From October 27, 2011, to April 2, 2012, the Neue Galerie presents a very special exhibition in honor of the tenth anniversary of the founding of the museum: “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections from the 3rd Century BC to the 20th Century/Germany, Austria, and France.” Devoted to the extraordinary collection of Neue Galerie co-founder Ronald Lauder, the show will provide a rare glimpse into one of the finest private art collections in the world.
The Ronald S. Lauder collection encompasses a broad range of masterworks. The exhibition will focus on six areas: medieval art, arms and armor, Old Master paintings, 19th- and 20th-century drawings, fine and decorative art of Vienna 1900, and modern and contemporary art. Among the artists represented are Joseph Beuys, Constantin Brancusi, Paul Cézanne, Vasily Kandinsky, Anselm Kiefer, Gustav Klimt, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Gerhard Richter.
Since it opened 10 years ago the Neue Galerie has stayed true to its narrowly focused mission: to showcase German and Austrian art and design of the early 20th century. That mission was determined by its two founders, Serge Sabarsky (1912-96) and Ronald S. Lauder, who bonded over their shared passion for Klimts, Schieles and the like.
As the 2009 show “From Klimt to Klee” made clear, Mr. Sabarsky’s collection fits neatly within the museum’s parameters. But Mr. Lauder’s covers much more territory, encompassing medieval art, arms and armor, old master paintings, French Impressionist drawings, and modern and contemporary art. And for the museum’s 10th anniversary he has decided to show it off in all its breadth.
The resulting exhibition, “The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections From the 3rd Century B.C. to the 20th Century/Germany, Austria and France,” is quite a mouthful. It largely ignores the Neue Galerie’s physical limitations, crowding some 400 objects (a 10th of the Lauder collection) into seven small galleries. But it will delight viewers who may have tired of the museum’s rich but unvaried diet of spaetzle and sachertorte, so to speak.
It’s refreshing, for instance, to see the immense 15th-century tapestry “The Woodcutters” hanging over the sweeping marble staircase that leads from the first floor to the second. Or the third-floor gallery of Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi, a mini-MoMA improbably wedged into a Carrère-and-Hastings town house.
Mr. Lauder has often said that he divides art into three categories: the “Oh,” the “Oh my,” and the “Oh my God.” As he writes in his preface to the show’s hefty catalog, “My goal from early on was to only buy the ‘Oh my God.’ ”
He has been known to pay staggering prices for such works, as he did when he purchased Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer for $135 million in 2006. The Viennese social swan in this gold-flecked painting has become a sort of mistress of the house, with a prominent and permanent perch on the museum’s second floor.
And he has very particular methods of identifying the “OMG” pieces. He collects only pre-1935 Picasso, for instance, believing the quality of the artist’s work declined after that period. (Viewers who have seen recent shows of the “Mosqueteros” and other late Picassos may be inclined to disagree.)
Some of his guiding principles reflect the orthodoxy of the Museum of Modern Art, an institution Mr. Lauder has known intimately since his teenage years. (In 1976, at the age of 32, he became the museum’s youngest trustee; he has served as chairman and now, along with David Rockefeller, has the title of honorary chairman.)
He shares with MoMA, for example, the veneration of Cézanne as modernist patriarch. And so this show begins with Cézanne, even though the collection itself goes back more than 2,000 years.
In the dark-wood-paneled gallery on the second floor, six paintings by Cézanne preside over an imposing installation of arms and armor and 15th- and 16th-century German and Netherlandish portraiture. Parts of the display are meant to echo the library of Mr. Lauder’s home.
The room certainly makes a personal statement. Cézanne’s prickly, defensive “Man With Crossed Arms” (1899) is guarded by a row of helmets, some with sharply pointed visors. Fully armored mannequins of men and horses stand at the ready.
Martial law gives way to cafe society in the next gallery, which hasn’t changed much for this exhibition. Klimt’s “Adele” gazes down from the mantel, as always, looking as if the house had been built around her. Were she able to circulate, she might take a seat on the emerald-green-upholstered sofa designed by Koloman Moser or pour coffee from one of Josef Hoffmann’s attenuated silver pots.
Also status quo, for the Neue, is the adjacent room of drawings by Klimt, Schiele, Alfred Kubin and Oskar Kokoschka. With one artist per wall, this gallery is by far the most orderly of the exhibition (though its neat grid of Schieles barely contains this erotic powderkeg of a draftsman).
More works on paper, by early-20th-century German artists including Paul Klee, Max Beckmann and Hannah Höch, crowd the upstairs hallway in riotous fashion. Here too, and in a nearby room of Weimar-era portraiture, the museum is on familiar ground. But in a gallery just down the corridor, the Neue’s narrow-angle modernism widens to encompass Picasso, Matisse and Brancusi, among others.
