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Picasso, Pollock and the quirky curator

February 28, 2004|David Pagel | Special to The Times

"Picasso to Pollock: Modern Masterpieces From the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art" is both more and less than its title suggests.

More artists are included in the 59-work exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art than the mainline Modernists who traveled the established path from Pablo Picasso's Cubism to Jackson Pollock's drips via Surrealism's psychological kinks. To be historically accurate, in chronological terms, the five-gallery show would have to be retitled. But "Maurice B. Prendergast to Joseph Cornell" doesn't have the same ring to it, and certainly not the name recognition likely to draw crowds.

"Picasso to Pollock" is less a thumbnail sketch of Modern art's streamlined sweep from Expressionism through Abstraction to their synthesis in Abstract Expressionism than a surprisingly intimate selection of paintings and sculptures. Its focus has less to do with the entirety of the Wadsworth Atheneum's diverse holdings than with one man's 18-year tenure as director of the Hartford, Conn., institution.

A. Everett Austin Jr. was 26 when he dropped out of Harvard and took over the directorship of the oldest museum in the United States. From 1927 to 1944, the Sunday painter, amateur actor, stage-set designer and hobbyist magician initiated a flurry of exhibitions and acquisitions remarkable for their quality, quantity and catch-if-catch-can verve. They're recounted, along with dozens of colorful anecdotes and juicy, behind-the-scenes details in a wonderfully readable catalog essay by curator Eric M. Zafran.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 03, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Roberto Matta -- A review in Saturday's Calendar section of "Picasso to Pollock" at the Orange County Museum of Art incorrectly stated that artist Roberto Matta was born in Argentina. He was born in Chile.

Known by his nickname, "Chick," Austin made a career that stands in stark contrast to those of most museum directors (and curators) today. Even at small, off-the-beaten-track institutions, these corporate-style professionals behave more like buttoned-down bureaucrats afraid to make waves than courageous, art-loving nuts with a finger on the pulse -- even on a budget.

Fifteen paintings Austin acquired for the Wadsworth Atheneum form the core of the show. There's not a dud among them. Their impressive range attests to catholic taste and deep curiosity.

Surrealism predominates. Around Hartford in the 1930s, it was called New Super-Realism. Among the 15 works acquired by Austin, there are three oils on canvas by Salvador Dali and one each by Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, Joan Miro and Pierre Roy (a French Surrealist little known today but wildly celebrated in his time), as well as a lovely little gouache on paper by Yves Tanguy, who settled in Connecticut with wife Kay Sage (whose work is also on display).

On a 1931 trip to Paris, Austin saw Dali's work and was instantly smitten. The next year, he tried to buy the young Spaniard's "Persistence of Memory," already famous for its limp watches drooping over tree branches and tabletops. But the board couldn't be cajoled to come up with $350, so Austin settled for the $120 "La Solitude" (1931). The quiet little picture is the first Dali to have entered a museum's collection.

Ten years later Austin purchased Max Ernst's "Europe After the Rain" (1940-42), a Surrealist tour de force that marries devastation and decrepitude with claustrophobic grandeur, for $1,400. (It's now reproduced in nearly every textbook with a chapter on Surrealism.) In the meantime, he added a great 1939 Matta ($400), a delightfully perverse 1924 Miro ($35) and Tanguy's 1933 "Dream Landscape" ($35).

Figurative painting is also well represented in Austin's acquisitions. The earliest is "The General's Illness," a 1914-15 street scene by Giorgio de Chirico that's simultaneously a still life and a symbolic portrait. The most recent is Willem de Kooning's strangely static "Standing Man" (1942), which pays timid homage to Picasso by filtering the style of his Blue Period figures through a lens of faded browns and dull tans.

An oddly chaste portrait by Balthus and an uncharacteristically realistic bather by Picasso stand out for their fidelity to the visible world. But neither is so simple. A dark sense of foreboding haunts the Balthus, and a streak of mean-spirited humor suffuses the Picasso. No bigger than a notecard, this rock-solid little painting from 1922 depicts a naked bather drying herself with all the grace of a brontosaurus. And Diego Rivera's mid-size picture of a little girl holding a smiling skull mask suggests that Realism and Surrealism were never far apart in Austin's promiscuous imagination.

Only two abstract works are among the original 15: a dazzling blue, black and white painting by Piet Mondrian (a steal, in 1935, at $399.65) and a terrific wood relief by Jean Arp.

The rest of the exhibition builds on these 15 works. Traveling back in time, it features an example or two from such styles as Expressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. Traveling toward the present, it displays fewer works in fewer styles, most notably Realism and Abstraction.

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