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The Rich History of the Rose

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Donor Leon Mnuchin and Director Sam Hunter talking to the artist Marisol and Mr. Mnuchin's daughter, Renée.

Fall 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Born from the dream of Brandeis President Abram Sachar and two generous supporters, Edward and Bertha Rose, in its relatively brief life, the Rose has assumed a place of prominence as the leading collecting museum of modern and contemporary art in the region.

Every new institution aspires to greatness in its early statements and hopes for the future, but the Rose, through an almost magical combination of shrewd collecting and remarkable generosity of donors, has actually surpassed the optimism of its earliest days.

The Rose collection, comprised now of more than 7,000 works of art in all media, began well before the founding of the Rose.

Brandeis, as is well known, grew from the determination of a forceful band of leaders committed to liberal education in the arts and sciences. President Abram Sachar, by all accounts a genius at persuading others to join his dream for a Jewish-sponsored museum in the best tradition of Jewish scholarship and discipline, believed deeply in the role of the arts in a liberal education.

Well before the Rose museum grew on the slight rise up the road and to the left of the entrance to Brandeis, the university received numerous gifts of art and sponsored many exhibitions in various places around the campus. Sachar proudly noted in his memoir that before the first class graduated from Brandeis in 1951, the university had already received more than 300 paintings, by artists such as Stuart Davis, Fernand Legér, Milton Avery and George Grosz. Several of these came from the “Modern Art Collection,” as it was called, of Boston collector Louis Schapiro.

The contagious enthusiasm among early donors to Brandeis embraced art in equal measure to other disciplines. The Slosberg Music Center, dedicated in 1957, housed an art gallery in the lobby of its recital hall, but years before classes and studios (and no doubt informal “exhibitions”) were carved out of spaces in the Castle and the gymnasium.

The story of the Rose collection is intimately bound with the faculty of art history and practice at Brandeis. Within three years of Brandeis’s founding, Mitchell Saporin, and ex-military man and WPA artist, was hired as the first artist-in-residence. To its credit, Brandeis, unlike some leading universities even to this day, supported the practice of art as well as the study of art history (so, too, with music and theater). Siporin, whose own work reflects the struggles of his youth during the Great Depression in Chicago, was appointed the first curator of the Brandeis University Art Collection in 1956. In the same year the Charna Stone Cowan Rental collection was established, enabling students to “rent” (very nominally) artwork for their rooms.  This policy exists to this day, having been greatly enhanced by a gift of more than 500 pieces from Boston gallerist and early Rose supporter Mildred Lee in 1971 in honor of her father Robert W. Schiff.

The story of the Rose proper begins in 1960 with the establishment of the Poses Institute of Fine Arts with funds from Jack I. Poses and his wife, Lillian. Dedicated to presenting major art exhibitions and sponsoring seminars with important contemporary artists, the Poses Institute is remembered not only for its programs but also for its first director, Sam Hunter, who in quick succession also became the first Rose Art Museum director.

In May 1960 ground was broken for the Rose building. Hunter, then 37, had been a New York Times art critic, a Museum of Modern Art associate curator, as well as a teacher of art history at the University of California Los Angeles and Barnard College. Just prior to his coming to Brandeis he was chief curator and acting director at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Hunter came of age as a writer and critic in the late 1940s and 1950s, just when American artists were causing a seismic shift in the art world. Pollock, de Kooning, Rothko, Still, Gorky, Motherwell, to name a few, collectively ruled the art world with their variants of Abstract Expressionism. Hunter, a prolific and gifted writer, gave lasting, verbal description to their vigorous paintings in words that remain the gold standard for art writing. Hunter’s keen insight into the art of his time and prescience regarding what was to come just beyond the current moment formed the storied basis for the Rose’s renowned collection.

While director of the Rose, Hunter was approached by the organizers of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair to curate an exhibition for the Fine Arts Pavilion. His feverish attention to the work of scores of artists, known and unknown, combined with the mandate to create a world class exhibition gave Hunter the impetus as well as the access to a broad swath of artists, eighty-seven of whom (with one hundred and fourteen works in total)he placed into the Seattle exhibition, including Joseph Albers, Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, Jasper Johns, Joan Mitchell, Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Theodoros Stamos, all of whom are represented in the Rose collection! This exhibition closed in Seattle on October 21 and opened at the Rose, astonishingly, on November 21. Given what we know about installing, deinstalling and shipping, this is nothing short of a miracle.

