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Nude Dispute Gives Artist Fame of Sorts After Death

February 23, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

Michael Balog, the Ventura artist who took his own life with a rifle blast in the summer of 1987, had grown despondent in his final years over the lack of commercial interest in his paintings.

But in death, Balog set off a yearlong court battle for rights to a $1,400 nude portrait entitled "The Swimmer," of which at least three people claimed to be the legitimate owner.

"It really pointed out to me how people don't support artists while they're alive," said Richard Peterson, director of the Ventura College gallery, which last year hosted a post-mortem retrospective of Balog's work. "But, God, when he was dead, everyone laid claim to that painting."

The dispute ended earlier this month when Ventura County Municipal Court Commissioner John V. Paventi awarded "The Swimmer" to Karen Bruns, a friend of Balog's and the only one of the three claimants to appear at a January hearing.

Bruns said Wednesday that she will soon pick up the painting from the Ventura Police Department, where it has been hanging on a wall in the evidence locker since officers seized it from the Ventura College exhibition in January, 1988.

'No Crime Involved'

"There basically was no crime involved," said Detective Jeanne Boger. "We've just kept it as a way of protecting it until they could determine who the real owner was."

Balog was 41 when he hiked to a windy bluff overlooking Ventura on July 15, 1987, and fired a .22-caliber rifle into his forehead. A jogger found the body later that day. Befitting of the troubled outcast he had become, there was no obituary in the papers and no funeral.

Few knew that Balog had been a virtuoso painter and draftsman who in 1972 leaped overnight from the beaches of Ventura to New York's most influential contemporary galleries.

Few knew that, within just two years, he had been invited to a join a group show at the Museum of Modern Art, or that he had appeared in an Esquire magazine photograph with two dozen other prominent artists above a caption that hailed them as "about as much artistic talent as has ever been packed" into any picture at one time.

And few knew that he had returned to Ventura several years later, disenchanted with the pressures and pretenses of the New York art world, only to succumb to mental illness, drug abuse and rejection.

In fact, it was not until the Ventura College show, six months after his death, that the Michael Balog story at last reached the local media.

It was at the show, too, that Bruns saw "The Swimmer," a large depiction of a nude woman swimming as seen through water, and identified it as hers to campus police.

She produced a receipt indicating that she had purchased the painting, along with every other work that Balog had ever produced, for the modest sum of $2,500 on April 3, 1986. She told police that she had loaned it to the Ash Street North Beauty Salon shortly thereafter, but that it had been later stolen and she had not seen it since.

That was news to Cole Carter, a Ventura musician, who told police that he accepted the painting from Balog in lieu of $325 that the artist owed him. Carter, who was hoping to resell the painting for more money, had then loaned it to an art broker who placed it for sale in the college show.

It was also news to Walter Stowe, a longtime friend of Balog's, who said he was the executor of the artist's estate by virtue of a handwritten note Balog had left him the day he died. Stowe later alleged in court documents that Bruns had obtained her bill of sale from Balog "by way of coercion, undue influence, fraud, deceit and with knowledge of . . . the mental incapacity of Michael Balog."

And, finally, it was news to Eric Nicolet, a recently retired Ventura College vice president who bought the painting on the opening day of the show for $1,400.

"It's not something I was going to cry about," said Nicolet, who stopped payment on his check as soon as police seized the painting. "But I did want the painting. It was almost like you could see through it. Very sublime."

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