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More on the “Dia-ccessions”: Honoring Twombly, Discarding Twomblys (and Chamberlains, Newman)

Installation shot of Guggenheim Museum's 2012 John Chamberlain retrospective Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Installation shot of Guggenheim Museum’s 2012 John Chamberlain retrospective, which included works now being sold by the Dia Art Foundation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Why has Philippe Vergne, the Dia Art Foundation’s director, green-lighted the wrongheaded plan to raise acquisitions funds by substantially weakening the existing “permanent” collection? Dia’s director has yet to grant my requests to discuss with him the rationale behind the decision to auction at Sotheby’s all of the foundation’s Cy Twomblys, plus key works by John Chamberlain and Barnett Newman. [UPDATE: Just as I posted this, Philippe offered to speak with me on Monday. I’ll report on that conversation, if and when it occurs.]

Last week I did receive a detailed response to my requests for the exhibition histories of the star lots in Dia’s planned November dispersal. Those details (discussed below) strengthen the argument that these works belong in the public domain and should not be jettisoned from the collection to bankroll what the NY TimesCarol Vogel recently described as a currently nonexistent acquisition fund. A fundraising drive to strengthen the endowment (including the creation of an acquisitions nest egg) ought to be part of a campaign to raise funds for Dia’s planned expansion in Manhattan.

Why should Twombly rightfully remain at Dia, where his works had been an integral part of the founding collection? The paid classified obit that Dia itself placed in the NY Times at the time of the artist’s death two years ago, at the age of 83, speaks for itself:

The trustees and staff of Dia Art Foundation mourn the loss of Cy Twombly. Through his work, his presence, his friendship with artists, and his embrace of other cultures, he has been fundamental to the construct of American painting today [emphasis added]. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends. Nathalie de Gunzburg, Chairman Philippe Vergne, Director Yasmil Raymond, Curator

Dia’s downgrading of Twombly’s work, in two short years, from “fundamental” to expendable is inexplicable.

While a spokesman for Dia today told me that the “majority” of the nearly 30 works to be sold through Sotheby’s “were never on view at Dia,” the exhibition histories of some of these “expendables” forcefully demonstrate why they are too important to sell.

The case against disposal is easiest to make for the star lot of the Dia deaccessions, “Poems to the Sea” (presale estimate: $6-8 million):


Cy Twombly, “Poems to the Sea,” suite of 24 drawings, 1959

Aside from being featured in exhibitions at Dia, the Menil Collection, Des Moines Art Center, London’s Tate Modern, Guggenheim Bilbao and Rome’s Galleria Nazionale D’Arte Moderna, “Poems” was recently on long-term loan to the Menil Collection in Houston, from September 2008 to April 2013. Dia had partnered with Twombly himself and with the Menil (founded by Dominique de Menil, mother of Dia’s co-founder, Philippa de Menil) to establish in 1995 the Cy Twombly Gallery, Houston, to which Dia had given six works.

Another key player being traded is Chamberlain’s “Shortstop” (presale estimate: $1.5-2 million). It is the first work you’ll see (installed at the beginning of the first ramp) in this Guggenheim video for its posthumous 2012 Chamberlain retrospective. (That artist died in December 2011.):


Screenshot from the Guggenheim Museum’s video about recent Chamberlain show. (“Shortstop” at right.)

Another jettisoned Chamberlain, “Swannanoa/Swannanoa II” (1959/1974), was also in the Guggenheim’s retrospective.

Dia’s last surviving Newman, “Genesis—The Break,” was not only featured in the Philadelphia Museum’s 2002 Ann Temkin-curated retrospective (as I previously mentioned). It was also in a 1994 show of early Newmans at the Walker Art Center and St. Louis Museum of Art. (Dia’s other two Newmans were sold at Sotheby’s in 1985.)

In a 1994 Vogue magazine piece, (reprinted after Twombly’s death), Dodie Kazanjian wrote that Dia had been planning to install in 1996 most of its “large collection of Twombly’s work” in “a newly created space on West 22nd Street. Twombly has been generous with these institutions [Dia and the Menil Collection] because they are so obviously dedicated to his work.”

Not any more (as far as Dia is concerned).

A museum that wants to build relationships with living artists and to attract donations of their works should be more sensitive in its treatment of those whom it cherished before they perished. I understand that the Dia’s current director and curators may have different tastes and priorities, and that they crave a windfall that would allow them to satisfy their acquisitive urges.

But weakening the collection to nourish it is not how it should be done.

In happier Dia news: Here’s Andrew Russeth‘s rave review in the NY Observer for Thomas Hirschhorn‘s Dia-commissioned Gramsci Monument (to Sept. 15) at Forest Houses, a public housing project in the Bronx. He calls it, “easily the most energetic public artwork the city has seen in years.”

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