A few years ago, while writing about Jan and Marica Vilcek’s collection of American modernist art, I told part of the story of their 1964–1965 pilgrimage as refugees from Bratislava to New York, where Jan joined the faculty of New York University as a medical researcher (at a salary of $12,000) and Marica, an art historian, went to work cataloguing new acquisitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see The Magazine ANTIQUES, May/June 2013). Since then Jan has published Love and Science, a lively memoir that recounts a childhood spent hiding from the Nazis, life under the subsequent era of oppressive Soviet-style socialism in what was then Czechoslovakia, the couple’s escape, and finally the decades at NYU, where his development of the anti-inflammatory drug Remicade made the Vilceks wealthy enough to become philanthropists, and the Vilcek Foundation a beacon of sanity amid the confusions about who is and can be an American.
Since its beginnings in 2000, the foundation has done many things to recognize foreign-born people who have either made outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences (the Vilcek Prizes, $100,000), or have shown the promise of doing so (the Vilcek Creative Promise Prizes, $50,000). It has published an anthology, American Odysseys: Writings by New Americans, and sponsored the New American Filmmakers series, a showcase for foreign-born artists. Jan and Marica have also endowed two curatorships at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a curatorial studies program at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. In May the Vilcek Foundation joined with the Arnold P. Gold Foundation to create an award for humanism in healthcare. The first one went to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, an immigrant of Iraqi descent from the United Kingdom, whose research and activism drew national attention to the lead in the water of Flint, Michigan, responsible for poisoning the city’s children. There will be more such initiatives. Jan Vilcek is clear about that: “Immigrants make important contributions at multiple strata of society, from low-skilled workers taking on jobs that the native-born won’t deign to do, to scientists who are indispensable to American science and innovation. The Vilcek Foundation is striving hard to drive home this message.”
In May the foundation also opened new headquarters in New York at 21 East Seventieth Street—the building formerly occupied by Hirschl and Adler Galleries. The limestone exterior has been preserved to the delight of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, who applauded the “careful consideration given to this elegant individual landmark.” The interior, which houses both the offices of the foundation and its new gallery, has been utterly transformed, a visible example of the perfectionism of the Vilceks and of Rick Kinsel, president of the foundation, who supervised every bit of fit and finish in its spaces. For a gallery that has positioned itself at a safe remove from the “art trade,” the two floors of exhibition space manage to be quietly spectacular without being showy. The inaugural exhibition, Ralston Crawford: Torn Signs,is equally surprising and unobtrusively groundbreaking, with a catalogue that is both a model of scholarship and a pleasure to see and read.
In assembling their collection of works by modernist artists active during the first half of the last century and sending it on tour in 2015, the Vilceks along with Kinsel have prompted a new look at Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, George Ault, and Stuart Davis, among other artists whose reputations and careers were swamped by the tidal wave of abstract expressionism in the late 1940s and 1950s, and by successive storms of market-driven hot art since then. This was especially true of Ralston Crawford, who is still mostly known for his early precisionist paintings—crisp depictions of the American scene, such as Overseas Highway (Fig. 4) and Steel Foundry, Coatesville, Pa. (1936–1937), that made him an art world star before the war.
When the war came Crawford enlisted. Afterwards, in 1946, he was sent by Fortune magazine to witness the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. In 1951 he went to Europe and visited Cologne, where he saw the aftermath of the Allied bombing of that city. These were the transformative experiences that led to the work now on view at the Vilcek Foundation. That it did not fit the categories of an art world uncomfortable with his embrace of photography, lithography, drawing, and watercolor to reflect a changed way of seeing a changed world did not deter the artist. Crawford kept at it until his death in 1978.
The most obvious thing to say about this exhibition is that it certainly blurs the timeworn demarcation between American modernism and abstract expressionism. That is no small thing, but it is not to my mind the most stirring part of what happens as you walk through the gallery. The fractured present reflected in the torn signs Crawford began photographing in earnest after the war reveals a new angle of vision. Each photo is impressive in its own right, something the Vilcek Foundation’s curator Emily Schuchardt Navratil is right to insist on. Nor are they finger exercises for the big painting that is the centerpiece of the show, Torn Signs (Fig. 3), even though they and the works in other mediums on view are closely related to it. They are also intimately connected to works also shown at the foundation that are in a different emotional key, namely Crawford’s many depictions of Seville’s Semana Santa, when the devotional procession of penitents reenacting Christ’s suffering and crucifixion winds through the streets of that city at the end of Lent (Fig. 5).
To arrive at an understanding of the artist’s late work, Navratil collaborated with his son John Crawford, a sculptor whose welded steel pieces join gravity to grace in surprising ways. John Crawford loaned many of his father’s photographs, etchings, and sketchbooks to the exhibition. Equally adept with words as with steel, his catalogue essay ties together Ralston Crawford’s pre- and postwar art with the images of destruction and salvation that coalesce in Torn Signs: “Torn Signs . . . is not static; it is an explosion. It is as if the animated chaos of war has blended with the optimism of a world that began, for Crawford, in the American scene of 1934 and ended with his response to fervent religious belief in renewal and salvation.”
And so we see how this artist evolved, the way in which he brought many moments of seeing to one moment of creation, dipping back into fragments of early work, introducing them into later compositions. As I thought about this, I remembered that one of Crawford’s favorite cities was New Orleans, a place he visited often, photographing its jazz musicians (Fig. 7) and second line parades and where he was accorded a jazz funeral and, at his request, was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3. There is a lot of jazz in his postwar art, beginning with the movement in the torn signs. (His precisionist pieces are notable for their resolute immobility.) There is improvisation, too, as fragments of the past make their way into a piece, just as a musician often moves forward by quoting phrases from other compositions. When I look at how parts of the torn signs are recombined with motifs from the Semana Santa series, this emotional counterpoint reminds me of the way the blues get leavened by joy.
My earlier article on the Vilcek collection was titled, “Freedom and the Abstract Truth,” an oblique reference to the seminal jazz album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth. It was a more prescient title than I could have known at the time.