PRINT November 2000


Chick Austin

EUGENE R. GADDIS’S FULL-DRESS BIOGRAPHY of Arthur Everett “Chick” Austin, Magician of the Modern, is subtitled “the transformation of the arts in America.” But the subtitle tells only half the story. The book also recounts the transformation of a European art movement. Austin, the legendary director of Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum from 1927 to 1944, was one of the most active supporters of Surrealism in the United States. With his patronage, the Surrealist movement was conscripted to serve American needs and sensibilities. This is what makes Austin’s life compelling to contemporary readers. A movement once considered dead today percolates through many cultural spheres, from architecture to advertising to the latest NASDAQ start-up. Now resuscitated by biography, Austin speaks to us like the previous incarnation of a new best friend.

In the cultural annals of the twentieth century, Austin is celebrated for two ventures in the performing arts. In 1933, at the prompting of Lincoln Kirstein, he invited George Balanchine to the United States to form a ballet school at the Atheneum. Though the deal later collapsed, the invitation was a major contribution to the shift of cultural gravity from Paris to New York. The following year, he presented the world premiere of Four Saints in Three Acts at the Wadsworth, the oratorio with music by Virgil Thompson and a libretto by Gertrude Stein. The performance featured an all-black cast, cellophane sets by Florine Stettheimer, stage direction by John Houseman, and choreography by Frederick Ashton. Attended by a glittering crowd of New Yorkers, the evening was the high point of Austin’s career.

That career, however, was not one that rested on high points. Gaddis, an archivist and curator at the Wadsworth, makes clear that Austin’s gift was for sustained momentum. Show after show, lecture after concert, he sustained a perpetual calendar of events. No wonder Austin ended up director of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, the winter holiday spot of circus folks. He’d been a ringleader all his life. And there seem to have been at least three rings, plus a side-side show, going on in his mind at all times. Patron, curator, connoisseur, amateur thespian, magician. Pedigreed Boston scion, pretty preppy, married man, sometime queen, would-be movie star, manic-depressive, alcoholic, dead at fifty-seven.

Austin built the Atheneum from a regional outpost into an institution that at the time even stalwarts of the Museum of Modern Art in New York conceded was more lively than their own. There were early shows on Picasso (in 1934) and the so-called Nee-Romantics (Eugene Berman, Christian Berard), and, in 1930, the country’s first thematic show on landscape painting; lectures by Le Corbusier, Dalí, Richard Neutra, and Buckminster Fuller; major acquisitions, including the Lifar Collection, comprising set and costume designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes; legendary soirees, like the Venetian Fête and the Paper Ball; and appearances by Austin himself as the Great Osram, Masked Master of Multiple Mysteries. Austin was mainly identified, however, with two schools of painting: the Surrealist and the Baroque, two movements that faced each other across time in attitudes of contorted emotion. Surrealism, in particular, brought Austin’s personality into congruence with his time and place.

GADDIS HAS WRITTEN a work of social history, not a probing cultural commentary. This makes it difficult to identify with Austin or to see him in relationship to contemporary art and society. At times, I found myself thinking, Austin had it too easy. All he had to do was take a few nice trips to Paris, look around the galleries, and put a show or two together over a delicious dinner. (How simple it was then to astonish Americans with the new.) Then it occurred to me that in this regard he was pioneering the use of contemporary art, for better or worse, as a medium of international exchange.

But perhaps we don’t need to have these dots connected explicitly. Not while Thomas Krens is up at the Guggenheim issuing press releases on his new deal with the Russians, the Koreans, or the casino operators in Las Vegas. Not while Philip Johnson, still active at ninety-four, continues to comb the earth for examples of fresh young talent, just as he did tor MoMA’s “International Style” show in 1932. (The Wadsworth Atheneum was in fact that show’s second stop.) The links to today are there, in other words, even if readers must forge them for themselves.

