Monday, May 9, 2011

Curatorial Flashbacks #11: Meet George Augusta

By Carl Belz
Portrait of Warren E. Burger, Justice, U.S. Supreme Court by George Augusta © George Augusta, 1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (The Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States) )
You probably never heard of George Augusta. Not unless you’ve spent a lot of time hanging around the boardrooms and administrative offices of Harvard University, or Harvard ‘s Medical School or Law School or Business School, or Wellesley College, or M.I.T., or Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital or Children’s Hospital, or the House and the Senate and the Supreme Court of the United States, or a whole bunch of places like them up and down the East Coast and beyond, in which case you might have seen a few of the many portraits of dignitaries associated with—and honored by—those institutions that he was commissioned to paint during a distinguished career of more than five decades following his completion of military service in World War II. Even then it isn’t likely you learned his name, since the brass plaques accompanying those pictures—if there are any—generally identify only the subject, not the artist. 
Nor did I know George Augusta’s name, let alone his work, when my then boss, Brandeis Vice President David Steinberg, asked me to come up with an artist to do a portrait of the retiring chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. I immediately suggested Andy Warhol, who was laughingly dismissed as inappropriate, and then found myself briefly stymied. The art world I knew—the art world of the 1970s, that is—didn’t include boardroom portraitists. Alex Katz? Alice Neel? They both did portraits, but their portraits were meant for the home or the museum, they wouldn’t fit the boardroom any better than Warhol’s would. But then I had an inspiration: I remembered the “Portraits Inc.” ad that I’d been seeing in Art in America for longer than I could remember, so I called and asked them to send me half a dozen portfolios that would give me a range of styles to select from. Which they were glad to do, but which turned out to be a dead end. The paintings were dry and academic, many looked as though they’d been done from photographs, the figures were enhanced by pretentious architectural features and scenic backgrounds, and the surfaces seemed generally lifeless.  
I was back at square one when spouse Barbara suggested I was thinking about my assignment from the wrong vantage point, I was thinking New York instead of Boston—Boston, where there are colleges and universities, law schools, business schools, and hospitals on every street corner, every one of them housing a boardroom hung with the kind of portraits I was looking for, portraits radiant with dignity and tradition. That equation led me before long to the Vose Galleries of Boston, a name synonymous with American pictures through a family business that had been founded in 1841, their home base just a block or two away from the contemporary galleries I regularly visited on Newbury Street. There I met Bill Vose, who, upon hearing about my mission, introduced me to the artistic world of George Augusta. 
I liked what I saw. George Augusta’s signature look, a descendent of Impressionism, blended confident and airy brushwork with a perceptive eye for likeness that felt everywhere natural, allowing easy engagement with his subject, and clearly indicating he worked from direct observation. With appropriate modesty, he allowed his pictures to be about his subjects instead of about himself. Relying on neither technical virtuosity nor the trappings of class—both of which plagued the portrait genre as I had come to know it—he comfortably partnered form and content while respecting in equal measures the full energies of art and life alike. He knew his job of work, and I strongly recommended we sign on to his program when I reported back to David Steinberg.  
Portrait of Rosalynn Smith Carter by George Augusta, © George Augusta,1984, oil on canvas, 32 x 40 in. (White House Collection).
There followed over the next decade four or five Brandeis portrait commissions, each fulfilling the promise of quality and meaning we’d hoped for, each providing a distinct esthetic pleasure—or so I’ve always imagined—for the president and members of the board to savor as they went about their business. Yet my favorite was destined not for the boardroom but for the University’s Goldfarb Library. It was a portrait of “First Lady” Thelma Sachar that would proudly hang next to the portrait of her husband, Abram Sachar, the Founding President of Brandeis and, at the time, still the University’s Chancellor. The only problem with this plan was that Abe’s portrait had been painted in the 1950s, a full three decades before Thelma’s would be painted, a time warp that seriously risked making the couple appear as mother and son instead of husband and wife. So I spoke with George and asked him what he could do, inquired whether his arsenal included any secret brushes or pigments that might enable a more youthful Thelma to appear during the several sittings she would have with him. To which he generously responded that he would make it happen—and so he did, he worked his magic, which is the magic of art, to everyone’s full satisfaction.
Through my association with George Augusta, I encountered a first-rate, highly successful artist working in an art world that orbited in tandem with the art world I knew but never intersected it. Had I not been assigned my unusual task—a task I admit to undertaking with reluctance, as I tacitly subscribed to the conventional wisdom of the time and so regarded boardroom portraits as mere shadows of a once noble ancestry—I would have missed entirely the rewards I discovered in George Augusta’s pictorial world. Which got me to thinking about other art worlds that might be out there, unknown and/or unrecognized by members of my art world, but the specter of what I might be missing never haunted me. I realized that I could never see every picture painted everywhere in the world at every current moment—because that kind of cultural access was as unimaginable as it was unrealistic—so I contented myself with having learned to think twice before presuming an equation between the parameters of my world and the parameters of the world at large. What did haunt me when thinking about multiple art worlds was a vision of art itself, of its vastness, of its breadth and depth, of its ability constantly to sustain and renew itself, while we—we curators, critics, art historians, and sometimes even our artists—regularly did our best to cut it down to size, bring it within our reach, and squeeze it into our theoretical constructs. I know, we’re just the messengers here, the go-betweens linking art with its audience, and I know I’m not supposed to shoot the messenger. But I also know that the messengers don’t always do justice to the message’s meaning. 

