Huntington Buys American Art and Expands (Again)

Milton Avery, Burlesque. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © 2015 The Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Milton Avery, Burlesque. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © 2015 The Milton Avery Trust / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The Huntington has purchased three works of American modernism and announced, for the third time, an expansion to its Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

The acquisitions, funded by the Art Collectors Council, are Milton’s Avery’s Burlesque (1936), Sargent Claude Johnson’s Head of a Boy (c. 1928), and Helen Lundeberg’s Irises (The Sentinels) (1936). They are expected to go on view this summer. And in case you missed it: A few days ago the Huntington announced major gifts of photographs by Ansel Adams and William R. Current.

The Avery painting, the Huntington’s first, shows the artist looking back to Matisse, sideways to Depression-era New York, and conceivably forward to the abstractions that Avery’s friends Adolph Gottlieb and Mark Rothko would one day produce.

Sargent Claude Johnson, "Head of a Boy"

Johnson’s Head of a Boy complements the artist’s extraordinary, 22-foot-wide redwood relief Pipe Organ Screen, purchased in 2011. The Head is glazed stoneware, barely 7 inches high.

Irises (The Sentinels) is the Huntington’s first work by Pasadena artist Helen Lundeberg. It takes a Great Piece of Turf perspective on a subject associated with van Gogh and O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe’s irises were sensual close-ups. Lundeberg pulls back to reveal an absurdist desert, not so much the Earth Mother Southwest of O’Keeffe as the mortality-haunted one of Breaking Bad.

Helen Lundeberg, "Irises (The Sentinels)

Burlesque was auctioned at Christie’s in May 2013—as property of a “distinguished West Coast Collection”—for $243,750. Head of a Boy and Irises were recently on offer in New York (at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery and Jonathan Boos, respectively).

Already under construction is the Frederick Fisher expansion that will add a new, glass-enclosed entrance and 5,000 additional sq. ft. of exhibition space to the Huntington’s American galleries. It is expected to open in summer 2016.

The expansion will fill the gap between Paul Gray’s original, 1984 Virginia Steele Scott Galleries and Fisher’s 2005 addition. The new and reconfigured space is shown in tan in the floorpan. There are to be eight new galleries, some new connections between rooms, and above all a proper entrance.

In 1984 Robert Wark described Gray’s building as “a handsome example of ‘post modern’ architecture.” (Sic the Dr. Evil air quotes.) What it lacked was a compelling entrance. Fisher’s 2005 Erburu wing added a significant entrance, but it was a back door relative to the parking lot and visitor circulation.

The Huntington hasn’t said how it intends to fill eight new galleries of American art. A reasonable guess is the Gail-Oxford collection. Long Beach collectors Victor Gail and Thomas Oxford promised their collection of American decorative art some time ago, and key works have long been on loan. Gail, the surviving partner as well as the more determined acquisitor, died last year. In January Christie’s held an auction of lesser works from the Gail-Oxford collection to benefit the Huntington. Christie’s says the couple’s bequest to the Huntington includes “over 100 examples of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American furniture, paintings, sculpture, ceramics, needlework and metal.”

Frederick Fisher and Partners, Expansion Plan for Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art

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