Freedom and the abstract truth

Elizabeth Pochoda

Elizabeth Pochoda Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013 |

The story of Marica and Jan Vilcek is the story of one couple’s long pilgrimage into the cultural heart of this country. It begins during the mid-1960s in the wake of the Kennedy assassina­tion and just when the most volatile decade of the American century was coming to a boil. In some ways it is the story of the survival of the American dream in those years, but it is significantly more than that.

  • Fig. 1. In the living room of Jan and Marica Vilcek’s Manhattan apartment a Vienna Secession mirror with frame attributed to Georg Klimt (1867-1931) hangs above the fireplace. Two from a set of six bentwood salon chairs designed by Gustav Siegel (1880-1970) and made by J. and J. Kohn of Vienna stand beside the coffee table by Swedish designer Otto Wretling, 1936. Flanking the window are sets of nesting tables by Josef Hoffmann (1870-1956) for Thonet, 1906, beside each of which is one of three Austrian Biedermeier fruitwood chairs, c. 1830. On the nesting tables are a Zia storage jar, c. 1885 (left), and a Cochiti storage jar from c. 1870 (right); on the coffee table, a nineteenth-century Japanese carved burlwood Sencha Bon tray; and on the mantel, a pair of nineteenth-century Japanese patinated bronze long-neck vases. Between the vases on the mantel is Study in Pure Form (Forms in Space No. 4) by John Storrs (1885-1956), c. 1924. The paintings, beginning to the left of the mirror, are: Kachina by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), 1931; Berlin Series No.1 by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), 1913; Still Life, Brown by Stuart Davis (1892-1964), 1922; Still Life with Egg Beater by Davis, 1922; and Lake George-Autumn by O’Keeffe, 1922. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth. 

  • Fig. 2. Among the furnishings in the living room is a pair of violetwood cabinets attributed to Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), c. 1930-one with drawers, the other a fall-front desk. The art, from left to right is: Still Life with Dial by Stuart Davis, 1922; Abstraction by John Storrs, 1924; Below the Flood Gates-Huntington Harbor by Arthur Dove (1880-1946), 1930; and Untitled by Dove, 1929. Ashworth photograph. 

  • Fig. 3. Sunrise I, Sunrise II, and Sunrise III, set of three by Arthur Dove, 1941. Each is signed “Dove” at lower center; Sunrise III is also dated “12.1.41” at lower center. Each is graphite, watercolor, and ink on paper, 4 by 5 ½ inches.

  • Fig. 3. Sunrise I, Sunrise II, and Sunrise III, set of three by Arthur Dove, 1941. Each is signed “Dove” at lower center; Sunrise III is also dated “12.1.41” at lower center. Each is graphite, watercolor, and ink on paper, 4 by 5 ½ inches.

  • Fig. 3. Sunrise I, Sunrise II, and Sunrise III, set of three by Arthur Dove, 1941. Each is signed “Dove” at lower center; Sunrise III is also dated “12.1.41” at lower center. Each is graphite, watercolor, and ink on paper, 4 by 5 ½ inches.

  • Fig. 4. Still Life with Egg Beater by Stuart Davis, 1922. Signed and dated “STUART DAVIS 1922” on edge of table. Oil on canvas, 12 by 19 ¼ inches. 

  • Fig. 5. Berlin Series No. 1 by Marsden Hartley, 1913. Oil on canvas board, 18 by 15 inches. 

  • Fig. 6. Red Night, Thoughts by Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938), 1929. Signed “oblümner” [conjoined] at lower right. Oil on board mounted on panel, 8 by 10 inches. 

  • Fig. 7. The designer of the brass-inlaid mahogany art deco diningtable is unknown. The chairs are French, c. 1925. The Italian side table at the left is attributed to Luisa and Ico Parisi, c. 1950, while the mahogany sideboard-cabinet of c. 1930 on the right is attributed to Jules Leleu (1883-1961), c. 1930. The paintings, all by Marsden Hartley, are left to right: Mont Sainte-Victoire, c. 1927; Atlantic Window in the New England Character, c. 1917; Three Shells, c. 1941-1943; Silence of High Noon-Midsummer, c. 1907-1908; and New Mexico Recollection #14, c. 1923. Ashworth photograph. 

