Modern Art and the Esteem Machine

Eliminating the modern-art tariff made it much more feasible for American galleries to exhibit and sell contemporary European painting. Most of the works in Stieglitz’s Picasso show at 291, for example, were drawings, because they were assessed at a lower value than paintings. It was too expensive to bring paintings over from Europe.

Quinn wasn’t just collecting for himself. He was on a mission. As Eakin puts it, he wanted “to bring American civilization to the forefront of the modern world.” He thus operated as, in effect, a one-man art world. He subsidized New York art galleries, often buying many of the works they showed. He was a key figure behind the 1913 Armory Show, where the public could see more than thirteen hundred works of modern art, and where Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” became a succès de scandale.

When modern art was attacked for undermining American values—the Times called the Armory Show “part of the general movement, discernible all over the world, to disrupt and degrade, if not to destroy, not only art, but literature and society, too”—Quinn worked the press, giving interviews to New York papers in which he labelled unsigned attacks like that one “Ku Klux criticism.” Over time, he built up a huge collection of modern European painting and sculpture, which he stored in his ninth-floor apartment on Central Park West.

The apartment was a rental. Quinn was rich, but he wasn’t J. P. Morgan rich. Morgan spent something like sixty million dollars on art, most of which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of which he was the chairman. Quinn didn’t have that kind of money. On the other hand, Morgan was buying Old Masters (he was the force behind the 1909 tax law exempting “historic art” which Quinn got rewritten), while Quinn was buying work that almost no one else wanted. From the point of view of the American art world, the incredible collection he amassed, containing works by, among others, Brâncuși, Braque, Duchamp, Gris, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Seurat, van Gogh, and Villon, was close to worthless when he died. No American dealer could sell it, and no American museum wanted to hang it.

Knowing this, Quinn directed, in his will, that his collection be sold at auction, with the proceeds to go to his sister and his niece, who were his only heirs. (Quinn never married, but he had relationships with a number of notable women; at the time of his death, his partner was Jeanne Robert Foster, the daughter of a lumberjack, an astonishingly beautiful and gifted woman who was closely involved in his search for new art.) Since Americans didn’t want it, much of Quinn’s collection of European art thus ended up going back to Europe.

Conveniently for Eakin’s narrative arc, Alfred Barr, then a young art-history professor at Wellesley, was able to see some of Quinn’s collection before it was dispersed, which allows Eakin to propose that one of Barr’s aspirations when he accepted the directorship of MoMA three years later was to reassemble the Quinn collection and bring it back to America. This was impossible, of course. The pieces were now in too many hands. But MoMA became, in effect, Quinn’s museum, and Quinn’s canon (plus photography and a few artists, like Klee and Kandinsky, whose work Quinn did not collect) became Barr’s canon.

And it is still MoMA’s canon. If you walk through the fifth floor of MoMA today, where art that is owned by the museum and that was made between 1880 and 1940 is displayed, you will be looking at the very works whose art-world adventures are the subject of Eakin’s book.

Probably hundreds of people pass by those works every day, and none of them seem scandalized, even by Picasso’s eight-foot-high “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” painted in 1907—five naked women in a brothel, cubistically rendered, two with faces like African masks, aggressively confronting the viewer. (You need to stand very close to the canvas to get the proper effect, though almost no one does.) The shock of the new has worn off. This was probably not the kind of public acceptance that Quinn and Barr had in mind. But, as Gertrude Stein once said, “You can be a museum or you can be modern, but you cannot be both.”

There is a Paris side to Eakin’s story, too. Again, the focus is mainly on two figures: the gallerists Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler and Paul Rosenberg. (A third operator, a kind of freelance dealer and ladies’ man named Henri-Pierre Roché, who referred to his penis as “mon God,” and who scouted deals for Quinn, has a colorful part in the story.)

Of the circumstances that culture industries are obliged to adapt to, none played a more powerful role in the first half of the twentieth century than geopolitics. Kahnweiler did not sell his artists’ work in France, even though his gallery was in Paris. His collectors were in Germany and Russia, countries where modern art was created and understood. But the First World War and the Russian Revolution shut those markets down. As a German national, Kahnweiler even suffered the seizure of his collection by the French government.

A decade later, the rise to power of Stalin and then Hitler made conditions much worse. The governments of both leaders made modern art a political target. (The Nazis referred to modern art as Kunstbolschewismus—Bolshevik art—even though it was equally anathema in the Soviet Union.) Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did not just censor modern artists and writers. They imprisoned them and they killed them. After 1933, the year Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, the United States suddenly became attractive as a place where modern art could safely be shown. Hitler and Stalin provided the tailwind for Quinn and Barr’s mission to modernize American taste.

Kahnweiler and Rosenberg are keys to Eakin’s story because both men represented Picasso, and Eakin thinks that Quinn and Barr were determined to make Picasso the face of modern art in America. He says that Barr regarded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” in particular, as a painting that could define MoMA’s entire collection.

But Barr had a hard time persuading his board of trustees to actually buy art, as opposed to borrowing it for exhibitions. The museum mounted highly successful retrospectives of Matisse in 1931 (thirty-six thousand visitors) and van Gogh in 1935 (a blockbuster, and really the exhibition that established a public for modern art in the United States), but the trustees declined to purchase a single work by Matisse, and they passed on van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” an image that would one day grace countless coffee mugs.

MoMA’s efforts to acquire “Les Demoiselles” is a good example of the twists and turns in the road from artist to public. When Picasso finished the painting, he let some people see it in his studio in Paris, where it acquired what Eakin calls a “cultlike status.” But the work was rarely exhibited publicly. Picasso liked to hold on to his best pieces, and he kept “Les Demoiselles” rolled up for years. In 1924, he sold it to Jacques Doucet, a fashion designer. (Doucet’s wife refused to allow him to hang it in their living room. The new was still a shock to her.) Doucet paid twenty-four thousand francs—about twelve hundred dollars at the time.

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