Philip Johnson lecture on Chick Austin and Emily Hall Tremaine - Wadsworth Atheneum (1984)

Tracy Atkinson, Philip Johnson
artdesigncafé - art

| Design Meriden | DM 1(1) | 27 November 2015
The following is a transcript from a lecture on tape given by Philip Johnson at The Wadsworth Atheneum on 25 February 1984. This transcript was done by Gene Gaddis, William G. DeLana Archivist and Curator of the Austin House, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT and published here with permission.


In the following lecture given at the unveiling of the exhibition The Tremaine Collection - 20th century masters: The spirit of modernism (1984), Philip Johnson talks about the Tremaine’s legendary art collection, and the pace-setting Wadsworth museum director, Chick Austin, who was Emily Hall Tremaine’s cousin. Johnson also gives insight into the working relationship that he had with the Tremaines regarding their architecture/design projects, which are little known.

Philip Johnson Wadsworth Atheneum lecture
Photo of Philip Johnson speaking at the podium during the lecture. Photo: Wadsworth Atheneum archive, Hartford, CT. Used with permission.

A Lecture by Philip Johnson
The Wadsworth Atheneum
Avery Theater, February 25, 1984

Introduction by Tracy Atkinson, Director of the Wadsworth Atheneum

An ominous silence has fallen over the house. The thunderstorms were quite severe west of here and slowed us down a little bit. I apologize for the delay. I do have to make a few announcements first. For those of you [that] are going to dinner, it is at the Hartford Club, which is diagonally across the street. Our guards will be guiding you as to how to get there. After Mr. Johnson’s remarks, we will adjourn to the galleries for a view of the show and champagne. For those of you who are interested, real drinks will be available at table at the Hartford Club. Logistics for handling coast is a little cramped. We will signal that dinner is going to be served with chimes. And it will help if you would be prompt in picking up your coats and moving across when you hear that pleasant sound.

We are here to celebrate the fiftieth— I suppose I should be using [the microphone], shouldn’t I? We are here— did everybody get that announcement? [laughter] Okay. We are here to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the building in which we are sitting, and if you think that we have done absolutely nothing to it in the fifty years since it opened, you’re nearly right. [laughter] I do want to note that there are vastly superior facilities off of the galleries later on, than those which attach to the theater. This area is slated for renovation soon. We are also here to celebrate the opening of the Tremaine collection. The opening of this building was almost fifty years ago to the day. It was on, I believe, February 6, [1934]. It was a major event in the history of American art, as certainly the Tremaine collection has been, succeeding that date.

This is the first of several events which celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, and the connecting link between this building and the Tremaines was certainly Chick Austin. It would be impossible to celebrate the half century of this building without important reference to Chick. It is he who invented this building and he who was also very influential in the initiation of the Tremaines collecting activity. It is Chick who will be the subject of reminiscences tonight by our speaker, Philip Johnson, and at the risk of coining a phrase, I think as a speaker, who needs no introduction. He is simply the best known architect in America. He has been fast friends of both Chick Austin and the Tremaines. He is perhaps best loved in our field for his work at the Museum of Modern Art, both the building and his long association with the museum. So, with that, I give you Philip Johnson. [applause]

Philip Johnson:

I was just thinking if I were in the audience tonight at the age when I was here last time, I would be hearing reminiscences about the gatherings at Mark Twain’s house, wouldn’t I? [laughter] Isn’t one single face here tonight that [was] there that night? Raise their hands if anybody was here that night. Oh, thank you very much. Thank you very much. I know who you are, but that’s different. She’s a dead ringer. [laughter] They found a place. But it is very strange to talk to the next generation. I just can’t imagine why you would even come to hear about us. It makes us feel very old, but then, on second thought, there never has been a year like 1934 in 1984. There never— ’34— was a year, the annus mirabilis, you’d perhaps call it, for American culture and perhaps it does need recollecting just what was happening. And tonight we are terribly lucky to celebrate that fiftieth year with the opening of a collection of a couple that have been my envy all my life because they were able to click and had the eyes— to click one of the great collections of American art in the world.

