Lightning Rod - Martha Mayer Erlebacher

Martha Mayer Erlebacher was trained originally in Abstract Expressionism, but (along with her husband Walter) broke from this school in the late 60’s and quickly became recognized as one of the leading representational figurative and still-life artists in America. As a faculty member at the New York Academy of Art for several years, she has served as Faculty Chair and directed the anatomy program. She regularly shows her work nationally and internationally and her work has been featured in many books and periodicals. Erlebacher’s work examines the deep metaphorical and social themes of contemporary culture through her painterly and aesthetic images.

In January, New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch was chosen as Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the most recent example of the close and interconnected relationship between museums, their boards of directors, collectors, gallerists, auction houses and artists. How or will the further tightening of relationships among these groups impact on the world of representational or figurative painting or of the creation of visual art in general?


  1. My first thought is that this may further skew the museums intended for the public toward a privatized, capitalist worldview. But then again, this has already been going on for 100 years. We no longer have the church as a major institutional patron, and we have the Enlightenment to thank for that! So this is not any kind of change but a continuation of a larger trend.

  2. My thinking is that while, yes, this has been going on for ages, some "firewall" has dropped in the last few years that takes the role of "curator" out of the hands of a highly selective community of scholars and and art lovers and places it in the hands of "folks with lots of money". Some of these folks are highly trained and deeply appreciative of the arts and others, less so.

    In Deitch's case I don't think you can argue his commitment or vision, but his connection to the world of money and glamour might signal a lowering of the bar for thoughtful discourse to "Barnum and Bailey" sensationalism.

    How this will effect people open to the figure and narrative will probably be good. Deitch has a long history of supporting figurative and narrative art and his connection to pop culture and the Lowbrow movement will probably result in some crossover muckraking.

    The larger issue of the proximity of the Boards of museums to the curating staff is ongoing and if the recent "Skin Fruit" show is any example, probably not going away soon. The question as always is, who's in charge of culture?

  3. Speaking of "larger issue" here, I'd like to combine portions of ideas Martha (close connections) and Mary (privatized/capitalist) touched on, and extrapolate them to include how the television makes "superstars" of every individual opinion. This, I think, touches Peter's question "Who's in charge of culture?"

    I'll try and explain what I mean -
    HGTV, DIY, BRAVO and FOOD networks along with 'Reality TV' have in recent times encouraged such a powerful exaltation of self-service and opinion-as-fact that everyone regards him or her self as the ultimate authority. (Regarding “close connections”: who is closer than one’s self than one’s own reflection?) Anyone can be a chef, interior designer, artist etc. as long as they think they can and have the charismatic personality that asserts that they, indeed, are.

    With such a widespread acceptance that the mode of "I'm my own expert" thinking is true (regarding “privatized/capitalist” matters: truly, one’s private thoughts are often concerned with capitalizing on one’s own survival and validation), those who pursue authority (through credentials, proof, education or experience, for example) without the celebrity seem to be less... desirable. Less credible, even?

    For example: Watching Hell's Kitchen lately, I've found myself asking if Chef Ramsay can back up his vociferous statements with actual expertise, not just celebrity. In a recent episode, Chef brought in 3 Michelin-starred chefs to judge the contestants’ recipes. Led by the editors’ presentation of clips, that I found the Michelin-chefs concise judgments to be less interesting than the contestants’ “confessionals” horrified me. But one of those contestants will soon be the head of an entire restaurant in London – much like a curator at a museum.

  4. I think that one of the main issues at play here is what is the function of museums and similar institutions in our current culture. Is their purpose still to educate the public or have they shifted to places of spectacular info-tainment. For $29.50 each we can all go see an exhibition about the Titanic at Discovery Times Square, or examine anatomical specimens at the Bodies exhibit. Is this considered public education for a price or just a more interesting amusement park? Maintaining institutions involves the raising of a constant large stream of capital and ever since the collapse of public funding in the 70's or the King Tut exhibit at the Met, museum directors have realized the money-earning potential of blockbuster exhibitions. Are these tent-pole exhibits, like the recent Tim Burton retrospective at MOMA, a necessary evil to support more culturally enriching events, or are they a symptom of the shift in thinking of museum boards to an entirely capitalist enterprise akin to major investment corporations? There is a definite blurring of boundaries and roles in institutional culture as of late, and the collusion of formerly separate role-players that Martha's post touches upon is symptomatic of a much larger shift in our commodity culture.

    To quickly touch upon Deitch's job promotion, one of the remnants of the modernist critique of representation and figuration is that it is too commercial unlike the indirectly financial institutional support given to 'avant-garde' academic work, so for someone to move from a market that supports us to a place that lately hasn't can at least raise publicity and market-share for figurative artists. If there is a always going to be a narrow powerful group of cultural taste-makers, the very least we can hope for is for them to be fans of our work.

  5. In my view museums are confused about their function. They seem to be competing with entertainment venues for audiences (note NYTimes article, July 18th, about increased museum attendance) and no longer perceive themselves as repositories of the best artifacts human beings have created. This is to be expected in an age in which hierarchies have disappeared (there is no such thing as “best”, who says or who decides what’s to be valued? My opinion is as good as yours. It’s just opinion after all.) The values of a consumer/entertainment culture have triumphed. The art produced today, for the most part reflects these values.

  6. Martha,
    I often wonder about this, too. There was a museum in my home town where I worked during college. The museum was nothing "shiny," focusing on a relatively stable and consistent display of artifacts. It didn't have a large budget for publicity, but it was a hotspot for curious minds, for folks engaged with the integrity of their community and it boasted scholarship of local history at a very high level.

    At an early age, I was introduced to the importance of "repositories of the best artifacts" and have often been known to ring out the cheer: "We do not know who we are if we do not know from where we've come."