Folk Musicians — Romare Bearden, 1941-42 — Image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The Myron Kunin Collection

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Myron Kunin, the late founder of Edina-based Regis Corp., was also a self-taught art collector who, by all accounts, knew what he liked and would go to great lengths to get his hands on it. In November, Kunin’s collection of African art sold at Sotheby’s for a record-setting total of more than $41.6 million. Kunin’s family is reportedly trying to ensure that the other major portion of his collection — focused on American modernism — will have a different fate, permanently joining the holdings of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where Kunin was a director for 35 years. In the meantime, while his estate remains unsettled, they have loaned more than 500 works to the museum, many of which are on display through Dec. 6 in an exhibition unveiled in January as the first of 52 surprises in celebration of the MIA’s 100th anniversary year.

Kunin clearly had a coherent vision of what he wanted to collect. The works on display all date from the first six decades of the 20th Century, but the most prominent American school from the later part of that period — abstract expressionism — is not represented. The artists are all American, including a few immigrants from elsewhere. The vast majority of the pieces are paintings from just a few key genres, and across the collection, there is a focus on bold colors and visceral impacts.

A Nice Time — Marsden Hartley, 1915 — Image courtesy Minneapolis Institute of ArtsThe exhibition starts in Gallery 359, where the focus is primarily on portraits. Among the most striking of these is Stuart Davis’s Portrait of a Man (1914), in which the subject carries a downtrodden-look on his aquamarine-colored face, which sharply contrasts with his brown suit and the mustard-yellow background. Also notable is Andrew Wyeth’s Christina Olson (1947), an engaging, almost photographic image of a thin, middle-aged woman sitting in a wind-beaten doorway, gazing at a grassy field. Alongside the portraits sits one of the exhibition’s signature pieces, Marsden Hartley’s abstract still life A Nice Time (1915, pictured at right), which showcases the artist’s ability to create a soft, almost fabric-like appearance using bright, intense colors. The gallery is rounded out by a small group of more purely abstract images, mostly by artists otherwise present in Kunin’s collection. Davis appears again with the imposing Composition With Coffee Pot (Untitled — E.A.T.) (1922), made up of cutout-like shapes in black and brown on a tan background, while Hartley makes an impression with the Kandinsky- and Delaunay-inspired Abstraction (c. 1915).

Gallery 360 is devoted to urban and industrial scenes, landscapes, and a small group of still lifes. Among the most prominent of the former are Romare Howard Bearden’s Folk Musicians (1941-42, pictured at top), which calls to mind the work of José Clemente Orozco; Max Weber’s dynamic, cubist New York (1914); and Raphael Soyer’s Flower Vendor (1935), in which a bunch of red flowers are the one source of brightness on an otherwise drab, busy shopping street. As for the landscape section, it features the heaviest concentration of widely recognizable names — including Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Joseph Stella, and Arthur Dove — but there is less that stands out. Probably the most interesting piece here is O’Keeffe’s Chestnut Tree — Grey (1924), which shows the thick trunk of a tree set against a pinkish sunset.

The focus of Gallery 361 is the human body. Specifically, Kunin appears to have targeted his collecting in this area to two themes: the common genre of female nudes and a more idiosyncratic interest in images of circus performers. Among the nudes, the standout is Robert Henri’s Edna Smith (The Sunday Shawl) (1915), another feast of color (green background, brown skirt, yellow body, red hair, etc.) with the model striking a confident pose. As for the circus paintings, the most impactful is Walt Kuhn’s Roberto (1946), in which the subject, a muscular performer in pink tights and white makeup, leans forward on a bench, confronting the viewer with his direct gaze. Also notable among these images is John Steuart Curry’s The Flying Codonas, a dizzying portrayal of bright-yellow-clad trapeze artists in mid-flight.

Viewing the exhibition as a whole, it is clear that Kunin was drawn to images that challenge but also resonate emotionally with the viewer, and one cannot help but be impressed at how he pulled together such a diverse body of work by both well-known and lesser-known artists into a collection with so many common threads running through it. Of course, there are very few people in the world with the means to pursue collecting at this level, and the fate of their collections is inevitably tenuous. At this point, one can only hope that these pieces are able to stay at the MIA, where they can be exhibited to the public for free, rather than being dispersed to mostly private buyers at auction. In the meantime, anyone interested in 20th Century American art would do well to visit this exhibition and briefly absorb one collector’s take on the period.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.