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Leda, 1938, Steel, painted brown. Houston Museum of Fine Arts

Leda, 1938, Steel, painted brown. Houston Museum of Fine Arts

In One Work of Sculpture, the Stories of Three Local Families

By Anthony F. Hall

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Houston Museum of Fine Arts, like almost every other major museum in the United States, owns a David Smith sculpture.

But unlike other museums, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts would not have acquired its sculpture without a connection to Bolton Landing.

How its original owners acquired the piece, how it was sold to the prominent Houston  family who donated it to the museum,  is a tale of friendships and families as much as it is the story of how one piece of art became a part of a museum’s collection of modern sculpture.

“My husband was, I believe, one of the first to buy one of David Smith’s sculptures. I had no inkling of it then, but someone told me years later that the sale of ‘Structure of Arches’ kept David and Dorothy Dehner from starving. He was so swashbuckling, it was hard to see the difficulties.”

The speaker, interviewed by the Lake George Mirror in the early 1970s,  is Margaret Crockwell,  the wife of illustrator Douglass Crockwell.  In the 1930s, the Crockwells were at the center of a small circle of people interested in the arts and ideas.

Smith entered the circle abruptly, shortly after buying a farm in Bolton Landing with his first wife, Dorothy Dehner, in 1930. They had originally come to Bolton Landing as the guests of Thomas and Weber Furlong, whom they knew from the Arts Students League.

Another frequent guest was John Graham. Born Ivan Dabrowsky in Kiev, he immigrated to New York in 1921 and within years became the center of a circle that included artists like Arshile Gorky and Wilhelm DeKooning. He is said to have introduced Smith the steel sculpture of Pollack and Gonzalez and persuaded him to shift from painting to sculpture.

“Graham sent me,” Smith said to the Crockwells as he entered their house in Glens Falls.

Not long before, Douglass Crockwell  had sold his first cover illustration to the Saturday Evening Post, and married Margaret Braman, whom he had followed to her home in Glens Falls after meeting her in art classes in St. Louis.

They had attended classes at Washington University in the Hall of Fine Arts, donated to the university by and named in honor of  another man with Bolton Landing connections, W.K. Bixby.

He had married Lillian Tuttle, a descendant of founders of the Town of Bolton, where they established a summer residence in the 1890s.  Over the course of the next few decades, they camre to know some  relations of Lillian Tuttle, the Bramans, including their daughter Margaret.

According to Bixby’s grand daughter, Elizabeth Bixby Hawkins, his daughter Ruth Stevens hired Margaret to be an au pair one summer, and became impressed with her talents as an artist. Apparently, she persuaded her father to send the young relative to art school in St Louis.

Success came relatively quickly to the newly-married Crockwells, says Hawkins.

“They built a beautiful house and had three children. In addition to Structured Arches, the Crockwells bought two other pieces by Smith, a bronze cast and a 1938 sculpture titled “Leda,” which, Mrs. Hawkins says, sat on the grand piano in their living room, and,

according to Peter Stevens, the director of the David Smith estate, an important example of Smith’s work of the late 1930s, integrating his interests in surrealism and symbolism,

David Smith’s reputation continued to grow, so that by the 1960s, he was already being hailed as America’s greatest sculptor.

But he continued to live in Bolton Landing, maintaining friendships with local people and developing friendships with summer residents, including many members of the Bixby family.

By the 1980s, Margaret Crockwekll had decided to sell the works by Smith because of insurance costs. At the same time, Bo Hawkins was attempting to find the right uses for a windfall that had come her way after her husband, William Hawkins, sold a company he had acquired 30 years earlier.

“I thought a lot about it, and wanted to do something special – like give the Leda to our museum in Houston,” said Mrs. Hawkins.

Mrs Hawkins made Margaret Crockwell an offer, which was accepted, and Leda was on her way to Houston.

“I can   think of no one I’d rather have receive “Leda” than Bo and of course you and your museum,” Crockwell wrote Bill Hawkins.

