No Holds Barred: Art for Art’s Sake!

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Ed Ruscha, Securing the Last Letter (Boss), 1964.

I am not an Art Maven, much less a follower. I don’t watch the art markets, attend the fairs, visit Basel or attend any seasonal auctions or gallery openings. I don’t know a Gagosian from a Kardashian. I am checked out.

I am, however, a collector’s daughter. 60 years ago, my mom Audrey Sabol was a “hobby” artist in her own right and a Philadelphia housewife looking for something creative to do. She teamed up with another “housewife,” Joan Kron, and the two of them joined the Fine Arts Committee of the Arts Council at the YMHA In Philadelphia.

Pop art housewife collaborators Joan Kron and Audrey Sabol with their “Beautiful Bags” and Bob Indiana “Eat“ pin, 1965.

From 1962 to 1967 they were the leaders of getting pop art shows into Philadelphia. Culminating in a major event called the “Museum of Merchandise.” It included a “happening” performance piece called Chicken by Allan Kaprow and a fashion show (clothes by artists) ending with a bridal outfit designed by Christo. The “exhibit” was a groundbreaker at the time. Life magazine was assigned to cover it.

Woman in costume on stage at the Museum of Merchandise. Audrey Sabol Papers, 1962–67. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Later on, Joan and mom teamed up privately in conjunction with artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Indiana to make art objects. They started their own Durable Dish Company featuring Lichtenstein place settings (a setting was $40 in those days — plus shipping — and now it’s $5,000 a setting as per the latest auction!) and the famous “LOVE” ring as well as a blinking battery operated “EAT” pin by Robert Indiana.

Joan and mom became pop merchandise stars. The great New York Times writer Enid Nemy called them the “Housewives Cartel.” They also made it big with their “Beautiful Bag and Box Company” — a canvas tote stenciled “Beautiful Bag” a la Marcel Duchamp. It became the status response to the Bloomingdale’s and Bendel’s shopping bags. They succeeded in bringing pop art into retail.

Robert Indiana 18 karat LOVE ring, 1966, made by Joan Kron and Audrey Sabol for the Rare Ring Company, Philadelphia. This ring — with scratches, dings, and all — sold for $14,000 & change at auction this past summer.

Jackson China Company, Durable Dish Company, Falls Creek, Pennsylvania (1914-1985), Roy Lichtenstein, designer (American, 1923-1997), place setting, 1966, whiteware with stencil decoration, glazed, Promised Gift of Susanne and John Stephenson.

During that time, my mom often took me to artist studios — I never knew from the “downtown” loft scene. But we made it to Jasper Johns and Robert Indiana and, I think James Rosenquist, and the usual Lower East Side hangouts. At one point we flew to California to see unknown West Coast artists for another Philadelphia show she and Joan were doing called “How the West has Done.” Mom visited a stoned out Dennis Hopper in his art filled home and he ended up introducing her to Ed Ruscha.

She went to Ed’s Hollywood studio where he showed her his painting Standard Station. She suggested he make a limited print edition and she would pay for half the cost. He did, and the rest is history. In those days a gas station print went for $80. Now it starts at $300,000.

Standard Station, 1966. Color screenprint on ivory wove paper.

I believe during the same visit she spotted a painting called Securing the Last Letter (Boss). She ended up buying that for something between $800 and $1,000. I think.

Ed Ruscha is currently having a major retrospective “Now Then” at MoMA. Ironically, the Beatles just released an old, rearranged recording called “Now and Then.” Everything old is new again from the mid-’60s.

The “Boss” painting was my mom’s gift to my dad Ed Sabol, who was President and Founder of NFL Films. He had just moved into a new and enlarged office/studio compound in New Jersey. Dad LOVED that painting. He was photographed a lot in front of it. In that “Mad Men” style.

My Dad in his office posing in front of Ed Ruscha’s Securing the Last Letter (Boss).

Dad as “Mad Men” era BOSS.

By 1967, Joan and mom continued to bring pop art exhibits to Philadelphia making Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol and Marisol household names. At that time, mom and dad installed this great billboard of a Lichtenstein setting sun in their driveway as a tennis backboard. All the while it felt like mom and Joan were riding the crest of a cultural wave; when pop art, mod fashion and rock music all collided to become “a scene.” New York, Los Angeles and London were the action centers. It resembled Paris in the 1920s.

