Currently on display at the Fleet Library

AN EYE FOR THE MODERN:
Selections from the Nina Abrams Bequest

January 4 – March 22, 2013

Harry and Nina Abrams began collecting the work of contemporary European and American artists in the 1930’s as well as many 20th century American and French painters. They collected what they liked and often were among the first people to buy works from emerging artists. Developing relationships with these artists was important to them as well. Abrams’ office and apartment home in Manhattan and in Putnam Valley, New York were filled with contemporary art, reflecting their diverse interests. As Harry Abrams said in a 1972 interview: “We love pictures, we love art and we love to live with art all around us. This has been our lifestyle.”* It is therefore not surprising that Abrams would publish books about the artists whose work they collected and whose careers they supported. *From the announcement of the Phillips de Pury sale of their collection in 2010.

The books displayed in this exhibit, represent selections from Harry and Nina’s own personal book collection and the bequest that Nina made to RISD. Hand printed livres d’artistes include portfolios of etchings, lithographs, or wood engravings, illustrating original poetry or prose, and produced in small editions. Other selections include modern photography, facsimiles of artists’ sketches and works by both well known and lesser 20th century artists. Many of these books represent the work of early avant-garde artists, in which Cubist, Futurist, Dada, and Surrealist perspectives can be seen. Also represented are works of Expressionists and later Pop artists. In all these books the beauty of the page, the lusciousness of prints on paper, and the elegance of design must have served the Abrams’ well, as inspiration for the possibilities of publishing.

Impressed by the quality of European fine art book publishing, but disturbed by the monopoly European, and especially French publishers had in representing historic and contemporary art and culture, Harry N. Abrams set out in 1950 to change the art world’s focus from Paris to New York. For the first time in the United States, a publisher resolved, against much criticism, to devote himself exclusively to producing fine art books. For over 25 years, Abrams publications broke new ground, contributing to the study of art history and concurrently the emergence of art libraries.

Laurie Whitehill Chong
Special Collections Librarian

Library Director Carol Terry describes how RISD became the recipient of the Nina Abrams bequest:

NINA ABRAMS AND RISD

Nina Abrams and Carol TerryI first heard of Nina Abrams in 1998 when a former library employee contacted me to see if we might be interested in a donation of books from the Abrams family collection. She said that a friend was working for Nina who was looking for possible recipients of a large number of art books.

Of course I was interested, and shortly made arrangements to visit Nina at her Putnam Valley home. Books and contemporary art were everywhere, and I began a process that continued over many years of visiting with her, making lists of books we might be able to use, and making arrangements to get them to the library. One such trip involved renting a car and with the able assistance of Susan Gifford, travelling to the Manhattan residence and loading up boxes of books. Other library staff members took a trip to the Putnam Valley home, transporting boxes of books back to RISD. This first phase of the gift resulted in hundreds of books “from the Estate of Harry N. Abrams, donated by Nina Abrams.”

Our friendship developed over this period of time, and my family made frequent visits not related to the books. We just enjoyed being with this fascinating woman, who had travelled widely and had met many artists in the course of her husband’s book publishing business. She had wonderful tales of meeting Picasso, Calder, Giacometti, and others. In her late 80’s she was planning a trip to South Africa and had Samarkand on the list for her next destination.

Both homes were filled with art. The auction catalog of the sale of her estate shows just a portion of what was originally in the collection. (Phillips de Pury, April 7, 2010).

She was very fond of RISD, and I accompanied her to RISD’s Athena Awards celebration in New York in November 2004 where her friends Christo and Jeanne-Claude were honored the Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Nina died at the end of February 2008, just days shy of her 98th birthday. In her will, she stipulated that the books in her collection, still numbering around 10,000 volumes, were to be divided between her son Robert and RISD. After Robert and I made our selections, there were still around 5000 volumes left, and these ultimately came to RISD as well. We found additional treasures for our collection, and the remaining books are gradually being sold for the benefit of an endowed fund in the name of the Abrams Family.

Carol Terry
Director of Library Services
January 2013

Posted by A. Bordeaux

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