The Art of the Steal (2009)

The Barnes Foundation and Art Collecting

The story of how the world-famous Barnes Collection was moved from its long-time home in Merion, Pennsylvania to downtown Philadelphia is told in tones of indignation as a vast conspiracy of moneyed interests who “stole” the art in the name of the people. This film, The Art of the Steal, has a couple of lessons to teach. First, if you want to convince people of your perspective, present only one side, and second, if you are asked to present your side—the other side—give an account of yourself, otherwise your silence will indict you. I have no doubt the people who fought to keep the Collection in its original site were as well-meaning as they were passionate, but their insistence presences hide the fact that many people was simply not present to defend their perspectives. The absence of many important art world figures, who surely have opinions about this “steal” is notable and is explained away as not wanting to get on the wrong side of the Pew Foundation, presented as one of the thieving parties. Still the silence of art historians and curators who specialize in Modernist art or in Impressionism is strange. Not one Cézanne scholar, not one Matisse specialist, not one specialist from other museums, no authorities who specialize in modern art were presented in this film. This absence is very strange.

As interesting as this film is, it is also profoundly manipulative and uneven and disjointed. The Art of the Steal begins with a statement made by Alfred Barnes himself, stating that his purpose is to “attack” the art establishment. Not that there was much to attack. The Museum of Modern Art was not in existence when the Barnes Foundation was established in 1922. The interest in Modernist art in America was small and confined mostly to a couple of groups in New York City, with Walter and Louise Arensberg and Alfred Stieglitz as the centers. Alfred Barnes was able to amass the huge collection of French art, from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism to Fauvism, because the French didn’t like these movements either. The avant-garde dealers in Paris had learned to depend upon American collections, who, since the days of the Impressionists, had been happy to buy anything “French.” Duncan Phillips, whose home in Washington D. C., is a case in point. Incidentally his art filled home is now a museum, just like the original intent of Barnes and his collection.

But to stick to the point and try to understand why Barnes went on the “attack:” when Barnes showed his collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, he was mercilessly “attacked.” Barnes must have been either naïve or self-destructive to not foresee that the conservatives of a conservative town would not understand his art. Back in Paris, the public was just getting its first glimpse of the collages of Braque and Picasso from the sequestered collection of their dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The Parisian artists were horrified at the mere sight of revolutionary multi-media work when the collection, including collages, was auctioned off. Even Barnes did not like Cubism, so it is inconceivable that he did not expect an art public that still worshipped Thomas Eakins to reject the Impressionists.

Barnes may have been an insightful collector, but he overdid it in his collecting of Renoir—almost 200 Renoirs and less than a half dozen Monets?—and, as a result, the collection is more a personal response to modern art and less a historical overview. But more of Barnes and art history later. According to the film, he was so distraught over the reception of his collection, he withdrew his art from the ignorant and provincial art world and sequestered it in a carefully constructed private museum. Barnes lacked the courage of his convictions and was not as brave as the artists he collected. His retreat had a cowardly air about it and the atmosphere of being hostile to the public and to the established art world surrounded the collection.

The construction of the Foundation and its disposition in his later wills was built on a foundation of spleen. The entire idea of secreting the art was to keep it from the public. All information about the collection was as controlled as the access. Only those who were willing to be taught by Barnes himself were allowed in. By the time I was in graduate school, Barnes was long dead and the fearsome Violette de Mazia, who guarded the Foundation with the ferocity of a lioness. The inaccessibility of the famous paintings was legendary. One needed special permission, almost impossible to obtain, to study the collection.

Art historians exchanged war stories of their adventures, of trying and failing to see the fabled art. One such urban legend involved two of the most famous people in the world: Alfred Einstein, the physicist, and Erwin Panofsky, a Renaissance scholar. Both men were German refugees at Princeton, but Einstein the scientist, as The Art of the Steal points out, was a friend of Barnes. Panofsky, however, was only a revered art historian and did not count. He begged Einstein to get him inside the Barnes Collection so he could see the art. The only solution Einstein could come up with was to smuggle Panofsky, disguised as his chauffeur, through the gates of the estate. Innocently, Einstein asked Barnes if his “driver” could have lunch in the kitchen while he was waiting for his “boss” to visit the famous collector. Barnes agreed, not knowing he was allowing an art historian to enter his domain. Panofsky sneaked around the rooms, gazed upon the legendary art and then drove Einstein back to Princeton.

