A new show at the Phoenix Art Museum has at its heart 65 stunning works on loan from the Vilcek Foundation. As beautiful as they are in a gallery, the mind races at how they must have been displayed in the New York apartment of the very generous Jan and Marica Vilcek.
Here are the happy couple, as seen in the Phoenix Art Museum’s Twitter feed:
— Phoenix Art Museum (@phxart) June 5, 2015
Originally staged at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the show is described fully here. It opened on June 7 and will close on September 7.
(My original plan was to hold this post until Change of Venue Friday. But then it occurred to me you’d like to save on museum admission, and tonight’s a reduced-price night at the Museum. You’re welcome.)
Hearing from the collector-couple at a media preview was almost as illuminating as seeing their collection. (His career was as a biomedical scientist; hers was as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
As Marica Vilcek describes it, the couple never intended to amass a collection. Instead, “collecting happened,” and it happened “slowly, organically.” It was “a tremendous surprise,” she told event attendees, to see the family’s works in a gallery.
“It was almost schizophrenic for me,” she said, “because I know these pieces. I wasn’t even entirely conscious that there were ‘themes’ in our collection. They have assumed a new life.”
Her words reverberate in a viewer’s mind as he strolls through the show. Attendees will be confronted by a wide variety of diverse works. Many are familiar and represent some of the leading lights of the genre. But as Marica Vilcek suggests, collections are never just one thing; they always are in the process of becoming, every time they are re-hung, re-aggregated with other works, re-seen by a new audience.
Present at the morning tour in May was Philbrook curator Catherine Whitney. After looking at the impressive array of works, all by artists who bent away from or toward their European influences, I asked her what was distinctly American about these pieces. What did the Americans take from Europe, and what did they reshape into their own?
Ever an educator, Whitney offered that it can be a struggle to determine what distinctly comprises “American Modernism.” Showing rather than telling, she walked me toward work by Alfred Stieglitz, explaining how he wanted American artists to tap into the “native soil, the intuitive, the spiritual.”
In fact, she said, it was Georgia O’Keeffe’s spiritual vision, Whitney said, that most attracted Stieglitz. He felt that her vision had not been watered down in any way.
Whatever the subject matter, works on display by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, George Ault, and others express what may have been an American crisis of confidence. Whitney pointed out that when there are massive technological breakthroughs—as there were in the United States in the first half of the last century—artists may exhibit a concern over the loss of spirituality, an erasure of vision.
Stroll through the museum show and you’ll see that the artists’ crises might manifest themselves in striking representations of American manufacturing or gleaming U.S. cities, or in its opposite, a reversion to subjects of nature, like Dove’s thundering streams, and even of Native American scenes. What to a modern eye may be a hint of “cultural tourism” traipsing through Native villages, was a yearning toward a center, a core of the genuine among the noise of American ingenuity.
As viewers look at works with fresh eyes, they recall Marica Vilcek’s voicing a question she and her husband often heard: “Why collect American art?” Hailing from a nation—Czechoslovakia—that no longer exists, they may have been expected to indulge in pieces from the Continent. Her response, though, is a poignant one: “This collecting is the last stage of my immigration to this country.”
Native-born or not, as we stride into a gallery, these galleries, we’re all immigrants to art. Each piece is a new shore, ever being created and destroyed by the waves of the arrivals of new eyes, critical artists, competing visions. We channel that immigrant—and Georgia O’Keeffe—every time we view an art piece with an open spirit.
As noted above, the museum is reduced-price on Wednesdays; more detail is here.Follow @azatty