For half a century, the Buxbaum family cared for the artistic legacy of the German-American artist Carl Heidenreich (1901-1965). Henry Buxbaum, a German-born doctor started collecting Heidenreich’s paintings and works on paper in the early 1950s and championed the artist in the United States and Germany throughout his life. Richard Buxbaum continued his father’s project. A distinguished legal scholar and Professor Emeritus at UC Berkeley Law, Richard Buxbaum worked to preserve the artist’s work, to steward the network of his collectors and friends, and to stimulate research, publications, and exhibitions. He now serves as the President of the Carl Heidenreich Foundation. On September 26, Alla Efimova interviewed Buxbaum about his family’s loyalty to this riveting artist. Below are the excerpts from the interview.
Alla Efimova: Can we start by talking about your father and his life in Germany?
Richard Buxbaum: My father, Henry Buxbaum, was Jewish; my mother wasn’t. He was born in 1900 in a really rural village in Hessen, Assenheim, which I visited often afterwards. And when he was eight, thanks to the initiative of his mother, they moved to Friedberg. By good luck, the Oppenheimer family of diamond fame (in South Africa) originally came from Friedberg. The son of the Oppenheimers came to Friedberg once and left “a purse,” as it was called in those days, with the local rabbi to support a worthy Jewish boy, who would otherwise not have the means to study. Gymnasium— the college-bound secondary school— was really for the middle and upper classes who had the money; very few people went to gymnasium at that time, I would say under ten percent of the age group. So my father was lifted out of a very poor family.
In his own memoirs, which were published in Germany, he always said, and I saw it in him, that he was never as comfortable as when he was with other people of limited background, because that was how he had grown up. And he was always a little defensive around more educated people, even though he got to the Gymnasium , and in those years you learned Ancient Greek, Ancient Latin, and in his case, Ancient Hebrew as a curricular supplement.
During World War I he was drafted into the army, in late 1917 or early 1918, and ended up in a medical unit and not on the front, unlike his older brother. He then went to medical school, worked for five or six years as a substitute doctor around the Hessen villages, which he knew very well, and met my mother in Friedberg where she was the women’s fashion buyer for a department store. Then he bought a practice—it was all socialized medicine at that time—in 1930 from the widow of a doctor in Griesheim, which was an even smaller village.
In 1933 he was kicked out of this official system by the Nazi regime but opened his own practice. He was the last Jewish doctor to practice with a general patient community because there was no other doctor in Griesheim. When the Nazis passed the penal laws in 1936, prohibiting an Aryan from treating a Jew and vice versa, he was the only one who still continued. And he did until 1938, so almost too long.
AE: So let’s now turn to post-immigration, your family’s life in Upstate New York, and the relationship with the German émigré community?
RB: After emigrating to the United States, my father bought a practice in Canandaigua, New York, a beautiful community, and that’s where he practiced until he died in 1979 at age 79. Around 1950-52 he got interested in art. In Upstate New York there was a community of both émigrés and artists.
My father got very interested in Carl Heidenreich through other German émigré friends. He started buying paintings from Carl, and often could give him a kind of payment, a couple hundred for a painting, as regularly as possible.
AE: What’s your memory of Carl Heidenreich?
RB: I met Carl around 1957. My father was invited to a New Year’s Day celebration at Hannah Arendt and Heinrich Blücher’s house through Carl. That is, Carl got that invitation for us. They were teaching at Bard College but their apartment was in Manhattan.
I’d read all of Hannah Arendt’s work, and to be invited to her soiree, or more precisely an afternoon matinee party, was really thrilling to me. I really enjoyed that, and enjoyed Carl and my father being welcomed there. Most of the guests were New York glitterati, so he didn’t fit in particularly. But Arendt and Blücher were wide-ranging people, they had a tremendous network of old friends: Jewish, communists, socialists, etc.
AE: There’s just something about this combination in Carl Heidenreich, his particular rebelliousness, risk-taking, and kind of recklessness, that is very appealing.
RB: Oh, absolutely. We all would love to have a background like that—Spanish Civil War, anti-Stalinist, Trotskyist, free—but none of us was in the mood to risk it, or at least in those days. My father came from too poor a background to be anti-bourgeois! For him that was the aspiration!
AE: What happened at the end of Heidenreich’s life and what was your father’s role?
RB: It was clear to my father already two or three years earlier, and I recall some vague conversations that Carl was living with cancer, and stomach cancer wasn’t an easy cancer to cure, or even to get into remission. Carl was in New York, he had an émigré community there, he was very well placed. He was a member of a circle around Oskar Maria Graf, who created a famous Bavarian beer and Weisswurst roundtable in Yorkville. Graf was a left-wing writer who had gotten to know Carl quite well in that time.
In the last stages of his life, with considerable help from my father, Carl was able to get some very good shows in Berlin, thanks to some of his old political allies in the state government and state media institutions. My father got to know these people there and in Frankfurt. He really worked hard using these connections to get a very important Frankfurt show. It had a big success: there were good sales and reviews in the German papers.
AE: What’s important to you about the Heidenreich story, and what do you think is important about it to remember and preserve?
RB: Even if I would not have gotten connected to the work through the family, I wouldn’t stay connected if I weren’t convinced this was very good quality work, and it should be part of a canon. My main concern right now is to get the next generation into continuing the project, and fortunately with my daughter Hannah Buxbaum and Joachim Rosengarten, and I hope with Roger George and Elissa Wolf-Tinsman (trustees of the Carl Heidenreich Foundation), that this is going to be in place. And that’s the most important thing to me right now.
This interview is also featured on the Kunstworks Blog.