Venus Awakening Manhattan to the Importance of Art from Overseas

When people buy art from commercial galleries, we never hear about the price tag unless they themselves tell us. It’s a private matter between the collector and the art dealer. But there are no secrets when art is sold during the public spectacle of an auction. In the history of post-war American art, the Scull auction of 1973 is perhaps the best-known, when the work of living artists went for unprecedented prices. But the auction that most influenced the explosion of the post-war art market, and set everybody talking about art and money, was Parke Bernet’s 1961 sale of Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer—astonishingly, they both realized the nearly identical sum of 2.3 million dollars.

In 1961, Rembrandt went on the block at the Parke-Bernet auction house at 980 Madison Avenue and Seventy-Seventh Street. Today Gagosian Gallery is the building’s best-known tenant. A while back, I was headed there to see a show when I took a moment to look up at the two art deco-ish, colossally-scaled figures attached to the façade. I was sure the quaint-looking duo dated from the twenties. I would soon learn they weren’t. Parke-Bernet commissioned both the building and the sculpture in 1949. Sculptor Wheeler Williams (1897 –1972), was an artist as retardataire in his art as he was conservative in his politics—he was very active in Republican circles at the time of the allegorical sculpture’s debut, and would soon support Senator Joe McCarthy. True, his choice of material—polished aluminum—was modern, but his interest in personifying abstract ideas with figures was old hat. 

Wheeler titled his work Venus Awakening Manhattan to the Importance of Art from Overseas. As envisioned by Wheeler, the buff borough incarnate lounges like a Roman river god, and the scantily-clad goddess of love hovers over him. An invisible breeze eases Venus’s drapery well below the line of modesty, and shifts the flame in her torch sideways. Venus and Manhattan had to wait twelve years for their moment of greatest relevance. On November 15, 1961, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, a painting from overseas, was sold in the building behind them, and awakened New York’s awareness of art as a marketable commodity. In 2012, the fifty-one-year-old couple didn’t bat an eye when the contemporary art gallery Venus Over Manhattan opened for business at 980 Madison, its name a wry tribute,