My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator

My Love Affair with Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator

by Katharine Kuh, Avis Berman

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628722697
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 12/27/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 610,993
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Katharine Kuh founded her own Chicago gallery in 1935. Her sixteen years at the Art Institute of Chicago coincided with that institution’s emergence as one of the world’s greatest museums. She chronicled two decades of contemporary art as a critic at the Saturday Review. Kuh died in 1994.
Avis Berman is an art historian, author, and Edward Hopper expert. She was a personal friend of Katharine Kuh and lives in New York City.

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Searching and Steing

What exactly is an art curator? From my experience, curators can be anything they want as long as they conform at least nominally to the bureaucratic folkways of museum life. Committees, trustees, complaints, social interruptions, and the discreet pursuit of possible donors are all part of the game, but aside from these distractions, each curator is a potential self-invention. To be sure, scholarship, experience, and a commitment to using one's eyes both for looking and seeing (quite different processes) are prerequisites, yet there are no rigid boundaries.

The job can involve excitement, frustration, delight, romance, fulfillment, and deep disappointment. To pursue a painting (a superb early Poussin), as I did once for over a year, only to lose it to another museum (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts), can be devastating. Now it seems unimportant to me, for, after all, the canvas is readily accessible to the public whether or not it hangs in Chicago or Minneapolis. In either case, it will be cared for, preserved, studied, and shown in proper surroundings, all services dependent on curatorial initiatives. It is, however, the search, the tracking down, and final snaring of a work of art that I find the headiest curatorial experience. When successful, the joy of the hunt can be overwhelming, and not only because of a competitive victory — there are more palpable rewards. Curators need no personal incomes to acquire great collections or to be surrounded many hours each day by splendid trophies. Their homes can be seedy, but a large part of their lives are spent with masterpieces that would set any private collector to salivating.

The best curators become obsessed: they identify with the works they defend if not as personal possessions, at least as deep-seated attachments. When I left the Art Institute of Chicago in 1959, after some sixteen years, many as curator of modern art, I dreamt constantly of certain favorite works. I was literally haunted by them. Now, after thirty-five years, I still am. Curators are, as Duchamp might have said, "ready-made collectors." I think immediately of my colleague Carl Schniewind, who was originally a private collector before he became curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute. He was a passionately involved scholar from whom I never ceased learning. One day, at a boring museum luncheon, he overheard a guest discussing a recently purchased print dress and he suddenly came to life. The word print galvanized him. He even named his dog Print! Though he was a fine scholar, he was much more; his total commitment to and joy in the works he handled literally kept him alive. Far from well, he worked five days a week at the museum and then remained bedridden every weekend.

Put very simply, a curator's job is to take care of, teach about, and acquire works of art. These are the obligations (better called privileges), but how these duties are pursued is a matter of individual ingenuity. In the United States today, the term curator is bandied about so heedlessly that any dilettante who arranges the most meager sampling of art appropriates the tide. To make matters worse, the noun now poses as a verb, actively inciting freelance novices to claim a professionalism sadly lacking — not unlike a first-year intern posing as an experienced surgeon. The debasing of the title points to all the trappings of pseudo-scholarship. Because art is an inexact and volatile study, it demands knowledge of the past, if only to validate any serious preoccupation with the present. One must have points of comparison and continuity. I think of Harold Rosenberg, who wrote beautifully about contemporary art but not always persuasively. Although he understood, perhaps clairvoyantly, its sociological implications, his visual expertise rarely antedated Cezanne.

English curators are frequently called keepers, but "keeping" is a far cry from recent practices in American institutions, where the popular pastime of selling works from permanent holdings can become scandalous. The sudden metamorphosis of museum directors and curators into masters of finance partly resulted from the standing escalation of art prices during the 1980s, though the practice has been known for some time. We've all had our hand in it; not keeping but selling — termed "deaccessioning" in polite museum language — has become the order of the day. There was always the alibi, sometimes legitimate, that the dollars gained would be spent on more important works, but who is to say that a Monet is more important than a Matisse or a David Smith than a Miró? Despite qualifying circumstances like date, condition, size, medium, provenance, and of course the specific need of the museum involved, who is all-seeing enough to make these final judgments before history has had its say? And even history can be unreliable. To review at random the economic status of works by such well-known artists as, let's say, Turner and Botticelli, is to realize how unpredictable fashions in art are. There were periods not so long ago when both men were largely ignored. During the late nineteenth century, the English Pre-Raphaelites reinstated Botticelli, and Turner's resurrection owed much to his importance for the Impressionists. Once they were elevated to stardom, he acquired similar status.

Recently I encountered a canvas by Thomas Eakins that the Art Institute sold many years ago in order to acquire a larger, more important painting by the same artist. I don't know what "more important" means, but I do know that the cast-off work still seemed very interesting to me and, at least from hindsight, should have been kept. Perhaps a bit of focused fund-raising to ensure the purchase of the larger canvas would have been wise. Together the two paintings might have enhanced each other; alone they are single experiences. And how is it possible to have too many paintings by America's greatest nineteenth-century artist? Try to buy one today. Museums would be wise to keep much of what they have, since they may never get a second chance. Of course, I'm referring to works of acknowledgable even if debatable importance. Occasionally, straight trades can be advantageous but, as soon as money (often large sums) changes hands, comparative evaluations become more and more hazardous.

