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Collecting and Modernism

Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor in the Department of Literatures in English at Cornell University. In this month's post, I make use of Collecting as a Modernist Practice (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2012) to explore some ideas related to art dealers and modernism.

Intensively examining and comparing four key modernist collections (two art collections, two anthologies), Jeremy Braddock makes a convincing case that collecting is “a paradigmatic form” within modernism that “bears witness to a larger set of crises and possibilities that the collection could both represent and address” (2).

Focusing on the publications Des Imagistes and The New Negro: An Interpretation, and the founding iterations of The Phillips Collection and The Barnes Foundation [Figure 1] a number of key concepts recur in the study, ranging from the institution and the public sphere, to education and engagement.

Braddock writes:

“Although canons have been more recently challenged, revised, and expanded, the mid-century institutionalization of the works of modernist art and literature in, respectively, the museum and the university, continues to obscure the practices that once associated them much more closely. Taken together, the collective forms of the anthology and the art collection (and, eventually, the archive) define a specific field of cultural activity, doing so at the very moment that the collection itself began to become recognized as a paradigmatic form of aesthetic modernism. At a time when the cultural value of modernist art was acknowledged but the mode of its institutionalization, its canon, and its relationship to society were undecided, the contest for modernism’s social definition took place within this field of collections” (4).

While we know that collections were paradigmatic forms of contemporary life (which isn't to say, modern life) for centuries, stretching back to Ptolemy I (in The Strange Life of Objects, Maurice Rheims writes that the Romans “invented the modern idea of ‘collecting’” (8)) Braddock's quote remains a very juicy, interesting one to bring more questions to:

What were the practices that previously associated art collections and literary anthologies? (Cross-pollination of ideas, events, patrons, etc.)

Why did the collection itself become the paradigmatic form of aesthetic modernism, and not just a paradigmatic form of aesthetic modernism? (What other forms of aesthetic or cultural modernism exist?).

Who was competing for modernism’s social definition, and was a winner (or consensus on the definition) announced?

And (not lastly), who was aesthetic modernism for? The artist? The collector-patron? The customer or museum-goer?

I’m not about to provide book-length answers to these questions. Indeed, those answers will change according to specific contexts. But these are interesting prompts to consider for those of us who have wondered why certain works of art become famous, valuable, or respected, as well as how the roots to public taste can be traced back to an individual collector’s subjective taste (which is also not to say that those tastes were purely aesthetic; they could also be religious, political, moral, philosophical etc.).

Figure 1. The Barnes Foundation, Detail Room 2, West and North Walls. Photo by Amanda Hankerson. Image Copyright: The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

If Braddock’s book is good at anything (and it is good at many things) it is identifying how these collections which now are seen as ‘public’ had very particular private goals; goals that, while being ‘private’ and individual, took the public into account, in a benevolent, if sometimes patronizing manner, with ideas of civilizing improvement often intrinsic to the project.

Relevant to my area of study is, can any of the terms, thoughts, or circumstances that here are applied to collectors and collections, be applied to dealers and commercial galleries, which also presented collections, albeit short-lived ones? Are dealers, before collectors, not the first interpreters of works of art; managing the installation, display, (sometimes the production), promotion, protection, and interpretation of the works (singly, and combined)? Are dealers the first curators? The first short-lived collectors?

Braddock recognizes that the modern art world was comprised of an ‘institutional field’ composed of dealers, critics, collectors, and curators who ‘competed’ for the social definition of modernist art. However, in this field, dealers (and their impact) are most often relegated to the biography genre, rather than included in academic studies of this kind. (See my coverage on Juliana Force, for example). Aesthetic snobbery might have something to do this this, or perhaps it is academic snobbery which maintains the romanticized notion of the art/ artist as Bande à part to social formations (obviously not in Braddock's view). But if collectors can be championed and investigated for the meaning they can bring to evidently mediated collections, it seems only fair that similar questions get asked of art dealers; who, it is worth remembering, were not solely concerned with sales (they often barely scrapped by) but who were also responsible for helping collectors understand and interpret works; a very first step to the institutionalization of these works in the modern art museum.