The story may be apocryphal but it is indicative of the reputation of “The Barnes,” as the collection was known. The film insists that the goal of the collector was to teach, but, in fact, teachers of art history were not allowed to have color photographs of the art in the collection. There is a legend of an art historian who managed to take a bad color photo of one of the Matisses, possibly Bonheur de Vivre, and smuggled it out of the institution; but the collection could literally not be taught in an art history class. There were no images and no reliable eye witness testimony.

All of that secrecy changed when it was discovered that the building was in bad shape and that the art as suffering from mold and mildew. The Art of the Steal does not mention that the main problem with the art was the non-archival way in which it was displayed—on burlap-covered walls. Much is made of how the collection is shown in a home-like setting, but Barnes did not know how to conserve art. Burlap was used, for example, in Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291, where the burlap hung as curtains below the painting rail, not where the art was hung. Take an old house, a damp climate, and moist walls covered with a fabric that collected all kinds of bacteria and mold, now combine those conditions with paintings on canvas pressed against the burlap and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

The paintings were in actual danger until The National Gallery in Washington, D. C. restored them. In return, the Gallery was the first place to exhibit selected paintings from the Collection so that the broader public could see them. Excitement in the art history world was great. In the summer of 1992 the Chicago Tribune announced that the Barnes Collection was “freed.” At last the famous paintings could be seen! And in color! I was in awe of Bonheur de Vivre—-those wonderful pinks and yellows. I must confess that a friend of mine, now deceased, who worked at the Gallery, sent me a color slide taken directly off the actual painting. He was not supposed to slip me the extra copy and I was not supposed to receive somewhat stolen goods. But I was then and probably still am the only person on the West Coast with such a possession. There is a great deal to be said of a pristine collection that has not been handled, for the restored art that I saw at the National Gallery exhibition was in perfect condition. But the art was not shown in the way that Barnes had designed his installation.

The Art of the Steal implied that the new building in Philadelphia will recreate the original design of how Barnes hung the paintings, salon style. The concept that ruled the installation is problematic today: Barnes dispersed African masks and Native American blankets among the Modernist paintings to point to the connections between tribal art and modern art. Today we would called this arrangement colonialism or eurocentricism. Although in 1905, artists thought nothing of appropriating tribal art (they called it “primitive” art) as the inspiration for their own work, today such acts are considered politically suspect, or, as Robert Hughes called it, “cultural imperialism.” In making the tribal connection, Barnes was certainly correct, for certain artists, such as Matisse and Modigliani, who were directly inspired by tribal artifacts; but the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists knew nothing of African art.

Ever since the Primitivism and Modern Art exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1984, the formalist comparison between modern and tribal art has been discredited. Today we flinch at the term “primitivism.” Certainly European artists at the beginning of the 20th century used African art to infuse modernist painting and sculpture with something new and “exotic,” but for a contemporary museum to be complicit with cultural requisitioning, unless the historical context is fully explained, is unthinkable today. The question of whether or not the colonialist approach as followed by Barnes for the installation of his art will be replicated remains a question.

The film does not discuss the link between the collection and African art, even though the fact that Barnes left his collection to a black university–Lincoln University–is staring them in the face. Also passed over rather lightly is the fact that a group of rich white people stand accused of stealing a valuable ($25 billion and counting) art collection, which was whisked away from poor black people who were too ignorant to know what they owned. Complicating matters are the black men who were complicit in transferring the property of Lincoln University—the Barnes Collection—over to the city of Philadelphia. No one seemed to feel any ethical qualms of violating the terms of a will or show any particular interest in helping the now-impoverished school.

