Home Arts “Duplicate” or rejected? Whitney’s sale of more Hopper works from historic bequest comes under scrutiny

“Duplicate” or rejected? Whitney’s sale of more Hopper works from historic bequest comes under scrutiny

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The decision by New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art to donate four works by Edward Hopper, including a major oil painting, to Sotheby’s New York spring sales this month has reignited long-standing concerns about the museum’s safekeeping of its historic Hopper bequest.

The Whitney has the world’s largest collection of Hopper’s works, thanks to a huge bequest from the artist’s wife Jo, who left more than 3,000 of her husband’s works to the museum when he died in 1968. The arts journal understands that Hoppers’ Whitney collection represents approximately 10% of all works held by the museum.

In recent years, the museum has reaffirmed its leading position as
custodian of the artist’s work and archives with the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York (October 19, 2022-March 5, 2023), which relied on its “extensive holdings” and the “recently acquired Sanborn-Hopper Archive,” according to the museum’s website.

Of Hopper’s four works arriving at Sotheby’s, the most important is the oil painting Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930-33), which will be offered between 8 and 12 M$ during the evening sale of modern art of the auction house on May 16. The painting has an illustrious exhibit history, having been one of only two Hoppers to be loaned to the White House in 2014 during Barack Obama’s presidency; it hung in the Oval Office. It is “particularly large, almost monumental, for the work of the artist”, according to Kayla Carlsen, head of the American art department at Sotheby’s. It was also included in a recent major survey of Hopper’s landscape paintings at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland.

less of the same

The Whitney will now have The Cobb Barns as well as three Hopper watercolors – each estimated at between $500,000 and $700,000 – and two works each by John Marin and Maurice Brazil Pendergast after “an in-depth study over several years of his collection”, according to a statement from the Whitney. Proceeds from the sale will be used to “support future acquisitions” and “build and expand its collection.” Hopper’s works were deemed by Whitney stakeholders to be “duplicated within the collection”, according to the same statement.

Whitney’s Collection Management Policy Statement states that objects may be disposed of if they are “unnecessary duplicates of other objects in the collection, including repetitive objects of similar themes in a similar medium”.

But according to The arts journal, the notion of “duplicate” works can be disputed in this case, especially since Hopper was not an artist thought by experts to make duplicates of the same scene, with the exception of an oil that he produced from a view in Gloucester, Massachusetts which he based on an earlier watercolor. The view in The Cobb Barns exists nowhere else among Hopper’s paintings. While the artist made more than one image of these barns in his lifetime, other works of the same subject depict a different selection of buildings, different times of day, and different expanses of the Cape Cod landscape.

Of the three watercolors, The Battery, Charleston, SC (1929) is unique in Hopper’s oeuvre, being the only watercolor the artist made of the location, itself an important historical site that housed forts used during the American Revolution and later an artillery battery of the civil war. It is one of three Civil War-themed watercolors he produced during his lifetime.

A unique piece: Hopper’s The Battery, Charleston, SC (1929), one of three watercolors Whitney sent to auction at Sotheby’s in May, is the only watercolor the artist ever made at the location and one of only three war-themed watercolors by him American civilian. © Heirs of Josephine Hopper

Red barn in the autumn landscape (1927), meanwhile, is one of some two dozen watercolors Hopper made in Vermont, where he and Jo spent several consecutive summers researching new landscapes to paint. Red barn in the autumn landscape is also one of his only barn paintings from the 1920s, a period in which barns became an important national symbol in American art. Nevertheless, according to a spokesperson for Whitney, the museum has “much stronger examples of Hopper’s work for the particular periods and subjects reflected in the alienated works, including two stronger paintings from Cobb’s Barns”.

This isn’t the first time the Whitney has come under scrutiny for its treatment of the Jo Hopper legacy. He also came under criticism for throwing away or donating to local hospitals the majority of works painted by Jo Hopper included in his bequest; today only one of his works is listed in the museum’s collection.

Write for the New York Times in 1971, the eminent American art critic Hilton Kramer questioned the Whitneys’ decision to “keep only a certain part of the Hopper bequest for its permanent collection”, and predicted that the rest would gradually be “put up for sale on the open market…to prevent the (high) price of Hoppers from taking a precipitous decline”. He called “what the Whitney himself describes as ‘the most significant bequest of an American artist’s work to a museum'” as “a kind of fund-raising project”.

In 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the Association of Art Museum Directors relaxed its regulations on the disposition of works from US museums to allow profits to be used for the “direct care” of their permanent collections. . Previously, the guidelines required that revenue generated from the sale of artwork be spent on additional artwork purchases.

At the time, Whitney manager Adam Weinberg told industry newsletter The Baer Faxt he was ‘open’ to the idea of ​​disposal and the museum was undergoing a ‘three-year review’ of the collection.

However, in 2013 the Whitney had already consigned two Hopper watercolors to the bequest, including Eastham Church (1948), for sale at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $2-3 million. The work failed to find a buyer and was re-auctioned in 2016 with a lower estimate of $600,000 to $800,000. It once again failed to sell and was bought out.

Carlsen says this auction season in New York – which also sees two Hoppers offered from the Paul G. Allen collection at Christie’s on May 11 – will be the first “major moment” for the Hopper market since Whitney’s exposure. “Cobb’s barn is in its peak period,” she says. “It will definitely attract attention in the market.”

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