Rise of modernism
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