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Advocates for Art:
Polish and Czech Fiber Artists
from the Anne and Jacques
Baruch Collection

By Christa C. Mayer Thurman


 
 

Montana del Fuego (1986) is
by Magdalena Abakanowicz
(Polish -1930). The artist, who
is well known for her free-standing
armies of headless, hollow bodies,
began her career as a weaver.

In 1967, an art gallery opened in Chicago. Well established by 1971, it was housed in a 1920s apartment building at 900 North Michigan Avenue in a spectacular baronial duplex on the sixth floor —the apartment of architect Jarvis Hunt (1864-1941), who had designed the building. The gallery carried the name of its owner, Jacques Baruch. Jacques Z. Baruch was a Polish architect and his wife, Anne Baruch, née Lillye Anne Stern, was a Chicago businesswoman of Romanian and Russian heritage. Jacques saw his parents murdered in World War II, survived the underground and ultimately immigrated to the United States in 1946. The couple met in Chicago, where Jacques was working as an architect, and they were married in 1951.

The Baruchs determined that their gallery would focus on contemporary art and artists from Central and Eastern Europe, which Jacques once described as “the finest work of tomorrow…not what is known… the new blood.” Works on paper, (drawings, etchings and lithographs), photography, glass, metal and fiber were the gallery’s expertise. Occasionally painting was featured, including works by Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).

Many of the works presented were by artists who had begun their careers under Communist occupation. The gallery’s early years coincided with worsening political conditions behind the Iron Curtain. On August 20, 1968, the Baruchs left Prague just five hours before Soviet tanks rolled into the city and brutally ended a brief period of democratic reforms. Life, which had been difficult for these people, grew worse. One only has to think of the struggle they were exposed to daily and the limited materials and substances they could secure for their artistic expressions. The struggle was overbearing and bare essentials such as food and clothing were hard to find. “The atmosphere in the area was horrible; everybody was depressed, and certain they would never climb out of their jail,” Anne recalled later. “The artists were sure they’d never be seen again.”

 

Circle (1973) is by Anna
Sledziewska
(Polish 1905-
1979), who is known for
Gobelin and Jacquard
tapestries that feature
chords of light in white,
silver and beige.

 
For the Baruchs, making trips behind the Iron Curtain during these years was a complex, taxing, and, at times, dangerous, way of making a living. Importing Czech photography and works on paper, for example, presented particular risks. Many of the artists the Baruchs wanted to work with were not sanctioned by the authorities and so, after the Soviet crackdown, Anne began smuggling art out of the country. The process was deceptively simple: Anne would present a portfolio of inexpensive sanctioned art to be reviewed by government agents for export. They would approve it, tie it with string and seal it with imprinted wax. Before her return to the U.S., however, the artists she worked with would open the parcels, replace the approved items with their unsanctioned works and remake the seals. On more than one occasion, Anne traveled to Prague with a bright red Hartman suitcase equipped with a false bottom. Outgoing, she would fill it with art supplies; on the return trip it would carry hidden artworks. She also established a code to correspond with artists and take notes about pricing and exhibition details.

The trips took a physical toll; Jacques had a heart attack in 1970 and, despite not being fluent in Czech or Polish, Anne made her art trips alone after that, dealing with import issues and artists who desperately needed exposure, support, encouragement and funding from the West. There were also dealings with the government agencies that controlled the export of art. After one trip, the FBI questioned her at the gallery. On another, she was detained at the Prague airport and questioned at length. There were legal formalities to secure in order to export the art, the running of the gallery and the day-to-day issues that would accumulate while she traveled. And last but not least, there was the worry about her life’s partner, Jacques, and his health. Nevertheless, she managed to find a significant entourage of artists to become a part of their undertaking, among them a group of internationally important textile artists. It is this group of artists whose work is included in the special exhibition of Polish and Czech tapestries from the Baruch’s collection at this year’s SOFA CHICAGO.


 
 

Works like Seaside (circa
1970s) are created directly
on the loom by Krystyna
Wojtyna-Drouet
(Polish -1926).
“I do not use the painter's
approach when creating a
work,” Wojtyna-Drouet has
explained, “because I believe it
makes no sense to duplicate
painting in tapestry. In my
opinion, form should not work
against the natural rhythm of
the warp yarns.”

“We were captivated by their energy, experiments and bold compositions,”” Anne would write of the Polish fiber artists she and Jacques met in 1970. “Though there were...shortages of studios, materials and most necessities for daily life, all their problems did not hamper their work. Rather, it stimulated their creativity, and their use of sisal, rope, metal, horsehair and fleece as well as the traditional wool, flax and silk, revealed new artistic thought with results which were dynamic, highly personal and original.””

The Baruchs exhibited, collected and promoted these artists, including Magdalena Abakanowicz (whose tapestry Lune de Miel 2 is installed at Chicago’s McCormick Place, South Building, Level 2.5 in the southeast corner, and whose sculpture installation, Agora, is in Grant Park), Jolanta Owidzka, Zofia Butrymowicz, Anna Sledziewska, and Krystyna Wojtyna-Drouet of Poland as well as Luba Krejci and Jan Hladik of Czechoslovakia. They were unknown to many of the gallery-going audiences, collectors and curators until Jacques Baruch’s striking exhibitions, which were magically designed on shoestring budgets—works mounted and framed whenever apt and necessary—introduced them to the West and specifically to Chicago.

In the years that followed, catalogs were written, traveling exhibitions organized, articles published and works by these exceptional artists added to private and museum collections: including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

As the direction of the Jacques Baruch Gallery became more widely known, budding collectors, museum curators, and university personnel in charge of collections in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States were drawn to the exciting artistic expressions represented and intrigued by the previously unknown repertoire of the artists in the collection. Camaraderie among the young collectors and curators developed. Some provided assistance in hanging the exhibitions, which became exciting social events and legendary evenings at the gallery. Anne would cook memorable and delicious Eastern European meals and in doing so thank those who helped with the installations.

