The Odyssey Of Dr. Richard Simms — An Art Collector Like No Other
Editor’s Note: This is the first story in a series about the work and art of Käthe Kollwitz and how it influenced artists, activists and collectors like Dr. Richard Simms. Read Part II here.
When Richard A. Simms told his grandmother that he wanted to become an artist, she fired back, “No, boy, you will be a doctor.” Simms, who is African American, became a dentist in the segregated South of the early 1950s, until a socially minded Jewish dentist who’d heard of his skills asked him to join his integrated practice near the Port of Los Angeles, where racial bias was less open but deep. Simms’s strong feeling for art only grew through the years, and when he wasn’t fixing dockworkers’ teeth, he combed the intimate cluster of art galleries in 1960s Los Angeles. An early collector among dealers, he planted some of the seeds from which the city grew into the art capital it is today.
Simms felt a magnetic pull from work by artists who showed aesthetic power while probing social realities. Images that moved him were made by white and black artists, men and women, Jewish and not Jewish, long in the grave and in the middle of careers. Rembrandt’s work enthralled him. So did that of Charles White, an artist-activist who described his work as capturing the dignity of his African-American people.
One day in 1965, Simms entered a tiny space on L.A.’s La Cienega Boulevard and was gripped by an etching intense in its dark and bright tones.
It showed a scene of abject poverty: A dying girl lay with her head, its color a ghostly yet radiant white, in her mother’s lap. The mother sat in rough-looking clothes, her face drained by grief.
“It was so powerful, I couldn’t take my eyes off of it,” Simms said, recently, recalling the first time he saw a print with the gently angular penciling of the artist’s name: Käthe Kollwitz.
The dealer told Simms that Kollwitz was a German woman who had mastered printmaking, drawing and sculpture and gave voice to the struggles of working people, especially women.
He learned that Kollwitz (1867–1945) was an artist’s artist whose graphic art skills and innate humanity led experts to place her in the same class as his beloved Rembrandt. He learned that she had lost one son to World War I and a grandson to World War II; he identified when he heard that her husband, Karl Kollwitz, was a doctor for working people in an early form of socialized medicine.
He paid $200 for the print, and hung it on a wall of the modest house he shared in Long Beach with his wife, Gerald, a first-grade teacher.
Across the next six decades, on his dentist’s salary, he built a collection that made him what The Washington Post has called the world’s “pre-eminent private collector of Kollwitz.” The first print led to purchases of more than 650 works, many rare working proofs and drawings by her, and works by artists related to Kollwitz, including the social satirist George Grosz (1893–1959) and the proto-surrealist Max Klinger (1857–1920), among others.
Having no formal training in art, he collected thousands of books on Kollwitz. He read about the German history that affected her, from a 16th-century peasant uprising to the political conflicts of the Weimar Republic. He plumbed art movements that influenced her penetrating realism but which she never joined, from Symbolism to Expressionism. He educated himself about her inventive skills at metal plate etching, wood cuts and lithography.
Before buying his first Kollwitz, Simms joined the newly opened Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and helped develop a grassroots group of other collectors who nurtured the museum’s prints and drawings department; then he became LACMA’s only African-American trustee for 12 years, having been invited onto the board by a trustee named Richard Sherwood, whose ascent as a Jew in a downtown L.A. law firm was a landmark of arrival for the city’s Jewish community.
He was regarded by LACMA insiders as an especially devoted trustee and planned to leave his collection to the museum; in 1998 he broke with the institution over an episode that he felt stemmed from racial insensitivity at the museum’s governing levels, centered on a memo created by several LACMA leaders that left him feeling more valued for his color than his collection (see accompanying story).
In 2016 he secured a new home for his collection at the Getty Research Institute (GRI), part of the J. Paul Getty Center art complex on a hilltop above L.A.’s 405 Freeway. Officials there are set to open an exhibition of the Dr. Richard A. Simms Collection this December, after which it goes to the Art Institute of Chicago. The show is likely to add to the renewal of interest in Kollwitz that is already underway in our politically Weimar-echoing times.
The sheer number of Jews who Simms credits with roles in his six-decade journey as a collector and museum figure is startling, but it’s no accident. He and his Jewish friends grew close largely through their focus on art that related to legacies of persecution that many blacks and Jews felt they shared in an era when the Holocaust in Europe and racist oppression here left open public wounds. They met across the bridge of a socially minded aesthetic that Kollwitz, it could be argued, projected across national, racial and cultural lines more fully than any other artist.
Simms found himself among Jewish print collectors, curators and dealers who saw their own inner lives and social views reflected in Kollwitz. Her socially reformist outlook had emerged from her free-thinking Lutheran background, and she had strong friendships with Jews. In post-World War II Israel, she was called “the conscience of Germany” for the clear stand she took against Hitler, who spared her only because she was so popular among the German people.
Though Simms and his friends could sometimes get fanatical about drawings, they were mostly print mavens, fervent about images dug, grooved or otherwise drawn into surfaces of metal, wood and stone. The images were then pressed to paper, typically in multiples, in ink, in repeated images, There are cases when print methods are used to create a single work, like the haunting lithograph Simms bought that Kollwitz made of a drowning woman and never printed again.
Focusing on prints costing between $500 and $3,000, a growing number of doctors, lawyers, small business owners and other middle-class people in the post-World War II era followed their curiosity to develop wide-ranging collections that relatively low prices made possible. Simms embodies that egalitarian spirit. Print collecting continues, but it tends to get lost amid today’s headlines about the mega-millions the super-wealthy pay for art.
At 93, the retired dentist spoke to the Forward about his art and life over a year of reporting that included archival research and interviews with others who have known him, several also in their 90s. A private man, Simms decided to share his story, crediting in the natural flow of it the many Jews who helped him on the odyssey during which he became head of a lucrative dental practice, an admired art collector and museum leader.
“I do not at all wish to suggest any lack of pride in my own heritage, “but I have known and admired many Jewish people,” Simms told me, sitting in a conference room above the dental offices.
“I have a great respect for them as a people — everyone wants to get rid of them and they can’t. Nobody has been able to eliminate them, so I think they must be doing something right. That is a black man’s respect for it,” added Simms, who was raised a Methodist but later converted to Catholicism, though he does not practice.
His closest friends and art-connected guides included three Jewish women, all gender pioneers as women in their fields, as he was a ground-breaker as an African-American collector (and the only African-American I learned of who collected European art on such a scale.) Two of those women were Hitler refugees — one a gallerist, the other a collector. The third, another gallerist, grew up as the daughter of Russian immigrant Socialist shop owners in the Boyle Heights section of L.A. Her name is Charlotte Sherman, and the two nonagenarians still meet at her house with wide views of the Pacific for a weekly Sunday brunch.
During my first phone call to him from New York, I asked Simms if his strong response to the social content of Kollwitz’s work, to the social element in so much of the art he collected, stemmed from his growing up as a black man in America.
“I didn’t respond to Kollwitz’s work as a black man growing up in America,” he said, his voice calm; this was the first time he deflected a premise in one of my questions, but it would not be the last. “You don’t have to be black to respond to social inequities and social problems, or to appreciate social awareness in art. I may have responded as a black man subconsciously. That is possible. But to my mind, as I felt it, it was as a person that I responded to her. Just as a human being who cares about these things. I related to Kollwitz’s subjects of pathos, of poverty and hunger. She showed the effects of war on the people who stayed home, not the glory or the gory fighting on the battlefield. I don’t deal in beautiful pictures. I deal with what, to me, are the real things that are important.”
A VISIT TO DR. SIMMS
Over decades, Simms assembled and showed his collection to others in rooms above his dentistry practice, rooms that functioned as his private version of the special areas—called, simply, print rooms—that museums and libraries have long used to carefully store and show works on paper.
That was where he wanted to be interviewed, upstairs in the former practice he said he still visited, called Harbor Dental. I followed his directions, driving the 110 Freeway toward the port. Then, I turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway, the legendary road that carves its way down California’s coastal edge.
