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MRQE Top Critic

The Horse Whisperer

(review...)

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It’s a dazzling treasure trove involving 40 works of art valued at $60 million. But it’s all a fraud laid bare in this outlandish artworld scandal, a cocktail of pigments and dollars that slowly started to ferment and then gradually soured.

Is It Real?


Driven to Abstraction is a documentary. But the story is something worthy of a big-screen dramatization. If done right — and artfully — it even has the potential for Oscar bait.

For 15 years (1994-2009), the reputable New York City art dealer Knoedler & Co. pulled a massive fraud on unsuspecting art connoisseurs. And this clearly wasn’t penny-ante stuff. We’re talking about works passed off as being created by A-list abstract artists like Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock.

In theory, their works have long been cataloged and inspected ad nauseam. But, nonetheless, when a Long Island art dealer named Glafira Rosales darkened Knoedler’s doors and met Ann Freedman, an outlandish cocktail of pigments and dollars started to ferment.

It all started to go sour when one customer purchased a Pollock, found it to be a forgery, then requested his money back. Hubris, ignorance, whatever the drivers behind Knoedler’s reluctance to admit a mistake, the request escalated into a lawsuit that led to a hullabaloo that would take years to uncover fully — and it’d leave the entire industry reeling in self-doubt.

Provenance

In the world of art, a work’s provenance details its origins, a timeline of owner history and appraised value. It’s a sort of certificate of authenticity, a way to trace a work and know it’s an original. That basic concept suffered a complete breakdown at Knoedler.

And that’s where Driven to Abstraction comes in. The documentary is told without a word of narration. It’s a straight-forward examination by way of industry experts, including art critics, journalists and art historians from sources including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, the Robb Report and Artnet News.

How egregiously bad did things get at Knoedler? Well, paintings people had never seen before from those elite, oft-studied artists started to appear with rapid frequency. Then there was a funny looking — and small — Pollock (or is that Pollok? Freedman’s attention to detail didn’t even notice the “artist” misspelled his own name).

Even after a work was returned by a purchaser claiming it was a forgery, Freedman had the nerve to turn around and attempt to sell the work a second time.

Intent to Deceive

As a result of all this, Freedman was able to haul in $10.4 million in personal profits. Without all the forged works pouring into Knoedler’s coffers, the dealer would’ve long-since gone bankrupt.

The story goes silly. It’s the kind of stuff that might’ve been more comfortable in a Monty Python skit than on the main stage of the New York art world. There’s a shady character named Mr. X. Was he Filipino? Yes. Uh. No. Maybe he was Swiss. Maybe he was gay. But then he went home and went straight. Anyway, he had to hide his identity.

But, well... Sorry... There’s a Mr. X Sr. and a Mr. X Jr. Hmmm… Maybe they’re Mexican.

With that sort of convoluted, crazy shellgame where the lives of (allegedly) real owners are sordid tales of completely inconsistent storytelling, it’s only a matter of time before it all falls apart.

As the story devolves, the in-the-weeds forgers at the heart of the scandal become more human and — strangely enough — more innocent or, at least possibly so. All of that activity ties back to Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese forger whose true intentions may or may not have been to disrupt an entire art industry by flooding the market with cheap reprints and lost “originals.”

With that underlying activity in mind (and given the documentary’s sprite 84-minute runtime), more could’ve been done to place this scandal in the larger context of art history — the daring thefts, the glaring forgeries and all the other looney antics that have made the artworld headlines through centuries of deceit. Right in the thick of this tainted paint tale, for example, Ely Sakhai was convicted for running an international art forgery operation right out of his own New York City gallery. That should’ve been some sort of wake up call to Freedman and Rosales.

Of course, Freedman wound up making a deal before she had to testify. And that’s where this documentary could’ve used some more muscle. It would’ve been great to see — if not by way of first-person, fresh interviews with Freedman and Rosales — at least some sort of archival footage documenting their mannerisms and speech patterns. Something — anything — to give viewers an inkling of either how highly skilled or shamelessly inept these two bad actors truly were.