As the saying goes, when something seems to good to be true, it probably is. Driven to Abstraction is a documentary about the biggest art scandal of this century. I remember being fascinated by the story when the news first hit in the early 2000s. One of the oldest art galleries in America was accused of selling dozens of fake paintings by many of the greats of the Abstract Expressionist period – Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell, Deibenkorn. The scam was exposed when one of those Pollocks was examined and the buyer was informed that it was a forgery. From there others began checking the paintings they’d bought from Ann Freedman, the highly-respected president of the gallery. And before it was over at least 40 other modern masterpieces turned out to be forgeries, and the Knoedler & Company gallery was forced to shut its doors after 165 years. At the center of the doc is the still unanswered question, was Ms. Freeman a greedy and willing participant or was she duped by a great scam artist?
The paintings all came from a dealer on Long Island named Glafira Rosales who convinced Freedman that there was a collector in Switzerland known as Mr. X who preferred to remain anonymous. And the paintings were being sold for a song, so Ms. Freedman did not ask a lot of questions. And more interestingly, neither did the people who bought them without any provenance (the paper trail of when the painting was bought and when it changed hands). They were certainly good fakes. Turns out there was a Chinese man in Queens named Pei-Sheng Qian who painted them all.
After the trial, Rosales was ordered to pay the victims of the hoax $81 million. She claimed to have suffered years of abuse from her partner Bergantiños Diaz who was forcing her to continue the fraud or lose her child, and because of that the judge was lenient and she escaped prison. By the time the jig was up both Diaz and the painter Qian lived overseas and beyond the grasp of any repercussions. For her part in the scam Freedman got off scot-free and has a new gallery. I wonder who her new clients are? Would you trust this woman? She does not come off well in the film.
Driven to Abstraction is mostly told with talking heads from journalists and art world insiders. Missing are Freedman and Rosales, who might’ve been able to give more insight or at least drama to the telling. You’re left questioning how so many people could fall for the hoax. And also wondering how many other fakes are out there hanging on the walls of wealthy collectors and museums. It’s a film that will mostly appeal to those in the insular art world, particularly if you weren’t reading the New York Times when this story broke.
Streaming online starting August 28th.