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Charmion von Wiegand: Improvisations - 1945

September 9 – November 1, 2003


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Press Release

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is pleased to present its third solo exhibition featuring the work of Charmion von Wiegand (American, 1898-1983). Improvisations - 1945 features a selection of thirty works on paper and paintings, all dating from 1945. A student of Neo-Plasticism, von Wiegand's work from this period demonstrates her experimentation with the technique of automatism as well as her awareness of and respect for the avant-garde abstractions of European modernists including Jean Arp, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian.

In the catalogue essay that accompanies this exhibition, William C. Agee states:

She [von Wiegand] understood that it was possible and even necessary to build on Mondrian, to absorb and adopt his principles but not to replicate the exact look of his paintings…Mondrian taught her to stay open, to be liberated and flexible, so that she did not feel compelled to stay within one abstract vocabulary….

If her fusion of the organic with the geometric strikes us as a willful and odd departure from Mondrian, von Wiegand considered it no such thing. For her it was a natural outgrowth of her study of Mondrian….. If joining the biomorphic and the geometric seemed a contradiction, she believed the resolution of conflict was the essence of great painting….

Charmion von Wiegand was born in Chicago in 1898. The daughter of a Senior Correspondent for the Hearst Newspapers, von Wiegand’s family moved frequently throughout her youth, living in Florida, Arizona, and California; she even attended secondary school in Berlin, Germany. As a result, von Wiegand was an extremely well traveled and well educated young woman by the time she enrolled in classes at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. While at Columbia, she nurtured her abilities as a writer as well as a growing interest in art and art history.

In 1926, while undergoing intense psychoanalysis, von Wiegand professed a desire to become a professional painter. At this time she began teaching herself to paint in earnest, but her primary profession (for the time being) remained journalism. An early champion of American abstraction, von Wiegand was an established art journalist during the 1930s and 1940s, and she wrote for several art world publications including ARTnews, The Journal of Aesthetics, Arts Magazine and The New Masses. In 1941 she formed a close friendship with the great Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian. Mondrian had such an effect on her that she devoted the next year and a half to the study of Neo-Plasticism, and after his death in 1944, she dedicated herself to painting full-time. Although many of her abstract compositions incorporate the Neo-Plastic grid, von Wiegand was never limited by the formal constraints of pure Neo-Plasticism.

This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalogue with an essay by William C. Agee, Professor of Art History at Hunter College, NY. Visuals are available upon request. For additional information, please contact halley k harrisburg, Director, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery is the exclusive representative of the Estate of Charmion von Wiegand.

The 1940s in Context: Charmion von Wiegand and the Language(s) of Abstract Art

William C. Agee

Charmion von Wiegand was neither the first nor the last American artist whose life and work were profoundly changed by an encounter with Piet Mondrian and his art. Indeed, the full story of Mondrian and his impact on American art is a complex one within the larger history of art that has yet to be fully told. In that history, Charmion von Wiegand holds a place of special interest and importance. If her encounter was not the first, its effect on her was surely as swift and dramatic as it was on any American artist.

Von Wiegand had met Mondrian on April 12, 1941, some six months after his arrival in New York. She had gone to interview him for an article – she was then as much a writer as a painter, a very good writer as it turns out, for her essays are intelligent and articulate expositions of the early drive to abstraction in American and European art. She had seen some of Mondrian’s work in the Gallatin Collection at The Gallery of Living Art (housed at New York University), but she had considered it as design rather than painting. However, her experience of encountering Mondrian firsthand immediately changed all that, transforming her view of the world and her understanding of what art could be. She later recalled that when she left Mondrian’s studio at 56th Street and 1st Avenue, she instantly saw the city anew, interpreting its abstract patterns and energies as if through Mondrian’s eyes and art. That moment marked her commitment to the pure language of abstraction, although she did not declare painting as her profession until after Mondrian’s death in 1944. Her art underwent significant changes over the next thirty years, and although she never claimed to be a strict Neo-Plasticist, Mondrian was always her guide and generating spirit. To the end, she was firm in her belief that she had remained true to Mondrian and the principles of Neo-Plasticism.1

