A World-Class Artist Rides into Town

| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:30

    i'm lucky i don't need to board a plane to lax to see world-class art by tony berlant, who makes his playful yet awesome collage/paintings of found and painted metal in santa monica. i'm the proud owner of his masterly from afar, an imaginary, southwestern american canyon.

    most great stuff comes to us in manhattan.

    i first saw tony's work at a whitney solo show, and his giant pieces stop pedestrian traffic at places like the la county museum, the san francisco airport and target headquarters (his manhattan dealer is barbara mathes).

    i recently joined him at sotheby's pre-auction display of important american indian art, a kind of "high school reunion" for tony with treasures he loves. he stares at the most bewitching object of his desire-a clay pot painted by an artist of the 11th-century mimbres people of new mexico, a pueblo culture. they are recognized by connoisseurs such as berlant for peerless drawing. an ancient peerless drawing, circa 1100 a.d., on a clay pot by "the rabbit master," an artist of the mimbres tribe, a pueblo indian people of new mexico. this pot is the one that got away.

    tony calls it one of the best drawings ever made in north america. he owns six other pots painted by the artist whose hand he recognizes, and whom he calls "the rabbit master." he bought this ancient treasure the moment he spotted it with a manhattan dealer 30 years ago. but the dealer begged to keep it a few days because it shed beauty on his other wares and then sold the pot behind tony's back (i bet the dealer used tony's expertise to raise its price).

    few artists use language like tony berlant. he shows me things that i simply can't see on my own. listening to him describe the rabbit master's abstract brushwork, i feel i'm wearing magic eyeglasses or dropped some special drug (not that i've actually ever done that). he explains the artist did a ying/yang design with asymmetrical foreground/background interaction.

    i see it!

    three days later, tony bids for the pot by phone. i suspect he prefers the anonymity of telephone bidding; other collectors in the auction room won't mobilize because of his interest. on the phone for lot #154, tony cautions himself to bid conservatively.

    "people talk about 'winning' a piece at auction," he said. "anybody can win, if they pony up the money."

    amazingly, tony quickly wins his treasure for a hammer price of $3,750, even though the pre-auction estimate was $5,000 to $8,000. the price is close to the reserve, the lowest amount the seller and the house will accept.

    over the last decade, tony and his enchanting wife, helen mendez berlant, have become critical to my life, even though i only see them around tony's art openings in new york. i look forward to helen's welcoming hugs. she's a great beauty and storyteller who performed in a tate museum revival of a three-woman show by guy de cointet, a 1970s artist who's currently being revisited by avant-garde artists.

    manhattan draws talented people like the berlants from all over the world-by necessity. we're such a dazzling city, a triumph of civilized, rule-governed spaces. a marketplace. a vessel for the best of the best.

    from ancient mimbres pots to tony berlant's own paintings to organic celery root to central park's wild ducks-and despite the current economic downturn-every day i see, learn and taste such wondrous things. -- susan braudy is the author and journalist whose last book, the boudins and the aristocracy of the left, was nominated for a pulitzer by publisher alfred knopf.