A miracle of another kind also occurred during a four month period in 1962 and into 1963. As Hunter describes it, “Leon Mnuchin called from New York one day to announce that he and his wife, Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin had inherited a sum of $50,000, with which they wished to fund a contemporary art collection at Brandeis.”With what has happened in the art market since, that’s like Bill and Melinda Gates calling one day and saying they have $150,000,000 to start a contemporary art collection!

Hunter reports that he and “Leon immediately set out to explore the galleries. We often made gallery rounds with Robert Scull, a friend of Leon’s and a prominent New York collector,” especially of Pop Art. During their rounds (which included studio visits during which they bought directly from artists) they managed to gather early and important works by Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, Tom Wesselman, James Rosenquist, Adolph Gottlieb, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Morris Louis, among many others. Their limit was $5,000 a painting (which meant several were bought for much less). Warhol had already become a bit expensive, Hunter says, so they went for one of his lesser works from the “paint-by-number series.” A couple of years later, Hunter’s successor at the Rose, William Seitz, exchanged that Warhol (Do It Yourself Sailboat, 1962) , for Saturday Disaster, 1964.

It is important to remember that Hunter and Mnuchin went in search of art, not market value. “The guiding principle of the selection was individual quality rather than tendency,” Hunter wrote for the brochure accompanying the exhibition of the collection. “As a matter of policy, the collection focused on younger artists with only a token representation of the older generation…..Abstract Expressionism is the collection’s point of departure, taken at a point of subtle but significant transition.”

AbEx may have been the point of departure, but, even for Hunter, this movement was only part of the story. Hunter referred to the “decentralized art of linear fragments and excited handling” of artists like Pollock and de Kooning that yielded to a “simpler, unified and pacific image established by nuanced color contrast” in the work of Adolph Gottlieb and James Brooks. The paintings of Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Indiana were “linked to the movement toward a more rigorous formality,” while the work of Rivers, Dine, Rauschenberg, and Johns represented a “reaction to the personalized expression of the older generation of abstract artists with the incorporation of popular imagery and the object.” Ever mindful of the role of the museum within the larger life of the university, Hunter wrote that “the main purpose of the collection is aesthetic, but in the life of the university it also has larger meanings and uses as an index to contemporary civilization…In picturing himself, the adventurous artist also shows us the best and worst of our world, and speaks for the human condition.”This sensitivity to the role of the artist in addressing the human condition is particularly evident in the ongoing collecting policies of the Rose. Building on a strong base of American Social Realism (Max Weber, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Reginald Marsh, Hyman Bloom, George Grosz), the Rose collection regularly admits works of social significance to the collection as seen in its body of feminist work (Judy Chicago, Ana Mendieta, Marisol, Yayoi Kusama, Cindy Sherman, Hannah Wilke, Francesca Woodman) and numerous examples of socially conscious work in several media by a wide range of artists, including Nan Goldin, Barry McGee, Anri Sala, Christian Boltanski, Mona Hatoum, Zhang Huan, Alfredo Jaar, William Kentridge, Isaac Julien, Tracy Moffatt, Kiki Smith, Dominic McGill, Nathalie Frank, to name but a few.

The Rose Museum opened its doors on May 3, 1961, almost exactly one year after breaking ground.Donor Bertha Rose had a significant collection of porcelain and ceramics (including French decorative earthenware from the Napoleonic era) which went on permanent display in specially made vitrines placed along the stairwell opening on the first floor of the Rose building. There they remained for almost fifteen years (not exactly “permanent”) while the walls across from them held the most challenging and daring art of the 1960’s and 70’s! 