In a few minutes, I saw the clear blue letters that identified Harbor Dental. They stood out from a white-walled building, a structure with decorative arches outside and a front entrance landscaped with plants, a light and friendly Mediterranean look.
In the spacious waiting room hung vibrantly colorful photographs of the sweeping port I would have seen if I’d kept driving another few minutes, with close-ups of container ships waiting beside the vast crane platforms to be unloaded, and a brightly lighted cruise ship.
The images’ vivid colors made me aware of the man I was there to visit, a collector who had embraced art in which human beings and other elements almost always meet the eye in inked-on-paper hues of black and white.
A woman told me Simms was ready; she led me to where he stood at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs.
His white hair was closely cropped, and he had a salt-and-pepper Walter Cronkite mustache and eagerly curious eyes. He wore a deep-blue sweater and dark slacks, a careful but unpretentious dresser. He looked decades younger than his years.
“Have any trouble finding your way?” he asked in an intently kind way. His voice, in which I thought I heard the remnant of a Southern accent — a lilt, not a drawl — had an easy warmth. He suddenly turned to greet a woman in a nurse’s uniform. He asked her about her family, then led the way up the stairs.
Pausing at the top, in an uncomplaining tone, Simms said the 2014–2016 stretch had been hard, as he’d had two hips and one knee replaced. We entered the large room, where he stood at a long table and unwrapped the paper around what he said was a recently purchased Kollwitz drawing.
It was a self-portrait that Kollwitz had made in the early 1890s, and he’d acquired it with the winning bid he’d made by telephone to an auction house in Switzerland.
“If it’s something I know I want, I don’t quibble about price,” he said, beaming at the drawing, which he said cost him $40,000 — more than four times what most of the prints he’s bought over the years had cost, but in line with especially coveted Kollwitz drawings.
When I expressed surprise that he was holding a new Kollwitz purchase when I thought his whole collection had gone to the GRI, Simms laughed, declaring: “I’m still buying art. I don’t plan to stop buying, not if I see something and it’s special. This piece is spectacular!”
Together we looked at a work that Kollwitz made in her early 20s. The catalog in which he’d spotted the image — from the Galerie Kornfeld in Bern — had come in 2017, and he’d snapped it up: “She looks uncertain, but you can also see the potential of what she might become.”
The delight in Simms’s eyes as he looked at it had such intensity that I thought of how Einstein, Kollwitz’s friend, once said that one must get old to truly be young.
He gestured to one side across the room to where his art had once been stored in flat, black boxes lying on shelves. GRI officials had told me Simms gave about 3,000 books to the institute, along with the art, in a part-gift, part-sale deal that he said amounted to a value of $5 million.
“Reading, for me, was the key to collecting,” he explained. “One $50 book can save you the mistake of a $40,000 purchase you might make because you don’t fully understand the nature and history of what you are buying.
“One of the joys of collecting Kollwitz is that I’m always reading something related to her.” At that moment, he said, he was rereading Goethe’s “Faust” in English.
Still standing despite his multiple joint replacements, Simms said he had brought with him the two-volume, 720-page Catalogue raisonné of Kollwitz prints, in which they are shown and described based on deep research of the German Kollwitz scholar Alexandra von dem Knesebeck.
Simms had objected in our last phone call to bringing the catalog from his home, saying that the volumes would be too heavy to carry. But he had nevertheless hauled them up the stairs in a satchel and now placed them on a big table. There is a widely used catalog for her drawings, compiled by other Kollwitz experts, and Simms had lugged that along, too.
“I’m in there,” he said softly as he finally sat down and turned pages of the Knesebeck (insiders identify the monumental catalog by using her last name).
His face suddenly lit up, and he pointed: “That’s the first print I bought. By accident, I opened the book to the exact page!”
It was the print that riveted him that day at the O. P. Reed Gallery in 1965, the life-and-death drama of the mother and her sickly luminous daughter. Simms’s gaze pressed upon the image, his eyes shifting slightly to the grief-stricken father, who stood facing a wall, one hand over his face.
Simms asked, “See that?”
“There,” he said, his fingertip on the image. “In his hand.”
Something shadowy yet distinct hung from the father’s fingers.
Simms studied the image in silence, absorbing it, I felt, as if it were his first time looking at it. “Do you know what that is?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“It’s a lariat, a rope.”
“What’s it for, do you think?”
Simms’s tone was unsettled when he answered: “I don’t know, exactly. Maybe the father is telling the mother she must kill the child to spare it any more suffering.”
I asked: “Would a mother kill her daughter? Even to spare her?”
“Of course, she might do that,” Simms answered, voice empathic. “Or maybe it’s so the mother can kill herself. Suicide over her loss, her grief.”
Simms spoke the title, “Die Zertretene,” giving it a natural-sounding German accent, then he translated: “The Downtrodden.”
With that purchase, Simms had sunk a kind of mine-shaft into Kollwitz’s early years, the period between 1893 and 1900, when she was finding herself as an artist and becoming famous. The work was one panel of a complex triptych that Simms eventually owned in its whole form; it reflected Kollwitz’s hard-worked struggle to reconcile realism and symbolism and to balance artistic control with her intense feeling for people who faced overwhelming conditions.
She worked on the piece as the world crossed the line between the 19th and 20th Centuries, during a period after she was deeply affected by a drama called “The Weavers,” by her playwright friend Gerhart Hauptmann.
She was present in 1893 when the play opened and became a sensation for the realism with which it showed a revolt of Silesian weavers in 1844, dissecting a factory owner’s exploitation of workers amid the growing class division that shaped the Industrializing world into which Kollwitz was born. Her sequence, titled, “A Weavers Rebellion,” was her first important print cycle. It drew controversy when she was nominated to receive a gold medal for it in a state competition only to have Kaiser Wilhelm II declare that a woman could not win such a prize and withdraw his approval.
The six dramatic images gave the artist’s understanding of the weavers’ story of defiance and defeat without precisely Illustrating It. The cycle boldly combined works in two different print media, etching and lithography (The Downtrodden was separate) and Simms ultimately found superb versions of them all.
The collector now turned the large catalog pages to a scene from the cycle called “Conspiracy,” showing a group of men in the tight corner of a tavern. They face each other across a long table, partly in shadows and partly in a shimmering light. The most visible one has his hands clenched.
Simms said, “He’s so angry, his hands are in fists.”
The collector’s voice grew intense: “They are plotting. They are planning some overthrow or protest of the powers that be, but do you see what hangs there on the wall?”
He pointed out another very thin rope hanging above the conspirators’ heads. It looked like the one in the first work we’d studied together.
But this time, Simms explained, the rope had a different meaning: “That’s there to show the seriousness of what the men are doing, the stakes involved in this kind of thing, revolution and protest, if it goes badly. If they are caught at it, they will die.”
We opened the catalog of Kollwitz’s drawings, and Simms spoke about the power of one called “Seated Female Nude,” showing a woman who sits on the ground, seemingly wrapped into herself by an inarticulate wild feeling. With a sense of awe, Simms said, “Isn’t that spectacular?”
Finally, we walked out of the room, and I descended the stairs slowly behind him.
We had been there for eight hours. For eight hours he’d sat without getting out of his chair once. I had brought some cheese and water for a snack, but when I’d offered him some he’d refused.
I later told Simms’s longtime friend Andrew Robison, who recently retired as the Andrew W. Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C, that I’d felt guilty for making Simms stay there for so long. Robison laughed and told me that I’d experienced what many people who had driven to Harbor Dental before me had experienced.
“He once invited me [up the stairs] and promised me lunch or dinner — I forget which — afterward,” Robison said. “Then the time was passing, and it was dark out, and I said: ‘Hey, Richard, I thought you were going to take me to dinner! Here we are, still looking at more Kollwitz.’”
“’Just a little more,’ he’d say. ‘Just a little more.’ And that’s Richard. He’s driven. He’s a mad, wonderful, obsessive collector.”
