Friday, September 2, 2011

The Ultimate Collector.

Last week as I flicked through endless channels on television, I came across a PBS segment that featured a duo-art-talk with the curator, Barbara Haskell and senior curatorial assistant, Sasha Nicholas of The Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC.  The art talk covered and took place in the museum's latest exhibition the two curated,  Breaking Ground: The Whitney's Founding Collection. With over 1,000 artworks and artifacts, Breaking Ground will be unveiled throughout a two-year period. The post and PBS segment covers the first in the multiyear series of exhibitions - the final exhibit will be installed in 2013.

Corner view of the current exhibition, Breaking Ground: The Whitney's Founding Collection.
The Whitney Museum of American Art
Image courtesy of

Curator, Barbara Haskell (right) and senior curatorial assistant, Sasha Nicholas (left) of The Whitney Museum of American Art 
Screen shot photo courtesy of

Although American art is highly respected and recognized world-wide today, throughout the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, being an avant garde American artist was quite the struggle.  Their accepted subject matter consisted of history paintings and portraits, heavily influenced by European art.  Europe, specifically Paris, was where it was at in regards to the epicenter of the art market. Heck, even the new outburst of entrepreneurs in America saw collecting European art as the wiser investment.  Of course, with everything in life, this notion did not hold true to all. Many Americans sought to alter the current trend and inflict their American pride with a need to reach a national identity, that did not rely so heavily on their counterparts. Finally, even after the wake of the Great Depression, in 1931, the New York bred, who was born to one of America's wealthiest families, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a prominent, risque social figure, art patron, collector and more importantly, artist herself, founded and unveiled, The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. A first of it's kind, featuring strictly American artworks, this exhibition highlights Gertrude's start-up collection of the best of the best in the origins of progressive American art.  

 A serene self-portrait with an Asian style by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
Chinoise, 1914
Image courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art website

Suffice it to say, as a native New Yorker myself and proclaimed Artoholic, the PBS segment had me intrigued and so began my journey amidst the beautiful end-of-summer weather up to The Whitney.  I headed up to the second floor, the elevator doors open and immediately, I got a sense of Gertrude in the room.  I truly feel one's collection reveals a piece of their character. After all, art is not just a commodity, it is a unique commodity, one that conveys emotion.  So when I saw the center sculpture,  Rhythm, by the lesser-known sculptor Arthur Lee, standing tall in a provocative nude and almost God-like pose, with his hands gracefully raised upon his head, it made me think Gertrude had to have been a risky lady to acquire such a saucy piece.  Two revealing factors came to mind when deeming her character; one, she had a soft spot for the adonis men of the times - the sculpture was posed by the first male physique and admired bodybuilder, Tony Sansone, and two, she was a nurturer to her artists - Gertrude was instrumental in creating a fruitful career for not only Arthur Lee, but many American artists of the times, as was learned throughout the course of the exhibition. 

First artwork on display upon entry to the exhibition.  Many argue it as classical, but I say semi-classical, given the provocative pose. Also, the one and only photo I managed to finagle.
Arthur Lee
Rhythm, 1930
Bronze with brown pattina

As an art patron, many artists create portraits of their backers (and many times nurturer), either as a commission or as a gift.  Seen below are two portraits of the late Mrs. Whitney, juxtaposing an almost before and after transition of her life as affected by the art scene in New York.  To the left is a depiction of Gertrude as a young society wife in proper pose by Howard G. Cushing's, Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney from 1902. Although the show is suppose to be a steer away from the European way, I can't help but take note the obvious softness of the French artist, Pierre-Auguste Renoir.  Fast-forward almost fifteen years and one can notice a significantly matured and self-discovered, Gertrude in the image below on the right, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, from 1916 by Robert Henri.  Here she lounges comfortably as a typical Bohemian in her Oriental style outfit, where she stares out at the audience with that familiar and classical gaze of the woman so dominant in the history of art.  Reminiscent to the renown Titian's, Venus of Urbino (1538), Goya's, The Nude Maja (1800), and Edouard Manet's, Olympia (1863), but disparate in Gertrude's apparel of long pants, proves this to be a painting that depicted the advent of feminism.  Maybe it was not Henri's intention but the piece allegedly seemed to concern Gertrude's husband, Harry Payne, when he refused to hang the portrait in their Fifth Avenue apartment, as he felt it would cause a scandal amongst visitors. 

                          Robert Henri
                          Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916
                          Oil on canvas
Howard G. Cushing
Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, 1902
Oil on canvas

Images courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art website

Parallel to developing a collection that was near and dear to Whitney, she, alongside the Museum's first Director, Juliana Force, understood the initial mission of the museum as an institution that would lay the cement to the legacy of Modern American art.  The exhibition, with it's huge range of styles, displayed everything from the conservative portraitures of Howard G. Cushing to the animated boxing scenes of George Bellows and even to the modernist abstractions of Max Weber.  An unexpected addition to the exhibition is the curators choice to compile The Whitney's early approach to installation and collection acquisition uncovered through various black and white photographs and noted records. 

Bold and animated boxing scene by George Bellows
Dempsey and Firpo, 1924
Oil on canvas

John Steuart Curry gave us a look into his homeland in
Baptism in Kansas, 1928
Oil on canvas

A modern abstraction by Max Weber - the hustle and bustle of the city is evident in
Chinese Restaurant, 1915
Oil on canvas

Images courtesy of The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Maybe, with the economic decline, the Museum was looking to save a few bucks by displaying stored works from their permanent collections down below.  Whatever the reason, this selection that started it all for American art proves Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney as one of the ultimate collectors of the Turn of the Century. 
Surely not to be missed, the First in Series closes September 18th.  The Second in Series, yet another narrative of American art history, opens October 6th and runs until February 12th, 2012. Stay tuned! 

No comments:

Post a Comment