Carl Belz is Director Emeritus of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University.


Anonymous said...

This is so interesting, so full of ancillary insights. Thank you for your account and thoughtful questioning of the larger frame.

Really a great piece Carl. More, more!

Charles Kessler said...

A friend who works at MoMA took me to an exhibition there of the art of MoMA employees. (It’s closed to the public, but in a space accessible to all MoMA employees.) I loved it. I loved that there was such a wide range of commitment, sophistication and skill — something you may see at a community art center but never at MoMA.

I love that there are people like George Augusta who probably would never be shown in the public areas of MoMA but who make very good work (not GREAT, maybe, but very good). They make work that they care about, and keep plugging away at it. I get more joy from that than I do from the art at most Chelsea galleries where the work tends to be cynical, contrived, super-sophisticated and polished, even when it pretends to be raw.

Great post, Carl.

Daniel Rindge said...

I also have known George Augusta for many years
and believe he is a Great American Master Artist.
His portraits capture the soul of the sitter.
His work is remarkable for its sublime depth of
character of the sitter.
During his extrordinary career he has painted
many of the leaders of politics,education,
medicine and philanthropy:

The following is a partial list of men and women Mr. Augusta has painted from life

Ruth Adams, President, Wellesley College
Derek Bok, President, Harvard University
Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
George Garvin Brown, Chairman, Brown-Foreman Co.
Rosalynn Carter, First Lady, The White House
Clark Clifford, U.S. Secretary of Defense
Norris Cotton, U.S. Senator, New Hampshire
David C. Crockett, Associate Director of Research, Massachusetts General Hospital
Theodore L. Eliot, Dean, Tufts School of Law and Diplomacy
Frederick Graham, Society of the Cincinnati
Clement Haynesworth, Chief Judge, Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit
Jay Hill, Hill, Holiday, Connors, Cosmopoulos, Inc.
Dr. Charles Janeway, Physician in-Chief, Boston Children's Hospital
John Lawrence, Trustee Chairman, Massachusetts General Hospital
Edward Levi, U.S. Attorney General
Paul Liacos, Chief Judge, Massachusetts Supreme Court
Ralph Lowell, Founder, Station WGBH TV & Radio
George MacKinnon, Judge, Court of Appeals, District of Columbia
Catherine Marshall, Author
John McArthur, Dean, Harvard Business School
Joseph McConnell, Chairman, COMSAT
Robert A.G. Monks, RAM Trust Services
Lewis F. Powell, Justice, U.S. Supreme Court
H. Irving Pratt, The Harvard Club, New York City
Elliot Richardson, U.S. Secretary, H.E.W.
Dr. Charles A. Sanders, General Director, Massachusetts General Hospital
Francis Sargent, Governor, Massachusetts
William F. Schulz, President, Unitarian Universalist Association
Dr. George Thorn, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Dr. Samuel Thier, President, Brandeis University
Reverend James Tingley, Rector, Christ Church, Philadelphia
Dr. Daniel Tosteson, Dean, Harvard Medical School
Cyrus Vance, U.S. Secretary of the Army
Dr. Leroy Van Dam, Anesthesiologist, Brigham and Women's Hospital
Paul Verkuil, President, William and Mary College
Mr. & Mrs. An Wang, The Wang Center
Henry M. Watts, Jr., Chairman, N.Y. Stock Exchange
Jerome B. Weisner, President, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Daniel Rindge

Bob Ross said...

Beyond his portraits (which are exceptional), the understanding of light and use of color and shading in his beach and woodland paintings shouldn't be overlooked.

jerry said...

beyond his painting and skills ,he is a true gift to know personally
jerry rathe