After we reached the bottom of the stairs, I asked, “Why did you do it, Dr. Simms?’”
Laughing, he declared: “Immortality! So that something will live after me when I die! It is something people have sought forever, and this is my way of doing it.”
A COLLECTOR’S LIFE AND ART
Richard Arthur Simms was born in New Orleans in 1926, long before the modern civil rights movement. The full-scale denial of equality for African Americans — from transportation to health care, from color-designated public water fountains to parks they could not visit — had been entrenched for as long as people could remember.
It was the year after Homer Plessy was convicted of violating one of Louisiana’s racial segregation laws for sitting on a whites-only train car, the start of the Supreme Court’s Plessy v. Ferguson case that legally fixed the separate-but-equal principle of segregation.
As he grew, Simms said, a racial wall divided much that he experienced in New Orleans, but he described a daily life less completely cut off from whites than the ghettos of northern cities were.
The late Michael Mizell-Nelson, who spent years teaching the city’s history at the University of New Orleans, credited “malign neglect” and a “tradition of racial and ethnic borrowing” for the looser, live-and-let-live ways of New Orleans. Simms spoke of a white baseball lover nearby who paid him to play catch with him, of a white doctor who would not openly treat sick blacks but whose wife discreetly looked in on them.
“My first job as a teenager was sweeping the sidewalk in front of the house of some Italian folks who lived around the corner,” he said. He pronounced the family’s name with clear delight in stressing the second syllable as would be done in Italy: “Their name was Compagnia, he said: “They paid me 10 cents a day, 60 cents a week, and they gave me a book every year at Christmas. And that was a coup, compared to other black boys in that neighborhood, who didn’t make that kind of money.”
He clearly recalled a policeman who stopped him as he walked home, asking where he was going: “He called me by the N-word.” As a young man, he carried a map in his mind of areas where blacks were excluded. After he began practicing as a dentist downtown, he’d get calls from potential patients, asking, “Is this a colored dentist or a white dentist?”
Simms told me that one of his grandfathers (“He had the same name as mine”) had served in the Louisiana State Legislature, during Reconstruction, the brief period after the civil war when blacks were granted political opportunities that then vanished, as Simms put it, because “the Klan didn’t want that anymore.”
In an era when the sounds of streetcars rang through New Orleans, and he grew up riding them, “We didn’t have a car. We couldn’t afford one.”
His neighborhood included Napoleon Avenue, whose name gave a sense of the city’s French past and was not far from a dramatic bend in the Mississippi River.
It was a one-floor “shotgun house,” he said, noting that it was of such straight-through openness that “if you shot a bullet in through the front window, it would go through the house and out a window in the back. We were poor, but we didn’t know it, because we didn’t know anything else. I remember it as a very good life.”
His father left his family before Simms got to know him. His grandmother, who worked as a domestic in white people’s homes, had managed to purchase the house. “Don’t ask me how,” he said. He and his brother lived with their mother and grandmother, Louise Belle Green, who gave him his love of books and reading.
“My grandmother poured it into me,” he said. “Don’t ask me how. She was an uneducated woman, but she educated me. I had to read to her every day, and she read to me, and that was it. Books of all kinds. Books were the source of my becoming who I have become, and I owe that all to my grandmother.”
Simms and his brother went to Sunday School at the Mount Zion Methodist Church. Gertrude Green, the sister of his grandmother’s husband, taught the class before the service started, and that’s when he first turned shy about public speaking.
“My mother sent us every Sunday to the church, and I used to cry not to go, and she insisted on that, and every Sunday my cousin Gertrude would see us and say out loud: ‘I see the Simms boys. Get up and say something, boys!’ And I wanted to go under the floor. I hated to say something so much, but we had to go.”
He started doing some drawing as a boy and saw an advertisement one day for an art course in a magazine, with the picture of a human figure that the reader was expected to re-create. “’Draw Me,’ it said,” Simms recalled. “And then they would tell you if you had any talent.
“I never did it. I never sent it in to those people. At the same time, I am still aware of that ‘Draw Me’ thing.” Simms was about 11 back then.
After his grandmother declared that he was to be a doctor, not an artist, he didn’t tailor his first ambitions to that limitation. He wanted to become a lawyer, then saw there was no chance of it.
“You could teach, preach or be a physician or dentist,” Simms said. “Or you could work in the post office. A lot of black teachers taught black children, later on they became morticians. They buried black people because white people wouldn’t bury black people.
“You didn’t have the freedom, then, if you were black, to have all the choices in the world about what you would do. You could not be a lawyer. If you had a legal problem, you had to have a Caucasian lawyer to represent you.”
I asked if he’d gone to what is now called the New Orleans Museum of Art but in the days he was growing up was called the Delgado Museum. He laughed and said: “That was connected with City Park, and blacks didn’t go to City Park, my friend. Black folks didn’t live out in that neighborhood where the Delgado Museum was. I heard about it, but us poor black folks, we couldn’t visit that stuff.”
Simms, who’d shown strong ability in school, entered college at 16, in 1942, having won a competitive scholarship to attend Xavier University, a Catholic university founded to educate gifted African Americans and Native Americans.
There, as a freshman, Simms experienced the first time when, he said, a piece of art filled him with wonder, the electric response that became what he looked for in his experience of art.
He was climbing the broad stairs to the second floor of Xavier’s large library building when he noticed an open door. “It was locked most of the time,” he said. “On this day, it was open. I went and looked inside, and I saw a room filled with art.”
It was filled with sculpture, and he believes that all of it was by African-American artists. One piece was a sculpture of a standing male nude, classically refined but sinewy, a life-sized bronze whose color was that of the young man’s skin tone. It captivated him.
“It was a black man standing upright, and it was beautiful, and that’s all I remember,” he said, eyes open wide at the memory.
“I don’t know what else they had. I don’t have a vision of anything else in that room, but that one piece…” His voice trailed off as he looked out at the open former print room in Harbor City. “It was a very strong feeling I had, looking at it. It was beautiful. I had never seen anything like it.
“The artist’s name, he told me, was Richmond Barthé.”
Barthé (1901–1989), a sculptor born in Bay St. Louis, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, showed talent when young but suffered rejection from an art school because of his race. Ending up in New York as a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, he once said, “All my life, I have been interested in trying to capture the spiritual quality I see and feel in people, and I feel that the human figure as God made it is the best means of expressing this spirit in man.”
A soft vibration of intensity radiates from Simms when he recalls discovering works of art. It happened for the first time when he talked of seeing his first Barthé, and surfaced again and again across several interviews in which he described works that became milestones in his life.
In 1944, Simms was drafted into the Army; he got assigned to an Army heavy construction battalion, and trained to work in a medical capacity. He was shipped to the Pacific in one of the segregated units of the time, under the command of white officers, and ended up in Saipan and Guam.
In Saipan, he became a staff sergeant doing administrative work for a dental officer, and a lightbulb went off while watching him work on patients. “When I left Louisiana, I only thought of dentists as people who pulled teeth,” he said, “but when I watched him work, I realized that it required a wide range of skills, and there was a real challenge to it.”
He was stationed in the Pacific “23 months and 25 days,” he said, always precise about timespans. Aided by the GI Bill, Simms attended dental school for four years at Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C.
“I finished dental school and graduated with honors from Howard,” he said. “I graduated and I decided I was in the wrong place.”
The wrong place, he started to realize when he returned there in 1953, was New Orleans. Simms stayed there, he told me, for “one year and 11 days.”
Through a mutual acquaintance, he learned that a dentist named Max Schoen had heard of his abilities and was interested in him for a new practice in L.A.
“I owe what I am professionally to a man named Max Schoen, a Jewish man,” he declared. “Max Schoen was the godfather of this business. Max Howard Schoen,” he repeated. “He was tall and gangly and stooped over, and he was brilliant.”
