By A.L. Dunnington
NEW YORK CITY – It is the story of an incredible treasure hunt for seminal works by key figures of postwar American art: a hunt whose conclusion, in one fell swoop, delivered a $200 million gift of 87 works by 23 major Twentieth Century artists into the arms of the Whitney Museum of American Art, compliments of its trustees.
“” aims not only to bolster the Whitney’s current holdings of major postwar contemporary American artists, but also to show the world what a determined board can accomplish for a public institution in the name of art.
The artists, including Jasper Johns, Franz Kline, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Helen Frankenthaler and Andy Warhol, to name a few, represent a pivotal period in post-World War II American art. The “Legacy” effort, spearheaded by Whitney Board Chairman Leonard A. Lauder, included procuring works directly from some of the artists themselves, in addition to donations of work acquired or owned by Lauder and 14 other trustees.
“We believe this is the largest and most significant gift of postwar art ever made to any museum,” said Whitney Director Maxwell L. Anderson. “This extraordinary gift adds depth to our collection, and provides the public with access to some of the most significant American works of the Twentieth Century.”
Acquiring this artwork was a saga in itself.
“Each work has a story,” Lauder said. The three-year project included persuading artists to part with long-held works in their private collections and also encouraging trustees not simply to acquire and donate major works, but, in some cases, to take them off their walls. By the end, “Legacy” had amassed an imposing body of work, one which solidifies the Whitney’s permanent collection.
“The Whitney’s trustees were committed to helping enhance the museum’s collection,” said Lauder, chairman of Estee Lauder. “The Whitney, like all museums in the world, has great strengths and areas where the strengths were not so great.” One of the areas in need of attention was postwar contemporary art.
To remedy the lack, Lauder spoke with a small group of trustees: “Let’s try to fill those gaps, and fill them we did,” he said. “The art didn’t just come from the walls of our trustees. We got a number of artists interested in our project. And the amazing thing was how much great art was still held in the [artists’] own personal collections.”
Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, had kept “Untitled,” circa 1951, a large black, multipaneled oil and newspaper on canvas, in his personal collection for the past 50 years. Lauder persuaded Rauschenberg to part with both that and “Blue Eagle,” an important 1961 mixed media work.
When the trustees sought to acquire Jasper Johns’s “Double White Map,” 1965, from an outside source, Lauder invited Johns to come to New York to inspect the condition of the encaustic and collage on canvas. Johns gave the work his blessing – and in the process learned about the Whitney’s “Legacy” project.
That led to visits to Johns’s Connecticut home, resulting in the acquisition of 17 monotypes from his Savarin Can series 1982 – works that had remained in the artist’s personal collection for 20 years; Lauder was also able to acquire Johns’s eight important ink tracings – “Untitled,” 1986 – also from the artist’s private holdings.
Johns’s drawing, “Two Maps,” 1989, was a prominent piece in the collection of former Whitney president Joel Ehrenkranz. “Joel and I had a conversation, and then another conversation,” Lauder said, “And that masterpiece drawn by Jasper is now in the Whitney’s collection.”
They also interested Ellsworth Kelly in the project, Lauder said. The Whitney, which owned very few early Kellys, was able to buy his 1950 “La Combe I.” Kelly had been in the US signal corps in World War II – one of his assignments was camouflaging tanks – and afterwards, he lived in France on the GI Bill. “La Combe I” was prompted by Kelly’s stay at the Villa La Combe in Mechers, where his imagination was stirred by shadows cast upon a flight of stairs by a balustrade. He later translated the scene into an abstract series of disjunctive red lines. With its acquisition, “La Combe” became the earliest Kelly in the Whitney collection, and the only example from his Paris days.
Claes Oldenburg’s “Bedroom Ensemble 3/3” (1963/1995), a room-sized theatrical set piece replete with animal skin designs and faux furs – inspired by fantasy suites at a motel Oldenburg had seen as a teenager – had been in the artist’s private collection since 1963. Lauder persuaded him to part with that, along with a more recent drawing, “Soft Viola Island,” 2001, a collaborative work between Oldenburg and his wife, Coosje van Bruggen.
Although the work had been in a catalog at the Pace gallery in New York, it did not appear in the Pace show. Lauder discovered that Oldenburg had liked it so much he had decided not to part with it. Lauder told him, “You can’t keep that for yourself.” Oldenburg eventually agreed, and Whitney president Robert Hurst acquired it from the artist and donated it to the “Legacy” collection.
Reflecting on the project, Lauder said: “It is our wish to bring great art not only to this museum but to this great city … I was born in New York City, raised here, went to its public schools. New York City educated me, it educated my parents and it educated the people who are our trustees. Our responsibility is to help not only the Whitney achieve greatness but New York City achieve greatness…”
In addition to leading the acquisition drive, Lauder contributed three Oldenburgs from his personal collection: “Typewriter Eraser,” 1977; “Clothespin,” 1976-79; and “Profile Airflow,” 1969.