I do wish that Gaddis had told us more about Austin’s boyfriends. We hear a lot about his wife, Helen—rich, well-born, stalwart. Of Austin’s lovers, we learn little more than their names. This reticence perpetuates the closeted life Austin felt compelled to lead. More important, it obscures the appeal that Surrealism most likely held for Austin and his circle. An art that pivoted on psychology, sexuality, and the mechanisms of repression, Surrealism dealt with the idea of revealing secrets. But it also served to conceal the emotions of those not yet prepared to tell all.

IN AMERICA, Surrealism faced the problem of redundancy. The country has always been packed with multiple realities, any one of which has the power to make all the others look absurd. If you travel, let’s say, to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to observe the Amish, you risk coming away with a gnawing sense of disbelief in your own way of life. Route 66 is a surrealist trek. Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona. Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino. Or think about Hartford, an entire city built on the hope that bad things won’t happen to good people. How could a Surrealist possibly improve on the conversion of insecurity into an industry, a population, a skyline of gilded domes?

Europeans had long held a surrealist view of the New World, from the reports offered by maritime explorers to the fictions of Kafka, Céline, and Brecht. Americans, lacking benefit of distance, obviously have a different vantage point on our own weirdness. We can’t put a frame around it. Others, however, can. And, in the case of gay people, certainly do, with what at times seems the same degree of confidence now as they did in Austin’s day.

With Austin, Surrealism began to insinuate itself into the official seats of consciousness. Instead of defining itself as a counterproposition to established authority, as it did in Europe, the movement reshaped itself in the image of the in-stablishment. This, roughly, was Austin’s project. Why shouldn’t a major museum of modern art be as surrealist as the rest of society? Why shouldn’t it hold its own with the insurance companies, the state legislators, the presumptive heirs to the colonial tradition, and the little repertory of eagles, American flags, mahogany furniture, federalist architecture, golden domes, Colt firearms, and the other signs and symbols with which the Connecticut old guard projected its claim on public attention?

BUT WAS A SURREALISM robbed of outsider insurgency any kind of Surrealism at all? In America, the movement’s dreamy atmospherics easily lent themselves to fashion, advertising, Hollywood photography, window display, and other forms of commercial expression once thought to be without cultural merit. And Austin went in for a few too many fancy balls. He was not driven by the radical political zeal that inflamed Breton and Aragon, and with the exception of sexual partners he made no lasting social attachments among the working class. Plus he lived in a sumptuous house.

The taste for glamour, sophistication, and frills was shared by Charles Henri Ford, Lincoln Kirstein, Pavel Tchelitchew, George Platt Lynes, and many other American devotees of Surrealist art. In the ’40s, this urbanity was turned against them by the manly champions of Abstract Expressionist painting. Virility is something the Cedar Tavern denizens had in common with good city fathers of Hartford, where newspapers made ominous ramblings about Austin and his coterie of young men.

But Austin spoke in code as well. At the Paper Ball, held in 1936, the Wadworth’s benefactors were visibly appalled when to their wondering eyes appeared “the Poets,” a sextet of pretty, heavily made up, and provocatively dressed young men bearing aloft the fairy-tale figure of movie-star Ruth Ford. If he’d been born British, Austin might have become a great spy. The Fifth Man. (The Sixth? I’ve lost count.) As it was, it is fair to say that he used art as an Enigma Machine for sexual transgression. Austin’s was, we would now say, a camp taste. Perhaps his singular achievement was to transform Surrealism into the American vanguard of highbrow camp. This is what finally gave his work a particular political immediacy on the American scene: Surrealism rattled the masculine cage. The love that dared not speak its name could communicate through visual images of ambiguous meaning.

Buñuel wrote of going into the urinals in Madrid to beat up homosexuals. In the US, the Surrealist aficionados were more likely to be the prey. That is one way to summarize the transformation overseen by Austin’s magic.


Eugene R. Gaddis, Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. 512 pages.