Local art scene is continually improving 

The award-winning architects of Spiller and IDEAA along with Christensen Development are putting the finishing touches on the new Steven Vail Fine Arts
space on the ground level of the Fitch Building, across the street from Exile brewery and restaurant. The previous second-floor public gallery space in Historic Teachout Building opened well over a decade ago as a collaborative effort between Vail and legendary architect and arts patron Kirk Von Blunck.

“Kirk and I tore up the business model of the conventional Des Moines/Iowa art gallery and went for broke. We had an absolute ball — and Kirk would have certainly wanted that ball to keep rolling,” said Vailof his move. Focusing exclusively on museum-quality prints, multiples, and works on paper, past exhibitions have even included solo exhibitions of works by Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt, and Henry Moore as well as group shows featuring works by internationally celebrated artists including nearly all of the artists included in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Garden. Business has been conducted nationally and internationally and the company also stands as the only bonified certified art appraisers in the State of Iowa.

Steven Vail Fine Arts to celebrate new location with exhibition 

Vail has been in the art industry since the 1990s. He initially attended Drake University as a finance major.

"When I was younger, I bought a few pieces of art, and when I was in my early 20s, I sold a few pieces," Vail said. 

He then began to spend more time in New York City around artists, poets and musicians. When Vail made his return to Iowa, he asked his friend Davis Sanders to build him a gallery, and his art career began. 

Now, Vail has a clientele that runs five pages long and a staff of up to seven people, which includes a chief researcher who creates illustrated exhibition guides.  

SVFA specializes in modern and contemporary American and European art.

"Every one of our artists has some institutional authority or are in museums," Vail said. "A lot of the work we have, by coincidence, we've been handling them for more than a few decades."

The pieces showcased at the gallery often comes from auctions, dealers or publishers.

"It feels like we have our niche and we refer a significant amount of business to other galleries here," Vail said.





19 APRIL 2018

Is there a natural crossover between fashion and art in the creative process?
I only worked in the fashion business for a year, 1969-70. I lost interest in it. That was a moment of great unrest and change in American society - civil rights, women's 'liberation', Vietnam, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, Earth Day, and Nixon. In my fervent twenty-one-year-old world view, fashion didn't seem worth giving my life to. The crucial thing I brought from my great design education though, was the knowledge of how to build a figure - using cloth. This technology was vital to my early work, and remains so. 

Were you readily accepted by the art establishment?

My first exposure as an artist was an open studio project in April 1976 at The Clocktower, Alanna Heiss' alternative space in Lower Manhattan. It was actually the trial run for PS1 which was to open that June. 

I presented a color theory performance using a full spectrum of sheer silk shirts and pants, mixing colors by layering the clothes. There were five performances over three days, and for each one the audience doubled in size. So, in the small pre-internet New York City art community of that time, I guess you could say it was being talked about.

In the late 70s, the dominant art was still Minimalism, particularly sculpture. Women artist's work and feminist work were still underground. In fact, any art that was not abstract, formalist, or Modernist was pretty marginalized, but the margins were very fertile.

In January 1981 three of my cloth pieces were in the Whitney Biennial. John Ashbery's review for NEWSWEEK magazine on February 23 of that year summarized it this way:

"In the majority of cases, however, the work falls between schools. What do you call Scott Burton's granite chairs or Judith Shea's severely tailored dresses, which have titles like "Inaugural Ball" or "Exec. Sec'y"? Whatever you call them, you're not going to get it right. The message that today's artists are collectively beaming at us is that there is no message, that from now on art isn't going to be what you expect it to be". It was later in the 80s that the art world went crazy for fashion. At which point my work, which hadn't easily fit into any categories in the previous decade, was shown with younger artists, some of whom I had worked with as students, who had begun to use clothing/fashion, often in more overtly political ways. 
Judith Shea
How would you describe your work?

In my early childhood in Philadelphia, we often visited American Revolution sites, like Valley Forge. Soldiers' log cabins and George Washington's jackets, I loved that. But I also fell in love with Degas' Little Dancer, Fourteen Years Old at the Philadelphia Museum. Art and history combined to have a powerful impact on me. I remember them as being presented with equal reverence, and perhaps, therefore, I grew up without a sense of distinction between high and low among the artifacts. This was more deeply formative than my later schooling.

Exec. Sec'y (1979) mentioned above by Ashbery, is a tan sheath, or looks like one. It was based on the experience of a secretarial job I had in the 60s while a student. I was answering letters with questions about sewing for Simplicity Patterns. There were hundreds of women sitting at desks in a huge, fluorescently lit room with no partitions, but I felt we were expected to look as much like Grace Kelly in a Hitchcock film as possible on a $60 dollar a week salary. So the dress is made of burlap, cheap and scratchy like a hair shirt because basically we were corporate nuns.

Two years later I made a 3-dimensional 'sheath' out of industrial felt saturated with wax and India ink, titled Black Dress (1981). This was an image I recalled of my Mother, tall and thin, in the dress she wore for special occasions in the 50s. It is an idol, an icon from my childhood. One whose larger social significance is loaded with the ideals of a generation of women and how we were supposed to be.

That year I also broke the dress into parts and cast some of them in iron - Crusader (1982), Form and Function (1982), and then cast the whole dress in bronze, Standing There and Taking Shape (both 1983). This move was twofold, first, technically in my progression to 3D, the cloth didn't stand up enough. Secondly, I wanted them to be set into the larger context of the figure in art history. I wanted them to be taken seriously. I began to realize that a young woman who put 'dresses' on the wall in the JUDD era was easily dismissible.

The recurrent male figure in my works is the overcoat. The first one, I Like Ike (1979), shown in that '81 Biennial group, was black canvas. It was later configured multiple times in bronze, from Memento Cubi, 1984 to Post-Balzac of 1991 - which stands opposite Monument to Balzac in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden on the Capital Mall in D.C.

'Ike' came from a memory of commuting from the suburbs to Parsons in the late 60s. Businessmen got on the train, folded their overcoats in half, then in thirds, put them on the overhead shelf, sat down, opened their New York Times, folded it in half, then in quarters, and started reading.

Years later I was reading about Japanese rituals of folding and displaying the kimono. I thought about those businessmen and their coat strategy. I Like Ike was the slogan for Eisenhower's presidential campaign in '56. The overcoat signified the profound conformity of the society in that success is driven post-war period. 

The later use of the coat in Post-Balzac refers to Rodin's sensuous, grandiose, exuberant artist of Monument to Balzac (1898) and compares it to his existential heir at the end of the century - after the revolutions, World Wars, the bomb, and putting a man on the moon. It is a kind of memorial to different times or a finale.
The Cloak (Second State)
What is it about prints that has led to you using this as a medium?
In the 1970s cloth pieces, I worked directly in the original material. After I started making iron and bronze sculpture in 1981, I made drawings first because of the laborious and lengthy casting process. I continued this into the 1990s, when I was carving wooden monument statues. These drawings led to opportunities to make my first engravings. 
I also began to use Polaroids in the 80s. It gives you distance, after the intimacy of working on something all day long, to leave the studio with a picture and look at it later. You can see more objectively what works, or doesn't. That is how photography came into my work. Now I use my phone, I edit and sketch over the studio shots on my subway ride home.
After the attack in 2001 my home in Lower Manhattan was fenced in as part of the 'evidence zone' around the World Trade Center. Upon returning I took pictures of the state of my neighborhood, then I printed them and made collages. But my new computer, replacing my 'dust' saturated one, had Photoshop. Inadvertently while playing with the program I merged a picture of the empty windows of my favorite store - Brooks Brothers which directly faced Ground Zero, with that of an unfinished figure in my studio. This overlay image was the key to a body of work about 9-11.
I wanted to print these images with the raw and technically rough quality they had, their translucent veils, and I couldn't find a printer who agreed. That forced me to figure out how to make my own prints archival. Lower Manhattan Classic ll and Abu Coats at Steven Vail Fine Arts are two from these original images. This process is now a regular part of my work.
She-Dress (Second State)
What are you currently working on in your overall career and what is the “theme”? 
The work on the subject of September 11th, "Judith Shea: Legacy Collection" (2006-10) is full of many of my earlier concerns. The figures are carved to resemble mannequins, stitched into industrial felt that appears like classic grey flannel business attire (the sheath and overcoat). I visualized them situated in the windows of the Brooks Brothers store that Tuesday morning, facing the Towers. Their upturned faces, shocked and anxious, and their clothes stained with dust and the light of the explosion. Based on a real scene, I see this as a unique metaphor, the juxtaposition of a display marketing success, American Style, reflecting this grandiose attempt to topple it.

