Framing History: Sacha Kolin in The Rose Art Museum's Permanent Collection (Part 1 of 3)

From the mid-1960s, campus museums acquired hundreds of Kolins, including 32 artworks at Brandeis University's The Rose Art Museum. The University's announcement on January 26, 2009, later modified, to deaccession its art collection generated fervent commentary. In this three-part series Framing History, Lisa places the academic museum in historical context, explaining the economic policies and social factors that fueled the explosive growth of campus museums in this era, and highlighting the archival records generated by the museum community. This is part 1 of 3. (Click here to read the original announcement).
Vienna Modernist Sacha Kolin: The New York Years
Sacha Kolin (1911-1981), the Paris-born and Vienna-trained Modernist, was one of over 700 visual artists to emigrate from Europe to the United States between 1933 and 1944.  Within months of her 1936 arrival in New York City, the young refugee had a solo exhibition of paintings and sculpture at Rockefeller Center's P.E.D.A.C. Galleries. At the 1940 New York World's Fair, Sacha showed among 42 fellow émigrés, including Josef Albers, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Amédée Ozenfant, and Kurt Seligmann. The exhibition "New Americans of Friendship House" was a microcosm of recent art movements and styles of Central Europe: Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Purism, Surrealism, Wiener Werkstätte, and Bauhaus among them.

In the 1950s, Sacha co-hosted a color workshop with Bauhaus graduate Hannes Beckmann, joined numerous artist associations, and began to exhibit widely in Manhattan, the Hamptons, and Provincetown. Even so, Sacha struggled mightily to find a sustainable niche among Manhattan's galleries, whose tenures were often brief and whose audiences could be dismissive of advanced art and of women artists. She lived and painted in a succession of Upper East Side apartments but was often unable to afford the rent.

By the mid- to late-1960s, the artist then in her fifties, found more salubrious pastures in academic venues. In 1972, Sacha's first career retrospective was held at Southampton College of Long Island University. By the following year, her work had entered the collections of ten campus museums. Three donors gave to Brandeis University's The Rose Art Museum 32 Kolins: the monumental 40 X 68-inch painting The Day Before Tomorrow, a sculpture assemblage of casein on balsa wood with glass objects entitled We, and titled drawings including Blue Walk, Black Seed, and Conversation in Rose Red.

Upon her death at age 69 on Valentine's Day 1981, Sacha left behind a small ardent circle of patrons, about 2,000 artworks in over 60 museums and private collections, and a mountain of debt. I pieced together Sacha's story in part by studying the museums' collection histories and mining records in specialized archives and libraries. Ten lessons to family historians are detailed in my biography Look Up: The Life and Art of Sacha Kolin, which was recently published by Midmarch Arts Press.

Genealogical Challenges Lead to Innovative Methods
As the subject of a genealogical quest, Sacha Kolin is atypical. She was an only child, never married, and had no issue. Her small extended family with Ukrainian ancestral roots resettled for educational and economic opportunities and was scattered by successive wars. In New York City, Sacha's limited exposure as an artist, escalating poverty, and peripatetic residential history further restricted the ordinary information sources. 

Challenged by the research constraints, I saw potential for innovations in my field of genealogy. Could I extend the definition of family to glean a fuller and more accurate portrait of the artist? Could I pursue career and institutional records for biographical insights? Could I read Sacha's abstract paintings—subjective and creative expressions—as assiduously as I read her 1911 Parisian birth register?

 Fig. 1 Golden Shadows of the Past, 1960, oil, 30 x 30 inches; private collection.
Over many years of study, I located and reunited branches of Sacha's family in Argentina, Brazil, Israel, and the United States; interviewed and corresponded with her affiliates; built a database of artworks; and compiled a substantial archive of life event documents, professional records, and personal ephemera.

Example from The Rose: Framing History
The Rose Museum building in Waltham, Massachusetts, opened in 1961. Leon Mnuchin, Esq., and his wife, Harriet Gevirtz-Mnuchin, provided an early grant used to purchase 21 postwar artworks. Other donors followed. Today, about 85% of the 7,200-piece collection was gifted to The Rose.  Many of the postwar artworks were contemporary to the times, created during the 1960s and 1970s by artists perhaps known to the donors. 

Sidestepping the recent conflagration regarding The Rose and the University Board's decision—later modified—to deaccession artworks now worth about $350 million, I will frame history to offer a more nuanced appreciation of the academic museum's role in an artist's, in Sacha's, life.

The early 1960s was a time of unprecedented growth in the number of academic museums, fueled by a greater number of academic programs many of which were led by émigré art historians and their protégés; the need for greater access to original works of art for scholarly pursuits and curatorial endeavors, especially on campuses removed from major metropolitan areas; and an increased demand for exhibitions tailored to a larger and more diverse community.

By 1967, over a quarter—about 115—of all American museums were situated on college campuses. Academic museums built and expanded during the era, and who acquired Sacha's artwork, include The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in 1961; the Dickson Art Center's Grunwald Center for Graphic Arts at the University of California-Los Angeles in 1965; the Charles A. Dana Creative Arts Center at Colgate University in 1966; the Herbert F. Johnson Museum at Cornell University in 1973; and the Miami University Art Museum of Miami University in 1978. In 1968, the buildings themselves, such as the Everson Museum designed by I. M. Pei, became the subject of an exhibition "The Architecture of Museums" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Sacha turned to campus museums as a receptive and prestigious audience for her life's work, including large-scale outdoor sculptures (click here to see Cornell University's Going Up and White Batwings, installed in 1978). She was adept at cultivating sponsors, who played a critical role in museum donations and thus, in my research of her life story.

To be continued. Part 2 will be posted on Monday, March 30th at 12:00 AM

1 comment:

  1. This is interesting...I really enjoyed reading this blog..
    Looking forward for the part two..
    good posting..


Comments are welcome. Please post responsibly.