This is a remarkable book describing in detail how two men in succession championed the coming of abstract art to America.
The first was John Quinn, who was the lawyer of the New York Stock Exchange, and an art collector who amassed a huge contemporary art collection in the first decade of the 20th century, favoring Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso Rouseau, and Van Gogh. He had them stacked up five deep all over his NYC apartment. He had boundless energy and read 1000 books a year. He got Ezra Pound and Joseph Conrad published. He was the mover behind the famous Armory Show, and singlehandedly got congress to change the art tariffs so contemporary artists could sell to an American market. His only problems? A recalcitrant America with backward tastes, no heir, and a diagnosis of cancer.
The second man that influenced public opinion on modern art was Alfred Ball, who saw John Quinn’s two shows and wanted to do a PhD dissertation on modern art. However, since that could not get funding, he instead took a job starting the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, in a 12th floor rental. Their first show opened within a couple months, with borrowed paintings, only 10 days after the stock market crashed. Against many odds, Ball and his wife persevered, and on the eve of Pearl Harbor, he finally got his cherished but illusive Picasso show, which at long last changed the tide of American opinion.
Also cameoed in this story are the two Jewish art dealers in Paris, who had to survive two world wars, and of course Picasso, who was usually unhelpfully distracted in one tryst or another, and painting away obliviously. When his art finally made a huge splash in America, he was unreachable, did not respond, and did not see it.
This book is history relayed in the best way, like the improbable story it was. Both the research and the writing here was excellent, but invisible enough to let the compelling and wildly unlikely true story shine through on its own. One of my best reads this year; I give Picasso’s War a rousing 5 stars.