Small as it is, this room affords some moments of MoMA-like depth. The complete set of Matisse’s four bronze relief sculptures called “The Back” is here, lined up so that you can see him gradually smoothing out the figure’s Cubist wrinkles. (Another edition of the suite was just sold through Sotheby’s for a reported $120 million.) Across the room Brancusi makes a similar progression from “Mademoiselle Pogany” (1919) to “The Fish” (1926/39).
Picasso appears mainly on paper, which for him is hardly a handicap. Along one wall are drawings and collages from seemingly every phase of his career (before Mr. Lauder’s cutoff date of 1935, that is).
More German and Austrian art awaits, but not before an intimate room of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist drawings; the OMGs include two roiling van Gogh landscapes and Cézanne’s marvelous little sketch of a crumpled coat on a chair.
All the usual suspects are present in the gallery of contemporary German art: Richter, Beuys, Baselitz, Polke, each grappling in his own way with national trauma and repression (as signified by Richter’s blurry photo-painting of Freud).
It’s not surprising that Mr. Lauder and the curator Elizabeth Szancer Kujawski, faced with the immensity of his collection and the limited square footage of the Neue Galerie, have adhered to rigid categories. But a better approach might have been to carry forward the eclecticism of the first gallery, with its Cézannes and armor.
One can envision a pairing of unflatteringly naturalistic portraits by Jan Gossart and Otto Dix, for instance, or quasi-abstract, unabashedly decorative canvases by Klimt and Polke. Or a room of drawings in which Picasso and Schiele go head to head.
As the MoMA curator Ann Temkin writes of Mr. Lauder in the catalog, “In his work as a collector he has nobody to please but himself (which he contrasts, with satisfaction, to the myriad obligations and opinions at an institution such as MoMA), and no requirement for fairness or objectivity.” This show is about his collection, at his museum, so why not have some fun with it?
“The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections From the 3rd Century B.C. to the 20th Century/Germany, Austria and France” continues through April 2 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street, (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.
Art collecting is an area in which, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, the mega-rich are different from you and me. Ronald Lauder, Neue Galerie cofounder (along with dealer of Austrian and German Expressionism Serge Sabarsky), was born in the Bronx to beauty magnate Estée Lauder. It’s edifying to see his personal collection now on view in celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary, in a spectacular display of what, for better and worse, happens when you can buy the best of everything.
Let’s start with the tough stuff, because that’s where Mr. Lauder started. In his 20s, inspired by the Metropolitan Museum, he started a collection of arms and armor, and bombastic, duck-toed suits of gleaming metal guard the exhibition’s first gallery in all their baronial splendor. Dozens of swords, maces and daggers, a war hammer and a nasty-looking instrument called a falchion menace and bristle from various vitrines.
Eleven helmets in a row are the most visually arresting pieces: most are Austrian or Italian, some made for Emperors and Archdukes in the 15th and early 16th centuries. One helmet from Innsbruck, circa 1515-20, attributed to Konrad or Hans Seusenhofer, has a theatrical face embossed on its steel surface, with eyelashes and mustache picked out in imaginative detail. Others are as smooth and abstract as modern sculptures, their organic forms echoed in Brancusi sculptures upstairs.
Above this headgear, six paintings by Cézanne are clustered, salon style. There is an extravagance to this display. To mix arms and armor with Post-Impressionism is an eccentricity reminiscent of the Barnes collection, that museum-in-a-mansion outside of Philadelphia. The paintings are hung high and are difficult to see; still, it’s a rare chance to glimpse Still Life With Drapery and Fruit (1904-06), or the early, famous Picnic on the Grass (1869-70), in which moodily lit, eerily still picnickers and their dog contemplate a repast of three bright oranges.
The next gallery features Austrian art from the first decade of the 20th century. These psychological portrait paintings are the guiding spirits of the Neue Galerie collection, among them Peter Altenberg by Oskar Kokoschka (1909) and Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907). The oil, silver and gold painting of Bloch-Bauer is always in the same spot in the museum, the paintings changing around her with the room displays like patrons in a crowded café.
Mr. Lauder’s collection of Weiner Werkstätte is the largest outside Vienna. Several vitrines of applied arts include brooches and necklaces by Joseph Hoffmann and Koloman Moser circa 1904-12. Most of them are squares inlaid with agate, coral, lapis lazuli and diamonds, studies in the designers’ commitment to unembellished forms paired with extravagant materials. Joseph Hoffmann’s silverwork, from the same period, shows the ethos of his era: functional, modern design, elegantly stripped of ornamentation.
The Group of Seating Furniture for Ladislaus Remy-Berzenkovich von Szillas and Margarete Hellmann (1904), a couch and chairs in stained black wood and green upholstery by Koloman Moser, rounds out this elegant instantiation of the museum at its best. Such displays combine applied art and painting, resulting in an intimacy and aesthetic totality of detail that puts to shame the comparatively sterile, traditional white box display.
