Emmy Award

Emily Pulitzer's gift to St. Louis has arrived in a concrete box. Hidden inside: the portrait of a woman who changed the city.

A Picasso once hung in the bedroom, the Monets in the poolhouse.

Emily Rauh Pulitzer has moved these works, and many others from her inestimable collection, out of her St. Louis County and Central West End homes and into the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in Grand Center. She's done so with a degree of fanfare rare for her. Emmy, as intimates call her, is a very private person. On the Foundation's opening weekend in October, before an international assembly of media, she joked that this was her first press conference, although she had been involved with a newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for more than 30 years.

Pulitzer, 68 years old, showed all the lightness of spirit of a much younger woman at the onset of a new adventure that day. Her unlined face, beaming with exuberance, belied her years. Her remarkably white hair brightened in the light that bathed the smooth concrete walls of the building, one of the first great works of architecture of the new century, which her vision, and her money, helped create. "This is the end of a very long saga and the beginning of a new one," she told the representatives of the media, all seated in comfortable folding chairs, gray to match the surroundings.

Richard Serra's "Joe," commissioned for the Pulitzer Foundation: The walls fold in on each other and pull away, close then open to a center of sky.
Dirk Reinartz
Richard Serra's "Joe," commissioned for the Pulitzer Foundation: The walls fold in on each other and pull away, close then open to a center of sky.

The building, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, has received glowing critical recognition. Paul Goldberger of the New Yorker praised the structure as "the greatest work of architecture to go up in St. Louis" since Louis Sullivan's Wainwright Building in 1891 and "one of the finest small museums of our time."

Works commissioned for the Foundation by Pulitzer -- Ellsworth Kelly's "Blue Black" and Richard Serra's "Joe" -- are masterpieces, made in collaboration between architect and artists. The "long saga" of how the Ando, the Kelly and the Serra came to be includes Pulitzer's remarkable life and career.

She would rather not be the focus of that story and so chose not to be interviewed for this profile. She would have preferred an in-depth look at the Foundation itself. Diverting attention from herself is characteristic of Pulitzer and aligns with her artistic sensibilities. The Ando and the art inside it exemplify a faith in the delight of pure form, line, light, space and color. Personality has been erased from, or submerged into, the art.

The conundrum of a depersonalized aesthetic is that it reflects traits of personality, of course. The vision of a private foundation reflects the vision of its founder. The surface of the building -- concrete walls with thin slats of windows that provide no inner view -- parallel the outer demeanor of Pulitzer, at least to those who are not allowed the more intimate perspective. Those who gain that close proximity find a woman comparable to the interior of the Foundation: warm, lustrous, sensual, brilliant and subtle.

The mark the Foundation has made on this city is a part of the long saga of Pulitzer's influence on St. Louis' cultural life. As a curator at the St. Louis Art Museum, as the wife of the legendary Joseph Pulitzer Jr., as patron and benefactor, as one who influenced the design of MetroLink and helped put Richard Serra's "Twain" in the Gateway Mall, as a former director of the Post-Dispatch and an advocate for Grand Center -- Pulitzer has shaped indelibly the city that became her home nearly 40 years ago. And she has the energy, drive and money to invest further in St. Louis' cultural life -- almost half-a-billion dollars of Pulitzer and Hearst-Argyle stock alone, $79.1 million of which she's been in the process of liquidating since 1999.

She's moved the Picasso from the bedroom and the Monets from the poolhouse and put them in the public view, to be seen on her terms. Pulitzer delivers to the city a rarefied experience of viewing art. The Foundation is both a gift and a declaration: that the beliefs she has held about art and life are timeless, outlasting colloquies of the past.

The triumphant opening of the Foundation can be better realized in relation to past disappointments. The concrete structure in Grand Center is not the first cultural intervention supported by Pulitzer. It is not the first time she has attempted to install a minimalist, abstract aesthetic in urban squalor.

The 1980s were not a propitious time for such refined ideals as minimalism and the civilizing influence of art to take shape in the public domain. Two public artworks, both championed by Pulitzer, were placed in downtown St. Louis in the mid-'80s. One was destroyed; the other was desecrated and reviled.

In 1987, Alan Sonfist's "Time Landscape of St. Louis" was flattened beneath the shovels of city bulldozers. The earthwork, installed across from Union Station near Carl Milles' fountain "The Meeting of the Waters," was turned into a vacant lot just 17 months after its dedication. A mound of earth containing a dense clump of native Missouri trees set adjacent to a formal French garden doesn't sound as if it could be the source of a political firestorm, but it was. "There were weeds there," Evelyn Rice, then St. Louis' parks-and-recreation director, complained to the New York Times. "Homeless people were hanging their clothes from trees. It was as if the artist had abandoned the site, leaving it to me to use my budget and my workers to try and make it work."

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