Given von Wiegand’s devotion to Mondrian, how do we account for the thirty-one untitled abstractions dating from 1945 (which in this essay will be referred to as the Improvisations)?2 After all, their fluent and flowing shapes recall the language of biomorphism often associated with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism, and on the surface, this language seems to be the very antithesis of the strict geometry central to Mondrian and Neo-Plasticism. The key to reconciling the Improvisations with Mondrian’s influence lies not in a rigid comparison of the two artists’ visual styles, but in examining what von Wiegand understood to be the generating principles and continuing lessons of Mondrian’s art. Seen in this light, the Improvisations - and even von Wiegand’s later work - can be grasped within the context of a fascinating and diverse history of the multiple ways in which American artists responded to Mondrian. Charting such a variegated history makes room for von Wiegand’s version of abstraction in 1945 and 1946, which bears directly on the art of the 1940s and 1950s and extends into the 1960s as an alternative art to the more famous Abstract Expressionism.

Responses to Mondrian were as varied and distinct as his own work, and when referring to “Mondrian,” it is important to specify which Mondrian we mean, since his work can be divided into several particular phases and styles. Artists such as Harry Holtzman, Mondrian’s closest American friend, and Burgoyne Diller began in a strict Neo-Plastic style but later transformed these principles into a distinct and personal geometric art. Other artists, all of diverse outlook and approach, avoided the strict geometry of Mondrian, but looked closely to him in order to draw lessons about clarity and structure for their own art. This process, almost a rite of passage for certain artists, had begun as early as the 1920s, when Stuart Davis first began to engage with Mondrian’s art. In 1930, searching for direction, Alexander Calder visited Mondrian’s studio in Paris. The clarity and purity of Mondrian’s art motivated him to discover his own brand of abstraction. In a process that parallels von Wiegand’s own experience, Calder drew inspiration from Mondrian’s ideas even though the shapes of his mobiles and stabiles were more immediately derived from the biomorphism of Joan Miró. In the early 1940s, Robert Motherwell interpreted Mondrian’s verticals in the crooked bars of his witty painting, Little Spanish Prison (Museum of Modern Art, New York).

After Mondrian’s death on February 1, 1944, one artist after another paid homage to him, and these artists took what they could for their own art. In two 1944 paintings, For Internal Use Only (Reynolda House, Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina) and G&W (Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC), Stuart Davis paid tribute to and gently satirized Mondrian’s strict geometry by skewing his famous grid and then inserting within it abstract shapes culled from a Popeye cartoon. Like many artists, Davis later minimized the importance of Mondrian, perhaps as a diversionary tactic, but it is clear that his late work of the 1960s is based on a strong continuing dialogue with Mondrian’s structures and color scheme. The 1944 paintings of both older and younger artists – for example John Marin, Arthur Dove, and even Jackson Pollock – clearly deploy variations of Mondrian’s grid and structural underpinning. The dominating verticals of Dove’s iconic That Red One (Lane Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) are testament to the “new directions,” clearly inspired by Mondrian, that his art took. Mondrian’s 1945 memorial retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art came as a revelation to American artists, a deep source of ideas for further exploration. For example, Pollock was particularly interested in the allover curvilinear patterning of Mondrian’s 1912 tree series, reminding us that Mondrian’s works, which he considered as parts of a whole, were not always strictly geometric. For these artists, including von Wiegand, Mondrian’s work was not a closed and limited system as so many still see it. Rather, it was rich and diverse, filled with infinite possibilities for an artist to expand and develop. While many have seen Mondrian as cold and mechanical, von Wiegand saw his art as sensuous, alive, fertile and open to the limits of the imagination.

Von Wiegand came to understand, indelibly, the open-ended nature of Mondrian’s work through one of the most memorable and telling exchanges in the history of modern American art. After their initial meeting in 1941, she had come to know his work and ideas extremely well, visiting him frequently and reading all she could find on Neo-Plasticism; she even helped him to translate his writings from Dutch into English. We can imagine her complete surprise - even shock - when she walked into the studio in 1942 and saw for the first time Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) (Museum of Modern Art, New York). Its composition of multiple small and vibrantly colored squares was a radical departure from his earlier grids. Her immediate reaction was to see it as a negation of all that Mondrian had stood for, and in her initial astonishment, she objected: “But Mondrian, it’s against the theory!” To which Mondrian, calm as always, replied: “But it works. You must remember, Charmion, that the paintings come first and the theory comes from the paintings.”

