Rebels on Eighth Street: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art
by Avis Berman
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“I could tell you a lot of things about art. As my teacher said, “My dear young lady, Art is like love; you don’t talk it, you make it.”’ —Juliana Force (Berman: 207)
One of my first visits to New York was winter, 2004. Having travelled from Boston by bus, the day was dark, cold and troubled by snow. Two memorable art excursions, however, counterbalanced an afternoon that was hazy and steel-grey: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates (2005) and a late afternoon session in the Marcel-Breuer-designed Whitney Museum of American Art. The visit to the Whitney, which I attended (like I attend most art museums) alone, made a deep impression on me. I recall an afternoon of calm, quiet, twilight, and sensory delight, meeting for the first time many of the seminal works of art I had encountered in my textbook studies on American art history. This was an age before smart phones or good and inexpensive digital cameras, so there were no take-you-out-of-the-moment distractions, nor a means to capture the art with an eye on the future… or instagram. In a way, I was having the experience that millions had had before me, an experience safeguarded from technological diversions. I was, to borrow a word in contemporary vogue, present. I had a real and unforced fellowship with the art therein, be it Edward Hopper, Eli Nadelman, Andrew Wyeth, or Georgia O’Keefe, and at the end of the day I dashed from the premises, towards dark Central Park, to catch my bus.
I gave no thought at that time to the names Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and much less, Juliana Force, the founder and director, respectively, of the first Whitney Museum iterations. Why would I? My education and upbringing had not trained me to. Indeed, I’m ashamed to say that even though I lived in Boston, I never visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, even when I visited its neighbour the Museum of Fine Arts, a penny-throw away. I am not the first, nor will I be the last, tourist (or worse, historian) to overlook these women and reflect on what they had in common; a determination to make the appreciation of art a democratic right and pastime for the average American.
To begin to write about Avis Berman’s in-depth biography of Juliana Force, I turn to her closing text in the book, which will partially accounts for my ‘thoughtlessness’ above.
On September 27, 1966, after a solid month of press coverage, the newest Whitney, a gray granite fortress startlingly cantilevered over Madison Avenue, was dedicated by Jacqueline Kennedy and Flora Miller. Every New York paper, as well as almost every other newspaper in the country, carried interviews with Flora Miller and Marcel Breuer, photo spreads of the permanent collection, the ribbon cutting and the string of glittering parties, and long appraisals of the museum’s past, present, and future. All of these stories had one fact in common—Juliana Force’s name was never mentioned. (Berman: 506).
This ending, with its implied criticisms, in a book which is functionally a tripartite biography of Force, Whitney, and the first Whitney Museum, is all the more stark because it comes after a lengthy and moving description of Juliana Force’s final months where, aged seventy-one, she battled gruelling cancer treatments whilst petitioning (as she always had) for the rights of American artists, and an independent future for the Whitney Museum and collection (at the time, alongside MoMA, it was in danger of being subsumed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art).
I say tripartite biography, but really, as the cover makes clear, Juliana Force is the protagonist of Berman’s study, and the author leaves no (?) proverbial stone or easel unperturbed in her bid to resurrect Force for a modern audience.
As a brief summary: Juliana Force was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney’s right-hand woman, a character that believed wholly in American art and artists, who, using Whitney’s funds, supported multiple generations with much-needed philanthropy, sometimes in the form of purchases, sometimes providing a living wage, and very often personal counselling and fortifying encouragement. Force also managed Whitney’s studio practice, securing and managing the sculptor and patron’s many commissions. A feared, generous, modern woman, Force wore a number of hats (literal and figurative) including curator, saleswoman, director, and manager of the Whitney Studio, Whitney Studio Club (Later Whitney Studio Galleries), and Whitney Museum. Her work beyond the shelter of the Whitney umbrella, extended into other public roles including chairing the regional committee of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Depression.
Juliana Force, 1919, John Sloan, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the John Sloan Memorial Foundation.
In my last post, I delved a little into the difference (or not) between History and Biography. Berman’s book, in expected ways, is resolutely a biography, but it is also a history of a museum, and in particular it is hard to separate out the character of Force, from the formation of the Whitney; those forms of private and public history. You cannot have one without the other. Force, for her contemporaries, was the Whitney, indeed she lived in apartments in the museum, and even died there. Here, the personal, public, and political were entwined.
