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Celeste and Armand Bartos were true patrons of the arts with interests that spanned painting, sculpture, cinema, design, architecture, and new media. The diversity and scope of their patronage is emblematic of the curiosity and optimistic engagement the Bartoses had with their world. Their generosity nurtured artistic production, promoted modernity, and preserved cultural heritage. Their exceptional art collection perfectly embodied their bold and generous spirit and today, enshrines their enduring legacy.
Their collection includes works by many of the twentieth century's greatest artists including Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol and demonstrates the couple's discerning eye for quality. Their philosophy, that you live with what you collect was evident in the works that hung on the walls of their Park Avenue residence and the collection showed interests rooted in classical
Modernism and De Stijl and moved strongly into Pop. Despite their high level of connoisseurship, Celeste and Armand were a low-key couple who did not participate in the usual social circuit of the art world. Instead, they chose to develop personal dialogues with a diverse range of artists that included Isamu Noguchi, Christo and Jean-Claude, Jasper Johns, Gerald Laing, and the architects Gordon Bunshaft and Buckminster Fuller.
Born in 1913, Celeste Ruth Gottesman inherited her love of giving from her father, the Hungarian-born paper magnate D. Samuel Gottesman, who built his family's firm into the largest private pulp and paper Brokerage Company in the world. He was himself a major philanthropist to religious and cultural causes. Perhaps his most famous gift was the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he donated to the young state of Israel in 1955, purchased for $250,000 after having read an advertisement for them in the Wall Street Journal.
Armand P. Bartos was also born of Hungarian immigrants, in 1910, and after receiving a B.A. degree in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania; he received a Master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1935. Armand became a leading modern architect, partnering with Frederick Kiesler on a series of enigmatic and influential structures. They designed the World House Gallery at the Carlyle Hotel in New York, and, most famously the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.
Completed in 1965, the Shrine is an international landmark of modernist architecture that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. Bartos also played a pivotal role in establishing the legendary Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York. Celeste enjoyed a lifelong relationship with the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where she first worked at their Art Lending Service and went on to become an early member of the Junior Council along with Blanchette Rockefeller, Lily Auchincloss, Barbara Jakobson, Joanne Stern, and others. In 1970 she became a Trustee and served in that role for forty-two years. In recognition of her view that film was as much an art form as painting or sculpture, Celeste endowed the Chief Film Curator post at MoMA, gave the Celeste Bartos Theater, as well as the museum's Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, a world-class facility that conserves and houses over 15,000 works of cinema and video art. She also made critical gifts to Film Forum and the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Celeste and Armand were keen to share their love of art and donated many works by major artists to MoMA, including pieces by Sam Francis, Piet Mondrian,
Agnes Martin, Joan Miro, Juan Gris, and Frank Stella, along with an exceptional gift in the 1980s of over 340 prints and works on paper. In 1983 the Bartoses held a major sale of their works through Christie's in London, which included Mondrian's Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow, which sold for what was then a record price of $2.2 million. The generosity of Celeste Bartos can be seen in many of the country's major institutions including the New York Public Library. She was instrumental in the restoration of what became the magnificent Celeste Bartos Forum, a once abandoned Beaux-Arts hall at the library along with the Celeste Bartos Education Center and Gottesman Hall, which along with her sisters Joy Ungerleider and Miriam Wallach, she also donated to the library. Celeste Bartos was also a major donor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, endowing the nascent Media Lab; the Celeste and Armand Bartos Visualization Center for Architecture and the Bartos Theater.
In New Mexico, the Bartos' much-loved second home in their later years, Celeste Bartos made major gifts to numerous educational, artistic and scientific centers. Including the Screening Room Cinema in Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Institute. Celeste and Armand Bartos were collectors of remarkable originality and a unique discernment. Their unrivaled connoisseurship resulted in a collection, which while it encompassed many categories of art, was united by the consistent excellence of each work. Their vision and sense of adventure meant that they identified and sought out the most interesting artists of their generation, a search that was rewarded with friendship and unfettered access to the artists' studios. All this resulted in an outstanding collection of twentieth century art, and thanks to the couple's generosity, a legacy that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
A Constellation of Collectors: The Bartos Collection and African and Modern Art in New York in the 1950's
Armand and Celeste Bartos rank among the rare breed of the most sophisticated collectors of art -a couple who built a collection with a true appreciation for art, artists, aesthetics and art history. They clearly understood the relevance of African art at the genesis of the Modern Art movement.
In this centennial anniversary of the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, we can consider the Bartos Collection among a sort of 'second generation' of important collections of so-called tribal or 'primitive' art, as it would have been referred to when they started their collecting odyssey.
The first generation of African art collectors lived in both Europe and America, and are names we all know - Picasso, Matisse, Vlaminck, Stieglitz, Paul Guillaume, Fnon, Breton and Helena Rubinstein, for example.
