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Through the eyes of Murdock Pemberton

New book looks at the life, legacy of a crusader for modern art

A circa 1925-30 portrait of Pemberton by Hugo Gellert.

©THE ESTATE OF HUGO GELLERT COURTESY OF MARY RYAN GALLERY

A circa 1925-30 portrait of Pemberton by Hugo Gellert.

Murdock Pemberton wrote tens of thousands of words for The New Yorker in the 1920s and ’30s. He was the magazine’s first art critic, and thus the first in a line of classy, independent-minded writers of high repute, from Harold Rosenberg to Adam Gopnik and Peter Schjeldahl.

Pemberton - perhaps to his advantage - had no training in art. He was a journalist, press agent, publicist, and self-described “Sunday painter.’’ In those days, the magazine he wrote for had little time for art, reflecting the tastes of its founding editor, Harold Ross.

Murdock Pemberton, photographed in 1936, was a crusader for modern art.

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More often than not, art was addressed (when it was addressed) in a tone of breezy indifference and, particularly if it was modern art, bemused skepticism. Those wonderful New Yorker cartoons, puncturing balloons of art-world pretension wherever they threatened to inflate, reflected the general tone.

Pemberton was a master of breeziness, and he wrote for the magazine’s general - and generally affluent - readership with a good deal of drollery and cultivated ingenuousness. But somewhere along the line, Pemberton had caught the modern art bug. And over the years he became a passionate crusader for modern art, both European and American.

This must have taken a good deal more courage than his casually offhand columns suggest. It’s easy to see, in retrospect, that the country was on the cusp of a great change in its attitudes toward modern art. But for a courageous pioneer of modern art like Alfred Stieglitz, for dealers like Valentine Dudensing and Erhard Weyhe, for critics like Henry McBride and Pemberton, and above all for America’s first wave of modern artists, all this was a question of faith.

I had never heard of Murdock Pemberton until a few months ago, when his granddaughter, Sally Pemberton, wrote to tell me she was about to publish a book on Murdock’s career as an art critic. Although she knew her grandfather had worked for The New Yorker, his career remained veiled in mystery.

She knew something of his involvement in the founding of the Algonquin Round Table. But his central role in this legendary circle was not widely acknowledged, and so even this illustrious chapter in his life was dimly registered family legend.

But in 2009, Sally discovered, in her frail and elderly mother’s attic, several suitcases stuffed with clippings, exhibition catalogs, photographs (including by Man Ray), letters (from Stieglitz, among others), and an unpublished memoir. Her curiosity aroused, she set to work.

The book, titled “Portrait of Murdock Pemberton: The New Yorker’s First Art Critic,’’ arrived on my desk late last year, and it is a revelation. Presented with great visual panache, it mimics the form of a scrapbook and divides up selections of Pemberton’s writings and letters according to subject. So, amid a feast of pungent photographs, reproduced letters, and boldface quotes, we read Pemberton on various dealers (among them Stieglitz and Durand-Ruel Galleries), collectors (including Duncan Phillips and Chester Dale), museums (including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the newly established Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art), and artists (ranging from Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin through Degas, Matisse, Calder, and Noguchi).

It’s wonderful stuff, and gets more so the deeper in you go. One of the things that stands out, especially in our current era of strenuous professionalism, is the fluid, improvised, and amateurish atmosphere that seems to have reigned in both the art world and the print media at the time.

Just a handful of Manhattan galleries showed contemporary art, compared with the hundreds that compete for attention now, and a critic writing about art by living artists was so low in the pecking order that he was more or less free to do as he pleased.

According to Murdock, “Harold Ross, who was still adamant about the uselessness of art, one day said, ‘Pemberton, I don’t believe anyone reads your stuff, why don’t you pep it up, at least put an attractive heading on it.’ So the next issue I put on a heading ‘100 Nude Chorus Girls to March Down Fifth Avenue for the Sake of Art.’ ’’

Yale University

Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe in 1940.

Ross, he added, never interfered again.

Pemberton hadn’t sought his position as art critic: Ross, another early member of the Algonquin Round Table, had offered it, on the advice of his wife, Jane Grant, who had helped him found The New Yorker.

Pemberton recalled it this way: “Ross turned to me one day and said, ‘God damn it, Murdock (he always started a sentence that way no matter what the subject), Jane says that you ought to be art critic of the magazine, what do you think?’ I said I thought it was pretty silly. ‘That’s what I told Jane, but she hangs on.’ So when he told me again I grabbed the opportunity. Why not? What if I had no training? I was familiar with the bromide of ‘I know what I like.’ It was a moonlight job and would not take up much time. And my sister was a fine artist.’’

Well, then, that clinches it.