In the art world, Richard Glanton was a well-known villain, not because he managed to pry the paintings from the dubious burlap walls of the Foundation, but because he mismanaged the money and left the Foundation in apparently dire straits. Whatever money the Foundation made from the tours of the Collection, the profit was apparently handed over to lawyers who had to defend “The Barnes” from neighbors who were rightfully resentful of the steady stream of art lovers coming to pay homage to the paintings. As anyone who watched the battle between another private museum, The Getty, and another powerful and wealthy public community, Brentwood, can tell you, the museum will lose. The Art of the Steal interviews some of the Merion-dwellers, who wisely told their side of the story, and it is clear that these were people with deep pockets. When the neighbors eventually relented, it was too late and Glanton had put the Foundation in a vulnerable place, ripe for the picking.

Despite the rear-guard and last minute efforts of the last of the die-hard supporters of the wishes of Alfred Barnes, the Collection will be housed in a new building and will be open to the public in 2012. Barnes set up his Foundation nearly one hundred years ago, when it may have made sense to try to teach a ignorant public about modern art, albeit in small and exclusionary groups. But one hundred years later, the public loves Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Matisse, et al. One can imagine that the mean old man would be delighted that so many people love his art so much. He would say, “I told you so.” He would have the last laugh. Much of made of how his will was slowly dismantled and written off, but the times that inspired the writing of such a mean-spirited document are in the past.

In its own time the Barnes Collection was an anachronism, an enlarged version of the secret cabinet of a Renaissance prince, who opened the doors only to the select few. Presumably, the French Revolution ended the private and exclusive nature of art and museums became public. Salon exhibitions were open to the people. Artists learned to take public criticism and to enjoy public adulation. We came to believe that art was for the public; that culture belonged to the people. While The Art of the Steal exposed political chicanery and suggested collusion between political power and money, but we learned nothing new, expect that Barnes made his money from a cure for venereal disease and that these profits, well-deserved, no doubt, were used to buy art. Art, power and money have always been cultural triplets. At least the politicians and the power mongers are giving the art to the public, or should I say, they have “stolen” the art only to give it away…to us. Thank you. I am planning my trip to Philadelphia.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Post-War Art in California


At first glance, California would seem to be an exceedingly unpromising place for major art to emerge in the second half of the Twentieth Century. A new state with a throwaway culture without a history, California had small pockets of local art scenes, more or less picturesque and more or less obscure, with most of the available money going to architectural development and occasional decorative embellishments, with the bulk of the financing going to film. Art was often allied to these enterprises, acting as a pictorial inducement to move to the Golden State or as a partner to movies. Unlike New York City, which had Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 as the gathering place for local and European avant-garde art, California tended to be geographically isolated and culturally limited.

There was a small group of individuals who supported avant-garde in their own diverse ways: Walter and Louise Arensberg and Galka Scheyer. Hollywood attracted artists and the oldest art schools, Otis and Chouinard, had an internationally known faculty: Alexander Archipenko, Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and Hans Hofmann. In San Francisco, the California School of Fine Arts dominated the San Francisco scene and was the site of important works by the Mexican Muralist, Diego Rivera. In 1940, Rivera created a mural, Pan American Unity, (today located at the San Francisco City College, for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island in San Francisco. California, like other American states, benefited from the WPA mural program and, even today, murals by Maynard Dixon and Millard Sheets and Helen Lundeberg remain in Los Angeles from those days.

The main avant-garde scene in Los Angeles could be characterized as a Surrealist scene, both European and home grown, supported by collectors from the movie colony, such as Sterling Holloway, Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price. Man Ray lived in Los Angeles from 1940 and showed in San Francisco at the de Young and at San Francisco Museum of Art. Ray married Juliet Browner in a double wedding with Max Ernst (now divorced from Peggy Guggenheim) and Dorothea Tanning in 1946. The art of Ernst did not necessary please all Angelinos. Indeed, the famous actor, John Barrymore, got drunk and urinated on one of Max Ernst’s works at an art opening.

The remnants of Dada lived on with the Arensberg, in their important Duchamp collection, and from the occasional visits of the famous artist himself. While New York City contemplated Surrealism as painting or as “plastic automatism,” Los Angeles understood Surrealism from the standpoint of the found object and in relation to anti-art subversive forces. While New York City artists extended Modernism along formalist lines and were forced into de-politicizing their art from the late Forties on, artists in California, alone and neglected, were able to be engaged and political, producing content-saturated art.