Mondrian moved even further away from classical balance in his last painting, Victory Boogie Woogie (1943-1944) (Gemeentemuseum, The Hague), which was left on his easel at his death, unfinished (but finished enough). The painting announced a new direction for his art, even a new conception of what art itself could be. It was a revolutionary fusion of the linear and geometric with the painterly and expressionistic, of what we take to be polar opposites in painting. The underlying grid structure was there, but it was united now with a tactile, almost relief-like surface of irregular shapes of built-up paint and collage. It seems to have been Mondrian’s acknowledgement and incorporation of the possibilities of a new painterly abstraction, especially as practiced by Pollock, that he had seen and admired in New York. It was a special moment in American art history, a meeting and joining of an older European sensibility with the new directions of a younger generation of American artists. It pointed to a vast range of untapped pictorial options, a huge leap in the language of abstraction, an unlimited future that American art would soon carry forward. Von Wiegand was fully aware of this advance, and she saw Mondrian’s last works as a drive to a new freedom filled with movement and exploration of the unknown, a freedom that went beyond his older closed forms and became nothing less than a “new conceptual structure which would be liberated, flexible, and equilibrated” that would inspire future generations.

The paintings certainly inspired von Wiegand. She understood that it was possible and even necessary to build on Mondrian, to absorb and adopt his principles but not to replicate the exact look of his paintings. By her own account, she was never a strict Neo-Plasticist; Mondrian taught her to stay open, to be liberated and flexible, so that she did not feel compelled to stay within one abstract vocabulary. In her geometric works such as the 1947 City Lights (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York), she never hesitated to add half circles and other irregular shapes within an irregular grid, all defined by a gamut of grays, blacks, and yellows, a color palette seemingly as decidedly non-Mondrian as the work’s other elements. In fact, the painting can be seen as a special homage to Mondrian and Broadway Boogie Woogie which enabled her to declare her own freedom, to go her own way in her interpretation of the city in an original and compelling manner.

In other geometric works such as Ka Door (1950), she introduced an expanded range of high keyed and vibrant hues deployed in original configurations. She would have drawn these color lessons from Mondrian’s late art (no wonder she could call Mondrian a “luminous” painter), but the intensity of her hues calls to mind the color of Stuart Davis. She saw the “struggle” within Victory Boogie Woogie: that there were six or seven other paintings buried within it, that it bespoke multiple possibilities not only within the painting, but across several media. The collage elements in Victory Boogie Woogie inspired her to investigate this medium, particularly as developed by Kurt Schwitters, another artist she admired. In St. John The Baptist (1947), she incorporated an array of collaged biblical scenes set in an idiosyncratic variation of an underlying Neo-Plastic grid. Once upon a time, this kind of free-wheeling pictorial exploration was mistaken to be a misinterpretation, a superficial derivation from Mondrian. But we can now understand it as a perceptive and rewarding advance, a move to a highly personal art of the type that Mondrian himself encouraged. It is also an intrinsic part of a uniquely American trait that came to fruition in the 1940s: the ability to learn from the masters of modern art, to take what was useful from a variety of sources and turn it into a personal and convincing art through a process of trial and error, empiricism raised to the level of a full working method. This trait became part of American art history, appearing again in the 1960s, in the idiosyncratic abstraction of artists such as Eva Hesse and Richard Serra, who started with but veered away from the early lexicon of strict Minimalism originated by artists like Donald Judd.

