Looking Back On the Life and Legacy of Emily Hall Tremaine

Emily Hall Tremaine and Steingrim Laursen of Copenhagen, Denmark, at the Kimball Art Museum in 1976. (photo via the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, courtesy Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation)

Every year, Hyperallergic awards five curators $5,000 to develop their research and writing through the Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators. The annual program is supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, an organization established in 1987 by art collectors Tremaine and her husband Burton. The couple jointly accumulated over 700 works spanning modern and contemporary art movements during their lifetimes. Eventually sold to establish the foundation’s base assets, their historic collection will be accessible online beginning March 26 through a new digital initiative developed by the foundation.

Read on to learn more about the Tremaines’ collecting journey and how the foundation continues to carry on Hall’s creative vision today.

From Piet Mondrian’s unfinished final painting, ”Victory Boogie Woogie” (1942–44) to Fernand Léger’s Cubist oil study “Le petit déjeuner” (1921), the couple’s expansive collection was a reflection of their close engagement with 20th-century art scenes in the United States and overseas. Spanning works by a plethora of European Modernists including Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, and Wassily Kandinsky, and American Pop icons such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, their acquisitions were a continuation of Hall’s love for the arts that she inherited from her mother.

Originally from Montana, she made her first major purchase, Georges Braque’s painting “The Black Rose” (1927), during her first marriage. According to a biography written by Kathleen L. Housley, she began receiving requests from museums to loan the work, which led to an “awakening” in her interest to share her collection with the public.

After divorcing her second husband Adolph B. Spreckels — a sugar fortune heir whom she married within a week of meeting, only to quickly discover that he was an abusive Nazi sympathizer — she went on to marry Burton G. Tremaine Sr., who owned a lighting manufacturing firm called the Miller Company. Together, they dove into the art world, becoming active members of the International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, and forming lasting relationships with artists whose work they collected.

Their friendship with the painter Bridget Riley exemplified Hall’s artistic vision and influence. In 1965, Hall invited Riley, who was in a period of discouragement due to critical reception of her Op art paintings, to view Mondrian’s “Victory Boogie-Woogie” and the rest of the Tremaines’ modern art collection at her Park Avenue apartment with the aim of inspiring the artist. Hall’s encouragement ultimately had a great impact on her, and the two stayed in touch after she returned to London. The Tremaines also supported Riley’s work by acquiring several of her works, including “Turn” (1964), which was featured on the couple’s holiday card in 1966.

The Tremaines were known to keep detailed records about the art they acquired, and in 1947, they organized an exhibition exploring abstract painting’s influence on modern architectural design. Curated by Hall, the show consisted of 35 paintings and seven sculptures by artists including Alexander Calder, Jean Arp, and Mary Callery. The exhibition was sponsored by the Miller Company and originated at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum before touring 24 museums and galleries around the country.

“Although the initial impetus for mounting a nationwide exhibition and publishing a book was to educate architects about lighting, there was much more to it,” said Housley. “Emily was attracted to the Bauhaus philosophy that called for a synthesis of manufacturing and art to benefit society as a whole. She believed strongly that abstract art could be a stimulus to contemporary design.”

One of the couple’s most well-known acquisitions was Jasper Johns’s “Three Flags” (1958), which they made plans to purchase one year before the painting’s completion upon seeing it on the artist’s easel during a studio visit. Two decades after acquiring the painting for $900, the Tremaines sold the work to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City for $1 million — widely considered, at the time, to be the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist. The painting was just one of four pieces by Johns bought by the couple.

Other major art purchases included Jackson Pollock’s “Frieze” (1953–55), Robert Delaunay’s “Le Premiér Disque” (1912–13), Mark Rothko’s “Number 8” (1952), Alberto Giacometti’s “Man Walking Quickly under the Rain” (1948), and Barnett Newman’s “Euclidean Abyss” (1946–47).

While their holdings were dispersed among various international private and public collections via two Christie’s auctions in 1988 and 1991, the Tremaines’ influence continues to shape arts and culture today. Later this month, the works first sought out by the couple will be accessible through a new digital database via Tremaine Foundation’s website.

“The online Tremaine Collection is the first time the entirety of the works will be shown and experienced together,” the foundation’s Director Michelle Knapik told Hyperallergic.

The digital collection will not only explore the Tremaine Collection, but also stories of the Tremaines. Their philanthropic legacy is carried on today through the Tremaine Foundation, which continues to be led by descendants of the Tremaines (with the exception of the organization’s president). Supporting initiatives in the arts, environment, and learning differences sector, the foundation’s grant-making reflects Hall’s artistic advocacy and interests in creative innovation.

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