The work which followed that was an all-white figure called Still Standing (2010), the survivor, the resurrected. Making it brought me back to the third stage of my career, full figuration. Initially, I made this move in 1991, carving white Northern pine statues based on old monument forms, including two equestrians. I was interested to see if these tropes were really dead (murdered by Modernism), or could be reinvigorated. I mimicked the monumental forms, but the subjects addressed how we now feel about that monumentality - a naked, tired white man riding a tired blonde horse (No More Monument,1992), a little girl on a pedestal, ready to run away from home (Mama's Girl, 1992). That body of work, written about by Brooks Adams as "Shea's Anti-Monuments" in Art-in-America (April 1993) were all carved and stained wood. 

Because of a severe (but temporary) respiratory problem in 1995, I had to stop carving - too much dust. I didn't want to go back to the hollow clothing form, so I started combining every process I knew - carving figures in foam, cutting balsa, sewing cloth, bronze, hair, paint. 

In 2012 I was invited to curate an exhibit for the National Academy of Design. I chose the self-portraits of the women artist members of the Academy from the collection. It was titled Her Own Style. As the Academy works were mostly paintings, I made a few 3D portraits of my favorite figurative sculptors to add - Louise Monument (Bourgeois), Elizabeth Tribute (Catlett), and Marisol. They are made out of many materials.

Last month I finished a new figure, mostly sewn, A Woman Designs A Man, for an exhibition celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The show is called "... or, the New Prometheus", which is the subtitle of Shelley's book.
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Things are looking a bit more like business as usual again at Steven Vail Fine Arts. The second-floor gallery in the Teachout Building was inaccessible for weeks because of crime scene barricades. Architect and building owner Kirk Blunck was found dead in front of Vail’s doorway, and it became a kind of memorial.

Robert Cottingham’s alphabet series exhibit is currently on display at Steven Vail Fine Arts.

“For several weeks people I didn’t know, or even know that Kirk knew, would come and linger with tears in their eyes. Some people who knew him well would weep outside my doorway,” explained Steven Vail.

Vail’s latest exhibition is an attempt to recapture a bit of mirth. Robert Cottingham, is a renowned American realist,  best known for work he began doing in Los Angeles where he became an archivist of urban California in the 1960s and ’70s. Neon signs, movie marquees, car dealerships, department stores, etc. were all part of his repertoire. Later the painter would incorporate photography.

Vail is showing his alphabet series, which represents his style and themes as well as anything. He began in 1970, one year before his first solo gallery show in New York. Searching for subject matter in Los Angeles’ barren downtown neighborhoods, he found an old movie house that had survived both vaudeville and the silent film era. The Art Theater marquee charmed him with three-dimensional letters casting shadows across the sign’s flat red background. Their neon tubes were recessed within “shadow box” letters allowing them to shine, even in the California sunshine. Old light bulb sockets added a rhythmic counterpoint and historical clue. Rich colors and a reflective surface gave the sign what Cottingham described as a “circus-like energy.“

He photographed the sign and used that shot to paint a masterpiece called “Art.” He also decided that the “a” in that sign should become the starting point of an Americana alphabet series. He would find his “b” at a 1950’s era Buick dealership.

Cottingham found his “c” in Connecticut at a community theater, another piece of Americana he felt represented an era gone with the wind. The series was in irreversible momentum. Much of it was included in an exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum honoring the artist’s contribution to American history. Visitors amuse themselves trying to recognize the source of different letters. The “j” is the easiest — it’s from J.C. Penny’s.



Attention, shoppers: You don’t have to wait for Black Friday. An Iowa millionaire is selling off his lifetime collection of art and artifacts at a tag sale this weekend in Urbandale.

A pair of life-sized wooden tigers. An orange-feathered headdress. A case of 18th century surgical tools from India.

They’re all up for grabs and priced to move.

“Everything is for sale for substantially less than I paid for it,” said Ted Townsend, a philanthropist and former CEO of Townsend Engineering. “We’re just going to run this experiment for three days this weekend and see what happens.”

An earlier experiment this year, the auction of his sprawling Urbandale mansion once listed for $5 million, was “an unmitigated disaster,” he said. The 9,000-square foot home with a drawbridge, dance floor and massage room was sold for $1 million after a single bid.

“Everybody else just sat on their hands,” Townsend said. “I gave away my house for the price of the land and the lake” in the leafy Deer Creek neighborhood.

Townsend, 67, built his fortune on the engineering company founded by his late father, who invented a number of meat-processing items such as a high-speed “linker”that stuffs and links hot dogs in a single operation. The younger Townsend traveled the world to visit the company’s far-flung clients and picked up all sorts of art and cultural artifacts along the way.

He displayed many of them in his former Urbandale home, which he built in 1981, but is now downsizing to a much smaller home nearby, which he plans to start building next spring.

Meantime, he left Monday to spend the winter at another home near Palm Springs, Calif., but left most of his Urbandale art collection in a rental property, at 4323 125th St. (by coincidence just a few doors south of Townsend Avenue). It’s here in this ordinary beige house where the tag sale will take place 4-7 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and noon-3 p.m. Sunday.

He’s already sold a few major works through the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s. He’s also re-sold a few items to the galleries where he originally bought them.

But it’s harder to re-sell the hand-painted banner, for example, that he bought at a trading post while boating down Zimbabwe’s Zambezi River. Or the toddler-sized lacquered vases he picked up in China. Or the camel saddle from Abu Dhabi. Some of the pieces are souvenirs from a 1985 trip around the world.

The sale’s priciest item is a lustrous red and gold painting by a Pakistani-born artist named Jamali, a pioneer of a style called Mystical Expressionism. Townsend bought the painting for $35,000 from the artist’s New York gallery and is re-selling it for $17,000.

Other works are priced for less than $100.

Clothes hangers painted like flamingos. A tackle box filled with fishing lures and a half-used bottle of tanning oil. Stuffed animals in the form of a griffin, a unicorn and an ape — a nod to Townsend’s early financial support for the Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative (formerly the Great Ape Trust).

“It’s just cute little stuff,” Townsend said. He added that his assistant, John Greenfield, recently taught him the word “tchotchkes.”

To set the prices, Townsend enlisted the help of Steven Vail, who runs a gallery in the East Village, and Steve Mumma, who runs A OK Antiques in Valley Junction. They did some benchmark research but relied mostly on the prices Townsend originally paid — and then marked them down.

Mumma said he wished they could stage the sale in the old house, which had more room to show off the collection.

“We probably could have charged admission,” he said.

He joked that the collection in its temporary home looks more like mafia loot, stashed in a nondescript corner of suburbia.

A dozen of Townsend’s paintings are also on display at Embassy Club West, where they’ll remain until someone buys them or “until (club owner) Michael LaValle throws us out,” Townsend said.

He is holding back a few favorite pieces for the new home, but seems content to let the rest go. They bring back fond memories, he said, “but they’re just things.”

He has no particular financial goal for the sale — he didn’t buy anything as an investment — but hopes the pieces will scatter to owners who enjoy them as much as he has. He said his “heart is not injured” by the transition.

“I love all that stuff, but somebody else can love it now,” he said over the phone from California.

“So go have fun. Take your checkbook,” he said. “John will pour you a glass of wine.”

A OK tag sale

Ted Townsend’s lifetime collection of paintings, sculpture and cultural artifacts will be sold this weekend by A OK Tag Sales, with help from Steven Vail Fine Arts, at Townsend’s rental home at 4323 125th St., Urbandale. Admission is free. Numbered tickets will be distributed one hour before each day’s opening: 4-7 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday and noon-3 p.m. Sunday.
For details, call 515-255-2525.



This year has treated Des Moines’ art fans to grand-scale exhibitions. At the Des Moines Art Center, “Transparencies” gathered 10 artists from five countries whose works explored glass as both a subject matter and medium; “Phyllida Barlow: Scree” delivered 27 monumental tons of magic stuff; and “Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui” displayed the dazzling, giant metal walls of a legendary nomadic artist. Grinnell’s Faulconer Gallery presented Iowa artists Scott Robert Hudson and Margaret Whiting together, with Hudson’s horse skeleton sculptures conjuring Native American ghost dances that complemented Whiting’s “Deforestation,” a forest of tree stumps constructed out of the pages of law books.

The gallery scene’s best moments were also characterized by substantial and comprehensive exhibitions. In one group show at Moberg Gallery, Larassa Kabel displayed a series of large wild horses floating in the air after colliding with 18-wheeled vehicles; Jessica Teckemeyer exhibited realistic, life-sized sculptures of animals set in precarious and ironic positions; Kathranne Knight drew forests in intricate detail; and Guy Loraine gave a macroscopic perspective to the erotic life of acorns. Grandeur also contributed to our picks of 2013’s top achievements.