Thanks to the enduring generosity of so many donors, the Rose collection has never ceased to grow in quality and depth. William Seitz, who took over from Hunter in 1965,was another distinguished writer, and also an artist. While Rose Director, Seitz was asked to organize the American portion of the IX Sao Paolo Bienal in 1967. Among the 21 artists curated by Seitz were eight were represented in the Gevirtz-Mnuchin collection and another five entered the collection during Seitz’s tenure. In the introduction to the catalogue of the Bienal, President Sachar wrote: “It is a matter of great satisfaction that the United States exhibition of the IX Sao Paolo Bienal should carry a Brandeis imprimatur…. (In) the arts, where tomorrow is always as important as yesterday, and where the young in aspiration and spirit are ever in the vanguard, perhaps it is appropriate that Brandeis, not yet twenty years old, should help to lead.”

What is striking about Hunter and Seitz is that they both maintained their commitment to scholarship and connoisseurship as well as collecting and administering. Like other directors of their time (Lloyd Goodrich, Walter Hopps,) they were leaders who placed the study and presentation of art first. Indeed, their shrewd collecting sensibilities were not based on luck and timing, as is often said, but intimately linked with their writing, curating and constant looking at new work. Fully half the artists in the Gevirtz-Mnuchin collection were included in the Seattle exhibition Hunter curated earlier that same year (1962) and he had written in some form about all of them.

Equally important, if a bit less dramatic in the telling, were the gifts of publisher Harry N. Abrams and the brothers Joachim Jean and Julian J. Aberbach.  From the latter came William De Kooning’s Untitled, 1961, and Robert Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 58, 1957-61; and from Abrams’ Phil Guston’s Allegory,  painted in 1947.

Guston’s extraordinary work was found curled up in a corner of the auxiliary painting and sculpture storage room in late 2006, apparently never having been exhibited in the museum.  A collective gasp was uttered by the staff as the painting was unwrapped and spread out on the floor of the Rose building.  Guston, whose place in the pantheon of mid to late 20th-century American painters is still developing, passed through so many stylistic changes in his career (from the purely figurative to the abstract to the symbolic to the seemingly comic-inspired pop) that it is not totally surprising that a work of his might have been forgotten.  In this magical work, the optimism of Guston’s youth is fully represented by the smiling sun. So is his fascination with Surrealism, evident in works from the 30’s (e.g. Mother and Child, 1930 and Bombardment, 1937-38).  Allegory is remarkable not only because of it’s unfortunate, extended anonymity, but also because it was one of the last paintings he made before turning to the colorful abstractions he has become known for.

Guston’s remarkable artistic journey put him in close touch with many other artists in the Rose collection, including Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline (during his WPA period) and, especially Robert Motherwell, with whom he shared a deep interest in philosophy and the work of Paul Cezanne. The Rose’s small Cezanne “Bather,” (9.5 x 5.5 in.), once owned by artist Pierre Bonnard, is a true gem. It is actually not dissimilar in size to the artist’s prized  The Apotheosis of Delacroix, 1890-1894, which measures 10.75 x 14 in. Motherwell was fond of saying he experienced the “shock of recognition” when, as a student, he first saw a Cezanne in Paris.

A major link among the New York Painters of the 1960’s was Black Mountain College in North Carolina.  Students and teachers at this celebrated institution included Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, William De Kooning, and Joseph Albers,  all of whom are represented in the Rose Collection. Albers, whose daring orange palette suffuses his Formulation: Articulation series, 1972, and is reflected in both the de Kooning and the Motherwell, was himself an Expressionist painter early on.  Though his canvases can be most easily associated with a minimal aesthetic, his highly influential pedagogical methods stressed direct experience with what he called “the dynamic properties of materials.” Associations such as these reverberate throughout the collection.

Despite the frequent and all too familiar pressures of financial limitations, a compelling synergy between donors and institutional vision has propelled the Rose towards its enduring prominence among university art museums. In the 1960’s, with a gift from Cleveland art collectors Maurice and Shirley Saltzman, an artist-in-residence program was established. Early recipients of this award included Philip Guston, Jacob Lawrence, Frank Stella, Elaine de Kooning, painter and activist Anthony Toney and sculptor Richard Lippold. The artist-in-residence program was re-invigorated in 2002 with the Nathan and Ruth Ann Perlmutter award which has enabled the Rose to recognize extraordinary young talent, including Dana Schutz, Claire Rojas, Xavier Veilhan, and Alexis Rockman. Several artists, including Stella, Louise Nevelson, Kiki Smith, as well as Dana Schutz received their first major or very early museum exhibitions at the Rose.

