Mid-century Los Angelenos Edyth and Phillip Bassett shared a love for rare and special objects, collecting fine art prints by many of the titans of modern art: Picasso, Braque, Miró, Magritte, Cocteau and others. The Bassetts were self-taught art historians who shared a passion for extensive research, collecting one piece at a time and sharpening their aesthetic along the way. After decades of collecting, the couple left behind a treasure box of exquisite works with a list of names that reads like a blockbuster MOMA show. Now, decades later, we’ve archivally framed many of these works for the first time, preparing them for their next passionate custodian.
Phillip Hadley Bassett was born June 9, 1909 in St. Louis, Missouri. Although successful in the medical field, Phillip always maintained his dream of teaching French instead. However, it was his medical training, and not his penchant for the romance language, that led to his cinematic “meet-cute” with Edyth. The couple met at an ice-skating rink in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1938, when another skater inadvertently hit Edyth in the shin, injuring her. Phillip, witnessed the incident while skating, and as a practicing physician, swooped in to tend to her wound. A year later, the couple married.
Edyth Jones Bassett, born August 6, 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri, was raised in an orphanage after the passing of both of her parents at the ages of three and six. After many trials she was finally adopted and at age sixteen was aided by her new family to pursue higher education, attending college in Kansas City. Although she had very little to call her own, stating everything she had could fit in a shoebox, Edyth found a richness in learning and self-education. She was an avid reader with a precocious thirst for knowledge.
Not long after their wedding, Phillip was enlisted in the armed services. He served in World War II as a flight surgeon in the Navy, and like many young Americans, experienced life outside of the U.S. for the very first time. Upon his return in 1943, the couple moved to California, settling in Los Angeles. The end of the war and the subsequent economic boom spurred a cultural explosion on the west coast. Hip, happening, metropolitan Los Angeles, was the city of innovation and Hollywood glamour. From the silver screen to the emergence of prominent art institutions such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), design and art gained new traction and became part of the aesthetic of what it meant to be a Californian.
Precious antiques, vintage gems, and modern art all had equal footing in this sprawling urban jungle. Antique shops, auction houses, and art fairs multiplied across L.A., encouraging the middle class to take part in the activity of collecting. For the first time, the position of the collector was not merely relegated to the elite or the avant garde traveller. Instead, everyday Americans could become connoisseurs in their own right, learning about the world through objects, while simultaneously honing in on their own tastes.
Coinciding with the emergence of lifestyle magazines such as House Beautiful and even Playboy, it became popular to reflect one's interests through the design of their home and acquisition of objects. Following suit, the Bassetts began collecting in the 1940’s through the 1960’s, with a specific penchant for antique silver objects, rare treasures from Asia, as well as paintings and prints from the legends of 20th century modern art. The joy of collecting spurred from their mutual enjoyment of self-education and investigation of these rare and special objects. The couple often conducted extensive research on each piece, which during this pre-internet era took a keen eye and a lot of patience. The couple amassed stacks upon stacks of art reference texts, brochures, and catalogs in order to record as much information as possible on each piece. More than simply acquiring objects, they were self-taught art historians, acculturating themselves through their extensive research. They cataloged each piece using a 3x5 index card, with impossibly small handwritten notes. Their practice of collecting was not motivated by an accumulation of assets, but instead was fueled by their curiosity and the pleasure of being surrounded by beautiful objects.
During this era, many of the pioneers of modern art such as Georges Braque, Joan Miró, Pierre Bonnard, and Pablo Picasso created limited edition lithographs of their work, often signed, numbered and dated. This production of prints contributed to the new collector economy, while simultaneously allowing greater access to their work. These prints were carefully considered, chosen for their art historical relevance and aesthetic beauty.
As grandiose as our associations may be when it comes to the persona of “an art collector”, this phenomena in the U.S. has humble beginnings, born of innate curiosity and a desire to see and understand the world. For Edyth and Phillip Bassett, the spirit of collecting enlivened the couple - it was their intellectual obsession, their family outing and their bond. For many Americans, the post-war era of the late 1940s and 1950s brought a period of economic stability and domestic security. Airline travel was becoming more accessible, and tourism quickly became a marker of cultural capital, and as a result, people were able to see the world first hand, as well as the art and artifacts that contained their precious histories. These experiences could be transmitted through objects. Recognizing this, these fledgling collectors and world travelers memorialized their experiences through the acquisition of art and objects. For those unable to exercise their wanderlust, a global market opened for the distribution of fine art objects, allowing the everyday person to participate in the circulation of art and artifacts. Enamored by this, the Bassetts found a shared love in the art of collecting.
So many of the ‘lost artists’ represented in our collection have deep ties to modernism, often citing the artist’s in the Bassett Collection as influences on their practice. It feels beautifully poignant to hang these totemic works alongside the lesser-known names of their art successors, allowing us to further open up the art history vault and honor their lasting influence. We would like to extend our gratitude to the Bassett family, and especially their granddaughter Heather Lake, for bringing this incredible collection our way.