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Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America

Gaddis, Eugene R.

12 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0394587774 / ISBN 13: 9780394587776
Published by Knopf, U.S.A., 2000
New Condition: New Hardcover
From Renaissanceman Books (Albany, NY, U.S.A.)

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New. First. (First stated and no number line.) Could be gifted. Dust jacket not price clipped ($35.00) and has only minor shelf wear on top. No marks, writing or bookplate inside. Not a remainder or ex-library. Bookseller Inventory # 003043

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the...

Publisher: Knopf, U.S.A.

Publication Date: 2000

Binding: Hardcover

Book Condition:New

Dust Jacket Condition: As New

Edition: 1st Edition

About this title


The story of Chick Austin is the story, in Virgil Thomson's words, of "a whole cultural movement in one man." Becoming director of Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum at the age of twenty-six, Austin immediately set about to introduce modern art to America and to transform this conservative insurance capital into a cultural mecca that would become the talk of the art world during the yeasty years between the two world wars.

The first in the United States to mount a major Picasso retrospective, Austin was soon acquiring works by Dalí, Mondrian, Miró, Balthus, Max Ernst, and Alexander Calder. In the museum's new theater (which he designed), he staged the premiere of the revolutionary Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson opera Four Saints in Three Acts (with an all-black cast). At Lincoln Kirstein's instigation, he brought Balanchine to America. And he embraced all the new art forms, making film, photography, architecture, and contemporary music part of the life of his museum. For his own family he built a Palladian villa (now a recently restored national historic landmark), filling it with the baroque and the Bauhaus and inviting all the locals in to see how it felt to be modern.

Austin's instinct for quality proved infallible. Whether acquiring a matchless Caravaggio or a startling Dalí, he balanced the old masters with the modern. Mounting provocative shows that linked the past to the present, he created dramatic installations--and he threw himself into everything, hanging fabrics, creating backdrops, stitching up costumes. He loved to teach, to paint, to act, to give lavish costume balls, and to dazzle audiences of all ages with his performances as a magician, the Great Osram.

Brilliant at using his magician's sleight of hand, he could manipulate his conservative trustees to get what he wanted--but only up to a point. One more purchase of an incomprehensible abstract canvas, one outrageous party too many, one more shocking theatrical role, eventually led to a crisis. Never one to be idle for long, Austin left Hartford and took on a new challenge--to make an artistic triumph of the pink-and-white palace in Sarasota, Florida, known as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, which housed the circus king's moldering but magnificent collection.
Here is the colorful life of Chick Austin, and as we relish his audacious career--the risks he took, the successes he enjoyed along with the inevitable setbacks--we understand what a far-reaching influence he had on the way Americans look at and think about art. Not only a brilliant portrait of an extraordinary man, this wonderfully American story gives us a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse into the art world as it was then--and in many ways still is today.


It's hard to pinpoint the exact location of the center of the art world. It has resided most famously at one time in Paris and then New York, with other major cities making claim to the title at different times throughout the years. However fleeting this title may be, it still seems surprising that once upon a time Hartford, Connecticut, a town most known for its insurance companies, served as the unofficial gateway and capital of modern art in America. Beginning in the late 1920s, a young and somewhat rebellious Harvard graduate began a career at Hartford's Wadworth Atheneum that would make waves throughout the country and help shape the American artistic climate for years to come. Magician of the Modern: Chick Austin and the Transformation of the Arts in America is the biography of this creative museum director (and amateur actor) whose energy and romantic visions inspired so many. The story is one of a charmed life full of upper-class indulgences like transatlantic trips, short-lived college suspensions, lavish parties, and country houses.

Underneath the shiny surface was a real-life soap opera, from an overbearing mother and distant father to a blissful marriage that very slowly crumbled under the pressures of an ever-changing lifestyle--and through it all Austin remained steadfast in his commitment to art and theater. Not every endeavor was successful: a failed collaboration with arts patron Lincoln Kirstein to bring George Balanchine to Hartford was a crushing blow, and his mounting of a Picasso show brought much neighborly criticism. Yet, whatever the project, Austin was always way ahead of the cultural curve, and in Hartford that meant that much of the community was playing a constant game of catch-up. Austin's life is a complex story of travel, art, family, romance, and an ever important group of friends. --J.P. Cohen

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