Von Wiegand’s interest in Schwitters signifies that her exploration of abstract art was certainly not limited to Mondrian. The fluid shapes of the Improvisations indicate her awareness of and respect for the work of Jean Arp, Joan Miró and Wassily Kandinsky. In fact, the starting point of this series was the Surrealist technique of automatism - the quick, uncensored response to psychic impulses practiced by artists such as Max Ernst and Hans Richter. It is little wonder that she was attracted to the practice, since she had resolved to become an artist as a result of intensive psychoanalysis in the 1920s and had been familiar with Surrealism since the 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. Richter had encouraged her to explore

automatism, which she did around 1944 in a series of pencil drawings that became the source for the Improvisations. She liked the drawings well enough, but she missed color and felt the process was incomplete without its presence. Thus she embarked on this new series, begun probably by pencil drawing - discernible in Untitled [MR103] and Untitled [MR175], but conceived and carried out as full color paintings in which she became more of a color painter than she ever may have realized. From this point forward, she would largely base her art on color, which she understood to be the very expression of life and the natural world. Later, she would even remark, “I think in color.”

The year 1944 was crucial for many reasons, among them the death of two originating masters of abstract art, Mondrian on February 1, and Kandinky on December 13. Their loss was a milestone that forced certain artists to pause, reflect, and ask themselves: where did they leave us? Where do we go from here, and what can we take from them for our future direction? The subsequent reevaluation of their achievement was similar to the process that occurred with the deaths of Cézanne in 1906, or Pollock in 1956.

By evidence of the Improvisations, we might speculate that von Wiegand fused many of the lessons and possibilities offered by both Mondrian and Kandinsky within the same body of work. It was a remarkably ambitious and even audacious program that she set for herself. In 1947, she stated that in these works she employed the “free floating space” of Kandinsky, “created through liberated pure colors and rhythms of life.” The biomorphic shapes point to specific aspects of Kandinky’s art, as well as that of Miró, and that especially of Arp, to whom she gave distinct acknowledgement for the purity of his forms. But at the heart of these works lies an absolute clarity and distillation of structure and shaping that recalls Mondrian’s discipline and rigor, which he laid out as early as 1909 when he wrote, “It seems to me that clarity of thought should be accompanied by clarity of technique.” It is as if von Wiegand had “reorganized Mondrian’s grid into a freeform composition,” as art historian Jennifer Hersh has astutely observed. In a sense, this parallels Wilhelm de Kooning’s final paintings, done in the 1980s, in which he challenged and critiqued Mondrian.

In addition, we can note that at least half of the Improvisations contain specific structural elements that derive, to greater or lesser degree, from remnants or idiosyncratic variations of Mondrian’s geometry. The most overt of these structures are found in Untitled [MR104] and Untitled [MR171], in which biomorphic shapes are clearly fused with an overall pattern of literal horizontal and vertical elements. Other similar, if less obvious elements appear in Untitled [MR108], Untitled [MR109], and Untitled [MR112]. It is, as she said, in 1947: “Through the process of automatism, forms are brought to consciousness and there disciplined through color and reduction of particularities.” Always in her art, there was the example of Mondrian’s discipline, be it the grids, the interlacing patterns of his tree paintings, façades, plus and minus works, or even the precise drawings of flowers that she knew and admired, all of which the Improvisations recall in various ways.

Seen in an even broader perspective, the Improvisations are part of a long painterly tradition spanning from the fourteenth century through the twentieth century, that valued above all else, clarity, precision, and economy of line, shape, and color. This tradition can be traced to the firm disegno of the Italian primitives, the very first artists von Wiegand had studied and admired. This same group of artists, which include Piero della Francesca, had set the standard for both Charles Sheeler and his close friend and colleague Morton Livingston Schamberg early on in their careers and also in their later, machinist paintings. In America, precision of line and clarity of form can be traced to the eighteenth century and the work of John Singleton Copley. In the 1940s, it was Mondrian who provided an alternative tradition to painterly expressionism and informed the art of Stuart Davis, Ralston Crawford, and von Wiegand’s good friend Carl Holty. Later, in the 1960s, the search for absolute clarity can be seen in the art of Donald Judd and Frank Stella.

