PRINT April 1964

The Wright Ludington Collection

THE WRIGHT LUDINGTON COLLECTION has a special place and reputation in California. Mr. Ludington has been collecting for more than 40 years and has been actively associated with the Santa Barbara Museum of Art since its founding in the late 1930s. Many important gifts have come to the museum through the Ludington Collection in addition to outright purchases for the rapidly developing museum. The display “From the Ludington Collection” at the UCLA Galleries during March and April is the first such exhibition since 1948.

Wright Ludington has had a strong interest in art history since his student days and this is clearly reflected in his collection. The collection is not a methodical development, and neither is it a random one, even though it has a wide range from Sumerian and Egyptian, through Luristan and Etruscan bronzes, Greek and Roman sculpture, Gothic carvings, to important 20th-century paintings by Braque, Picasso and Matisse. There is a decidedly romantic ambience to the Ludington Collection which owes a good deal to a wide-ranging and eclectic appreciation of the expressive. The collection shows a definite sympathy for the imaginative, the original and the genuinely creative. An extraordinary variety of materials has been brought together in great abundance and harmony despite their amazing diversity of form and epoch.

America has seen some very remarkable collections assembled in the years since 1870. The Ludington Collection is not distinguished by its great landmarks, its show of wealth, or its comprehensiveness. The unique quality of it is that it has been selected with an unspoken esthetic criterion of expressive excellence which gives it a human scale and a moving sense of personality. This is a lived-with, art-for-daily-experience, collection. Even though they represent a very considerable investment, the 200 items exhibited at UCLA cannot by any means reflect the entire collection. In many cases only one of two or three works by a given artist has been selected for exhibition. In other cases the fragility of some works has required them to be withheld from the show.

The painting selection includes 54 works from the 15th century Italian and Flemish, to Miro, Matta and Baziotes. The sculpture numbers 70 items and runs from Sumer to Brancusi, Lipchitz and Maillol. The watercolors, drawings and prints add up to more than 60 works and are primarily concentrated in celebrated European and American names of this century: Picasso, Schwitters, Morris Graves and Stella.

Mr. Ludington’s holdings in papers begin with a heightened pen and ink, Virgin, Child, St. Catherine, dated in the 15th century. The drawing is complete in itself as a finished work of art. Picasso is well represented by a gouache, drawings and graphics. Woman on a Beach, is executed in a classic manner. Bride and Groom displays an Ingres-like fully rendered drawing technique. Of the many Ludington-owned works by Morris Graves only the mystic Bat Rock Magnetized by the Moon is shown. Hartley is represented by an exquisite pencil, as is Magritte, Lachaise, and Lebrun. Among the watercolors Joseph Stella’s Night is extraordinary. Kurt Schwitters and William Dole are represented with strong examples of their collage art. Degas, Demuth, Derain, Matisse and Nadelman are also included.

The sculpture section is quite unusual. A portrait head of Gudea, the Sumerian leader from Lagash is commanding. Dated at approximately 2200 B.C., it is as “modern” a work as one can find. The choice which is manifested in the sculpture is emblematic of connoisseurship at its best and highest meaning. The works have been selected from the entire world of art with care and concern for work that is “alive” to the cultivated viewer today. Many of the Luristan and Amlash bronzes reflect a spirit similar to that found in contemporary forms. Connoisseurship can imply a progressive growth of knowledge that becomes inimical to the emotional experience of art. The Egyptian pieces are all of museum quality. The most remarkable are the Head of Kephren, the Cat, the Horus and the lyrical depiction of A Son of Rameses II, in a limestone stele. This stone is an unusually expressive work, dating from the 19th dynasty.

A number of small Etruscan bronzes are to be seen. Two Roman male torsos are of special interest. The first, a 19 5/8'' marble with a lustrous polish, of an adolescent Eros. The second figure, also an Eros, has been worked with great skill and tenderness. A tiny geometric Horse, 8th century Greek, is worthy of the closest examination. Chinese, Indian and Cycladic works are also included. A Mixtec Skull with gold and turquoise inlays is a rare and awesome piece, comparable to the best in any collection. Mr. Ludington has a sensitivity to the Gothic spirit in carving. His Madonna and Child, French 14th C., is notable. A similar quality may be recognized in German wooden pieces of a later date. A South German Pieta strikes an anguished note that is unforgettable. An even later St. Anne with Virgin and Christ, exemplifies the compassionate humanism of the 16th century.

Among the collector’s numerous Rodin bronzes, only four are exhibited. The head of A Burgher is widely known and admired. The small Sketch for the Statue of Balzac is vigorous and fine. Also shown are examples by Despiau, Epstein, Manzu, Marini and Moore. The high points of the modern sculpture section are the Action in Chains torso by Maillol, a fabulous Lipchitz portrait of the French novelist Raymond Radiguet, a Brancusi called Baby’s Head, and a Lehmbruck torso too fragile to travel to UCLA. The Action in Chains is simply too powerful for words to say. It is one of the great sculptures of all time and it is here to see. The Lipchitz portrait is simplified, refined, hyper-aware of modern influences and a very sensitive work. The small Brancusi head is worked in brass and polished. Its unformed features barely emerge from the egg-like metal with its overtones of genesis and manufacture. Other works of merit include A Horse’s Head and Pony  by Georges Braque, Moloch by Seymour Lipton, and La Feuille, by Germaine Richier.

