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November 27, 2002

Aloha, "Aloha"


In a comment a while ago, you asked for more information on “Aloha” Barney, who was the art dealer for Edgar (“The King of Black Velvet Painting”) Leeteg. At the cost of countless minutes spent reading the articles thrown up by a Google search, this is what I’ve discovered:

Apparently Aloha (whose name was either Barney Smith or Barney Davis) had been a submarine pilot in World War Two. He seems to have met Leeteg in Hawaii. Alternatively, since Leeteg spent most of his time drunk or high in Tahiti, it’s possible that he merely thought he had met Aloha in Hawaii.

In any event, Aloha opened a gallery in Hawaii, where he sold Leeteg’s work. This was no small task, since ex-billboard painter Leeteg churned out two velvet paintings a week—over 1,700 in a 15 year period. Aloha was shrewd enough to call Leeteg “The American Gauguin,” and would often compare Leeteg’s technique of painting on black velvet with the play of lights and darks in the works of the Dutch Masters. As Phil Patton remarks, this was a school of painting “he could be sure patrons would know from the cigar box.”

Note the Play of Lights and Darks

Aloha also seems to have helped promote Leeteg’s image, encouraging the painter to construct the palatial Villa Velour, which was even equipped with a 10-seat Italian marble outhouse. Aloha realized that a hard-drinking, wildly promiscuous image was good for Leeteg’s prices; statements attributed to Leeteg like: “I have boozed more, fought more, laid more girls and thrown more wild parties than anyone else on the island, but it's all good publicity and gets me talked about plenty, and that's what sells pictures" have Aloha’s fingerprints all over them (especially since Leeteg lived with his mother.)

Anyway, Aloha gave as good as he got in his relationship with Leeteg, since he managed to move the black velvet to the tune of $10,000 a picture in the late 1940s—when a buck was a buck—which would have made anyone other than a tormented artist like Leeteg happy. Of course, Leeteg may have been tormented by being excessively happy, since he died by falling off a motorcycle while drunk. Anyway, it was hard to tell his mental state since he was more or less always drunk, high, or getting yelled at by his mother.

AlohaBarneyHorizontal.jpg Visionary Dealer Aloha Barney

In short, I believe the NEA should endow a college scholarship fund in memory of Aloha Barney Smith/Davis; more dealers with his visionary temperament would be the best development imaginable for the American art scene.

You can read more about Aloha Barney and Leeteg here, here, here and here.



posted by Friedrich at November 27, 2002


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