Lauder, who personally collects Cubist art, brought his collector’s eye to bear in the “Legacy” hunt. “The things I collect in Cubism were as outrageous in their time as Roy Lichtenstein or Andy Warhol were in their time – there’s almost a harmony of thought in artists that are always a little ahead of the curve. And that’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to this period: These were the artists who were the leaders.”
A Collection Assembled By Stealth And Surprise
“This was a strategic effort to add meaningfully to the collection,” said Whitney director Anderson. “It was of course opportunistic as well, to seize works when they are still within an artist’s holdings, before they enter the marketplace where they might disappear.
“Leonard [Lauder] was incredibly energetic in pursuing the goal, which was – with a degree of stealth and surprise – to add to the collection in depth. If it had gotten out that we were doing this, our peer institutions might have made moves on works that were sitting quietly in galleries or in artist’s homes,” said Anderson.
One reason Lauder worked so energetically over the last three years to acquire these works was because of the challenge in finding and obtaining great works from this era, said Marla Prather, Whitney curator of postwar art and co-author of the exhibit catalog.
“It is very hard to acquire a great Mark Rothko or a Jackson Pollock. They don’t come onto the market very often, and when they do, the prices are obviously very high,” she said. “It made a great deal of sense to go to the artists directly, because they often hold back work from the market. Johns, for example, could easily have sold his Savarin Can monotypes many times over.”
What this exhibit offers is a range of highly selective works spanning the years from 1949 and 2002, Prather said, from artists who were innovators in the art movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibit is not intended to provide a comprehensive overview of postwar years, she said. But taken together, the works tell the story of an era, and both complement and supplement the Whitney’s current holdings of all these artists. And in some cases, she said, it enables the museum to relate that story with breathtaking depth.
“There are 32 works by Jasper Johns in the exhibition that range from 1961 to 1999,” said Prather. “And they are works that both demonstrate the continuity of his career and also the surprising new directions it took. Presenting the full range of these artists of our era is one of the most important parts of the Whitney’s mission.”
The “Legacy” gift also creates a major concentration in both Abstract Expression, with works by Kline, Clyfford Still and Rothko, as well as in early Pop Art, with works by Lichtenstein, Oldenburg and Warhol. It brings the earliest paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, Newman, Lichtenstein, Robert Ryman and Warhol to the Whitney; and, with the addition of the four Kelly works, the Whitney collection now spans 50 years of Kelly’s career.
“One of the things I love about the show,” said Prather, “is that while it’s not an historic blow by blow representation of the second half of the Twentieth Century… we do find not only continuity but very sharp juxtapositions and contrast.”
For example, there is the ethereal abstraction of Mark Rothko, Prather said: lovely fields of color that radiate warmth and light. “You have an expressive mood that’s contemplative, that’s quiet: the artist intended that even an abstract work could convey the whole gamut of emotion.”
By contrast, Andy Warhol had no intention of eliciting that kind of emotional response when he constructed his Brillo boxes.
Artists like Rothko and Newman were more connected to the traumas of the war, Prather said. They felt that representing real world nudes, still lifes and the traditional genres of art was no longer viable. But they found ways to encompass what Rothko called “the basic emotions — tragedy, ecstasy and doom.”
Warhol, on the other hand, although sophisticated about art, Prather said, came from the commercial realm. Early in his career, he designed store front windows and illustrated shoe advertisements. Artists like Warhol did not feel there had to be a great divide between the commercial world and high art.
And Claes Oldenburg asked: Why couldn’t a clothespin be a dramatic public monument? Why does it have to be “man on horseback”?
“He believed there could be new kinds of substitutions and subject matter that could communicate in ways that drew from the culture and had a kind of recognizability and humor that previously art didn’t embody,” Prather said.
Other veins emerged in 1960s American art as well. Sol LeWitt, a pioneering conceptual artist, designed the exhibit’s massive “Wall Drawing #444” (Asymmetrical pyramid) 1985, a wall-sized pyramid of color ink washes. Unlike Pop Art, Prather said, LeWitt’s work was about form, not consumer culture. LeWitt maintained that the idea of a work of art, as opposed to the final finished object, was paramount. It was fine, therefore, to provide the design and written instructions, and – in the tradition of Renaissance studios – have others physically execute the idea. As LeWitt explained it: “The underpinning, theoretically, is to separate the idea of art from the idea of craft.”