So, a lot of things coming together tonight makes it rather fun, although we can’t get too serious about it. Chick wouldn’t have. Chick wouldn’t have wanted me. Chick wasn’t the serious type. Chick was a lot of things, but serious he wasn’t. His favorite occupation was, of course, acting and you remember that toward the end of his career here he acted the part of Hamlet in that famous play by William Shakespeare. As a museum director, that was not considered perhaps just the most amusing thing he could do. [laughter] But Chick would not have minded that. Chick was in every sense of the word an amateur, but let’s put it in its great sense. He loved art. He loved it and not only that, but he was able to perform it and do it and cause it to be done as nobody before and certainly none of us since. We copy him. We try to. Alfred Barr himself, who was a superior scholar wrote to him, “Chick, you’ve done things first before us and in a way we never could have done it.” And that was coming from the Museum of Modern Art in that famous year. But if you stop and think of the names, they would be still echoing in your ears like Mark Twain’s would have in mine. To start with the oldest, I suppose, Virgil Thomson, and you perhaps have seen the opera, it [has] been done again and again and again for Four Saints in Three Acts. I was sitting in that seat right over there, unless the photograph was reversed, which I think it was. It says I was sitting over there. But I know I was sitting over there. [laughter] I want to call the editor. But Virgil Thomson is still the leading American composer. So, of course, when he was discovered by Chick, that was part of his talent. He could pick people from nothing. I think a better word than amateur, now that I recollected him better and better as I stand here. He was a magician, but as you may or may not know, he was a professional magician. He had a card. He was very, very proud of the fact that he had the card that made him have secrets that the rest of us are not allowed to know. And he belonged to the Society of Magicians, and I remember traveling in Europe once with Russell Hitchcock and him [and] a few others, and we had to hold up the whole trip for two days, in of all places, Hamburg, because Hamburg has the best magician stores, where we were not allow[ed] to go. [laughter] And he went and spent the day in magic. He was that kind of a man, but he could apply it to every art.

Check his eye in painting. Lots of people have said he had a great eye. Well, I know he did, because I liked his pictures that he collected. And I came along a good year later, he was six years older than I, but what he got through this museum. I was just looking them over this afternoon. I advise you tonight when you’re tired of the moderns and wandering around the Tremaine Collection, if it’s open, just wander up and look at the Baroque pictures. You know Chick discovered the collection of Baroque art. Alfred Barr discovered it for me. He said, “If you want to buy pictures— ancient pictures— buy Baroque pictures. They’re the ones you can still buy— the very best ones— and you have them right here in Hartford. What a heritage. Go up and look at the Strozzi once more. It’s been cleaned. It’s one of the most beautiful pictures of any period anywhere. And how few thousands it must have cost. Also look, too, at my other favorites. He has the best Masaccio [no Masaccio in the collection, perhaps Caravaggio] in this country, and look at the Masaccio here and then go down and look at the ones in the National Gallery. You’ll be amazed how much better your own home grown Masaccio is. Take another one of my favorite painters is Salvador Rosa. You have the best one there is. I mean, it is amazing for us that like to look down on the provinces and like to come and be patronizing to find that you have the best baroque in this country right here. Or take his eye in modern art. That Dali is the greatest there is. I’m not going on naming names, but that is the kind of eye he had.