I think Braddock would be sympathetic to this position, given his reliance on Pierre Bourdieu and the acknowledgement that all social players and factors are in/visibly imprinted on works of art. Somewhat ironically, at one point he writes, “The individual collector, expressing sensibilities both aesthetic and institutional, holds a particular form of agency within this system of positions” (5). Ironic, because the dealer (often called an agent at the time) was the person who first took a risk on art and artists, jepordising their personal financial agency, in order to bring these artists to public (and collector) attention.


I have not clarified my thinking on the following point in great detail, but I often think about the gallery space as a collection, not just of objects, but also people and ideas. These spaces are often the first spaces where collectors, the public, artists and critics meet, and there is a performance at play, as well as an exchange of ideas (and numbers, perhaps); and here the dealer/ agent also becomes a director or conductor of sorts (the word director was also used interchangeably with agent/ dealer in the time period); again demonstrating their unique position in the field. The fact is that, like music, what the dealer has orchestrated, is not physical, and material remains do not, um, remain. But I hope this example suggests that there are often invisible remains worth considering in addition to the material remains; and subsequently might broaden our use of the word collection within the subject of modernism.

Additionally, I can't help but wonder if gender has a part to play here (and perhaps it would be naive to say it doesn't). While we have the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, [Figure 2] and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the taste and vision of many other women remains obscured in history, particularly dealers who did not have the opportunity to form their own collections or whose collections were subsumed into other institutions. On the latter, Katherine Dreier [Figure 3] serves as an example. Dreier was the mind and energy behind The Société Anonyme, Inc., America's first roving Museum of Modern Art. She desperately wanted to create a permanent home for her collection (yes, she was aided by Duchamp, and in some ways, Man Ray, but not extensively), which now belongs to Yale University. Dreier did not have the wealth of Phillips or Barnes to be able to make her dream a reality; though I wonder if Yale (if petitioned) might make more of her contribution to their collection, and art history.

Figure 2. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. Photo from Turbopass[.]com.

Figure 2. Katherine S. Dreier: Standing in middle of exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery. Undated. Photographer Unknown. Katherine S. Dreier papers / Société Anonyme, Inc. archive, Yale University Library.

However, let's return to Braddock:

“What has often been taken to be a natural transition from private ownership to a public representation of modernist art obscures a field of struggle for cultural authority that must be understood as a signal dynamic of modernist culture in the United States. Indeed, at this point the meaning of the word “modernism” (itself not quite an anachronism in the literary field) was itself tellingly hazy. Its indeterminateness demonstrated its social availability, applying as it might to aesthetic objects of more broadly conceived ideologies, for appropriation within various institutional systems” (15).

For me, (as I think, for Braddock) modernism does not need to be a closed category. As stated elsewhere on this site, Modernity was partially a colonial category, and by no means teleological.

So, while we have The Barnes Foundation, The Phillips Collection, and the historical material publications of The New Negro and Des Imagistes (and indeed any other publications or collections you want to add to this list), there is no particular reason to regard these works or collections as closed and complete.

New editions of the works (in the case of publications) have an opportunity to bring new voices to the publications, and in the case of collections-institutions, new installations and exhibitions create new conversations between permanent collections and visiting artists/ works/ audiences. Likewise, the modernism written about by Braddock (and myself, and most researchers in the field) is white modernity, and that modernity did not create space for other forms of modernity that exist on their own timeline and may yet come to pass. This point is made persuasively by Adrian Piper in her 1990 essay The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists.

This is what is exciting about modernity studies and thinking about the twentieth- and twenty-first-century as a whole time-span, rather than as separate, complete decades. And it is one reason why it is important to keep the field (and its questions) open rather than closed.


Piper, Adrian, "The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists", Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic (Winston-Salem, NC: Southeastern Centre for Contemporary Art, 1990).

Reims, Maurice, The Strange Life of Objects: 35 Centuries of Art Collecting and Collectors (New York; Atheneum, 1961).

#modernism #modernity #peggyguggenheim #katherinedreier #phillipscollection #barnesfoundation #bookreview #books #research

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