A Bare Etching and the Intimacy of Touch

I bought several Jack Bilander etchings. Bilander was an artist in Chelsea, my neighborhood growing up in New York City. Lately I’ve had this urge to go there. I’ve built up an obsession, really, to return to my Grandmother’s apartment, to be in her space, to see the cheap 1960s parquet floors of Penn South, smell the esoteric scent of Jewish working class intelligentsia, and view a wall full of images still strikingly memorable forty years later. I don’t know why I became obsessed with Jack Bilander, but when I found his suite of pictures on Picasa, I sighed audibly, repeatedly, at how many of them I remembered vividly. So indelible and powerful. Clearly it’s a need formed because of where I am in my life at this precise moment. But precise moments are the entire point.

Jack Bilander's Landscape

Jack Bilander’s “Landscape”

Upon receiving the package of prints, I ripped through the cardboard, styrofoam, and bubble wrap immediately. The first etching pulled, “Landscape,” was not one I found most attractive when seeing the pictures on line. In my hands, though, it was stunning and I cried.

One of the prints, “The General Lived Here,” came loose in the shipping. I took it to a fine arts print shop in town to get it re-matted. The shop owner said the original matting was acid-based and was destroying the paper, and that the print needed protective glass if to preserve the quality.

At the frame shop, the owner pulled the print from the frame and matting and there the etching lay in its fully naked state, with nothing in between it and me. I am naive about art. The photos posted online had barely captured the quality of the etchings. That was why I was so stunned when seeing them “live.” The glass had dimmed the depth and color of the etchings. The bare print had texture and deep vibrancy. I was told touching the picture wouldn’t damage it, and so I did, feeling the pattern left by the impression of the copper plate.

Jack Bilander's "The General Lived Here"

Jack Bilander’s “The General Lived Here”

The whole unpacking and unframing experience was so viscerally layered, at both tactile and emotional levels, that I started thinking about the prints I was buying and how meaningful they are. Jack, my grandmother’s friend, poured out emotions, or sometimes maybe he just worked, the way someone writes a memo or completes a job task. Then the print circulated in this small Jewish community in Chelsea, among friends and family, all with a certain webbed history, culture, and politics. The man who sold some of these prints is the son-in-law of one of Jack’s friends. That means something too. The etching somehow traveled to Massachusetts and sat somewhere in the son-in-law’s residence, overlooking a family home for at least three decades.

The print has  a social and emotional investment.

All “art” does, I suppose. We can quibble over definitions of art. We could dance with Benjamin about the lost aura of art once it’s mass produced, and what the value of high and low art is. I certainly won’t begrudge anyone their tears over an Elvis on black velvet.

I just know I got to touch a piece of something powerful and vibrant for a minute while it was out of its frame and free from its protective glass. It felt like touching a cultural ley line, if there could be such a thing. I don’t know if getting the print cleaned and restored will wash all that away, or if its seared into the print’s fibers. It’s a curious question.

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  19 comments for “A Bare Etching and the Intimacy of Touch

  1. Arthur Abramowitz
    August 6, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I knew Jack Bilander. We were friends from June 1957 through June of 1965, when I left New York. The Village Outdoor Art Exhibition took place for a full month each June and September. Jack’s “station” was always the Northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and Washington Square North. I met Jack through a college friend while attending NYU. I spent many hours of many days with Jack during those exhibitions Jack was a very compassionate man. Just look at the people in his prints. I remember much from our conversations. Should you wish to talk with me about Jack, send me your phone number in an E-mail.

    • ~LS~
      August 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm

      It is very nice to hear from a friend of Jack’s. I think I will take you up on your offer when the insanity of school settles down. If….it settles down. Nice to meet you!

      • Su Ribeiro
        November 22, 2013 at 3:01 pm

        Hi LS,

        I have a Jack Bilander as well. My dad was a printer and in advertising in Manhattan. Probably was a freind of Jack’s. I have a picture of his I’d like to sell. I thought I’d offer it to you first, a real fan. This one is entittled Maine and kind of looks like #6 from 1961. I can email you a picture if you’d like. Don’t know how to post it here. I was asking $150

  2. SAMANTHA
    September 25, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I may have a Jack Bilander “End of Day” 1955, may be #25? In fair condition. Could this be?

    • ls
      September 27, 2012 at 8:47 am

      Dunno, Samantha…Is it? Do you have a pic?

  3. Gail Schiller
    September 29, 2012 at 1:01 pm

    My husband and I bought 4 Jack Bilander prints- Symmetry ’59; girl in white’55 Sammuy’53 and exico ’62 I was wondering if they are worth something. Thanks. Gail

    • ~LS~
      October 5, 2012 at 7:49 am

      Gail, I don’t know. I’m hardly an expert. Just a sentimental admirer. I think the prices range from around $50 to upwards of $400 depending on who you buy them from. Galleries and dealers tend to charge a lot. Friends or children of friends tend to sell them for under $100. That is what I’ve seen. Art is worth what it’s worth to you. From my limited knowledge, art’s dollar value is based on availability. Jack was prolific and seemed to give away his productions generously. I don’t think you would get lots of money if you tried to sell them to a dealer or on E-bay. The prints on E-bay have been there for ages and I wouldn’t pay that much for them. I’d buy the Sammy from you for $50.00 to $100.00 depending on the number, size, frame, and condition. It’s a beautiful print. I don’t know the others. Is Mexico the yellow one? I’d love pics. If anything, I’d like to post them. How did you come by these prints?