Exhibition of the year, museum — “Phyllida Barlow: Scree” brought a great English artist, at the zenith of her career, to Des Moines to reconstruct kasbahs and caves out of both heavy and light materials that deceived the eye. Nothing has ever come nearly as close as this to filling the Pei wing of the museum on such an appropriate scale.

Exhibition of the year, gallery — “New works by Michael Brangoccio,” currently at Olson-Larsen, presents a new phase in the career of a great Iowa painter. His super realist creatures no longer defy the laws of physics yet still conjure a sense of magic and mystery. In a few new pieces he also returns to abstraction, something he gave up decades ago when he moved to small town Iowa “to lose any arrogance that didn’t fit in.”

Political art of the year — Fred Wilson’s “Beginning of the End” and “Drips and Drops” referenced negative racial implications of ink, oil and particularly tar, while defiantly appearing proud and lovely. His “Iago’s Mirror” delved into centuries-old racial prejudices in a stunning medium that created black glass out of four Baroque layers of red glass.

Event of the year — Steven Vail Fine Arts celebrated its 20th anniversary of representing world-famous artists like Chuck Close by expanding to the historic Packing and Provision Building in downtown Iowa City.

Religious art of the year — Iowan Madai Taylor’s new works referenced the spirituality of the original abstract expressionists, the cave painters of the Neolithic Era. Taylor’s self-invented method abstracted its media from Earth, a metaphor for the unity of spirit between man and nature under God. “Dirt is timeless and of the soul,” he explained.

Rising star — Jordan Weber’s breakout exhibition at Moberg included giant, Gustonesque paintings of serious subjects like drug addiction tempered with the levity of caricature. His sculptures, constructed from Des Moines crack house salvage, kept that faith.

Artist of the year — Chris Vance has likely become the most collected Iowa artist. This year the painter moved into big new territories. He painted giant murals at Le Jardin café in Beaverdale and on the outside wall of Metro Waste Authority in East Village. He completed a 12-piece installation of suspended aluminum wildlife figures for the Blank Park Zoo plus a PB Art commission of Drake area events for University Library Café. He also became largely involved with smaller art, including original cell phone case designs for Uncommon, his own clothing line for Tailgate Clothing and some originals at East Village Boutique.



September was packed with the pop art of capitalism, an Anderson Gallery exhibition of vinyl record album covers and a Faulconer show featuring the art of supermarket aisles. October seems to be reverting to more elemental subjects. The Ankeny Art Center’s “Wonders of the Tallgrass Prairie,” featuring works of Gary Tonhouse, pays tribute to a vanishing natural phenomenon that overwhelmed early settlers in Iowa. More than 150 years ago, 20 million acres of tall grass prairie in the state were reduced to 200,000 acres. The photographer has been working 28 years to capture, in dramatic perspective, the majesty of the great grasses that both terrified and awed the first Europeans in Iowa. “Building a bridge between nature and people is my goal; creating images to help make that connection is my passion,” he explained.

Also showing at the Ankeny gallery is “Voices of Our Past” in which stone collector and metal artist Elyse Demaray explores pre-historic and ancient art through pared-down, minimalist shapes that have been used to represent the human form. “Both the similarities and the differences that appear in the art of other cultures provide clues to a central question we still ask ourselves today: What does it mean to be human? Through metal and stone, materials that make up the foundation of our physical world, I strive to capture the voices of our collective past, thereby creating a palimpsest, or complex layering, of perspectives over the ages,” she explained. Both Ankeny exhibitions play through Nov. 29.

Olson-Larsen Gallery opened its fall show on last week’s Gallery Night, with three artists appropriate to the rhythms of the month. Colorist Sharon Booma shows abstractions made of many media. Surface texture adds dimension to painted collage elements, bits of handmade paper and pencil markings. Colorist Karen Chesterman layers both vaporous and dense colors to suggest movement and directions. She sands and scrapes at the paint to add texture and to suggest imagery and iconography. Digital print-maker Peter Feldstein’s “From This Circle” focuses completely on the most elemental of all images. Each drawing is derived from a single circle in the upper left-hand corner of the first drawing, creating a grid of 289 circles in 10 suites of prints into which the original circle has been copied, added, subtracted and transformed. These shows run through Nov. 29.

Steven Vail Fine Arts opened its second gallery last month in downtown Iowa City. A month before opening, the gallery was negatively reviewed in an alternative paper, but reviews following the debut were quite favorable. The discrepancy between those anticipatory and actual reviews represented two larger issues. Generally speaking, a lot of grass roots art criticism views success as a sell-out. As in Des Moines, Vail represents successful, established artists who are popular with investors and hedg-fund managers as much as with novice collectors. Large crowds, starved for art with the University of Iowa’s art museum closed, seemed most appreciative of Steven Vail Fine Arts – The Project Room.

In Iowa City, the building that houses Vail’s gallery is itself the focus of intense debate. The Historic Packing and Provision Building is part of the $53 million, 20-story Chauncery development. It has been dubbed “The Shadow” by protestors who would like to keep downtown Iowa City short. Acknowledging the debate, Vail’s first show was titled “Art et Architecture.” The Bijou Cinema closed in the Iowa Memorial Union and moved into same building as Vail, bringing film back to downtown Iowa City for the first time since 2007. Future exhibitions at the gallery plan to synchronize with films being shown next door.

Touts Ian Miller’s annual Halloween art installation is up (8 p.m.–midnight, Fri. and Sat. through Nov. 2, and Thurs., Oct. 31) at The Batter’s Box, 1300 East Metro Drive, Pleasant Hill. A $12 admission includes entry into The Cellar, The Chop House and the Bone Hall of The Slaughterhouse. This is probably PG-13 material. (… Des Moines Catholic Worker Julie Brown will have a showing of her collection of acrylic paintings inspired by a recent peace mission to Palestine at Ritual Café on Nov. 1 from 7-9 p.m. Each painting is a personal depiction of the people and places she encountered there.



Similar to many, the 1980s proved to be a trying period in Steven Vail’s life. But in line with a national farm crisis that placed particular challenges on a number of Midwestern states, Vail tried to buck the trend, opting to open a collection of art in a renovated Des Moines warehouse. 

But like several other artists of the time period, he said, he was showing works ahead of the time for Iowa’s capital. 

More than 30 years and a new title later, Vail is back at it again, this time with a new place for artistic appreciation: downtown Iowa City. 

During a Thursday evening grand opening with the Art et Architecture exhibition, Vail welcomed area art aficionados, business associates, and the curious passersby in the new Steven Vail Fine Arts — Project Room.

While visitors sipped wine by the glass and stared at the more than dozen pieces — often priced between $400 and $50,000 — many in attendance said the new art gallery’s impeding impact on the local area will go beyond a one-day event. 

Vail, who opened a similar gallery in Des Moines’ East Village in 2009, said the new, roughly 800-square feet space will stand out among the 14 other downtown art and art gallery venues. 

“It’ll be a complete experience,” he said pending what he anticipates as a strong relationship with next-door neighbor FilmScene — set to open its new downtown art house cinema in the coming weeks. 

The two tenants make up just half of the newly renovated Packing & Provision Co. Building, 118 E. College St., which over the last several months has seen nearly more than $1.5 million investments by local developer Marc Moen. 

Despite a near last-minute installation of a makeshift wall in the gallery, Vail said the construction work has been well worth it, adding it has been akin to the Des Moines space in many ways.



This year marks Steven Vail’s 20th anniversary in the gallery business. His exhibitions here, of internationally renowned artists, have usually received more media coverage from New York, Germany and even Hong Kong than they have in Des Moines. How did he manage to survive?

“Luther Utterback (Des Moines artist) took me to New York City when I was 23. The first friend he introduced me to was Jan Frank. We hit it off really well, and I would end up moving into a part of his loft on Bond Street,” Vail began.This year marks Steven Vail’s 20th anniversary in the gallery business. His exhibitions here, of internationally renowned artists, have usually received more media coverage from New York, Germany and even Hong Kong than they have in Des Moines. How did he manage to survive?

Frank has long been a legendary arts figure in Greenwich Village, connected to the scene much like Andy Warhol was a generation earlier. Chuck Close became Vail’s friendly neighbor. Vail also met Christo, Claes Oldenburg and Joseph Kosuth. All three were intrigued that he came from Iowa.

“They knew two things about Iowa — that it looked green from the air and the Des Moines Art Center,” Vail said.

Vail acknowledges that his timing was fortunate. “New York was the hub of the art world then. Now people split their time between there and Hong Kong or Berlin. That was also a time of ideas. No one was networking. We hung out at Il Buco, a gathering spot for artists. One regular I knew only as David — he always carried a bunch of notebooks tied in twine. Sometimes he would read a poem to us. Much later I learned he was David Byrne. We’d walk Jan’s dogs to a tiny dog park. One day he introduced me there to a guy named Keith and told me to talk to him. I took him for a vagrant. He was scraggly and mumbled so badly I couldn’t understand a word he said. I told Jan to never do that to me again. He stayed mad at me for days and finally told me that guy was Keith Richard,” Vail reminisced.

