Monday, June 29, 2009

Alice Goldfarb Marquis, 79

(photo from The Newshour with Jim Lehrer/PBS)

Alice Goldfarb Marquis died while I was out of town and offline.

Alice had been a good friend to me over the years, ever since we met in the midst of the controversy over the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s. She literally wrote the book on that subject: Art Lessons:Learning From the Rise and Fall of Public Arts Funding. Since then, she allowed me to publish her writings, including a serialization of her novel Brushstrokes and an essay on Marcel Duchamp in The Idler, a Web Periodical, and reprint essays on this blog. She visited while I taught in Moscow, speaking to students of "culturology" and "museology" at the Russian State Humanitarian University and to a general audience at the American Center. I particularly remember her taking me around the Frick museum in New York and to the Duchamp exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, seeing her collection of French political cartoons at the University of California, San Diego library, and generally enjoying her conversation, encouragement, and inspirational example. She was interested in new cultural developments. For example, Alice spoke at a panel about then-new Weblogs at the National Press Club that I organized in 2002, paying her own way to participate in a discussion of the medium with bloggers and journalists. She once explained that she didn't need government support, noting "I gave myself a grant" to write books. Alice had an independent spirit, a real curiosity, and encouraged the same. She had the intellectual discipline to write a number of significant books about art and culture that explained the museum world in an in-depth biography of Museum of Modern Art founder Alfred Barr that was banned from the New York's museum bookshop; the art market in The Art Biz: The Covert World of Collectors, Dealers, Auction Houses, Museums, and Critics; government arts policy in Art Lessons, and the role of the critic Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg--contributions to our understanding of the structural, historical and personal dynamics underlying the development of American culture. A list of her writings may be found at

Here's a link to her obituary in the San Diego Union Tribune. Disappointingly, I haven't seen anything in the NY Times yet, even though Alice had contributed op-ed columns to the paper, her books were covered in the book review section, and she wrote about the New York art I thought this autobiographical essay from might give a sense of her personality to readers. :
The question -- who makes taste in art -- has fascinated me since the 1970s and has resulted in most of my books. As a historian with – Yikes! -- thirty years' experience after a twenty-year career as a journalist, I like to delve into archives and papers, the rich, raw data beloved by historians, but I also love to interview people, coming face to face with the journalist's primary sources. The historian wants to find patterns and interpret events, while the journalist wants to tease out fresh information and vivid personalities. As a writer, the historian strives for accuracy, while the journalist yearns to hook the reader into an intriguing narrative. Pursuing these two closely related disciplines has been the great, central challenge of producing all my books.

I first became interested in the art-money nexus while researching my doctoral thesis, a biography of the artist Marcel Duchamp. A New York gallery was exhibiting some of Duchamp's "ready-mades," a snow-shovel, a urinal, a bicycle wheel, and other machine-made objects which the artist had simply selected and signed. These mundane items, immaculately polished, rested on elegant pedestals, even though they were not the originals but replicas crafted in Italy after Duchamp's death. And each one cost $25,000! Why?

The question reverberated in my head as I stood in the crystalline fall sunlight on Madison Avenue that November afternoon in 1976. It has lurked in the background of all the books that followed, which you can read about elsewhere on this web site.

A second question echoing through all these works concerns the extraordinary mingling of High Art and popular culture unique to the United States. How paradoxical it is that our fine arts emphasize European origins and connections, while our low arts captivate huge populations around the world. How ironic it is that the art forms native to this country -- particularly films, comics, and jazz -- spent so many years on the cultural margin, vilified as “kitsch,” not worthy of serious study.

Perhaps this dichotomy fascinates me because my own life began in Europe. I was born in Munich, Germany, and my family barely escaped the Nazis, arriving in New York two days before Christmas in 1938. As an eight-year-old, I was sent to a small class at P.S. 189 in upper Manhattan, where I learned enough English in a few months to enter the third grade. Eventually, I attended Hunter High School, an elite institution which I hated with all my being. Many mornings, I would ride the Fifth Avenue bus past 68th Street, where all the other Hunter students debarked, and continue on down to 42nd Street or to the Village.

Wandering through second-hand bookstores, sitting through classic films in fleabag theaters around Times Square, or sauntering through the Museum of Modern Art struck me as a far more profitable education than learning Latin declensions or dissecting The Mill on the Floss. Two years after graduation (which I did not attend), I was married and aboard a freighter for Europe. We stayed almost two years, as my husband worked at Stars and Stripes and I pursued free-lance writing. We returned to New York with $5 in our pockets and both found jobs at magazines.