  • Fig. 8. The art deco aesthetic continues in the library, which includes a pair of stools designed by Josef Hoffmann, 1907, and two from the set of six Austrian bentwood chairs designed by Gustav Siegel, 1900. Above the sofa hangs Bomber by Ralston Crawford (1906-1978), 1944, and above the desk, Untitled (Still Life with Artist’s Portfolio and a Bowl of Fruit) by Andrew Dasburg (1887-1979), c. 1913-1918. Ashworth photograph.

  • Fig. 9. This view of the hallway includes a bronze-mounted palisander cupboard attributed to Jules Leleu, c. 1930. On its shelves are Argenta ceramics by Wilhelm Kåge (1889-1960). On the top are, from left to right: Figure in Rotation by Max Weber (1881-1961), c. 1948; Abstraction by John Storrs, 1919; and a pair of Bohemian Lithyalin vases by Friedrich Egermann (1777-1864), 1830. Man and Woman by Storrs, 1930, hangs above the cupboard; Music Hall by Stuart Davis, 1930, is to its right. The painting to the right of the doorway is Portrait Arrangement No. 2 by Marsden Hartley, 1912-1913. The sculpture next to it is Voyage to Africa by José de Creeft (1884-1982), 1927. Visible in the corner of the library, seen through the doorway, is Georgia O’Keeffe’s sculpture Abstraction, c. 1980. Ashworth photograph. 

  • Fig. 10. View from Brooklyn by George Ault (1891-1948), 1927. Signed and dated “G. C. Ault ’27” at lower left. Oil on canvas, 18 ¼ by 21 ½ inches. 

  • Fig. 11. In this view of the study are one of a pair of Otto Wagner (1841-1918)-designed armchairs, made by J. and J. Kohn c. 1916, and an art deco patinated bronze vase by Shiho Watanabe (b. 1893), c. 1920. The paintings, all by Stuart Davis, are: Garden Scene, 1921; Tree, 1921; and Tree and Urn, 1921. Ashworth photograph

  • Fig. 12. Untitled (Study for Figure) by John Storrs, 1920, cast 1935. Polychromed steel; height 6 ¾ inches. 

  • Fig. 13. Brooklyn Bridge Abstraction by Joseph Stella (1877-1946), 1918-1919. Signed “Joseph Stella” at bottom center. Watercolor and gouache on paper, 9 ¾ by 7 inches. 

  • Fig. 14. Town and Country by Stuart Davis, 1959. Signed “Stuart Davis” along right side. Oil on canvas, 10 inches square. 

  • Fig. 15. Young Tree in a Red Courtyard by Oscar Bluemner, 1919. Signed “oblümner” [conjoined] at lower left. Watercolor on paper, 19 by 14 inches. 

In 1964 the Vilceks, citizens of Bratislava in what was then Czechoslovakia, went to Vienna on a visit. While there they did something they had long hoped to do if they ever reached a Western country: they kept going, eventually reaching NewYork. Those were the years when a great many talented people left Czechoslovakia, where Soviet style socialism satirized so deftly in Milan Kundera’s early novels had deformed every aspect of politics and culture. The Vilceks were exceptionally talented, and their rise in New York was steady. Jan, a physician and scientist, joined the fac­ulty of New York University as a medical researcher, eventually becoming a professor of microbiology and the co-inventor of the anti-inflammatory drug Remicade, among other discoveries and patents. Marica, an art historian at the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava, went to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, cataloguing new acquisitions. While there she seems to have made a discovery of her own-that an American identity is best forged by becoming a citizen of the world. She is now a trustee of the museum and has endowed a curatorship in its American Wing.

In their early days in this country the Met was, Marica explains, the Vilceks’ first community. As a New York institution that is also the world’s museum, it was the ideal proving ground for someone who would learn to be at home in a new country by being both local and international. The Vilcek Foundation, which Jan and Marica established in 2000, is the fruit of this discovery as well as an expression of the couple’s gratitude for the opportunities granted by their ad­opted country. The foundation awards substantial cash prizes ($100,000) to foreign-born individuals who have resettled in the United States and made outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences. Among the well-known recipients in the arts are the musician Yo-Yo Ma, the poet Charles Simic, and the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The foundation’s awards for Creative Promise ($35,000) are given to foreign-born scientists and artists who have demon­strated a high level of achievement early in their careers.

Currently housed in a renovated carriage house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the foundation stages a variety of adventurous exhibitions, includ­ing one celebrating the international cast and crew of the television series Lost. Plans are underway to move to the recently purchased 21 East Seventieth Street, when the renovation of that landmark building formerly occupied by Hirschl and Adler Galleries is complete.

