Museum of Primitive Art, New York, "Selected Works from the Collection: Sculpture in Wood/Works in Various Media", May 29 - October 20, 1957. The Visual Resource Archive, The Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As an undergraduate student at Columbia College in the early 1950s I majored in Anthropology and minored in Art History. Put them together and what have you got? Primitive Art for want of a better name at the time. The city of New York was the best classroom we could have had to study the art of Non-Western and Non-Asiatic People at this point in history. Ruth Benedict, Paul Wingert and Douglas Fraser taught at Columbia University. Wingert had a keen eye for Oceanic Art and assembled a small but fine collection. Fraser was more interested in putting me to work on endless Diffusionist Seminars linking Ancient Chinese Bronze designs like the Tao T'ieh mask to similar motifs in the art of the Northwest Coast of America.
In 1954, Nelson A. Rockefeller founded the Museum of Primitive Art (MPA), an event celebrated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the current exhibition The Nelson A. Rockefeller Vision: In Pursuit of “The Best” in the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (October 8, 2013 - October 5, 2014). This small, intimate, and jewel-like MPA located in a townhouse on West 54th Street was an inspiration to our generation and somehow a reminder that, even if the discipline had not come of age, we were not going to be passed by in time. From its very beginnings the MPA originated a series of special exhibitions which were scholarly, innovative, and evocative. Its installations directed by René d'Harnoncourt and Douglas Newton appeared to carry on the aesthetic traditions established by James Johnson Sweeney’s 1935 landmark exhibition African Negro Art at MoMA.
It was during these formative years that Allan Stone developed an artistic vision that before long would turn him not only into one of the trendsetting Contemporary Art dealers, but also one of the ultimate collectors of African, Oceanic, Indonesian, Native American and Pre-Columbian Art. Born in Harrison, New York, in 1932, Allan started to collect art while still in college. His brilliant and eccentric mind was fascinated by virtually all art forms, spanning from Abstract Expressionist painting to Cigar Store Indians, Bugatti and Gaudi furniture, Bugatti cars (at one point he owned nearly thirty), as well as to Primitive Art. He bought his first de Kooning painting in 1953, and his first African sculpture, a Kongo Nail Figure, in 1955.
Following his graduation from Boston University law school, Allan was working as a lawyer on Wall Street. He dispensed free legal advice to artists, accepting their artwork in exchange for his favor. Driven by his passion, he quit his job as an attorney in 1960 and opened the Allan Stone Gallery on 48 East 86th Street, where he offered a platform for a roster of young artists who would soon write a part of 20th century art history: Richard Estes, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, John Chamberlain, Joseph Cornell and Wayne Thiebaud, to name a few.
Allan Stone at the opening of the first Wayne Thiebaud exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery, New York, 1962. Photograph Courtesy of the Stone Family
In his gallery, Allan Stone spearheaded the movement of postwar art galleries featuring African and Oceanic artworks within the context of their contemporary art exhibitions. Already in the early years of his gallery career, he sought affinities between African and Oceanic Art and avant-garde Western artists. He juxtaposed paintings by artists such as Arshile Gorky and John Graham with highly expressive African power figures from the Congolese Songye and Kongo peoples. Like the works by de Kooning and Kline, and also the sculptures of John Chamberlain, these sculptures in his personal collection were manifestations of an artistic vision that sought to feature expressive energy through powerful accumulations of mixed media.
Allan's collection of Songye and Kongo power figures (minkisi) is arguably the finest private collection formed in depth of the two most iconic Congo River Basin artforms. The instrumental force largely responsible for the building of this impressive array of objects from a single style area with a single function (to compare only with Jay Last's definitive collection of Lega sculpture associated with the Bwami society) was Merton D. Simpson.
Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Mert was regularly commuting back and forth between New York, Paris, and Brussels, in later years notoriously always on the rocket-speedy Concorde. He continued the legacy of dealers like Paul Guillaume and Marius de Zayas who, in the years following the New York Armory Show of 1914, spread their efforts as intermediaries for African art on both sides of the Atlantic, as Yaelle Biro described in her excellent recent exhibition African Art, New York, and the Avant-Garde at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Merton D. Simpson was born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1928. He was sickly as a child but learned to draw and paint as part of the therapy for his recovery. He was soon winning prizes on a local level, but when it came time for him to go to college he became the first African-American to win a scholarship that would send him to NYU. To aid with his finances, he took a job at Herbert Benevy’s frame shop, where he was to meet some of the most important artists of the day including Franz Kline, Max Weber, and Willem de Kooning, artists who might also have helped to critique Mert's work as a painter.
Anson Conger Goodyear and Nelson A. Rockefeller with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon by Pablo Picasso. A. Conger Goodyear scrapbooks, 52. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York, 1939. (MA254) The Museum of MOdern Art, New York. Digital image © The Museum of MOdern Art / Licensed by Scala / Art Resource, NY / ©2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York
In 1954, Mert opened the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of Primitive and Modern Art located at 445 East 78 Street, relocated to 1063 Madison Avenue in 1965. Through the 1960s and 1970s, he shifted his focus to primarily African art and became one of the leading dealers in the United States and in Europe, before assuming a dominant international role in this field for the better part of the 1980s. A partial list of Mert’s clients and some of the hallmarks of his accomplishments as a dealer would include: Nelson A. Rockefeller’s Benin Terra-cotta Head now at the Met (1958); John A. Friede’s Great Bamum Royal Beaded Figure today at the Smithsonian Institution (1960s); Sid and Bernice Clyman’s major Kongo Nail Power Figure from the Tervuren Museum (1977) as well as a superb Benin Three-figure Plaque (1984); Dan and Marian Malcolm’s Benin Head (1988); the Songye neckrest with gigantic feet which was selected by Jacques Kerchache for the permanent installation at the Louvre; as well as many works sold to John and Dominique de Menil, Milton and Frieda Rosenthal, Jay T. Last, Arman, Sheldon Solow, and Morris J. Pinto to augment but not complete the Who's Who.
One of the things that always struck me about my own contacts with Merton was the informal and relaxed way in which he conducted business, and I think this also appealed and resonated with Allan because they were "birds of a feather". Both Allan and Mert stood out from the Upper Madison Avenue Group by the special way they worked with their clients. There was no fanfare, special lighting, or soft classical music so to speak. Mert would often bring out a masterpiece and simply place it on the coffee table. He was instinctively able to tell if you had "connected" with the piece, and having ascertained the result, would not go into an elaborate dissertation on how good or important the piece might be. Allan Stone and Merton Simpson's ways of looking at art and reacting to it created a bond which was also reinforced by their mutual love of the Jazz Idiom, and I can remember many an opening of a Simpson African Art Show which would end with the sound of Mert's soulful playing of his saxophone. All this will be missed by his many many friends!
Allan Stone. Photograph Courtesy of the Stone Family. Photogaph by Clare Stone.
Allan Stone was looking for art that would engage him and capture his every curiosity. His long and profound ties to Merton Simpson were very private, but look at the visible proof! The finest group of Songye figures in private hands, and more fine and rare Kongo power figures (minkisi) than most museums can boast. Moreover, Allan's collecting was unusual for his time in another important way: he had the utmost love and respect for patinas and surfaces that had been altered by usage. Just think how many Dan masks lost their original patina because dealers wanted them to look more streamlined. Instead, the oilier and crustier the surface, the more Allan was attracted by the object.
Merton D. Simpson. Courtesy of Merton D. Simpson Gallery Archive, New York
I believe there was a special kinship between Allan and Songye statues. Allan gave up a successful law practice for art. It was not to be a more successful business man but because he was so drawn to art that he could not help himself. I think that this same passion and identification with works of art drew him to collect Songye figures in such depth. More than anything, Allan loved creativity and he found it in the boundless imagination of Songye artists. Every Songye figure he owned was different in some way and he could not let go until he had fathomed the soul of each one of them.