Building a Legacy: Gifts from the Collection of Javan and Britt Bayer

October 2, 2020  • Art Exhibitions

July 2020 – May 2022

To acknowledge the contributions Herbert Bayer made to the foundation and development of its campus and its early programs, the Aspen Institute is creating a new center in which to honor the life and work of one of its most iconic figures. Building a Legacy: Herbert Bayer and the Aspen Institute, a two-part exhibition, presents the new architectural plans for the Resnick Center for Herbert Bayer Studies and showcases a major gift of Bayer’s work donated by Javan and Britt Bayer to commemorate this momentous occasion.

Building a Legacy: Gifts of Javan & Britt Bayer presents a selection of Herbert Bayer’s artwork donated to the Aspen Institute in 2019 by the estate of Javan and Britt Bayer. The bequest includes eighteen works of art spanning a period of six decades, from a 1919 pen and ink drawing titled Morning, to Solar Delineation, created in 1981, four years before the artist’s death. In the exhibition, a group of three drawings and two watercolors from 1920 provides insight into Bayer’s early exploration of landscape. Executed in 1920 during his visits to various locales in Austria, these drawings reflect Bayer’s lifelong interest in nature and such early influences as Viennese Secessionist art and design. In 1924, after two years of study at the Bauhaus, Bayer produced the watercolor Bocca di Falco. It demonstrates his more assured sense of color and masterful handling of complex composition.

Nothing prepares the viewer for Bayer’s sophisticated and powerful Deposition of 1940. Created while in New York at the onset of World War II, this painting invites the viewer to observe and contemplate sixteen implements, many of which are associated with the Crucifixion, set against a greenish-grey background. By eliminating all reference to naturalistic settings, Bayer compels the viewer to confront each object on its own terms and to imagine the suffering of Christ as well as the horror associated with the war.

Bayer’s move to Aspen in 1946, marked a return to nature and landscape painting. Three works from 1947-48 illuminate his close observation of natural phenomena, from a study of water to a depiction of an aspen grove. The third portrays the beloved owls he tended from their infancy as orphan chicks to when they were able to leave the nest and survive on their own.

Bayer’s thirty-year residence in Aspen yielded the greatest output of his life, both in art and design. While producing promotional material for the town of Aspen, the publication of the World Geo Graphic Atlas, and master-planning the campus of the Aspen Institute, he created several series of paintings that addressed ideas and issues that fascinated him. In addition to landscape and nature, he explored the passage of time, structures, the cosmos, progressions of shapes and colors, geometry, and the Fibonacci mathematical sequence, and numerous other subjects. Four works on display, Yellow Rectangle, 1957, Structure with Two Gold Squares, 1972, Curve from Two Progressions, 1973 and Double Transparency, 1976, provide a glimpse into the rich variety of works he produced during his Aspen years.

In 1974, Bayer suffered a series of heart attacks that necessitated a move from his beloved town of Aspen to the lower altitude of Santa Barbara. Around that time he began a series of works that would ultimately express the essence of his artistic life. He chose Anthology, a collection of treasured works, more specifically a collection of fragments, images, letters, numbers, geometric forms and shapes, as the title of this series. Some of the images he used had previously appeared in his work while other forms were new, the result of a life-long search for meaning in signs and symbols. Instead of literally quoting his earlier work, Bayer created new settings in which various elements, both old and new, could co-exist. The resulting works offer mysterious and poetic expanses in which philosophical ideas, mathematical systems, and conceptual theories take the viewer on a journey of exploration. Three works on display, Iconographic, 1978, Four Radiations, and Solar Delineation, both from 1981, are exquisite examples of this late series.

Javan & Britt Bayer

Britt and Javan Bayer, c. 1985

Javan Bayer (1928-2001) was Joella Bayer’s eldest son from her first marriage to the influential gallerist Julian Levy. Javan was 17 when Joella married Herbert. He became very close to Herbert, changed his last name to Bayer, and referred to Herbert as his father. Javan was an amateur photographer and Herbert encouraged him by arranging for him to study with Ansel Adams. He devoted his career to the photographic arts, including assisting Herbert in printing his photographs. Javan and Britt (1936-2019) met in the late 1970s. She quickly became an essential part of the Bayer family. After Herbert’s passing in 1985, Javan and Britt managed the Herbert Bayer Studio along with Joella. After Javan’s passing in 2001 and Joella’s in 2004, Britt worked tirelessly to promote Herbert’s work. She offered for exhibition and sale works that had rarely been seen and stimulated interest, particularly in the earlier work Bayer created in Germany. A 2007 meeting with Lynda and Stewart Resnick was the beginning of a journey that eventually led to the creation of the new center devoted to the life and work of Herbert Bayer. The plans were announced shortly before Britt’s passing. Her last wish was to donate their personal collection so that it could become part of the permanent collection to be housed in the new center.