Simms went to work early in 1955, as part of an experiment in social medicine for oral health, a precursor to modern discussions of affordable public care.
After learning about Schoen and Simms, I found that the former Washington Post reporter Mary Otto had been there before me.
Otto wrote a book, published in 2017, called “Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America.”
She tells the social history of dental medicine in the United States, describing the vast chasm between the care available to those who can pay for it and those who can’t. Her book probes a system whose inequality leaves many low-income Americans facing unchanging dental pain and decay, even death when fatal infections spread from their mouths.
“In America, access to health care has always been divided along racial lines,” Otto wrote. “For many black and Hispanic Americans, gaining access to the system that dispenses dental care continues to pose formidable challenges.”
Schoen, a Brooklyn-born son of the Great Depression, walks into her story.
Returning to New York from his World War II service, Schoen had opened a magazine for dentists one day and saw a design for a “model” dental office with separate waiting rooms for black and white patients. Otto describes his disgust at pictures of black and white patients separated by the walls of neighboring waiting rooms.
Schoen was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, at an L.A. hearing in 1951, drawn into its drive to uncover Communist ties to the medical professions.
The congressmen wanted to know about work he’d done with the Hollywood West Side chapter of the Civil Rights Congress, which, Otto writes, “greatly troubled” HUAC members, because the CRC had pressed for Southern workers’ rights to organize unions. The group had also joined high-profile fights against the death penalty for African Americans.
The 29-year-old Schoen, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, refused to answer HUAC’s questions. He told the committee that if its members wanted to uncover subversive behavior, it should dig into the persistence of poll taxes that stopped Negroes and poor whites from voting in the South.
The CRC also championed the Australian-born Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose efforts had produced unusual power for the union of workers who served harbors along the West Coast. Many labor unions were racially segregated, but Bridges’s union was integrated.
Bridges once said: “No man has ever been born a Negro hater, a Jew hater, or any other kind of hater. Nature refuses to be involved in such suicidal practices.”
Despite the HUAC questioning, Schoen ended up working closely with Bridges to develop the union-sponsored dental practice Simms moved to L.A. to join.
Schoen ended up leaving it, and Simms eventually became the owner of a practice that steadily expanded over the years.
Simms told me that Schoen never told him about the HUAC part of his history before he joined the practice, that he learned of it when he and Schoen became friends. “If I had known, I might never have joined him,” Simms said one day, with sudden openness.
He said he wasn’t at ease with it: “I am no revolutionary. I am not a boat rocker.”
I asked him if he might harbor a more militant feeling under the surface, but he insisted that he did not have the basic nature of a person who openly fights the wrongs of the world. Once, he said, a bartender in an L.A. beach town not far from where he lived refused to serve him a drink, telling him he looked like he was drunk. “I could tell what his problem with me was, and I left,” Simms said. “I told Max [Schoen] about it. He and the other partners [another Jewish dentist and a Japanese-American] wanted to return with me to that bar and make it clear that I was to get my drink.”
Simms laughed with affection for his old partners’ outrage on his behalf, and recounted: “I said, ‘I don’t need that drink. Let’s forget about it.’ And they did. But I have not forgotten.”
Working at universities in California and New York, Schoen built approaches to affordable dentistry into a determined vision for the future.
As Otto states it, “He invented dental insurance.”
Simms said his ability to buy the art for his collection grew directly from the practice. He reminded me that prints were affordable, and he said he carefully managed his earnings to keep his collecting habit going while he and his wife worked and raised their two children.
LEARNING WHAT TO WANT
Leo Stein, half of an art history-making collecting team with his sister Gertrude Stein, once said of buying art, “It is not so easy to know what one wants as people commonly suppose.”
In the early 1960s, Simms faced frustrations figuring out what to collect, what he could afford, in his search for an artist who ignited his deepest aesthetic feeling.
He was drawn to the work of two African-American artists — Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence — who were widely known by the start of the 1960s.
He bought a Bearden and realized he’d chosen an “inferior work,” adding, “I didn’t know what I was doing.
“I wanted to find work by black artists on black subjects, but I wasn’t having much luck. I hit on the idea of buying a sculpture by Richmond Barthé,” he said, referring to the artist whose standing man had enthralled him back in New Orleans.
After writing to Barthé, who lived in Jamaica, he bought a small sculpture from him, called “The Awakening of Africa.” It was the figure of a man who lay on his side, lifting himself with his arms, a look of human aspiration on his face. Simms stressed that he was taken with the work’s formal force. Barthé, he noted, had “studied in Paris with Rodin.”
On a trip to Boston with his wife, he visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and fell hard for works by Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins.
Both artists, he noted, painted what he called “black subjects,” and Simms talked about the vibrant paintings Homer made of black Caribbean boys fishing for turtles.
“When I saw how good it was, I thought, ‘I will collect black subjects by any artists,’ he said. But after doing research when he returned to L.A., he found that “there were no black subjects that were affordable.”
He was frustrated again: “The output of Winslow Homer was so small and the works were just not available. The same with Thomas Eakins.”
The Boston trip, however, dramatically changed Simms’s approach as a collector.
“I love art and I love the human race and I love people, and once I saw Winslow Homer, and once I saw Thomas Eakins, I had an epiphany that I could not limit myself to buying African-American artists,” he said. “I saw that I could buy a lot of people who did great art besides black artists.”
In the early 1960s he was driving up from Long Beach to visit L.A.’s fledgling gallery row in Hollywood. Many LA art people from that time remember the throngs soaking up the raw energy on the Monday Night Art Walks among the galleries along La Cienega Boulevard. Simms got there Saturdays. On La Cienega near Melrose Boulevard, he found the Heritage Gallery, where the socially intensive art matched his interests.
He met the owner, Benjamin Horowitz, a Jewish social worker from New York who knew little about the art business before the well-known Jewish painter brothers Raphael and Moses Soyer urged him to move to L.A. to represent them and other artists who had leftist sensibilities.
Raphael Soyer, who’d immigrated to this country from Russia, was one of Kollwitz’s many admirers in the artistic world of the left. That world included art people from many backgrounds devoted to an idea of art as a common center to which all cultures and classes could identify as part of one human experience. He dedicated his autobiography to his beloved late sister, Fanny, and he compared her moral quality to the two women he most admired: Marie Curie and Käthe Kollwitz.
Horowitz opened the Heritage Gallery in 1961, and visiting it brought Simms into contact with a young artist named Charlotte Sherman, who today describes herself as the “very Jewish” daughter of Socialist Russian immigrants who ran a grocery store in L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood. After showing her work at the gallery for a time, she joined Horowitz to run it.
Horowitz died in 2004. Sherman, who turns 96 in June, stays engaged in the art world, running the Heritage Gallery from her home in the Pacific Palisades. She and Simms meet there for brunch with lox and bagels every Sunday, and they talk about life and art — sometimes about a specific piece he brings along, though he showed up recently with a transcript he’d found of Schoen’s HUAC interrogation.
Sherman explained, when I joined them one Sunday, as if saying bread was made of flour: “Being of the left, being Socialist, was being Jewish. For us, that’s what being Jewish meant. You cared about other people. You looked for what was going on in the world and you responded to it. We believed everyone had a right to an equal place in the society, that we were all in it together.”
The walls around us, she said, basically looked like the walls of the old Heritage when Simms used to visit. I looked at an in-gathering of works by artists whose muses lived on the left side of Mount Parnassus, including Picassos next to Charles Whites, a painting by Raphael Soyer joining one by the Mexican David Alfaro Siqueros — and, of course, Kollwitz prints.
“We were all very involved with Käthe Kollwitz’s work,” Sherman said. “She was for social realism, social awareness, and she went to the heart of the matter. She was determined to show the meaning there was in community, and she knew what it was about life that should be acknowledged. She suffered the loss of her son in the first war, and then her grandson in the second war, and she lived these things in her art.”
