Medialia Rack and Hamper Gallery: A Sad Farewell

By Peter van Alfen
Figure 1. Mashiko and the American Medalists in Paris exhibit.

One of the joys of living in New York City is having access to a lot of contemporary art. Aside from the preeminent modern art museums like the New Museum, the Whitney, MOMA, and the Guggenheim, there are scores of galleries throughout the City, large and small, famous and more obscure, that offer regular shows of works by living artists. One such gallery, Medialia Rack and Hamper Gallery on 38th Street, has for nearly three decades served as a forum for contemporary medallic art, perhaps the only such gallery anywhere in the world. 

Figure 2. Mashiko’s medallic art.

Founded in 1993 by Mashiko, the 2019 winner of the ANS’s prestigious J. Sanford Saltus Award for Achievement in Medallic Art, Medialia has functioned not just as a gallery, but as an important meeting place for artists, connoisseurs, students, and those curious in hand-held sculpture generally. Since its inception Medialia has hosted scores of exhibits featuring the work of living artists, including current Saltus Award winners, as well as thematic retrospective exhibits, often shown concurrently, that have explored the long history of medallic art, its various guises and purposes, thus offering viewers the means for understanding where medallic art has come from and where it might be going. Like all contemporary art, this can sometimes be a contentious issue, but Medialia has always provided a cheerful, warm, and engaging environment for serious discussion.

Figure 3. Mashiko’s medallic art.

Now in her 80s, Mashiko made the decision last year to close Medialia and to seek semi-retirement across the Hudson River in Jersey City. In December of last year I had the bitter-sweet experience of spending part of an afternoon with Mashiko viewing her final exhibits at Medialia, much of it fittingly of her own work.

Figure 4. One of Mashiko’s wooden sculptures.

In the smaller of the three exhibit spaces, she had mounted, with loans from local collectors, an exhibit entitled “American Medalists in Paris”, which focused on the works of famed American sculptors like James Fraser and Victor David Brenner, who had spent time in the ateliers of Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries honing their sculptural skills. While it was certainly a pleasure to see a number of familiar pieces and some rarities in the cases, it was in the other two exhibit spaces which featured a retrospective of Mashiko’s own work where the real joy was to be found.

Figure 5. Mashiko discussing her early work in wood.

As the curator primarily responsible for the ANS’s medallic art cabinet, I have long had the pleasure of interacting with Mashiko’s medallic work, but have only had the chance to appreciate it piecemeal, viewing or handling individual pieces one-by-one. To see her complete medallic ouvre displayed across several cases was an exceptionally rare treat, giving a fuller sense of how she has approached this smaller format over time and how her approach to it has developed. What was most fascinating, however, was to see how her medallic art relates to her much larger sculptures, exhibited in the next room, which were done at an earlier stage in her career. These wondrous, evocative, and even confounding pieces in wood appear to stand somewhere between man-made and naturally occurring, a sense due to Mashiko’s ability to engage with the scale and nature of the raw material itself, in this case, massive timbers and balks. Not on display were her works in stone, a medium that was a centerpiece of her career for many years and one that she taught to scores of students. An innate understanding of the raw material is one of Mashiko’s gifts, which translates as well into her work in bronze and other metals, underscoring again the reasons she was given the Saltus Award.      

As I signed the guest book for the last time, the last person to do so, and said goodbye, I was struck by the many happy hours I had spent at Medialia over the years and what an important role the gallery has served within our numismatic community and also within the larger contemporary art scene here in the City. All things must pass, of course, but this passing was one I wish could have waited a bit longer.