As stated earlier, the most distilled of the Improvisations, such as Untitled [MR54] call to mind the purity of Arp and the language of biomorphism. This is the language of the very processes of life itself, of germination and growth, of regeneration and affirmation, a fusion of the physical and the spiritual that speaks of change and renewal. It invokes re-creation and the reconstruction of the world itself, healing the devastation of World War II and its aftermath - which seemed to question the very existence of civilization – and transforming the world into a richer and fuller place. In their expansive, unbridled movement, these shapes signify freedom and hope. In their clarity and particularity, von Wiegand’s biomorphic abstractions announce the assertion and realization of the full potential of the individual. As the shapes multiply, filling the “free floating space” across the entire series, paintings declare the infinite possibilities of a post-war world of peace and harmony. The shapes remind us of plants, but such is their joyous reach and proliferation, that in some we may begin to see the shapes of humans reaching as single beings or interlocking in multiple groups, moving like dancers in unison, in happy affirmation of life and living. The ritual performances of Martha Graham, then at the peak of her prowess, come to mind, as do the color cutouts of Matisse, for there is a striking similarity in the brilliance of their colors and the precision of shape. They have a quick, lyrical feel to them, bespeaking musical improvisation, not surprising since she grew up in a family in which music played an important role.

Her application of color itself within the Improvisations also recalls Matisse: flat, even, clear and precise, avoiding what von Wiegand termed the “piled-up pigment,” which she perceptively understood to be a problem of the modernists. Often her color areas are graded, moving through different shades of the same hue. This is a venerable practice of the color painter, but a most un-Mondrian technique that she was not afraid to employ. Instead, she took from his strong planes of color, which she imagined to be the embodiment of “pure energy.” This practice helped to insure the free flowing movement of the shapes, creating a “unified, restored material surface” and establishing a new unity by eliminating personal brushstrokes. The palette, however, is her own, suggesting the sharp clear light of Arizona, where she had lived as a child, or the profusion of hues that had deeply impressed her in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the city where she had lived as a young woman.

In the Improvisations, as well as in the more literally geometric work also shown in her 1947 exhibition of collages at Rose Fried’s Pinocotheca gallery, the vertical-horizontal structural elements echoed rhythm of the city. They spoke to what she called the “spirit of external modern life: the dynamic movements of our twentieth century metropolis,” with its “fugue-like procession of streets, of electric lights at night,” and the “geometric shapes of technical utilities of buildings.” These works illustrate her statement that the “multiplicity of things which lie just beyond the world of appearance enchants me.” This again recalls Mondrian and his late city paintings that eloquently embraced his love of New York, especially at night, and expressed his vision of the American city as the living embodiment and great hope for the future after World War II. Von Wiegand clearly shared his optimism in a new vision of what the world might be and of how we might imagine it anew.

If her fusion of the organic with the geometric strikes us as a willful and odd departure from Mondrian, von Wiegand considered it no such thing. For her it was a natural outgrowth of her study of Mondrian. She had concluded her 1947 statement in which she had discussed these diverging elements by saying, “Therefore, for me the path toward unity lies through diversity.” In the randomness of the world, in its apparent contradictions, she found its underlying order, structure, and unity. She applied what she saw as a fundamental principle of Mondrian’s ideas and art, the principle of the law of opposites and their integral connection. If joining the biomorphic and the geometric seemed a contradiction, she believed the resolution of conflict was the essence of great painting, as in the union of the circle and square in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altar Piece (Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar) a monument she had long cherished.

From Mondrian, she came to understand that in all things we find their opposites; that in the new expressive openness of his last paintings, the two Boogie Woogies, Mondrian had declared a new type of order and structure that was based on a visionary freedom and unity. Thus for von Wiegand, Mondian could introduce into the geometric grid an array of what she understood as “figurative collage elements.” The dialectic between these elements in Mondrian’s work challenged von Wiegand to explore the convergence of opposing forces for herself. We can now perhaps better see and understand the Improvisations and their language.

They are small works that point to larger domains. In several, the fluent shapes speak of a microscopic world that grows and expands before our very eyes, transforming into a vast universe of cosmic magnitude. This is the free floating space of which she spoke; it is the space of the mind, the imagination, and the spirit. It is an internal and metaphorical movement created by the sharp, vivid contrast between color and the pure white background which establishes the shapes as existing on the plane, a dictum she repeated over and over, one of the first and most fundamental lessons she had taken from Mondrian and abstract art. Whatever changes occurred in her own or Mondrian’s art, this was an originating principle to which she always remained faithful. It is the immediate shaping on the surface, not in a fictive, recessive, and illusionistic space, but in the real presence; it is the concrete, inherent reality of the picture plane on which the pictorial activity takes place. It is in our world, in the here and now, not in a distant or imagined time. It is why Mondrian could always call himself a realist artist.