This local Los Angeles taste for meaning and content in Los Angeles art existed in large part because of the Surrealist sunset in L. A. Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim had visited the city in 1941 and their colleague Julian Levy rented space next to the (Frank) Perls Gallery. Other gallery owners included Guggenheim associate Howard Putzel, Stanley Rose, and Earl Stendahl. Of particular importance to the conceptual trend in the art of post-war Los Angeles was the trace of Man Ray who lived in Los Angeles until 1951 and had an important retrospective there in 1966. In contrast to the lingering influence of Surrealism, artists in Los Angeles, now the dead center of a post-war military industrial complex, were impacted by the experience of being at Ground Zero during the Cold War.

The aging Surrealists arrived in a land of continuous boom and mass suburbanization on an unprecedented scale. Between 1940 and 1960 no fewer than 60 new cities were incorporated, many of which served highly specialized constituencies in greater Los Angeles. Despite the apparent clash between the past and the future, the artists of Los Angeles embraced the nostalgia of the found object in a culture that threw everything away. As will be discussed later, the artists of the fifties were witnesses to the possibility of immanent nuclear destruction, because this center of the defense industry would be ground zero for any atomic attack.

Los Angeles had been “made” by the Second World War. An important port city, LA was ideally situated on the Pacific Rim, a jumping off point for the Pacific Theater. People streamed into the city from all over America to work in the war industries and the boomtown bustled with the constant presence of service personnel. The region’s prominence did not end with the fighting. California had recovered quickly from the war, thanks in no small part to the large petroleum production. The vast defense industry that emerged during the Second World War and remained intact for the Cold War continued the prolonged economic prosperity and population growth.

But for artists, the prosperity had a dark side. It seemed probable that at any moment a button could be pushed and everyone and everything would be blown away. The assemblage works of Ed Kienholz and the casual craft of Wallace Berman was a mute testimony to their alienated state of mind—one gathered detritus and made comments upon a society that could not last in the shadow of constant atomic threat. Art, for these artists, could not be permanent or universal or humanistic, as it was in New York. Art could only be fleeting and ephemeral for tomorrow all could vanish in a mushroom cloud.

While artists contemplated an uncertain future in Los Angeles, the movie business or “the industry,” bounced back from wartime restrictions and stringencies and remained the largest filmmaking center in the world. In short, California was developing industries for the late Twentieth Century and becoming a high-tech industrial base while the East Coast was still dependent upon the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and heading towards a post-War future as the Rust Belt. Without much fanfare the United States government shifted federal largesse to the West Coast, the site of the race to the future—outer space.

Art in California was very different from New York in the post-war era, but these distinctions were complex, ranging from the mindset of the artists to the realities of the art scene. While New York was a single focused center, California had two art sites, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In contrast to the relatively homogenous scene in New York, the two cities had entirely disparate traditions. In San Francisco, the heritage European expressionist painting established a firm foothold; while in Los Angeles, the artists were more responsive to the lingering influences of Dada and Surrealism. In New York, the impact of Duchamp could become Neo-Dada, which is rather different from the influences of Surrealism in Los Angeles. These two movements, Dada and Surrealism, could not be comfortably accommodated to the Modernist line of art development and was termed the “Other Tradition” by art historian, Rosalind Krauss.

The father of the Other Tradition, Marcel Duchamp was an active presence in Los Angeles and was well known in San Francisco, long before his work was remembered in New York City. The Dada tradition, an old one, dating back to the First World War, is both preserved and reawakened in the two major sites for art, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Art in California is essentially a post-World War II experience, in the sense that the region emerges as a particular site for art forms that would have international impact.

If one disregards, for the purposes of discussing contemporary art, the California Impressionists and contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement, then serious avant-garde art is a product of the wartime environment. Before the Second World War, California was best known for its thriving scene in photography to the North and for its role as the movie capital of the world to the South. Less well known was the region’s importance for architecture. Some of the most innovative early Modern architects practiced in the Los Angeles area, from Charles and Henry Greene, Frank Lloyd Wright, Irving Gill, Rudolph Schindler, and Richard Neutra.