Upstairs, among selected paintings by German Expressionists and Neue Sachlichkeit, or “New Objectivity,” and Bauhaus artists, are some real knockouts. A stark Christian Schad, Two Girls (1928), depicting two masturbating prostitutes with the cool, stylized confidence of a Prada ad, and a devastating Otto Dix of a busty and despairing nude (Half-Nude, 1926) are both repulsive and psychologically compelling. A great, small gridded painting by Paul Klee features a fascinating articulation of incremental color changes through tiny squares. In another room, Composition V (1911), is simply the most magnificent Kandinsky you’ll ever see.
Much of the postwar work upstairs is by German artists on Austrian themes. It is spectacular but overdetermined. Anselm Kiefer’s lead-on-photo-paper portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Austria kicks off this subset of the collection, along with a Gerhard Richter painting of Freud (Study for Serial Number 324 (Freud), 1971), and another Richter of a blurred deer in a forest (Stag, 1963). A Sigmar Polke (Japanese Dancers, 1966) rhymes with Klimt’s The Dancer (1916-18) downstairs, Polke’s layered, capitalist realist polka dots in contrast with Klimt’s dreamy Japonisme in pinks and greens. Beuys and Baselitz round out the classic contemporary art Mr. Lauder collected during the 1980s and ’90s. This contemporary grouping shows Lauder at his most conservative: he rarely bought art made in the years he was buying, preferring the vetted work of a few decades earlier.
Lauder’s taste in modern art was formed by the Museum of Modern Art, where he was once the museum’s youngest trustee. Four terrific Brancusi sculptures (1919-20), perched on rough-hewn pedestals placed on a small, white stage, compose a tableau reminiscent of the Modern’s collection.
Drawings shine in this collection. There is a wall full of Matisse and Picasso works on paper, and another wall of black Conté crayon Seurat drawings that are among the best stuff the artist did. You can see the grain of the paper Seurat used, how the black Conté is rubbed right to edge of the sheets, and how a skein of black line is thrown over the surface of each page.
A narrow hallway is hung salon-style with lapidary works on paper by Hanna Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Schad, Klee, Franz Marc, George Grosz and dozens of others, the way a proud mother might crowd family photos in an apartment hallway. The impulse is at once possessive, enjoyably intimate, and preposterously extravagant.
Downstairs, a room of dreamy Alfred Kubins, Oskar Kokoschka charcoal and ink works on paper, and Egon Schiele images of landscapes, lakes and erotic scenes hangs in the semi-gloom of a room darkened to prevent works on paper from light damage. One of these Schieles was the first artwork a 13-year-old Mr. Lauder bought.
Ultimately, there are two Ronald Lauders on view here. One is the naughty boy who bought a dirty Schiele drawing—the libidinal second son who also seems to have purchased the Schad, the Dix and the Baselitz and generally found in art a form of sexual frankness and rebellion against social expectations. The second Mr. Lauder is a more conformist character, one who seized upon art as a means to bolster his social aspirations by buying the work everyone wanted with the money few had. This man collected the arms and armor, with initial aristocratic airs, but ultimately discovered that respect came from “buying the best”—the Kandinsky, the Brancusis, the Richters—a selection that both fulfilled the expectations of his family and made him impossible for serious curators to ignore.
Fortunately for us, the Neue Galerie lies somewhere between these two impulses. Early 20th century Austrian and German art was a little too dirty for the first draft of high modernism, and becoming its early and vocal advocate has allowed Mr. Lauder to leave as his legacy a great museum. There’s something psychologically naked about seeing the work that led to this resolution, however—here, the privacy of collecting made public looks like the raw revelation of one conflicted character’s lifetime of fulfilled desires.
Masterpieces make for good celebrations, or so it would seem from The Ronald S. Lauder Collection: Selections from the 3rd Century BC to the 20th Century / Germany, Austria, and France, which honors the 10th anniversary of the Neue Galerie’s founding. I would not have felt slighted if the exhibition ended after the first gallery, wherein Gustav Klimt’s shimmering portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) gazes dreamily across the room at Egon Schiele’s knuckly portrayal of a grinning Dr. Erwin Von Graff (1910). There is much more. In the next room five brushy oils by Cézanne radically enhance the innate austerity of the pre-Renaissance portraits with which they share wall space. Not an inch of space was put to waste in the second floor galleries, though a few pieces—all three of Sigmar Polke’s huge Ben-Day dot paintings and Gerhard Richter’s “Cityscape PL” (1970)—only come into focus at a distance difficult to access, because of the layout of the room. Portraits by Dix, Grosz, Beckmann, and Schlemmer embody the potential intensity of loaded weapons. In another gallery, one of Picasso’s finer Cubist accomplishments, “The Birdcage” (1923), hangs near Kandinsky’s large lyrical abstraction, “Composition V” (1911). Thankfully a bench is installed, so if one feels compelled to take a good long look there will be no complaints from the legs.