The Baruchs’ personal life became that of the gallery and vice versa. Their living quarters were tucked away within the gallery complex, which was where they worked, entertained and dreamed. Their lives were frugal without extravagances or indulgences. I don’t recall them ever taking a vacation. The mission of helping the artists in their life’s struggles and their difficult existence was primary to them, matched with a keen sense of artistic evaluation and remarkable eyes to judge the art that was being produced by this generation of struggling artists. Their involvement included a human aspect—caring for the artists and their families. Years later, after the conditions in Central and Eastern Europe had improved, this concern was forgotten by some. It was amazing to me how quickly several artists transferred their allegiances to other Western galleries and representatives in the 1980s.


 
 

Agnieszka Ruszczynska-Szafranska
(Polish - 1929) is known for her
unique weavings of linen, wool
and sisal like Podroz (Journey)
(1986) from the Kolidia series.
Their circular, semi-transparent
designs have intrigued many a
textile historian, weaver and admirer.

In 1984, despite community efforts, the building at 900 North Michigan was torn down to create commercial space and all the tenants had to leave. The Baruchs and their gallery relocated to the penthouse at 40 East Delaware Place. When Jacques died in 1986, Anne continued to operate the gallery at that location for another seven years and then moved into an apartment on the 15th floor of 680 North Lake Shore Drive.

During that same period, Anne and the Jacques Baruch Gallery received international recognition for their efforts on behalf of the arts. Anne received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Gonzaga University in 1987 for “work done behind the Iron Curtain” as well as The Medal of the Order of Cultural Merit from the Minister of Culture and Fine Arts in Poland. In 1988, she received the Silver Medal of Merit from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague and in 1989, she received the Karel Plicka Medal from the Czechoslovakian Minister of Culture. In 1990, she met President Vaclav Havel in Washington, D.C. and she returned to Czechoslovakia for the first time since the country’s authoritarian regime was overthrown in late 1989.

In 1993, the gallery became the Anne and Jacques Baruch Collection, available only by appointment; this arrangement continued until Anne’s death in October of 2007. The Baruch Foundation (baruchfoundation.org), a 501(c)(3) entity, was established shortly thereafter. It includes Anne’s personal art collection and the artwork inventory of the Anne and Jacques Baruch Collection, Ltd.

The Foundation has two missions: to foster interest in and knowledge of the visual arts of Eastern and Central Europe through donations of artwork to museums and schools and to fund educational programs and scholarships by the sale of art. The Foundation has partnered with browngrotta arts and The Art Fair Company to promote the works and artists in the Collection through a special exhibition, Advocates for Art: Polish and Czech Fiber Artists from the Anne and Jacques Baruch Collection, at SOFA CHICAGO 2010. The special exhibition features a selection of 21 works from the Collection, by 14 artists, including tapestries and drawings by Lilla Kulka, Magdalena Abakanowicz, Wojciech Sadley, Jolanta Owidzka and others. Through the Foundation’s efforts and the Advocates for Art exhibition and the accompanying catalog, the Baruchs’ legacy will continue.

Christa C. Mayer Thurman was the chair and curator of the Department of Textiles at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1967 through 2009. She is the author and co-author of numerous books about textiles, including European Tapestries in the Art Institute of Chicago (2008), for which she oversaw the collection’s conservation, became the general editor, and contributed to the resulting volume as an author. Christa and her late husband, Lawrence S. Thurman, were friends of the Baruchs for many years. Jacques and Lawrence both fought in World War II and suffered compromised health as a result. During Christa’s tenure at the Art Institute, several textiles from behind the Iron Curtain entered the collection either as gifts, bequests, or purchases. Several Baruchconnected pieces are included in the exhibition she has just curated, Contemporary Fiber Art—A Selection from the Permanent Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago through February 7, 2011.

Adapted from the catalog for Advocates for Art: Polish and Czech Fiber Artists from the Anne and Jacques Baruch Collection, published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2010 special exhibit of the same name presented by the Baruch Foundation and browngrotta arts.

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About SOFA CHICAGO

The Sculpture Objects Functional Art + Design (SOFA) Fair in Chicago is the premier gallery-presented art fair dedicated to three-dimensional art and design. On par with Art Basel and TEFAF Maastricht, SOFA is produced by Urban Expositions.

Critically acclaimed and continuously running since 1994, what distinguishes SOFA from other top art events is its focus on three-dimensional artworks that cross the boundaries of fine art, decorative art and design.  SOFA is noted for its exceptional presentation, with an elite selection of international dealers presenting for sale one-of-a-kind masterworks in handsome, custom-designed gallery exhibits.

SOFA is held annually in the fall at Chicago's major destination, Navy Pier, with an average of 80 dealers and 35,000 people attending.

SOFA CHICAGO / Tickets & Showtimes

Urban Expositions presents SOFA CHICAGO 2015 at Navy Pier's Festival Hall (600 E. Grand Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611) Nov. 6 - 8, with the Opening Night Preview Thursday, Nov. 5.

Day Date Hours Purchase Tickets
Thursday Nov. 5 7 pm to 9 pm Tickets ($50)
Friday Nov. 6 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Saturday Nov. 7 11 am to 7 pm Tickets ($20)
Sunday Nov. 8 Noon to 6 pm Tickets ($20)

One general admission ticket of $20 admits visitors to the fair, related lecture series, special exhibits and events. $30 three-day passes and discounted student, senior and group tickets are also available. The public is also invited to the Opening Night Preview, Thursday, Nov. 5, 7 to 9 p.m. Preview tickets are $50.