Take the other arts. Take his eye. It still baffles me how he could have known this— his eye on modern design. Now none of you saw it, nor did I, his 1928-29 collection of what’s now called art deco. We called it art decoratif at the time, but it’s now rehashed as art deco and you see it all over the country. The Metropolitan has a little room of it, actually. Now art deco is the kind of modern decoration, a design that was just preceding modern architecture— just preceded the International Style and to Chick this was because he hadn’t heard of Russell Hitchcock or me at that particular moment. Russell Hitchcock, being among members of this great crew that can’t be here tonight. They’re either dead or they’re incapacitated. I don’t know what happens to people. [laughter] Agnes Mongan is not here tonight. Think of the crowds that could fill this room, if we could get them up out of their beds or wherever they are hiding, because we could get some cellophane and some black face and do a Four Saints that would amuse your generation.

You cannot conceive, and it couldn’t be done today and there is no Chick Austin today. There is no way to recreate an era, is there? There’s no way that at one point in time everything should all of a sudden come together. How is it possible that Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine should be here that night? [Kirstein and Balanchine were in Hartford no more than ten days, immediately after the choreographer arrived in America in October 1933. They returned to Austin’s theater and performed new Balanchine ballets in December 1934.] How does that happen that poor little me got in somehow? Russell Hitchcock, the greatest architectural scholar of our time, was here. Alfred Barr, certainly the greatest museum director of the twentieth century, was here. The director of the music was Alexander Smallens, which doesn’t mean much to you, but John Houseman is certainly a name to you. It was the first thing he ever directed, was that performance he did that night. This was the first museum in the world, for instance, that ever had a theater. [The Avery Theater had at least two predecessors: the round rococo theater later known as the Florence Gould Auditorium, at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco of 1924; and the Kenneth Sawyer Goodman Memorial Theater at the Art Institute of Chicago of 1925.] Why, it doesn’t occur to anybody to build a museum now without a theater. Performing art is as much a part of the arts as anything else and Chick knew it with a determination, a whim, shall we say— ‘cause Chick didn’t have determination, he had whims, but they were ironclad.

But if you can imagine the years from ’29 to ’34 with what we were all doing in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art in ’29 and the building of this building in ’34, long before the Museum of Modern Art built a modern building. I mean this building— Avery— is the first modern— interior— museum ever built anywhere in the world. Why is that? Why do these things go in waves and things? You couldn’t get the greatest new Diaghilev designer a la Balanchine. It doesn’t exist. So we have to realize that history goes in these systoles and diastoles, that there’s a great period like the late fifth century Athens. Never happened before and never happened again. Well, it was a five-year period such as that, that happened here. And there’s no question at all who the leader was. There’s no doubt at all, because we all are in writing as admitting it. I’m amazed in looking over the records to find the letters from Kirstein, the letters from Barr, the letters from Hitchcock. I was too young [to] write letters [laughter] to Chick for, in thanks for doing these things. Think what he was— a set designer, an art decoratif collector and connoisseur, an architect. Just because he didn’t have a degree, you know, this idea of the architects having a lot of degrees is a lot of nonsense. Michelangelo didn’t have any degrees that I’m familiar with. An architect, he was a musician, a great patron of architecture as well as an architect himself and in fact, he knew when he wasn’t perhaps the greatest designer in the world.

That’s another wonderful thing. The sense of humor that that man had— but think on the other hand of his collecting ability, all the way from the pictures I’ve been talking about to going and buying the theater at Asolo [Italy] and putting it in the [Ringling] Museum in Florida. The most beautiful museum on this side of the ocean. Brought the whole thing over. No. It wouldn’t occur to any of the rest of us. We’re not bright or that forward-looking. But he did. Then he knew all about art deco and he had an art deco room. Pardon me. An art decoratif, in those days, room in those days in 1928 and ’29 here on Farmington Avenue. Then, in 1930, he put a modern office here in the Morgan wing, where his office was at that time, and it was just the opposite. It was International Style. It was Bauhaus. It was Gropius. And the two sides hated each other such as you’ll never— they’re no two sides on an art subject today that are so opposed as the art deco and the modern were in those days. But Chick knew where the streams were going. He knew better than the people who were in it. Alfred Barr and I hated the art deco so much that today there’s not a single art deco object in the Museum of Modern Art. Not allowed. The Metropolitan, yes. But not in the Museum of Modern Art. We’re too pure. [laughter] But Chick wasn’t too pure for anything. Cellophane sets, “So what.” I don’t think the fire department would let us do it now. Anyhow, he did that [the] very next year after the other one.

