by Elizabeth Coady
Three hundred works on paper by the belatedly recognized 20th century Philadelphia modernist painter Arthur B. Carles have been bestowed to the Woodmere Art Museum in what the museum’s director lauds as a “transformational’’ gift.
The 300 works by Carles, hailed posthumously by art historians as a radical colorist and a prophet of abstract expressionism, were bestowed to the museum by the survivors of Perry and June Ottenberg, voracious collectors of works by Philadelphia artists. Both died within the last year at the age of 92.
“It gives a new dimension to Woodmere’s identity,’’ said William R. Valerio, 54, director and Chief Executive Officer of Woodmere. “If you are studying early 20th century American modernism and you want to know about Arthur Carles, you’re going to need to come here and see these works.’’
The etchings, drawings and figural plans span the course of Carles’ career, beginning circa 1900 until 1941, when he was paralyzed after a fall downstairs in a wheelchair. He died 11 years later at the Fairview Nursing Home in Chestnut Hill at age 70.
Despite his relatively short career, Carles left an indelibly colorful mark on the 20th century American modern art world and, in particular, Philadelphia, where he was born and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Through his career Carles experimented with Cubism, Impressionism and painting the female figure, and he culminated in an abstract expressionism that predated the official birth of that movement in New York. But most of Carles’ acclaim arrived after his death.
The Carles collection was gifted to the museum by the children of the Ottenbergs, renowned for their expansive art collection of notable Philadelphia artists. Perry Ottenberg was a resident-turned-professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania from 1952 until his retirement in 2015. June Ottenberg was the director of the Temple University music library. Much of their vast art collection, including 14 Carles canvases, George Nakashima furniture and Rudolf Staffel ceramics, were sold at auction at Freeman’s in early June.
Valerio said the couple “were ahead of their time in their interests as collectors.’’
“We’re so happy that we’re so able to give it to them,’’ said Elise Ottenberg, the daughter of Perry and June, of the 300 works. “My parents would be thrilled. Truthfully, my father and mother have been collecting art for ages, and they’ve always been incredibly generous with their children, and we all have tons of art.’’
The family believes the collection of Carles’ sketches and etchings have found the rightful home at Woodmere, where they can perused and studied by scholars and the public.
While alive, the mercurial Carles battled with a self-destructive impulse and alcoholism, according to biographers. He threw plaster casts of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts down an elevator shaft after being fired from his teaching post in 1925. TheWashington Post dubbed him the “phantom figure of the avant-garde’’ in a 1984 article that noted his “dubious posthumous distinction of being celebrated for the lack of recognition his work received during and after his lifetime.’’
“The thing about Arthur Carles is he is such a creative mind,’’ Valerio said during an interview last week at Woodmere. “He is pushing the envelope on everything that he touches that he could be so inspiring to others. And really he’s one of the artists in 20th century American art that moves a needle and changes the course of 20th Century American art.’’
Valerio, who joined Woodmere in 2010, says the acquisition enhances the museum’s modern legacy. Founded by Charles Knox Smith in 1890 to be a repository of artworks by Philadelphians, the Woodmere Art Museum has 8,000 pieces in its collection.
“He was a city councilmember,’’ Valerio said of Smith, “so if you had his business card, you could knock on the door, and his servant would let you in. Or it was open to the public on Thursdays.’’ Smith “bought this estate in Chestnut Hill because he believed that art and nature together offered a spiritual journey.”
For more information, visit www.woodmereartmuseum.org.