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.

The art world changed dramatically in the 1970s and 1980s. The aesthetic beliefs Rauh held -- in pure form, in beauty, in the idea of art as a civilizing influence -- would come under attack from a barrage of postmodern theorists determined to read any mark on a canvas as a statement on hierarchical power. The phrase "cultural elite" would be used as denigration rather than a status to which anyone would want to aspire.

At a time when art institutions were accused of dis-serving or underserving a wide array of constituencies, Rauh left the museum. The woman who spent much of her time and energy cajoling local collectors into loaning works for exhibitions moved into a rank of privilege, wealth and possibility beyond any of them.

The Flavin retrospective was Pulitzer's last at SLAM. In 1973, she resigned as curator. Rauh, who had little interest in personality in art, was to marry one of the biggest personalities there ever was, Joseph Pulitzer Jr.

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.

In the Foundation's east wing are two galleries of identical size and shape -- a cube -- one set directly above the other at the end of the grand main hall. The lower-level gallery displays great cubist works by Braque, Picasso and Juan Gris, along with a shapely Matisse sculpture and an early abstract head by Giacometti. The space has the highest concentration of paintings in the entire building yet is airy, spacious and uncluttered.

The gallery above is dominated by a large wall hanging by Serra, black oil stick on linen. The stapled canvas turns void into a palpable substance. Two Rothkos hang on opposite walls, gently lit. The fusion of colors shimmer as the viewer's eyes take in light. The juxtaposition of paintings creates an intake and outtake of light, like breath.

Harriet Traurig met Emily Pulitzer in 1984, when Traurig was selected as the first director of the Forum for Contemporary Art. She remains a close friend and colleague. Traurig, who lives in the Bay Area, where she works with an art-and-architecture program for the city of San Jose ("We're trying to retrofit some beauty," she remarks slyly), shares an intimate's view of the Pulitzer relationship.

"He was so different from her," she says. "Emmy is so serious and somber, although she does giggle and laugh and she's really funny. But Joe was so playful, and she's so serious. And they played that off of each other really well. They had similar eyes in art, and they both knew when something was right and when something wasn't right. They did that together. There were a lot of times when she got really frustrated with him. He was a big name and a big personality, and it would be 'Oh Joe, come on. Get off it.' They were just the perfect marriage, and you would never have thought that. She's much younger and so serious, and such a curator, and he was such a connoisseur."

Traurig describes the parallel galleries in the Foundation as a metaphor for the marriage. Downstairs is the early modernist Joe; upstairs is the early minimalist Emily.

The observation is an apt one, although it belies the complexity of the marriage and of the Foundation as well. The idea that Emily shunted Joe away from the pretty colors of Matisse to the dull brown Cor-Ten steel of Serra is one that many hold. It certainly was on the mind of New York Times critic John Russell when he wrote a review of an exhibition of the Pulitzer Collection at the Fogg Museum in 1988 (the collection traveled to SLAM as well). Russell describes Emily as "a museum professional with decided and forthright feelings about contemporary art" and questions whether "two disparate and quite possibly irreconcilable tastes would be discernible. Joseph Pulitzer's preference has always been for an art in which all puzzles have been resolved and a classical resolution has been reached. A great deal of contemporary art is, by contrast, in mid-puzzle and quite ready to tear itself apart."

Russell recognizes the perceived disparity -- between pre-Emily and post-Emily collections -- as fallacious. The contemporary art Emily introduced to St. Louis, and to Joseph Pulitzer in the 1960s, rarely packed "the shock of the new" (to appropriate Time critic Robert Hughes' phrase), and the schooled eye of her future husband recognized that (Joe's first wife, Louise Vauclain Pulitzer, who died in 1968, had an impact on the Pulitzer collection as well). A degree of classicism -- or "classical resolution," as Russell calls it -- is integral to the work Emily most admires. An appreciation of the elegant yet somehow grotesque line of a woman's neck in a Modigliani portrait is not too far removed from the pleasures found in the upheaval of contours experienced while walking through Serra's "Joe."

A classical resolution can be seen in "Joe," in how it provides a Cor-Ten anchor to Ando's vaporous concrete rather than disrupting the site with a jarring conflict of materials. In "Joe," a spiral of steel whose colors are reminiscent more of a desert canyon than of rusted metal, the walls fold in on each other and pull away, close then open to a center of sky.

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