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The Kimbell collection is looking fabulous at 40

Posted 6:52am on Thursday, Oct. 04, 2012

When the Kimbell Art Museum opened Oct. 4, 1972, nothing in the cards indicated the collection begun by Fort Worth industrialist Kay Kimbell and his wife, Velma, would ever be worthy of the splendid architecture of the building.

Today, there is no doubt that the treasures within have surpassed the glories of the shell.

For its 40th anniversary, the Kimbell is mounting a well-deserved self-congratulatory party that displays 220 of its best acquisitions -- including a few pieces of Kay and Velma Kimbell's original foundation stock -- that thrust it from an admired building to an international art destination. It is the most extensive showcase of the permanent collection ever mounted, and it illustrates the breathtaking scope of art masterpieces from the past 5,000 years.

"The Kimbell at 40: An Evolving Masterpiece" will be on exhibit until Dec. 30.

In 1972, critics lavished praise on the dramatic concrete cycloid vaults designed by Louis Kahn while managing to say little or nothing about the collection.

Hilton Kramer, then-art critic for The New York Times, said, "It's one of the greatest buildings of its kind in the world." Henry J. Seldis, who wrote for the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, noted that the building "is one of the most advanced concepts for the display of art I have ever seen." His only comment about the art was that it appeared to be a "catholic collection."

At the time of the opening, Charles Cowles, then-publisher of Artforum magazine, echoed critics about the building. "It's quite impressive. It's spectacular," he said.

But he was also extremely prescient. "When the world's art dealers have a foremost painting to offer for sale, they will offer it to Fort Worth. Five years from now, half of the paintings we are seeing tonight will be in the basement because they will get better."

He was so right.

The paintings, sculptures and objects did get better, much better. Many of the works that were on display in 1972 are no longer in the permanent collection. There are no American works, nor is there anything that post-dates 1945. The Kimbell leaves American art to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and anything after 1945 to the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

This exhibit was put in the hands of Jennifer Casler Price, the Kimbell's curator for Asian and non-Western art. She begins the journey through time in the lower gallery, dividing the space in two. On one side are Kahn's original models of the museum as he first presented his ideas and as the building evolved into its final iteration. Looking toward the near future is a model of the expansion, the Renzo Piano building that is due to open in late 2013.

The other half of the gallery showcases some of the few remaining pieces of the Kimbell family's original collection, which was acquired from the late 1940s through the 1960s. Two of these, Miss May Sartoris (c. 1860) by Frederic Leighton and the pristine S elf-Portrait (c. 1781) by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, are considered iconic works of the artists and of the Kimbell's collection.

The collection begins to take form

When the first director, Richard Fargo Brown (1965-1979), was hired, he swiftly began expanding the collection, which was deep in British and French portraits, to include works from around the globe. He established the institution's founding concept to "form a collection of the highest possible aesthetic quality derived from any and all periods in man's history, and in any medium or style."

His wide-ranging acquisitive interests begin on the main floor of the museum, where the artworks are displayed chronologically as they were acquired. Each of the four Kimbell directors gets a share of the real estate.

Before the building even opened, Brown had expanded the permanent collection to include works by Pablo Picasso, Edvard Munch, Jusepe de Ribera, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Francisco de Goya, Edgar Degas and Claude Monet and pieces from China, Japan, South America and Africa.

One of the pieces that he acquired was a Chinese scroll painting with an impeccable provenance. At one time it was in the Manchu imperial collection, held in the Forbidden City, and it bears the seals of a number of Chinese emperors. "For Rick Brown, who was no specialist in Chinese art, and with no curator of Asian art to help him, that was a stellar purchase. It is our most important Chinese painting to this day," Price says.

"What he was able to do in that period and the range of material and the level of quality is astounding. From that point on, the collection has grown upon that foundation and those ideals."

Brown's serendipitous acquisitions of rare and unusual artworks began a trend that seems to have blessed all the subsequent Kimbell directors.

In 1975, Kay Fortson was elevated to president of the Kimbell's board of directors. As businesses from Kay Kimbell's estate were sold, the proceeds were used to make acquisitions of an even higher caliber, says Price. With the new money stream, Brown was able to afford Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa, by El Greco.

He won a pitched battle with the Louvre over The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, from the estate of David Rockefeller. Because it had been in a private American collection, the Kimbell was chosen by Rockefeller's estate so that the painting could remain on public view in the U.S., says Eric M. Lee, the current Kimbell director.

