REBELS ON EIGHTH STREET: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art by Avis Berman

REBELS ON EIGHTH STREET: Juliana Force and the Whitney Museum of American Art

Email this review


In this first biography of Juliana Force, Berman unveils the larger-than-life founder of the Whitney Museum. In 1907, Force went to work as a secretary for heiress Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who had breached the strict confines of her class and sex by becoming a professional sculptor. Despite radically different backgrounds, the two women shared ""aesthetic sensitivity, nonconformity, and an appetite for experience."" At the Whitney Studio on Eighth Street, they began to promote the cause of contemporary American art, then scorned by both museums and the public. Force was indefatigable, eccentric, opinionated, highhanded, courageous, and generous to a fault. For over three decades, she wielded the Whitney largesse to show and buy work by Robert Henri, George Luks, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, Guy Pene du Bois, John Slosh, Edward Hopper, and innumerable others. When profiled by Vogue in 1940, the 64-year-old director of the Whitney Museum had made herself into an indelible figure. She wore high-style clothes and lived in a suite of rooms above the museum with a wild array of Victorian furnishings and a floor of lacquered chintz. Although Force inevitably acquired many second-rate pieces, Berman, an art-magazine writer, convincingly argues that she was instrumental in permanently changing American taste. By documenting the indigent childhood that Force chose to forget, the author explains the woman's desperation to make something brilliant of herself. The book brims with sharply drawn details of cultured New York in the century's first four decades. Only occasionally is it weighed down by contemporary biography's drive to recount everything. Fair-minded and gracefully written, Berman's account elucidates well Force's idiosyncratic contribution to American art. Her self-invented life also says much about the evolving nature of women in modern society.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Atheneum