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February 25: From Her Walls to the Met

February 25, 2016

4188401251_f7723638d5_bMuriel Kallis Steinberg Newman, a painter who contributed several dozen works of Abstract Expressionist art by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Franz Kline to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and 170 works to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was born in Chicago on this date in 1914. Twice married to successful businessmen, she became a collector of art from the rising stars among her fellow painters in the 1940s and ’50s. Although living in Chicago, she initially selected the Met for her largesse because, she said in 1980, “the artists I knew loved the Met, particularly Franz Kline, who used to go there and study Ingres by the hour. I find the idea that their work should hang there now rather touching.” According to the Chicago Tribune, “The interpretation usually offered” for her initial neglect of Chicago “was that Mrs. Newman had responded to anti-Semitism at the Art Institute. But she denied this, saying her decision was in reaction to John Maxon, the Art Institute’s vice president in charge of collections, who had expressed contempt for most art of the 20th Century.” Newman completed her transfer of her collection to the Met before her death in 2008, creating, “with one fell swoop, an extraordinary representation of postwar American Abstract Expressionism,” according to Gary Tinterow, the curator who received the collection. “She had this extraordinary insight into the importance of this radical new style of art, and she acted upon it, seeking out the best examples of the best artists.” Her gift to the Met also included thirty pieces of so-called primitive art from around the world, and is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars today.

“At first I began to hang my own things next to them, but I soon realized I wasn’t making much of a statement. I really am not at heart a collector. I’m a failed artist — there’s no other way to describe it.” —Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman