interest in "vanguard art," as she describes it, was a lengthy stay at LACMA during the early seventies as a member of the docent program. As a docent she was first initiated into the flow of exciting ideas, images and objects that constituted the advent of West Coast Modernism. She recalls in detail the exhibition which catalyzed her nascent art sensibility: it was Maurice Tuckman's Sculpture of the 60's. This initiation into the recent history of modern art led her to an even greater desire to work with the vanguard of art being produced in L.A. So in 1975, when the Art Museum Council asked her to be responsible for the selection of work for the art rental gallery, she made use of the opportunity and challenge to visit an enormous quantity of local artists' studios. Over the next two years, she explored the contours of the vanguard firsthand and made her map of the contemporary art world.
Although she and her husband Richard had already begun collecting art themselves, Baum hadn't thought about dealing in it until a friend, Iris Silverman, approached her in 1977. Silverman was already dealing successfully in tribal arts from Africa and Indonesia. She proposed that Baum open a contemporary art gallery with her and use the revenue from her established trade to offset the potential risks and start-up costs. On March 15th, 1977 in an old dress shop between the then galleries of James Corcoran and Nicholas Wilder, the J. Baum and I. Silverman (later, simply Baum and Silverman) Gallery opened.
It was a source of great pleasure and excitement for both women, who could share their respective artistic expertise and business acumen. The art scene itself was burgeoning and there was novel work being generated. Among the early exhibitions, there were artists like Betty Saar, Chris Burden, Peter Plagens and Claude Kent.
The list is long and fascinating to review over the 20-year time span; to see who went on, in what ways they continued their work as artists, and with whom. This kind of roll call is the most common one to perform when viewing a gallery's history. However, also interwoven are tales of unpredictably fortuitous coincidence; like that of Alison Saar, who worked as the gallery receptionist for the four years in which she was finishing her MFA degree at Otis, only to become one of the gallery's most renowned successes. And there were also the sad events, most notably the passing away of Iris Silverman in 1980.
The scene changed, the locations changed (the renamed Jan Baum Gallery opened at its current location on La Brea in 1981) and even the vanguard changed. All of this required adaptability and tenacity in order to keep going. Twenty years of activity in a field where influencing people's taste and predicting their passions is the only way to keep going is a good yardstick of Baum's unabated enthusiasm and commitment to converting viewers into collectors by turning "their interest into an uncontrollable passion." Her view and belief that this twenty-year period has been an upward trajectory marked only by occasional pauses undoubtedly fuels her attitude. A remarkable will also has something to do with it.
Among the artists long associated with Jan Baum, and whom continue to be featured in their own exhibitions there, are Jim DeFrance, Roberto Gil de Montes, Madden Harkness, Steve Heino, Bruce Houston, Selma Moskowitz, Trevor Norris, Peter Plagens, Mel Rubin, Ernest Silva and Takako Yamaguchi. Baum's 20th anniversary show, Remembrance of Exhibitions Past, celebrates the history of these current and past artists with a selection of one or two new works by each.
Takako Yamaguchi, "A Suivre #10," oil/bronze leaf on paper, 1983.