Brown was in negotiations to buy Cézanne's Man in a Blue Smock in 1979 when he died unexpectedly. The board approved the acquisition and posthumously dedicated it in Brown's honor. It has become the Kimbell's most requested loan, Lee says.

One of the primary reasons the Kimbell has the pieces that it does is the museum's board. "It's small, efficient and they act quickly. When it's important, the board finds a way of acquiring," Lee says.

Finding dazzling and iconic works

In 1980, Edmund (Ted) Pillsbury was hired as director. The Kimbell added some of its most significant paintings during his 18-year tenure. This is where the galleries become dazzling, with works by Joan Miró, Tiepolo, Murillo, Peter Paul Rubens, Fra Angelico, Gauguin, Matisse, Titian, Tintoretto, Saenredam and two of the most iconic Kimbell paintings, The Cheat With the Ace of Clubs, by Georges de La Tour, and The Cardsharps, by Caravaggio.

"From the time Ted took the helm, he had at his disposal a healthy acquisition budget, a supportive board and the expertise of a curatorial and conservation staff. Consequently, what you see in the first decade of his directorship is an explosion, and this is where the installation gets challenging. So much of everything is of stellar quality," Price says.

The year 1981 was tremendous for acquisitions, Lee says. Oil revenues were up and Pillsbury bought 16 works of art, including paintings by old masters, an Olmec sculpture, a four-armed Ganesha from India, a Japanese wine flask and a pair of winged deities from Assyria. It makes for a schizophrenic-looking gallery, but the chronological hanging is also exciting because it illustrates the constantly evolving collection and the broad-ranging eye of the curatorial staff.

Pillsbury often had to purchase on the fly, with the supporting validation coming after the conservation staff had time to examine the works.

It was conservators who helped Pillsbury ascertain that the Caravaggio was indeed an original and not, as many supposed, a copy. When the painting was being restored, a backing was removed and the original seal of the first owner, Cardinal del Monte, was found.

Pillsbury had a finely tuned antenna for what he believed were originals, and often operating on only bravado and instinct, he made purchases that other institutions were hesitant to make.

He was usually proven correct, although Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene, believed to be by Georges de La Tour, may be a copy. There are 10 copies of this famous cheating scene, and this one is the best in existence, says Claire Berry, the Kimbell's chief conservator. She has found subtle signs that indicate it may very well be the original, but old, poorly performed restorations make it impossible to tell for sure. It won't be hanging in the exhibit. Pillsbury's record may not be perfect, but among museum directors, it is considered one of the very best.

His legacy fills fully half of the upstairs galleries. Along with paintings, there are pre-Columbian, Indian, Roman and Egyptian sculptures and objects from Asia and ancient Greece, so not only are the walls full, the floor space is dotted with vitrines.

Adding more remarkable pieces

Pillsbury's successor, Timothy Potts (director 1998-2007), brought even more sculptures into the permanent collection, including the Kimbell's first by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the dramatic modello for Fountain of the Moor and a lovely bust attributed to Gian Cristoforo Romano. Potts added Maya vessels and adornments, Chinese sculptures and Japanese scroll paintings that broadened the non-Western areas of the collection.

Lee says, "We've had good fortune in building the collection. When you emphasize quality over quantity, you have to wait till quality comes on the market. When it does, we take advantage of what becomes available. There are fewer and fewer on the market each year."

However, one of the most remarkable pieces to ever become available happened on Lee's second day on the job. In early 2009, he heard that Michelangelo's first painting might be in play.

"It didn't seem real. It couldn't be possible. It was crazy," Lee says.

He checked with Berry, and scholars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They concurred that all evidence pointed to a Michelangelo provenance. Lee moved quickly and bought it. It was a risky move, but like Pillsbury, he felt it was right. He brought it to the Kimbell, and the United States now has one of only four freestanding paintings by Michelangelo known to exist.

The Torment of St. Anthony (c. 1487-88) hangs with Lee's three other great scores, Nicolas Poussin's Sacrament of Ordination, Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Guercino and Richard Parkes Bonington's The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Toward the Rialto.

This small group of most recent purchases illustrates just how far the Kimbell has come in the past 40 years. They are superb examples of the high ideals to which the Kimbell aspires. By holding to its standard of seeking the very best, the Kimbell has amassed a small collection of fewer than 400 works that is valued at more than $1 billion.

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