The painting section is illustrative of the individualism with which the whole collection has been brought together. Cubism is a central movement and there are two Picassos which provide a focus for a suite of paintings by Braque, Marcoussis, de la Fresnaye, and Max Weber. The 1909 Picasso catches Cubism at its beginning with an exaggerated facet stage that clearly grows out of both Cézanne and Negro sculpture. The synthetic-period still life of 1916 is a tour de force in textural variations with stipple, additives, varied brush handling and considerable over-paint. The Braque paintings are small, ordered, very abstract efforts of about 1912. Marcoussis’ still life is a gem created out of the tradition and with obvious derivations from his masters. De la Fresnaye is inadequately known even now and this work is very poetic, fresh and singing in its clear, sweet color and its naturalistic depiction. Finally the Max Weber canvases show him to be working firmly within the Cubist tradition, making his own contribution without achieving mastery. Weber seems to have understood the process of Cubism without fully dominating it.

A second direction in the Ludington paintings is that of impressionism and the juxtapositioning of a variety of patterns under a mottled light source. Vuillard’s Child in Interior and the oil sketch on paper both meet this test. The bourgeois interior is flattened and every surface is animated by pattern. In the sketch one finds the paper left breathing and empty in order to provide the sense of atmosphere desired. Bonnard’s The Artist’s Garden is a riot of patterns worked in greens and blues with an unusual display of technical skill in distinguishing each pattern through brushwork. Sam Amato’s Morning Stillness, 1957, fits into this tradition while extending it somewhat.

Surrealism has been an enthusiasm of Mr. Ludington and one may see here selections from the work of Ernst, Chirico, Matta, Miro, Dali and Tanguy. Joys and Enigmas of a Strange Hour by de Chirico is an outstanding early example which makes a perfect center for this section of the collection. The Miro is from the late ’30s and in the mode of the “constellations” with a vigorously scrubbed look. Tanguy’s Time and Again, 1942, is a good example of his mature work in the U.S.

Even more popular names are to be found on works of real distinction in this collection. Modigliani has two portraits in contrasting styles. The first is high-keyed, lightly painted, the second, dark, impastoed and more painterly. The combination is stunning. A Chagall of 1906 shows all of the familiar Russian subject matter with a dark palette unlike his better known work. There is an outstanding Braque Nude” of the ’20s, a fine Rouault oil on paper, a very large Dufy in a linear mode and substantial works by Redon and Rousseau. A pre-Fauve and a Fauve Matisse represent that master with distinction.

More contemporary work is to be seen by Oskar Kokoschka, Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove, William Baziotes and Georgia O’Keeffe. The Stella Brooklyn Bridge is unquestionably a great American painting, touched though it may be by European influences. It is an original and imaginative work that describes the city better today than it did in 1916 when it was painted. The Dove, Arrangement in Form II, 1942, is a beautifully executed non-objective work of sculptural form. The Baziotes Sea Painting is simply stunning in its grotto-like greens and blue, with minimal drawing.

Picasso and Derain reveal still another side to Ludington’s collecting. Two paintings by the Spanish artist from 1923 show a new aspect: the first is an Ingres-like woman in a frontal posture that follows his “classic period.” The second is a disjointed Cubist-inspired oil drawing of a male figure as Harlequin. Ludington was fascinated by Cubism but perhaps even more interested in the inspiration afforded by the figure. Derain is well represented by four works. Woman’s Head, 1922, was the collector’s first purchase. It relates to Egyptian painting and shows a sophisticated early taste. Landscape comes out of Cézanne but seems also to relate to Fauve painting even though it is much later. Still Life with Pumpkin is a great classic of the genre, executed in the most mature manner with references to both Flemish and Spanish influences.

Seeing the collection in the impersonal lights of the UCLA Galleries is not the same as seeing it in the friendly warmth of a home which was built for it. Part of the uniqueness and value of the private collection is that it offers a point of view that museums are not equipped to provide with their emphasis on what is known rather than a mixture of knowledge and intuition. Mr. Ludington has agreed to exhibit a few objects of furniture—a Portuguese Baroque secretary, a Venetian 18th-century secretary, which serve to display some items and to give a hint of the way in which the collection is lived with and enjoyed. The exhibition makes a very satisfying portrait of a man’s evolving esthetic views. I suspect that Mr. Ludington would agree with the words of the early American collector, Robert Gilmor, who wrote in 1797, that he had “a strong attachment to Art, and some little knowledge on the subject. . . . My fondness for the subject may perhaps prove dangerous, but as long as I can restrain it with(in) the bounds of prudence and reason, I am convinced it will prove one of the greatest sources of pleasure, amusement and relaxation from the serious concerns of life.”

Gerald Nordland