What keeps curators most on their toes is the thrill of the hunt, as they compete for works of art in the national and international market. In the early years my new department at the museum was a stepchild where funds were concerned, but eventually we hit on a splendid though tiring acquisition technique. By a vague barter and trade system, we advised and frequently traveled with private collectors who in return gave the museum certain key works. A number of the Art Institute's memorable twentieth-century paintings and sculpture were added in this way. Yet on numerous occasions when unburdened, I operated alone and, if my luck held, jubilantly came home with the booty. However, there was constant competition.

In my experience, the best informed and most stubborn art sleuth was Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. He seemed to know unerringly where every available modern work was located, whether in the United States or abroad. He kept voluminous files, and no clue was too elusive for him to follow. Many years ago, during the mid-fifties, the Paris art dealer Katia Granoff announced she had a cache of late Monet paintings all related to the artist's now famous pond and surrounding gardens at Giverny. From the photographs she sent to me, I reserved what seemed the best canvas and assured her I was coming to Europe shortly and would make a decision after seeing the paintings themselves. Flying to Paris from Switzerland in 1956,1 arrived at my hotel late one night to find an urgent message from Alfred. He wanted me to call him no matter the hour. I haven't the vaguest idea how he tracked me down. He informed me he had visited Katia Granoff during the past few days and purchased several of the Monets both for the Museum of Modern Art and for certain trustees he hoped would in turn give or leave them to the museum. His overall strategy in assembling the Modern's extraordinary collection was an ongoing project. Only today, decades since his active participation ended, can we begin to comprehend how astutely he coordinated his plans. What he could not acquire for his institution he recommended to various trustees who, in many cases with his help, assembled enviable collections. In turn, from time to time, they either bequeathed or gave these works to the museum, as he had anticipated. It is not surprising that art acquired in this way was adroitly geared to the institution's permanent collection. That, of course, was the original plan. Gaps were gradually filled as earlier promises materialized. Even now, years after his death, the collection and the museum still belong to Barr — the direct result of his long-range vision. The institution faces two acute problems today: first it must articulate its own definition of "modern," and then it must plan for the new century with the same urgency Barr lavished on the twentieth. I hope that its present architecture, which always reminds me of a glorified department store, is no harbinger of the future.

In any case, Alfred had phoned to tell me that he wanted Iris, the painting I had reserved. I assured him I was due at the gallery at ten the next morning and would let him know the outcome as soon as possible. What was my surprise when I arrived to find Alfred pacing up and down in front of the gallery. Oblivious to the cold rain sweeping across the Seine, he waited outside while I entered that musty cave to be first led through a closet with an unmade bunk bed that obviously had just yielded up Katia Granoff, who was slopping around in a frayed bathrobe. I must confess that I felt completely superfluous. Eventually we reached a larger room and there at last were the paintings — alive with turbulent pigment and luminosity. I often wondered how Alfred could have imagined I would turn down that wonderful painting, especially after he was so hell-bent on getting it.

I received another message from Alfred during the time I was working with Walter and Louise Arensberg in Hollywood, cataloguing the collection that we at the Art Institute vainly hoped to inherit. One day, Walter returned in high excitement from a visit to Earl StendahPs gallery. There he had just purchased two sculptures by Bran-cusi — The Fish and Torso of a Young Man. How Barr got wind of this sale almost immediately is a mystery but, electrified by the news, he promptly contacted me to find out which version of The Fish was involved. At that point, he was negotiating elsewhere for the larger one and he wanted assurance that he was not being bypassed. Over the long-distance phone, he sounded like a deeply concerned parent worried about the well-being of his child. Alert to each nuance in the complexities of collecting, to every breath of gossip that might affect his carefully annotated files, he followed all conceivable leads.

Another visit to Paris and a different art activist, this one more lighthearted: I was walking along the rue de Rivoli when I ran into James Johnson Sweeney, then the director of the Guggenheim Museum. He was exuberant because only that morning he had made a historic scoop, a windfall of four major sculptures by Brancusi that he'd been after for some time and which today still form the backbone of the Guggenheim's sculpture collection. While we celebrated with a brandy or two, he confided that the price for all four came to one hundred thousand dollars, a very sizable sum at that time. He already anticipated trouble with certain trustees, but I was drooling with envy. To have such freedom to invest in superb works of art without the debilitating ordeal of first persuading a lay committee composed chiefly of businessmen seemed little less than nirvana to me. The hours spent in this kind of lobbying were bruising and, to be frank, I was far from adept at the process. Often the more I urged the stonier my reception. I still regret certain splendid works that slipped from our hands — paintings by Mark Tobey and Bradley Walker Tomlin (both now in the Museum of Modern Art), by Baron Gros (in the Metropolitan Museum's collection), by Breughel, and a sculpture by Rodin (the work was deemed pornographic). The Breughel was eliminated because the president of the museum found it "too lugubrious." Though Sweeney's personal income permitted him to assemble a fine collection of his own, he identified with the works he bought for the museum even more intensely. It was not ownership but the scent of the hunt that drove him, as well as his total commitment to the visual world.

