Albertina gets Klees withdrawn from California

Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the contraceptive pill, has donated over 60 works to the Viennese gallery. They were removed from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where they had been on long-term loan

LONDON. Nearly 70 works by Paul Klee, representing half of the world’s largest private collection of works by the artist, is to be donated to the Albertina in Vienna, after being withdrawn from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The full collection of 150 pieces, worth over $20m, has been assembled by Dr Carl Djerassi, inventor of the contraceptive pill. In a surprise move, he has now changed his mind over the future of works which had been on loan to San Francisco for up to 20 years.

Dr Djerassi, 84, spoke frankly to The Art Newspaper about his decision: “I am sure that San Francisco expected that they would eventually get all the Klees, and that was not an unreasonable assumption. It probably would have happened if I had not gone through a personal voyage. I discovered my European roots were not dead, and were still living.”

As a result, the Djerassi collection of Klee works on paper is now being divided. Twenty four had already been donated to SFMOMA and 59 works which were deposited there in 1984 will remain on long-term loan, with ownership to be transferred on the collector’s death, on an irrevocable basis, and there are also eight fractional gifts and four loans. A further 67 Klees acquired by Dr Djerassi since 1984, which had been deposited at SFMOMA, have just been moved to the Albertina, where they are now on show in a retrospective.

Dr Djerassi’s decision to leave half of his collection to Vienna is a reflection of an astonishing change in his life. After the war he had deliberately avoided visiting Austria, which he had left as a teenage refugee. When he eventually returned, and got to know the country, he found that he wanted to rediscover his roots. The country welcomed him with open arms, even putting his image on a postage stamp.

Into exile

Carl Djerassi was born in Vienna in 1923, the son of a Bulgarian Jewish father and an Austrian mother. Following the Anschluss union with Nazi Germany in 1938, he was taken to Bulgaria, and the following year he fled to the United States with his mother, who arrived with only $20. In 1945 he acquired US citizenship.

Dr Djerassi studied chemistry, and in 1949-51, while still in his 20s, he led the Syntex company team in Mexico City which produced the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive pill. This soon played a key role in facilitating the sexual revolution of the 1960s, bringing Dr Djerassi considerable wealth, since he had a substantial stake in the company.

He began to collect art in the early 1960s, focussing on “artistic bigamists”—painters who were also sculptors or vice versa, such as Degas, Giacometti, Picasso, Marini and Klee. Following the greatest tragedy of his life, the suicide in 1978 of his daughter Pamela, who was an artist, he sold most of the collection, only keeping the Klees. With the proceeds, he set up a project to help living artists—the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, on what was part of his ranch close to Palo Alto, near San Francisco.

Dr Djerassi soon became embroiled in a divorce from his second wife, Norma Lundolm. She initially claimed half the value of the Klees, but eventually agreed that they could be given to a museum, and she would receive half the tax benefits. Dr Djerassi initially deposited the Klees as a promised gift at Stanford University Museum (now the Cantor Center for Visual Arts), since he was then professor of chemistry there. However, he was disappointed to find that the works were mostly banished to a basement storeroom, and terminated the loan.

After “shopping around”, Dr Djerassi decided to leave his Klees to SFMOMA, in the city he regarded as his home. In 1984 he deposited his complete collection, comprising just over 80 works. A special room, the Djerassi Gallery, was allocated for a changing selection of around 20 Klees.

Dr Djerassi initially left most of these as a “promised gift”, with ownership to be transferred on his death. The reason for not immediately transferring ownership of the majority is that he likes to hang around 20 works in his home, and could only do this while they remained on loan.

He also continued to actively buy Klees, and had acquired a further 67 by last year. Although the works were only on long-term loan, SFMOMA was confident they would eventually join its collection. In 2002 director Neal Benezra wrote of “the extraordinary promise...of Dr Djerassi’s entire Klee collection”. It is these post-1984 additions that will become the property of the Albertina after Dr Djerassi’s death.

In an interview conducted in 2002, Dr Djerassi was asked whether he had ever considered a donation to the Albertina. He responded: “No, and for a very simple far as the Viennese were concerned, after being thrown out of their country in 1938, I had ceased to exist.”

Change of heart

Although one of America’s greatest chemists of the 20th century, in the mid 1980s Dr Djerassi made a radical career change. Encouraged by his third wife, Stanford professor and biographer Diane Middlebrook, he became a novelist and later a playwright. After having published over 1,200 scientific articles, and well into his sixties, he became a writer of a very different kind.

His first literary book, The Futurist and Other Stories, was published in 1988. After five novels, he turned to the theatre, and has written six plays that have appeared in a dozen languages. His latest docu-drama is Four Jews on Parnassus: A Conversation, to be published in October by Columbia University Press (the fifth figure in the book is Klee).

Dr Djerassi had first returned to Vienna in 1958, but up until 1990 his trips had been very few and brief. He then began to visit more frequently, in response to invitations for literary events. Dr Djerassi happened to be there in 2003, when the Albertina was celebrating its reopening, after refurbishment. Although not personally invited, a friend took him along, and he was so impressed with the gallery that he offered the gift of a kinetic sculpture by American artist George Rickey. He met Albertina director Dr Klaus-Albrecht Schröder, and they immediately hit it off.

Dr Djerassi began to realise that Austria had “belatedly come to terms with its Nazi past”. He says he wanted to make peace with the country of his birth. At the same time he felt increasingly alienated from President Bush’s America, although he continues to live in San Francisco (and also London). He therefore decided that the Albertina would be the appropriate home for the Klees which he had acquired since 1984.

“I thought that giving Vienna my more recently acquired Klees would make a bigger difference to them than to San Francisco. The Albertina had only about 50 Klees, so it would raise their level considerably. SFMOMA already has the largest collection on the west coast, so it doesn’t really matter whether they have 80 or 160. Of course San Francisco does not see it quite like that.”

Dr Djerassi also realises that Vienna is much more of an art capital than San Francisco, which will give Klee a greater exposure. “I am a proselytiser for Klee,” he admits.

Mr Benezra was understandably disappointed at the decision, but quickly accepted it with good grace, particularly after Dr Djerassi offered to encourage a continuous artistic exchange with the Albertina. This means that San Francisco and Vienna are now planning to cooperate with a series of shared Klee displays to be presented at both venues, based on their total of over 200 Klees and with promised financial backing from Dr Djerassi.

All museums understandably feel a responsibility to limit light exposure to works on paper, for conservation reasons. However, Dr Djerassi, as a collector, is keen on exhibitions. His attitude is “let the Klees rest after I am dead.”

Earlier this year the 67 post-1984 acquisitions were shipped to Vienna, and all but three of them are currently on show along with 41 from the Albertina and 35 other loans. After the closure of the retrospective “Paul Klee: The Play of Forms” on 10 August, there will always be a rotating display of Klees in one of the Albertina’s Habsburg state rooms. Theoretically, the “promised gift” could be revoked, but Dr Djerassi has told Dr Schröder that this will not happen, and he is now considering a legal commitment which would make the donation irrevocable.

Dr Djerassi continues to buy, and although he is trying to purchase less, when a Klee comes up which he wants, he finds it difficult to resist. Shortly before the death last December of his wife Diane Middlebrook, who suffered from cancer, he discussed another acquisition with her. At Christie’s, he bought Klee’s Portrait of a Woman Reading of 1935, partly because it reminded him of his wife, with whom he had spent the best years of his life and who had also inspired his own second career as a writer.

Martin Bailey

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