Sherman spoke of an early romance with an African-American man as the event that “opened my eyes” to the realities of race in America and helped to instill her urge to advocate for art that merged aesthetic power with a defiance of the racial divisions in the society around her.
Sherman noted that the Heritage Gallery was where White had his first commercial gallery exhibit, in 1964, leading to about 50 subsequent shows of his work (“I really couldn’t count, there were so many”), a history now getting new attention because of the sweeping show of White’s work that opened on February 13 at LACMA, after it appeared in New York and Chicago.
White had vital ties to members of the L.A. Jewish community and worked with Old Testament subjects. Sherman owns a large White print of the Jewish prophet Micah. Simms owns a White print showing Sojourner Truth, known as Mother Moses, leading blacks through the desert of the biblical Exodus.
Sherman recalled talking with White about Kollwitz as an artist whom he admired, and who had influenced his art. Despite being in both Kollwitz and White territory at the Heritage, Simms insisted that this fascinating art historical connection never surfaced during his visits to Sherman at the gallery.
Yet Sherman brought him to the threshold of his Kollwitz discovery. She said she remembered walking him across La Cienega Boulevard to the very small exhibition space run by O.P. Reed, a well-known art dealer and writer who she knew had Kollwitz on his walls.
“I took him right to the door of O.P. Reed’s,” she said. “I told him he should have a look in there, but I didn’t go in with him.”
Simms entered and saw the dramatic print showing the devastated family of “The Downtrodden.”
Soon after taking home that first Kollwitz, he returned to Reed’s and saw a print at O.P. Reed’s space identified to him as being by Albrecht Dürer, and he made a mistake that turned into a guiding piece of wisdom. Dürer embodied German print-making near its start, and his work had influenced Kollwitz’s artistic personality. But Simms decided the work might not be genuine, and he didn’t buy it.
It showed a coat of arms with a rooster on it, and Simms believed that Dürer made prints of only religious subjects. To learn more, he went the Los Angeles Public Library in downtown L.A. and read that the artist was more wide-ranging than he’d realized: The print was a genuine Dürer.
By the time he got back to the gallery, a day or two later, the print had gone to someone else. From that day, Simms said, he educated himself and avoided such errors.
In the vaults at the GRI that now hold Simms’s book collection, the long, open shelf rows I saw were like freeways with exits into different neighborhoods of Kollwitz-related experience: German history, German culture, German revolutionary art, German Symbolist art, German Expressionism, Austrian art, Kollwitz in France, Kollwitz drawings, Kollwitz prints, Kollwitz dealers’ catalogs that he used in his collecting.
Kollwitz scholars believe that she struggled with depression, so Simms studied depression, buying a book titled “Depression: Comparative Studies of Normal, Neurotic, and Psychotic Conditions.”
There are books on the history of collecting, and others about the paper and inks of print-making.
He learned the basic difference between proofs, the impressions that print artists make to test how an image is developing, and states, which reflect a sequence of changes in what the image should be — with human figures or other elements formed or arranged or inked a new way.
Kollwitz fused expressive freedom with intense control as she made many uses of one image. She reworked the plotters at the tavern table in the print called “Conspiracy” that Simms showed me, seating the angry men first on one side of the table, then the other. She shrouded them, in one state, in deep shadow pierced by sharp light, and coaxed out a softer brightness in another.
Each of these states was a step in a path to completion, but was also understandable as a separate work, numbered and signed by the artist. Simms came to grasp the nuances of different ones, buying more and more of the artist’s explorations for his rooms above Harbor Dental, combining them into a deepening view of how Kollwitz pursued her restless creativity.
Critics writing about art in the 20th Century, often stress the improvising freedom with which certain painters followed their instincts, but surges of intuitive change in art-making are older than that, and Kollwitz was a woman who clearly surprised herself a lot with how her work evolved. The conviction with which she took her experimental journeys to their conclusions was a big part of what made her great.
“What Richard did was to collect Käthe Kollwitz prints, drawings and working proofs, so you could see her thinking and sometimes struggling on paper, and experimenting with techniques,” said Louis Marchesano, former curator of prints and drawings at the GRI (he has moved to a similar position at the Philadelphia Museum of Art but continues to shape the GRI Simms show, along with others).
Kollwitz, more than some other artists, was a perfectionist who kept making proofs to see what she was doing, how the work underway was (as artists say) “talking to her,” and such proofs mattered to Simms. He acted like a detective, finding a print, looking for the drawing that led to it, then perhaps finding an impression of the print on which Kollwitz had suddenly done freehand drawing.
“Simms,” Marchesano said, “is the American Max Lehrs.”
Lehrs was a German Jewish curator-collector who played a large role in developing the scholarly response to Kollwitz in her time, starting when she was a young artist. Beginning in the 1890s, as a curator at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the German state museum at Dresden, Lehrs collected her work for the museum’s print room with a determined openness to Kollwitz’s changes as she formed and printed her images, and as she explored ideas in different media.
Simms told me he was “fascinated by Lehrs and the opportunity Lehrs got” to collect Kollwitz’s work at all stages and states of development (“He got to buy such early things”) while she was alive.
Thomas Gaehtgens, former director of the GRI, told me, “He showed a lot of discipline in how he focused on Kollwitz, even as he was interested in many other artists.”
He ranged more widely than some of Simms’s admirers may know. The Kollwitz collection has gone to the GRI, but the graphic art holdings of LACMA include 67 works by artists from around the world and across several centuries, works that Simms gave to the museum either on his own (meaning with his wife) or jointly with other collectors.
When Simms gave pieces to LACMA over the five decades after joining the museum, he did so incrementally. Now, though, the digital revolution makes it possible to call up all of them at once from the museum’s database. Especially when taken together with the other art he bought, a unified collecting personality becomes clear.
Many, though not all, of his gifts to LACMA belonged to the global tradition of socially conscious prints. A whole essay about Mexican revolutionary print-making could be drawn from a single work that he and his wife gave the museum in 1988, his third year as a trustee. It is a linoleum cut called “A Portrait of Posada in His Shop,” by the Mexico City-based artist Leopoldo Mendez (1902–1969).
It shows José Guadalupe Posada (1852–1913), a Mexican print-maker of a previous generation, looking out the window of his shop — from which newspapers and art emerged from the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 until he died. He’s joined in the dramatic portrait by printers and editors who stand near a wide window through which they see authorities on horseback beating protesters violently.
Mendez, who created that homage to his predecessor, belonged to the Taller de Gráfica Popular, the People’s Print Workshop, a collective center in Mexico City for the creation of sociopolitical art.
I asked Simms how he was introduced to the work of the Taller.
“Charles White,” he said plainly. “He lived in Mexico City for a while, and I am sure I heard about it from him.”
BLACK MAN IN A WHITE (AND JEWISH) WORLD
1965, the year Simms bought his first Kollwitz, was the same year that the American Dental Association’s governing body reversed rules that had basically prevented blacks from advancing in the main professional organization of American dentistry.
Those changes paved the way for Simms to become one of the organization’s first two elected African-American vice presidents. Earlier, urged on by Schoen, he had pursued an advanced degree in orthodontics in 1961, becoming a graduate student at Loma Linda University and later a professor of dentistry. As both student and professor there, he broke ground as the first African American.
The art world of the 1960s wasn’t more inclusive than dentistry.
LACMA first opened in 1965 and, like other American museums then, was managed by white trustees and administrators who oversaw white curators. The curators almost never collected or exhibited work by people who looked like Simms.
“Aside from Lawrence and Bearden, in those days there was no place for art by African Americans in the big art museums of this country,” Simms said. “You just didn’t see them there, African-American artists. It wasn’t on the walls. It was like TV. You didn’t see blacks on TV in those days, not like now. And you weren’t going to be accepted as someone who collected those artists. If you didn’t collect art by Caucasians, there was no place for you in one of those museums.”
Yet Simms, a gregarious autodidact, entered LACMA’s orbit.