Vail also met famous collectors and gallery owners like Mary Boone and Barbara Gladstone. “Being from Iowa made me stand out, and I cultivated that identity.”

Then, 20 years ago, he realized he knew enough people to become a dealer. “So, lacking money, I audaciously asked Davis Sanders to build me a gallery in Des Moines.”

Sanders agreed, to Vail’s astonishment. The result was Vail-Giesler Contemporary Art on Fifth Street by the railroad tracks. Their first sale was CRASH print. Vail had tracked the artist down after the New York Times wrote about his graffiti.

The Des Moines gallery also held an exhibition from the estate of the legendary collector Harold Rosenberg. It included original works of Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, etc. Only six locals showed up for the opening. Insurance and other overhead costs there persuaded Vail to move to a more secure space in the Financial Center. Then the ease of doing business over the Internet convinced him to close that space. Four years ago, architect Kirk Blunck talked him into reopening in East Village.

“That was not a business decision but a cultural one. East Village reminded me of Greenwich Village decades ago. We only did $30,000 business in 2009. That steadily increased to $1.3 million last year. Less than 10 percent of our sales are local, yet we attract some amazing things. We mounted the first-ever exhibition of Chuck Close self portraits. I called him to interest him in a photography show. He seceded from that and gave himself his own show. I didn’t argue,” Vail explained.

Vail’s latest move, with the Moen Group, is to open a new gallery in the Packing and Provision Building in downtown Iowa City.

“Marc Moen’s partner Bobby Jett made just one request — that we have a CRASH exhibition. I love that symmetry,” Vail said.



Marc Moen started changing the shape of the Iowa City skyline more than a decade ago, and now three new prominent projects in the downtown area are quickly taking shape, the earliest of which will be completed this fall.

On schedule and on budget at a price of $10.7 million, Moen Group’s Park@201, 114 S. Dubuque St., tower is set to open Nov. 1, real-estate developer Marc Moen told The Daily Iowan on Tuesday. All foundation work has been completed and the mezzanine and second floors have been poured.

The 14-story glass high rise will feature a two-floor full-service Buzz Salon, three floors of high-end “class A” office space on the second through fourth floors, and 26 residential units from floors five through 14.

“We’re just hearing from a lot of people who are excited about the energy it will bring to the Pedestrian Plaza,” Moen said. “It attracts folks to live downtown, which is something very important to the vitality of downtown.”

As of Tuesday evening, 10 of the 26 residential units have been sold. In all, the building will include 24 single-level, one-bedroom units and two, two-story, two-bedroom penthouse spaces, each complete with its own balcony. Each floor, excluding the penthouse units, will include two 750-square-foot units and one 1,200-square-foot unit. The penthouse units will occupy 2,100 square feet.

Prices will range from $250,000 for a 750-square-foot unit to $380,000 for a 1,200-square-foot unit. The two penthouse units pricing have not been finalized, but Moen said they will be above the $380,000 mark. All three floors of office space are still available.

“One of the great things about downtown is that people are really receptive to having really cool residential spaces,” Moen said.

Jodi Connolly, owner of Buzz Salon, 115 S. Dubuque St., said timing and strong real-estate support from Moen led to the move to Park@201. The current salon occupies just 1,000 square feet with nine salon chairs, but the new space will have 800 additional square feet and 15 chairs once open by mid-November. The first floor will be dedicated to Buzz’s hair-cutting services, while the second will feature its extensive hair-coloring department.

“We’ve been renting in Iowa City for about 15 years now, and I feel that it was a good time to buy,” she said. “I’ve been talking to Marc about this for several years. With this opportunity, I was ready to go.”

Although Connolly couldn’t comment on the cost of the new Buzz, she said that by owning, she will avoid rising commercial rental prices while cashing in on current low interest rates, resulting in a more stable business bottom line. In addition to having every item for sale in store, Buzz hopes to reduce its environmental footprint.

“Everything we’re going to use will be recycled and reused,” she said. “We’re going to be sourcing as much as we can from Iowa City.”

Steps away from the frenzied construction site of Park@201 stands a vacant lot at the intersection of College and Gilbert Streets primed for a planned 20-story building.

The Chauncey development and the historic former Vito’s bar and restaurant space, 118 E. College St., are being undertaken with direction of Moen. The Chauncey will include two movie theaters operated by the nonprofit FilmScene, a 12-lane bowling alley, café, 35-unit hotel, gallery and residential units.

The Iowa City City Council selected the Chauncey as its preferred development choice during a Jan. 8 vote 5-1. The Vito’s building was purchased by Moen in 2011 with the City Council aid of $250,000 in tax increment financing with plans to turn the two-story building into a mix of office and retail space.

“Something’s not going to open until summer or fall,” Moen said about the first floor Vito’s spaces.

Three retail spaces in all will occupy the first floor, including an 85-seat cinema operated by FilmScene, projected to open in late summer or early fall.

FilmScene cofounder Andy Brodie said the company’s cinema on College Street will remain open even after its location at the Chauncey is completed.

Although saying a retailer has been signed for the larger of the two remaining retail spaces, Moen declined to comment on what exactly will occupy the space. He said the retailer is expected to open in March.

“I want the retailer to make the announcement,” he said. “We’re working on the lease for the other [first floor retail] space.



A typewriter spilling over letters of the alphabet. The lone brush streaking a sea of vibrant colors. Or a still image of a man sprawled out reading a book.

To the casual passerby, these ideas, literally splattered across more than 100 freshly painted wood benches in the heart of Iowa City, are simply art.

But to a number of downtown business owners, community artists, and city leaders, they stand as a testament to on-going community economic-development efforts and broader beautification plans.

BenchMarks, the three-year public-art program born in 2012 that brought about the painting of nearly 80 downtown benches, officially wrapped up its second chapter Thursday with the official showcasing of more than 100 refreshed seats.

The project works in conjunction with the city of Iowa City and the Iowa City-based Reclaiming Roots volunteer organization. A $10,000 grant will be given annually.

A series of public workshops, including those involving the Iowa Youth Writing Project, elementary-school students, and the local homeless population brought forth this year’s designs by professionally commissioned artists.

Taking to the soon-to-open “Project Room” Steven Vail Fine Arts gallery in the newly renovated Packing & Provision Co. Building, 118 E. College St., leaders say the initiative is just the beginning of a series of development changes.

Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird and operations director Betsey Potter, said the University of Iowa Community Credit Union program has been a strong backer of future art endeavors.

“As a downtown, we need to always shake it up and find something new,” Bird said, and that is has been a part of the overarching Community Gallery Program that put forth the Tree Huggers and Public Pianos programs.

Potter said it demonstrates one of a series of “growing up” trends of not only the local core but among larger metropolitan areas across the country. Sacramento, Calif., and Cedar Rapids have approached the district about implementing similar projects, she said.

BenchMarks was awarded a Merit Award for delivering excellence in downtown management from the International Downtown Association at its annual conference in Minneapolis on Sept. 28, 2012.

John Engelbrecht, Public Space One director and this year’s creative head for BenchMarks 2.0, said this year’s round was influenced by New York’s Central Park’s “The Gates” Christo and Jeanne Claude project, with the goal to create a more cohesive layout when deciding on four distinctive “design zones.”

In all, the current round includes 35 sea foam, orange, yellow, and green benches.

“If you place things in the right way and conceptualize in the right way, anything can be art,” Engelbrecht said.

Downtown resident Veronica Tessler, who owns Yotopia Frozen Yogurt, 132 S. Clinton St, said the program has actually aided in her business’s bottom line because customers constantly ask her about the benches.

She said increased interest in private-public partnerships similar to those found between the UI and the local business community will bring even more public art initiatives downtown.

“There’s been this huge metropolitan movement across the U.S., and BenchMarks is really Iowa City’s own twist,” she said.



When much of the University of Iowa community returns to Iowa City in the fall, students will be met with a slew of changes to downtown, led predominantly by the real-estate development company Moen Group.

And although some local groups have mobilized against the developments, the paths of three projects, including the 14-story Park@201 and the proposed high rise Chauncey will march on.

Packing & Provision Co. Building

Once the home of a JC Penney department store and later a rowdy college-town bar, the renovations on the Pedestrian Mall’s Packing & Provision Co. building, 118 E. College St., are now nearly complete. Today, its tenants include women’s boutique Velvet Coat and Modus Engineering.

