Rise of modernism

Pasatiempo - - CONTENT - Michael Abatemarco

Fall of Modernism, an ex­hi­bi­tion se­ries con­ceived by the Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe Mu­seum and the New Mexico Mu­seum of Art, pays trib­ute to mod­ern art and the legacy of modernism in New Mexico. The O’Keeffe Mu­seum’s From New York to New Mexico show­cases se­lec­tions of works from the pri­vate col­lec­tion of Czech-born Jan and Mar­ica Vil­cek; it opens on Fri­day, Sept. 25. O’Keeffe in Process, cur­rently on view at the NMMoA, in­cludes dozens of com­po­si­tions span­ning the artists’ ca­reer. An Amer­i­can Modernism, which opens at the NMMoA on Oct. 2, presents an over­view of modernism in the United States through paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy. On the cover is Ge­orge Copeland Ault’s 1931 oil on can­vas Drive­way: Ne­wark from the Vil­cek Col­lec­tion; cour­tesy the Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe Mu­seum.

IN the mid-1960s, art en­thu­si­asts Mar­ica and Jan Vil­cek saw lit­tle of the mod­ernist art­works be­ing pro­duced in Europe and the Amer­i­cas. Com­ing of age in com­mu­nist Cze­choslo­vakia, they lived in a place where in­tel­lec­tual ideas, ab­stract art, and art that chal­lenged the sta­tus quo were dis­cour­aged. In­stead, the Czech com­mu­nist regime en­cour­aged re­al­ism and So­cial Re­al­ism over ab­strac­tion and pro­moted works of pro­pa­ganda in ser­vice to the ideals of com­mu­nism. It was a frus­trat­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for Mar­ica, an art his­to­rian, who re­lied on her brother, then liv­ing in New York City, to send her re­pro­duc­tions of mod­ernist works in the col­lec­tion of the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and other in­sti­tu­tions. Some­times these re­pro­duc­tions were in the form of post­cards, and it was through them that she learned to ap­pre­ci­ate artists such as Jack­son Pol­lock, Paul Klee, and Jasper Johns. When her brother sent her books on art, they were sub­ject to con­fis­ca­tion, but most made it through to her, and these she shared with her col­leagues. Mar­ica and her hus­band, a bio­med­i­cal sci­en­tist, had a small col­lec­tion of works by Czech artists, and Mar­ica had her books, but when they de­fected in 1964 and then em­i­grated to the United States in 1965, they left it all be­hind.

“When we came to this coun­try, we had noth­ing,” Mar­ica told Pasatiempo. “Only our two hands and, I guess, some­thing in our heads. Com­ing to New York and be­ing in an un­fa­mil­iar city and be­ing com­pletely alone at the be­gin­ning, we spent ev­ery Sun­day in the mu­se­ums, which was very com­fort­ing, be­cause they were filled with ob­jects we could never see be­fore.” Jan had a med­i­cal back­ground and pro­cured a po­si­tion at the New York Univer­sity School of Medicine as an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy. Mar­ica, for­merly an art his­to­rian at the Slovak Na­tional Gallery, found low-level work at the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art.

In the decades be­tween then and now, the Vil­ceks have found suc­cess on Amer­i­can soil in sev­eral ven­tures. At NYU, Jan and his col­league Jun­ming Le

When­ever we de­cide to buy some­thing, I don’t even think about whether the per­son is an im­mi­grant, or if it’s a man or a woman. It’s more that I like that the ob­ject has some mean­ing for me per­son­ally. — art col­lec­tor Mar­ica Vil­cek

de­vel­oped Rem­i­cade, a drug used in the treat­ment of Crohn’s dis­ease, rheuma­toid arthri­tis, and other in­flam­ma­tory dis­or­ders. Mar­ica rose in the ranks at the Met, where she still serves on the board as well as on vis­it­ing com­mit­tees in three of its de­part­ments. In 2000, the cou­ple started the Vil­cek Foun­da­tion to pro­mote and rec­og­nize im­mi­grant con­tri­bu­tions to the arts and sciences. Since 2003, they have amassed a world-class col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can mod­ernist art that in­cludes works by Stu­art Davis, Jan Mat­ulka, Mars­den Hart­ley, Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe, Max We­ber, and Arthur Dove, among oth­ers. These works are in From New York to New Mexico: Master­works of Amer­i­can Modernism From the Vil­cek Foun­da­tion Col­lec­tion, which opens Fri­day, Sept. 25, at the Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe Mu­seum. The show is part of the city­wide ex­hibit se­ries Fall of Modernism: A Sea­son of Amer­i­can Art.

Jan and Mar­ica par­tic­i­pate in a panel dis­cus­sion about their col­lec­tion at the New Mexico Mu­seum of Art on Satur­day, Sept. 26. The talk, “Col­lect­ing Mod­ernist Art: A Con­ver­sa­tion with Jan and Mar­ica Vil­cek,” in­cludes Cather­ine Whit­ney, cu­ra­tor of Amer­i­can art at Tulsa, Ok­la­homa’s Philbrook Mu­seum of Art, which or­ga­nized the ex­hi­bi­tion; Car­men Ven­delin, cu­ra­tor of art at the New Mexico Mu­seum of Art; and Cody Hart­ley, di­rec­tor of cu­ra­to­rial af­fairs at the Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe Mu­seum, who serves as mod­er­a­tor.