Among the more surprising accomplishments of the Vilceks is the collection of some one hundred pieces of early modernist American art that they have assembled in little more than a decade. The subject of a recent book, Masterpieces of American Modernism from the Vilcek Collection (Merrell) with a critical essay by William C. Agee and descriptions by Lewis Kachur of each of the works, it is tightly focused on twenty artists who were active during the first half of the twentieth century: among them, Stuart Davis is represented by an astonishing twenty-two works including the pivotal Still Life with Egg Beater of 1922 (Fig. 4), Marsden Hartley by seventeen, Arthur Dove by thirteen (including the set of three superb Sunrise watercolors in Fig. 3), Georgia O’Keeffe by five, George Ault by two beauties of which more later, and so on through paintings by Ralston Crawford, Max Weber, Oscar Bluemner, Joseph Stella, Andrew Dasburg, sculpture by John Storrs and José de Creeft, and a great deal more.  The Vilceks credit Rick Kinsel, now the executive director of the foundation, with encouraging them to focus their acquisitions on these artists and this period; Kinsel brought together a key trio of still lifes by Davis from 1922 and persuaded the Vilceks to buy their O’Keeffes.

Not imitative of anyone else’s reality and expres­sive of each artist’s creative individuality, these paintings and sculptures occupy a liberated space far removed from the state mandated socialist realism of the Vilceks’ youth. But the couple also undoubtedly saw something else in them that many Americans have missed. We now live in an art world that John Ashbery once characterized as “art for fun and profit” and that Arthur Danto more recently described as given to suc­cessive waves of “hot art,” so it is difficult for to remember that the pioneering work of those early modernists were neither well liked nor well rewarded at the time. Hartley, for instance, lived on something like $4 a week and Oscar Bluemner could count ten residences in as many years as he struggled to pay the rent. Then, too, with the coming of abstract expressionism and its tireless promoter Clement Greenberg in the mid 1940s, the importance of the early modernists was swept aside even though they were bold and fresh and continued to be so. Agee makes this latter point in his essay  arguing, for instance, that Arthur Dove’s late work is much richer and deeper than is generally acknowledged. It is one of the central contributions of successive generations of immi­grants to this country that they allow us to see ourselves anew and that is exactly what the Vilceks have done by assembling this collection.

Beyond prompting a reconsideration of the early modernists the Vilceks have assembled a uniquely American group of works with a pronounced tough­ness and dynamism. It is a very personal collection and will undoubtedly strike the viewer as having a distinctive New York flavor, given its emphasis on cubism and its air of the urban sublime–even when that sublimity is rendered in the landscape of the Southwest, as it is in several of the works. But when the Vilceks give their art to the foundation and when it goes on tour–in 2015–one aspect will not be visible to the public, and that is its effortless blending with the pre-Columbian artifacts and European furniture and decorative arts in their Manhattan apartment. (It was their friend the research physician and legendary AIDS expert Alvin Friedman-Kien who first drew them into collecting in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were buying rugs, pre-Columbian material, and furniture.)

How did this happen? Was it an inten­tional effort at an international statement of some kind? Not at all, according to Marica, who says that they find the furniture of Jules Leleu, Josef Hoffmann, Émile-Jacques Ruhl­mann, Otto Wagner, and others comfortable and that their collection of American modernism has played its own role in smoothing her adjustment to this country.

Those observations remind us that the uprooted, even those as well prepared as the Vilceks, encoun­ter as much pain as promise in coming here. Marica has said, quite tellingly, that George Ault’s beautifully bleak and unpeopled View from Brook­lyn (Fig. 10) with its dark and empty windows and ghostly Manhattan skyline reminds her of her first days in NewYork. If their resettlement was difficult, the Vilceks nevertheless took things as they found them: what they have appreciated in American culture they have celebrated and what they have found wanting they have, quite graciously, passed over in silence. They continue to collect American art and European decorative arts. Their explorations are not complete.

Although it runs against the prevailing view of art as a product, the Vilceks’ approach to collecting and the work of their foundation is as American as that very American philosopher John Dewey. Dewey regarded art as an experience that can only be completed by the viewer, an inquiry like science (which he also considered an art) that clarifies as it communicates, bridging the distance between man and man. “All art is a process of making the world a different place in which to live,” Dewey wrote, as if anticipating a motto that might be inscribed somewhere on the walls of the Vilcek Foundation.