The [Modern] bought its first large waterlily painting — at 18 feet across, the widest painting to enter the collection up to that point — in 1955, for the equivalent of $11,500. A mere three years later it paid the equivalent of $150,000 for the triptych, acquiring it as a replacement for the first work, which was destroyed in a fire at the museum.
Arriving at the museum in poor condition, the triptych was extensively restored and put on new stretchers. Dorothy Miller, one of the museum’s early curators, gave Monet’s original stretchers to three young New York painters: Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Fred Mitchell. Those were the days.
Roberta Smith, referencing Ann Temkin’s essay on Monet’s waterlily paintings, which are now on exhibit together at MoMA.
I just checked back to the quick acquisition history I wrote two years ago of the Met’s and Modern’s giant Pollocks. 1955 was also the year Barr first attempted to drum up acquisition funds ($8,000) to buy a Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (1950), from his own trustee, the dealer Sidney Janis. He couldn’t shake the money loose, and the work went to the Met in 1958 for $30,000. Also taking place in the middle of the Modern’s Monet purchases: Frank O’Hara’s 1957 Pollock show, which the artist did not live to see.
Whether it’s out of fashion for art historians to read premonitions of postwar New York School action painting in Monet’s waterlilies, those histories from the 50’s onward were together at MoMA.