Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America

Eugene R. Gaddis, Author
Eugene R. Gaddis, Author Knopf Publishing Group $35 (512p) ISBN 978-0-394-58777-6
Reviewed on: 12/04/2000
Release date: 12/01/2000
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Transcending the usual dusty confines of museum curatorships with unusual artistic range, grasp, ambition and flair, Austin (1900-1957) shone as director of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum and Florida's Ringling Museum. Born to a rich family, Austin married for social position, despite a flamboyant bisexual life (apparently reported matter-of-factly to his wife). By his late 20s he was already running the Atheneum, burning old paintings he disliked in the museum furnace and going on buying binges in Europe, usually snagging rare masterworks at bargain basement prices. In a typical case, he facilitated the world premiere of the Virgil Thomson-Gertrude Stein opera Four Saints in Three Acts (recently thrice-revived) at the Atheneum, and helped arrange George Balanchine's arrival in America to found what became the New York City Ballet. (The choreographer took one look at Hartford in the 1930s and fled to Manhattan.) Gaddis (Austin Memorial: The First Modern Museum), who currently curates the Austin House museum at the Atheneum, points out that many of Austin's artistic friends, from architect Philip Johnson to historian H. Russell Hitchcock, were gay, but fails to detail whether Austin's work and sexuality were related. A pioneer in the appreciation of film as art, baroque painting and the links between 19th-century kitsch and modern art, Austin seems here an ever open-minded intelligence, unique in his time and even more valuable today, when his like would languish in the bureaucratic, hype-obsessed art world. (Nov.)
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