Ep 1.3: Morris Kantor, His Mother, and an Art Collector

Morris Kantor painted one hell of a portrait of his mother in 1922 (MIA accession number L2014.234.53), and it’s a good example of an approach to portraiture that can really tell a story. But it’s *also* a good entryway to talk about the relationship between museums and collectors.


Hi there! I’m Keith Pille, your art pal.

In this episode, we’re continuing our season one walk through a selection of objects on display at the Minneapolis institute of Art. We’ll be talking about an untitled 1922 painting by Morris Kantor. It’s untitled, but the unofficial title is “Posthumous portrait of the Artist’s mother.” For now, its MIA accession number is L2014.234.53, if that helps you find it or a picture of it. You should keep in mind, though, that the L at the start of that accession number indicates that the museum formally classifies the painting as a loan and hasn’t officially taken possession of it. If they do, the accession number will change. It’s also possible that they won’t take possession, for what it’s worth.

I have to say, few paintings have jumped off the wall of a gallery at me like this one did the first time I saw it. If you’re listening to this in the gallery with it in front of you, I think you know what I mean. If you aren’t, you should do an image search – try “Morris Kantor Mother.”

In the Chuck Close episode, I talked about the way painters struggled to figure out how to compete with photography when doing portraiture in the 20th century. This Kantor painting is a good example of one thing they tried, setting concerns about realism off to the side in order to convey emotion through style.

There’s a lot going on in this painting visually. At root, it’s a well-dressed woman looking straightforwardly at the viewer, but wow does that undersell it. Her proportions are tweaked to make her look faintly sinister and inhuman. Her face is rendered as a mostly-blank almost alien mask whose only discernible emotion is scorn, conveyed mostly by a subtle tilt in the line of her (totally white) eyes and the flatness of her mouth. The color black dominates, with large blocks of it framing her body, her hair (or headdress, depending on how you read the picture), and chunks of the background.

Also notable are the regular striations in the background and on her hair and face (except right around her mouth, which makes the scornful look stand out more). These lines define large sections of the painting and give the whole thing a very striking dark-side-of-the-Jazz-Age look. I can’t say that I know that much about Morris Kantor as a person, but I feel very safe in guessing that he had complicated feelings about his mother.

Kantor’s life and the rest of his career are pretty interesting – he immigrated from Minsk to the US in 1906 at the age of ten, and spent most of his life in New York and Paris connected to a bunch of interesting 20th century art movements and painters. But to be honest, after you take a moment to appreciate how great this painting is, I’d like to move past it and Kantor and instead talk about how it wound up here in the museum.

As I noted upfront, as I write this, the painting does not actually belong to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Instead, it’s the property of the family of Myron Kunin, a prominent Minneapolis art collector who died in 2013 at the age of 85. Kunin had a long-term relationship with the MIA, and had donated money and works of art for years while also assembling his own quite impressive art collection, including a large selection of top-flight American modernist paintings. After his death, his family made a long-term loan of many of these paintings to the MIA, and the museum has had a lot of them on display ever since. (To give a sense of the scope of Kunin’s art holdings, his collection of African art was auctioned by Sotheby’s for a total of nearly 42 million dollars in 2014). My guess is that the MIA will formally acquire some or most of these paintings at some point, but that’s pure speculation on my part and it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong.

I wanted to highlight this because it’s an important part of the nuts and bolts of the art and museum worlds. It can seem gauche to talk about money, but the truth is that art is expensive and running a museum is expensive, and even with community support a museum can’t really operate without relationships with wealthy collectors. Indeed, a lot of museums got their start when a wealthy art collector approached the end of their life, started worrying about what was going to happen to their artworks, and established an institution to care for and display them. That’s not exactly how the Minneapolis Institute of Art got started – although its founders were largely the titans of the just-after-the-turn-of-the-20th-century Minneapolis economic world. But the museum, like pretty much all art museums, has enjoyed a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with wealthy collectors like Kunin and, to cite another prominent example, Ruth and Bruce Dayton. The collectors get to indulge their passions and gain some public prestige; the museum gets money to operate and top-flight art to share with the public for free. It’s probably not a perfect system, and you can identify problematic elements to it (for instance, just ask the Smithsonian how they feel about their involvement with Bill Cosby’s art collection) but for the most part it’s a win-win.

I mean, just think: without the museum-collector relationship, you’d probably think Morris Kantor liked his mother just fine.

Thank you for listening to Art Pal. Again, I’m Keith Pille. You can find me on Twitter at @keithpille. If you liked the show, please spread the word or pop out to itunes and leave a review. And of course, go on and check out the rest of the season, there’s a lot more art to talk about.

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