Two art-world doyennes, Diane
Shamash and Annely
Juda, died last Sunday. I don’t want to read too much into the coincidence,
especially considering that although they died on the same day, they were born
41 years apart from each other. Diane died at 51: when Annely was that age,
her best years were very much ahead of her and Annely Juda Fine Art wasn’t even
founded. It’s a sobering reminder of how much Diane could have accomplished
given more time.
Still, there are definite similarities between the two: both were physically
small and temperamentally uncompromising, with a tendency towards perfectionism.
Both, too, were intensely loyal to their artists: the art, always, came first,
for both of them, and they had a rare ability to bend the art world to their
will when they wanted something.
I never met Annely, although I spent many wonderful hours in her pristine Dering
Street gallery, lost in her beautifully-curated shows of usually underrated
abstract masters. I remember one constructivism show particularly well –
there was a Malevich I returned to Saturday after Saturday on my weekly trips
into town from Dulwich.
Diane I knew better, often meeting her in some kind of food-related context:
she loved food almost as much as she loved art. Diane saw great chefs
as artists in their own right, and was particularly interesting when she explored
the intersection between fine art and food, as in the work of Christian Philipp
The biggest difference between Annely and Diane might be in the fate of their
legacies. Annely Juda Fine Art
is in the excellent hands of David Juda; Minetta
Brook, on the other hand, has lost not only its founder but its very soul,
and although I dearly hope that it will be able to continue, I fear that might
not be possible.
Minetta Brook was a serious-minded public art organisation which refused ever
to condescend to the public it served. Diane would find artists as serious-minded
as she was, and would help them realise their vision with unquestioning faith
that there would always be an audience for good art, no matter how superficially
inaccessible it might be.
As part of a project called Watershed, Minetta Brook once rented out a storefront
in Beacon, NY, where it exhibited a long silent black-and-white film of the
Hudson River by Matthew Buckingham called Muhheakantuck. Christian
Philipp Müller’s piece in the same project consisted of a long steel trough
in Annandale-on-Hudson planted with Hudson River flora. Neither was easily accessible
in any sense of the word.
The audience for these pieces came largely from the art world: Minetta Brook
was never scared to create "public art" which in practice was seen
and appreciated by a very small audience. For Diane, public art was not a popularity
contest. She always served her artists first, even when their projects might
not receive much in the way of public acclaim.
If she refused to submit to the tyrannny of the popular, Diane also refused
to be told what was art and what was not. Food could be art, as could be barbecue
grills (designed by Pae White and installed in Bear Mountain State Park) or
park benches (by Constance De Jong and installed at Hessian Lake). The most
ambitious of all the Watershed projects was George Trakas’s Beacon Landing:
something that many art-world types would automatically consider architecture,
or design, or in any case Not Art.
Diane, however, had the utmost faith in and respect for her artists and their
art, and treated all of these projects with the same white-gloved respect that
she would give to the films of Dan Graham or the sculptures of Lothar Baumgarten.
New York without Diane Shamash is certainly a poorer place, but it will be
poorer still if it loses Minetta Brook as well. Public art is often thought
of in terms of hits: big projects in Rockefeller Center or along Park Avenue
or installed in subway stations. Diane had her own hits, too, foremost among
them the realization of Robert Smithson’s Floating Island from little
more than a single sketched drawing. Predictably, that project takes up a large
part of the NYT obituary.
But it’s the smaller, quieter pieces which for me are her true legacy. If you
went down to Pier 26 on the West Side Highway
at any time before last November you might have seen an upside-down canoe-like
structure on a couple of stilts. In fact the whole pier was an artwork by George
Trakas called Curach and Bollard, one which wasn’t often admired as
art, but one which very many people enjoyed very much all the same. That was
part of its beauty, and part of what made it such a classic Minetta Brook piece.
Every so often someone would stop, and consider, and move on, and the world
would be just a little bit better.