“I was a fellow who was interested in art and I wanted to be with the other people who were interested in art,” he said. “LACMA was the only real game in town, and I wanted to be a part of it. And why not? I was interested in all kinds of art, and it wasn’t my main cause to advocate only for art by African Americans.”
It was the mid-1960s and racial tensions in Los Angeles had already been building when the arrest of a young African-American man shortly before LACMA’s opening exploded into six days of what became known as the Watts Rebellion.
Developments around LACMA in those times included efforts by African-American activists named Claude Booker and Cecil Fergerson — members of the museum’s art installation crew — to fight for a place on LACMA’s walls for African-American artists.
In 1968, Booker and Fergerson co-founded the Black Arts Council. In the 1970s, largely as a result of their activism, LACMA mounted two shows that showed the multifaceted nature of African-American art history and living artists’ achievements. A 1971 print exhibit included the work of White and two other artists. White played a generative role in a second, much larger show called “Two Centuries of Black American Art in 1976,” proposing David C. Driskell, a painter and independent curator, to organize it.
Simms loaned Driskell’s show White’s “Take My Mother Home,” a large ink drawing, and “The Awakening of Africa,” anonymously (“Private Collector, Harbor City”) which is how many exhibit donors want their loans identified.
While Simms responded strongly to works by certain black artists, he told me repeatedly that his specific attraction to a work of art is what matters to him most, that he follows his inner compass of quality.
Asked if he’d joined the Black Arts Council, he answered, “Hell, no!”
“Art is universal,” Simms said. “If blacks stopped making art, art wouldn’t stop. It would keep going. You can’t stop art. Just because a black person made it does not make it good. That is a view that I do not agree with. I am interested in art by all kinds of people.”
Museums naturally attract people with Simms’s intuitive impulse toward the visual.
And museums are also institutional collections that grow largely by developing relationships with collectors who buy art on their own and end up placing works with the museum. Early on, LACMA started a number of volunteer councils for serious collectors, aspiring collectors and others who were generally committed to art.
Simms joined the Graphic Arts Council, a group of collectors and others focused on works on paper, even before he bought his first Kollwitz. There were other arts councils at the museum, centered on sculpture, painting and the decorative arts. Hundreds of Angelenos joined them over time, benefiting from their talks and social activities.
Simms joined GAC “to learn, to get an education, because I needed one, and there were people there who knew more than I did.”
The guiding light of GAC was Ebria Feinblatt, a Jewish woman, the museum’s first prints and drawings curator, whose specialty was prints of the Italian Renaissance. Simms remembers Feinblatt as a “reclusive woman” of deep scholarship and a relentless drive to develop LACMA’s graphic art holdings, often with money donated by GAC members.
To judge from copies of a carefully produced GAC newsletter in LACMA archives, they met in a spirit of pride in furthering LACMA as a community resource. One former LACMA partisan who knew Simms then spoke of him as a leader in “the council movement.”
The Graphic Arts Council Newsletter, started in 1966, included pieces in which members taught each other about print collecting, writing on almost everything that interested them in the graphic arts. One article advised on the tax benefits won by donating art — “A difficulty frequently encountered by the donor is the establishment of the fair market value of the donated property.”
Jake Zeitlin, a legendary L.A. book dealer who Simms knew, put on the first Kollwitz exhibition on the West Coast in 1937 to benefit Hitler refugees. He was part of GAC and wrote for the newsletter. So did Reed, the dealer who sold Simms his first Kollwitz.
There was a closeness among dealers, museum officials and collectors that would be questioned today as too-fertile ground for conflicts of interest, but it was part of the art life in those days.
Simms held official leadership positions with GAC. Over time, he gave the museum more than 65 gifts of graphic art, a LACMA database shows, from a pair of Renaissance works depicting the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, and German Expressionist metal-plate etchings, to an erotic print by a contemporary Japanese artist.
The GAC story about the egalitarian collecting of art on paper in L.A. takes one into homes in Hollywood and Beverly Hills. But collectors often lived in houses more modest than those associated with the stereotype of the city’s more affluent areas, and the inhabitants talked not of movie business, but of prints by Giacometti and Picasso, and included Jewish refugees who maintained love-hate bonds with the Europe they’d been forced to leave.
In the World War II era, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht had come to LA, stars In Europe who made the city their war-time home and gave It flashes of artistic energy. But these other refugees from German-speaking countries formed another layer of the cultural ecology, less glamorous but fervent as they sank new roots for their sense of bildung.
It’s a German word whose closest translation is probably cultivation, worldly cultivation, and that transplanted ideal helped nurture the community of collectors surrounding LACMA. They contributed to LA’s developing potential as a late-bloomer compared to East Coast cities when it came to the arts. Simms, driving regularly up from the coastal area about an hour south of LA, soaked in that atmosphere, as he placed himself in the middle, in one LACMA veteran’s words, “of everything that was going on” at the museum after it opened.
The refugees Simms came to know included Toni G. Marcy, a woman he remembers as “tall like a tall bird.” She was the widow of Siegbert Marcy, whose name in Berlin was Marzynski; Simms pronounces it with a perfect Polish-sounding flourish. They had collected prints by Max Lieberman, who had made a print-portrait of Siegbert as a young man.
Lieberman, an Impressionist whose status in German art is great, gave early support to Kollwitz, which led Simms to make his work part of his collection, though he said he discovered his work on his own.
According to Robison, the Marcys had their version of a print room for storing and showing their art. So did Gerhard Pinkus and his wife, Marianne Pinkus, who had immigrated to Los Angeles from Berlin in the 1930s to escape the Nazis and started their collection in the 1940s. Their interests ranged from the German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to French Impressionists to Marc Chagall. They used an image by Kollwitz on a holiday card one year.
There was a refugee named Kate Steinke, a scholar who wrote about Leonardo da Vinci and is said to have known Kollwitz when the two were art students.
The more I learned about Steinke and others who populated the works-on-paper layer of L.A.’s art world of the 1960s and 1970s, the clearer it became how fully they viewed art as a basic part of being alive.
Kollwitz was a figure whose spirit drew many of them to Simms and to each other.
THE HITLER REFUGEES’ FRIEND
At one GAC event In the mid-1960s, Simms was befriended by a man with a German accent — “a little tiny man, very tiny man” — named Ernest Jacobson, who carried with him small stickers on glue-backed labels on sheets of wax paper with his address on them.
Simms, re-creating Jacobson’s accent, recalled how he “peeled off one of his stickers, held it out to me, and said, ‘Come and see us sometime.’
The address on it was 200 South Waverly Drive, Beverly Hills.
“It was a charming little house on a corner, one block south of Wilshire,” Simms recalled. The house, with its high, peaked roof, was a short drive from LACMA.
Simms and his wife formed a close friendship with Ernest and Lilly Jacobson, Jews from the German town of Speyer, before they fled the Nazis for the United States. Lilly’s maiden name was Kaufman, and her family had owned a large department store, said Denise Wior, her granddaughter. Ernest Jacobson, when Simms met him, had retired as an insurance agent for Lloyd’s of London.
The couple were multifaceted collectors who bought prints by Max Beckmann, Daumier and other artists. Wior recalled lively gatherings that the Jacobsons hosted in the art-and-book filled house, with a culture-devoted crowd in which many were European refugees with accents. She described her grandmother as a fine cook, especially of a German-style chocolate torte. Wior remembered Simms, “an elegant, very charming man,” on those occasions.
The meals took place in view of a George Grosz watercolor of a Berlin cafe scene that hung on the wall, which Lilly Jacobson later sold to Simms and which has gone to the GRI.
One weekly dinner guest was Ruth Weisberg, a highly regarded, much-exhibited L.A. artist who has drawn on her Jewish identity for her work as a painter and print-maker. In the early 1970s, she started going to the Jacobsons and met people who she said “were passionate about print-making.”
Weisberg said most of the eight or so people around the table were Jewish.
“World War II and the Holocaust formed the undeniable reality that they lived with,” said Weisberg, who joined the Jacobson dinners in her 20s as a member of a younger generation.