Four years later, we achieved the journalist's dream -- a newspaper of our own. Our $5,000 in savings were sunk into a moribund weekly some fifteen miles down the coast from San Francisco and we were spending the early morning hours folding our first edition -- by hand. Its six pages should have been four, the subscriber list was a fiction drawn from the phone book, and the summertime fog somberly swirled as yet another creditor arrived to haul away the office furniture. But long rows of ticky-tack houses were rising in the hillsides around us; supermarkets and shopping centers appeared; and anxious trips to the local Bank of America branch yielded loans to upgrade equipment.

For a writer, the Pacifica Tribune offered an extraordinary opportunity. In five years, I covered earthquakes, murders, political meetings, sports, fires, accidents, shipwrecks, weddings, funerals, and parties. I also wrote advertising copy and letters to delinquent accounts. Between chasing the news there were photos to take, advertisers to charm, presses to run, papers to address, and bundles to haul to the post office.

When the newspaper was sold in 1959, we had a six-figure nest egg for another purchase. But first we traveled. For almost two years, we circled the globe, taking in the Orient, the Middle East, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. We spent eight weeks in India, flew above the Himalayas to Nepal, explored Afghanistan, drove for six weeks through the Soviet Union, and then headed north through Finland to Hammerfest, Norway, the northernmost town in Europe. Back in the United States, we combed the Pacific States for another newspaper venture.

In 1961, we landed in the San Diego area, buying three twice-weekly newspapers, the Star-News publications, near the Mexican border. Here, too, tract houses were marching over the chaparral hills to the horizon. Here, too, there was a staff to cover the news -- and to run the press. I wrote more specialized features, but continued to take photos, teetering on a flimsy folding chair for a better angle the night before my son, John, was born. Full-time newspaper work appeared less attractive with a baby on board, so it was time to get some schooling. I enrolled at San Diego State University, majoring in fine art and minoring in history.

In 1966, degree in hand, I began teaching journalism and photography at a local high school. The work was too consuming to accommodate time I wanted to spend with my pre-schooler. After two years of teaching, I returned to San Diego State and in 1970 acquired an M.A. in Art History. The newspapers needed a cultural page, which I began producing every week. Soon, the assortment of book and cultural reviews written under various pseudonyms (including my favorite -- Horace Romanoff) to give the impression of a large staff turned in a more investigative direction. Most memorable was a series exposing the shoddy career of C. Arnholt Smith, an entrepreneur once named "Mr. San Diego of the Century" by the San Diego Union. He eventually was jailed for defrauding investors and depositors in his bank. This series won me the national award as Suburban Journalist of the Year in 1972; a revised version, "The Smith Who Knew Nixon: 'Mr. San Diego' Is in Trouble," was published in The Nation on September 24, 1973.

By then, another great wave of California growth had washed over us and a big newspaper chain proffered a great pot of money to sell out. The partnership which had carried my husband and me to considerable financial success was, however, not a good marriage. In 1972, we were divorced and a hasty re-marriage to Raoul Marquis ended in 1976. During that time, I began working on my Ph. D. in Modern European History at UCSD. I completed that in 1978, fortunate to have as my mentor the distinguished American historian, H. Stuart Hughes.

Since I had already had a career as a journalist and did not desperately need a salary, I decided to pursue my heart's desire -- to eschew teaching and concentrate purely on research and writing. However, I did teach a series of well-attended courses at the UCSD Extension on Makers of Modern Culture, History of 20th Culture, and Hitler and the Nazis.

* * *

As a person saved from the Holocaust by lucky flukes, I have a touch of 'survivor's guilt" and find myself anxious to repay the world -- and especially this country -- for being spared from extinction. Writing the kinds of books I have written and will write -- seems to be the best therapy for confronting these feelings. So far, the results of dealing with this relatively benign obsession are displayed elsewhere on this web site.

* * *

When not chained to the computer, I enjoy following media, films, popular culture, music, theater, and books. For fun, I make three-dimensional glass sculptures, sew unusual garments, invent recipes, and cultivate a garden. I am also a sports devotee: I try to do daily aerobics, love to go boogie-boarding in the Pacific Ocean, and long walks on Madison Avenue.

Travel is another passion. Here are some of the places where I have lived or visited: Munich, Germany, (birth) 1930-38; Paris and Darmstadt, Germany, 1949-51. Visited almost every state in the U. S. Traveled in every country in Western and Eastern Europe except Andorra and Liechtenstein; paid at least one visit to every country in the Western Hemisphere except Central America, Colombia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile and Argentina; at least one visit to every country in Asia except Indonesia, Laos, and Outer Mongolia; at least one visit to every country in the Middle East, except Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gulf States; several trips to Africa, including Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Egypt, and South Africa; spent a month traveling through China on my own in September 1985. Siberia resides in my fantasies ...

UPDATE: H-Net published this obituary on July 18, 2009.