Forgotten Stories from the Art World
Anyone walking on East 55th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues would easily pass the site that was responsible for two historically important art exhibits. The street address of #148 was the original entrance to the firm McMillen Inc., one of the first full service professional interior design firms in the United States. Founded in 1924 by Eleanor McMillen, the firm has designed French accented interiors for clients William and Babe Paley, Henry and Anne Ford, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and Doris Duke – all easily described by the firm’s founder as “people of substance.”
An announcement appeared on September 26, 1941 in The New York Times stating “canvases by a group of Negro artists, most of whom have earned their living as janitors, elevator operators and domestics, though some have college degrees, will be shown at McMillen.” Alongside the contemporary artists (Charles Sebree, Frank Neal Romery Bearden, John Carlis, Frank Neal, Eldzier Cortor, William Carter and Buford and Joseph Delaney) the exhibition also included a selection of primitive African sculpture from the collection of Frank Crowninshield.
The exhibition was followed two months later by “American and French Paintings”, a group show that mixed French moderns with contemporary American artists. Described as “off the beaten track of exhibitions, [but] a lively event well worth the attention”. The “French” artists included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Pierre Bonnard, Amadeo Modigliani, Georges Rouault, Nickolas Vasilieff, Giorgio de Chirico and Dunoyer de Segonzac; the Americans included William Kooning (sic), Stuart Davis, David Burliuk, Virginia Diaz, H. Leavitt Purdy, Pat Collins, John Graham and Walt Kuhn, but there was little editorial coverage of two other American artists – Lenore (“Lee”) Krasner and Jackson Pollock.
A summary of the exhibition is best described by a review that appeared in The Art Digest:
Further proof that all kinds of works, as long as they are good examples, mix well together, is offered by McMillen, Inc. New York, where a combined show of French and American painters is in progress . . . Most of the Americans, however, have French leanings, or, being primitives, have a naïve approach often typical of the School of Paris. John Graham fits in well between Picasso and Rouault, while Walt Kuhn’s fresh bouquet of pink roses is harmoniously compared with an early and surprisingly pink rose still life by Picasso. Other surprises are also found, for, with the exception of Kuhn, Graham, Burliuk and Stuart Davis, the American section is given over to unknown painters who haven’t shown before.”
The writer was particularly struck by an intense painting of a standing man. “A strange painter is William Kooning (sic) who does anatomical men with one visible eye, but whose work reveals a rather interesting feeling for paint surfaces and color.”
And it is de Kooning who credits the curator of the “American and French Paintings”, John D. Graham, for ‘discovering’ Pollock. De Kooning believed that Graham’s selection [and he had not been ‘selected’ for any previous shows] was due to the fact that Graham was a painter first and foremost which enabled him to ‘see’ what artists were doing.
McMillen, Inc. has incorrectly been described as a gallery, but it has always remained a leading interior design firm that is committed to the design and execution of single rooms and should also be considered as a firm that championed art (and artist’s) for arts sake.