• Christies auction house James Christie logo

    Sale 2049

    Post-War & Contemporary Art Morning Session

    13 November 2008, New York, Rockefeller Plaza

  • Lot 200

    Georges Mathieu (b. 1921)

    Ambiguité gothique

    Price Realised  

    Estimate

    Georges Mathieu (b. 1921)
    Ambiguité gothique
    signed and dated 'Mathieu 51' (upper right), signed again and dated again 'Mathieu 52' (lower right)
    oil on canvas
    57 3/8 x 38 1/8 in. (145.7 x 96.8 cm.)
    Painted in 1951-1952.


    Contact Client Service
    • info@christies.com

    • New York +1 212 636 2000

    • London +44 (0)20 7839 9060

    • Hong Kong +852 2760 1766

    • Shanghai +86 21 6355 1766

    Contact the department

    *This lot may be exempt from sales tax as set forth in the Sales Tax
    Notice in the back of the catalogue.

    This work is recorded in the archive of Jean-Marie Cusinberche.

    Special Notice

    No sales tax is due on the purchase price of this lot if it is picked up or delivered in the State of New York.


    Provenance

    Galerie Pierre, Paris
    Alex and Rita K. Hillman, New York, acquired from the above, 1954
    Gift from the above to the present owner, 16 October 1968


    Saleroom Notice

    *This lot may be exempt from sales tax as set forth in the Sales Tax Notice in the back of the catalogue.


    Pre-Lot Text

    Property from the Alex Hillman Family Foundation

    A comprehensive history of American collecting during the two decades following World War II has yet to be written. The number and sophistication of art patrons expanded in these years, in tandem with the nation's increased role in international politics and culture. It was also a period of transition, as the old guard who had established preeminent collections of early French modernism was replaced by a younger generation supporting the new and homegrown movements of Abstract Expressionism and, even more adventurously, Pop art. Today it is difficult to remember that financial speculation was not the only motivating factor in acquiring art: in those heady decades of Cold War politics, cultural diplomacy, patriotism, social status, blue chip investment, the need to support fledgling public museums, and the humanist belief in the educational value of high art all came into play. But ultimately, the quality and personality of the most memorable collections depended on the eyes and means of those individuals who created them.

    This future history will include the collection of Rita and Alex Hillman, which was formed over the years 1943 to 1964. Born in Chicago in 1900, Alex Hillman studied law and then made his career in book and magazine publishing in New York City. In 1932 he married Rita Kanarek (b. 1912), and after the war the two began to acquire Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters in earnest. While this aspect of the Hillmans' taste is best known today, during the 1950s they also followed more unconventional paths. Hillman worked for the United States government on the Marshall Plan and the couple traveled regularly to Europe, buying works by the French Informel artists Fautrier, Dubuffet, Soulages, Mathieu, and Wols. Later in the decade they delved into the contemporary British sculpture of Moore, Chadwick, Hepworth, and Armitage. Along the way, the Hillmans commissioned public sculpture by Moore for Yale University and Antoine Pevsner for the University of Chicago Law School.

    The Hillmans looked to their friend Theodore Rousseau, chief curator at the Metropolitan Museum, for advice on French modernism, as well as to Alfred Barr Jr., who kept them abreast of contemporary art in Europe. The Hillmans regularly emptied their walls for the Metropolitan's Summer Loan Exhibitions in the 1960s. When the museum and Rousseau were criticized for purchasing the Velquez portrait Juan de Pareja in 1971 for what was then considered the exorbitant sum of five and a half million dollars, Rita funded a film on the painting. This first "masterpiece film," a prescient understanding of the role of the fine arts in the mass media, helped spawn the museum's department of Film and Television. For MoMA, the Hillman Periodical Fund was used to acquire such canonical works as Giacomo Balla's Street Light, Francis Picabia's I See Again in Memory My Dear Udnie, Franz Kupka's Mme Kupka among Verticals, and James Rosenquist's F111.

    Alex claimed that he worked to buy pictures and told the dealer René Drouin "I can't buy all the things that I love - I can only buy some and at the price that I can afford." By the mid 1960s their pace of acquisitions had slowed down and the Hillmans felt out of step with Pop art. Their French modernist collection hung in their Park Avenue apartment decorated by Billy Baldwin and the contemporary European works filled their New Hampshire farmhouse. After Alex Hillman's death in 1968 -- which followed less than two years after the tragic loss of their only child, Richard, in a highway accident on the way back from New Hampshire -- Rita sold the country residence and, in the 1970s, sent the bulk of the contemporary works to auction. She considered the Hillman collection a joint and finished project and turned her attention to overseeing the Alex Hillman Family Foundation.

    In 1989, Rita decided to part with one of the Foundation's masterpieces -the neo-classical Picasso, Mother and Child- and use the auction proceeds in order to implement her groundbreaking vision in health care. She had recently survived a grave illness with a new understanding of the critical importance of nursing, both to an individual's well being and to the efficiency and morale of hospitals on the whole. And so in 1990, the Hillman Scholarship Program for Nursing was founded in order to address staffing shortages, raise the status and salaries of the profession, and insure that the scholarship recipients serve their final semester of clinical training in New York City. The pilot project at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing was soon followed by similar initiatives at the Phillips Beth Israel School of Nursing, Lenox Hill Hospital, and the New York University College of Nursing. In addition to training nurses on the highest level, the Hillman Foundation supports summer internships, postgraduate clinical mentoring, and recruiting efforts to attract pre-college students as well as candidates from other fields intent on a second career. To date 1,200 nursing students have been funded and nearly 700 graduates proudly belong to the Hillman Alumni Nursing Network (HANN).

    In the early 1960s the Hillmans were on "top collectors" lists in magazines like Art News and Esquire, but their true historical impact is best measured by the extent to which their collection was seen by the public -beyond individual canvases included in major loan exhibitions. Beginning in the early 1970s a core group of the pictures was lent to smaller museums and university galleries in regional centers across the country that otherwise had only limited access to great works of art. The Hillman Collection continued on tour from 1979 to 1985 as part of the American Association for the Arts exhibition program, educating audiences in ten different states in the South, Southeast and Midwest. Since the early 1990s, several of the most important pieces have been regularly installed in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matisse, The Pineapple; Soutine, Little Girl with a Doll; Gris, Harlequin; de Chirico, Metaphysical Composition, Modigliani, Hanka Zborowska) and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (Bonnard, Shops on the Boulevard des Batignolles; Braque, Still Life with Basket of Fruit; Dufy, Homage to Mozart; and Picasso, Woman in Gray). Rita was grateful to the curators, preparators, and conservators at these two museums who, over the last eighteen years, cared for the pictures while millions of people enjoyed them. In 2008, the Alex Hillman Foundation donated the Gris Harlequin to the Metropolitan and Picasso's Woman in Gray to the Brooklyn Museum.

    The Alex Hillman Family Foundation is committed to Rita Hillman's legacy at the forefront of the nursing and the health care system. While it may hurt to think that some of our favorite paintings will no longer be on the walls of public museums, it is no small consolation to realize that their sale will be used to help assuage and cure the pain of countless numbers of people. And who is to say that they may not yet return to the public domain, since in the history of collecting, the trajectory of individual works of art is long and outlives their possessors. Rita Hillman, with her grace and pragmatism, likely calculated this potential for a double return on her philanthropy.

    Emily Braun
    Distinguished Professor of Art History, Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
    Curator, the Alex Hillman Family Foundation Collection