As Director of Exhibitions and Publications at the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 to 1967, Monroe Wheeler heavily influenced typography, book design, and the development of the museum exhibition catalog. During his tenure at MoMA, Wheeler developed close relationships with many of the artists whose works he exhibited and published. Season’s Greetings is a volume of over fifty handmade art objects and limited printings that were sent to Wheeler from various artists, many of whom he knew intimately.
There was a nuanced elegance in everything he did. It was grounded in a practical, mid-western sensibility and honed early, by his late teens.
As co-publisher and book designer of Harrison of Paris, Albert Skira and Ambroise Vollard admired his publications for their skillful combination of authorship, illustration, design and typography. In New York, his 30-year tenure as Director of Exhibitions and Publications for the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) created a standard of excellence for others to emulate worldwide.
Monroe Lathrop Wheeler witnessed most of the twentieth century, surrounded by an international group of artists, writers, poets, photographers, socialites and philanthropists. His intimate circle was co-hosted by lifelong companion Glenway Wescott, generously encouraged by heiress Barbara Harrison Wescott and made erotically triangular by photographer George Platt Lynes.
Wheeler approached life with a meticulous sense of detail. On the back of a MoMA press photo, in his unmistakable handwriting, he noted “Monroe Wheeler at his office desk, designed by Bill Miller (Christian William Miller) and with MW’s Arshile Gorky rug on the wall and his Robsjohn-Gibbings chair.” This process would repeat itself thousands of times.
Noteworthy dinner party conversation was jotted down on small slips of paper. Professional correspondence was annotated and carefully filed. Love was professed and mourned in trans-Atlantic letters and cables. Newspapers were clipped. Books were amassed. Gallery posters stowed away. Art was hung, stored, loaned and graciously accepted. And the pile of material grew ever larger with each passing decade full of accomplishment and event.
The Christmas season was a particularly busy time. In addition to commissioned art for his own holiday cards, dozens of envelopes would arrive each year from artists and well wishers around the globe. Many contained original works and privately circulated lithographs. You’ll find a selection here, pulled from the remaining archives still in private hands.
With Glenway’s death in 1987, followed by Monroe’s in 1989, ownership of this legacy passed to Anatole Pohorilenko, a man fiercely protective of Monroe and who shared his love for the arts and the art of organization. The extent of this legacy was uncovered in 2014, after the untimely death of Anatole, on a quiet suburban street outside Philadelphia, in a converted Catholic nunnery.
And as the facade of what was known began to melt away, one overstuffed closet led to another. The attic, no longer off limits, groaned heavily under the weight of hundreds of storage boxes. Similar caches in the basement and garage reached toward the ceilings.
The intimate and private papers of Monroe were intact, carefully organized and stowed away in their 1990 estate cartons. Never before seen photographs of Katherine Anne Porter on her deathbed were stored in “KAP material” boxes. Early George Platt Lynes shots of the inner circle were filed in “GPL private” containers. Great authors sat next to poets. Philanthropists and baroness’s mingled with Alfred Kinsey correspondence. Blank stationery yearned for one more letter.
It was as if you could hear them, in an ongoing and lively debate, discuss the comings and goings of 1920’s Paris, 1950’s New York and points in between, with Monroe Lathrop Wheeler leading the way, ready for the next great adventure.
“With the news of your not having the western hemisphere on your shoulders, a great wave of hope sweeps over us.” So wrote Monroe Wheeler to Nelson A. Rockefeller who was about to return to New York City in 1945 after serving as head of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace.
This was not only an expression of relief that World War II was over, but also a sophisticated, sincere, and eloquent articulation of Wheeler’s formal friendship with and admiration of Rockefeller, a trustee at the Museum of Modern Art since 1932. Wheeler effortlessly and impeccably mingled personal and professional relationships in his communications with his fellow administrators, trustees, and just about every significant artist of the mid-20th Century while he served as director of publications and exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art from 1939 through 1967.
Monroe Wheeler was an urbane and gracious fund-raiser, writing countless letters to philanthropists, artists, trustees, and board members to help raise money for the construction of MoMA’s new building designed by Philip Johnson at 21 West 53rd Street, which opened in 1951. At the same time, he wrote letters of recommendation for eminent artists in support of their Guggenheim Fellowship applications, and letters to these same artists to introduce them to young art students and trustees alike. In 1944, Wheeler crafted tactful yet sophisticated letters to Henri Matisse, Constantin Brâncuși, Alberto Giacometti, and the Parisian gallery owner, Aimé Maeght, on behalf of William Burden, then a trustee (and later president) of MoMA, in anticipation of Burden’s trip to Paris.
Under the imprimatur of the small literary presses Manikin and Harrison of Paris, during the 1920s and 1930s respectively, Monroe Wheeler first brought together his love of art, the written word, typography, and fine literary editions. He carried this experience to his work as designer of some of the most beautiful books ever made. He was self-taught from an early age, yet he was quite possibly the most erudite member of the literary and art circles to which he belonged on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was at MoMA, however, that he mastered his craft and attained his greatest achievements. In addition to the administrative duties he oversaw, he almost single-handedly developed the model and refined the genre of the museum catalog and monograph. What is generally not known is his role in the production of MoMA’s Christmas cards. From the 1940s through the 1950s, Wheeler corresponded with artists whose works he selected for reproduction as original MoMA cards and prints, including Alexander Calder, Bruno Munari, Ben Shahn, Francisco Otta, Henri Matisse, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, and Saul Steinberg. In 1950, he once again wrote Nelson A. Rockefeller: “As our Christmas card business has been so successful and remunerative, we are now entering the field of year-round greeting cards with no printed message.”
From an early 1937 Christmas card that includes a short essay by Glenway Wescott and exemplifies the keen design sensibility of his early books, to the Christmas cards that
Wheeler commissioned from close friends and frequent collaborators for MoMA publications and cards – Alexander Calder, Ben Shahn, Leonard Baskin – Monroe Wheeler elegantly and extravagantly acknowledged the Christmas holidays, and at the same time affirmed his very practical Midwestern ethics by repeatedly using on the inside of the cards the wording, “with best wishes for a happy christmas and a fortunate new year.”
Everything Monroe Wheeler did was executed with integrity and a regard for legacy. He drafted simple memos, highly sensitive negotiations, and intimate personal letters, many of which still exist in his personal archive, with a sense of decorum. Wheeler understood history, and he knew that this material would someday find its way to the public. Every letter, photo, and object was preserved and stored as an artistic treasure, as well as evidence of close friendships.
All the while, he quietly stood in the background making the most remarkable things happen, yet coaching and charging those around him in the preservation of this archive. It is from that archive that these Christmas cards come, reproduced in the book one now holds.
Writing to George Platt Lynes on “10 Nov. 1951,” years after they were no longer lovers, Monroe advised “Dearest Giorgio” that “one should seek the beauty one needs in books, pictures, music, outdoor sights and adult conversation…. [T]he only assured gratifications are those which come from work well done, and one’s only concern, every waking moment, should be to knock one’s self out in doing one’s best, in putting on a good show.” And a very spectacular show it was.