A visit to James and Laura Sweeney's East Side Manhattan apartment was a rarefied experience. Mies van der Rohe had designed the interior, which was both stark and handsome. Not even an ashtray sullied the spacious living room, furnished sparsely with only Mies's designs. On the stark white walls, I remember two paintings: Metamorphosis by Picasso and a superb Mondrian. From time to time, these canvases were retired in favor of two or three other masterpieces.

Barr responded to works of art with repressed intensity and a formidable wealth of knowledge, Sweeney with ebullient emotion and an implacable eye. Both dared to break with tradition, both were pioneers in their field, but Barr almost single-handedly overturned museum practices throughout the world. After him, stodgy airless galleries packed with competing works of art no longer existed. He introduced a new kind of showmanship with emphasis on well-designed dynamic installations. Employing innovative techniques, he hoped to engage the viewer in a total experience. For Barr the viewer was the public: his target included art specialists, but it was chiefly the intelligent layman he addressed. He integrated films, photography, architecture, and product design into the museum experience. In addition he was also the first to concentrate on a long series of literate art catalogues that were both scholarly and yet nontechnical enough to interest the more casual museum visitor. He and his colleagues revolutionized museum catalogues.

What I always found startling was the contrast between Barr's quiet persona and the radical concepts he introduced. Soft-spoken, polite, preoccupied, he was almost always under attack by the press as an arrogant "tastemaker." Demoted at one point by his own trustees, he pressed on. His office and tide changed, but he never wavered from his mission as our century's foremost art impresario. He was totally committed to the museum he founded and to a public he hoped and indeed helped to educate.

My own pursuit of a Brancusi sculpture was filled with roadblocks. After the Manhattan dealer Curt Valentin died in 1954, his most faithful clients were invited to preview his stock before it was offered to the general public. I went to New York as soon as possible, but Jim Sweeney had already outmaneuvered me and reserved an early sculpture by Brancusi that I yearned for. Back in Chicago, I mourned my loss, but after six months of silent waiting, I inquired as to the status of the sculpture, only to be told it was still reserved by the Guggenheim Museum. Six months later I received the same answer, but shortly after that, in 1955, Sweeney released the piece and we in Chicago immediately bought it.

Though this idol-like figure tided Wisdom,, seemingly enveloped in ritualistic silence, was accompanied by little or no provenance, I had never doubted its authenticity. One needed only to compare it to the various versions of Brancusi's Kiss to recognize unmistakable stylistic parallels. Of course, it could have been the work of a clever imitator, but its contained, primitive power pointed to no one but Brancusi. Its blocklike form and suppression of all detail were characteristic of the artist's early stone carvings.

After I resigned from the Art Institute and returned to the museum on periodic visits, I would notice that Wisdom was not on view. I subsequently learned that it was no longer considered a work by Brancusi. This didn't make it any less interesting for me, but it was now far less valuable for the museum. It seems that the Brancusi scholar Sidney Geist had, after learning that Brancusi had rejected the sculpture, decided that it was not correctly attributed. His opinion carried justifiable weight because of his previous excellent research on the artist. In his monograph on Brancus's work, published in 1967, he assigned the object "doubtful status. Then, to my amazement, a more current article by Geist and the 1983 reprint of his monograph categorized Wisdom as an original sculpture by Brancusi. Dumbfounded, I immediately wrote to him for further information. He explained that the carving had indeed been fully reinstated as authentic. Wisdom had rejoined an exclusive canon. This drastic change, he added, was precipitated by valuable new data that had recently surfaced and provided fuller, more detailed information about the sculptor's early work. All of which leads us to believe that the study of art is suspended between knowledge and intuition; both are obligatory. Neither functions reliably without the other. Where art is concerned, there are no absolutes.


Excerpted from "My Love Affair with Modern Art"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Avis Berman.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Sorting Out and Summing Up,
1 Searching and Seeing,
2 Mies van der Rohe in Chicago,
3 The Two Vincent van Goghs,
4 Fernand Leger: Pioneering the Present,
5 Stuart Davis and the Jazz Connection,
6 Constantin Brancusi: Elision and Re-vision,
7 Three Encounters with Bernard Berenson,
8 Mark Rothko: A Portrait in Dark and Light,
9 Alfred Jensen: Competing with the Sun,
10 Clyfford Still: Art's Angry Man,
11 Isamu Noguchi: In Search of Home,
12 Mark Tobey in Basel,
13 A Day with Franz Kline,
14 Jacques Lipchitz at the White House,
15 Hans Hofmann in Provincetown,
16 Josef Albers: The Color of Discipline,
17 Edward Hopper: Foils for the Light,
Photograph and Illustration Credits,
Publication History,

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