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Allen Memorial Art Museum showcases modernist works donated by Maidenform founder
A 1917 painting by Amedeo Modigliani, "Nude with Coral Necklace," is on view through May 27 in the Allen Memorial Art Museum's exhibition "Maidenform to Modernism: The Bissett Collection." Gift of Joseph and Enid Bissett, 1955.59

OBERLIN, OH.- A current exhibition at the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Maidenform to Modernism: The Bissett Collection, unites for the first time since 1968 two dozen modernist works gifted by two of the museum’s most important donors, Enid (1893–1965) and Joseph Bissett (1888–1968).

Enid Bissett, a cofounder of the Maidenform brassiere company, and her husband, Joseph, became avid collectors of contemporary art, amassing an impressive array of works by the mid-20th century. Their generous donations to the AMAM during the 1950s and 60s added works by Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Henri Matisse, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and other prominent modernists to the museum collection. Curated by Andria Derstine, the AMAM’s John G.W. Cowles Director, Maidenform to Modernism, which runs through May 27, 2018, celebrates the couple’s belief in the power of art to further education in the academic setting of Oberlin College.

Joseph Bissett had been a vaudeville performer in the early years of the 20th century, and he and Enid had performed together as ballroom dancers and entertainers. In 1922, in New York City, Enid Bissett cofounded, with seamstress Ida Rosenthal, what became the Maidenform brassiere company. At the time, most brassieres were designed to flatten the chest; in contrast, Bissett’s bras accentuated the wearer’s figure. The iconoclastic undergarments enjoyed international popularity. In the 1930s, the Bissetts began collecting art, much of it purchased through Pierre Matisse (1900–1989), an art dealer and the son of artist Henri Matisse. The Bissetts initially considered donating their collection to the Museum of Modern Art, but the institution already had formidable holdings in this area. The couple’s nephew, J. R. Judson—who graduated from Oberlin College in 1948—advised the Bissetts instead to make their donation to the AMAM. The couple agreed, expressing the desire that their donation be used to support the education of Oberlin students. At the time, modernist art was only sparsely represented at the AMAM; the Bissetts’ contributions significantly enriched the collection, and form the core of the museum’s holdings in European modernism to this day.

The Bissett collection spans 63 years and seven national origins. The exhibition features four works by Spanish surrealist Joan Miró, including Women, Bird, and Serpent in Front of the Sun (1944), a work originally owned by American architect Gordon Bunshaft, which is reminiscent of the artist’s Constellations series and exemplifies the rhythmic figures, birds, and cosmic motifs that characterized the artist’s output in the 1940s and 50s. Matisse’s Young Girl Seated (1936) depicts the nurse of the artist’s wife reclining on a cushion, painted in a vibrant palette of reds, yellows, and blues, inspired by Matisse’s travels in the Pacific in the early 1930s. Alongside these works by iconic 20th-century European modernists, the Bissett collection also features one 19th-century painting—British artist Alfred Sisley’s landscape, The Long Canal at Moret (ca. 1892)—and one work by self-taught African American artist Horace Pippin, Harmonizing (1944). Drawing on Pippin’s upbringing in a small-town black community, the painting depicts a quartet of men singing on a street corner.

The exhibition features seven works by French modernist Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), whose early paintings—including Lili noir de fumeé (1946), the first of Dubuffet’s works to be acquired by Enid Bissett, in 1948—were ridiculed in a 1948 Life magazine article as “mud-and-rabble” and accused of “reduc(ing) modernism to a joke.” Despite these excoriating assessments, the Bissetts, along with such contemporaneous American artists as Jackson Pollock and Claes Oldenburg, admired Dubuffet’s idiosyncratic technique and materials, and he has since come to be regarded as one of the most important French artists. In addition to admiring his work, the Bissetts maintained a 20-year friendship with Dubuffet, and donated parts of their correspondence with the artist to the AMAM. These letters are on display in the exhibition, along with a manuscript that Dubuffet wrote about the self-taught artist Emile Lebrun.

A letter written in 1952 by Charles Parkhurst, then director of the AMAM, to Enid Bissett memorializes a visit he made to her, during which Enid offered to donate her collection to the museum. Maidenform to Modernism was organized as part of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the AMAM. Curator and museum director Andria Derstine said, “The story of this remarkable donation by an extraordinary couple—neither of whom had a college degree—is one of the many that the AMAM seeks to highlight this year and is a testament to the generosity and foresight of the diverse group of people who have helped to build the museum’s impressive, irreplaceable collections over the past 100 years.”

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