One of the last paintings to enter the Tremaine collection was Venus by the graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, then 23 years old. On first glance, it might seem as if Venus were an odd acquisition, but that is not the case. A line can be drawn through the entire collection from Basquiat back to the German artist Kurt Schwitters whose work Tremaine acquired in the 1940s. Schwitters used detritus, including bus tickets and bottle labels, to undercut notions of artistic and cultural acceptability. Between Basquiat and Schwitters, the line would pass through many artists including Robert Rauschenberg who was much admired by Basquiat. Rauschenberg’s Windward, which Tremaine purchased in 1963, was both upbeat and unsettling with its appropriated images of an eagle, Statue of Liberty, factories, and occluded windows.
The Tremaines acquired Venus in 1984 from Larry Gagosian, a dealer who had recently come on the art scene with a gallery in West Hollywood, California. Gagosian had allowed Basquiat, who was from New York, to paint and live in the studio space below his house to prepare for an upcoming exhibition. His girlfriend at the time was a musical neophyte named Madonna. Prophetically, he told Gagosian, who was uneasy about Madonna moving in with Basquiat, that she was “going to be huge.” Basquiat was also going to be huge, although he would not live long enough to benefit from his success, dying at age 27. It is tempting to make a tie between Venus and Madonna, but more significant is the painting’s subversive references to modern American and ancient Greek cultures, the Venus being the armless Venus de Milo with anatomical additions. Less mordant than some of Basquiat’s other works, it displays a crackling sensuality and trenchant scribble.
There is no evidence that Tremaine, then 76 years old, personally met and encouraged Basquiat, as had been her way with other young artists, including Jasper Johns in the 1950s and Andy Warhol in the 1960s. Only one thing is certain: Tremaine recognized talent when she saw it, and Basquiat was prodigiously talented. It would be going too far to attribute to her an activist impulse that compelled her to purchase Venus. A more likely motivation was her attraction to art that was cutting edge. Moreover, Tremaine was not averse to a degree of social provocation expressed in art and the artistic lifestyle as indicated by her fondness for Edie Sedgwich, Andy Warhol’s female alter-ego, who, like Basquiat, died of a drug overdose. A Christian scientist, Tremaine did not approve of drugs, but for all her high-culture lifestyle, there was a tint of counterculture in her.
The question must be asked why Tremaine selected Venus from all the available art by Basquiat. The answer is revealing: she did not care for art that was dismal. Venus was not dismal. Once Tremaine had advised a museum director not to buy one of Warhol’s electric chair paintings because it was morbid. From the standpoint of a private collector who had to live with paintings everyday—watching television by a Mondrian, eating dinner by a Rothko—there was no room for an electric chair.
In the same vein, she had advised her step-grandson John Tremaine not to buy a collage by Rauschenberg that was on the anguish of the country over the Vietnam War and civil rights. According to John Tremaine, “When [Emily] really got into studying something, she lifted her eyebrows up and looked at it intently. She was sort of like a computer scanning a document: all her emotions and her sensitivities and her intellect were being passed through quickly. In this case, her judgment was negative. When I asked why, she replied, ‘You know these images are just so disturbing that I couldn’t live with it.’ She said that the art that she really wanted for herself was art she could enjoy and live with and that it should evoke pleasant emotions, something that you were secure being with, spiritually uplifting. When I went back and looked at their collection with that in mind, I found the collection to be a joy, always a joy.”