After the sixty-one paintings—a collection assembled over thirty-four years—had been professionally wrapped, loaded onto a truck, and driven north from Florida, John H. Surovek contemplated living without his collection while it made an eighteen-month circuit, first to the museum at Ball State University, Surovek’s alma mater in Muncie, Indiana, then to four other small museums around the country. A week later he called each of the directors and a curator who were to have the show after Ball State and apologized. A former museum director himself, he suggested exhibitions they could do in its place. “I don’t want to say this was like losing a spouse,” Surovek says, “but it was like someone had taken the soul out of my house.”
Surovek’s second thoughts suggest that any collector within a reasonable day’s travel ought to get to Muncie this fall to catch Seen Unseen: The Black Image in American Art. The paintings in his collection, mostly genre scenes, street scenes, and portraits painted between 1850 and 1950, rarely depict their African-American subjects as victims of slavery or Jim Crow. The provocation in these pictures is more latent, and more fascinating: they capture ordinary moments that, as the show’s title suggests, happened largely beyond white America’s imagination or concern. The way is cleared for the paintings to be poignant, or indelibly American, and simply curious. Some manage to be all three, like William Aiken Walker’s 1886 Man in Tattered Clothes, of a vagabond in an almost comically distressed overcoat cheerfully posing for his full-length portrait (Fig. 7). As a collection, the paintings leave the viewer with the unsettling sense that there is much about these quiet scenes that remains unseen. For all they tell us, there is much more we do not know.
The Walker painting was the first Surovek acquired, in 1977, though at the time he had no notion that “the Negro subject,” as he calls it, would be his life’s passion. Even today he cannot explain just how that first purchase grew into collecting the category. He dismisses the question by pointing out that nobody would ask it if he were African-American. A more compelling question for Surovek is why the mostly white artists in his collection sought out these subjects.
The answer in some cases is that the subject matter, and the value of the painting, transcend race. Paintings such as Fletcher Martin’s The Fight (Fig. 14) and James Chapin’s The Crap Game (see Fig. 9), both painted in 1942, consciously document a broader American moment, but, perhaps inadvertently, distill a past that is now nearly lost. “You cannot see that scene anywhere in America anymore,” Surovek says of The Crap Game. Other artists, like the Charlestonian Walker, were sensitive to the plight of former slaves in the South, and methodically set about portraying their lives. In the catalogue to the show (which, full disclosure, I helped to edit), Surovek says his own motivation was in part commercial: it was a field that did not conflict with what any of his clients were collecting. I suspect, having interviewed Surovek extensively about the collection, that he used its focus as a tether, to discipline his voracious interest in American art of the period.
That discipline is another reason for anyone interested in collecting art to make it to Muncie. As the former director of the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts and Sciences, an art consultant, and now a prominent dealer in American art in Palm Beach, Surovek has built his collection along the principles that he has preached to clients for decades: buy a better painting by a lesser artist, rather than a lesser one by a bigger name, but make sure you have a certain number of masters in the field; buy paintings from the best period of the artist’s life. Find an artist you believe in and invest in building his reputation. There are a few banner names among the mostly white artists—George Grosz, Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, Norman Rockwell—but the paintings Surovek treasures most are by people like Philip Hahs (see Fig. 6), probably a student of Thomas Eakins, who died at the age of twenty-nine, Thomas Waterman Wood, and Thomas Pritchard Rossiter. These are the kinds of names museum directors love, but not fifty people from here to Muncie would recognize.
Equally important to a strong collection, Surovek points out, is determination and luck. He pursued Benton’s Ten Pound Hammer for seventeen years (cover); the bill of sale, still attached to the back, is a handwritten letter from the seller testifying to Surovek’s persistence and their shared love of the painting. After passing up a couple of chances to buy a Rockwell, he won his—Boy in a Dining Car—at an auction at Sotheby’s by paying three times the low estimate (Fig. 19). Flushed with success and still reeling from handing over more than a quarter of a million dollars, Surovek was approached by a Sotheby’s official who told him that a phone buyer had missed the auction. Would he accept $400,000 on the spot? “If I’d had to bid against him, would I have gone as far as $400,000?” Surovek wonders today. He does not know, but he still owns the Rockwell, and cannot wait to get it back.
PAUL O’DONNELL writes frequently for Antiques