For those unfamiliar with the history of early 20th-Century American Art, the poverty of the artists, and the Sisyphean task they and their benefactors faced in establishing an appreciation for contemporary American art (and by appreciation, I mean, a market, a critical culture, a willing audience, education, etc.) cannot be under-stressed, particularly when that art represented a vernacular subject or modern style, or worse, both. Juliana Force, who surprisingly was not an artist herself, nor had she any training, supported people first and foremost, paying medical bills, restaurant tabs, and domestic expenses for those who asked. This approach sometimes led to an uneven collection of art (which she bought on behalf of Gertrude, as well as herself) which the critics were to … well … criticise well into the 1940s.
The Whitney was a home to many firsts, and while these are impressive, I also find suspect a form of history that only focuses on firsts (as if seconds or thirds aren’t important: third child speaking here!); a history of firsts assumes the metrics for success are competition and individualism, rather than quality, depth, or engagement. That said, firsts, and examples of the support the Whitney-Force enterprise offered included:
· Edward Hopper’s first one-person show in 1920. He was thirty-eight. No paintings sold. (Other first one-person shows included Reginald Marsh, Molly Luce, Andrew Dasburg.)
· In 1920 for the 12th International Art Exhibition (Venice Biennale), Whitney arranged for 115 American paintings to travel to the Veneto, where they were ignored or mocked. Undeterred, she toured the works to London, Paris, and Sheffield.
· Re-launched in 1923, Whitney funded the operations of The Arts, a culture journal headed by Forbes Watson and featuring work by William Carlos Williams, Leo Stein, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, and staff-photographer, Charles Sheeler.
· In 1923 Force invited Charles Sheeler and his wife, Katherine, to move into a flat in the Whitney building, rent-free.
· Force worked with international galleries: “In the middle of 1923 she and [Marius] de Zayas arranged for the Durand-Ruel Galleries in Paris to hold a group exhibition of seven American painters she felt the French should see…” (Berman: 199).
· Early American Art, which opened on February 9, 1924, was the first exhibition of folk art held in America. (Berman: 201).
· In November 1926, a shop opened on the premises for the sale of graphic works. No commissions were taken. (Berman: 235).
· Force initiated and covered the costs of Stuart Davis’ year-long trip to Paris in 1929.
· Whitney funded the plantiff’s legal costs in C. Brancusi v. The United States, 1928.
Portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1931, Edward Steichen, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of the family of Edith and Lloyd Goodrich.
The Studio, the Studio Club, and the museum each had detractors. The artist Alexander Brook wrote that the Club “was a dull and unprogressive institution offering unimaginative, mediocre exhibitions that demonstrated no awareness of changing times” (Berman: 210). This did not stop Brook showing his work there, or organizing exhibitions. Stuart Davis had greater charges against Force, whom he accused of re-framing and re-painting the frames of his work, damaging the canvas, and worse, showing his paintings the wrong-way up. Force did not concede to either artist, nor was her benevolence sacrosanct. According to her peers she was “given to hysterically drawn-out seizures of rage, terrifying not only to those on the receiving end but to anyone in the vicinity” (Berman: 213).
Berman’s affection and respect for Force and for her contribution to American art and history is transparent and, on the whole, unproblematic, for she is equally willing to pay attention to Force’s weaknesses and failings (see above). What impresses me in her account is the liveness and liveliness of the early Whitney Studio, Gallery, and Museum. The parties, the jealousies, the rivalries, the drama, the energy—in short, all the values and resonances that diminish with time and cannot be easily reproduced or captured. And, so, it is a testament to Berman that she can invoke the spirit of the times, and of Force, in particular.
Whitney and Force had a close and productive relationship; and their contribution to American art was indeed recognized within their own lifetimes. The Whitney as it exists today in its new home on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, is vastly different to the early incarnations described in Berman’s book; although geographically, it is closer to the original community formed by the women, then centred on MacDougal Alley.
Museums occupy different functions today than they did one hundred years ago. In current popular culture it seems too often that we look at their faults rather than at their successes (historic or contemporary). We expect, maybe, too much of them and their staff; we judge them against a utopian ideal that is not achievable. The original Whitney Club, Galleries, and Museum were hierarchical, imperfect, and very human. They placed artists rather than the art (or academia, or dealers, or their board) at the centre of their operations. It is hard not to wonder what Force or Whitney would make of the Museum today, in 2021, in an art world unrecognizable (in such a relatively short time) to the one they inhabited.
What is the role of history in an art museum, like the Whitney, with an emphasis on living artists? Gertrude Whitney and Juliana Force only looked forward, not back; and their enterprise only had to satisfy their desires. Today, the Whitney, of course, embraces its history… to a point. Its webpage on its founding includes portraits of both Whitney and Force, but if Berman’s biography is anything to go by, Force should have had the first, if not equal, billing.
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