Then the biggest thing of all to me. The thing that makes him the magician. The thing that makes him the enigma, also, among the arts. He built himself a house. Of course, every architect builds himself a house. First we usually build it for our Aunt Mathilda, so we can keep out of the way of the shooting [laughter], but he didn’t have an Aunt Mathilda to build a house for, so he built it for himself, more courage to him. And right here on Scarborough, and there it is to this day. It looks exactly the same as it did fifty years ago in 1930. All right, what did he do there? He did neither art deco, nor Bauhaus modern. He built a Palladian villa, which looked just as out of place on Scarborough Street, I assure you, as a modern house would. If you go up and down Scarborough now, you’ll find what was built in the twenties, which are very good taste, neo-colonial ugliness. Pardon me, probably half of you live on Scarborough Street. But pretty, they ain’t. But Chick would have none of that. No, he went straight to the master, Palladio, and picked up from there. But do you realize now what that echo is fifty years later? Palladio was what no single young architect in this town or any other town would be seen without which. I’m saying it backwards. [laughter] I mean, every single one of us start our Aunt Mathilda houses or our mother’s houses or whatever we get started with, when you have to start being an architect. We start with Palladio. We don’t start with neo-colonial. We don’t start with scraped classical like the outside of this building. We start with Palladio. Now how in heaven’s name could he have that in his mind? We call it, stupid word— postmodern. In other words, modern architecture now being over, you have to invent words, and that’s a silly one. But, every postmodernist, every architect that I know under forty-five— wouldn’t think of building a house that he didn’t go through his books of Palladio first. And there it sits on Scarborough, postmodern house, if you please, fifty years ago. This means that this man had a knowledge, a foretaste in some magical way. I wonder if he‘d learned it in the places where he’d bought all his tricks. I don’t know. [laughter] But somewhere he had this vast knowledge put away, and of course we— none of us could stand his house. We wouldn’t do a copy of a Palladian house, heavens no. The least we could do is copy Gropius. So he did. Upstairs in his house, the dressing room is a pure copy of a Gropius dressing room from the Bauhaus in Dessau. Didn’t mind that at all. Then, later when he built this building— he built his own office. It was my envy for the next twenty years, ‘cause he had the rosewood that he got from Mies van der Rohe and from the apartment that Mies van der Rohe did for me in 1930, and he carried it out in a much grander way. Nothing was— the office wasn’t small. What is it now? A kitchen. Something like that. [laughter] Anyhow, it was a grand room with one whole wall of solid rosewood. One whole wall of curtains that went back and forth a la Mies van der Rohe, but he was the first one to do a modern interior decoration job in this country, and that’s usually a total profession just by itself, without the magic and the music and everything else that he was doing on the same time.

So it makes it very fitting that in this magic place, in those magic years, that there started— unfortunately, in Santa Barbara— we can’t claim this for Hartford— Mrs. Tremaine, and later with Mr. Tremaine, putting together this incredible collection which you’re going to see tonight. I’m very familiar with the collection. I’m also familiar with my jealousy and envy of it, so if I start saying nasty things, why you’ll put that down to where it belongs. It’s just that— well, I get jealous, because I used to buy pictures once in a while if I had ten dollars left over. [laughter] The only thing I think, Emily, that I bought a masterpiece before you did. Isn’t that marvelous to be able to say that? In 1929 I bought a Paul Klee by myself. I was a little ashamed of it because I thought my mother would be so angry, I didn’t dare show it to her for several years. But I kept it hidden and it was a masterpiece, and now it belongs, like most, unfortunately, things in this world, to a museum. [laughter]

