Collector builds a view of a new world
Few art collectors are as passionate or diligent as Sigmund Balka. Since his Harvard Law School days in the 1950s, the Queens-based attorney has collected art. Not so much paintings, as drawings, prints and other works on paper.
Having amassed hundreds of original works on paper over the past 50-plus years, Balka gave 200 pieces from his collection to New York's Hebrew Union College Museum in 2006.
Part of that collection is featured in the nationally touring exhibition “The Eye of the Collector: Images of the New World from the Sigmund Balka Collection.” It opened recently at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. And as visitors there will see, it offers a slice of New York City life, particularly as it relates the Jewish immigrant experience of the 1920s through '40s.
Melissa Hiller, director of the American Jewish Museum, says that collectors like Balka are often as intriguing as the work they collect. “They possess the rare combination of means, passion, pursuit of scholarship and taste necessary to amass large numbers of significant works,” she says.
Originally from Philadelphia, Balka has been general counsel of Krasdale Foods, a major grocery distributor with headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., and a distribution center in the Bronx, for the past 34 years.
At Krasdale, Balka has established art galleries, both in White Plains and the Bronx, in which he curates and features eight exhibits per year.
“He has a very supportive staff and partners who support his efforts to bring art to the public using those venues,” Hiller says. “He's got an incredibly sharp mind, and he is constantly fomenting ideas with artists and has written some really nice publications that have accompanied his exhibits.”
As a result of Balka's affinity for representational imagery, works from the Regionalist period, the Ashcan School and Social Realism are strongly represented movements in his collection, along with many works from later periods and movements in American art history, even cartoons.
For example, a cartoon by longtime New Yorker cartoonist Mort Gerberg hangs next to a multipanel cartoon by Ben Katchor from his series “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.”
Considering the maxim that art should interrogate the social and cultural ideas of its time, many of the works in Balka's collection represent the myriad challenges of modern life, including class struggle, workers' rights, racial equality, identity and religion, especially during the earlier part of the 20th century.
“So much of this show is about life in Manhattan, during the Depression and post-Depression,” Hiller says.
For example, Joseph Solman's delicate watercolor “City Skyline,” featuring two people watching pigeons land on a rooftop, from 1995, hangs next to a similarly themed piece by William Sharp (1900-1961) titled “City Roofs,” from 1940. Other works by Sharp on display, such as “Industrial Trades,” also from 1940, showcase the importance of work during the Great Depression.
Both Nikolai Cikovsky's (1894-1987) undated lithograph “Lower East Side” and Julius Bloch's (1888-1966) “Tired Travelers” from 1929 capture the hustle and bustle of travel and commuting in New York City, as does Selma Bluestein's (1914-85) 1937 etching, “El,” which features a weary couple depicted on the elevated train.
“Bearded Man” from 1949 by Philip Held reflects on Jewish life in the city, featuring a self-portrait of the artist on a park bench, “with signifiers of his Jewishness, such as his beard and yarmulke,” Hiller says.
“A majority of the artists in this collection are Jewish,” Hiller says, “but Balka's interest is in the representation of Jewish life in New York City, especially for new immigrants.”
Hiller says much of this particular show is about immigrants adapting to life in a new country in a time period in which New York City is so vibrant and in which art represents this populist notion more-so than ever.
“The artists that were working around the themes of Social Realism were deeply representing what people were experiencing, and there was a real synthesis between what was going on and what they were representing.”
One of Hiller's favorite pieces is Norman Goldberg's (1921-98) “Bessie & Dave's Fruit & Vegetables,” an original, undated drawing of a Jewish-owned fruit market in Lower Manhattan. “It's not only about life in Lower Manhattan, it's about a Jewish business. It's sort of very specific and, yet, universal at the same time.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.