Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America , by Eugene R. Gaddis. Alfred A. Knopf, 472 pages, $35.
“Do you think it wise to have the ge- neral public rampaging through our museum?” a wary trustee of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., asked its director, Arthur Everett (Chick) Austin Jr., in the late 1920′s, after a sudden 30 percent jump in the number of visitors.
Chick Austin went on to create such cultural ferment in the staid insurance capital that Philip Johnson hailed Hartford as “the navel of the world.” During Austin’s tenure at the Atheneum (1927 to 1945), aesthetically savvy New Yorkers like Lincoln Kirstein, Edward Warburg and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller dubbed Hartford the “new Athens” and made it a glittering place of pilgrimage.
Not only did Austin promote artists like Picasso, Balthus, Mondrian and Dali when they were virtually unknown in the United States, but he also amassed an important collection of masterworks (especially Baroque painting, Dutch still lifes and Poussin) on view at the Atheneum to this day. Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, told Austin: “You did things sooner and more brilliantly than any one.”
In Magician of the Modern , his compelling biography of this trailblazing taste-maker, Eugene R. Gaddis chronicles how Chick Austin helped alter the way Americans looked at and thought about modern art. For starters, he organized the first Picasso retrospective in the United States, put on the first show of Surrealist art and, with Kirstein, helped engineer the immigration of choreographer George Balanchine and sow the seeds for Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. He also oversaw construction of America’s first International Style museum building, a major extension to the Atheneum that opened in 1934, five years before the completion of MoMA. Inside the addition’s 300-seat theater, Austin staged the world premiere of the Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts , with a libretto by Gertrude Stein and an all-black cast. Austin’s prodigious achievements helped cast off dusty, outworn museum traditions.
Likened by Mr. Gaddis to a charmed character out of a Noel Coward play, Austin was a boy wonder with matinee-idol good looks. He arrived in Hartford from Harvard University, where he was a protégé of art historian Edward Forbes. Together with other Harvard students who apprenticed at the Fogg Art Museum, Austin spent summers scouring Europe for treasures, dragging along batteries hooked up to automobile headlights to illuminate old pictures in dark church corners.
At the Atheneum-America’s oldest public art museum-Austin swiftly established himself as a dynamic impresario and legendary connoisseur. He took a two-pronged approach to reinventing the stuffy if venerable institution. A windfall bequest of $2 million allowed him to buy masterpieces by Caravaggio, Strozzi and Tiepolo; at the same time, he zealously built up a fashionable temple of modernism. Meanwhile, he secured his place in Hartford society by marrying a cousin of J. Pierpont Morgan. (His bride was also the niece of the president of the Atheneum’s board of trustees.)
“Visitors have, in reality, a right to find excitement in a museum as well as in a movie theater,” he asserted. To heighten public interest and reduce resistance to avant-garde trends, Austin staged lavish balls and dramatic performances. He would lead the revels costumed as a sea god or a hussar or a pharaoh or a harlequin from a Watteau painting.
He built himself an astounding house-now a National Historic Landmark that proved a spectacle in its own right. The neo-Palladian villa with Baroque, Rococo and Bauhaus interiors became a gathering place for artists like Gertrude Stein, George Gershwin, Salvador Dali and Aaron Copland, who exhibited their work, staged plays or gave concerts at the museum. Neighbors derided the pilastered house as a “pasteboard palace,” but others like Philip Johnson esteemed it as a precursor of postmodernism. The two-story residence was a mere 18 feet deep and resembled a stage set. “The house is just like me-all façade,” Austin declared.
Stagecraft dazzled Austin. His devotion to the visual arts could not keep him away from theatrical productions. To the dismay of some Hartford burghers, he frequently abandoned the museum to star in Shakespeare plays and Jacobean tragedies. He also staged elaborate magic shows at the Atheneum-on these occasions he called himself “The Great Osram,” after a brand of German light bulbs.
Mr. Gaddis tells Austin’s antic life story with verve, successfully capturing the thrill of modernism’s early years. But though he draws upon formidable research-he spent more than a quarter of a century conducting interviews for the book-Mr. Gaddis at times seems too enamored of his subject. He deals tactfully with Austin’s bisexuality and the erotic adventures that led him to abandon his wife and two children at critical junctures. Fair enough. But the impact of Austin’s glitzy showmanship on the museum world at large merits a more thorough critique. “Fashion in art is very much like fashion in dress,” Austin proclaimed; he suggested that artworks, like clothes, need not be taken too seriously and could be discarded when judged passé.
In the midst of the Depression, Austin hired Pavel Tchelitchew to transform the new museum wing for a “Ragpickers Ball”; the Surrealist artist covered the white cantilevered balconies with painted newspapers and colored lights. Austin came to the party clad as a whip-cracking ringmaster, followed by a group of young men dressed as cowboys and bare-chested Indians, all wearing makeup and false eyelashes. The high jinks reached their climax when sculptor Alexander Calder plunged Austin into the annex’s atrium fountain pool.
“Chick Austin was air and fire,” according to the writer Marguerite Yourcenar. By the 1940′s, it would have been more accurate to say that Austin was ready to crash and burn. War kept him from visiting Europe and making new acquisitions, and his irrepressible frivolity left him increasingly out of step in straitened times. His slipshod management style (combined with the subversive remarks and the penchant for avant-garde extravaganza) inevitably led to difficulties with the Atheneum board. While he was away on leave in 1945 (making an abortive foray into Hollywood show business), a trustee-ordered audit found that Austin had borrowed 30 paintings from art dealers on approval; there were overdue bills dating back more than four years. The museum quietly fired him.
Austin spent his last decade as director of the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla. Although outside his customary orbit, the post was a good fit: The Ringling had a major collection of Baroque art housed in a fanciful reinterpretation of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Austin again created a splendid annex, this time to house a jewel-like 18th-century theater imported from Asolo, Italy. The idea, typically, was to add the dramatic arts to the Ringling’s offerings.
“I get bored with buying pictures painted by others for someone else,” he remarked before his death in 1957. “To me the joy of living is active participation.” Magician of the Modern deftly recounts how exuberance and an expert eye helped reshape American art museums, turning them from tranquil repositories into more freewheeling stages for both glamorous blockbusters and genuine cultural innovation.
Michael Z. Wise is the author of Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy (Princeton Architectural Press).