My mom in front of driveway Lichtenstein backboard, 1967.

Dad in front of Lichtenstein tennis backboard, 1967.

At that time, I was graduating high school and moving to New York City, and I know I was privileged to be witness to mom and Joan’s high flying “era.” However, I always knew I was “in” it … never “of” it.

By 1978, mom was tapped out of the exploding art scene and so she sold all her choice pieces. Her final divestment was “Boss” in 1986. I believe it went to some “dealer” for $100,000 or less. Within a year Leo Castelli got it and sold it to Landau in 1988. AND Who knows what it cost!

When I finally moved to a New York City apartment, I didn’t put a single painting up on a single wall. I felt saturated. Mom told me she was tired of decorating “insides,” so she turned to “outsides.” She spent the rest of her life and time in her Villanova garden and never looked back. Joan Kron went on to become a major journalist at New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Allure and is now a filmmaker. She is currently working on a memoir about her collaboration with my mom and those incredibly historic art-filled days.

Filmmaker Joan Kron.

Two months ago, I noticed an announcement at Sotheby’s for a $400 million auction from the estate of Emily Fisher Landau — a reputable New York collector who died at 102 (same age as my mom who died at 100). Landau had a treasure trove of significant modern artists like Picasso, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and … Ed Ruscha. In fact, one of the paintings was my parents “Boss” which was estimated to go for $35 to $45 million. It went for $32 million!

I was in shock and awe at the pricing. But what do I know of today’s nosebleed art price tags? Sotheby’s did call me pre-auction to confirm my family’s provenance on the “Boss” painting. They asked me for a particular picture of my dad for the catalog. NFL films and I wanted $5,000 for the image. They passed.

My friend and art advisor Angela Hudson (Hudson Art Advisor LLC) had sold my mom’s collection of valuable Ruscha photo books some years ago and called me to explain the Landau auction knowing I knew nothing of that world. She ended up narrating a lot of it for me as we watched the auction together (via phone) live online on November 8th.

I have never attended an art auction though I always expected it to be glamorous and electric. I wanted to see a “paddle raising floor war” with all this yelling and frenzy. I was disappointed. It was banks of boring people on cell phones. The auctioneer was very controlled and seemed to get it all over within a slick hour. It seemed he knew ahead of time who was going to get what. The event felt as lackluster as being on the Stock Exchange floor on a typical day. Even though each painting was displayed with white gloved attendants and spotlighted on a whirl-around stage. I expected more Vegas.

A screenshot of “the happening” at Sotheby’s with “Boss” off to the side.

Angela clarified to me that this week’s auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips were considered the fall season finale. Even though there were some top ticket items in each auction, the consensus afterwards was that the art scene went “soft.” Next day the headlines declare the auctions “half-mast.” There was no “juice.” Theories abounded that Middle Eastern collectors had held back. Were the auction house pre-estimates too high. Who knows?

At the same time, I noticed auction estate sales from Barbara Walters and Freddie Mercury were getting over-the-top results. Same with promised shows by Mary Tyler Moore and Elton John. Celebrity memorabilia is coming in to rescue the hungover art market. Jackie Onassis started this trend with her infamous 1996 sale. Recently, we had Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” sneakers go for $2.2 million. His game shirt fetched $10 million. Sports memorabilia is the hot ticket. Experts are saying that the younger wealthy people don’t want to invest in art anymore — it’s all about real estate and Birkin bags (Sotheby’s offers those as well). Money is changing.

Michael Jordan’s 1998 NBA Finals Game 2 Air Jordan 13s from The Last Dance, which sold for $2.2 million.

But what I realized is Joan and mom were never into the 1960s art scene for financial investment or gain. They were all about art for art’s sake, and they magically got to float in the Velvet Underground and beyond at a time nobody was thinking “final bids.” Why is it that with all successful beginnings, it’s never about the money … till it is. And then the thrill is gone.

I wondered what my dear mom would think of the $32 million sale of Securing the Last Letter (Boss). For me, it established her as having a great eye for great art. But I also wondered who actually bought that painting? Could it be “The Boss” Bruce Springsteen? Tony Danza of Who’s the Boss? Buddy Valastro of Cake Boss fame — or was it simply Vladimir Putin?

One thing is for sure — you really have to Be a Boss to own that Ruscha Boss. After all, Ed Sabol and Emily Fisher Landau were no slouches.

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