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Revisiting an artistic mystery 

City Sage

Inspired by Edie Adelstein’s review (“The dream time,” March 5) of the Denver Art Museum’s Modern Masters: 20th Century Icons from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, my spouse and I visited the exhibit on a recent Saturday morning.

We arrived just after 10, and the galleries were already thronged. As one who prefers to contemplate art in mournful quiet, I was ready to bolt — until I saw the art.

As Adelstein and other reviewers have noted, this is a different kind of show. Most such traveling exhibits contain one or two notable paintings, and dozens of others that bear notable signatures. Not all Picassos are masterpieces, and not all Gauguins evoke the beauty and mystery of 19th-century Polynesia.

The DAM exhibit is dazzling, spectacular, breathtaking, unbelievable — use any superlative, and you'd be right. Jackson Pollock's "Convergence," Robert Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV," Picasso's "La Toilette" and Gauguin's "Spirit of the Dead Watching" aren't merely respectable examples of the artists' oeuvre, but arguably their greatest works.

I'm an inveterate museum-goer, and I'd never seen anything like it. The show has no weaknesses. Few regional art museums have a single masterpiece, yet the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo apparently has scores, even hundreds. How did they get there?

The answer is interesting, particularly because the Albright-Knox was directly responsible for the acquisition of John Singer Sargent's luminous "Elsie Palmer" by the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center in 1969.

Two generous patrons, A. Conger Goodyear and Seymour Knox II, built the A-K's spectacular collection. They were both visionary collectors, with cosmopolitan tastes that may have dismayed the stolid burghers of Buffalo. Goodyear, who later became the first Board President of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was voted off the Albright Board because of the 1926 acquisition of "La Toilette." Three decades later, Knox partnered with Museum director Gordon Smith in acquiring major paintings by almost every significant American artist of his era.

But after this acquisitive frenzy, the Albright agreed to sell Sargent's masterpiece to the FAC for $35,000. Given that the painting would now sell for at least 100 times its 1969 purchase price, it looks as if the A-K got the worst of the transaction.

Who, one wonders, was the sharp-eyed FAC curator who put the deal together? And why did the Albright let the painting go?

In the early 1920s Knox was one of the finest polo players in the United States, a time when Colorado Springs was notable for its devotion to polo. There were two polo fields at The Broadmoor, and many accomplished players. The best of them was Dr. Gerald Webb. And although Webb rarely played in the '20s, Knox would have met his three beautiful daughters at post-polo parties, including the eldest, Marka.

Forty-five years later, Marka was still in Colorado Springs. Married to John Wolcott Stewart, she was a particularly active supporter of the FAC.

The FAC had long lusted after Sargent's portrait of the daughter of our city's founder. The Albright had loaned the painting to the Arts Center for a 1941 exhibit, and the FAC may have tried to purchase it then. In any case, it stayed in Buffalo.

In 1969, the FAC tried again. This time the Albright offered to trade for a Sargent portrait of equal importance. None were on the market, so it looked like the deal was dead.

Enter Marka Stewart. As one of her close friends told me many years later, "She called up the Chairman, Mr. Knox, and came to an agreement." Acknowledging that "the painting belongs in Colorado Springs," Knox settled on a price of $35,000, and gave the FAC a year to raise the money.

Was Knox swayed by memories of his carefree youth on the polo fields of The Broadmoor, and the beautiful young women whom he met? I suspect so — but we'll never know.

And did the FAC put one over on Seymour? Not really. He and Gordon Smith may have been overly generous to the FAC, but they more than made up for the loss.

Case in point: Motherwell's "Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV" was painted in 1953-54, and acquired by Knox in 1956. And what was Motherwell doing in the summer of 1954?

Teaching at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Alas, although the FAC acquired fine pieces by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O'Keeffe, the institution didn't bother to buy one of Motherwell's canvases.

Win some, lose some — or, if you're Seymour Knox, lose one, win 100.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

  • I'm an inveterate museum-goer, and I'd never seen anything like it.

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