With exactly fifty leaves, each individually dedicated to a pioneering artist, the Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago visualizes the historiography of the modern art movement over two centuries. This diagram built upon seven firmly grounded roots representing the foundational masters of modernity—Eugène Delacroix, Honoré Daumier, Jacques-Louis David, Nicolas Poussin, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Gustave Courbet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot—has become known as the most accurate interpretation of an interconnected movement spanning temporal and geographic constraints. Set aside but still within the periphery of modernism, we find emblems of the dual influences of African and Ancient Greek sculpture resting at the foot of the flourishing tree. At the root, Covarrubias places Alfred H. Barr, Jr., founding director of MoMA, in leisurely repose dressed in formal attire and staring pensively at an ornate but vacant frame. One wonders about Barr’s intentions. Is he contemplating which artist from the tree deserves to be chosen for his frame—New York’s newly minted Museum of Modern Art?
Commissioned by Frank Crowninshield, Vanity Fair’s publisher and founding member of The Museum of Modern Art, The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago immediately captivated the public’s imagination and, in the process, elevated Covarrubias’ status within New York’s artistic milieu. Featured on the facing page, the reader would also find “a simple primer of the New Art” written by R. H. Wilenski, an English painter, art historian and critic known for his books The Modern Movement in Art (1927) and The Meaning of Modern Sculpture (1932). A sidebar announced Vanity Fair’s new color series, a portfolio of modern art commencing in the next issue with a full color portrait of Mme Servan by David, “one of the root forces in Modern Art.” Throughout the following year, a notable painting by one of the modernist masters seen on the tree was to be reproduced in each issue. At the end of twelve months, the magazine promised their readers that they would own a portfolio that fairly indicated “the varieties of fruit that have ﬂourished on the Modernist tree” (ibid., p. 37).
The Portfolio contained thirty-nine frame-ready prints with “biographical and critical notes on each painter and painting...a seven-page study of the movements by R. H. Wilenski.” Included were prints by Amedeo Modigliani, George Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, two by Henri Matisse, three by Pablo Picasso and others. Although the advertisement mentioned thirty-nine prints, the title page of the portfolio itself states, “40 plates in full color.” The fortieth is a full-color print of The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago, appearing first and foremost on the facing page of the editor’s preface, clearly planting Covarrubias and his tree deservedly into the heart of the Modern Art movement.
Just months after the publication of Vanity Fair’s Portfolio of Modern French Art in 1935, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., produced a sweeping and landmark exhibition—Cubism & Abstract Art at The Museum of Modern Art. The cover of the exhibition catalog featured a now-famous diagram composed by Barr (see fig. 2) himself depicting the genesis of Cubism and abstraction. When compared to Covarrubias’ Tree, the two images emerge as diametrically opposed. Barr’s analytical ﬂow chart reads from the top of the page to a ﬁnite ending at the bottom, whereas Covarrubias’ lush green Tree bursts with life, growing from the ground up to an inﬁnite sunny blue sky. The source of Barr’s chart was obvious to all, since it was just a few months after the publication of Covarrubias’ celebrated Tree.
In the over 80 years since Covarrubias created his Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago it has been a source of inspiration from which many others have drawn. In 2012, the Museum of Modern Art created “MoMA Makes a Facebook for Abstractionists,” a collaboration between MoMA curators and the Columbia Business School depicting early modernism as a vast social network. This new “birth chart” of contemporary art reinterpreted Barr’s drawing but paid homage to Covarrubias’ tree as the original source of inspiration. Ad Reinhardt’s “How to Look at Modern Art in America” (1946), part of The Spencer Museum of Art collection, is yet another contemporary example of the great influence exerted by Covarrubias’ original drawing on the American arts scene. In their description of the work, the museum acknowledges Covarrubias as the main source for Reinhardt's updated genealogy of contemporary art.
Once in the private collection of Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," and the leader of the most popular dance band in America—at a time when swing jazz was America's most popular music—The Tree of Modern Art—Planted 60 Years Ago has transcended its original purpose as a brilliantly executed educational tool. Its impact on our contemporary understanding of modern art history cannot be understated.
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