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Philbrook exhibition debuts American Modernist masterworks from the Vilcek Foundation Collection
Howard Cook (1901-1980), Complex City, c. 1956. Oil on canvas. Collection of Jan T. and Marica Vilcek, Promised Gift to The Vilcek Foundation.

TULSA, OKLA.- Philbrook Museum of Art debuted From New York to New Mexico: Masterworks of American Modernism from the Vilcek Foundation Collection on Sunday, February 8, 2015. Organized by Philbrook Chief Curator and Curator of American Art Catherine Whitney, this original exhibition explores the fertile period in our national story that resulted in the first truly homegrown, modern art movement in America. Drawn from the Vilcek Foundation Collection in New York City, this presentation represents the first time many of these notable works are accessible to the public. Collectively these works by some of the 20th century’s most innovative and colorful modernists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove, demonstrate how the artists came together under the banner of American identity to create a shared visual language of abstraction. Following its presentation at Philbrook, From New York to New Mexico travels to the Phoenix Art Museum and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of Art before the collection returns to the Vilcek Foundation Headquarters in New York City.

With more than 60 masterworks of American modernism ranging from the early 1910s to the Post-War era, the exhibition presents a range of modern stylistic approaches in various media (paintings, sculptures, and works on paper). These American vanguards overthrew traditional painting practices during this watershed period to create a uniquely American visual affinity. From New York to New Mexico emphasizes four main themes: Nature’s Great Unfolding; The Cubist Impulse; Man Made: Town & Country; and Our Western Roots.

The show’s first segment, “Nature’s Great Unfolding,” focuses predominantly upon artists who gathered around art dealer, photographer, and modern art champion, Alfred Stieglitz, during the years prior to and immediately following World War I. Stieglitz’s stable of artists, including O’Keeffe, Hartley, Dove and Max Weber among others, shared a passionate collective interest in the transcendental power of nature. They sought to articulate the sublime qualities of the American landscape through a new visual language of color metaphors and geometric equivalents. Examples from the exhibition include O’Keeffe’s velvety red Lake George–Autumn, 1922, which suggests the dramatic unfurling of autumn foliage. Dove’s vertiginous Below the Flood Gates-Huntington Harbor, 1930, employs eddying, swirling forms to evoke the crashing sounds and tension of a rushing stream. These important paintings, along with Hartley’s highly mystical Portrait Arrangement No. 2, 1912-13, form the backbone of the Vilcek collection and represent a sampling of vibrant expressions by some Stieglitz Circle all-stars.

The second section of the exhibition, “The Cubist Impulse,” examines American artists’ interpretation of form and dynamic movement through their use of early 20th century aesthetic and scientific theory. Cubism, which originated in Paris in 1908 through the advances of Pablo Picasso and George Braque, was one such revolutionary innovation appropriated by American artists. This style irreversibly changed perception and image-making by fracturing form and space into shifting planes and multiple viewpoints. Max Weber was one of the first American artists to apply the lessons of European cubism to New York scenes and subjects as seen in his early Still Life with Bananas, 1909. Other American pioneers made the cubist movement their own through unique color applications and object selections as exemplified in Stanton Macdonald-Wright’s Synchromist abstraction, Gestation #3, 1963, a glowing example of the artist’s decades-long commitment to a style he co-originated in 1912. This section of the exhibition reunites three of the four 1922 still lifes by Davis, Still Life with Dial, Still Life, Brown, and Still Life, Red, which the artist described as “rigorously…American.”

Jazz, skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and shipyards all inspired the exhibition’s third section, “Man Made: Town & Country.” This section examines the urban and rural architectural motifs underlying the modernists’ understanding of form, space and structure. American progress and industry in the modern city are celebrated in select works like Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge Abstraction, c. 1918-19 and John Storrs’s shiny sculptural abstraction Study in Pure Form, c. 1924. Rural retreats and suburban habitats are similarly glorified in George Copeland Ault’s Driveway: Newark, 1931 and Dove’s The Green House, 1934.

The exhibition’s final section, “Our Western Roots” explores how the American Southwest served as a spiritual oasis for many East coast artists who sought a deeper connection to nature and to their mythic American pasts following the devastation of World War I. This grouping includes the bold, v-shaped landscapes by O’Keeffe from her Black Place and Patio Door series, as well as two, throbbing red-earth recollections by Hartley, who painted them from memory while overseas. Still lifes and figural compositions inspired by Native American material culture, dance, and spiritual traditions by Stuart Davis and early Santa Fe adventurer, Jan Matulka, are also a highlight of this section.

“We are honored that the Vilcek Foundation chose Philbrook to organize this important, debut exhibition of such an exceptional collection of American Masterworks,” remarked Whitney. “Through this show, I hope to shine a bright spotlight on a time during which these artists, regardless of their individual backgrounds or countries of origin, unified under a distinctly American identity, while expanding notions of personal expression. I hope visitors experience the power of these masterworks, ultimately discovering or rediscovering an excitement for American modernism.”

The Vilcek Foundation also supported Whitney’s last major exhibition, Models & Muses: Max Weber and the Figure, in November 2012 through loans and financial support of the show’s accompanying catalog, which was the first museum survey of Weber’s work in 20 years. Regarding their institutional relationship, Philbrook Director Rand Suffolk commented, “New York to New Mexico is a wonderful capstone to our five year partnership with the Vilcek Foundation. Our audience continues to benefit greatly from their involvement and we’re privileged with the responsibility of organizing and touring this exceptional exhibition.”

Born in the former Czechoslovakia, Dr. Jan and Marica Vilcek immigrated to New York in the mid-1960s where they continued their careers in the fields of biomedicine and art history. Jan came to work at New York University School of Medicine while Marica worked her way up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A position, which, she said, “shaped my life in the US following the uprooting caused by emigration. I was fortunate to work in an institution filled with objects of the highest quality, thus shaping my aesthetic tastes.”

Initially collecting based on personal tastes and the design of their home, the Vilceks expanded their collection into the realm of American modernism on a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico; the couple credit Stuart Davis’s Tree (1921) as their first acquisition toward their “firm, yet not always easy, commitment” to modernism. Vilcek Foundation Executive Director Rick Kinsel wrote in an essay on their collection that there is an inevitability to their decision to collect in this period as “no other art movement of the 20th century has demonstrated a firm belief in the exquisiteness of the United States, nor in its creative independence from Europe and European traditions.” Since 2001, the Vilceks have assembled an extraordinary collection of American modernist art, which is a promised gift to the Vilcek Foundation. “Over the years, Marica and I have acquired a sizable collection from the first half of the twentieth century,” reflected Dr. Vilcek. “This exhibition serves as a milestone in that, thanks to Philbrook, these artworks from this important period will for the first time be accessible to the general public.”

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