This weekend, the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin is opening a new major exhibition, Expanding Abstraction: Pushing the Boundaries of Painting in the Americas, 1958–1983. The exhibition concentrates on the abstract, nonrepresentational forms and experimental techniques used by artists in these decades, but it also comes with an interesting footnote: a large portion of the show Blanton’s Michener Collection, a gift of almost 300 twentieth-century American paintings by the novelist James A. Michener and his wife Mari, who began collecting paintings in 1962.
But Michener had begun his interest in art long before that. In his twenties, while working as an editor in New York City, Michener would frequent the Whitney Museum, studying the exhibitions. “I cannot speak too highly of the function performed by the Whitney Museum during those years,” he wrote. “I doubt if it will ever have a greater impact on anyone than it had on me in those years when I used to stop by at lunchtime two or three days a week.”
Once he was married, and had become a bestselling author, he finally had the financial means to start collecting. But he started with research, studying for 18 months before making his first purchase. During that time, he wrote, he “read practically everything written on contemporary American painting, cross-indexed 163 major books, essays, and catalogues and drew up a chart summarizing the opinions of critics, museum people, the general public, and others.”
He wound up with 376 artworks worth tens of millions of dollars.
“From the first moment . . I considered collecting anything, it was always with the purpose of ultimately turning it over to a public institution which might give it a wider use and a better home than I could provide,” Michener wrote. “I knew from the beginning that a collector was a custodian for a brief period of time, after which it was his obligation to pass it on to the public.”
Expanding Abstraction will be on view at the Blanton Museum of Art October 4, 2020 through January 10, 2021. Ten of the paintings from Michener’s personal collection are below.