In Full Light
Carnegie Museum of Art pays tribute to Pittsburgh artist and collector Jane Haskell.
By Cristina Rouvalis
When a painting offered for acquisition was abstract, stark, and, for some, not immediately accessible, the late artist Jane Haskell would express her understanding of such challenging works and why she viewed them as important additions to Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection.
“Jane was an artist with a taste for the most difficult forms of modern art—the most reduced form of abstraction,” says Lynn Zelevansky, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Museum of Art. “As a board member, she would get enthused talking about very subtle art that required a trained eye. It was great for the people who do not have that training. It was also an asset for our curators to have someone with that level of understanding and firsthand experience on the board.”
Jane Haskell in 2006 with her work, Windborne, at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Photo: Timothy Burak
In art circles, Haskell was known as an accomplished artist who worked extensively with neon and fluorescent light and created the Rivers of Light installation for Pittsburgh’s Steel Plaza subway station. But the artist, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 89, did so much more behind the scenes. At the Museum of Art, Haskell was not only a longtime board member, but a trusted advisor with an art collection of her own, and a committed philanthropist; The Edward N. Haskell Family Acquisition Fund led to the purchase of more than three dozen 20thcentury artworks.
Jane Haskell's Modernism: A Pittsburgh Legacy, on view in Scaife Gallery One through May 16, 2016, is a fitting tribute to a beloved member of the Pittsburgh arts community. It highlights the devotion of an advocate who helped the museum acquire a Pablo Picasso engraving, a print by Joan Miró, and two abstract works by Vassily Kandinsky, among other important works on paper.
“At the end of her career, she was working with light. It seemed like a metaphor for who she was. She was filled with light.”
- Lynn Zelevansky, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art
It also provides a snapshot of Haskell’s personal tastes as a collector, including works by Alan Davie, Karel Appel, and Wols, that once adorned her Point Breeze home, which was designed by her friend, Pittsburghbased modernist architect Herbert Seigle. All of the works in the show that were once owned by Jane and her late husband, Edward, were donated to the museum.
As the show demonstrates, the art the Haskells collected, as well as the art purchased through the Haskell fund, influenced Jane’s own evolution as an artist, says Katie Clausen, Carnegie Museum of Art curatorial assistant and co-organizer of the exhibition. One of the artist’s plexiglass, rope, and neon sculptures, for example—one of four works by Haskell in the exhibition—is displayed next to 10 etchings that illustrate the light sculptures of Dan Flavin, an artist whose experimentations with mass-produced fluorescent lights were groundbreaking.
It’s a perfect complement to Jane Haskell: Drawing in Light, the first in-depth examination of Haskell’s practice, on view at the American Jewish Museum at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Pittsburgh through February 19, 2016.
“We hope people go to both shows,” says Clausen. “The JCC show puts a spotlight on Jane’s work. Our show focuses on her personal side: artist but also collector, donor, trusted museum advisor. We want to highlight this personal connection because she had such an important impact on the museum.”
The Long Island native wasn’t thrilled about coming to sooty, industrial Pittsburgh when she and Edward first arrived in 1949 so he could join his brother at an office furniture business. But that early disappointment faded as she was invigorated by the city— especially upon taking classes from painter and educator Samuel Rosenberg, who would become her mentor, and whose work is represented in the Museum of Art exhibition.
The ease of living in the city’s East End allowed Haskell to study art in Oakland and come home to be with her young children. “Looking back, she said she wouldn’t have had the same opportunities if she had stayed in New York,” says Costas Karakatsanis, the museum’s provenance researcher and co-organizer of the exhibition.
Having earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Pittsburgh, Haskell taught at Duquesne University for a decade before returning to full-time artmaking in the 1970s, holding shows in the Pittsburgh area and New York and taking on private commissions.
She was also a Museum of Art board member for more than a decade, and became an important philanthropist. In 1989, after Edward’s death, the Edward N. Haskell Family Acquisition Fund was established at the museum, and Haskell regularly consulted with curators about possible purchases. Sometimes she would spot something in a catalogue or at an auction house and recommend it, while other times curators would suggest something to her.
“Jane had such a good eye,” recalls Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts. “She was so knowledgeable and sensitive and understanding. She was a delight to work with. She had an elegance—her appearance, her manners, her manner of thinking.”
Haskell helped the museum acquire artwork that reflects crucial developments in abstract art over the course of the 20th century, including contributions by Josef Albers, Carlo Carrà, Eva Hesse, El Lissitzky, and Kazimir Malevich.
“Taken as a whole, it’s a very impressive snapshot of 20th-century works on paper,” Karakatsanis says. “We are lucky to have it.”
Haskell never stopped evolving as an artist. In 2006, at the age of 83, she was named artist of the year by the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The Museum of Art owns works from each phase of her career, notes Zelevansky, who recalls Haskell as a warm person who loved to laugh, had an innate and unpretentious elegance, and was full of ideas.
“She was quite a serious artist and she never stopped working,” says Zelevansky, who was honored when she learned that Haskell had wanted her to give a eulogy at her funeral. “At the end of her career, she was working with light. It seemed like a metaphor for who she was. She was filled with light.”