Visionaries: 500 years of artistic innovation in the collection of Paul G. Allen
Harnessing his future-forward perspective, Mr. Allen built an art collection of incomparable excellence
We are all bound to time, influenced by the tenets of our day. But it is those rare innovators who carry us into the future. Since the early cave paintings, humanity has explored our relationship to the world through art, and artistic disciplines of all stripes have evolved over millennia through the insistence of those who refuse to conform to their age.
Technology is likewise led by original thinkers, and few understood this better than Paul G. Allen. The co-founder of Microsoft, Mr. Allen was characterised not only by his intellect but also by his relentless curiosity. Beyond his innovations in the realm of computing, he was also an ocean explorer, an accomplished musician, the owner of two professional sports teams, a dedicated philanthropist and an avid art collector. Through his wide-ranging pursuits, he sought to solve complex challenges, reconsider what technology could bring to the world and, above all, continuously challenge the status quo.
Harnessing his visionary perspective, Mr. Allen built an art collection of incomparable quality, which will be offered as part of an historic auction at Christie’s New York in November 2022, Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection. All proceeds from the sale — valued at an unprecedented $1 billion — will be dedicated to philanthropy, pursuant to Mr. Allen’s wishes.
From celebrated Old Masters and ground-breaking Impressionists to leaders of post-war abstraction and trailblazers at work today, the collection charts the revolutionary spirit of exceptional artists across 500 years of history.
The future tense
In 1962, the city of Seattle hosted the Century 21 Exposition, a World’s Fair that drew over 10 million people to its gates. With a pledge to ‘search out promises of the new age,’ the fair showcased the forefront of human innovation. In the shadow of the newly-constructed Space Needle, nine-year-old Paul Allen was captivated by the event, later recalling, ‘It was about the future, so I loved it.’
This forward-thinking propensity would lead Mr. Allen to ground-breaking innovations that have permanently altered our relationship with technology. In this same way, art has long been pushed into the next era by those acting outside the constraints and expectations of their time — from the trailblazing artists of the Renaissance to the Impressionists and their infamous Salon des Refusés.
With many seminal works of art within the collection, it feels as if the future is being charted across the canvas itself. In Paul Cezanne’s La montagne Sainte-Victoire (1888-1890), for example, the foundation of modernism is laid out in oil. In this close-up view of a mountain in southern France — a motif Cezanne would paint dozens of times — the artist flattened the image into abstraction, eliminating recognizable details and applying paint with dynamic, almost woven brushstrokes. Focusing on form and perception, Cezanne’s work was a precursor to Cubism, in which scenes were stripped down into geometric shapes.
Other artists represented in Mr. Allen’s collection also reinvented established traditions, driving their disciplines forward. From Georgia O’Keeffe, who transformed still-life painting, to Andrew Wyeth, who offered a counterpoint to the time-honoured odalisque, Mr. Allen looked to artists who revolutionised artistic conventions through original and daring techniques.
In Francis Bacon, Mr. Allen found a profound example. In Three Studies for Self-Portrait (1979), Bacon examines subjects outside of the self. Bacon reduces his face to parts — an ear, nose or shirt collar — to consider what makes up the whole, and the limits of abstraction within portraiture.
Connecting the lives and works of history’s most iconic artists, Mr. Allen created through-lines between visionaries and innovators across 500 years. ‘I was drawn to people who, like me, were eager to see what might come next and wanted to try to make it happen,’ he wrote in his 2011 memoir, Idea Man. ‘From my youth, I’d never stopped thinking in the future tense.’
Windows onto different realities
Mr. Allen’s collection also includes many masterworks of landscape painting by artists who redefined the subject. ‘I’m always trying to figure out where the future’s going, looking outward in a certain way, so maybe that’s why I find landscapes interesting,’ he said in a 2016 interview given in conjunction with the opening of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at the Seattle Art Museum. ‘It’s as if they are windows onto different realities…’
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Beginning with Jan Brueghel the Younger’s group of paintings entitled The Five Senses (circa 1626), his collection traces the evolution of landscape painting across several centuries.
