- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) - After a decades-long career as an art curator, Theodore Stebbins has developed a professional attitude toward death. As someone who expected to work mostly with books and catalogs, this proximity to grief and mortality came as a surprise at first.

But here’s why he gets the call: When a would-be artist dies, a carefully tucked away cache of paintings gets left behind. Because Stebbins is at the top of his field - a professor emeritus and curator of American art at Harvard University - the relatives call him to determine whether they’ve discovered a legacy worth preserving.

Stebbins dutifully answers the calls and prepares to blunt the blow of the disappointing news he will deliver to the families.

“You try to say nicely that they’re not really worth putting on a museum wall,” he said. “‘Keep them in the family and enjoy them.’”

But then, in 2014, he found himself in a dingy, rent-controlled apartment in New York City. The recently deceased had been living there for nearly 60 years, and all that life had created a dense environment. Paintings and drawings were stowed wherever they would fit: behind couches, under tables, in closets. Hundreds of them. The light was so dim Stebbins could barely see.

But what he could see was enough. Stebbins, who is in his 70s and has worked in art for about half a century, was surprised. The paintings were good.

“This was a visit of a kind I’ve made before, but here the result was different,” he said.

The paintings were created by an artist named Ray Spillenger, whose life and fledgling legacy quietly defy convention. They hearken back to a time when Asheville was briefly the epicenter of great art in America, and because of that connection, they’ll have their first solo show here at the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.

For Asheville, the show is a one-up on New York City, a chance to show great work first.

“This is a time capsule,” said Stebbins, who is curating the exhibition. “This is a chance to revisit a moment in history when everyone knew about Black Mountain and de Kooning, and things were happening there.”

He’s referring specifically to the summer of 1948, which he calls one of the college’s greatest moments.

A group of relatively unknown artists in visual art, dance and music gathered at Black Mountain College for a summer of study and discussion. When they left, they would return to New York (for the most part) and turn the American art world on its ear. Many of them became legends: painters Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Pat Passloff, architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, musician John Cage and dancer Merce Cunningham, among others.

Spillenger collided with de Kooning when his career was accelerating. He wasn’t a giant yet - in fact, he was serving as a substitute instructor, and most of his students abandoned his class - but he was on the path to fame. A few months later, the Museum of Modern Art would acquire its first de Kooning painting, a black and white composition of deliberately rendered abstract forms and visceral paint application.

After that summer, de Kooning returned to New York City, where he quickly became the center of the American art world, a founder of Abstract Expressionism and The New York School, a multi-disciplinary movement, that famously gathered on Manhattan’s 10th Street.

Spillenger succeeded in escaping de Kooning’s shadow, contributing distinct work that explored color and abstraction in unique ways.

Spillenger’s son, Paul Spillenger, attributes his lack of material success as a painter to his iconoclasm. He was devoted to ideas, such as the concept of action painting. The abstract expressionists believed that art was embodied in the act of creation. The painting that remained was an artifact of the art. Evidence of the process in paint - brush strokes and drips, for example - was a testament to the ephemeral event that had been art.

Spillenger recalls his father as a driven painter torn between family and art. He clearly preferred the latter. As a result, Spillenger’s relationship with his father was strained. Now, he said, he’s discovering his dad in a new way.

“To spend that much time with something, you see the person emerge, and even if you had never met this person, you come to know them,” he said.

When Spillenger discovered the paintings, he felt devoted to them. He’s a writer and documentary film producer, and he was working on a novel at the time, but he put it on hold to tend to the paintings.

Perhaps it’s the story that drives him more than anything else. Writers are particularly susceptible to tales of passion, mystery and unremarked talent.

“What’s motivating me is something a little mysterious,” he said. “This was somebody’s life’s works. It was something he valued more than his family. Even if I wasn’t related to him, even if I had never known him, the story would be so compelling.”

Stebbins, Sebrell and Paul Spillenger don’t know what’s going to happen next. Ray Spillenger’s legacy will emerge as a result of the whims and opinions of collectors, curators and critics. The art market is unpredictable, and the artist’s reputation is roped to the amount of money people will pay for his work.

Whatever happens, it begins in Asheville.

“What we’re looking for is a bunch of megaphones really, a bunch of megaphones and people to press the trigger and say, ‘Pay attention to this guy,’” Spillenger said.

Sebrell said the time is right for a Black Mountain College artist to emerge from obscurity.

With the predominance of the Internet, mystery is becoming increasingly rare. Soon, it will be hard to find an artist who hasn’t cataloged his work online.

“I think the mystery adds to the story,” she said.

“Ray Spillenger: Rediscovery of a Black Mountain Painter” opens on Jan. 22. The exhibition will run through May 21.

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Information from: The Asheville Citizen-Times, https://www.citizen-times.com


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