With ample opportunity for building single-family homes and small housing units, these architects, several of them immigrants, could forge forward into modernism. Modernism in California, especially in Los Angeles is worth discussing in relation to the barriers of politics and war in Europe. In contrast, the West Coast with its polyglot non-tradition of many styles was a fruitful site for experimental architecture. Irving Gill’s now-destroyed Dodge House was built as early as 1916, predating Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, 1929. While Frank Lloyd Wright and the Greene Brothers were descended from the arts and crafts tradition, but Neutra and Schindler produced very important examples of what would be called The International Style. Both Neutra (Lovell Health House, 1929) and Schindler (Lovell House, Newport Beach, 1926) built houses for Philip Lovell, which were two of the best examples of modernist white walled architecture outside the Bauhaus.

As this international group of architects suggests, California was a land of migrants and immigrants of many cultures and ethnicities: an uneasy mixing bowl where Anglos insisted on maintaining a cultural, political, and economic domination. The history of Los Angeles, for example, can be written in terms of the movement of ethnic groups around the city, shifted at the will of the Anglos. Their voices will not be heard until the Sixties, making the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia one of the rare public monuments asserting diversity and ethnicity and personal commitment to a sense of place. But the Watts Towers were more than a statement of one person’s determination, they became, over time, a symbol of art in Los Angeles and the peculiar direction art in Los Angeles has taken. Rodia worked as a bricoleur, a hunter and a gatherer, who worked with the objects found in his environment. Like the artists of Los Angeles who would begin their mature careers shortly after Rodia mysteriously left in the early fifties to return to his native Italy, he worked in isolation, without support or audience or appreciation, except by the few who were open-minded. Under such circumstances, without major museums, without patrons, with few galleries, the artists were in a curiously “pure” situation, making art for art’s sake alone, showing art for a truly elite audience–themselves.

In summation, both Los Angeles and San Francisco and their two very different art scenes have traditionally been ignored in favor of art in New York. Broadly speaking, regardless of brief deviations, New York has always been a painting town, as was San Francisco, until the sixties. Although people have always painted in the City of Angles, Los Angeles has always been an object making town. To repeat, a very important factor the artists in Los Angeles was the shadow of the Cold War. Acutely aware of the militarization of the nation, the artists of Los Angeles expected the world to end at any time. There seemed no purpose to make art that was lasting, much less archival. The LA artist has always worked with stuff, junk, detritus, and objects without history, without recognition, only to find out—over time—that something important had been wrought and their art was validated after the fact.

In contrast to this homegrown culture of the found object in Los Angeles, the artist in San Francisco was in a considerably more traditional milieu that of European painting and modern art, imported by artists from New York City, Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko. The impact of their influence as teachers and as artists was the famous Bay Area Figurative School, which evolved out of abstraction on the East Coast. The New York aura was a short lived phenomenon, however, and the San Francisco period of Figurative painting soon gave way to something more home grown: object-based “funk art” created in a Dada frame of mind. Indeed, Dada and Surrealism have an extended, albeit it American, life in California, north and south.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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The Making of the New York School


In 1983, art historian, Serge Guilbaut, wrote a provocatively titled book, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art. How, indeed? While the first chapter of this book discusses the politics of the New York intelligentsia and the various stances and shades of Marxism, I wish to look to the cultural matrix between the wars that drove avant-garde innovation to the shores of America. Socially and politically, this was a period of isolation and appeasement in Europe. Artistically, the period between the wars was a Return to Order. The result was a marketable and conservative version of avant-garde in Paris and a radical return to an unflinching realism in Germany.

After the Great War, European powers would have given away anything and anyone to avoid losing another generation of young men. The result of the very natural desire to save lives was to allow a rising tide of Communism in Russia and Fascism in Italy and Germany and a continental drift towards totalitarianism. The Great Depression of the 1930s made desperate people susceptible to the lure of a leader. Whether Communist or Fascist, both types of regimes were repressive to avant-garde art, which was banned by Hitler (collected by his henchmen) as “degenerate” and replaced by socialist realist art in Russia. As Clement Greenberg pointed out art in the Soviet Union devolved into kitsch of which Nazi art, based upon debased classicism, was a perfect example. Less well known is the position of Fascist art in Italy, which was based upon debased Modernism, appropriated by Mussolini in order to ally the new Roman Empire with modernity.

