Photo: Jeanne Strongin. Robert Motherwell and the curator Joan Banach in 1984.
By ROBIN POGREBIN
Published: March 27, 2009
Dueling legal complaints filed on the same day in different New York courts present strikingly contradictory portrayals of Joan Banach, who for 10 years was a personal curator and cataloger for the Abstract Expressionist artist Robert Motherwell.
According to a lawsuit filed on Wednesday by Ms. Banach in State Supreme Court in Manhattan against the Dedalus Foundation — formerly known as the Motherwell Foundation — she was fired from the organization, where she was a board member and held various positions, because of authentication disputes about the artist’s work.
But according to a lawsuit the foundation filed on Wednesday in Federal District Court for the Southern District against Ms. Banach, she abused her access to Motherwell’s studio, stealing his work, some of which she sold for her own benefit in a breach of fiduciary duty.
While conflicts over authenticity involving Warhols and Pollocks have become public in recent years, it is rare for disputes to arise within an organization charged with protecting an artist’s legacy.
Interviewed beside her lawyer on Wednesday, Ms. Banach said she was amazed it had come to this, given her long history with Motherwell. “He trusted me with his work,” she said. “I’m devastated by what’s happened.”
The lawyer, Jonathan S. Abady, who along with Lee F. Bantle is representing Ms. Banach, called the foundation’s treatment of her “a broader disservice to the artistic community.”
Perry M. Amsellem, a lawyer for the Dedalus Foundation, declined to comment.
Motherwell, who died in 1991 at 76, explored literary and philosophical concerns through work that ranged from brooding abstract paintings to elegantly playful collages. His long and prolific career earned him a permanent Motherwell Gallery at the Bavarian State Museum of Modern Art in Munich, established in 1982, and the National Medal of Arts at the White House, awarded in 1989.
Ms. Banach was hired by Motherwell in 1981 “to care for, consign and otherwise manage his artwork,” her lawsuit says. Over the next decade she worked closely with him at his studio in Greenwich, Conn., and occasionally at his summer residence in Provincetown, Mass.
Ms. Banach was an author or editor of two books on him, including a catalogue raisonné, or definitive listing, of his prints; assisted other writers with their Motherwell publications; and helped prepare major museum shows for him.
An artist herself, Ms. Banach has examples of her work in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, and in 2000 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for painting.
In 1991 Ms. Banach became secretary at the foundation, established in 1981, and remained a board member until she was removed in August 2008. She was also employed by the foundation as a curator, then as director and finally as vice president.
Ms. Banach contends in her lawsuit that the foundation carried out “a malicious campaign” to remove her. In particular, the complaint states that from December 2007 to August 2008, Jack Flam, the foundation’s president and chief executive, “flouted established procedure and made a series of mistakes and misjudgments about the authenticity of Motherwell works.”
Because Ms. Banach challenged those judgments, the lawsuit says, Mr. Flam sought to discredit her and terminate her employment.
The court papers describe Mr. Flam as “a man with overstated expertise in Motherwell’s work, a temper against any who would challenge him, and a desire to promote himself without regard for the legacy of the artist.”
Mr. Flam, through his lawyer, declined to comment.
Dedalus asserts that Ms. Banach violated foundation policy by failing to disclose that she owned or sold any Motherwell works, even after being asked about such potential conflicts of interest, which the lawsuit calls a breach of fiduciary duty. In addition, the foundation accuses Ms. Banach of taking Motherwell’s work, including his Metropolitan Museum of Art sketchbook, home without authorization.
“She was observed surreptitiously returning these materials to Dedalus,” the foundation says in its suit.
The complaint adds that Ms. Banach, despite her role in cataloging the artworks, was “caught secretly trying to sell undocumented, unrecorded Motherwell works that have no studio inventory numbers and for which Dedalus has no records.”
Ms. Banach describes consigning two Motherwell sketches to Christie’s auction house in July 2008 that had been given to her by the artist in early 1991. Mr. Flam, who did not realize that they belonged to Ms. Banach, told Christie’s that the sketches were not authentic, according to her lawsuit. He subsequently agreed to reverse his opinion, Ms. Banach’s complaint says, and to assure the auction house that the works were genuine.
Asked why she decided to sell Motherwell works, Ms. Banach said in an interview, “I needed the money.”
In its legal papers the foundation acknowledged the incident but said it made Dedalus and Mr. Flam “appear unprofessional and incompetent, inasmuch as Dedalus and its president did not even know of the existence of Motherwell works consigned by one of its own longtime board members.”
The board says in its complaint that it was surprised to learn that Ms. Banach “suddenly claims to own” as many as 10 Motherwell works for which there is no record.
Ms. Banach is further described in the foundation’s complaint as “notorious for doing very little work, despite her hefty salary” of more than $100,000 a year.
Ms. Banach was part of a committee, formed in 2002 and directed by Mr. Flam, charged with assembling a catalogue raisonné (still in progress) and authenticating Motherwell’s artwork. But in December 2007, her complaint says, Mr. Flam made conflicting determinations about two of Motherwell’s “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” paintings without consulting the committee. Initially, Ms. Banach asserts, Mr. Flam said both paintings were authentic but later reversed his decision, declaring the works to be forgeries.
Asked later by Mr. Flam and Morgan Spangle, the foundation’s treasurer, to review the paintings, Ms. Banach found them to be authentic.
Over dinner in January 2008 Mr. Flam confided to Ms. Banach “that he was distraught regarding his misidentification of the paintings,” her lawsuit says. The foundation board, she adds, subsequently took out a $2 million insurance policy “to cover the costs of a potential lawsuit that might arise as a result of Flam’s misauthentication.”
In another instance, Ms. Banach said that Motherwell himself had in the 1980s determined that a work on paper that purported to be his was actually fake, but that Mr. Flam later said this work was authentic.
The foundation is seeking damages of $5 million, along with the return of Motherwell’s works in her possession.
Ms. Banach is seeking damages to be determined at trial and reinstatement at the foundation. “I don’t feel like I’ve been given any option,” she said.