The Blanton’s current installation Cubism Beyond Borders presents the wide-ranging interpretations of Cubism by artists from across Europe and the Americas to examine how cross-cultural dialogues expanded Cubism’s reach far beyond Paris and shaped the history of modern art. The work of three artists in the exhibition also highlights the important role that visionary American art collectors played in bringing Cubism to the United States.
American expatriates and art collectors Leo and Gertrude Stein provided a forum for the debates that preceded the birth of Cubism at their Paris apartment. Amid the Stein siblings’ collection of modern art by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Paul Cézanne, an international group of writers and artists, including Max Weber, who spent the years 1905-1908 in Paris, debated the artistic theories and innovations of the day. In the 1910s, Weber helped to introduce many of these ideas to an American audience and became the first to adapt Cubism to a specifically American subject—New York City. In the next two decades, Cubism found a foothold in America, thanks in part to the support of a handful of American art collectors who championed European modernism and facilitated many Americans’ first direct encounters with this new art.
Earl Horter was a largely self-taught artist, as well as one of the first American art collectors to embrace European modernism, particularly Analytical Cubism.The successful advertising artist began collecting voraciously in the early 1920s, and by the end of the decade he owned about thirty Cubist works from Picasso and Georges Braque’s fertile 1909-1914 period. Horter’s collection included paintings now considered masterpieces of modern art, such as Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910) and Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1) (1911), as well as works by Charles Sheeler, Constantin Brancusi, and Stanton Macdonald-Wright, and African and Native American art. To showcase his collection, Horter commissioned architect Paul Cret, who would later re-envision the campus of The University of Texas at Austin, to build a light-filled addition on the top floor of his Philadelphia townhouse. Horter’s interest in modern art also fueled his own creativity; the twinkling lights and rushing verticals of Manhattan Night (circa 1932) mark a transition in Horter’s work from architectural studies in the style of Cubist painter Robert Delaunay’s prismatic abstractions of the Eiffel Tower toward the geometric Precisionism of Sheeler.
Arshile Gorky is one of the only artists in Cubism Beyond Borders who never lived in Paris, but Gorky nonetheless embarked on a series of rigorous “apprenticeships” to the masters of modern art in a quest for his own artistic language. Gorky frequented collector Albert Eugene Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art, housed at New York University just blocks from the artist’s Washington Square studio. The Gallery of Living Art was free to the public and housed works by Picasso, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Giorgio de Chirico, often purchased by Gallatin directly from the artists’ Paris studios. Through direct observation, Gorky was able to understand these artists’ techniques and adapt their styles to his own compositions in a progression of dialogues with his artistic forebears. “I was with Cézanne for a long time … and now naturally I am with Picasso,” Gorky explained. His Composition with Vegetables (c.1928) displays the flat areas of color characteristic of Picasso’s early 1920s still-lifes. This painting was originally owned by Gorky’s patron, the Philadelphia industrialist and art collector Bernard Davis. Davis’s collection provided Gorky with further opportunities for study; he owned Cubist paintings and other modern works by Braque, Jean Metzinger, Joaquín Torres-García, Cézanne, Albert Gleizes, Ossip Zadkine, and Picasso.
The history of the Cubist-inspired works by Weber, Horter, and Gorky in Cubism Beyond Borders suggests the importance that firsthand engagement with Cubist paintings in the collections of the Steins, Horter, Gallatin, and Davis had for artists. These collectors were important early advocates for the revolutionary new style, and their support encouraged Cubism’s development in America.
Cubism Beyond Borders is on view in the Blanton’s second-floor Lowe Foundation Gallery until December 8, 2013.
Claire Howard curated Cubism Beyond Borders; she is a PhD student in art history at The University of Texas at Austin and former graduate research assistant at the Blanton.