You have to wonder: Why is Charles Reiffel’s important 1939 masterpiece, “The Street at Night — San Diego,” hanging in the bedroom of Bram and Sandy Dijkstra’s house rather than in a museum?
Or for that matter, what about Reiffel’s luminous “Bit of Silvermine — The Old Farmhouse” or his dark, unsettling “The Haunted Tower,” which the Dijkstras also own?
“One of the reasons we have a half dozen of his works is that for the longest time the art market regarded him the same way the San Diego public of the ’20s and ’30s regarded him — so his work was much more affordable than some others,” said Bram Dijkstra. “Even in the early ’80s, you could buy a Reiffel for a fraction of the cost of a Maurice Braun.”
Despite becoming the region’s most acclaimed and influential artist after moving to San Diego in the mid-1920s, Reiffel was too advanced for the tastes of San Diego art lovers, who apparently wanted their plein-air landscapes to linger harmlessly on the canvas. In Reiffel’s most inspired works, every element in the painting — mountains, rocks, trees — seems to have a life force of its own.
West Coast critics, particularly at the Los Angeles Times, proclaimed that he belonged among America’s greatest artists, but their cry was unheeded by the art establishment on East Coast, where by midcentury, Reiffel’s considerable reputation before moving west had become a distant memory.
But those Reiffels are finally going up on a museum wall in a long overdue, collaborative exhibition at the San Diego History Center and the San Diego Museum of Art. With approximately 90 images and additional historic documents and memorabilia, it is the most comprehensive Reiffel show ever assembled. Its only rival is a 1942 Reiffel show at the Fine Arts Gallery of San Diego (now the San Diego Museum of Art), which was planned as a retrospective, but after Reiffel died it became a memorial.
The current exhibit draws on the collections of the History Center and the San Diego Museum of Art, but much of it is also taken from private collectors such as the Dijkstras, Estelle and Jim Milch, Sharon and Albert Cutri, Keith Colestock and others.
“This is a unique example of a community-driven exhibition,” said Charlotte Cagan, acting director of the San Diego History Center. “Reiffel has long been beloved by a number of collectors in the community and they are stepping forward and loaning their paintings for this exhibition. Our goal is to elevate the stature of Reiffel, not just regionally, but nationally, even internationally.”
The Dijkstra home is filled with overlooked art by forgotten artists they have found at rummage sales, antique shops, auction houses and friends’ garages. Rescuing deserving, underappreciated art has almost become a calling for Bram Dijkstra — a professor emeritus at UC San Diego, guest curator for several exhibitions dealing with local art (among them “Masterpieces of San Diego Painting” at the Oceanside Museum of Art) and a highly regarded author (his latest book: “Naked: The Nude in America”).
“Contemporary curators think they know precisely what is good and bad,” said Dijkstra, who is co-curating the Reiffel exhibition with the San Diego Museum of Art’s Ariel Plotek. “So they go through their holdings at various museums … and they look at something and they say, ‘Oh, that’s not up to snuff compared to what’s being done now.’
“But historically it may be extremely important. What happens is they start throwing things out, so-called ‘deaccessioning’ stuff that is really quite wonderful. And a lot of the stuff you see in this house is the result of that ‘deaccessioning.’ ”
If you are going to acquire art that is being discarded by museums, you might as well acquire it from the best. The Dijkstras have multiple works once owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, including a large, impressive Henry Mattson painting that the Metropolitan had originally purchased as part of the George A. Hearn Collection.
“The curators of the ’20s and ’30s did a smart thing: They bought the best things they could find, and then those paintings would go into the collection,” Dijkstra said. “Then around the 1990s, some idiots at the museum decided, ‘This is not interesting anymore, so let’s throw it out.’ ”
Their 1937 Mattson, “Wings of the Morning,” according to Dijkstra, was featured in more than a dozen book and magazine articles and frequently reproduced (you can still go to
amazon.com and purchase a reproduction of a reproduction of it, either for your wall or on a coffee mug). But by the early ’90s, it was apparently considered dated.
“The Metropolitan just tossed it out,” Dijkstra said. “One can debate whether it’s a good painting or a bad painting from whatever point of view, but the thing is, historically it’s an important painting. Now, here it is.”
As museums generally don’t keep records about what happens to deaccessioned art (which may also go through several hands before reaching an appreciative, sympathetic collector), important paintings can be lost or disappear, making it difficult for scholars to reconstruct an artist’s legacy and for viewers to reconsider an artist firsthand.
“So 50 years from now, if someone wants to do a show on Henry Mattson, they are going to have a hell of a time figuring out where this painting is,” Dijkstra said. “That gives you a sense of how difficult it was to find Reiffel paintings.”
Wonder and delight
Like Mattson, Reiffel moved from mainstream status to being a footnote in art history. The Indianapolis-born painter was too adventurous for the tastes of San Diego collectors who could have supported him (he died in poverty after working for years for the WPA), neither visible enough nor experimental enough (although that experimental part could be argued) to ride the wave of modernism that would soon sweep through American art.
While many of his WPA murals and other canvases he donated to public agencies are accounted for, other pieces were lost to thrift stores or garage sales, which is where friends of Dijkstra’s found “The Old Farmhouse.”
“When we first saw the painting, it was all brown, because it had been hanging up over a fireplace,” Dijkstra said. He told his friends they should clean the painting, but even after it was cleaned, they didn’t form any attachment to the work. They were more into “Western” (as in, cowboys and Indians) art, Dijkstra explained.
“But we saw it (after it was cleaned) and fell absolutely all over ourselves,” Dijkstra said. “It was a very adventurous painting done 10 years before Reiffel came west. We said, ‘Oh, if you don’t want it, we’ll take it.’ A lot of our collection is that kind of thing — if you don’t want it, we’ll buy it.
“There are so many neglected, fabulous American artists who don’t have a name so people just pass them by. It’s really a terrible thing: the well-known names are way overexposed and everybody else is way underexposed.
“As a result, the history of American art gets falsified.”
In an extensive, meticulously researched essay on Reiffel in the exhibition’s catalog (edited by Plotek), Dijkstra attempts to set the record straight, at least as far as Reiffel is concerned. And he’s hopeful Reiffel will eventually get his due.
But that won’t affect Dijkstra’s relationship with the art. No matter what the ultimate verdict of history or the art market is, Reiffel (like the other artists keeping company in the Dijkstra household) provides an unending source of wonder and delight.
“It’s great to live in an environment like this because you are always interacting with somebody’s imagination,” Dijkstra said. “A good painting, it not only speaks to you, it becomes more vocal as time goes on.”
Learn more: Bram Dijkstra and Ariel Ploteck, the co-curators of “Charles Reiffel: An American Post-Impressionist,” will offer a “Reiffel Roundtable” with scholar Keith Colestoke at 7 p.m. Dec. 13 at San Diego Museum of Art’s James S. Copley Auditorium. At 6 p.m. on Jan. 10 at the San Diego History Center, Dijkstra will lecture on Reiffel. Call (619) 232-7931 or (619) 232-6203.
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