Jan Sawka and the Grateful Dead
Stemmel Auctions will auction Grateful Dead memorabilia and art by the late Jan Sawka, from the collection of Hal Kant and his widow, Jesse. Known as the “Czar,” Hal was the Grateful Dead’s lawyer and created the band’s successful business model. Avid art collectors, the Kants amassed a museum-class collection featuring works from diverse artists, including Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. They began collecting art by Sawka after Leonard Cohen introduced the work to Garcia in the late 1970s, when Sawka was exhibiting in Los Angeles.
Sawka did not know about these illustrious fans of his art until 1988, when Hal contacted him for an artwork commission that could fulfill Garcia’s wish to “humanize the stadium concert environment.” Garcia granted Sawka creative freedom for the commission. The artist conceived a vibrant installation consisting of 52 airbrushed banners depicting natural landscapes, as well as the sun crossing the sky. This 10-story installation accompanied the 25th anniversary tour of the band in 1989.
Afterward, Garcia would continue patronage of the artist, arranging the sponsorship of an installation by Sawka that represented a newly freed Poland at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, which was the largest known grant ever given by the Grateful Dead, as well as other support. Sawka continued to develop his artistic career until his death in 2012. Obituaries appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, Art Forum and other publications around the world, which noted that Sawka had over 70 individual exhibitions during his life and that his artworks are housed in over 60 museum collections around the world, including New York City’s MoMA, The National Museums of Poland, Centre Pompidou in France, and many others. During his lifetime, Sawka won awards for artistic accomplishments ranging from painting and graphic design to multimedia and architecture, including France’s “Oscar de la Peinture (Painting Oscar)” Italy’s Lorenzo di Magnifico Medal in Multimedia, Japan’s Cultural Agency Award, and the American Institute of Architect’s Excellence in Architecture Award.
The Nov. 18 auction represents a rare opportunity to acquire pieces with a unique and significant provenance. Works include several large paintings from the 1980s, two folios of prints whose sister works are in significant collections such as the Library of Congress and the National Museum of Poland, an original Grateful Dead poster design, as well as eight banners from the 1989 installation that Sawka designed for the band’s 25th anniversary.