Contrary to popular belief, New York’s Museum of Modern Art was not the first institution in the United States exclusively devoted to contemporary art. Between 1927 and 1943, New York University was home to A.E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art—renamed the Museum of Living Art in 1936—which was restricted to “fresh and individual” works by living artists. Among the best-known works in the collection were Pablo Picasso’s Three Musicians (1921), Fernand Léger’s The City(1919), Joan Miró’s Dog Barking at the Moon (1926), and Piet Mondrian’sComposition in Blue and Yellow (1932).
Born in 1881 in Villanova, Pennsylvania, to a patrician family of Swiss descent, Albert Eugene Gallatin was heir to a large banking fortune. His ties to NYU, to art, and to France extended back several generations. His great-grandfather, Albert Gallatin, was one of the founders of NYU and served as Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Jefferson and Madison as well as U.S. Minister to France. Portraits of him by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale passed by descent to Albert Eugene. His father taught analytical chemistry at NYU, and he himself was an NYU trustee.
A.E. Gallatin began his career as an art collector at the age of 17. Among his first purchases were works by American and French Impressionists and by members of the Ash Can School. The deep vein of formalism in Gallatin’s temperament was already revealed in his early attraction to the aestheticizing art of James McNeill Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley, and Max Beerbohm, with its emphasis on decorative beauty, refinement, and art-for-art’s-sake at the expense of subject matter.
Around the time of World War I, Gallatin’s taste in art changed dramatically. As co-organizer of the Allied War Salon to benefit American War Relief he worked closely with Duncan Phillips (founder of the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.), who was one of the most adventurous and prescient connoisseurs of the time. Gallatin soon came to consider the Impressionist and Ash Can pictures in his collection corrupted by sensuous facture and emotional appeal, and he sold them. By 1922 he discovered his true direction: He acquired two watercolors by Cezanne and a painting by Picasso. Gallatin’s visits to the landmark exhibition of Post-Impressionist painting held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1921, his involvement for a brief time in Katherine Dreier’s Société Anonyme, and his consultations with Alfred Steiglitz of Gallery 291 all helped to spark his conversion to modernist abstraction. He found moral support and practical guidance on his new path in the formalist art criticism of the Englishman Clive Bell and the German Julius Meier-Graefe as well as in essays on contemporary art by the Americans Forbes Watson and Henry McBride.
In the early 1920s Gallatin also began to paint. He gradually arrived at a stripped-down Synthetic Cubist style much indebted to Picasso, in which he rendered objects as flattened, abstracted forms in a restricted palette of mostly tonal colors. His neighbors and closest friends were the artists George L.K. Morris, his wife Suzy Frelinghuysen Morris, and Charles G. Shaw. Like Gallatin, they were independently wealthy, well-read, and urbane; with him, they were nicknamed the “Park Avenue Cubists.”
Often accompanied by Morris, Gallatin made frequent trips to Paris, where he visited Picasso, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse, and other avant-garde artists in their studios and purchased works directly from them. Meanwhile he sought a space in New York in which to publicly exhibit his growing collection. In the spring of 1927 he organized a show of art works at the Library of the School of Commerce at NYU. He soon found a more permanent venue: On December 13, 1927, at the age of 46, he opened the Gallery of Living Art in three specially-constructed alcoves in the South Study Hall in NYU’s Main Building, overlooking Washington Square. At the time of its inauguration, the Gallery of Living Art was the only institution in the country that provided continuous public access to the latest international developments in modern art.
It was not without competition in the field. Just a few blocks away, at No. 8 West Eighth Street, the Whitney Studio (renamed the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931) was exhibiting works by Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, and the members of the Eight, along with other contemporary American artists. The Museum of Modern Art opened its doors in 1929, followed by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art in 1937. But Gallatin deemed his own collection infinitely superior to theirs. He disdained the Whitney’s exclusive concentration on American art; the Modern’s early championing of American Regionalist and Social Realist artists and its initial rejection of American abstraction; and the Guggenheim’s preference for the transcendental Expressionism of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky.
