The work of four abstract artists of inherited wealth who were active in the 1930s and 1940s is the subject of an eye-opening exhibition at New York University's Grey Art Gallery titled "The Park Avenue Cubists." Their names were Albert E. Gallatin, George L. K. Morris and his wife, Suzy (Estelle) Frelinghuysen, and Charles G. Shaw, and all were listed in the New York Social Register.
They may have been unapologetic disciples of such Cubist pioneers as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Leger, but they were good artists in their own right, not mere imitators. They were recognized as such in their own lifetimes, only to be generally forgotten today except by art specialists such as Debra Balken, who guest curated the show.
New York University, to which the Gallatin and Frelinghuysen families were associated historically, has done the art world a service in putting this show together from many sources, especially private collections, for re-evaluation of four artists as significant figures in the history of modern American art before they were eclipsed by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Robert Motherwell.
Morris (1905-1975) is probably the best known of the four and represented in more museum collections than the others, but even his reputation has begun to fade and is badly in need of rediscovery. A descendant of a manorial New York family that boasted a signer of the Declaration of Independence, he studied with Leger and Amedee Ozenfant in Paris.
Like them, he aspired to a state of purity in his art without any reference to the social upheavals of his time, and his art was roundly criticized as elitist for that reason. He struck back with his own formalist art criticism written for The Partisan Review, which he financed, and in the French-English journal Plastique, which he co-founded. In 1940, he was one of the many modernist artists who picketed the Museum of Modern Art for refusing to exhibit the work of American abstractionists including himself.
Morris' canvasses are complex, often with many elements joined by radiating lines, half wheels, and cryptic ideograms, all contributing to a geometric equilibrium and calm. One of his masterpieces, on loan from the Dallas Museum, is "Mural Composition," painted in 1939, a splendid diagrammatic arrangement of angular forms in a stunning palette of funky colors.
Morris often slipped Gallic references into his canvasses such as "From a Church Door," an oil composition in rich browns suggesting three figures scurrying across the façade of a shop identified by its sign as a patisserie in Dieppe, and "Posthumous Portait" that can be read as elements of a human figure imposed on the façade of a French boulangerie.
Gallatin's great-grandfather and namesake was a U.S. secretary of the Treasury and founder of NYU, of which Gallatin (1881-1952) was a trustee. He was a major collector of modern art and his holdings were on permanent display at the Gallery of Living Art, predecessor of the Grey Gallery. Opened in 1927 at Gallatin's instigation, it was the first museum of contemporary art in the United States.
Architectural forms dominate Gallatin's paintings in tones of siennas and dull blues. An aerial view of Kenilworth Castle painted in 1940 has a recognizable wall and turret. Some of his paintings suggest the forms of stringed instruments, while others are pure abstractions depicting detached black forms floating on grey-white backgrounds with touches of red and old gold.
Suzy Frelinghuysen (1911-88) was a member of a New Jersey political dynasty that included a U.S. secretary of State and a great-uncle had been chancellor of NYU. She was not only an artist but also a singer who had a successful career as a leading soprano at the New York City Opera. Her paintings generally consisted of tabletop arrangements of objects articulated in the best Picasso-Braque tradition.
Her 1944 "Man in a Café" is an elegant composition suggesting a French café scene and other canvasses depict musical instruments and odd bits of wine labels and printed journals reminiscent of French collage art. Occasionally she used collage in her oil on paper, corrugated board, and masonite creations. In the mid-1940s she developed an attractive palette rich in lavenders, yellow-greens, and cobalt blues.
Shaw (1892-1974), whose fortune derived from Woolworth five-and-dime stores, was a popular magazine journalist who had links to Morris as a co-editor of Plastique. As an artist, he was particularly influenced by Jean Arp's abstractions of biomorphic forms but he also painted widely spaced triangles, circles, and rectangles joined by spidery lines as in two paintings titled "Geometric Combinations" dated 1940.
His most memorable work is "Wrigley's," a work that grabs attention because it depicts a realistic pack of Wrigley's Spearmint Gum superimposed on a grouping of skyscraper-like forms in chalky pastel colors - a precursor of "pop" art. It was the sort of abstract painting that the Museum of Modern art refused to display, and Shaw resigned from the museum's collections committee in protest to this policy.
For those who would like to know more of the Park Avenue cubists, the Morris-Frelinghuysen house and studio on 46 wooded acres in Lenox, Mass., offers a glimpse of one of their summer homes in a resort community favored by Social Register families. The couple's own paintings are on display to visitors along with works by the leading French cubists in a setting of spectacular 1940s architecture and furnishings.