But we did start that same time, you see. By no accident, somehow or other, it all started around the year 1930 to 1935, and in these pictures tonight, you will find, very nice, that they’ve labelled them right on the picture, when the Tremaines bought them. And they never stopped. Mrs. Tremaine and Mr. Tremaine have eyes like gimlets. They must have them in the back of their heads. They come up with artists I never heard of. I remember the most acute sense of jealousy I had, was when they discovered Oldenburg, and they went down to the store, which is now so famous, everybody knows about the store, of course, on Second Avenue. Everybody went there. I never went there. It never crossed my mind. I never heard of it. [laughter] And I was supposed to be— to know about modern art. That was my business. It was their business a lot more than it was mine, and they bought the great 7UP and the great one that’s hanging here tonight. Right off the bat. The paint was still fresh. They walked right off with it. They did the same thing with Rothko, as you’ll see tonight. They had better Klees than I ever had. They had better everything. Oh it’s a shocker. [laughter] They have a collection that we’ve always told them, that wherever it— it’s a museum, and I’ve had such special fun watching it because I was a friend of theirs, more than it says in the little forward to the thing tonight that I was their architect, but I can’t remember ever being hired as an architect. [laughter] All I remember is we’d sit around in the evening and [they’d say]: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a swimming pool here or a place to put pictures over there or this living room is really awfully small, isn’t it?”

And so the pleasantest days an architect can spend are with friends, are with people that are sympathetic to your ideas. As far as I can remember, Burton, we never had an architectural disagreement. We never had a— one of those things: “Well, that’s very nice, Mr. Johnson, but I asked you to do that!” [laughter] That’s what I’ve been doing the last fifty years, so I know that’s what happens. It never happened with the Tremaines. I’m not quite sure. Certain same feelings of the same ideas sort of evolved, and there is very interesting in the catalogue, which you will probably see later, the little colored pictures of parts of the place that that we worked on together, and every single one brings back pleasant memories, and I wish everyone of you— and you— next time you do it, be a friend of an architect. [laughter] If you can manage it. [laughter] And try to find ways of getting on with them, so that the whole thing will just evolve. I don’t remember ever sending bills. I don’t remember ever building the darn thing. [laughter] I think Burton built them, you know [laughter] He’s a very strong man, and he is a very, very able engineer, as well. Because some of the things that I built, I’m ashamed to say, and I’m not ashamed any more than I used to. Never mind. [laughter] He fixed it. I don’t know, but that’s the kind of collaboration that they inspired, and they must have with the painters, too, because they have been the central figures in the modern collecting business since that time, and it gives me more pleasure perhaps than any of you can know, to be able to introduce them tonight and their show at their collection.

It gives me more pleasure than even the family of Chick Austin, who are here tonight, can possibly know, to be able to pay tribute to a great man that I knew. There is only one thing he did extremely badly, and that always— I’m so glad that I did it much better than he did, and that was drive a Porsche. [laughter] He was much too anxious about getting ahead, and he never would put the machine in the right gear. He would always put it in high gear and then start it off at two miles an hour, and the poor car [laughter], and it would [hurt the] car. You know how it is to see somebody ride a horse badly. I mean, it gave me great pain, and the one good thing I did in my life— I never said a word. [laughter] You know how hard that is. That’s the only thing I have over Chick.

Otherwise, he was the center around which things revolved, and that night— it all culminated on that one night, where I sat either there or there, and I had the feeling, and I still have that feeling, that I was in the center of absolutely everything. You remember what the Greeks called Delphi, the omphalos, the navel of the world. That night, I was sitting at the omphalos of the culture of the West. Thank you very much.

Tracy Atkinson:

Thank you on behalf of all of us, Philip Johnson. I’m sure Chick would be proud. I know that certainly I am for this institution, to have inherited that wonderful tradition. Will you join us in the galleries please, up one floor.

Copyright © 1984 by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Used with permission