Andy Warhol, "Portrait of Douglas Cramer", 1985

A Star is Born:  the Douglas S. Cramer Collection at the CAM.

If you go to the Cincinnati Art Museum this summer you will see artwork from the contemporary art collection of Hollywood producer Douglas S. Cramer in two separate exhibition areas:  one just upon passing the entrance foyer, where the Museum often houses small-scale teasers for future or current exhibitions; and the other in the First Floor changing exhibition hall, just across from the Terrace Café.  Although the two are very different types of exhibitions (the former consisting of donated pieces, the latter of loaned works,) according to the accompanying text for both exhibition spaces, Cramer’s interest in art began and was fostered at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Before he made it big, the Walnut Hills graduate worked for Procter & Gamble after college & quickly leveraged that experience to land increasingly high-profile jobs in New York and Los Angeles as a VP at Fox, head of Paramount Television, and subsequently head of programming at ABC.  In perhaps his most well-known role, Cramer served as Executive Producer of such highly successful television shows from the 1980s as “Love Boat,” “Wonder Woman,” and “Dynasty.”

While jet setting back and forth from both coasts, Cramer developed relationships with contemporary artists, and most of the work in both exhibition spaces date from that peak time in his professional career.  One of the most famous artists Cramer knew and commissioned work from was Andy Warhol, and his is the majority of the loaned art in the larger changing exhibition gallery.  Consisting of photographs (35 mm and Polaroid ER’s), graphite portrait studies, and silk-screened portraits, they all depict an image of the Hollywood mogul—highlighting both the collector’s & the artist’s interest in the spectacle of fame.

The titles for each exhibition space are telling in terms of their content.  The “Douglas S. Cramer:  New to the Collection” exhibition consists of eight pieces donated by the collector, that range from a diminutive acrylic on board painting of the Williamsburg Bridge by New York painter Mark Innerst, to Mel Kendrick’s Picasso-esque sculpture, Five Piece Purple Heart Bronze, (1985).  This is not Cramer’s first donation to the CAM’s contemporary art collection, and the six artists’ works he chose to donate are no small names in the current world of contemporary art.  Likewise, since 1980, the collector has donated work by such iconic figures as Frank Stella, Sean Scully, and Donald Sultan—whose tactile and minimalist Steer, (1982) is the first piece one encounters upon entering the “New to the Collection” exhibition space.

The larger of the two changing exhibition spaces, titled “The Cincinnati Art Award / Cincinnati Art Museum Honors Douglas S. Cramer, 2011” houses twenty-five separate images of the collector done by Warhol in various media, and one final Double Self-Portrait (Ghosts) made by Cramer’s partner, Hubert Bush.  The award, in its second year (awarded last year to Cramer’s life-long friend and fellow Cincinnatian Jim Dine,) recognizes a “Cincinnatian who has had a significant impact on our culture at a national and international level through the making, collecting or promotion of visual art.”

The most interesting thing about the exhibition of Warhols is how it demonstrates the artist’s artistic process—something he in/famously farmed out to others in his Factory.  However, in terms of the mark of the artist, one can glimpse the influence of Warhol in many of these pieces.

There are candid photographs of Cramer at the “Love Boat’s 1,000 Stars Party” posing with Hollywood cronies like Aaron Spelling, iconic stars like Lana Turner, and one-time Starlets like Ann Turkel and Alana Hamilton.   The three black and white 35mm snapshots are revealing of Warhol’s perspective on those being photographed.  Preferring to act as a “fly on the wall,” rather than be part of the action, his photo of Spelling, Cramer, & Turner is not the kind that one would expect of the three luminaries standing together in front of a well-known artist.  In fact, it is not clear that any of them were actually aware of Warhol as all look off in different directions.  To my mind, this is the most honest image in the whole exhibition as it demonstrates Warhol’s obsession with fame as well as the superficiality of life in the spotlight.

There are eight Polaroid ER headshots of Cramer, which Warhol shot himself as studies for Cramer’s commissioned portraits, as well as graphite on HMP paper line drawings of the collector.  I found myself going back and forth between the Polaroids and the drawings, trying to figure out which photo inspired which drawing, and the most I could decipher was that Warhol’s drawings seemed to have more of a smile around the lips than the actual photographs from which he drew.  Either way the large-scale drawings are clean and linear, and demonstrate the artist’s ability as an illustrator.

I should mention the iconic screen prints that were the final result of Cramer’s commission, but they are typical Warhol: less about the subject than the image.  According to the adjacent wall text, Cramer returned the first batch of four portraits, as he wanted something “brighter” than the silver and gold motif that Warhol chose.  The four subsequent pieces have a very dated look, redolent of the 1980s with pastels and geometric abstraction, but it is clear that this aesthetic suited Cramer’s tastes, as one of the four remains framed—likely taken directly off of his wall for this show.

In addition to his personal interest in collecting, Cramer has also served on the Board of Trustees, as President, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  Likewise, he was a Trustee for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and currently heads several departments of the institution’s Acquisition Committees.  Thus, some of our Nation’s most respected institutions of Contemporary Art value his opinions.

Curiously, the only online copy I could find regarding this special exhibition (it is not listed on the CAM’s website, and a call to the museum about “an exhibition of Warhols currently on display” was met with confusion & befuddlement by CAM phone receptionists) was on the museum’s FaceBook page, under “Extended Info”.  The institution lists the show’s title as “The Cincinnati Art Award:  Gifts and Warhol Portraits of Douglas S. Cramer.”   While this may seem nitpicky, I would posit that the “Gifts” portion of the aforementioned title was removed from museum signage and the two different display areas separated, in order to delineate these two events from each other.  Despite the pragmatic needs of local collecting institutions to work with private collectors and develop ties that can result in financial support and donations of artworks, I trust no collector wants to believe that they are receiving an award contingent upon their donations of art.

Douglas Cramer in front of his Warhols

In the CAM’s only online statement regarding The Cincinnati Art Award, they refer to Cramer as “one of the most prescient collectors of contemporary art of the last half century.”  This is perhaps the most telling of all details included (& not) in the show.  [Also noteworthy:  there is no curator’s name attached to the exhibition.]  If we think of great museums like the MoMA & MoCA as collectors of contemporary art works that are in the process of being validated—because it is problematic to separate Art’s aesthetic/academic value from its market value—Board Trustees and Acquisition Committee members have a vested interest in exhibiting the same work they collect.

With his finger on the pulse (trigger?) of what people and institutions are collecting, it should come as no surprise that Cramer now finds the work he earnestly collected twenty years ago, of interest to museums around the world.  Because Cramer’s exhibition of loaned works consists (mostly) of the work of an already-established artist, there is little worry that he might be inflating the market value of his artistic possessions. However, it behooves the CAM to attend to—whether via their exhibition text, online content, or Member Magazine—the ethical issues at stake in exhibiting privately-owned works of art.

-Maria Seda-Reeder

The Cincinnati Art Award: Gifts and Warhol Portraits of Douglas S. Cramer, is on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum, May 4 through August 21, 2011


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