A major development in the genre came from the Impressionists, who famously brought their canvases outside to capture nature’s fleeting moments. Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, soleil voile (1899-1903), part of a series created over several years, demonstrates the artist’s radical advancements within this larger movement.
Instead of an idealised portrayal of the natural world, Monet attempted to capture a moment in time, reconstructing the industrialised setting of London into an ethereal, otherworldly scene. This approach — a marriage of the artist’s ephemeral experience and abstraction — would go on to transform the genre.
Several decades later, this idea would resurface in the paintings of David Hockney. Like Monet, one of his greatest influences, Hockney strives to capture the vitality of the outdoors. Through bright colours and bold, physical rendering, he translates his keen observance of nature into a tangible experience of place.
Through paintings like Queen Anne’s Lace Near Kilham (2010-2011) that capture the natural beauty of his native East Yorkshire, Hockney carries on the landscape tradition of earlier British artists like Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose masterpiece Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice (1841) is represented in Mr. Allen’s collection.
The many windows onto the natural world collected by Mr. Allen invite us into the mind of the creator and allow us to consider own evolving experience with the forces of nature.
Bytes and numbers
Like the numbers of a computer code or the brushstrokes of a painting, communication takes many forms. With his background in technology, Mr. Allen had a profound appreciation for the mechanisms through which we disseminate information, express feeling and connect with the world. ‘I’m attracted to things like Pointillism or a Jasper Johns ‘numbers’ work because they come out of breaking something down into its components — like bytes or numbers, but in a different kind of language,’ he said of his collecting habits.
Mr. Allen also believed that there was a deep connection between art, science, philosophy and the natural world, describing them as ‘different strands of the same braid.’ He identified strongly with those who explored theories and knowledge outside of their realm, seeking to connect and build upon the many discoveries of humanity.
One such figure was Georges Seurat, the pioneering technician of Pointillism. Drawing from disciplines outside of the fine arts, Seurat was influenced by the French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul, who asserted that colour is affected by adjacent hues, and the American physicist Ogden Rood, who made the distinction between colour as light and colour as pigment.
Seurat’s Pointillism — a new manner of painting that used tiny dots in contrasting colours to produce an image — was rooted in scientific theory. With Pointillism, Seurat offered a counterpoint to the spontaneity of Impressionism, positing that order can exist within a sensory plane. In Les Poseuses, Ensemble (Petite version) (1888), a follow-up to his famous Un dimanche d’été à l’île de la Grande Jatte (1884-1886) in the Art Institute of Chicago, the artist demonstrates the breadth of his theory, adapting it to a complex composition in which the original painting is embedded within a new scene.
Pointillism was furthered by the artist’s close friend Paul Signac, who continued to explore the limits of the technique after Seurat’s unexpected death at the age of 31. It went on to influence vast range of artists, from Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh to contemporary figures like Damien Hirst.
Nearly a century after Seurat and Signac built a new language made up of fragmentary dots, so too did Jasper Johns create his own vocabulary. Through works like Small False Start (1960), Johns deconstructs our notion of colour and forces us to reconsider what we assume to be the truth. In his ‘numbers’ series, he continues along this path, abstracting the familiarity of digits to lead us to consider an entirely new viewpoint.
Like those before him, Mr. Allen sought greater truths. ‘I ask a lot of questions, because I’m always looking for connections between different topics that aren’t necessarily obvious, but that might help us see our world differently, or understand it better,’ he said in his remarks for the opening of Seeing Nature in Washington D.C. Bridging over 500 years of history, Mr. Allen sought out art as a means of understanding the world and built a collection that demonstrates the transformative effect of visionaries over centuries. His collection celebrates those who dared to push us forward, the icons of their time who, like Mr. Allen, defied limitations and boldly marched into the future.