By Gina Wouters, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens
Robert Winthrop Chanler: Discovering the Fantastic, co-published by Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and the Monacelli Press (released May 2016), is the first publication on the artist since his death. Although Chanler moved within a network of well-known artists (he has been portrayed by Man Ray and Carl van Vechten among others) and he received a steady number of commissions from high profile patrons, after his death he was marginalized by an art-historical discourse that centered on a singular path to modernity, as well as owing to practical difficulties regarding accessibility to his works.
The introduction to the book follows the trajectory of Chanler’s ascent as an artist and his fading from the public eye after his death. The fact that he commercially labeled himself as an interior decorator and his preferred medium was the screen –a decorative and thus “lesser art form”– are without doubt some of the factors behind his obscurity.
Chanler had a penchant for altering spaces, whether through the immersive qualities his architectural interiors impart, or by way of a movable yet space-defining object such as the screen. The screens are often two sided and represent a variety of worlds, aquatic, avian, celestial and terrestrial. Chanler’s work is largely absent from the public eye, save for the swimming pool ceiling at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in Miami, Florida and the Breakfast room at Coe Hall in Long Island, New York. These are both complex architectural spaces that present themselves in a compromised state due to the preservation conundrums his architectural works present.
Chanler’s dozens of screens are for the most part in private collections, largely handed down to descendants from those who commissioned them directly from the artist in the 1910s and 1920s. Or they are buried deep in museum storage like works in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Brooklyn Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art. Only the Metropolitan Museum of Art has Chanler’s Porcupines and Nightmares panel in open storage in the Henry R. Luce Galleries.
Within the art historical context, Robert Winthrop Chanler’s fame lays in his monumental participation in the 1913 International Exhibition of Modern Art, popularly known as The Armory show, which was held in New York City, Boston, and Chicago. His work covered the walls of Gallery A the first space all guests would enter, which was dedicated to American Sculpture and Decorative Art. Not only did he show over a dozen works, as new research in the publication reveals, but he was also an important patron of his European peers, purchasing works by Odilon Redon, Constantin Brâncuşi and Amadeo de Souza Cardoso. As Laurette McCarthy writes, the works by the latter two were regarded as “extreme and revolutionary. Chanler’s acquisition of these works would have been thought quite daring and placed him in a relatively small circle of those who bought modern art from the show.”
The monumentality of Chanler’s work and the immersive experiences they impart made him into a highly sought after artist in his years, yet the complexity and fixity of the architectural spaces and the often times immobility of his enormous screens hampered anyone other than the select strata they were created for to encounter them. Although Chanler embraced modernist ideals during their nascent years in the United States, his work became outdated after the bold direction of post-war Abstract Expressionism left his work out of vogue.
Essays in the publication cover aspects of his life and work and focus on the 1913 Armory Show, Chanler’s workshop at the House of Fantasy, Gilded Age patrons and commissions, patronage by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, and preservation challenges his works present. Chanler’s decorative work has been peripheral to the artistic canon for over eighty years and this publication is his first return to the public eye. Hopefully, the research presented in the book will catalyze scholars and provide a springboard for continued research.