In the fall of 1983, Louise Lawler was given the opportunity to photograph the art in the New York apartment and the Connecticut home of the Tremaines. The results included a photograph of the bottom edge of Jackson Pollock’s Frieze and a soup tureen on a sideboard. Another showed Léger’s painting of three huge women, Le Petit Déjeuner, displayed with three dining room chairs. There was also a photo of a television beside Premier Disque by Robert Delaunay and a bust by Roy Lichtenstein functioning as a lamp. When Lawler showed Emily that photograph, Emily quipped, “You’re going to love the thermostat next to the Miró.”

However, Lawler did not have to work too hard to get what she wanted because Emily had already arranged the art in unusual ways. Indeed, Pollock’s Frieze was by the soup tureen. Léger’s painting was by three chairs, as if Emily were inviting the women to step out of the canvas and join her for lunch. When Lawler included in her titles the wording “arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremaine, Sr.,” she did so to indicate the decisions had not been hers. The only exception was the television on which Burton kept changing the channels, going from wrestling to Stevie Wonder, letting Lawler choose.

Louise Lawler, “Pollock and Tureen”, 1984, Cibachrome, 28 x 39 inches 71.1 x 99.1 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York.

This was not the case five years later following Emily’s death when Lawler, further along in her career and with a stronger intellectual vision, photographed some of the art that was about to be auctioned at Christie’s. This time Lawler captured an entirely different dynamic of how art was commodified. For example, in two identical photographs (one titled Does Andy Warhol Make You Cry?, the other titled Does Marilyn Monroe Make You Cry?), the tondo that Warhol had given to the Tremaines as a Christmas gift appears with an auction house label secured by a push-pin. Warhol’s S & H Green Stamps, which Lawler had previously photographed above the fireplace in Madison, appeared as a displaced fragment with “Mo Tu We Th Fr” printed beneath, as if it had been reduced to a flawed calendar. Whereas the earlier photograph was titled Who Are You Close To? (Red), the later was Untitled—all closeness, redness, and warmth drained out.

In 1984, at the same time that the major exhibition The Tremaine Collection: 20th Century Masters was at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, Lawler’s photographs were in the adjacent MATRIX Gallery, which showcased contemporary art. This was Lawler’s first museum exhibition, and the works were a mixed lot (intentionally so), including not only the photos, but also her taped performance piece, Bird Calls, a work by Sol LeWitt, paintings from the Wadsworth’s own collection, even a grandfather’s clock—all of which Lawler had selected and rearranged without labels. According to Andrea Miller-Keller, who was curator at that time and who would become the first Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art, Lawler was one of the pioneers of the idea of appropriation of existing artistic images.

Miller-Keller had introduced Lawler to the Tremaines in 1983 and had helped arrange access to the collection. She recalled that the Tremaines liked Lawler. Unfortunately, the Tremaines were already withdrawing, with some bitterness, from the art world, and were worried about what would become of the collection following their deaths. One of Emily’s concerns was how museums displayed art, specifically what they selected to exhibit and what went into storage. Emily did not leave any notes or make any recorded comments about Lawler’s photographs of the collection. The significance does not become clear until the 1983 and 1988 photographs are viewed together. (See Louise Lawler: The Tremaine Pictures: 1984-2007, published for the exhibition at BFAS Blondeau Fine Art Services in Geneva, 2007.)

I end this essay with a personal anecdote. The Tremaine home was an eighteenth century colonial with a gambrel roof. In their large New York apartment, it was simple to display art to best advantage, but in their home, it was far more challenging, the result being that Emily had to be creatively resourceful. Working closely with the architect Philip Johnson, who was also a friend, she helped transform the old barn on the property into a spacious gallery for large works, while the house vibrated with art in every angled corner and narrow stairway. Nowhere was this resourcefulness more evident than in the dining room with its fireplace and original wood paneling that Emily had painted China red. Over the fireplace she had hung Warhol’s S & H Green Stamps set off by two caledon Chinese horses on the mantel. Obviously, Tremaine had in mind much more than the vibrancy of green against red, as revealed in the mix of Chinese horses, colonial architecture, and pop art. One day when I was working on the book Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp, I got into a conversation with my teenage son about Warhol, mentioning that Emily had considered his green stamps to be “little poems.” I remembered green stamps from my childhood, including my mother bringing them home from the store and giving them to me to paste in little booklets so that they could be redeemed for a household item, such as a toaster or a blender. Green stamps were ubiquitous in American culture during the 1960s. They offered up the prospect of something enticing yet within reach. All I had to do was lick all those little stamps and put them in their rightful place and, viola, a new coffee pot would appear in the kitchen. But my son’s reaction was quite different. “What’s a green stamp?” he asked. I realized in that instant that the context of that painting had been lost, underscoring that the relevance of art is always mercurial, and its meaning always contingent. When Andrea Miller-Keller was contemplating what to write for Lawler’s exhibition catalog, she wisely decided to forego the traditional text. Instead, she listed fifteen words with multiple meanings, among them: appropriate, arrangement, authority, and label. The list was a little poem.

The Emily Files is a monthly feature where we explore specific pieces from the Tremaine Collection and connect them to themes shaping contemporary art. Each feature is written by Kathleen Housley, author of Emily Hall Tremaine: Collector on the Cusp.

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