Thursday, April 18, 2013

Schadenfreude on Display: The Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, Part 2

As I continue to explore the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art and its shortcomings, one has to begin with the art itself.  A museum lives or dies based on the quality of the material on display, and the Gallery of Modern Art ( I’ll refer to it as GoMA from now on) is no exception.

The Huntington Hartford Collection

     It was certainly not unusual for Hartford to want to display his collection of art in a public museum.  There’s a long history of philanthropists who donated art to museums or built museums in their own name.  Hartford placed his museum on Columbus Circle in Manhattan, and just across Central Park the brand new Guggenheim Museum had recently opened its doors.  The Guggenheim family had a long history of supporting art and surely Hartford wished to give them a run for their money (his collecting tastes were quite different from the Guggenheims).   Other contemporary tycoons such as J. Paul Getty and Joseph Hirshhorn were well known art collectors planning museums or gifts of their work to public collections.  Going further back, industrialists like Henry Clay Frick and J. Pierpont Morgan had left sizable artistic gifts to the City of New York.  No doubt Hartford saw himself as part of a long line of philanthropists who had left lasting artistic legacies for future generations to enjoy.

     But, as mentioned earlier, these collections are judged on the quality of work they contain.  The Frick owns important Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings, as well as St Francis in Ecstasy, considered one of Giovanni Bellini’s finest works.  The Morgan Library houses some of the rarest books in the world (including one of the earliest published editions of Shakespeare’s plays).  The Guggenheim Museum is housed in one of the most famous buildings ever designed. The Huntington Hartford Collection was, to put it mildly, unremarkable.  Hartford had very particular views and biases when it came to collecting art.  He shared his views with the public through several publications that definitely placed him, in hindsight, on wrong side of art history.

     In the 50s and 60s, the prevailing artistic trends favored abstract and non-representational art.  Beginning in the late 1800s and early 1900s with artists like Cezanne and Picasso, abstraction had quickly evolved into a powerful force in art.  Abstract art developed into non-representational (or non-objective) art, which young American artists like Jackson Pollock approached with new eyes untainted by hundreds or even thousands of years of European art history.  Abstract and non-objective art put America on the map artistically after World War II, and by the 1960s was firmly a part of art history as well as American museums and culture.  Institutions like the Museum of Modern Art had been collecting abstract art for decades, and many more museums were following suit as artists like Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning became well known, accepted, and collected.  Collectors and patrons like the Guggenheim family, Hirshhorn, and Seymour Knox in Buffalo embraced this new art and collected it with gusto.

     Huntington Hartford, on the other hand, firmly disagreed.  He hated abstraction and saw it as motivated by greed and other evil influences such as Communism (this was the time of the Cold War, after all).  He railed against abstract art in writing, publishing the pamphlet entitled Has God Been Insulted Here?  in 1951 and followed that with the full-length book Art or Anarchy? How the Extremists and Exploiters have Reduced the Fine Arts to Chaos and Commercialism (published in 1964, shortly after his museum opened).  In both publications he espoused his idea that art must embody morality, which abstract art lacked (a view that was hopelessly outdated, even back then).  The rejection of abstraction at a time when abstract art was a dominant form (and had been for 40 or 50 years by that point) was a bold stance that led Hartford to collect art well-removed from mainstream tastes.

Monet's The Jetty at Le Havre, part of Hartford's collection
Henri de Toulose-Lautrec's Nude Study.  Not a bad painting, but certainly not characteristic of Lautrec's work.


A "Museum of the Unfashionable"

     So what was in the Huntington Hartford collection?  When people visited the GoMA in the late 60s what did they see?  He did own works by well known artists like Sargent, Cassatt, Monet, and Salvador Dali (more on him later), but his paintings by these artists were not necessarily considered their best work.  The reviewer for ARTnews stated “[There is] not…even a single other picture whose master is not better represented, providing he deserves to be represented at all, in another American public institution.”  In addition to minor works by well known masters, he also owned realist paintings by Frederick Waugh (I had never heard of him either) and Thomas Moran.  He respected and collected the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and one of the GoMA’s special exhibitions was dedicated to their work (although the works of the Pre-Raphaelites have held up well over time and continue to gain respect, they were at the time seen as a minor movement).  At best, the collection flew in the face of prevailing trends, and did it proudly and unabashedly.  At worst it was just plain bad, expressed through minor examples from master artists or bad paintings by artists who have been largely forgotten today.  Legendary art critic Clement Greenberg wrote his famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939.  Kitsch can best be described as cheap sentimentality disguised as culture, and he would have had no difficulty finding multiple example of kitsch at the GoMA.  This was perhaps best displayed in the works of one of the few living artists to openly support the museum: Salvador Dali.

How do you solve a problem like Dali?


     The career of Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dali is marked by contrasts and contradictions.  During the first half of his career, he made serious and important contributions to surrealist art and art in general.  Works such as The Persistence of Memory and Un Chien Andalou (made with filmmaker Luis Bunel) are considered some of the greatest works of art ever made, and remain powerful illustrations of psychological theories that were very new at the time (such as Freudian Psychoanalysis).  Dali's late career, however, is remembered differently.  Marked by shameless self promotion and outright greed, Dali became a cartoon character later in life, famous more for his mustache than his art.  He had certainly fallen from grace in the eyes of art critics by the 1960s, and his late career work is often seen as a silly bastardization of Surrealism’s once-potent theories.  I don’t mean to write off Dali’s output from this period in its entirety (there is merit to be found in some of his late work), but prevailing critical opinion in the 1960s wasn’t on his side.  If Hartford wished to create a “Museum of the Unfashionable” (his words), Dali fit right in.
The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, by Salvador Dali, 1959
The two Dalis on view at the GoMA
    Hartford had criticized Dali earlier in his pamphlet
Has God Been Insulted Here? but later changed his mind and embraced the Spaniard’s work.  He purchased two Dali paintings and intended for them to become the centerpieces of his collection.  The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus (the largest painting Dali had completed at the time) was displayed prominently in one of the GoMA’s galleries, paired with the equally gargantuan Battle of Tetuan.  In the first painting, a youthful Columbus confidently strides ashore, hauling his ship from the water effortlessly with his bare hands.  The Virgin Mary (Dali’s wife Gala was naturally the model) herself seems to bless the whole scene, while spectral armies wielding both crosses and axes line up behind him.  In choosing the subject of Christopher Columbus for the painting, Hartford surely meant for the imagery to be read symbolically.  The GoMA was located on Columbus Circle, and Hartford was clearly sending the message that Columbus (Circle) was ready to conquer the art world, just as Christopher Columbus had conquered New World.  One man against a country of savages.  It didn’t work.  Dali’s praise didn’t sway the art critics who visited the museum and declared it boring and unimpressive.  Five years after the museum opened, it closed its doors and much of the work was sold off.  The Columbus eventually ended up in the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It remains on view there to this day, silent testimony to the failure of the Gallery of Modern Art.

Next week; The Gallery’s building proves as controversial as the art inside.

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