Come September, lead developer Marc Moen said, the structure will also see an 85-seat FilmScene cinema, a 49-person “green” roof terrace, and a potential 800-square-foot urban art gallery.

Steven Vail, the owner of the Des Moines-based Steven Vail Fine Arts gallery, told The Daily Iowan Thursday that negotiations for an Iowa City location are in the works. The art gallery would occupy a first-floor retail space next to Velvet Coat.

Moen said the grand idea is to have FilmScene collaborate with the gallery.

“The type of art gallery we want to do does not exist [downtown] at this time,” he said. “If it was an Andy Warhol show exhibit, it’d be great to have a movie about Andy Warhol’s life. That’s the last piece of the puzzle.”

Jon Fogarty, a member of the Iowa Coalition Against the Shadow — a group opposing the development of the Chauncey — cried foul about the Moen Group’s recent tax-increment financing expenditures, calling it a “crutch for local governments.”

“With the old Vito’s space, we’re subsidizing building a theater there that we will be replicating,” he said. “I would love for anybody to explain it to the taxpayers of Iowa City.”


After Packing & Provision Co. building renovations are complete, the anticipated Dec. 1 opening of the 14-story Park@201 building, 114 S. Dubuque St., will bring a total of $13 million in new investment to downtown.

The glass building similar to the company’s Plaza Towers building will feature a two-floor full-service Buzz Salon, 7,000 square feet of “Class A” office space on the second through fourth floors, and residential units on floors five through 14. Since Jan. 22, when 10 of the 26 housing units were sold, today, only 10 remain. Despite multiple office space inquiries, Moen said no official leases have been signed. He said the building is expected to cap off in August.

Ritu Jain, the owner of Textiles, 109 S. Dubuque St., said looking out onto the new building from her Pedestrian Mall store demonstrates the interest in downtown, among students, young families, and particularly, developers. That interest, she said, provides dividends for her business.

For City Councilor Jim Throgmorton, however, construction relating to Park@201 reminds him of the evening he and the City Council approved the public funding for the building.

“I think I made two mistakes when I voted for [it],” he said. “It’s going to be taller than it should be … two to three stories out of scale, and we should’ve given the public more time to express their views. We gave them no time.”

He cautioned that the future of downtown should not be “monopolized” by a single developer, regardless of building history and reputation.

“If you change it too fast in one direction, then it will become something rather dramatically different, and I don’t think that’s wise,” he said. “Then it becomes not just our downtown, but one person’s vision for downtown.”

The Chauncey

After months of back-and-forth discussions with a number of local and national developers, the City Council selected on a 5-1 vote, the $53 million, 20-story Chauncey as its preferred development choice on Jan. 8.

Despite arguably the most significant public backlash, the project remains on track to be developed at the city-owned northeast corner of College and Gilbert Streets.

The tower will include 12 bowling lanes, a café, art gallery, two FilmScene theaters, a 35-unit boutique hotel, residential units, an outdoor movie screen, and parking.

“We’re just staying on that course, and there’s just going to be a lot of controversy going into it,” Moen said. “I get the controversy, but we’re doing what every developer does. You pick the [request for proposals] you can respond appropriately, and when you do that, you’d better be serious about that, because it’s expensive.”



Pending an early fall opening date, the renovation to a historic downtown property that has played host to a department store and rowdy college-town bar will be complete.

The Des Moines-based Steven Vail Fine Arts will open a new 800-square-foot “Project Room” gallery in September. The company also operates a location in Des Moines’ East Village. The Iowa City location will join FilmScene and Velvet Coat in the recently renovated Packing & Provision Co. Building, 118 E. College St.

Developer Marc Moen purchased the building in 2011 and told the DI in a May 16 interview that he has invested more than $1.5 million in the downtown structure.

Gallery founder Steven Vail said that Iowa City and the University of Iowa communities are an attractive market to him because of their cosmopolitan feel, which he likens more to Europe than Iowa.

Vail has exhibited American and European modern and contemporary prints and works on paper since 2009 at his Des Monies location. The exhibits have included the works of such high-profile artists as Damien Hirst, Willem de Kooning, and Chuck Close.

Vail said he sees his gallery as a complementary addition to the current Iowa City art-gallery scene.

“There are quite a few galleries there,” he said. “They tend to show regional or local artists, and they do an excellent job at that. We do something different. We show international artists, and most everyone we represent is in major museums around the world.”

Amy Dobrian, the jewelry manager and buyer at Iowa Artisans Gallery, 207 E. Washington St., said that an additional downtown gallery will be a positive addition to the downtown art community.

“I think the more art we can bring to downtown the better,” she said. “We find that the more there is to look at, the more people come around to look at all the galleries.”

Vail said “Project Room” will work with FilmScene to coordinate film screenings and said it will provide context for gallery exhibits, while the exhibits will lend the same for the films.

For Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird, the addition of the “Project Room” gallery represents an integration of building tenants that’s become a growing trend in downtown Iowa City.

“What’s really special about the art gallery is that it’s in a location that also mixes with film and also mixes with traditional retail,” she said. “It’s the interaction of those pieces and the interaction of people coming in and out of that building that’s pretty special.”

Vail said his first exhibit for the new gallery is tentatively called Art & Architecture, a conversation about how design and architecture intersect with art.

“It really seems timely,” he said. “It seems like there’s conversations going on in Iowa City about what architecture should be or what it shouldn’t be, and I think it’s a good fit.”


KCCI, 24 JUNE 2013



An upcoming art show doesn’t reinvent the wheel — not exactly — but it does roll a few out for a fresh look.

The artwork in “Vicious Circles” opens May 23 at the Steven Vail Fine Arts Project Room in Des Moines’ East Village neighborhood and focuses on the ordinary circle, a shape kids recognize even before they know its name.

So it’s a simple theme, with endless variations.

“This show is kind of different because there is no history, no pretext,” curator Breianna Cochran said. “It’s just about seeing. We just appreciate the works for what they are.”

The concept started with a 2012 print by the Venezuelan-born artist Carlos Cruz-Diez, in which a column of striped circles seems to buzz with hot and cold energy. The work reminded Cochran and the gallery’s namesake of other circular works, either in the collection or available through contacts. Cochran and Vail assembled works from 13 artists in all, from the United States and several other countries.

The Chicago artist Carlos Rolon (better known as Dzine) embellished Day-Glo mandalas with diamond dust and soft, felt-like flocking. The British artist Antony Gormley printed images of both hemispheres of the human brain, linking them with concentric circles like the rings of a tree. And the MacArthur Foundation “genius” Tara Donovan, whose Des Moines Art Center show of Styrofoam cups and drinking straws dazzled visitors a few years ago, printed a constellation of stippled ink dots with thousands of tiny push pins.

So the circular idea spun off in surprising directions. Vail said he might dig out his polka-dot tie for the opening reception Thursday evening, where visitors might nibble on round macaroons.

“We just started seeing common themes,” Cochran said.

The oldest piece on display was made in 2000, although several pieces echo the boldly geometric Optical Art, or Op Art, of the 1960s. Vail said he sees trends re-emerge every 10 or 15 years.

What goes around comes around. And around. And around again.



Painter Madai Taylor is a complex holy man who preaches to his congregation literally from the Bible but paints religious abstractions. He admits these contradictory postures can be misinterpreted as a conflict.

“I do wonder how people embrace the duality of my being a non-subjective artist and a preacher. I even question it myself sometimes. Do the two things complement or combat each other? Outsiders can be confused by the abstract works and religious people sometimes are unable to embrace abstraction at all,” he explained.

As a professional artist, Taylor is aware that most marketable religious art is representational — clearly depicting sacred events. Yet he identifies with a more abstract spirituality, one that predates Jesus Christ. “The Abstract Expressionists were spiritual people in a non-denominational way, going back to the cave paintings of the Neolithic Age. That’s why I work in abstraction. Abstraction does not need to be complicated. It needs to speak for itself, not to academia. Life itself is abstract. Nothing about it makes perfect sense, even love and peace are mysteries,” he said.

Taylor’s self-invented method abstracts its media from the earth. He has exclusively used dirt to make his “paints” considering this a metaphor for the unity of spirit between man and nature under God. “Earth has a spiritual quality of all that is human. We are dust and shall return to dust as the Bible teaches. Dirt is also our sustenance; it provides the food we need to live and to grow. I identify with dirt; it has a calming effect on me. It’s tactile. People want to touch my paintings,” he reflected.

Taylor farms his paint from the land on which he treads — loamy, black dirt from local fields, lighter-colored dirt from the famous gypsum mines that made Fort Dodge the “dry wall center of mid-America” and red dirt from the Mississippi Delta of his youth.