  4. Marianne Zimberg
    February 9, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    I found your blog when “looking for Jack”. I knew him from the Washington Square Art Show. I was a young college student and hung out with Jack for days at the show. I even visited his studio and saw his metal plates! He was a sweet kind man. I bought 4 of his etchings during those years. He ans they are a cherished part of my “city years”. Thanks for your memories and thoughts.

  5. Joyce Fish
    September 22, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    I have a framed original piece by Jack Belander titled “The Beach”. I bought it in the early ’60’s and was wondering how I can find out how much it is worth now. I would appreciate any info. Thanks
    Joyce Fish

  6. ~LS~
    September 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    Joyce, I am not an art collector. I cannot give you information about its value. Please consult an expert. I had my prints framed by a reputable frame shop in town. I asked his advice about getting my prints framed and about their value over time. He said, “Art is worth what you are willing to pay for it.”

  7. Pier Chiaradia
    October 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Hi My father and mother were good friend with jack. My father had a continued friendship with jack that started in 1946. and continued until his death. I remember spending many a weekend day at 5th and Washington Square. during which time my father a massed quite a few pictures from his collection. As my mother passed away last April 2012, my father is now moving back into the city and is looking to sell off at least 9 of Jack’s etchings. If one has any interest, Please feel free to contact me.

    • Su Allen Ribeiro
      November 11, 2013 at 8:45 pm

      Pier, By any chance do you have anything from ’61 titled Maine? I do and my Dad was a printer in New York back then. I’m sure he knew Jack and that’s why we have this. My mom was in printing and advertising as well. She passed away last March and my Dad many years ago.

  8. Ulla Christiansen
    October 24, 2013 at 11:47 am

    During a 3 years stay in New York City in the late sixties, I bought a Jack Belander (not Bilander) etching in a frame store on 2nd or 3rd Avenue. Price 60 dollars.
    Was walking by one day when it caught my eye. Couldn’t forget it, so some time after I went back to see if it was still there.
    Luckily, I found it. It´s No. 5 of ? Named “Winter”. Done in aqua tinto on handmade paper, I learned from the owner of the frame shop where I had it reframed, and with a reddish passepartout, upon my return to Copenhagen, Denmark. Today it is still one one of my most valued possessions.
    Ulla Christiansen

  9. Esther Sadowsky
    September 25, 2014 at 11:53 am

    Quite some time ago, at the former Tepper Gallery on E.25th St. in NYC, I purchased a lot containing (3) Jack Bilander etchings. “The Couple” 1961, “Sammy” 1953 and “Facade” 1951. I treasure these works of art & get to see them everyday. I am curious as to the value of them today.
    I would appreciate any info on these works.
    Thank you

    • Laura
      September 28, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Esther, I am not an art expert or even an educated collector, so I cannot say. Art is worth what people are willing to pay. The RoGallery in NYC seems to be dealing Bilander’s work the most frequently of all dealers. Perhaps they could answer. The owner of the gallery who framed my work said something to this effect: It depends on how prolific an artist is and how badly people want the art. He added that since Jack is deceased and his works come from an era where the work is disappearing or become damaged, it will likely increase in value. That’s not saying much considering it’s not going for much money right now. The gallery owner knew nothing of Jack or his community. Jack’s etchings go for $10-$500 on the internet. The $500 etchings have stayed online for at least a year or more without takers. The $150-200 etchings go somewhat quickly on auction if they are colorful, have recognizable subjects and less modernist or blocky (I guess that’s how I’d describe them). The paintings are more pricy, obviously, and were put up for auction for over 1500.00 but sold for much less. If people are buying them based on pictures on e-Bay, like me, we’re buying them without looking at quality, wear, foxing, or authenticity. I’d say they aren’t worth very much. I didn’t buy mine for their financial value; I bought them for their sentimental value and, increasingly, for their cultural and symbolic weight. I’m pleased that people inquire about these paintings.

  10. Kristina
    July 31, 2016 at 10:45 pm

    I found your article just today. Although I am not very skilled in the art of language, I felt every word. I found “Hester Street” 59. I can not find information on this etching. My Father in law “Richard Schramm” is restoring the framing as it was found in the very state of your first painting. Touching it does make you want to cry. It is so very beautiful. It hung in my Mother in Laws apartment in Sharon Mass. For decades. The painting was fist sold for 35.00. I believe it to be the only print. I comment on this article because it is so similar to my experience and I thank you for sharing it.

    • Laura
      August 4, 2016 at 8:04 am

      Thank you so much for your post. The experience of these etchings is profound.

  11. Nina Olson
    February 15, 2017 at 8:02 pm

    My father was given an etching by Jack Bilender entitled, Demonstration at the occasion of his retirement as a union leader. My dad led many a strike and so the gift was very appropriate. My father is now gone and my mother asked me to research Jack Bilender before we donate it back to the union as a gift for their art gallery. I was stunned to come across this blog and discover this enormous passion for Jack’s work.

  12. Laura
    February 16, 2017 at 9:59 am

    Nina, it would be lovely to hear more about this story. Maybe you could email me something or post something here? This is fascinating. I wish someone would write a book.

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