May 16, 2016 Back To News

Marc Straus Remembers Bella Abzug

We were excited by the recent works that came onto the scene and interestingly they were all by female artists. We thought it would be interesting to mount a show of these new artists, but we needed a serious curatorial theme to bind the concept.

With the recent presidential dramas, Marc Straus suggested dedicating the show to Bella Abzug and the rest just quickly fell into place. Having been one of the fortunate individuals to have known the unforgettable political figure, here Marc chats with Ken Tan. This conversation took place on March 18th, 2016.

Ken: So you knew Bella Abzug?

Marc: Not well but everything about her is memorable.

Ken: You proposed this title for our summer show? I am curious and catching up about her. Coming from Singapore as I have last year I was unfamiliar with her.

Marc: The title just presented itself to me and no doubt informed in part by the current presidential race. Bella might have commented succinctly as no one else might have.

Ken: She was a great liberal and feminist leader. I suppose she would have been shocked by much of the direction of the campaigns and rhetoric.

Marc: I am not sure if you could shock her. She was a person of action and followed her heart.

Ken: I want to get to the title and the present show but first ask when you first met her.

Marc: The last time we met was 20 years ago.

Ken: Where and why?

Marc: Mostly medical.

Ken: You are an oncologist. Can you tell us about that?

Marc: Not really, I can’t say more. She had an amazing memory and irreverent humor. Bella was Bella. She and I both recalled when we likely first met. My Dad’s textile store, 290 Grand Street, around 1968.

Ken: Why there?

Marc: Bella bought her linens there; sheets, towels and I was close to graduating medical school and still often worked there on Sundays.

Ken: I heard you once say you started at age 5.

Marc: Yes, right after my birthday. My dad was an immigrant, an orphan from Poland who came here at age 15 and a few years later had his own store, Roman Cotton Goods. Just a few weeks ago the original sign was finally removed during reconstruction. She bought a Bates bedspread – “George Washington,” and Martex towels.

Ken: She was not yet in Congress?

Marc: No, just a couple of years following but she was already a seminal figure in human rights issues and she and my dad were so similar in their views.

Ken: I read that Bella had to battle the Democratic establishment and first lost and then was elected.

Marc: Yes, as I recall but she did not mince words. She didn’t change a thing in order to get elected and in her district she was hugely trusted.

Ken: She was one of the founding feminists.

Marc: No doubt but back then I only know her as a woman who just said what needed saying and backed it up with organizational skill. She began one movement after another.

Ken: And her hats?

Marc: “Battling Bella,” and her hats. She liked the hats so she wore the hats. I think her taste in curtains was less eclectic.

Ken: So this show?

Marc: I am not certain. I see a great deal of campaigning now about equal pay for women for equal work. Bella was on the bandwagon almost 50 years ago. It is not as if anything much has happened since. Bella was a lawyer admitted very early to Columbia Law, a time when very few women were admitted and also very few Jews. Then she went to work to legally assist people in lower income brackets. In the 80’s there was a great deal of dialogue about the paucity of women artists in major shows as the Whitney Biennial.

Ken: Tim Hawkinson and I curated this exhibit of all women.

Marc: But still I am thinking we need Bella very much. She was a litmus test, I suppose, and right now walls are getting higher not lower.

Ken: Things seem to come around. You own a gallery on Grand Street.

Marc: Bella would laugh. My Dad would really smile. But he really understood. I learned much from him and likely from Bella as well. It’s how you do what you do, as an oncologist or gallerist.

Ken: And as a poet.

Marc: I recall Bella read my first collection. A tough book for her as it dealt largely with cancer. My Dad had already died of cancer and I was his physician. They were great.

Ken: Bella and Sam Straus.

Marc: Yes.

“If Only Bella Abzug Were Here” opens Wednesday May 25, 6pm.

Above Image: Bella Abzug by Andy Warhol

Read More
Click image to zoom