“Dirt contains rare tones, gradations and textures that lend themselves to an immense range of possibilities. No other medium lends itself so well toward expressing infinite space and spiritual universes beyond the visible world. Dirt is timeless and of the soul,” he explained.

He also suggested that all observation is abstract. “Life is a constant discovery. The closer you get to anything the more you learn that your previous perceptions were incomplete and the more abstract it appears. Look at a tree under a microscope. What we think we see is actually blinding us to the truth. All you really can ever do is discover yourself. That’s why I think abstraction will remain relevant throughout time, like the old cave paintings do,” Taylor predicted. His “Between Heaven and Earth” exhibition plays Moberg Gallery through March 23.

Elsewhere, Steven Vail Galleries has added an impressive lineup of cutting edge artists from all over earth, if not heaven. Theatrical Argentine Guillermo Kuitca, his playful compatriot Lilliana Porter, Pop Art star Ana Mercedes Hoyos of Columbia, surreal commentator Dario Villalba of Spain, Chinese cultural fusionist Su Xiaobai, Canadian symbolist Stephen Andrews, Spanish abstract expressionist Josep Guinovart, chromatic phenomenalist Carlos Cruz-Diez of Venezuela, expressionist Nedko Solakov of Bulgaria, Spanish Tachisme founder Antonio Saura and ironic lithograph artist Stefan Bruggemann of Mexico are now available at the gallery. New winter hours there are Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., and Saturday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Touts: The late Iowa sculptor Mac Hornecker is part of a three-person show at Olson-Larsen, with Ken Smith and Gary Bowling, through April 6… The 10th Annual Arts and Crafts Show will be held Feb. 22-24 at the Varied Industries Building on the state fairgrounds with 300 exhibitors from eight states; $6 entry, 563-652-4529… Des Moines Art Center’s “Transparencies – Contemporary Art and the History of Glass” opens Feb. 22… Des Moines Metro Opera subscriptions are on sale ($120-$245) at considerable savings compared to individual ticket prices. The 2013 season includes Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Strauss’ “Elektra.”



The Des Moines Art Center’s (DMAC) exhibition year began with three brilliant films by Argentine Miguel Angel Rios and concluded with three more by Bavarian Thomas Demand. Both artists went to painstaking ends to preserve incidents that most people might quickly dismiss from memory. Angel Rios wistfully revisited his native Calchaqui Valley to film the boleadores he wielded as a child, filmed a dangerous game played in the slums of Columbia and recreated a peyote trip he took in Mexico. Demand spent three and a half months, with a staff of 14 animators, recreating paper models of a cruise ship dining room rocking in high seas, filmed a model of a surveillance camera in a Brazilian airport and simulated rain by shooting candy wrappers through layers of glass.

Some of the best exhibitions of the year similarly recreated images that artists found irrepressibly significant. Lee Ann Conlan’s “Souvenirs” at Thee Eye was a painfully autobiographical diary of a lifetime of absorbed cruelties, mostly from bad romances. At Moberg Gallery, Frank Hansen’s “Growing Up Hansen” depicted the artist’s “bad-assed drunk” father, extracting teeth in the family kitchen, using an ax on the clothes dryer and taking gunshots at airplanes. Every piece in Steven Vail Fine Arts’ current show “Sourced” demonstrates how photographic images inspire original art. In one, Phillip Chen recalls the relationship between his father and John Dillinger through trappings of the family restaurant and a death mask of the gangster. DMAC’s “The Whole World Was Watching” brought a collection of historic civil rights era photos to town.

These are a few of our favorite memories of 2012:

Artist of the Year — Larassa Kabel held her second exhibition at Houston’s Peel Gallery this year finding that her large paintings of floating horses now sell out as quickly as she is willing to paint them. She also exhibited at Miami’s 101 Gallery and at Art Hamptons International Art Fair in New York’s summer retreat. To complete a very good year, a painting of Kabel’s was chosen to grace the White House’s Christmas cards, landing the artist an invitation to a White House Christmas party. For that occasion, she wore a vintage broach and earrings by Nicole Miller’s — a Moberg Gallery artist like Kabel.

Exhibition of the Year (museum) — Tony Feher brought imagination and a generous spirit to his self-titled show at Des Moines Art Center.

Exhibitions of the Year (gallery) — 1) Moberg Gallery’s 10-Year Anniversary Show showed what a novice gallery can accomplish in a decade. Represented were 12 local and 13 regional artists. Most showed up at the opening, many from long distances; 2) Steven Vail Fine Arts collaborated with Osborne Samuel of London to bring “Exposition Henry Moore” to Des Moines — an American debut of the artist’s drawings for two of his iconic statues.

Exhibition of the Year (non-traditional venue) — Robert Spellman’s one-night show was held in a parking garage under an East Village pub. His dazzlingly-colorful impressionist paintings rocked the dark bowels of that venue.

Design of the Year — RDG Planning and Design’s work on the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates modernized the building without detracting at all from historic preservation.

Rising Star — Rachel Buse’s “Inverted Mountain” showed original talent for both irony and nostalgia. The Art Beacon, which she founded, became an exceptional outlet for art criticism.

Event of the Year — Jackson Pollock’s masterpiece “Mural” made a surprise visit to Des Moines, inspiring a host of Pollock-themed events.

May Bands of Angels Sing You to Your Rest — A retrospective of paintings by the late Byron Burford played at Olson-Larsen Galleries… University of Iowa art school icons Mauricio Lasansky and Elizabeth Catlett died in April, just days apart from each other, and each just weeks — one side or the other — from their 97th birthdays.



A new exhibit at Steven Vail Fine Arts–Project Room features prints and works on paper by 15 contemporary artists who have used photography in creating their works. The American and international artists represented in the exhibit, called “Sourced,” have used photography as a template for their imagery or have incorporated photos and photographic source material in their pieces.

For example, in “My Father and Dillinger” (2011), Philip Chen incorporated components of photographs representing his memories, embellished them with hand drawings and then used a complex etching process on the paper’s surface.

“Photography is no longer solely about recording moments in time; it becomes a component of artistry and virtuosity,” writes “Sourced” curator Breianna Cochran in an essay on the exhibit.



Des Moines is fortunate: There is nothing unusual about an art exhibition opening on a Friday night in the East Village. Every week, talented artists present their latest work in the many galleries scattered across our fair city. However, when a one of those Friday night openings features the work of an iconic, world-renowned sculptor, it is exceptional indeed. Last Friday’s opening reception for “Exposition Henry Moore” at Steven Vail Fine Arts was that type of pleasant surprise.

Henry Moore (British 1898-1986) is considered one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century, and certainly is one of the most celebrated. His abstract figures of the human form are easily recognizable for their fluid interaction between mass and space, and his best-known motifs, the reclining figure and the mother with child, have a rolling grace reminiscent of the hilly geography of Moore’s native Yorkshire. Moore’s work is featured in some of the finest institutional collections worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Guggenheim Museum of New York, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of Washington, D.C., Tate Gallery of London, and, yes, the Des Moines Art Center.

“Exposition Henry Moore” at Steven Vail Fine Arts features a selection of Moore’s print work – lithographs, etchings, and mixed media pieces. Moore’s work with print began in 1931 and continued for more than fifty years, evolving from a step in the planning of a sculpted work to a form of artistic expression in its own right.

Art Beacon had an opportunity to interview Steven Vail and Breianna Cochran, curator of the exposition, regarding the show.

What can people expect to see at “Exposition Henry Moore”?

Cochran: Henry Moore has a large and varied oeuvre and we have narrowed the exhibition down to his two most prominent subjects, the mother and child and the reclining female form. The included works demonstrate Moore’s graphic obsession with exploring diverse variations of backgrounds, hues and processes in his print work. The work shows us Moore’s non-sequential progression from turning recognizably human figures into near complete biomorphic abstractions. Many of Moore’s prints appear identical in subject matter and compositions, challenging the viewer to find the variances in his work.

Moore’s work is the type which one often expects to see in large museums or on a grand scale in public spaces. How did Steven Vail Fine Arts come to feature such an exhibit?

Vail: The works in the exhibition were part of the collection of the Estate of Henry Moore. Past exhibitions of ours have included Sol LeWitt and Chuck Close. As a rule, our collections and program of exhibitions feature artists who have an established institutional authority. We also have a particular interest in representing works by artists whose work is included in the Des Moines Art Center collections.

Moore passed away 26 years ago. Where have the pieces in the exposition been in the intervening years, and how did they make their way to the public at this point in time?

Vail: The exhibition has been a long time in planning and was made possible by our friends and colleagues at Osborne-Samuel, Ltd in London who generally represents the Estate of Henry Moore. This is the first time a solo Henry Moore print exhibition has been shown in the United States at a non-institutional venue.