Over the years, Gallatin further tightened the focus of his collection upon nonobjective works that emphasized pictorial balance, clarity, order, and discipline. Early in the 1930s he took as his chief advisor the French artist Jean Hélion, a member of Art Concret and a founder of the Abstraction-Création movement, whose own paintings were severely cerebral, rectilinear, reductive, and analytical. With Hélion’s encouragement, Gallatin branched out from Cubism into Orphism, Neo-Plasticism, De Stijl, and Constructivism, acquiring works by Robert Delaunay, Léger, Amedée Ozenfant, Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, Naum Gabo, El Lissitsky, and others. At the same time he purged his collection of figurative Surrealist works by artists like Pavel Tchelichew and Max Ernst, while retaining and adding abstract Surrealist compositions by Mirò, Jean Arp, and André Masson. In 1938, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Gallatin was forced to suspend his buying trips to Europe. He shifted his attention to American art, especially to the American Abstract Artists group, who had elected him to membership in 1937.
Open to the public free of charge from 8 am to 10 pm every weekday and on Saturdays until 5 pm, and steeped in the informal, comfortable atmosphere of a college study hall, the Gallery of Living Art served contemporary American artists as—in Gallatin’s own words—a “laboratory” for “exploration and experimentation” and a forum for intellectual exchange. Its greatest contribution lay in spurring the development of the New York School. Hans Hoffman often brought his classes to the Gallery for firsthand discussions in front of the pictures. Other frequent visitors included Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, David Smith, Robert Motherwell, Adolf Gottlieb, and Elaine and Willem de Kooning, all of whom have testified to the Gallery’s vital role in introducing them to the vocabulary of Cubism and biomorphic abstraction.
In December 1942, constrained by the wartime economy, university administrators decided to convert the South Study Hall into a library processing facility. Gallatin was soon contacted by Fiske Kimball, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who was familiar with the collection from his days as the first Samuel F.B. Morse Professor at NYU and the founder of its program in art history, the forerunner of the Institute of Fine Arts. Kimball offered Gallatin a suite of rooms in which to hang his collection and agreed to allow him to continue to add or subtract works at will. In addition, Gallatin gave a small number of works from the collection, mostly by members of the Abstract American Artists, to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
In 1986 an exhibition entitled Albert Eugene Gallatin and His Circle, consisting of a selected group of works by him and from his collection, was organized and circulated by the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, with the assistance of the Berkshire Museum. Among venues on the exhibition’s tour was NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and Study Center, which is sited in the southwest corner on the ground floor of the Main Building—the space once occupied by the Gallery of Living Art.
SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING
A.E. Gallatin Collection, “Museum of Living Art.” Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1954 (first edition, New York: New York University, 1930).
Balken, Debra Bricker. Albert Eugene Gallatin and His Circle. Coral Gables, Fla.: Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, 1986.
D’Harnoncourt, Anne. “A.E. Gallatin and the Arensbergs: Pioneer Collectors of Twentieth-Century Art.” Apollo N.S. 99, No. 149 (July 1974): 52–61.
Larsen, Susan C. “The ‘Park Avenue Cubist’ Who Went Downtown.” Art News 77, No. 10 (December 1978): 80–82.
Stavitsky, Gail. “The Development, Institutionalization, and Impact of the A.E. Gallatin Collection of Modern Art.” Ph.D. dissertation, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 1990.
———. “A.E. Gallatin’s Gallery and Museum of Living Art (1927–1943).”American Art 7, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 47–63.
———. “The A.E. Gallatin Collection: An Early Adventure in Modern Art.”Bulletin of the Philadelphia Museum of Art 89 (1994): 3–47.
Wainwright, Alexander D. “A Check List of the Writings of Albert Eugene Gallatin,” Princeton University Library Chronicle 14, No. 3 (Spring 1953): 141–51.