Sunday, July 29, 2007

"The Clarks of Cooperstown"

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA, has always delighted me when I visit it. Similar to other small museums in the US founded by private individuals to showcase their collections, such as the Barnes Foundation outside Philadelphia, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, it showcases a collector's tastes as well as great curatorial acumen. The Clark has a distinct personality, let's say. Unlike the museums of Europe which began as princely collections, art collections in America have been generated by entrepreneurial fortunes, the art acting as a filter of sorts, masking the dirty business of factory & office, as well as conferring social distinction. The social histories of these collections can read like Edith Wharton or Henry James, but their industrial histories are more out of Marx & Engels. Also I think there are psychic forces as well involved which lead to the varieties and excesses of collections amassed, which take us beyond taste & class: that a Charles Foster Kane is related to the Collyer Brothers, as were - whomever, does it matter whom?

Visiting the Clark with J., she commented that the collection, mostly 19th century French art, was distinctively "sexy." Such an off-the-cuff comment highlights what is indeed notable about the Clark. The excess of Renoirs, for example, & academic painters such as Alfred Stevens, Bougereau, Gerome, Boldini. Pretty & Sexy as oppposed to Solemn or Serious, although there are some remarkable Renaissance paintings such as the Piero della Francesca. Also, at least on its website, I can see that the Clark is now collecting a beautiful collection of 19th century photography.

At the Metropolitan this summer is a show about the collections of both Sterling Clark and his brother Stephen C. Clark, who endowed the Metropolitan & Yale which I have seen a few times. Heirs to a fortune made initially with Singer Sewing Machines, they had deep pockets as well as strong drives to acquire art, along with the everyday luxuries of their lives. For students of New York City, in general, their grandfather was also the builder of the Dakota, on Central Park West. Also, Stephen Clark's townhouse at 46 E. 70 St., is now the headquarters for The Explorers Club, which is also filled with curious collections: elephant tusks, a stuffed polar bear, a whale phallus, statues of pygmies, an edition of the Napoleonic Description de l'Egypte - for those who ever get to enter it's a curious hoard of colonialist booty. Initially I felt antipathetic towards the show. 19th century French art is the mainstay of most US art museums: it is publicized & marketed enough to warrant contrary reactions to its merits. But beyond the brave new world of Monet waterlily umbrellas & such, I try to look beyond the commercialization as well as my own knee-jerk reactions. In a sense, as well, studying collections becomes more a study of individual egos, not necessarily of the art involved. Still, examining the Met's Clark show does foreground the collecting habits which have built our museum collections & while self-referential to itself as an institution, it does reveal some of the structure of collecting & we are able to at least partially historicize tastes. The show very tastefully avoids the hubris of the collectors, which in the Nicholas Fox Weber book overwhelms the narrative. As I've told others, it's quite a page-turner. The show emphasizes similarities over differences: both brothers owned Degas self-portraits, for instance. Or similar Corots. Or the similarities between still-lifes by Cezanne & Renoir. Also the show shows only Impressionist & Post-Impressionist paintings, w/ a gallery of American art: Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Frederick Remington. In the book one realizes their tastes diverged perhaps more frequently than not. Sterling Clark's tastes excluded any modernist works made after Impressionism; Stephen Clark's collection included great works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Matisse.

Published this year, The Clarks of Cooperstown, by Nicholas Fox Weber, is a much more engrossing take on the collecting habits, rivalries & weirdnesses of Sterling & Stephen Clark. While focusing on the brothers' collecting habits, it also brings up an excess of family intrigues & genuine scandals. Sterling Clark, for example, appears to have funded what would have been a military coup that would topple the government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, along the lines of Mussolini's empowerment in Italy. While not written with the rancor of Matthew Josephson's The Robber Barons, reading more like an extended Vanity Fair profile, it is still elegantly and intelligently written enough to give the reader a remarkable sense of criticality in contemplating what would otherwise be spectacular art collections: such an amassing of art is ultimately not a neutral activity, but a plastic exercise of funds, ego and skulduggery. There are humorous stories in it: another non-art collecting brother seems to have spent spent his life drinking & riding horses. He was known to drink a magnum of champagne at breakfast & then go riding - he was also known for his numerous accidents! As enchanting as it can be to wander in our museums, it is beneficial to be equally disenchanted as well with the machinations which have framed our lovely paintings & sculpture & our sense of what high culture is supposed to have been -

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