Jerry Bywaters, Oil Field Girls , oil, 30 x 25, Michener Collection Acquisition Fund, 1984.
By Madeline Irvine
When author James A. Michener and his wife, Mari, began collecting 20th-century American paintings in 1962, they didn’t intend to keep them forever. Michener explained his intentions in an informal essay published in 1977: “From the first moment … I considered collecting anything, it was always with the purpose of ultimately turning it over to a public institution which might give it a wider use and a better home than I could provide,” Michener wrote. “I knew from the beginning that a collector was a custodian for a brief period of time, after which it was his obligation to pass it on to the public.”
From 1962 to ’68, a select group of paintings graced the Micheners’ homes in Pennsylvania and New York. But most went straight from gallery or studio wall to warehouse, where the collection was stored. At the same time, the Micheners set up a foundation board to select an institution that would most benefit from the gift and that had the facilities and resources to care for it.
Within six years of purchasing their first painting, the Micheners had formed a collection of 107 works of art representing a cross-section of American culture during the author’s life and times. This they gave to the Huntington Art Gallery at the University of Texas at Austin, now known as the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art. The collection was quickly put on view, and people began streaming in to peruse its treasures.
Marsden Hartley, New Mexico Recollection #12 [1922-23], oil, 30 1/8 x 40 1/8, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.
The Micheners kept acquiring paintings, enlarging their collection over the years to 376 artworks worth $20 million at the time of the gift (and appreciably more today). The Micheners also donated $10 million toward the construction of a building for the Blanton Museum, which currently occupies space in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center as well as the university’s art building. The new building is scheduled to open in 2002.
The name James A. Michener conjures up stories from around the world for which the best-selling author is widely known. Miche-ner’s sweeping historical epics and colorful stories struck a chord with Americans and had an impact on popular culture that extended far beyond the written word. The novel Tales of the South Pacific, for which Michener won a Pulitzer prize in 1948, was the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein award-winning musical South Pacific. Several of Michener’s blockbuster books were also made into television miniseries, of which Centennial was his favorite.
James and Mari Michener among the collection, ca. 1970.
Michener’s success as an author has roots in the rather rough beginnings of his life. Born in New York City in 1907, Michener was abandoned in an or-phanage and adopted by a widow, Mabel Michener of Doyles-town, PA. His youth was impoverished, yet he never felt deprived of love or education. He was raised in a Quaker household where he learned the disciplined work ethic he exemplified through-out his life; he was well known for working 365 days a year.
As a boy Michener began collecting stamps, and he credits this first collection with teaching him about the subtleties of color, line, and design and with helping develop his eye. These tiny images small prints, really brought the world to Michener’s rural town and awakened in him a wanderlust that kept him roaming the globe until he landed in Austin, TX, in 1981.
David Bates, The Whittler , oil, 96 x 78, Michener Collection Acquisition Fund, 1983.
At age 24 Michener went to Italy on a university scholarship and studied art. He “travel-ed like a peasant” and along the way fell in love with Sienese painting. Though he didn’t have the money to collect at the time, he did have a consuming interest in this art so much so that he began a book on the subject. However, soon after he had started writing, a well-respected art historian published what Michener called “a stunning essay” on the same subject. Michener put his project aside, but his love for the deep, moody color and powerful narrative of Sienese painting never left him.
After returning to the United States, Michener worked as an editor in New York City. He spent many lunch hours studying the exhibitions at the original Whitney Museum of Art on Eighth Street. “I cannot speak too highly of the function performed by the Whitney Museum during those years,” Michener wrote. “I doubt if it will ever have a greater impact on anyone than it had on me in those years when I used to stop by at lunchtime two or three days a week.” It was during this time that he came to admire artists like John Marin, Max Weber, Charles Burchfield, and Thomas Hart Benton.
Arthur G. Dove, Good Breeze , oil, 19 1/2 x 27 1/2, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1968.
During World War II Michener was stationed in Japan. He was introduced to Japanese prints and was amazed to discover in them the same traits he had admired in Sienese painting and in his stamp collection—sinuous line, beautiful color, and striking design. He began collecting, and a little over a decade later donated a 5,400-piece Japanese print collection to the Honolulu Academy of Art. Michener also wrote five books on the subject and is credited with reviving an interest in the field.