A Brief Timeline Of Postwar Contemporary Art
The earliest movement represented in the “Legacy” exhibit is Abstract Expressionism, which came to the fore mostly in New York City in the late 1940s and early 1950s, said Dana A. Miller, Whitney assistant curator of postwar art and co-author of the exhibit catalog.
After World War II, a community of artists developed in New York City: professional American artists who had been working with the WPA, as well as a number of avant-garde artists who fled Europe during the war era.
“It was a vibrant artistic scene, and Abstract Expressionism evolved as the dominant method,” Miller said. The movement developed two main threads: Gestural or action painting on the one hand, and color field or chromatic abstraction on the other.
Gestural/action painting involved dramatic brushstrokes, working so that the viewer could see the action involved in its creation, observing the paint drips and often the speed with which an artist made certain gestures or motions. Major gestural/action painters included Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.
Then there was the more sublime aspect of Abstract Expressionism: color field or chromatic expressionism.
“Chromatic expressionism is very much about expressing inner thought through color, rather than gesture,” Miller said, citing Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman as primary examples. Often, their work involved large expanses of color, as opposed to dramatic brushstrokes. Sometimes the colors blended into one another, sometimes the colors were divided by lines, as in the case of Newman’s “zip” paintings, where a canvas was divided by vertical lines.
Newman’s “The Promise,” 1949, for instance, pairs two “zips” to create visual tension. Newman gave the painting as a wedding present to art critic Clement Greenberg in 1960.
Rothko, on the other hand, used a variety of colors and washes – different types of paint thinned with different materials – to create vibrating, shimmering colors.
Abstract Expressionism reached its height in the early through mid-1950s, and continued in that vein through the mid-1960s, Miller said.
But beginning in the mid-1950s, another movement gained momentum: Pop Art.
“Pop was very much engaged with everyday objects, often using unconventional materials for artworks and depicting unconventional subject matter as well,” Miller said. Thus you have Claes Oldenburg making sculptures of typewriter erasers, and bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches; or Andy Warhol creating large-scale Brillo boxes.
Many of the Pop artists shared a background in commercial art with their precursors. Although not Pop artists themselves, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, whose earlier careers included creating window displays for Tiffany’s and department stores, helped shape the movement by incorporating everyday subject matter and materials into their work.
Jasper Johns, for instance, painted maps of the United States, flags, targets.
“He did that so he could free himself to focus on other aspects of his art. By not having to search for subject matter, he could focus on materials, the process and different ways of composing the subject matter,” Miller said.
Rauschenberg, however, actually built everyday objects into his works of art. In “Untitled,” 1951, a work from Rauschenberg’s important series of black paintings, the surface is black enamel paint and newspaper. In his 1961 mixed media piece, “Blue Eagle,” he incorporated a crushed motor oil can, a T-shirt, and other seemingly random objects from his environment. Of that work, Rauschenberg once said: “After you recognize that the canvas you’re painting on is simply another rag then it doesn’t matter whether you use stuffed chickens or electric light bulbs or pure form.”
These artists had an important influence on Pop, Miller said, “because they had a very inclusive way of looking at subject matter and materials.”
Some viewers still struggle to understand the works of the titans of postwar art. In fact, Miller said, these artists did what artists have always done: they responded to the world around them in a creative, innovative way.
“An important part of Pop Art is its sense of humor, its irony, the way it makes people think differently about things,” Miller said.
“With an artist like Warhol, he’s responding to the way we look at images, and the repetitious imagery of the media: the way he shows Jackie Kennedy nine times; or the way he shows Elvis twice in one painting. It makes you stop and realize how often you have actually seen these images. Are they any more or less powerful the first time or second time or the ninth time?”
The Traditional Was Once New, Too
“If you look at some of the still lifes from Old Masters,” Miller said, “you see that they were painting everyday objects as well – what people had for dinner, for instance. They were painting fish and they were painting pitchers, and Cezanne was painting peaches. It just so happens that rather than painting fish or peaches, artists like Oldenburg are painting or sculpting some of the things people eat today: BLTs, french fries, catsup.”
And many of the artists we revere now were misunderstood or rejected in their own time, Miller noted: Artists such as Van Gogh, for instance. “Van Gogh didn’t sell a painting during his entire life. Some of these artists were starving; they were refused from various salons; some were respected by a small group of avant-garde artists, but for the most part, many of them fought the same battles trying to convince people that what they did was art.”
Artists represent and interpret the world they live in. And contemporary art reflected what was going on in postwar America.
“It was a burgeoning consumer society, a commodity culture, and the artists were responding to the things around them as artists have always done,” Miller said.
“I think one of the most important things artists do is question. They don’t always present answers. But if they can provoke you to ask questions, I think that’s a sign that they’ve done a good job.”
“An American Legacy: A Gift to New York ” runs through January 26 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street; 800-WHITNEY or www.whitney.org.