Artistically, the state of avant-garde art after the Great War was conservative. In France this return to traditionalism was termed rétour à l’ordre and this New Classicism was the foundation of the School of Paris. Although Paris as center of international art scene, it was not as dynamic as it had been before the War. The young artists were decidedly minor, compared to the maturing leaders, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. The only overtly avant-garde movement was Surrealism. Surrealism did not originate in the visual arts but in the psychology of Sigmund Freud, used by the poets of the movement to search for different sources for inspiration beyond or “sur” reality. The visual artists, who came to the movement later, adapted and played with Surrealist ideas and techniques, some of which, such as écriture automatique, would have a life beyond the movement.

In Germany, the subject matter of New Objectivity was highly active and provocative and confrontational but the styles employed by the artists were deliberately old world. The famous art school, the Bauhaus, was not innovative in the fine arts but was very avant-garde in the world of design and architecture. In comparison to the acceptance of the French version of the avant-garde and its highly lucrative art market, the artists in German who were trying to challenge the establishment met with hostile reactions from the Weimar government. The Bauhaus designers had ideas that were ahead of the technological and industrial capabilities, which would be achieved only after the Second World War. At any rate this flowering of the avant-garde art scene in Berlin was brief, not well received in its own time and ended abruptly under Hitler in 1933.

Meanwhile, the situation in America was not one of a need for order no matter what the costs. America was not faced with a Hobson’s choice between totalitarianism versus the need for peace no matter what the costs or accommodation to the forces of “order.” Although the nation participated reluctantly in the Great War, America had traditionally been isolationist in its mindset towards European art, preferring its own utilitarian culture of necessity. The idea of art-for-art’s-sake, so dear to Europeans, was alien to Americans. Art was a useless luxury. What art there was existed in New York. Despite the brush with the avant-garde of Europe at the 1913 Armory Show, conservative and backward versions of outdated art styles from the Old Country, such as the regressive realism of the Ashcan School.

But the early twentieth-century artists of the Ashcan School suited American audiences who had always preferred realism and art about themselves. Nevertheless, there were two small groups of avant-garde artists in New York, the group of artists around Alfred Stieglitz, the American Modernists: Paul Strand, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Charles Sheeler, and Charles Demuth. Coexisting and crossing paths with the Stieglitz group were a more radical set circulating around the collectors, Walter and Louise Arensberg. The New York Dada, consisting largely of Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, was only tangentially related to the Dada groups in Europe and was arguably more significant for artists in the fifties than the artists of the forties.

At any rate, these early twentieth century movements were no longer coherent groups by the thirties and the members were scattered and had gone on to follow their personal interests. The exhaustion of American Modernism and Dada left a space that was filled by nationalist art movements, the regionalism of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood and the political activism of Social Realists, such as Ben Shahn. The decade of the thirties was a decade of “American” art, not the “American” art of Sheeler and Demuth and Stuart Davis and Ralston Crawford, all of which celebrated the industry of the nation, but the folksy, rural agrarian tradition of “Americana.” In contrast, Social Realism and versions of politically active art practiced by the Mexican muralists introduced content that attempted to reveal the grim truth of the Depression.

The Depression, however, was good to artists. The United States government attempted to find work for all Americans who needed work and provided specialized jobs for specialized communities. Artists and writers were allowed to remain artists and writers in an economic climate that would have ordinarily wiped out the careers of most of them. For the first time, artists were recognized as “artists” and were mobilized by the government as professionals and given honest work. Art history has tended to ignore the work done by artists under the New Deal on the basis of aesthetic judgment and because the artists were hired hands with little freedom to invent. However, the New Deal projects were important to the future because New Deal spread art throughout a nation where art had never existed, where artists were unknown. The New Deal kept artists actively making art, whether mural art or easel art and paid them a living wage. Perhaps the Depression artists were given commissions and parameters to follow but their situation was far superior to that of artists under Hitler or Stalin.