In your opinion, how do you think this exposition adds to or fits with the Des Moines art scene at this point in time?

Vail: We feel this exhibition, and our exhibition program in general, lends balance to art scenes in Des Moines and the Midwest. There are several wonderful galleries in Des Moines which feature the works of some very talented Iowa and regional artists, and each gallery does a first rate job in their own niche. We are different in that we make available to the Midwest works by established artists, American, European, and Latin American who have most importantly constituted the defining basis of major twentieth century avant-garde movements and on those who have most impacted our current (21st century) understanding of artistic significance in the context of twentieth century visual culture.



Many surprises awaited my first visit to Steven Vail Fine Arts and the gallery’s latest exhibit, Sourced: the world-class artists and their contemporary photographic works displayed in a Des Moines’ East Village gallery and the attendance of local artists, Jeremiah Elbel and Phillip Chen, professor of drawing and printmaking at Drake University.

Chen’s 31×46-inch relief etchings titled, “My Father and Dillinger” (2011), embodies the show’s objective, which transcends the medium into an multilingual expression that “challenges us to see, or not see, what elements have been appropriated in the creation of the works,” states the exhibit’s program essay. “Photography is no longer solely about recording moments in time, it becomes a component of artistry and virtuosity.”

Such components that appear in “My Father and Dillinger,” according to Chen, manifested into an abstract portrait of his father through the subconscious of the infamous bank robber, John Dillinger. Chen’s father was a food server for Dillinger, and though the two likely never knew each other intimately, the piece became a commentary of Chen’s own uncertainty of “not fully knowing” his father that led him to contemplate such a personal relationship through heirlooms and a sedated image of a bank robber on a flat black background.

Chen’s established and recognized career include works exhibited in museums such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Carnegie Institute Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, and the Des Moines Art Center.  “I like the company I’m in,” says Chen of Sourced. “It’s quite gratifying to be included with artists I’ve studied and looked at for decades, like John Baldessari.”

The remarkable company also includes pieces by pajama-clad American painter and director Julian Schnabel (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Basquiat); American abstractionist Donald Sultan; Spanish collage artist Carmen Calvo; American figurative artist Eric Fischl; American regionalist Joe Andoe; Brazilian visual artist Vik Muniz; Argentinian heliographer Graciela Sacco; American Pop artist Mel Ramos; Des Moines artist and media critic Jeremiah Elbel; South African figurative artist Nicky Hoberman; American digital artist Brian Alfred; American painter and printmaker Jane Dickson; and Swiss Pop artist Sylvie Fleury.

Works range from a thirteen-color screenprint to a monotype, plus lithographs, digital prints, mixed media, and more, which all firmly cement the notion that photography is beyond a captured moment of realism.

Kudos to Steven Vail for again bringing internationally acclaimed artists to the walls of a Midwest gallery that can inspire and provoke art-lovers old and new.



At Steven Vail Fine Arts, prints by local artists Jeremiah Elbel and Phillip Chen join those of 13 internationally famous artists in the exhibition “Sourced.”

“Jeremiah and Phillip not only hold their own in this company, in many ways they are technically more ambitious,” said curator Breianna Cochran.

Much like Demand’s work, all “Sourced” prints either incorporate photography or were inspired by it. Elbel’s dramatic charcoal rubbing was modeled after a photo of self-immolation, perhaps the one that inspired Arab Spring. (Elbel won’t say.) Chen’s two etchings link his father and the gangster John Dillinger, who employed him. Blueprints of a Colt .45, Chinese restaurant trappings and an abacus are superimposed over a photo of the elder Chen’s apron and jacket. In the other half of the work, Chen created a death mask portrait of Dillinger using software that plastic surgeons employ.

Also in the show: Mel Ramos’ take on a Velasquez nude, with the subject looking into a mirror reflecting a photo that looks like Christy Brinkley; Carmen Calvo blindfolding a 19th-century Spanish solidier with a beheaded Barbie doll; Nicky Hoberman’s disturbing study of pubescence; Brian Alfred’s dramatic rendering of a woman in front of his work in an Israeli museum, inexplicably blindfolded; Silvie Fleury’s marvelously accessorized corpse arm sticking out of a car trunk; Vik Munoz’s self portrait made entirely out of paper punches; John Baldessari’s depiction of a human arm fighting with a python; Donald Sultan’s choreography of cigar smoke rings; Eric Fischl’s rhythmic nude dancers; Graciela Sacco’s slingshots and Yankee caps in an Argentine protest; Jane Dickson’s homage to American neon; Julian Schnabel’s musing on old postcards; and Joe Andoe’s celebration of horses.



Henry Moore (British 1898 – 1986) is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century and from the late 1940s has been recognized as the most celebrated artist of his time.

Moore started printmaking in 1931 and was enthralled with the process. In 1958 he met the master lithographer Stanley Jones at Curwen Press with whom he continued to make prints until the end of his life. In his printmaking, as with his sculpture, he was preoccupied with the reclining female form and the mother and child.

This exhibition of lithographs, etchings and mixed media works explores Moore’s graphic work relating to his iconic Mother and Child and Reclining Figures series and is the first exhibition of its kind in the United States. The works included in Exposition Henry Moore span a twenty-year period, from 1963-1983, allowing the viewer to experience a wide range of the artist’s working style. Moore’s print work leans more toward figuration and sculptural study, as can be seen in the 18 works on view. Through primarily lithographic and intaglio methods, Moore shows us his process of reducing and abstracting his two most prominent subjects in terms of style, content and form.

Steven Vail admits to being a major fan of Moore’s work and comments: “This is the first time in the United States a non-institutional venue will host an exhibition solely dedicated to the prints of Henry Moore. We were most privileged to work with Osborne Samuels in selecting the prints we wanted to include in our exhibition.”

Works by Henry Moore are in institutional collections around world, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, UK, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas, Guggenheim Museum, New York City, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Tate Gallery, London, UK, Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts, Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase, New York, San Diego Museum of Art, California, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York and University of Iowa Museum of Art, Iowa.



Three new exhibitions in Des Moines examine color from different points of view.  Less (color) is more in Steven Vail Fine Arts current exhibition “Selective Color in Printmaking.” Curator Breianna Cochran talked about the show’s forefather. ​

“Barnett Newman, a color field painter, came under fire when the National Gallery of Canada bought one of his works for $1.8 million in 1989.  A nearly monochromatic piece of blue and red, it was mocked for its simplicity and extravagant cost, to the point where it was slashed with a knife by an angry viewer.  Without innovations like that, the path to selective color might never have been explored.”

The Vail show, which explores minimal uses of color, has drawn attention from the New York City art media and includes works of such pathfinders from five different countries, some with big names: Rita Ackermann, Kamrooz Aram, Carlos Amorales, Donald Baechler, Jose Bedia, Ross Bleckner, Robert Cottingham, Eric Fischl, Wayne Gonzales, Antony Gormley, Beverly Semmes, Josh Smith, Pat Steir and Donald Sultan.  They demonstrate how restrained use of black, white, gray and the primary colors can have a major dramatic impact in reductive art.  Using a variety of print media, their works communicate more through texture, pattern and balance, avoiding the use of color as their primary expressive tool.  “The simplicity inherent in primary colors is often reflected in the pieces themselves,” Cochran explained.​

Less (volume) is also more as the Des Moines Art Center’s “Iowa Artists 2011” continues with just two works by Matt Corones – large-scale “stained glass” windows in the museum’s lobby and Pei wing.  These were each built with three patterns, based on photographs of flowers, and digitally-created patterns influenced by Middle Eastern decoration and by “Matisse Camouflage,” – brightly colored riffs on the Modernist master’s cut-paper collages.  Each pattern was printed on large sheets of transparency film, which were then layered on top of one another and adhered to the glass.  The effect is anything by minimal color wise – it dazzles entire rooms. These windows will be on exhibit through October 2.


CITYVIEW 21-27 JULY 2011

Steven Vail Fine Arts’ new exhibition opens July 28 and studies “Selective Color” in printmaking.  Artists come from five different countries and use minimal color for dramatic effect in reductive art.  Works range from figural to virtual abstraction and include Eric Fischl, Donald Sultan, Carlos Amorales, Robert Cottingham and seven others.

Vail quoted Alberto Giacometti while explaining the inspiration for the show.  “My colleagues admonish me, paint with more color.  Isn’t grey a color too?  If I see everything in grey, and if within that grey I see all colors that impress me and that I would like to convey, why should I use another color?”

Works range from a screen print with flocking from Sultan’s seminal Poppies series to black on black etchings of butterflies from Amorales.  The exhibition has already attracted interest from the New York City art media.  One national writer expressed hope it would travel to the Big Apple.



