Iconic paintings from Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection on loan to Jewish Museum in New York

Published: December 10, 2019
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Three storied works from the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection are currently on loan to the Jewish Museum in New York for an exhibition exploring the career of pioneering gallerist and art dealer, Edith Halpert.

“Circus Girl Resting” by Yasuo Kuniyoshi, “Hunger” by Ben Shahn and “Subway Exit” by O. Louis Guglielmi are three of 100 paintings, sculptures and prints on display in “Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art.” Running from Oct. 18 to Feb. 9, the exhibition features examples of American modern and folk art by artists including Guglielmi, Kuniyoshi, Shahn, Stuart Davis, Jacob Lawrence, Georgia O’Keeffe, Raphaelle Peale, Max Weber and Marguerite and William Zorach, among many others, all of whom were strongly supported by Halpert.

The three paintings were requested as loans in 2017 by the exhibition’s curator and Associate Curator of the Jewish Museum Rebecca Shaykin. The request is one of many the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art receives on a regular basis from major museums across the country.

“Collection loans are central to the promotion of the Jule Collins Smith Museum and Auburn University on a national level,” said Cindi Malinick, director and chief curator of the Jule Collins Smith Museum. “And this is particularly true for an exhibition devoted to Edith Halpert, whose Downtown Gallery was the original source for many of the ‘Advancing American Art’ paintings now housed in our museum’s permanent collection.”

In 1946, Halpert’s gallery served as the largest single source for a total of 79 oil paintings acquired by the U.S. State Department as part of a touring exhibition called “Advancing American Art.” The exhibition included works by prominent contemporary American artists such as Kuniyoshi, O’Keeffe, Shahn, Romare Bearden and Arthur Dove.

“The organizer of the State Department’s ‘Advancing American Art’ initiative bought them directly from the gallery in 1946 for the purpose of touring them,” said Dennis Harper, curator of collections and exhibitions at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. “Guglielmi, Kuniyoshi and Shahn were artists in [Halpert’s] stable. Each of our paintings is among the finest examples of these artists’ work.”

A democracy-promoting vehicle meant to demonstrate America’s artistic development and the freedom of expression enjoyed by its artists, “Advancing American Art” set out to tour politically tenuous parts of the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and Latin America to combat the spread of communism.

Ironically, the tour was cut short by protests from conservative American artists and statesmen, many decrying the abstract paintings as “un-American” and “communistic,” with President Harry Truman going so far as to denounce the exhibition as “the vaporings of half-baked lazy people.”

In 1948, the War Assets Administration auctioned the paintings as war surplus. Auburn University, at the time known as the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, successfully bid on 36 paintings for $1,072, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become the cornerstone of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art’s permanent collection.

In all cases of artistic censorship and control, Halpert was unwavering in support of her artists, “Works of art are not a dispensable luxury for any nation. We will have communism in art if Congress can control what we paint, and free and individual expression is stifled.”

Immigrating with her Russian Jewish family to the United States in 1906 at the age of six, Halpert entered the realms of art and commerce in New York during her teenage years. She ascended rapidly through the ranks of the business world to become one of the few leading female executives of her day. In 1926, at the age of 26, Halpert parlayed her financial successes into the establishment of the Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village. Originally called “Our Gallery,” the 13th Street location was the first commercial art space to exist in the area of Manhattan where artists primarily lived and worked––situated at a distinct distance from the more traditional Midtown galleries catering to an elite clientele interested in old masters and French Impressionists.

“She was a trailblazer in many ways,” Harper said. “She was probably the first woman in the U.S. to become an influential gallerist, and I believe she was among the first to open a gallery in Greenwich Village, while most galleries then were in Midtown Manhattan (then considered uptown), hence the name ‘Downtown Gallery.’”

Halpert had a simple motto: “Our gallery has no special prejudice for any school. Its selection is directed by what’s enduring—not by what is in vogue.”

The Downtown Gallery was guided by an ethos of inclusivity and democracy, which informed how it sold art and promoted its artists. Halpert priced the works in her gallery so that they were attainable not only to wealthy patrons, but to average, work-a-day men and women aspiring to hang one or two pieces of fine art in their own homes. Halpert’s gallery advocated for art of all types—from avant-garde to folk art—and by artists of every background.

“She was an early champion of avant-garde art; she represented women artists, African Americans and Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who as a Japanese immigrant was classified an enemy alien during WWII,” Harper said. “And she also was one of the first dealers to promote folk art as a serious focus for collectors and museums. Her aesthetic point of view was modernist and pluralistic.”

“Edith Halpert and the Rise of American Art” is on view now at the Jewish Museum. Founded in 1904, the Jewish Museum was the first institution of its kind in the United States. It offers diverse exhibitions and programs and maintains a unique collection of nearly 30,000 works of art, ceremonial objects and media reflecting the global Jewish experience over more than 4,000 years.

All exhibitions at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, including any featuring works from its permanent collection, are free and open to the public. A $5 donation is appreciated. For more information, visit jcsm.auburn.edu.

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