Although not articulated at the time, it was clear to the avant-garde American artists involved with the tradition of European modernism, that the avant-garde overseas was exhausted. The previous leaders, from Picasso to Breton, were aging and were intent upon consolidating their careers and reputations. The steam had gone out of the European avant-garde and nothing had happened to take the place of Surrealism as the leader in innovation. Because of the many interdictions on avant-garde art in nations under totalitarian rule, much of the work being done by European artists who could still make art was not widely circulated. The international art scene that had existed up to the thirties no longer existed and the free flow of artistic ideas was dammed up.

But there was an island, and an unlikely island at that, where avant-garde art could be seen in its variety and entirety—New York City. As early as 1921, there was an exhibition at Brooklyn Museum of Cézanne and Matisse and in 1926 very new and cutting edge artists, Joan Miró, Piet Mondrian, and El Lissitzky. And then in 1929 the Museum of Modern Art opened under Alfred Barr. The Museum of Modern Art became a major site for introducing Modernist ideas and modern art to the American public. A number of exhibitions at the museum set up the history of Modernism with shows of the work of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, and Vincent van Gogh in 1929, Toulouse-Lautrec and Redon in 1931. And to get the New York art audiences up to date Barr mounted a Survey of the School of Paris, Painting in Paris, a show featuring Léger in 1935, and the iconic exhibition, Cubism and Abstract Art in 1936. Recent movements were also made available with the 1936 – 37 exhibition, Fantastic Art, Dada & Surrealism and the show of the Bauhaus 1919 – 1928 in 1930 to 1939.

Ironically when Barr mounted exhibitions of the art of Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, American artists became better educated in modernist art than their European counterparts. The Museum of Modern Art used the decade of the thirties to give Americans a crash course and a history lesson (exemplified by his famous chart in the beginning of his catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art) on Modernism. However, these exhibitions also served to convince the local artists that they had to break out of what was clearly an avant-garde that was now part of history. American artists began seeing other sources for inspiration and other approaches to art, from the exhibition, African Negro Art in 1935, the exhibition Prehistoric Rock Pictures in Europe and America of 1937, and a very influential exhibition of Native American art, Indian Art of the United States in 1941.

While of great importance, the Museum of Modern Art was symptomatic of the early evidence of the establishment of a genuine art world in New York. Albert Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art in the library of New York University showed Neo-Plasticism and Constructivist art. The Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim) opened in 1939. Under the leadership of Hilla Rebay, the museum began to collect the best examples of European modernist art, such as Kandinsky, Arp, Malevich, Léger, Delaunay, Giacometti. A few American artists were included, such as David Smith but for the most part the Museum looked mainly to Europe. Local artists were certainly receptive to modernist art. Art collector, Katherine Dreier and Dada artist, Marcel Duchamp, founded the Société Anonyme in 1920 for avant-garde thinkers, and abstract painters came together when the American Abstract Artists was established in 1936.

Although artists in New York often complained that MoMA was biased towards European artists, half the museum’s exhibitions were of American artists and the range of art shown was astonishing, from photography to design to architecture. As further evidence of the growing importance of New York as a cultural center was the large numbers of political refugees that arrived during the 1930s. German artist, Hans Hoffmann, had a school of fine arts in Munich but he was among the many perceptive artists who saw the handwriting on the wall and closed the school in 1932 and came to America. Hofmann opened his own school in New York City in 1934 and a summer school in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1935. The Bauhaus artists and architects, fleeing Hitler after the closure of the school in 1933, would join him in exile. Josef and Annie Albers became teachers at the famous Black Mountain College and while their impact upon the New York artists of the forties was certainly less than that of Hofmann, the presence of experienced teachers of modernist art would shape a generation of artists.