In 1954, Michener met Mari Yoriko Sabusawa, an editor in Chicago. He was working on a story about an American and his Japanese wife; they were married a year later. Several years afterwards, during a lull in his writing, Michener decided that the time had come to begin building a collection of 20th-century American art. He had recently published Hawaii, the first of his sprawling and enormously popular historical novels, and for the first time in his life had the means to acquire paintings.
Charles Sheeler, Still Life , oil, 23 x 15 3/4, Michener Art Fund, 1969.
Michener knew that he wanted to own good works by the artists he had come to admire at the Whitney Museum, yet he was also beginning to respond to the abstractionists and felt that he was not qualified to make choices between the two schools. So he did what came most naturally: research. “I set aside a three-month period,” Michener wrote, “during which I read practically everything written on contemporary American painting, cross-indexed 163 major books, essays, and catalogues and drew up a chart summarizing the opinions of critics, museum people, the general public, and others.”
Michener studied for 18 months before making his first purchase, but then he and Mari who, to his great surprise, became as active as he was in forming the collection—worked at lightning speed, as if to make up for lost time. Richard Bellamy, a curator and sometime gallery director who was well known at the time for spotting emerging talent, was a friend, advisor, and confidant, taking Michener on numerous studio visits. Over the years Michener also sought the advice of prominent dealers and museum professionals.
First and foremost, however, what drove Michener’s collecting was an affinity he felt with artists for the creative process. As he wrote, “This collection was formed by a professional writer who felt that he ought to know what artists living in America during his lifetime were doing. Specifically, he wanted to see how they handled the kinds of artistic problems he faced. The collection was thus a study in the creative process with constant focus on what the artistic intention had been when the artist painted a given picture, how he used his materials, what his attitude had been toward design, color, and drawing, and how the end product fitted into his personal development and the intellectual history of our times.”
Andrew Dasburg, Landscape [ca. 1924], oil, 12 7/8 x 16, Michener Collection Art Fund, 1970.
The strengths of Michener’s collection lie in works from the first half of the 20th century. From the new urban realism championed by Robert Henri’s East River, Snow at the turn of the century through Abstract Expression-ism, one can see American art emerge from 19th-century academicism, begin to grapple with the revolutionary changes in European art, and finally command the world’s attention.
Paintings from the 1930s had a powerful impact on Michener, from Jerry By-waters’ Oil Field Girls a favorite in the collection to Thomas Hart Benton’s moonlit period piece Romance and the work of the Social Realists such as Raphael Soyer’s Transients. “The visual imagery from that period drove into my consciousness the fact that men and women worked for a living,” Michener said. “In my books, people work for a living. Money is important. In my books, people often go without money, under great duress.”
Adolph Gottlieb, Cadmium Red Over Black , oil, 108 x 90, Gift of Mari and James A. Michener, 1991.
Michener’s predilection was for narrative art. In addition to Henri and Benton, other important artists represented include John Sloan and Charles Sheeler. However, Michener also developed a strong appreciation for abstract art, sometimes years after he first saw an artist’s work. Among the groundbreaking abstract works from the 1920s and ’30s are Marsden Hartley’s bleak New Mexico Recollection #2 and Arthur Dove’s quirky emblematic abstraction Good Breeze.
Perhaps the signature piece of the collection is Adolph Gottlieb’s Cadmium Red Over Black, a mysterious abstraction that captures the essence of landscape through a sense of heat, gravity, and energy. Michener described the piece as one “which the artist selected for me after several months’ debating and which is one of the finest works he has done.” And while the Micheners were attuned to Pop Art, the new figuration in the late 1970s and early ’80s piqued their interests once again. Works from this period by Texas artists David Bates, John Alexander, and Melissa Miller are important to the collection.
Melissa Miller, Zebras and Hyenas , oil, 72 5/16 x 83 7/8, Michener Collection Acquisition Fund, 1986.
Mari Michener passed away in 1994; her husband in 1997. The Michener collection at the Blanton Museum, how-ever, continues to grow, thanks to the generous gifts they bestowed. In 1996 the Micheners were awarded the Medal for Distinguished Philanthropy by the American Association of Museums. Their extraordinary gifts totaled more than $100 million in artwork and money for museums and universities around the country.
Featured in October 2000