When institutions as prominent as the Getty Research Institute (GRI) make major acquisitions from individuals, those individuals are usually wealthy patrons. One could be forgiven for believing Whitney and Lee Kaplan – the collectors behind the Whitney and Lee Kaplan African American Visual Culture Collection, recently purchased by the GRI – to be such individuals, with approximately 3,500 artist books, catalogs, magazines, zines and pamphlets, not including an extensive collection of ephemera, in their wide range holdings. Rather than a reflection of the couple’s personal wealth, however, the archive is the product of more than three decades of fervent collecting by Lee Kaplan.
It is impossible to provide an exhaustive catalog of the transferred materials, mainly because this will be the task that now awaits the GRI. But a quick description is that the collection includes material on Black American photographers, architects, designers, music and film; the documentation of black American culture by non-black Americans; exhibition catalogs and announcements; and rare ephemera like signed books by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Gordon Parks.
GRI African-American art bibliographer Simone Fujita called the collection’s scope “encyclopedic”, praising it for covering “really all types of artistic disciplines”. She added that for the GRI, it was like an “acquisition made up of many acquisitions”. Papers that caught his interest included the materials of Professor James A. Porter of Howard University, who is often credited as one of the founders of the field of African-American art history, and “material specific to Los Angeles,” such as flyers from the Brockman Gallery and a catalog of an exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1987 that included the work of Charles White, David Hammons, and Timothy Washington “before these artists were all household names for people who care about African-American art”.
To understand how Kaplan came to own a quasi-encyclopedic store of publications on African American art, much of which centers around late 20th century and contemporary artists and those with roots in Los Angeles , it is useful to know the position of Kaplan in Los Angeles. artistic community. He is the founder and co-owner, alongside his wife, of Arcana: Books on the Arts, an art bookstore and conceptual space that since 1984 has served as a link between designers, artists, art historians art and curators in Los Angeles. By the end of the 1980s, he had devoted all the strength of his ardor to the preservation of his bookstore; but before that, he was himself a visual artist friend of Kerry James Marshall, with whom he made collages, and who was one of Arcana’s first customers. Painter Henry Taylor, Lee Kaplan mentions, “stops by” Arcana from time to time.
“I’m not trying to drop names, but there are a number of significant artists whose names you will recognize who have used the store either for their personal interests or as a resource over the years,” said Kaplan at Hyperallergic.
Kaplan’s particular interest in collecting black American visual art began when he came across a portfolio of large reproductions of Charles White artwork in a bookstore in Hollywood that he frequented regularly. White, who is best known for his 1943 Works Progress Administration mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America and his prolific political prints and cartoons, taught Marshall and Hammons at the Otis Art Institute for the last 14 years of his life when he moved to Los Angeles. “He was one of the old masters of Los Angeles,” Kaplan explained.
His best guess is that the prints were issued by a Los Angeles-based pharmaceutical company that distributed them to doctors in the African-American community so they could have art decorating their waiting rooms. “And then you billed your clients for the drugs,” Kaplan said sardonically. “But they are really beautiful, and they had six of them.” When he exhibited them at Arcana, a regular black American customer asked where Kaplan had found them. The customer was quick to add that as a frequent bookstore visitor, it was extremely unusual to be able to find virtually anything in print about black American artists.
“When I started the collection, if there were 10 to 15 monographic publications on African American artists or art per year, that would have been about right,” Kaplan said. “Now there is a lot of interest in the work of African American artists. There are at least 15 to 25 books a month, maybe more.
Kaplan says that for more than three decades, these books occupied “very large industrial libraries” and consumed at least a few hundred thousand dollars in purchase price alone. He is fortunate that as publication in the category grows, he can finally turn the task over to the Getty Research Institute, where Fujita can continue the mandate with institutional support.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, it was important to Kaplan that his collection stay in the region, noting that no comparable archive of African American art exists on the West Coast. “People think the Getty is this rarefied Richard Meyer building with pristine white walls on a terraced landscape. But it’s been a really vital part of the Los Angeles arts and academic community for the past 20 years. years,” Kaplan said. “From my perspective, that’s the best place he could have gone to.”