For the first time, American artists could hear European art theories, taught by an artist who combined German Expressionism with French Cubism. Clement Greenberg, largely a literary critic, began attending Hofmann’s lectures, learning studio talk and crafting himself as an art critic. Hofmann joined other émigré artists already in place. Arshile Gorky (Vosdanig Adoian) had arrived in New York ten years earlier and had assimilated the same traditions as Hofmann, but from visits to museums. In what would be a typically American strategy of synthesizing European movements, Gorky added Surrealism to the mix. John Graham (Ivan Gratianovitch Dombrowsky) came to the United States from Russian and never looked back, becoming an America citizen in 1927. A decade later he wrote “Picasso and Primitive Art” and Systems and Dialectics in Art. Writing in 1937, Graham, who was in touch with European art, suggested that American artists look to the “primitive” art forms and championed abstract art. Graham was concerned with the development of an art that could be expressive

Graham was one of several figures that mentored the new generation of artists in New York, including the Mexican mural artist, David Siqueiros who experimented with airbrush and spray techniques in his painting. Jackson Pollock, whom Graham knew well, visited this workshop twice, intrigued with the large scale of the murals and with the non-fine art tools. The first mural done by a Mexican artist was produced in 1930 by José Clemente Orozco at Pomona College in the small town of Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles. Jackson Pollock, who had grown up in Los Angeles, went out of his way to see the Prometheus mural on his way to New York. Diego Rivera was also in New York but sadly his mural for the Rockefeller Center was destroyed in 1934 but the concept of a wall scaled work of art would have a lasting impact on the New York School.

The last group of artists to arrive in America was the Surrealists from France. Like Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, they came to America in 1940 as a last resort. As the irresistible wave of Hitler’s Wehrmacht rolled over Europe and as London huddled under a rain of bombs, New York was the only safe place for an artist who was avant-garde or Jewish or both. By the time the Surrealists arrived, the New York artistic scene was ready for the last dose of heady European art theory. Although the Surrealists, led by André Breton, were not interested in communicating with the locals, Roberto Matta, a Chilean artist, acted as go-between and the ideas and techniques of the French artists were transmitted to the New York artists. Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, André Masson, and Yves Tanguy circulated more than Breton and Tanguy and Ernst married American artists, Kay Sage and Dorothea Tanning, respectively.

The famous Peggy Guggenheim returned home, but with European booty, a treasure trove of avant-garde European from artists who were desperate to sell their works. She tried to purchase “a work a day,” her motto. This large and significant collection became the foundation of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, established when she returned to Venice in 1946. In addition to collecting art, Guggenheim also collected the German artist, Max Ernst who had been interned as an enemy alien in Aix-en-Provence in 1940. But when the Germans conquered France, Ernst, as a “degenerate artists” was still in danger and was arrested by the Nazis. He escaped from the Gestapo and, with the help of Peggy Guggenhiem, was able to get to America through Portugal. Ernst and the art collector married in 1941 and in 1942 she opened her gallery, Art of This Century.

Always competitive with her uncle, Guggenheim was now a full-fledged rival and became a major player on the New York art scene, presiding over her gallery, designed by Frederick Keisler. At the urging of Lee Krasner, Peggy Guggenheim began to sponsor Krasner’s boyfriend, Jackson Pollock. Major questions faced the artists of the New York School to extend the European tradition of Modernism, now ossified, or stake out new territory and create their own art, a new American tradition. Also up for discussion, what of this European tradition to retain and what to discard, what to take from the “American” scene and what to learn from the Mexican artists. Now, with the arrival of so many European artists, the Americans were able to acquire not just new tools for painting but also the words, the language, which allowed them to talks about art. The stage was now ready and the scene was set. All the players were in motion and the art world had shifted the New York, which had “stolen” the idea of Modern Art.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast 50: Marcel Duchamp and Étant Donnés

Marcel Duchamp, Part Three

Although, when The Large Glass was “completed,” Marcel Duchamp claimed to have given up art for chess. However, upon his death in 1968, it was revealed that the old trickster had one one last work of art, Étant Donnes. On one hand, the complex installation was a continuation of recurring themes in Duchamp’s work; on the other hand, Étant Donnes opened the door, so to speak, to Postmodernism. Like the door which swings both ways, this podcast looks backwards and forward, using this crucial work as a hinge.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

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