Art in Doubt: A Critical Examination of the Thomas P. Whitney Collection, Part 2

On View: March 26, 2024–June 28, 2024

Location: Gallery, Amherst Center for Russian Culture

Free and open to the public: Monday-Friday, 9am-4pm


Curatorial Information

Curated by Maria Timina, Curator of Russian and European Art, Mead Art Museum

Curatorial assistance by Erica Drennan, Associate Director and Head of Collections, Amherst Center for Russian Culture; Michael Kunichika, Professor of Russian, Chair of Russian, Amherst College; Sofia Zavatone-Veth ‘25

Special Thanks

With special thanks to Konstantin Akinsha and James Butterwick

“I had my own experiences with problems of authenticity. I have been offered fakes. At one point the problem had me bothered enough so that I almost decided to abandon purchasing anything at all.”

—Thomas P. Whitney ’37

This is an exhibition about suspected fakes and possible forgeries, about works that cause us to doubt history, experts, and art itself. It is about doubt as an essential part of art attribution, while it is also about how knowledge can transform skepticism into assurance. With a focus on the Thomas P. Whitney Collection, a collection of over six hundred objects housed at the Mead Art Museum, “Art in Doubt” marks the first scholarly presentation of dubious works of Russian and Soviet modern art in the United States. In two parts, the exhibition continues throughout the 2023-24 academic year. Part 1 featured exclusively artworks of disputed authenticity—those with imaginary histories of ownership, unreliable authenticity certificates, misleading signatures, and fabricated artist biographies. Part 2 offers a wider range of artworks whose authenticity has been questioned, some of which are highly dubious and some of which now appear to be genuine.

In the 1960s, Westerners discovered the experimental modern art produced in the Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union, and it soon gained wide popularity among art enthusiasts and professionals of all kinds. This resulted in an unprecedented demand for what was named Russian avant-garde art. Banned in the Soviet Union, these works were extremely hard to find in the West. This lack of available artworks on the market, combined with the lack of knowledge and experts in the field, created ideal conditions for forgers. 

Unlike numerous other collectors who were unaware of the scale of the problem, Thomas P. Whitney ‘37 (1917–2007) strove to avoid dubious works as much as possible. The ubiquity of fakes concerned him so much that he considered giving up his passion for collecting entirely. Fortunately, Whitney chose to continue, and he assembled one of the most important private collections of its kind in the West. The collection he donated to Amherst College comprises over six hundred artworks, largely acquired before the Soviet Union’s collapse paved the way to an open art market and a true epidemic of fakes. This timing, paired with Whitney’s careful approach to collecting, has resulted in surprisingly few dubious artworks in his collection.

But, as Whitney knew, some works would still slip through. The current exhibition examines those objects, while displaying them alongside archival documents: correspondence, invoices, and statements made by a number of experts. Put together, they lift the veil on how museum curators approach the task of authenticating the art in their care. In the end, the artworks in the show leave us with new questions: if a fake is good enough to convince us of its authenticity for decades, what do we gain, and what do we lose, once it is exposed? How do we decide what evidence is enough to call a work a fake, or to assert its authenticity? What is the balance between certainty and doubt?

Two illustrations of ballerinas in a dancing pose

Left: Leon Bakst, formerly attributed to. Costume Design for “The Fairy Doll”, 20th century. Watercolor, ink, pencil on hand-made paper mounted on cardboard. Gift of Thomas P. Whitney (Class of 1937) | Right: Leon Bakst (1866-1924), designer ; unknown lithographer. “The Fairy Doll” from the set of chromalithographed postcards with costumes from the ballet “The Fairy Doll” (Hermitage Theater, 1903). Aleksei Il’in Lithography, Saint Eugenia Congregation Publishing House, Saint Petersburg, 1904.

Previous Exhibitions

A modernist painting with circles and triangles

Art in Doubt: A Critical Examination of the Thomas P. Whitney Collection, Part 1

Amherst Center for Russian Culture

Art in Doubt: A Critical Examination of the Thomas P. Whitney Collection, Part 1 is an exhibition about suspected fakes and possible forgeries, about works that cause us to doubt history, experts, and art itself. With a focus on the Thomas P. Whitney Collection housed at the Mead Art Museum, “Art in Doubt” marks the first scholarly presentation of dubious works of the Russian and Soviet avant-garde in the United States. The first part of the two-part exhibition—with the second iteration opening in Spring 2024—features exclusively non-objective compositions that were highly sought-after by collectors and were also believed to be more easily forged.

Vkhutemas image 3

Fragments of Utopia: Photographs from the VKhUTEMAS Workshops

Amherst Center for Russian Culture

The photographs featured in the exhibition show models created by the students of the VKhUTEMAS in response to various exercises—largely on the topics of volume and space—assigned by their professors, as well as projects of their own creation, from film sets to architectural projects. These materials are drawn from the archive of Selim Khan-Magomedov (1928-2011)—among the most prominent scholars of Soviet avant-garde art and architecture—who mainly acquired them from the VKhUTEMAS alumni Nikolai Travin, Mikhail Korzhev, and Ivan Lamtsov.

Map of Kharkiv sites damaged or destroyed

Kharkiv—Requiem: Destruction of Cultural Sites

Amherst Center for Russian Culture

In the wake of ongoing Russian bombardments of non-military targets in Ukraine, the art historian Konstantin Akinsha, the curator of Sviatoslav Ostrous’s Kharkiv-Requiem, asked: Would “urbicide,” that is, the murder of a city and its people, become the tactic of choice in the “methodical destruction” of Ukrainian cities and the cultural heritage and people who inhabit them? We focus on Kharkiv to exhibit Ostrous’s remarkable series of photographs—but we do so while thinking of the whole of Ukraine in the defense of its freedom.

A Black man in a suit

The Wayland Rudd Collection

Amherst Center for Russian Culture

“The Wayland Rudd Collection,” a conceptual project by the artist Yevgeniy Fiks, assembles an archive of visual works testifying to the Soviet Union's engagement with race relations in the United States and decolonization efforts in Africa. Rudd, the Collection's namesake, left America for the Soviet Union in the 1930s to pursue his ambitions of becoming a stage actor whose career would be unhindered by racial discrimination in America.

Two posters of people silhouetted against the shadow of a house

One Scholar, One Work: Masterpieces from the Thomas P. Whitney Collection of Russian Art

Amherst Center for Russian Culture

This exhibition is about the art of close looking. Over the next four months, we will exhibit one artwork — indeed, one masterpiece — from the Whitney Collection of Russian Art. We invite you to come to contemplate the artwork in the Gallery of the Amherst Center for Russian Culture (ARCR) on the second floor of Webster Hall. Each month, we will be joined by a renowned art historian to discuss the work with us.