Freedom and the abstract truth

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.

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.




by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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