Published: August 21, 2007
For the past decade and a half, Michael Gould and his wife, Marilyn, manager of the Wilton, Conn., antiques shows and executive director of the Wilton Historical Society and Heritage Museum, have encouraged people to collect. An exhibition at the New Britain Museum of American Art through October 28 documents the Goulds’ own treasure hunt and provides a template for others interested in the chase.
Far from showcasing American folk art, as those who know the Goulds might have guessed, the New Britain exhibition canvasses a single, little known chapter in the history of American avant-garde art: early abstract works on paper made between 1918 and 1949 that prefigure Abstract Expressionism.
The Goulds collected the 51 drawings, watercolors and mixed-media collages on view over the last decade. Their sources included specialist galleries, art fairs and antiques shows. Inveterate antiquers, the Goulds were headed to Farmington Antiques Weekend about a year ago when inclement weather prompted a detour to the New Britain Museum of American Art, 15 minutes away. Impressed both with the museum’s collection and its sophisticated presentation, the Goulds approached director Douglas Hyland about mounting a show of their own.
Founded in 1903, the New Britain Museum of American Art became the first museum dedicated to American art in the United States. Adjacent to Walnut Hill Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the museum entered a new era in 2006 with the opening of the Chase Family Building, a handsome limestone, cherrywood, oak and glass addition by Ann Beha Architects of Boston.
Encompassing paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, photographs and illustrations, the museum’s 5,000-piece collection is rich in Colonial and Federal portraits, Hudson River School paintings, and Impressionist, post-Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary American art.
A small selection of works by members of the American Abstract Artists (AAA) made the New Britain Museum a sympathetic setting for the Gould display. As Hyland explained, “We haven’t really specialized in abstraction. The Gould collection filled a gap.”
“The Marilyn and Michael Gould Collection of American Modern Art” explores some of Modernism’s most important movements. The influences of Kandinsky, Picasso, Gropius, Duchamp, Archipenko and Mondrian are never far away, but the presence of Alfred Stieglitz, whose stable of artists helped introduce abstractionism to America at the 1913 Armory show, is also strongly felt.
About half of the artists shown were members of Abstract American Artists, an exhibiting organization founded in New York in 1936 to promote nonrepresentational art, a tough sell at the time. On view are works by founding AAA members Ilya Bolotowsky, Burgoyne Diller, Werner Drewes, Balcomb Greene, Hananiah Harari, Carl Holty, Paul Kelpe and Esphyr Slobodkina, along with pieces by subsequent AAA members Sidney Gordin, Frederick Kann, Irene Rice Pereira and John Sennhauser. Hans Hofmann, who never joined AAA, is credited with being a decisive influence on the group.
As described by Stephen Westfall in “The Abstract Tradition,” an essay published as an introduction to AAA’s 60th Anniversary Print Portfolio in 1997, “…abstract art in the public imagination had come to be equated with the clean lines and aesthetic pragmatism of the machine-age. A dynamic, geometric clarity was certainly the aesthetic goal of many abstract artists, but there were others who worked under the influence of Surrealism and Expressionism, not to mention the natural landscape that so inspired the first generation of American abstract artists.”
Precisionism, a poetically realized Machine Age aesthetic, gets a nod. The style is rational, direct, linear and streamlined. Smoke stacks and airplane propellers, along with female nudes drawn as efficient mechanisms, are preoccupations.
Three pieces in the show are by Emil James Bisttram, the Hungarian-born Modernist best known as a founder of the Taos School in New Mexico. A mixed media abstraction of 1937 combines Pueblo geometry and the West’s earthy palette, an approach that was progressive in its time.
More arresting is a circa 1934 colored pencil on paper drawing by Bisttram. Tiny and jewel-colored, it diagrams the heavens as a cosmological array of spheres, arcs and waves. In one of many enchanting combinations, this Transcendental exercise is shown with a charming, circa 1938, mixed media collage by Russian-born Esphyr Slobodkina. Mixing matte and shiny surfaces, Slobodkina incorporates slivers of old whiskey bottle labels, stamps and sequins. Trylon and Perisphere, a famous icon of the age, makes its appearance nearby in Anthony LaPaglia’s watercolor on paper.
Few today have heard of the short-lived Indian Space Painting movement, inspired by Native American art in the 1930s. One practitioner, Steve Wheeler, is stylishly represented by “The Messenger,” a red and cream-colored tempera painting on black paper, of 1942. Word travels faster than the speed of light in this kinetic homage to modern communications.
Another highlight is Balcomb Green’s graceful “Untitled #5,” a cool, delicately rendered mixed media on paper collage of 1937.
Not everything in the show is abstract. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration provided employment for artists, many of whom were commissioned to create public murals. Grouped together, six entries illustrate different approaches to mural painting, whose most influential practitioner was Mexican artist Diego Rivera.
One of Hyland’s favorites mural studies is Ilya Bolotowsky’s biomorphic gouache on paper, circa 1936. Designed for a housing project in Brooklyn, the mural was meant to inspire and enlighten the masses.
Alexander Sandor Raymond Katz’s study for five murals illustrates populist themes along the Mississippi River north of St Louis, Mo. A highly stylized, representational mural study by James Daugherty joins another by Charles Turzak. Turzak’s bucolic scene glorifies the fertility of the earth and the noble occupation of farming.
One of Michael Gould’s favorite pieces is Hananiah Harari’s Modernist mural study, incorporating imagery †New York, Paris and Americana †often associated with Stuart Davis.
Michael and Marilyn Gould began collecting as newlyweds in Chicago, haunting the art galleries that dotted Oak Street between Rush Street and Michigan Avenue. At first they acquired pieces by contemporary Chicago artists. Dealer Marge Kovler introduced them to fine art prints, a taste they honed at the nearby Art Institute of Chicago.
“I stopped collecting for a while and sold a lot of things when three of our four children were in school,” said Michael Gould, whose eye traveled from prints to European drawings and watercolors.
The Goulds became interested in Americana after moving to Wilton, where Michael Gould continued to work in the television industry and Marilyn Gould immersed herself in local politics and historic preservation. The Goulds’ varied collection today features patriotic Americana as well as Arts and Crafts design.
Of the works displayed, the Goulds’ first purchase was a 1920 pencil drawing by Leon Kelly, a Pennsylvania Academy-trained artist who experimented with Cubism before delving into Surrealism. It is shown with three other nudes, an early interest of Michael Gould’s.
More recent acquisitions include Seymour Franks’ boisterous “Christopher Street Docks,” a colorful, jumbled street scene. The bold vertical and horizontal mesh of a Charlotte Park abstract suggest a magnified swatch of fabric. Married to James Brooks, Park was on the periphery of Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner’s East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y., circle.
A vitrine at the gallery’s center houses period books and catalogs, along with popular arts such as book ends, a radiator cap, and a café tray in an early Modernist vein.
Michael Gould, who does not claim to have discovered early American Modern works on paper before prices skyrocketed, says that knowing good dealers has been enormously helpful.
“I love both the art and the history associated with this era. Collecting has been a really fine experience that has greatly enhanced our lives,” said Gould.
Also on view at the New Britain Museum of American Art, through October 14, is “Contemporary Combustion: Chinese Artists in America.” It presents ten artists, most of whom live near Boston and San Francisco.
The New Britain Museum of American Art is at 56 Lexington Street. For information, 860-229-0257 or www.nbmaa.org .
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