Forgotten Stories from the Art World
In November of 1941, advertising executive Samuel M. Kootz was engaged by Macy’s department store to mount an exhibition featuring modern American art. The offer reflected both a growing interest in American art as well as its advertising potential. One month later, Kootz issued an invitation through The New York Times for artists to come to Macy’s and “Get off at the 15th floor and ask for Mr. Kootz in Room 14” where he would review up to three examples of their work for inclusion in the exhibit. The eventual selection of 179 works by 72 American artists reflected abstraction, expressionism, surrealism, primitivism, realism, texturism and precisionism. Work by Arshile Gorky was originally scheduled to be shown in the exhibition but at the last moment, could not be included. The art critic for The New York Times (Edward Alden Jewell) noted “there is no denying the expressiveness of a few of the expressionist paintings or the abstractness of some of the abstractions.” Amongst the Macy list included: Milton Avery, Ben Benn, Henry Billings, Byron Browne, Ralston Crawford, Nathaniel Pousette-Dart, Stuart Davis, John Graham, Louis Harris, George L.K. Morris, George Picken, Mark Rothko, Joseph Solman, Vincent Spagna and more. In essence, Jewell felt that no new talent was displayed (Rothko had been termed “aggressively modern two years earlier and the Macy’s show included his Antigone (1939-1940) and Oedipus (1940)). What the exhibit did introduce was an opportunity for modern artists neglected by the museums an alternative to show their works from the traditional institutions.
This Macy’s exhibition wasn’t the first foray of selling recognized artistic goods in a department store. Six months earlier, Gimbel Brothers department store (Gimbel’s) had offered William Randolph Hearst’s possessions for sale. Ad copy ran “Think of it, a department store selling ‘over the counter’ an art collection that is without peer in the world! It took a Gimbel’s to do it.” Piece by piece items sold and news’ cartoons documented the entire sale. In the New Yorker, Peter Arno drew an angry gentleman in a bowler hat sternly reminding his wife, “If you’re so hell-bent on buying something that belongs to Mr. Hearst, you can get a Journal-American for three cents.” The 150-volume catalog offered over 15,000 pieces. The total sale netted Gimbels close to $6 million dollars (in context, Parke-Bernet auction house would not achieve an annual figure of that degree until 1948).
And in 1928, Lord & Taylor held a French oriented exposition called L’Art Decoratif et la Peinture Francaise which carried works by Picasso, Utrillo, Braque, Vlaminck, Derain and Dufy. Over 300,000 people visited the exhibition in 32 days.