Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Vilcek Collection

I have known my wife since she was a student in 1969 and we married 6 years later.  At approximately the same time as that personal landmark, the Metropolitan Museum, in a so-called cost saving move, decided to eliminate its catalog department.  The reason this was a momentous event was that the catalog department recorded the basic information on any work of art that came into the museum and saw that a record photo was taken, not a photo for publication.  One card was kept in that department and another given to the department to which the work of art was destined to go.  Because Penelope was working and researching in several fields this was the place that she spent a great deal of time. 

Cost cutting always means people lose their jobs and in this case it included an art historian by the name of Marica Vilcek, who headed the department.  She was married to Dr. Jan Vilcek, a doctor and scientist whom she had met in Czechoslovakia, before they both immigrated to the United States.   Dr. Vilcek became a lead scientist in the invention of the powerful anti-inflammatory used in the treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis and Chrohn’s Disease, an inflammation of the bowel, Remicade.  With royalties from that drug Dr. Vilcek, a Professor of Microbiology at NYU School of Medicine, was able to make a major donation to the School for the study of biomedical research and education.  He and his wife also established The Vilcek Foundation devoted to increasing public awareness of the contribution of immigrants to professional, academic and artistic life in the United States.  The Foundation has given many grants to arts institutions, as well, and even to the Metropolitan Museum, which I find the ultimate in generosity.

Over a little more than a decade the Vilceks have built a first class collection of American Modernist Art, which will eventually be left to their Foundation.  A number of the works came from the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe and the Vilceks worked with the then head of the Modern Art Department there, Catherine Whitney.  Having developed a close relationship with them, when Catherine later became curator at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she encouraged them to do an exhibition from their collection.   The result is called, “From New York to New Mexico: Masterworks of American Modernism from the Vilcek Foundation Collection”.  It was also previously shown at the Phoenix Art Museum before ending its run here at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.  Every travelling show leaves installation and the possibility of adding images and interpretation to the exhibiting institution and Cody Hartley, Director of Curatorial Affairs at Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, has done that masterfully here.

So, when we went to the opening of the show, 40 years had past and Penelope again came face to face with Marica Vilcek and they recognized each other immediately!  We were invited thanks to a group of the Friends of American Art at the Metropolitan Museum who had come to see the exhibition and to whom we had given a tour of a couple of the other museums that afternoon. 

I have always struggled with the word “Modernism” but here it refers to a style started specifically in the United States to express the new energy of the 20th century.  The online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, however, says, “Modernism in the arts, is a radical break with the past and concurrent search for new forms of expressionism.  Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I”.

When I visit someone’s home I am always first attracted to their art and then to their books.  Both tell a lot about one’s hosts.  It is always interesting to see how someone collects.  There are those who are only interested in the best of the best, others who are trying to decorate their walls and those who buy because of the seller.  Someone once told me the only reason they bought in a specific field was because the dealer was their best friend!   We cannot know what attracts us to a certain field but we can look at a collection and see clear relationships.

The Vilceks came out regularly to the American Southwest and it is not surprising that Southwestern subject matter and landscape would attract them.  But of course, both of them having grown up in Czechoslovakia, they have interests in older art as well, and this has had an equal influence on their eye.  One of the paintings in their collection, which I found fascinating, is Marsden Hartley’s (1877-1943), “Mont Saint-Victoire” circa 1927.  Here you have a reminiscence of Paul Cezanne’s (1839-1906) beloved and oft painted “Mont Saint-Victoire” imbued with Southwest colors.  A similar case in the next generation is a favorite subject of Georgia O’Keeffe’s (1887-1906), Pendernal Mountain and the red hills at Ghost Ranch.

There are the Southwest still life subjects too, for instance the Marsden Hartley’s picture of Indian Pottery circa 1912 or the Mexican ceramic figure painted by Max Weber (1881-1961) It is titled Mexican Statuette but it is actually a ceramic figure from Cochiti Pueblo.  Georgia O’Keeffe would have seen many katsina dolls.  Though there is no evidence that she formally collected them, she did, however paint them, if rarely.

A piece of sculpture that owes a lot to the artists of France in the early part of the 20th century is Max Weber’s Figure in Rotation modeled in 1917 (this edition dates circa 1948).  I particularly relate to the John Storrs (1885-1956) sculpture “Study in Pure Form” that is similar to one in the Metropolitan Museum. Storrs evokes the skyscrapers of Manhattan which until recently was home to me.

Lastly, we must not forget that the Vilceks live in New York City so the painting by George Copeland Ault (1891-1948) “View from Brooklyn” 1927 which looks at the famous city skyline must have special meaning to them as well. I love how Ault captures the two boroughs so well in a single relatively small painting.

Only about a third of their collection (60 works of art) is in the show so all I have said is based on a sampling.  The exhibition will be up at the O’Keeffe until January 10, 2016 and I have hardly broken the surface of all that could be said about it.  I hope to go back and revisit it soon both in person and here in print.

All paintings mentioned are from the Jan T. and Marica Vilcek Collection and are promised gifts to the The Vilcek Foundation.  I want to thank the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum for supplying the images.

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