The adventurous collecting spirit initiated by Sam Hunter has never faltered at the Rose. From the 1970’s and beyond, first under the directorship of Michael Wentworth (1970-1974) and then Carl Belz (1974-1998), the Rose’s preeminent collection of modern and contemporary art grew steadily. Extraordinary individual collection gifts continue to enhance the Rose’s holdings. The Teresa Jackson Weill bequest of 1975 contained superior works by American artists of the first half of the 20th-century, including Stuart Davis; The Herbert Plimpton Collection, 1993, ushered in forty-five American realist (including Photo-realist) painters; and a contemporary collection from Michael Black and his wife, Melody Douros, advanced the museum's contemporary holdings with more than three dozen works largely from the mid-1990s to the 2000s.

Director Belz and Curator Susan Stoops acquired paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Mangold, Lawrence Poons, Katherine Porter and Agnes Martin, among many others, including, especially works by Boston artists who represented an important and growing art scene locally. In 1981, the first acquisition endowment, the Rose Purchase Fund, was established from the estate of Edward and Bertha Rose. The multi-million dollar Sara and Mortimer P. Hayes Acquisition Fund, created in 2001, enabled the Rose to actively purchase significant art on a yearly basis, though, by this time, the art market had begun its inexorable march toward dramatically higher prices.

In the late 1990s, under Director Joseph Ketner (1998-2004) and Curator Raphaela Platow (2002-07), the Rose adopted a plan to maximize acquisition funds by entering into the arenas of photography and video art. Works by Nam June Paik, Matthew Barney, Bernd and Hilda Becher, Anri Sala, William Kentridge, Robin Rhode, to name but a very few, advanced the collection into the new era of media and digital art. This direction echoed the important 1970 exhibition, Vision and Television, organized by Rose curator Russell Connor, the first exhibition of Video Art in a U.S. museum. During Director Ketner’s tenure, the collection received an essential database updating, as well as a new home for display: the Lois Foster Wing, a five thousand square foot contemporary space designed by Graham Gund Associates, Boston. Dr. Henry and Lois Foster have nurtured the Rose for most of its history, with Lois personally writing thank you notes and words of encouragement to all members for almost thirty-five years! The history of the Rose is the history of generosity of donors like the Fosters.

When Michael Rush assumed the directorship of the Rose (2005-09), he quickly embraced the collection as the prized jewel that it is. He supported numerous collection-based exhibitions, including the memorable Rose Geometries, 2008, by Assistant Curator Adelina Jedrzejczak, and the ongoing Paper Trail exhibitions organized by invited artists, such as Odili Donald Odita and Margaret Evangeline, who immersed themselves in the works on paper collections, creating exhibitions with their own work in dialogue with that of the permanent collection. In 2008, he was able to place center stage another part of the Rose's great collecting history in Invisible Rays: The Surrealism Legacy.

With the Collections Committee, under the leadership of Marlene Persky, more than 60 new works have come into the collection including pieces by Jenny Holzer, Jessica Stockholder, Joseph Cornell and Joel Shapiro (the latter two courtesy of Brandeis alum and Rose Board member Jonathan Novak), Nathalie Frank (courtesy of Board member Eric Green), Vik Muniz and Marcel Duma (courtesy of Marlene Persky and former Board Chair Gerald Fineberg, respectively). The list goes on. Through a painstaking process of selected deaccessioning of works from the collection that do not comply with our mission devoted to modern and contemporary art, the Rose has more than doubled its acquisition endowments.

Fifty years young, the Rose has accomplished in its short life what many institutions can only dream of. The dream of the Rose is to honor its unique and inestimable collection, exhibiting it in ever new and experimental ways and enhancing it with the inexhaustible generosity of donors and the keen, experienced eyes of its caretakers.