The documentary Driven to Abstraction revisits the infamous Knoedler scandal. In 2011, after 165 years in business, Knoedler & Co., one of the most venerated fine art galleries in the world, collapsed under the weight of what filmmaker Daria Price calls “the greatest forgery hoax ever of modern American art.” The gallery announced its closure in an email, cutting short the run of a long-planned exhibition by clay and mud sculptor Charles Simonds, stating, “It is with profound regret that the owners of Knoedler Gallery announce its closing…Gallery staff are assisting with an orderly winding down of [the] Gallery.”
What some industry insiders, but few in the public, knew at the time was that over the course of 15 years, beginning in 1994, Knoedler Gallery President Ann Freedman had been buying and reselling forged paintings attributed to some of the most accomplished American abstract artists of the 20th Century, including Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner, and Mark Rothko. Freedman claims to have been misled that the paintings were from a previously unknown collection of 20th century American masterworks, which belonged to a mysterious individual known to her only as Mr. X.None of the paintings had ever been seen before, and no documentation of their original sales appeared to exist.
Meanwhile, multiple experts raised concerns about the authenticity of the works, several providing Freedman with clinical data seeming to prove the works were frauds. Freedman nonetheless continued to resell the works, defending their authenticity to the end, and even exhibiting them publicly at such respected venues as the New York Armory Show.
Sales of the fraudulent works ultimately raised more than $60 million in revenue for Knoedler, and to this day, Freedman claims to have been just another victim of the scam.
If Driven to Abstraction only re-told the sordid tale of the downfall of Knoedler, which was covered exhaustively by the press as it unfolded in real time nearly a decade ago, the film would hardly be worth watching. Happily, it does a bit more than that.
It presents unbiased portrayals of all of the participants in the drama—the dealers, the collectors, the lawyers, the businessmen who initiated the scheme, the abused lover they contracted as an intermediary, and the Chinese painter who, while living a modest life with his family in Queens, forged the works of more than a dozen geniuses of abstract art. The film avoids merely stating the obvious—that the Blue Chip art market is largely a Ponzi scheme in which elite, wealthy art buyers and sellers routinely rip each other off—and instead offers a glimpse of the human side of the story, which is not as toxic, perhaps, as it is philosophical.
Early on, we meet who appears to be the chief perpetrator of the scam: a woman from Long Island named Glafira Rosales, who claims to be the American representative of the mysterious Mr. X. Rosales convinces Freedman that her client is the son of a wealthy man, now deceased, whose identity cannot be revealed for various reasons, including because he allegedly lived a secret life as a homosexual.
According to Rosales, Mr. X lived in New York in the mid-20th century, and purchased most of the paintings in his collection either directly from the artists, without documentation, or with the assistance of dealers who unfortunately cannot confirm or deny the story because they died long ago. Portrayed at first as a villain, Rosales is eventually revealed to be a victim herself. The true mastermind—her boyfriend José Carlos Bergantiños Díaz—evidently physically abused Rosales, forcing her to participate in the scheme.
Freedman is also painted at first as a villain. Prosecutors ask how anyone with her expertise could have possibly been foolish enough to believe the outlandish and frequently changing stories Rosales told, and how anyone with her reputation could have been so brazen as to ignore the expert advice of authenticators. However, largely through the sympathetic words of her lawyer, the film does a convincing job of arguing that her lifetime of experience is exactly why Freedman was so willing to believe the far-fetched story of Mr. X.
Anyone who spends any time in the gallery world knows that anonymity is essential to high dollar art deals, and that wealthy people routinely hide the facts of their personal lives, and that artists routinely sell works out the back door of their studios without involving their dealers, and often without a receipt. Additionally, sometimes authenticators and scientific analyses are wrong—not often, mind you, but often enough that someone who wants to believe has plenty of straws to grasp.
The most moving portrait the film provides is of the artist who actually created the forgeries, a Chinese immigrant named Pei-Shen Qian. Interviews with his art schoolmates portray Pei-Shen as a starving artist struggling to sell his work on the streets of New York. When approached by clients who want replicas of famous paintings, Pei-Shen happily accommodates them, evidently assuming they just want to hang the paintings on their own walls. He uses the paltry thousands they pay him for the copies to pay his mortgage on a house in Queens, and to bring his family over from China.
Pei-Shen claims he learned about the fraudulent million dollar sales by reading about the scam in the newspaper. Fear of jail sent him fleeing back to China, where he now struggles to become known for his own artistic accomplishments.
Driven to Abstraction raises many points about the frailties of the art market, but for me, the most fascinating question the film raises is about this one painter, who managed to copy the methods and visual languages of so many different masters of abstract art, well enough to fool dozens of experts.
In a field where artists routinely have assistants complete their work anyway, the story of Pei-Shen makes me ask why it really matters who painted a painting, as long as we like what we see?
Written by Phillip Barcio.
Featured image: Driven to Abstraction, Still - Attorney Luke Nikas looks at the fake Rothko. Photograph Grasshopper Pictures.