Much of the time, especially in the early columns, Pemberton seems frankly out of his depth. Even when he is praising something, he rarely bothers to dig into what makes it great, preferring simply to express, in phrases by turns wry, earnest, and mellifluous, his marveling admiration. This, on Picasso, is the sort of thing that crops up a lot: “Personally we are thrilled by his new things, but we also lack the adjectives to do them justice.’’

But everywhere his independence shines through, and he can be terrifically trenchant -never more so than when goading the Metropolitan Museum, which, in a series of coruscating pieces, he described as aloof, self-satisfied, and “the haughtiest museum in the world.’’

In 1928, in a magazine called Creative Art, he even posed 60 “impertinent questions’’ to the Met’s leadership. They ranged from: “5) Who composes the board of directors? Average age?’’ to “20) What is your objection to pictures by the younger living artists?’’ to “35) Don’t you think you have enough Sargents?’’ and “50) Could you tell a good picture if it were offered you at anything under $5,000?’’

The piece, which rated a notice in The New York Times the same month, is the sharpest and funniest thing I have read in ages.

Pemberton could be haughty himself: “It is a little bit difficult to advise you about Brancusi in a country that largely believes a picture should be something painted on canvas, possessing the properties of a photograph,’’ he began one review. And, in a letter to Stieglitz accompanying a copy of a handsome book he wrote called “Modern Art Picture Book,’’ he predicted attracting the contempt of intellectuals, but protested, “I only wanted to write a Primer. . . . It is too bad that America has to be talked to as if a child, but that is not my fault.’’

And yet he was always funny. And his great value, which becomes ever more evident as you read, was his combination of forthright independence and unapologetic enthusiasm.

He was without gender bias, courageously championing O’Keeffe and Mary Cassatt when condescending skeptics abounded. And, long before most of his contemporaries, he believed fervently in the merits of such modernists as Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley.

THE ISAMU NOGUCHI FOUNDATION AND GARDEN MUSEUM

A bronze bust of Pemberton by sculptor Isamu Noguchi.

He later admitted (as every critic should be proud to admit!) to having no “continuity of taste - that changed without notice and improved, I hope, as I went along.’’

He championed Matisse with moving admissions of unreserved admiration (“As the fly is to the trout, the siren to the sailor and so on, the red of Matisse is to your correspondent’’). And when Matisse came to New York on his way to the South Pacific, Pemberton combined with E.B. White to produce a brief account of his visit in the magazine’s Talk of the Town section.

It’s all reprinted here, amid great photographs of the severe old sensualist and reproductions of the two Matisse lithographs Pemberton owned (he had a fascinating collection, but never sought to profit from it).

Pemberton was refreshingly honest about the nature of the job: “Art is a delightful thing if you can take it or leave it, glancing down the list to find the exhibit that will fit in with your mood. But if it is something that you have to envisage and report on as a whole, valleys as well as mountain tops, it can be a mixed blessing.’’

Pemberton, born in Kansas in 1888, loved dancers (he was once given a sketch of a Degas dancer by Durand-Ruel, a big ethical no-no today). So it’s interesting to note that he had what Sally Pemberton describes as a “tortured, all-consuming’’ affair with Frances “Frannie’’ Mann, a younger ballerina who had danced in works choreographed by George Balanchine for the School of American Ballet. When Pemberton’s wife, Helen, could tolerate the affair no longer, she left with their children for Paris in 1929.

Murdock stayed with Mann, but because his wife would not grant a divorce, he could not marry her until 1968, a year before her death. In her obituary in The New York Times, Mann was described as Pemberton’s widow, which elicited concerned letters from friends, including one that began, “Dear Mr P: I don’t know quite how to put it, but simply said, I’m damn glad you’re alive!’’ and ended “Congratulations on your existence!’’

Pemberton gradually lost his crusading spirit, especially his enthusiasm for “art for the masses.’’ He was fired from The New Yorker in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression. Ross offered no explanation. But in his memoir, Pemberton wrote that he later came to learn it was because he had written a lukewarm review (“nothing vicious, just that it was academic and not exciting’’) of a show by the wife of the magazine’s art director, who had allegedly told Ross: “He goes or I go.’’

Sally Pemberton lists his subsequent jobs in her preface: writer of a column about cocktails for “Esquire’’ and other magazine pieces, ghostwriter of a book about the 1939 New York World’s Fair, wine-label designer, rejected novelist, memoirist, and political speechwriter.

At one presumably desperate point, according to Sally Pemberton, he “stood before his former bosses at the [New Yorker] magazine and begged for a job as messenger in the mailroom.’’

Pemberton died in 1982 at 94.

This self-published book is not without minor glitches, but it’s a heroic production, and a great story, with much more to it than I’ve been able to touch on here.

“I tried to present the material in a way such that one did not have to be an art historian to enjoy it,’’ Sally Pemberton told me. She’s done just that, although the result is a boon to any modern art historian, too.

The last word should surely go to Murdock himself: “Anyway, I rode high, wide and handsome and had a hell of a good time.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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