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Jewish Topics in Postwar American Art

Tom Wesselmann's Hope, Dashed

Tom Wesselmann's Still Life No. 24 (1962)

In his 1984 interview with the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, artist Tom Wesselmann recalled how excited he was when a collector in the Midwest bought his 1962 Pop painting, Still Life No. 24. 


"The Buchwalters (sic) from Kansas City were very important because they were the first ones outside New York City, and it made us realize maybe there's a market beyond this thing right here."


But who was the collector Susan Buckwalter?


According to her friend, Constance Glenn, she was not the harbinger of Middle America's hunger for Pop art Wesselmann imagined.


"She was the most vital, most wonderful, one of the most special people I ever knew," Glenn told the Smithsonian interviewer. "She brought a kind of New York knowledge of current art to Kansas City and she brought an absolutely indomitable enthusiasm that was either the envy or the terror of a lot of people in Kansas City depending on their attitude toward the arts.


"I remember when she wanted the Nelson Gallery to buy a [Mark] Rothko through their Friends of Art purchase plan. She knew that at that time Rothko would be so controversial in Kansas City that if they were given any other choice they wouldn't buy one, so she brought out only three Rothkos to choose from. And the Nelson Gallery bought a Rothko."


In addition, "Sue suggested that she had friends involved in contemporary art that we might want to meet and learn from," Glenn said. Buckwalter was surely referring to Princeton art historian Willaim Seitz, a relative. (Her father and his mother were part of the same Chapin family from Buffalo.)


By 1962, when Buckwalter purchased the Wesselmann, Seitz was an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1965, he was appointed director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. Seitz's position at the historically Jewish university's museum may have been made possible by his marriage to a Jewish woman, Irma Siegelman.


So Susan Buckwalter, who was armed with a "kind of New York knowledge of current art," and was a relative of William Seitz, who through marriage and professional choices aligned himself with the Jewish American community, was not a typical Midwesterner.


Sorry, Tom.


The truth was, American collectors of Pop art were predominantly Jews, as Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler in 1970 told a Smithsonian interviewer. 


"Most of the great collectors of contemporary art are Jewish," Geldzahler said.


And he explained his own position as curator as an outgrowth of that fact.


"It's natural to have a Jew as curator of contemporary art because he has to deal with the collectors." The interviewer asked, "Why would that be such an advantage in dealing with collectors?" Geldzahler replied, "Because if you're young enough you're like their nephew or something. Like the Robert Sculls – I'm like one of their children. We just get along fantastically well. And Joe Hirschhorn and I get along very well. We can make little jokes; there are certain assumptions of humour (sic) and of background and so on that you take for granted."

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