By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST January, 2023
Bruce Helander, whose work will occupy the Paul Fisher Gallery booth during the Art Palm Beach + Contemporary fair, is a collage artist and painter who takes his raw materials from popular culture. This being, of course, is how Pop art got its name, but where the Pop artists tended to be cool, distanced, and sometimes dark, as when Warhol pictured Marilyn Monroe because she had died and Elizabeth Taylor because she was sick and having bad tabloid press, Helander makes his work with what can be called glee.
This derives from Helander’s beginnings in Great Bend, Kansas, as a child with severe dyslexia, and thus learning problems. His father owned a grocery store and would stick signs indicating prices on his front windows and he noted that the ten-year-old boy who had difficulty reading could nonetheless distinguish letters and numerals, so set him to doing the posters. “Across the street from the store were two large billboards,” Helander says. “Often the images were hand-painted. Or printed on paper squares with numbers behind to tell the installers how they fitted together. There was a bench I would sit on when I was taking a break, especially when the billboard painters were there, and I could see how they marked up the boards as they moved up and down on the scaffolding. They had to look at a maquette in their hand. I became enamored with all that. Because in the Midwest there ain’t a lot of creative influences.”
A copy of The New Yorker found in a barber shop was another inspiration. “The cover was so intriguing that I thought maybe I can do that. Maybe that’s what’s in store for me.” Helander’s mother had gone to the Rhode Island School of Design. He would go there, too. He had begun fastening pieces of paper together to make images in high school, so at RISD he segued naturally into collage, and the practice was an excellent fit for a youth who already was compulsively trawling flea markets for striking images and nutty objects. Other things went well there, too. “Five years after earning my master’s degree I became acting Provost of the college,” he says. “I was still dyslexic. But I had a dictation secretary. And after two years of daily dictation, I learned how to write!”
Upon leaving RISD Helander moved on to Florida, resolved to support his artmaking by dealing and by opening a gallery space on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. While he had been at RISD, Helander had given Robert Rauschenberg an artist of distinction award, so after opening his eponymous gallery and hoping to feature Rauschenberg’s work there, Helander drove over to the artist’s base on Captiva Island on the west coast of Florida to persuade him. Why wasn’t Rauschenberg showing his art in Florida? Helander questioned. “Nobody asked me,” Rauschenberg replied. Soon his work was up in Helander’s gallery, and the notion of a group show of Florida artists bloomed.
“But Bob Rauschenberg added a proviso, ‘I’m not going to be in it unless Jimmy is in it,’” he says. This being James Rosenquist, the former professional billboard painter, now a pillar of Pop. It was a two-hour drive north of Rauschenberg to Rosenquist’s place in Aripeka, also on Florida’s west coast, but worth the trip. Both artists agreed to be in the show. John Chamberlain, Julies Olitski and the hyper-realist sculptor, Duane Hanson, followed. Five Floridians sold out.
Helander’s growing closeness with Rosenquist impacted his own work. “He would pull out an idiosyncratic image from advertising, like the General Electric symbol, and then combine it into an interesting composition,” he said. “A light went on. I realized I could take fragments of magazine ads, of detergents or cars or whatever interested me, cut them up, mix them around, and still have that flavor of the billboard, the relationships with advertising and my youth.”
Others have worked as both artists and dealers, Duchamp for one, Betty Parsons for another, but seldom full time, and for Helander this came to a head over twenty-five years ago when he met with the potent international dealer, Marisa del Re, who liked his collages and had an offer to exhibit in her prominent uptown Manhattan gallery. “But she told me if you want to be in our stable, you can’t be an art dealer at the same time,” he said. “So, I dropped everything just to be a collage artist. That ended what had been a six day a week obligation for almost fourteen years.”
Helander’s increasing output intensified his flea market binges in search of source materials. Fruitful finds have included the Popeye comic books of the ‘20s and ‘30s. “It was an inside joke to me,” he says, “An eye on Pop!” Likewise, Japanese matchbox covers. “In the 1930s there were 40,000 nightclubs and houses of ill repute in Tokyo,” he says. “And the only way that they could discreetly advertise their wares was with matchbooks, and in a flea market I once located quite a variety.” A selection of these has been used to create two pieces being shown at Art Palm Beach + Contemporary, one centered on what he calls “That kind of Modigliani looking girl” and the other, a guy snappy wearing a striped tie. The images were almost always discarded after use, so the rarity became an aesthetic factor.
He accumulates such original components in bulk. “I have this huge paper collection,” he says. “Maybe 50,000 pieces of paper. Old wallpaper sample books. Magazines. I have 400 vintage Time magazines... I have 300 copies of Boxing magazine, 400 copies of Baseball magazine. All of these I acquired in flea markets as a foundation for me to use. Four years ago, I entered a Los Angeles billboard contest ... a highway display of billboards by artists in various locations … and that’s when I started researching billboard paper. It’s remarkable how artists look into finding certain kinds of things. I discovered the last remaining advertising company that had the foresight to save all the billboard elements in large manila envelopes about two feet square. And I bought two of them. My favorites are always images of cars or somebody driving by. They were meant to be viewed while traveling by auto.
“Later, I came across a Forbes magazine cover. It was two painters in Times Square, and they were just starting to make a billboard painting that looked like it might be about Marilyn Monroe. And I realized, my God, you’ve got a perspective of a billboard as a canvas! And you’ve got two guys painting a billboard, but the billboard hasn’t been started yet.” He saw that the vacant space would be a perfect place to incorporate an unfinished collage.
They glue them and slap them on side by side. Helander collage. “Not a final composition but something halfway through,” he says. He snipped off the name Forbes and got down to it. “The central image is an appropriation from a Picasso portrait, and I love the irony of Picasso on a billboard that originated as a collage. One of the men is pictured holding down a maquette so he can see what square goes where.” Just like the artists the ten-year-old had watched from the bench outside his father’s grocery in Great Bend, Kansas. That billboard interpretation work will also be up at Art Palm Beach + Contemporary. WM
Art Palm Beach + Contemporary will be at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, January 25-29, 2023. For more information on the fair: www.artpalmbeach.com For more information on Bruce Helander: www.brucehelander.com
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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