Joseph H. Hirshhorn, One of the 20th Century's Greatest Collectors

Joseph H. Hirshhorn, One of the 20th Century's Greatest Collectors

"M y mother worked in a ladies’ bag factory to feed ten children and herself. We lived in a railroad flat. There were ten of us, four boys and six girls. Three of the boys slept on folding beds. The walls of our room were a dirty green.

We used to get calendars. The calendars came out of the Barbizon School-Landseer, Bouguereau, Israels, Nasmyth, all those people. I used to cut up those pictures and put them on that green wall. I was very young and so I kept dreaming about them, looking at them morning and night. It intrigued me. I think this is how my art world started.”

Joseph H. Hirshhorn

Joseph H. Hirshhorn’s rag-to-riches story is the ultimate embodiment of the American Dream: born in Latvia, the twelfth of thirteen children, his family emigrated to the United States when he was only eight years old. The poverty and hardship of these early years was eclipsed by the success of his later years as a businessman.

Renowned for his impeccable taste and discerning eye, Hirshhorn became one of the great collectors of the twentieth century, famous for his swift collector’s instinct: ‘I see quickly and I see a great deal’. His passion for art led him to amass a legendary collection and cultivate relationships with the most important artists, dealers and curators of the day. His travels around Europe led to a first-hand engagement with contemporary British artists, from established figures such as Henry Moore through to young and up-and-coming artists, such as Alan Davie and Donald Hamilton-Fraser. Hirshhorn’s generous donations of over 12,000 works to the Hirshhorn museum included permission to deaccession works through the authority of the Board of Trustees, with all proceeds going into acquisition funds for new works of art. This unique legacy ensures the museum remains a living collection, ever evolving and changing.

Alan Davie had been the first British artist to see Jackson Pollock’s work in 1948, and indeed, it was Pollock who helped Davie curate his first show in America at the Catherine Viviano gallery. However, Davie did not remain rooted in the action painters’ camp of Abstract Expressionism, and instead his work became more closely aligned with the symbolic and spiritual oeuvre of artists such as Arshile Gorky and Clyfford Still. By 1960 he was recognised as one of the leading contemporary British artists of the day. He had shown works across the globe, including in Mexico City, Japan, Paris, Milan, New Zealand, Buenos Aires and even Iraq (as part of a touring British Council exhibition), and found a particularly receptive audience in the United States, having held his first solo exhibition at the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York in 1956 [where Jackson Pollock lent him a hand to install it]. Together with contemporaries such as William Scott, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon he was seen as a leading voice in the international abstract movement. Yet Davie, more so than many of his peers, refused to be saddled with an artistic label, and instead trod his own, very distinct artistic path.

Whilst fully aware of a number of major international artists and movements, Davie was an adept alto saxophonist and music, jazz in particular, was also to remain a lasting influence throughout the course of his life. Just as a jazz musician composes and riffs his music, so too did Davie explore with the potentials of an artistic ‘free hand’, creating densely worked compositions that are alive with an incredible sense of energy and movement, where colours and forms rise or crescendo. As Michael Horovitz noted in his slender 1963 publication on the artist ‘some of his most highly worked paintings are the upshot of his dissatisfaction with any one implication – like John Coltrane on his marathon sax solos, he sets out to embellish every possibility the theme can hold’ (Michael Horovitz, Alan Davie, Methuen, London, 1963, unpaginated).

Donald Hamilton-Fraser was celebrated for his abstract landscape paintings during the 1950s with their characteristically thick strokes of paint layered onto a canvas with a palette knife, a technique comparable to that of artists such as Nicholas de Staël. The group from the Hirshhorn collection features a number of these landscape paintings from the 1950s, all with different palettes, but with the same dreamy atmospheric feel, the sensation of looking over a vista at dusk or dawn as colours coalesce. Later, Hamilton Fraser was to become particularly famed for his paintings and drawings of ballet dancers as he was very knowledgeable about ballet, as well as literature and music more generally. This selection, however, demonstrate Fraser in the midst of his preoccupation with the French avant-garde, combining that with his Scottish heritage and affinity for the landscape.

See more Sotheby's sales featuring works from the Hirshhorn collection here.

Modern & Post-War British Art

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