In this journey from micro to macro, we move as the artist does, from the material, earthbound world embodied in the color, to a higher reality suggested by the pure white background, a deeply spiritual quest that informed much abstract art from the first half of the twentieth century. There was good reason von Wiegand spoke of art as the bridge between heaven and earth. Through the Improvisations, we travel in two worlds: the animated world of the here and now, suggested in several of the series in which nautical flags seem to whip in the wind, and the cosmic and spiritual world. She had spoken of such matters, as early as January, 1944, in a letter to a friend saying, “the curve belongs to organic and natural life and rests us…the straight line jars and disturbs us, breaks the organic rhythm – it is… expressive of spiritual will. It forces us into another world away from all that is pleasing and natural – towards an Absolute.” 3 It is a profound journey at the heart of abstraction’s meaning, still widely and foolishly understood as having no content.

Von Wiegand’s embrace of apparent opposites echoed Mondrian’s move away from old canons of symmetry and balance that referred to Europe and an old order, and it looked to a new world to be created in the wake of the war. This world would allow for the liberation of the individual, through a new freedom, grounded in a new unity and harmony of the individual with the cosmos. In light of subsequent events, this will strike the cynic as hopelessly utopian, but it was and is a deeply felt ideal of how we might live and of how we might imagine the world. Hers is an optimistic art, an art of joy and the affirmation of life itself, telling us once more why art matters, and matters deeply, for it is nothing less than the transformation of the spirit into material form.

Mondrian’s spiritual views had been nurtured by his assimilation of Theosophy and Madame Blavatsky’s teachings, which von Wiegand absorbed on her way to a study of Eastern art and religions, particularly Tibetan art and Tantric Buddhism. She pursued these studies for the rest of her life, and they ingrained in her a belief in the law of opposites and their fusion as the very essence of her life and art that she had first learned from Mondrian. That is another story, for another time; her life and art were only beginning in 1945. But it clearly tells us that the Improvisations are far from a one-shot diversion, separate and apart from the body of her work. In fact, they contain the essence of her art and are one key to understanding the entirety of her art and life. She believed that in the last paintings, Mondrian had moved to “a new solution, polyphonic and complex.…a new determined structure was arising, lighter, more liberated, enriched by an ornamental fullness like jeweled mosaic, achieved by plastic means.” She could well have been describing her own art, for she went from there to make her own body of compelling works. She had also pointed a way for future artists to build and expand on Mondrian’s enormous achievement. Through her art of 1945 and in her later work, she was living proof of what Robert Ryman emphatically declared, in closing a symposium during the Mondrian retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1995: “There are no limitations to Mondrian.”

Endnotes

1The facts of Charmion von Wiegand’s life and her statements are taken from her 1943 (Journal of Aesthetics) and 1961 (Arts Yearbook) articles on Mondrian; an extensive interview with her conducted in 1968 by Paul Cummings for the Archives of American Art; her two statements of 1947, one for her one person show at the Rose Fried gallery, another for the exhibition The White Plane, at the same gallery; Margit Rowell’s interview for the 1971 Mondrian show at the Guggenheim; and Jennifer Hersh’s dissertation on Von Wiegand of 1998. The exact source will be clear from the dating in the text; in other cases much of the information is repeated in all the sources, so they are not individually noted in all instances. I was not able to consult the artist’s journals and personal papers which will yield extensive new information and insights. Some of the references and quotations are cited in full in this catalogue’s Chronology (p.48-53). Since most of them are repeated in all of these sources they are not noted, except where there is another source. The ideas concerning other artists discussed are based on my writings on these artists done over the last forty years.

2"Improvisations" is a term recently assigned to the thirty-one works comprising the current exhibition because of their lyrical nature, a point discussed later in the essay. It is important to note that this was not the title given by the artist; what, if anything, she called them is not presently known.

3Letter to Grace Hammond, January 27, 1944. Joseph Freeman Papers, Hoover Institute, Stanford University.