“They had to come to terms with reality in their time, and if they’d gotten here, and if they’d flourished here, in this country, it was a denial of Hitler’s intentions. They were mostly of the left or on the left. History always in the background,” Weisberg said.
Simms invited Weisberg to view his collection, and it deepened Kollwitz’s impact on her.
“I am a figurative artist,” Weisberg said in a recent interview. “And I worked in a world where there was an anti-figurative bias. You were allowed to do the figure if you were Philip Pearlstein, who did figures, but they were emotionally very distant. Kollwitz engaged you in the lives of people, and her figurative skills were extraordinary.”
Every year, the Jacobsons returned to the Germany they had both fled in the 1930s, going back to Speyer, taking baths at a health spa they knew from prewar times, visiting artists they knew, and visiting relatives there and in France who had survived the war.
“My wife and I traveled with Lilly and her husband in Germany, in a little blue Volkswagen,” Simms said, smiling at the memory. “Riding right along in that blue Volkswagen bus.
“We went to one town in France, where Lilly had relatives, and we sat in a garden with her relatives, and one of them pushed away some vines that were covering a monument with all these names. It had so many names of family members who were victims of the Holocaust….”
Simms broke off, shaking his head in recollection of the moment.
“I knew about the Holocaust, of course, but the sight of those names,” he said. “The extent of it. That made it real for me in a way it had not been before.”
There are few collecting sagas of luck and chutzpah that match the one of how Simms ascended to the highest ranks of Käthe Kollwitz collectors in 1979.
Until then, Simms had often bought works straight from dealers who understood what he wanted and called him if they had something they believed would interest him.
He learned the auction game well, say people who bid for him and against him. In bidding done through phone calls placed to auction houses, he resorted to the common practice of asking friends to bid for him, masking his identity so that other bidders wouldn’t know him by his voice as the guy from L.A. who might bid as high as needed to get a prized piece. One dealer friend told me he acted 15 times as a Simms “surrogate.”
Becoming a Kollwitz expert by the late 1960s, Simms became close friends with sellers from whom he purchased more directly.
In 1969, he began a strong relationship with the Galerie St. Etienne, on 57th Street in Manhattan. His contact there, gallery co-director Hildegard Bachert, recalled for me the first phone call she received from him, saying he “already knew a lot” about Kollwitz.
Bachert, a Hitler refugee who arrived in this country as a teenager, ended up working for Otto Kallir, the gallery’s late founder, who also fled the Nazis to New York and was regarded as perhaps the leading Kollwitz dealer of his time. Bachert grew into a stature on Kallir’s level, or even exceeded it, in her knowledge of Kollwitz and her distinct feeling as a woman for an artist attuned to a woman’s life.
Bachert, at 98, has since retired to her house in Vermont, where Simms has visited three times for Passover. Kallir’s granddaughter, Jane, now runs the gallery, which focuses on modern art from German-speaking countries. In 2017, the gallery mounted a show that honored the 150th anniversary of Kollwitz’s birth.
Through the decades, Bachert said, Simms bought 69 works from the Galerie St. Etienne and the two became good friends as he patiently built his collection, piece by piece.
Then, on March 31, 1979, a postcard arrived at Simms’s office from Germany.
It came with a return address in Düsseldorf, the name of a Kunsthandler, art dealer, named Wolfgang Wittrock. On the back of Wittrock’s card, next to artists’ names, Simms saw a compact set of boxes to check for those artists whose work he wanted to find.
Kollwitz wasn’t one of Wittrock’s offerings. Indeed. Wittrock was a specialist in the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and George Grosz. But Simms wrote “K. Kollwitz-“EARLY STATES ONLY OF ANY PRINT — INCLUDING PROOFS.”
He mailed the postcard back to Germany, where I got to see it while visiting with Wittrock last year in Berlin. He keeps it preserved in a binder with his professional records.
Wittrock, a finely built, soft-faced man in a sweater and blue jeans gave off a relaxed sophistication mixed with an open, personal gentleness. He’d worked starting in 1972 as an apprentice to Eberhard Kornfeld, a veteran art dealer based in Bern, Switzerland, who has been important in the worlds of Kollwitz and modern art generally.
Wittrock had trained as a dealer at the Galerie Kornfeld, then he set out on his own in 1973 after almost two years and went to Düsseldorf. Simms knew the auction house of Kornfeld and the man who ran it, but he’d never heard of Wittrock.
Soon after getting his postcard back with Simms’s stated wishes, Wittrock phoned him from Düsseldorf, where he then had his business. He told the dentist he could offer him the kind of rare and early Kollwitz prints he wanted, not just one or two, but 121 such works by the artist, 119 prints and two drawings, works that the artist had left to her family.
Wittrock assured him on the two main points about the work that would matter most to a collector. “The provenance was ideal, and the condition was perfect,” Wittrock recalled telling his potential buyer, the latter fact essential because prints are especially vulnerable to light and other sources of damage.
His first claim meant the line of ownership was direct, the art having passed from Kollwitz herself to her grandchildren. Wittrock told Simms that Jutta Bohnke-Kollwitz, the artist’s granddaughter, had asked C. G. Boerner, a German firm, to find a buyer for the trove. Wittrock had gone to Boerner, which he called “the finest print dealer in the world at that time,” to examine the works.
On his side of the call, Simms told me: “I was skeptical, very skeptical. He was not the dealer of record.”
Simms couldn’t believe that Boerner would give such an opportunity to a newcomer who Simms (speaking of himself) called “a stranger from America.”
Wittrock told me how he explained to Simms that finding Germans to buy such a massive Kollwitz group was hard because German collectors were “all satisfied with their holdings at that time and it was really difficult to find one collector for one entire group.”
“Boerner had troubles with that,” the dealer said in an interview. “And so they had decided to give me my chance.”
He also said that buyers in Cold War Germany, a Germany focused on its economic “miracle” and escaping the shadows of the Hitler era, did not want the witnessing eye that Kollwitz brought to the truths of German life.
She was “famous before the war,” he said, but he noted that postwar Germans were “much more focused on the cheerful side of life.”
Simms, who cringed at art about cheerful bourgeois existence — “I didn’t buy Mary Cassatt, no smiling children on their mother’s knee for me” — was Wittrock’s ideal buyer.
Simms recalled that he was “impressed” by Wittrock’s boldness.
“But I was not going to buy them sight-unseen,” he added. “I had to determine their authenticity and condition for myself. I didn’t know if these were genuine, I didn’t really understand that this was being offered to me, how he was able to offer this to me. I still don’t really understand that. Really, it all felt very risky and strange.
“And there was this Catch-22. He could not bring them without paying for them. I was not going to give him money without having seen them.”
Wittrock said that Boerner wouldn’t ship the works to Simms for inspection unless Wittrock put up the money for them himself. He didn’t have it. He managed to borrow it from the mother of a friend.
“Another problem was, I didn’t have the ready cash to buy them,” Simms recalled. He walked across the street to a branch of the United Bank of California, on North Avalon Street in Wilmington, where the practice was then located, to talk to the branch manager about his prospects.
The bank people told him he could borrow the money: $214,000, about $2,000 per piece of art.
That August, about five months after he mailed his postcard, Wittrock boarded a Lufthansa flight to L.A. with two crates of Käthe Kollwitz’s art traveling with him in the cargo hold.
Simms was 53 at the time, Wittrock was 32. As agreed, Wittrock wore a raincoat and a fedora hat to mark him at the Los Angeles International Airport terminal as the Kollwitz connection.
“I think it was evening when I arrived,” Wittrock said, “and we saw each other and we recognized each other, and I think he was surprised that I was a young man and I was surprised that he was a black man and was interested in that profound way in German prints.
“We had dinner in the hotel where I was staying, and I was very nervous and I was overwhelmed by the situation. It was my first visit to L.A. and it was my first really important print transaction.”