And to Mrs Hawkins she wrote: “It thrills me to think how many people will be admiring her. “

Today, David Smith’s Leda is a centerpiece of the Houston Museum of Fine Arts’ sculpture gallery.

Below it reads a sign, “ Gift of Mr and Mrs William D. Hawkins.” “The connections between St. Louis, Bolton Landing, David Smith, the Crockwells and my family makes it seem like fate that we should one day own it and be able to donate it to the museum in Houston,” says Mrs. Hawkins.

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George Hawkins says:

George Hawkins, son of the late Bo Hawkins, adds the following:

Your inclusion of the article about Mother’s opportunity to be a doyen of the art world reminds me of Uncle Ralph’s experience with David Smith. Uncle Ralph and David Smith were both members of the very non-exclusive club that gathered in Bill Gates Diner most mornings. They were friends over coffee and daily banter. Uncle Ralph was aware of David Smith’s art, and his growing reputation, neither of which held much weight with my grandfather’s younger brother. Uncle Ralph had neither an appreciation of or an eye for modern art, and must have felt that Smith was an adequate welder and a consummate huckster. The fact is he didn’t have an eye for art at all, but he was especially amused by the phenomenon and the wave that was swelling beneath his coffee-klatch friend.
Uncle Ralph decided to get into the art business. He assembled a few pieces of iron from the considerable junk pile in his large barn, and with two or three pieces, settled upon his métier. With an ox-cart brake shoe, and a few other superannuated relics, Uncle Ralph went into town and prevailed upon Peanut Monroe as an unwitting accomplice. With a newly minted eye for sculpture, Uncle Ralph had Peanut weld a few pieces together. What lends the whole affair a lasting note of ridiculousness is the idea of Uncle Ralph advising Peanut just how to orient each piece to the other into an artistic whole. Anyway, Peanut finished. When asked what he would charge, Peanut said, “I guess that’ll be two-fifty, Mr. Bixby.”
Now the art impresario, and completely out of character as anyone who knew him would attest, Uncle Ralph said, “Peanut, this is Modern Art. I’ll have to give you five dollars.” This was fine art, after all.
Uncle Ralph took the objet d’art to Bill Gates Diner in the morning, and waited for Smith’s arrival. When he finally came in, innocent of the work of art about to be introduced, Smith sat down to coffee. Uncle Ralph couldn’t wait, of course, and revealed his art. He asked for an honest assessment of the qualities of the work, and asked whether the Museum of Modern Art might be interested. No fool, Smith took it, probably guffawed, and said he’d take it to his studio to ponder it.
Thus ends the joke, as far as Uncle Ralph is concerned. He had his fun with the foolish world of modern art, and figured he’d gotten the best of Smith. Life went on, and folks forgot about the artwork, as much as anyone in a small town forgets anything or passes any chance to have fun at someone else’s expense. The fall came. Uncle Ralph and Aunt Lucy went down to Captiva to spend the winter, and he probably forgot about the joke, never having received any offer from any gallery to exhibit his works. Spring came, and about the time Uncle Ralph was to begin his yearly migration to Bolton Landing, David Smith died in a car wreck. It was a tragedy in many dimensions, and Smith’s many friends grieved, including Uncle Ralph. When he did get back to the Lake, there was something missing from the daily banter at the Diner.
In early summer, 1965, it finally dawned on Uncle Ralph that his joke might have some terrible consequences. Sometime, someone was going to assess the remaining works of art by David Smith, which, following the artist’s death, would have increased significantly in value and interest. It was then that Uncle Ralph hatched his plans for the Great Heist. He had to get into Smith’s studio, find the work of art he had foisted upon Smith, and now the public, and take it all back.
There were no black masks, no late night raids. He probably sauntered in and found his artwork gathering dust in some corner, but Uncle Ralph came this close to greatness, well, with credit to Peanut, too. Life went on. Daily banter and practiced patter went on in Bill Gates Diner (“Bill, get out the cookbook. I want a cup of coffee!”) and Uncle Ralph gave up the world of art.

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