Jasmine Maki, Forum News Service, Published December 03 2013
Around the world in artifacts: ND Museum of Art reconstructs New York artist’s apartment
Traveling 1,500 miles, the pieces have come from Barton Benes’ home in New York City’s West Village to Grand Forks, where the artist’s 850-square-foot apartment has been reconstructed in the Mezzanine Gallery of the museum. The end date is undetermined, but the installation will be on display for several months.
Benes, who died May 30, 2012, is known for his sculptures of everyday artifacts sent to him from his fans, followers and friends. The relics include lipstick-stained napkins of celebrities, fingernail clippings and human bones. In little boxed “museums,” the artifacts are displayed on tags with short handwritten notes.
Benes’ largest collection of work, though, was undoubtedly his own apartment, where he displayed thousands of artifacts collected and traded with dealers and art collectors. That collection will now introduce the North Dakota Museum of Art’s visitors to a wider spectrum of traditional art from around the world.
“This is the first time we’ve had such a large collection of traditional art from Africa, Egypt and South America,” said Laurel Reuter, director of the museum.
‘A dream he held onto’
Although Benes lived in New York the majority of his life, he had a close relationship with Reuter and the North Dakota Museum of Art.
The two met in 1987 when Reuter was working with architect Harvey Hoshour on the museum’s renovation. A good friend of Benes’, Hoshour suggested the two meet. “Of course, when I met her, I didn’t like her at all,” Benes said in a 2007 video interview with Peter Ryan. “I thought she was a snob, and she thought I was a brat.”
But those feelings didn’t last long.
“Pretty soon, we were the best of friends,” Reuter said.
When Hoshour died in 1988, Reuter asked artists to finish the designs. Benes designed the museum’s gift shop and donor wall. The building opened in 1989 with the first of several exhibitions of Benes’ artwork.
While many other galleries turned down Benes’ controversial artwork with concerns of distastefulness and safety, Reuter didn’t think twice about it.
“It didn’t occur to me not to show it,” said Reuter, who sent rubber gloves with the invitations for the opening, and the exhibitions went on without incident.
After those first exhibitions, Reuter said she visited Benes in his New York apartment more than 100 times. During one visit, Reuter said Benes looked around at his many artifacts and said, “What am I going to do with all of this?”
Reuter suggested gifting his collection to the museum for a 21st century period room, and he agreed.
“When I went to North Dakota, there was no African art, and I thought I have all of this African art, why don’t I give it to the museum,” Benes said in the 2007 interview.
Reuter added: “It became a dream he held onto. He said, ‘If I could live anywhere else, I’d live in North Dakota, so I’m going to give them my
This summer, Reuter sent several of the museum’s staff to New York to pack the collection and bring it to Grand Forks. Working off photographs taken over the course of 10 to 15 years, museum employees and volunteers spent three full weeks constructing and installing Barton’s Place.
“He kept changing things around, so we’re quite happy changing things around,” Reuter said. “The major pieces are where they should be, but it’s an installation rather than the actual apartment.”
‘A collection of his friends’
The artifacts in Barton’s Place total more than
$1 million in African, Egyptian and contemporary art that Benes bought, traded and found throughout his life.
In “Curiosa,” published in 2002, Benes wrote, “It started with a bone.”
During Benes’ first trip to Europe in 1963, he visited the catacombs of Rome, where he “snatched” one of the bones.
“I took a small one, and when we got outside I showed it to Howard. He said, ‘You put that bone back or it’s going to haunt you the rest of your life,’ ” he wrote.
Benes went back to replace the bone but couldn’t find the correct body, so he took it home and put it in a special case to “keep the spirit happy.”
His fascination with relics only grew from there.
“He would see somebody, make a connection, and then find out what he could trade,” said Bob Brier, an American Egyptologist known as Mr. Mummy.
Brier met Benes when the artist called looking to purchase a mummy.
“I only had this brief conversation with him on the phone, but I sensed he was a really good artist,” Brier said at the exhibition opening. “And I said to Barton, ‘Do you want to trade? I’ll trade you an animal mummy for a piece of your art.’ ”
Having never seen Benes’s artwork, Brier took a risk. He traded a mummified fish for a piece of Barton’s artwork, and he loved it. Over the next 30 years, Benes and Brier traded many, many more pieces.
“That’s how Barton accumulated his Egyptian work,” Brier said.
But Brier wasn’t the only one. Benes traded artwork with almost any artist, dealer or collector he came across. He received African masks, voodoo dolls, oil lamps from the Middle East and countless pieces of taxidermy, including a rooster from the museum’s associate director, Matthew Wallace.
Reuter said one of her favorite pieces is the fine Shipibo pot from the Peruvian Amazon, which sits on the dresser below the bull’s head.
“It’s just a gorgeous piece,” she said. “You can tell it influenced his artwork,” she added pointing out his large mosaic made of Shipibo shards and plaster hanging on the wall outside Barton’s Place.
Brier said: “It’s not a thoughtful collection. It’s just what Barton liked. It’s a collection of his friends.”
Blending historic, contemporary art
The artifacts may come from every corner of the map and all different time periods, but the room appears to flow seamlessly from one piece to the next. From the African masks and Peruvian pot on the dresser near the front door to the glass case holding many taxidermy pieces and a beautiful orange Cameroonian feather headdress, Benes’ collection takes visitors on a journey.
“What I always saw in Barton was this ability to move back and forth in time and to see the relationships between ancient Egyptian (art) and his own work … ,” Reuter said.
Reuter decided to open two other exhibitions to play off Barton’s collection: “Vernal Bogren Swift: After Shocks,” an exhibition of original batik work, and “The Museum Collects African Pots: In Memory of Sanny Ryan,” an exhibition of 25 African terracotta pots.
“It shows how historic and contemporary art blend so perfectly,” Reuter said. “I like the marriage of the two.”
If You Go
WHAT: Barton’s Place
WHEN: Ongoing; check www.ndmoa.com for times
where: North Dakota Museum of Art, 261 Centennial Drive Stop 7305, Grand Forks
Info: For more information, visit www.ndmoa.com/exhibitions-current