At the time, Wittrock said, he spoke little English.
“We were sitting at dinner,” he said, “and I couldn’t understand what he was saying. At that time, it was really in the beginning, my English. He spoke German. He read German catalogs and German books. He told me he had a wonderful German immigrant friend who had helped him with his German. She was Lilly Jacobson.” He added that his next few days included dinner at the art-filled house at 200 South Waverly Drive.
In interviews, Simms said Wittrock got a better impression of his German ability than it deserved. To the young German dealer, though, whatever German Simms could speak eased the exchange.
After dinner, Wittrock said, they went to a customs warehouse near the airport and “nervously” opened the two crates. But Simms recalls it differently, telling me they didn’t open the crates at LAX, only after driving down the 405 Freeway to his dental office with them in the car trunk.
“We opened them together in the waiting room,” Simms said.
He recalled the darkness outside, turning on the lights, how the men carried the crates of art works and “laid them out on the floor.”
He described spreading individual works showing war widows, their fatherless children, scenes of rebellion and death and the self-portraits with which Kollwitz made a record of her life, over the floor to inspect them. They were, he concluded, undoubtedly genuine and in “perfect condition.”
Simms saw something that put him in tactile contact with the works’ family history: a small X that Kollwitz herself had made in the lower left-hand corner of each work, indicating that they were rare, important states and images that had been set aside for her family.
Simms was confident, meanwhile, that he’d be able to go to his bank and take out the money, that the loan had been approved and that confidence, about borrowing money on that scale to buy art, was almost as unusual for an African-American art collector in 1979 as the chance to buy the Kollwitz family collection at all.
Justin Gomer, who teaches American history at the University of California at Long Beach, and studies how discriminatory lending practices affected L.A. blacks, called Simms’s ability to get his art loan “remarkable.”
He’d never heard of such a large loan to a black art collector, adding that the best context in which to understand it would be the history of loans to buy homes.
By 1968, Gomer said, several court rulings had made it illegal to deny a black person a loan, but the decade that had elapsed by the time of Simms’s loan had not erased bias in lending: “You had the rulings, but you still had the subjectivity of the banks. Even now, conscious or not, discriminatory lending isn’t over.”
How, then, did Simms do it?
He received the loan from the branch through which the dental practice that Max Schoen founded did its banking, he said. Much as he admired Schoen as “a brilliant man,” Simms said his friend did not focus closely on business details.
“I ran that business,” Simms said. “It was me, and I was familiar to the people at the bank as the one who handled the business.”
Did he think the loan would have come through if it had been just his name, without Schoen, a white man, Jewish Socialist, with his name on the practice?
“I don’t think we’ll ever know,” Simms said, adding, “What I do know is I got 119 prints and two drawings, all Kollwitz, the motherlode.”
VIEW FROM THE TOP
Andrew Robison joined the National Gallery of Art as a prints curator In 1974, and began making regular trips to Los Angeles to cultivate connections with local collectors, a number of them the Hitler refugees of LACMA. Despite the connection many of them felt toward the museum, Robison said, they donated generously to the National Gallery, “as a way of showing gratitude to the country that had taken them in.”
He believes he met Simms at a dinner party at the Jacobsons’ home, but that he’d first heard of the collector from Franklin Murphy. CEO of the Times Mirror Corporation, Murphy was a dominant figure who combined roles in education, culture and business to help L.A. reach its potential as a major city. He was passionate about art, and had a strong interest in German art, including that of Kollwitz. Fostering the match between Robison and Simms was an intimate example of Murphy’s culture-building role.
Robison grew closer to Simms as he became senior curator of prints and drawings in 1983, and then Mellon Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings in 1991. The two men, I came to understand, shared a combination of intellectual intensity about a wide range of print-making and a pleasure in animating the print world for others.
By the early 1980s, after Simms acquired the motherlode of 121 works that belonged to the Kollwitz family, the two of them started talking seriously about mounting a major Kollwitz exhibition at the National Gallery based to a large degree on Simms’s collection.
Building the show, Robison combined Simms’s holdings with many Kollwitz works that the National Gallery once received from Lessing J. Rosenwald, the major Jewish collector of the artist and the eldest son of Julius Rosenwald, co-founder of Sears, Roebuck & Co.
The 1992 exhibit, whose catalogue called Simms “the major lender to this exhibition,,” was a big leap ahead for his status as a leading collector of works on paper. It conveyed Kollwitz’s identity as a socially aware artist, the persona that had attracted anti-war activists, civil rights activists and feminists amid the churning politics of the Vietnam era and beyond. But a Georgetown University scholar named Elizabeth Prelinger shaped the show to focus on the artist’s virtuosity as a creative artist — and wrote a catalog essay called “Kollwitz Reconsidered.”
Bachert wrote an essay about the history of collecting Kollwitz, and a scholar named Alessandra Comini put the artist into historical context. Memories of that exhibit, the last major museum show of Kollwitz’s work in America, form a significant part of the background against which the upcoming show based on the Simms collection is being curated at the GRI.
As the Washington show opened on May 3, 1992, L.A. was being swept by riots following the acquittal of police officers charged in the Rodney King beating. Scenes of despair and outrage much like those in Kollwitz’s images of popular rebellion were being seen day after day on TV.
Washington Post critic Jo Ann Lewis, who praised the exhibition, saw a connection.
Describing a Kollwitz print called “Battlefield,” Lewis wrote about a night scene “illuminated by a single lantern being carried by a mother in search of her slain son,” and called the piece “as fresh and relevant to her times as it continues to be today in the streets of Los Angeles.”
When I asked Simms if he had thought about the riots at the opening of the Kollwitz show, he said they were “totally unconnected” in his mind, adding: “It took, a lot of planning to do what we did [with the show]. I don’t make that kind of connection to outside events. I prefer to let people see what they see in the art themselves.”
On its website, the GRI has made a description of the Dr. Simms Collection digitally public, but the online text does not say that Simms is African American. Marchesano, the former GRI prints curator, said Simms wanted it that way when they talked about what to write.
Simms rarely spoke about his racial identity unless I asked questions pressing him to do it, but he did so one day as we stood before a wall-sized window in his home, with a view of the harbor.
He said he looks forward to watching other people enjoy the upcoming show of his collection, and he talked of J. Paul Getty, the oil tycoon for whom the institution is named.
Getty, who Simms never met, collected art and furniture and wrote a book about collecting. It is hard to imagine that he would have enjoyed climbing the stairs to the print room at Harbor Dental to view art by Käthe Kollwitz, an anti-Nazi.
During the Nazi era, it has been written, Getty admired Adolf Hitler. Simms said he wasn’t aware of that history until I told him of it, but it did not change his view of the culture-minded use to which Getty put his fortune.
“He understood that it doesn’t matter how much money you make,” Simms said. “It’s what you do with it that counts! There are a lot of dead oil men, and no one remembers them, but they remember him. Because of the art.
“J. Paul Getty probably grew up in a prejudiced society, and he was probably prejudiced himself. But I am basking in his glory. I bought great pictures. So, he’s stuck with me, and I’m sticking with him. People will be able to go and see those pictures at the Getty, the ones I collected, and they will be talking, and one will say: ‘Who is that man? That man who gave those pictures?’ And someone else will say: ‘That is a black man from Louisiana, from New Orleans. That’s who he is.’“
And what did he think his grandmother, Louise Belle, would say if she had the chance to see the exhibit that will show his life’s work as a collector?
“I think she’d see that I’d accomplished both the thing she wanted for me and what I wanted to do for myself,” he said.” I didn’t become an artist. But to me, in my mind, I did something that was a lot like art. I made something out of my feeling for art made by someone else. And I made it in the world, on her terms, which were practical. I think she’d see I’d done both things, and I think she’d be pleased.”
Allan M Jalon is a New York-based freelance journalist and critic. His Forward story “Paul Newman’s Lost Masterpiece” was a 2017 Deadline Club finalist.