Driven To Abstraction unravels a mutating tale of self-delusion, greed, and fraud — the $80 million forgery scandal that rocked the art world and brought down Knoedler, New York City’s oldest and most venerable gallery.
Was the gallery’s esteemed director the victim of a con artist who showed up with an endless treasure trove of previously unseen abstract expressionist masterpieces? Or did she eventually suspect they were fakes?
Director Daria Price joins us on Close-up Culture to tell us more about the film ahead of its world premiere at the Raindance Film Festival in London (21 and 23 September). For ticket info
Q: What does it mean to be screening this film at the Raindance Film Festival in London?
A: I think it’s just lovely that the world premiere is in London at Raindance and that it’s been nominated for Best Documentary Feature.
I love that Raindance is this big boisterous indie-friendly festival smack in the middle of London— and that London is the heart of the art world and art trade, so no place could be more appropriate given the subject of Driven To Abstraction. Except New York, where it actually took place… and some have remarked that makes London smarter than New York… not that I would ever snicker such a thing about my hometown.
Q: When did you learn of this story and why did you want to take it on?
A: I had been following forgery stories for many years, ever since I’d done obsessive research for a screenplay I was writing, Blood From A Stone, whose characters were an art restorer and two artists, one of whom was a very benign and loveable forger of Milton Avery. So I was well immersed in that world.
So in 2011 when the Knoedler mess first surfaced, I was clipping every article everywhere (yup, I don’t just bookmark, I actually read newspapers and clip them—an incorrigible family genetic trait). By 2015 I was researching every angle and everyone involved in the scandal– and I was hooked.
But everyone said you can’t do this story, it’s a great crazy story, but impossible, no one in the art world will give you access, it taints too many people, they will run and hide. And then I thought WTF. The collectors and experts are too embarrassed and the guilty parties won’t ever tell the truth anyway. My way into this documentary will be how to tell a true and nuanced story about a bunch of tall tales that were told for fifteen years. And the journalists led me in.
When Patricia Cohen, who had done the most extensive reporting for The New York Times, agreed to do the first interview, it was June 2015, and that’s how it began.
Q: You’ve said that the Knoedler Gallery fiasco is less a tragedy than a comedy of errors. Can you expand on that and the nature of this situation?
A: Well it is very sad that such a historically important art gallery should so ignominiously shut down for good—I mean Knoedler predates the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It catered to and built the early art collections of the Rockefellers and Fricks, and the other magnates that built America; it was a leading dealer of Old Masters and dominated the market for British painting in America. This is sad.
But putting it in perspective, this was a giant fiasco but no one died, and for a change the rich rather than the poor got fleeced. And while I do feel badly for the collectors who got burned, and there were many who never got their money back, there is also a tacit code of silence in the high end art acquisition world that allowed this hoax to flourish for 15 years. To some extent it’s the price paid because multi-millionaire buyers and sellers like the anonymity and lack of regulation… and that makes it a fertile breeding ground for fraud.
As far as tragedy, I’ll let Ann Freedman have the final word. In her interview in The Art Newspaper after the trial of 2016, she said something like… mistakes happen… even museums know they have questionable works… this is about works of art, I didn’t slay anyone’s newborn. When I read that I thought “it’s the art world” just like in Chinatown “it’s Chinatown.”
Q: Can you tell us about the two women at the heart of this story and what their behaviour reveals?
A: Between the two of them, well it covers the mysterious permutations of all sorts of bewildering human behaviour. You’ve got ambition and greed, conner and conned, delusion and deception. Where does self-delusion stop and intentional deception start? Who knows, that was the mystery, what was interesting to me, the fine line?
I attended every minute of the two week trial and during and afterwards heard a wide range of private opinions on the subject of who knew what when and who is guilty as sin or maybe not. But their duplicitous behavior is also —it’s just another bad love story—well they’re all bad or there wouldn’t be a story—but they start off nicely, in this case falling in love with some previously unobtainable object d’ art. Yikes, newly discovered Pollocks and Rothkos—to art loving dealers and collectors this is pay dirt!
You want to believe and you do believe and you fall and then maybe when the red flags pop up it’s too late to give up. If love is blind, the love of art is even more so. And once you’re in love it ain’t so easy it to say it’s all a fake.
But speaking of behavior, strangest of all– all those years of making the film, Glafira Rosales was the one unambiguous character— a villain who had admitted guilt and ratted out the rest. And then, just before her much delayed sentencing, we learn that she had been an abused and battered woman, forced by her boyfriend and the father of her child, to participate in the scam. There went the one simple character.
Q: Did you have much experience of the art world before making this film?
A: I did not have formal training; I didn’t do the art history thing in school. I grew up in a house of art, my parents’ friends were artists, I did my first oil painting of my doll at age four, my sister became a painter and sculptor and art restorer, and just about every damn significant or insignificant boyfriend I had was an artist, as are many of my fiends still, including those who contributed art to the film and theirs is authentic.
When my sister and I were really young and dragged to museums all the time, my sister called them miseriums. I can’t wait to go to all the wonderful miseriums in London during the festival week.
Q: How did you find the experience of trying to piece together this story given the secrecy and deception surrounding it?
A: In a nutshell, the very same secrecy and lack of transparency that allowed the Knoedler hoax to go on for so many years—is what I encountered. Every step of the way.
It was understandable that people under legal pressure would steer clear as would some innocent but embarrassed experts with reputations at stake. But there were several potential subjects who would consider…. vacillate… consider some more… tell me how glad they were I was making this important film… and then bow out. Or tell me they’d had enough of the Knoedler affair and wanted to move on. It would have been easier infiltrating the CIA or MI6!
But there were a few exceptions, particularly Martha Parrish, a former Board member of the Art Dealers Association of America and a witness at the trial—in fact the only art dealer who would testify as an expert witness at the trial. Not only did she agree to an interview, she went to several top notch art dealers and urged them to consider participating. She was shocked when they declined (but I wasn’t) and they all complimented Martha on being so brave as to testify at the trial and participate in the film.
As Martha says in the film, “what’s everyone so afraid of?”
Q: What voices did you trust to be part of the documentary?
A: I tried to make a nuanced and balanced film that would explore a mystery, not solve it with simple answers. I’m grateful for all those who contributed their voices and authentic perspectives. As for those who declined and those who could have spoken for themselves… let’s leave it at that.
Q: What are your hopes for the film at Raindance and beyond?
A: The world premiere in London is the very start of getting the film out there.
My hope is of course that it will eventually reach a worldwide audience that appreciates a bit of a challenge and a complex subject they may know little about.
Yes, of course the obvious audience is the art niche, the art crime niche, the hoax and scam niche. The hell with niche. Although most people are not directly affected by shenanigans in the art trade, the fact is that after drugs and arms the art trade is the most unregulated in the world.
You can see ‘Driven To Abstraction’ at the Raindance Film Festival in London (21 and 23 September). For ticket info