20th-Century Collectors: The Patrons Have a Show

Some subjects in the art world are better left to be dealt with historically than in the present tense. One of them is the private patronage of contemporary art and contemporary art museums. History has some wonderful stories to tell on this subject, and some not so wonderful stories, too. Yet when it comes to telling the stories of living patrons-that is, collectors who buy contemporary art and give it to museums-the most blatant conflicts of interest make it all but impossible to give the public a candid, disabused account of the way our system of contemporary art patronage actually works.

Art dealers, who often exert tremendous influence on collectors, naturally have a vested interest in flattering the taste of their clients. Museums, which likewise have a tremendous influence on collectors, have a vested interest in flattering the taste of their donors. Art critics, art historians and what are now called art consultants have also been known to be encumbered by similar conflicts of interest. Indeed, the art consultancy business seems to have been founded for the express purpose of legitimizing such conflicts of interest.

I frankly don’t know of any better way for the art world to function. And certainly in countries where governmental bureaucracies play a far larger role in the patronage of contemporary art than they do in the U.S., the situation is no better and often much worse. But that is no reason for us to deceive ourselves about the way our own highly imperfect system works.

All of this may account for the very uneven character of the exhibition called The Collector as Patron in the Twentieth Century , which has now been organized at Knoedler and Company. The exhibition is in two parts. On the lower floor of the gallery, there is a documentary survey of mostly legendary collectors from the earlier decades of the century-among them, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Mellon, Albert C. Barnes, Katherine Dreier, Lillie P. Bliss, Duncan Phillips and Stephen Clark. In this section of the show, called “Profiles in Patronage,” the archival material, much of it drawn from Knoedler’s own archives, is fascinating and often amusing.

Newcomers to the history of 20th-century art philanthropy are given a crash course in the history of the subject, and professionals are likely to discover things they didn’t know-that, for example, more than 150 works by Cézanne and seven of the 12 paintings by Vermeer now in American museums came directly or indirectly from the old Knoedler gallery. Does this mean that the Collector as Patron exhibition is designed to promote the interests of the current Knoedler gallery? Of course it is, and why not? If a gallery can boast of a glorious history, it is perfectly legitimate to do so, for the public has been well served by that history.

To be reminded of that history does run the risk, however, of making the contemporary section of the exhibition, which occupies the more spacious rooms on the main floor at Knoedler and Company, look rather thin by comparison. Alas, the contemporary section of The Collector as Patron exhibition mainly consists of minor works by artists who command blue-chip reputations. There are exceptions, to be sure-among them, Adolph Gottlieb’s Ashes of Phoenix (1948), from the collection of Mary and Jim Patton, and Bradley Walker Tomlin’s Number 15 (1953), from the collection of Agnes Gund.

Moreover, it is only in the pictures from the collection of Bebe and Crosby Kemper that we are given any sense of the character of the contemporary collections that are represented in this section of the show. The Kempers set out to create a museum of contemporary art in Kansas City, Mo., and on the basis of what we see in this exhibition-excellent examples of Romare Bearden, Helen Frankenthaler, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Fairfield Porter and Wayne Thiebaud-we would have to conclude that they have amply succeeded in that endeavor. Theirs is the only collection represented here that one is eager to see more of, as most of the others strike me as mere appendages to established museum collections already well known.

It doesn’t help matters, either, that the snippets from Irving Sandler’s interviews with these collectors, published in the catalogue, are of a shallowness that is quite stupefying. Typical of them is this exchange between Mr. Sandler and Bea and Phil Gersh:

” Irving : How would you characterize your collecting mentality? Do you think you’re driven, infatuated? Is it an obsession, an addiction, a pleasure-?

Bea : Collecting is a pleasure … but also a little bit of an addiction.

Phil : A good and worthy addiction. This contagious act of collecting, and, in turn, support for the museum, has been passed on to both our sons.”

This hardly ascends to the level of a television talk show. It certainly does not belong in a catalog of a serious art exhibition. Mr. Sandler has written many fine books on contemporary American art, so it is especially disappointing that he has settled for such fluff on this occasion.

Fortunately, the catalog essay that DeCourcy E. McIntosh has written on the earlier 20th-century American collectors is a very solid piece of work. He even talks about money, a subject that is known to be of interest to collectors, dealers and everybody else. In his account of Duncan Phillips’ acquisitions from the Knoedler gallery, for example, we learn the following: “Among the first new acquisitions was a small oil by Albert Pinkham Ryder, bought from Knoedler for $3,500. (This transaction occurred in the same month as Andrew Mellon acquired Franz Hals’s Portrait of Nicholas Berghem from the gallery for $170,000.)” Some comparable figures for the works in the contemporary section of this exhibition would have been welcome, and not because we are snoopy but because they would give us a more concrete account of the actual dynamics of late-20th-century art collecting.

Lacking the kind of hard facts that gives us a historical profile of a collection’s formation, we are left to wonder when a particular painting was acquired, how much was paid for it, the name of the dealer from whom it was acquired and at what stage in the rise of the artist’s reputation the picture entered the collection. All of this would tell us a lot more about the history of collecting contemporary art than all the blather about “addiction” and sundry other self-aggrandizing pieties.

I also missed any mention of certain collectors who merited a place in the history that is recounted in this show and its catalog: Joe Hirshhorn, for example, and Seymour Knox and the two Guggenheims-Solomon and Peggy-as well as several Rockefellers. Well, the subject is enormous, of course, and far too big to be accommodated in a single gallery exhibition. It still awaits an historian to do it justice.

Still, there is much to be learned from the historical section of The Collector as Patron -about the role, for example, of Marcel Duchamp as adviser to the formation of Katherine Dreier’s Société Anonyme collection, which is now at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. Looking at the photo of the young Duchamp with Dreier in the archival section of this show, it occurred to me that this celebrated Dadaist may also have been a pioneer in establishing the art consultancy business. This, too, is a subject that awaits its historian.

Meanwhile, The Collector as Patron in the Twentieth Century remains on view at Knoedler and Company, 19 East 70th Street, through July 31.

20th-Century Collectors: The Patrons Have a Show