When the Vil­ceks started their mod­ernist col­lec­tion in earnest, it was Jan’s suc­cess with Rem­i­cade that al­lowed them the fi­nan­cial free­dom to feed their pas­sion. “We col­lected pre-Columbian art, a lit­tle bit of con­tem­po­rary, Ori­en­tal car­pets, a lot of other things,” Mar­ica said. “We didn’t have the means to col­lect art on a cer­tain level even though we wanted to.” It was on a trip to New Mexico in 2001 that they saw Davis’ Tree, an ab­stract land­scape from 1921, but two years passed be­fore they com­mit­ted to pur­chas­ing it. Mean­while, they were op­er­at­ing their foun­da­tion from their Man­hat­tan apart­ment. “It was just me and my hus­band,” Mar­ica said. “Then Rick Kinsel joined the foun­da­tion, and we moved to the build­ing where we are now.” Kinsel, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Vil­cek Foun­da­tion, works in con­cert with the Vil­ceks, help­ing to build their col­lec­tion.

When we came to this coun­try I knew very lit­tle about Amer­i­can art. Some­how, as an im­mi­grant, you have to ad­just. We de­cided we had to shift our uni­verse from Cze­choslo­vakia to Amer­ica. ... We had to fit in. — Mar­ica Vil­cek

About 20 artists in the col­lec­tion were im­mi­grants in Amer­ica, in­clud­ing Mat­ulka, We­ber, and Joseph Stella. That’s in keep­ing with the ideals of the Vil­cek Foun­da­tion, which awards an­nual prizes in the fields of bio­med­i­cal re­search and the arts and hu­man­i­ties. “Ev­ery­body talks about im­mi­grants as though they think ev­ery im­mi­grant is just look­ing for wel­fare or to take some­thing that doesn’t be­long to them, but there are thou­sands of peo­ple who come and blend in,” Mar­ica said. “We wanted to bring at­ten­tion to the fact that there are so many sci­en­tists and artists in Amer­ica who are im­mi­grants.” But the im­mi­grant sta­tus of the artists in their col­lec­tion was not a con­sid­er­a­tion when they orig­i­nally pur­chased the works. Their pres­ence among the na­tive-born artists is purely co­in­ci­den­tal. “When­ever we de­cide to buy some­thing, I don’t even think about whether the per­son is an im­mi­grant, or if it’s a man or a woman,” she said. “It’s more that I like that the ob­ject has some mean­ing for me per­son­ally. It was al­most a sur­prise when we re­al­ized that quite a few of the peo­ple were im­mi­grants.”

And yet it was the cou­ple’s own ex­pe­ri­ence as im­mi­grants that led them to fo­cus on Amer­i­can art. “When we came to this coun­try I knew very lit­tle about Amer­i­can art,” Mar­ica said. “Some­how, as an im­mi­grant, you have to ad­just. We de­cided we had to shift our uni­verse from Cze­choslo­vakia to Amer­ica, be­cause this coun­try is not go­ing to turn to­ward us oth­er­wise. We had to fit in. I re­jected my back­ground in Cze­choslo­vakia.” To­day, Mar­ica de­lib­er­ately avoids read­ing books and news­pa­pers in her na­tive tongue and con­verses in Czech only with her brother. “Since I’ve left Cze­choslo­vakia I’ve read maybe three books in Czech. I just needed to ad­just.”

Fo­cus­ing their col­lec­tion on works of Amer­i­can modernism helped im­merse the Vil­ceks in Amer­i­can cul­ture. “It helped them re­ally un­der­stand and think about Amer­i­can history and Amer­ica in the 20th cen­tury,” Hart­ley said. “In the show it­self, there’s a work, Ge­orge Ault’s View From Brook­lyn. It’s a cold win­ter scene look­ing back to the New York skyline. It’s a lit­tle iso­lated, a lit­tle lonely, and she said she re­mem­bered that feel­ing when she came to the U.S. A piece like that is one ex­am­ple of the ways in which the art has helped them think about their own ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Among the high­lights of the col­lec­tion are three rarely seen still lifes by Davis (there are 14 pieces by Davis in the show) and a num­ber of works from Mars­den Hart­ley’s New Mexico Rec­ol­lec­tion se­ries. These lat­ter com­po­si­tions have an al­most phan­tas­magoric qual­ity. The paint­ings were com­pleted in Ger­many af­ter Hart­ley had vis­ited the South­west. “It stayed, some­how, in his sub­con­scious,” Mar­ica said. “If you go to Santa Fe, even for just a few days, I think it’s some­thing no­body for­gets, be­cause there is some­thing so at­trac­tive and un­ex­pected about the land­scapes, about the sun, about the clouds, col­ors, and shapes. I’m not even an artist. I’m sure it’s very in­flu­en­tial if some­body is vis­ual.”

Santa Fe is the fi­nal venue for the ex­hi­bi­tion, which pre­miered at the Philbrook in 2014. The col­lec­tion re­turns to New York in Jan­uary, where it will be housed, as it was be­fore trav­el­ing, in­side the cou­ple’s apart­ment. “It’s our own pri­vate col­lec­tion,” Mar­ica said. “While the ob­jects have been away, we ac­quired a few ad­di­tional paint­ings. We don’t think we’ll be able to ac­com­mo­date ev­ery­thing in our apart­ment.” The col­lec­tion is now a promised gift to the Vil­cek Foun­da­tion.

Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe: Lake Ge­orge — Au­tumn, 1922, oil on can­vas; op­po­site page, Ge­orge Copeland Ault: View from Brook­lyn, 1927, oil on can­vas; all im­ages from the Col­lec­tion of Jan T. and Mar­ica Vilchek; cour­tesy the Ge­or­gia O’Keeffe Mu­seum

Mars­den Hart­ley: New Mexico Rec­ol­lec­tion #14, circa 1923, oil on can­vas; top, Arthur Dove: Be­low the Flood Gates — Hunt­ing­ton Har­bor, 1930, oil on can­vas, © The Es­tate of Arthur G. Dove

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