A new show at Steven Vail’s East Village gallery ti­tled “Se­lective Col­or in Print­making” re­m­inds Elbert of Buzz of the response that his very young daugh­ter once offered at a school car­nival when a man hand­ing out balloons asked her fa­vorite col­or.

“Gray,” said. He said, “I’m afraid we don’t have any gray balloons.” Vail’s show from July 28 through Dec. 14 will fea­ture prints by artists from five countries and will explore “how minimal col­or in reductive art can have a dramat­ic impact.” “These works communicate through tex­ture, pat­tern and bal­ance, avoiding the use of col­or as their prima­ry ex­pressive tool,” Vail said. Artists in the show include Rita Ackermann, Kamrooz Aram, Car­los Amorales, Donald Baechler, Jose Be­dia, Ross Bleckner, Robert Cotting­ham, Eric Fis­chl, Wayne Gonzales, Antony Gormley, Bev­erly Semmes, Josh Smith, Pat Steir and Donald Sultan.




CITYVIEW, 15-21 JULY 2010

Blunck takes pride in the changes [to the East Village].  His revocations of historic East Village buildings have done more than anything else to attract visitors to formerly repulsive parts of downtown.  Watching people file into Lucca, Kitchen Collage, Miyabi 9 and a dozen other bustling businesses in his buildings, Blunck declares a milestone.

“Having Steve Vail here is just a huge thing.  It’s a major, major deal to have an international gallery,” he explained.

Steven Vail Fine Arts (SVFA) opened in February on the second floor of the Teachout Building.  An exhibition of Jan Frank paintings followed by a show of prints by the artists in the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden placed SVFA many levels above other downtown exhibit spaces, at least by measurements such as the insurance value of inventories and artists’ renown with Google.

Vail’s next exhibit is by Not Vital (a real name), who is as avant garde as an artist can be.  The 62-year-old Swiss aristocrat lives much of each year in a mud and barbed wire hut in Niger next to a pile of waste from local butchers.  There he cultivates his sense of smell, works with silversmiths on sculptures that sometimes look like instruments of torture, and casts cow dung.  Vail has actually sold some of the latter for him.  For his show opening July 29 in Des Moines, Vital will exhibit more conventional art – a portfolio of lithographs.

Painter Jeremiah Elbel won the second round of the Saatchi Showdown.  His paintings are now displayed with those of 11 other showdown winners at the new Saatchi Gallery in London.  Last year, more than 400,000 visitors saw the Showdown finalists’ works, a record for a contemporary art exhibition in England.



Here’s another one for the “Wish I’d Thought of That” file.  The prominent Swiss artist Not Vital (a common Swiss-Romansh name, pronounced Note vee-Tal) cranked up a CD of classical music, dipped the tip of a conductor’s baton in silver ink and proceeded to “conduct” the music over a lithograph stone.  The inky tip left an abstract scribble on the stone’s polished surface, onto which the artist then pressed a sheet of paper.  He repeated the process with several different musical works and eventually sold the resulting print series of thousands of dollars.

Sound like a bunch of hooey?  Well, hang on.

“A lot of people will look at an abstract painting and say, ‘I don’t get it,’” said Steven Vail, who will display the series starting this week at his gallery in Des Moines’ East Village.  “But as I remind them, much of the music they like doesn’t make sense.  I’ve always found an interesting correlation between the two, and in this case, it’s what moved the artist.”

Vital, of course, isn’t the first artist to put more emphasis on the creative process than the final product.  Leaders of the early 20th century Dada movement, such as Francis Picabia, practiced a technique they called “automatic writing” by entering into a trancelike state and letting their hands move without conscious direction.  A few decades later, Jackson Pollock championed “action painting” by dripping, flinging and smearing paint onto canvas in an effort to physically embody the gesture of the painting.  Vital, in fact, tore up one of his early efforts in the symphony series because he thought it resembled Pollock’s work too closely, Vail said.

The half dozen prints in the Des Moines exhibition, which will mark their first showing in the United States, include the artist’s interpretations of music by Jean Sibelius, Edvard Grieg and Carl Nielsen.  (The artist chose only Scandinavian composers because he created the artwork during a trip to Copenhagen in 2004; the series title, “Dirigerer” comes from the Danish work for “conducted.”)  They’re valued at $2,000 each or $10,000 for all six.

The exhibition, which remains through September 21, opens with a reception from 5 to 8 pm.  Thursday, with Scandinavian music provided by Des Moines Symphony harpist Mary Foss at Steven Vail Fine Arts Project Room.



The art dealer Steven Vail has been selling prints by Jaume Plensa for about five years, but it wasn’t until the Spanish artist’s 27-foot-tall “Nomade” figure took a seat in the middle of the Pappajohn Sculpture Park that his artwork caught on with buyers here in Des Moines. “There’s a definite credibility factor,” Vail said. “Now people come in trying to educate me.”        

Vail runs Steven Vail Fine Arts out of the second floor of the historic Teachout Building in the East Village and has busied himself this week with final preparations for “Sculptors’ Prints,” a new exhibition that showcases rare prints by 12 of the 19 artists whose work adorns the park on the other end of downtown. The show opens with a reception from 5-8 p.m. Thursday and remains through June.

One of the images is a maze of shaky red lines by Louise Bourgeois, who created the park’s giant spider. Another is a mechanical diagram, by Mark di Suvero, whose red-painted steel “T8” anchors the park’s southwest corner. A printed pattern of colored bricks, by the late Sol LeWitt, looks like the swirling mural he designed for the Pappajohn Higher Education Center at 12th Street and Grand Avenue.

Few of the prints relate directly to the artists’ sculptures, but they offer insights into the artists’ imaginations and creative process. With the prints, Vail said, the artists “are working on a more personal scale.  The prints are all about ideas, and they’re more accessible.”

They’re also less expensive. Vail’s prices range from $950 for a geometric blue print by Joel Shapiro to $15,000 for a wide black fan shaped design by Ellsworth Kelly and $18,000 for a polka-dotted circle by Damien Hirst, who isn’t one of the sculpture-park artists but an A-lister nonetheless.

“People here are familiar with Hirst because he cuts cows in half and whatnot, but it’s really a beautiful print,” Vail said.  Similarly, the exhibition includes a print of a red cherry by Claes Oldenburg, whose sculptures aren’t part of the park but are just as familiar. His “Crusoe Umbrella” dominates Nollen Plaza and his 24-foot-tall trowel digs into the lawn in front of Meredith Corp. His sculpture of a giant cherry, balanced on an equally large spoon has been a landmark at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden for some 25 years.

“Sculptor’s Prints” is Vail’s third show in the East Village space, although he works with a network of clients, print publishers and artists on both coasts and beyond.

“We do as much business overseas and throughout the United States as in Iowa,” said Vail, a Des Moines native, “but it’s nice to have the doors open here.”



Steven Vail Fine Arts, is pleased to announce the opening of their Des Moines location scheduled for February 2009.

The space, located in the historic Teachout Building on East Locust in Des Moines, was restored and is owned by international award-winning Iowa architect Kirk Von Blunck, FAIA. The 1500 square foot gallery will consist of one single salon. Throughout the year, the gallery will be open to the public and will offer prints and works on paper by European and American contemporary artists as well as continuing its tradition of representing works by world-renowned 19th, 20th and 21st-century artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.

In the wake of the City of Des Moines’ announcement of the Pappajohn Sculpture Garden, the gallery opening is being greeted as additional recognition that Des Moines, Iowa is rapidly becoming an important citizen in the nation supporting contemporary art.

“Returning to a Des Moines location will renew our presence in the Midwest.” Steve Vail said. “With Kirk’s lifelong passion for art and our mutual interest in nurturing a culture of fine art in Des Moines, it is both a fitting and proper step to open a gallery in the Teachout Building,” Vail added. “It will truly be a worthwhile experience for the community and certainly a venue that will rival many in top metropolitan art arenas”.

Steven Vail’s professional experience in fine arts business, research, and consulting dates back to 1993 and Vail–Giesler Contemporary Art, LLC at 316 SW 5th Street in Des Moines. Since then he has pursued an independent consulting practice concentrating on the arts of the twentieth century, and until 2002 served as a partner in Foster & Vail Fine Arts in New London, CT. Vail’s long experience in private dealing, curatorial work and art historical research have been responsible for the sale of major work to private and institutional collectors both in the Americas and abroad. With historical expertise in the New York School, the company is represented and has secured a significant clientele, in Latin America, Asia and Europe.

Steven Vail Fine Arts Iowa will be located in the historic Teachout Building, 500 East Locust, Floor 2. The opening exhibition will be held Saturday, February 14th from 5-9pm and will consist of examples of stone lithography by celebrated British artist Mark Francis as well as live music by Des Moines Jazz pianist John Krantz.

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