A second generation emerged after the Second World War, notably in New York, and centered in the 1950's around Nelson Rockefeller. He was a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art, which his mother, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, largely founded in 1929. The Museum's director, Alfred Barr, understood the important art historical relationship of non-Western art to Modern art and hosted several shows in the 1930's including the seminal African Negro Art of 1935, which showed African art in a Modern context and as artistic sculpture, not ethnography. During his tenure as MoMA president in 1939, Rockefeller, then only 30 years old, supported by Barr's bold line of thinking, drove the acquisition and strong endorsement of Picasso's Desmoiselles D'Avignon (1907) for the collection.
By 1950, with his friend, Rene d'Harnoncourt, who was a specialist in non-Western art, but then became director of the MoMA, Rockefeller started in earnest to build his collection of African and Oceanic Art. The collection would then be housed at the Museum for Primitive Art, located in a townhouse on 54th Street, neighboring the MoMA from 1957 until 1974. Robert Goldwater, whom the Bartoses knew, was the Museum's first director, and later, Douglas Newton. Rockefeller then donated the collection to a wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art named in honor of his son, Michael, who was lost during an anthropological project in New Guinea.
The interconnectedness of these two institutions led to a spirit of that moment in New York, especially in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Many collectors of Modern art were buying African works of art from Rockefeller's dealer, John J. Klejman, whose gallery was at 982 Madison Avenue. Within the 1950's, other dealers were orbiting such as Henri and Helene Kamer, one of Klejman's 'sources' who moved to New York from Paris, Julius Carlebach, Matthias Komor and Ladislas Segy, for instance.
Like the first generation of collectors, the second generation of Modern/African art collectors are names we know, renowned for their 'eyes' and forethought - Pierre Matisse, Jacques Lipschitz, Dolly and Klaus Perls, Muriel Kallis Newman, Roy Neuberger, John and Dominique De Menil, Sidney Janis
Among the stars enlightening that constellation were Celeste and Armand Bartos. Their philanthropy was wide-ranging, but they were especially generous to the MoMA, and Celeste was a member of their Junior Council and later served as a Trustee for forty years. Their collection was quite original in its combination of classical Modernism, de Stijl and Pop Art. They owned major works of art by Piet Mondrian, who once said, 'In past time when one lived in contact with nature, abstraction was easy; it was done unconsciously. Now in our denaturalized age, abstraction becomes an effort.' It is not surprising that the Bartoses would come to embrace African art as self-referential to the other artists in their collection. A gritty move, but like each corner they turned in their collection - they did it deftly with few, but extremely well-chosen sculptures. In a prescient moment, they acquired the six-foot tall Baga serpent. Most would be afraid. In fact, in 1958 the Bartos serpent was declard 'the first seen in America'! With limited literature on the subject, these sculptures were largely legendary circa 1958, when it entered the Bartos Collection, and today, the majority of this quality are only found in Museums. Yet, the serpent's patterning, the painterly surface, the purity of the form itself nestled harmoniously with its neighboring paintings - at first Rothko, later Sam Francis - for over five decades.
The Bartos Kongo figure in iconic form enveloped by nails, standing on muscular, well-defined feet with a the torso pitched forward led by the jutting chin. The face with high cheek bones framed by spiral-shaped ears; full lips and filed teeth punctuated by deeply carved eyes with remnants of glass which are bordered by a neatly plaited brow.
The Kongo nkissi were objects for white positive magic or black negative magic. For this reason, they were feared by all, and the nganga who possessed them was someone whom members of the community would have avoided upsetting when appealing for his power during a consultation. A strict ritual surrounded the consultation and any transgressions could turn against the applicant. He was consulted for many things, ususally though it was in order to escape from a from a supposed spell, to find the love of a husband or a wife, or to find a thief. The applicant's wish was sealed by driving a nail into the figure. The nails used here are often forged European nails, a common 18th century type, which reinforces the hypothesis of this nkisi's significant age. The Bartos Kongo sculpture morphologically corresponds to its use and its function, to inspire fear and respect. The Bartos figure has an expansive forehead wrapped in cloth and a knob at the crown of the head where more medicine, encased in feathers and resin, would have been placed. As seen in the exquisite features of the Bartos Kongo-Yombe, emphasis was placed on the head as the seat of intelligence and insight. By contrast, the body - totally punctured, the warm wood by cold iron - is fierce, powerful and resilient.
See RMAC 1995, 286, cat. no. 6 for a related Kongo-Yombe power figure from the Royal Museum for Central African Art, Tervuren (inv. no. RG53.85.8) collected before 1912; and Van Dyke, 2008, cat. no 86, for another figure in the Menil Collection, Houston (inv. no X902), acquired from J. J. Klejman before 1969, which is also a likely provenance for the Bartos Kongo.