February 17 Lecture & Book Signing
The New Yorker's First Art Critic: Murdock Pemberton
Program begins at 2 pm

Celebrating Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum of American Art and the 100-year anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show, Joslyn welcomes Sally Pemberton, grandaughter of The New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton.

Portrait of Murdock Pemberton by Hugo Gellert (1892-1985)

In 1925, no one in New York City was more surprised than Murdock Pemberton—a newspaper reporter, Broadway publicist, playwright, and poet with no formal training in art or connoisseurship—when an upstart magazine, the New Yorker, named him its first art critic. But the keen eye, adventurous taste, crusading spirit, and irreverent wit expressed in his columns soon made him a conquering hero of the avant-garde. Modernists as diverse as Arthur Dove, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Isamu Noguchi cherished Murdock’s friendship and support; so did cutting-edge art dealers and pioneers of industrial design. Kansas-born Murdock took aim at narrow-mindedness and bigotry in every part of the United States, while championing stylistic “outsiders.”

But the blunt, scrupulously muckraking journalism that delighted admirers from Greenwich Village studios to the Algonquin Round Table drew hisses from America’s art establishment. Exposés of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, collector Andrew Mellon, and “plush-hung” commercial galleries—for the New Yorker and other national publications—thrust Murdock into the limelight as a David among the philistines, his favorite role.

The curtain fell with a thud on Murdock’s New Yorker career as an art critic at the depth of the Great Depression. By the onset of World War II, Murdock already looked back on his crusade for modernism as a quixotic flop. In 1955 he wrote to his chum Alexander Calder (whom he had “discovered” three decades earlier), “What’s the use of always being the forgotten man of art?” Oblivion indeed seemed to be Murdock’s fate when he died in 1982. His only visible legacy—a modest collection of modern art patiently and frugally acquired over many years—was largely dispersed by heirs. And yet, unbeknownst even to them, a more precious bequest awaited discovery.

In 2009, while cleaning out her mother’s attic, Sally Pemberton stumbled across old suitcases where he had methodically stashed exhibition catalogs, clippings, playbills, letters, and photographs (Man Rays mixed with family snapshots). Sally now had enough clues to begin the exhaustive detective work and original research to reconstruct the art critic's career.
Sally Pemberton is a marketing and business strategist who became an accidental historian. She lives in Chicago. 

Following the program, Sally will sign copies of her book and visit with guests in Joslyn’s ConAgra Atrium.

100th Anniversary of the 1913 Armory Show

On this date in history, February 17, 1913, the International Exhibition of Modern Art, more familiarly known as the Armory Show, was formally opened to the public. This sensational exhibition, which included examples of the most advanced movements in European art, was the first of its kind held in the United States and is widely acknowledged as turning point in the history of American art. In recognition of the centennial anniversary of the Armory Show, join us for this unique perspective on American Modern Art. 

Program is free with regular Museum admission. Contact Joslyn’s Director of Adult Programs at (402) 661-3862 or sseverson@joslyn.org for more information.