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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 5-7 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

INCREDIBLE GIFT: LAUDER'S CUBISTS

Georges Braque, Mandolin and Fruit Dish. Paris, early 1909. Oil on canvas, 15 1/8 × 18 1/8 in. / 38.4 × 46 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Promised Gift from the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris
Not even The Metropolitan Museum of Art has within my memory received a gift as generous as the promised gift that is presently displayed there as “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” (through February 16, 2015). And it’s not just the size of the gift that makes it so generous, although it's a whale of a lot of art.

The collection – in this exhibition of it -- has 79 paintings, works on paper, and sculpture: 17 by Georges Braque (French, 1882-1963), 14 by Juan Gris (Spanish, 1887-1927), 15 by Fernand Léger (French, 1881-1955), and 33 by Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973)). In value, it’s estimated at being worth more than $1 billion.

But what makes it doubly generous is also the fact that – unlike previous huge donations, such as the ones left to the Met by Robert Lehman in 1969, and by Natasha Gelman in 1998 – there is no requirement that it all be displayed together in the same galleries forever.

Rather, Mr. Lauder is content to let his gifts share wall space with related works from other donors, in the interests of true connoisseurship and scholarship (as opposed to the indulgence of personal vanity).

He has made this donation because he hopes to locate the Met more firmly within the modern tradition of 20th century art -- a tradition that it neglected at its own cost from before the Armory Show until fairly recently – and that it still, to judge from some of its recent acquisitions of 21st century art, needs to learn to relate to on a deeper level.

Hoping to remedy that situation, Mr. Lauder, with support from some of the Met’s trustees and other sympathizers, has even established a new research center for modern art. It is to be housed at the Metropolitan, and serve as a center for scholarship, archival documentation, and (according to the Met’s press release) “innovative approaches to studying the history of Cubism, its origins and influence.

A BIT OF BIO

Leonard Lauder is the elder son of Estée Lauder and her husband, Joseph Lauder, who together founded the beauty products company that bears her name in 1946. Estée had been born to immigrant parents in Queens, sometime between 1906 and 1908.

From her father, who had a hardware store, she learned business smarts. From an uncle, who was a chemist & cooked up beauty creams and lotions, she got interested in beauty products. She was already selling them to classmates while she was in high school.

By 1946, she had become very accomplished in sales and marketing, so she handled those sides of the business, while Joseph tended to the manufacturing, administration and financial sides of it. He died in 1982, she in 2004 (both having retired much earlier).

Today, the company is publicly owned, and its products are sold in more than 150 countries and territories, for annual revenues of nearly $11 billion.

Leonard was born in 1933 (his younger brother, Ronald, not until 1944). After studying at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia’s Graduate School of Business, Leonard served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy (this would most likely have been in the wake of the Korean conflict, when the draft was in effect).

He joined his parents’ company in 1958, when he was 25, and rose through the ranks to become its CEO. Today, he and his elder son, William, remain affiliated with it—though a non-family member is CEO and Leonard himself, at the age of 81, is chairman emeritus.

As a boy, Leonard Lauder fell in love with postcards and began collecting them. His collection grew to 120,000, which he has promised to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (in the autumn of 2012, the museum staged an exhibition of some 700 of them).

Next, he seems to have gotten interested in American and contemporary art -- or so one might conclude, from his activities on behalf of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

He joined its acquisitions board in 1971, becoming its president in 1991, and its chairman in 1994, as well as donating both money and art to it—in 2008 alone giving $131 million to its endowment. (He is chairman emeritus there, too.)

The web doesn’t tell what kind of contemporary American art Leonard Lauder donated to the Whitney. In 2012, when Judith H. Dobrzynski interviewed him for The New Yorker (in connection with the Boston postcard exhibition), she found his 40th floor office at Estée Lauder Companies decorated with recent & contemporary art.

Mentioned was work by Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Agnes Martin, Joseph Cornell, Beverly Pepper & Claes Oldenburg ; if there was any art that I and my more constant readers might have preferred to hear about, Dobrzynski didn’t say so).

Leonard’s younger brother, Ronald S. Lauder, was getting involved in the art world, too, and maybe even on a higher level than Koons or Martin. To be sure, he is best known for founding the Neue Galerie in the 21st century to display Germanic art, and with a few exceptions, 20th century Germanic art tends to be rather retrograde, but he had also been enthusiastic about the full range of work on display at the Museum of Modern Art since he was a teenager.

As early as 1976, at the age of 32, he had become MoMA’s youngest trustee. Later he served as chairman for some years, and is currently one of the museum’s two honorary chairman (the other being David Rockefeller).

Admittedly, he’s given art by pomonians like Sigmar Polke & Cindy Sherman to MoMA. However, his own collection – as displayed at the Neue Galerie in the winter of 2011-2012 – was for the most part, more sophisticated and eye-catching, even if it had to reach back in time to accomplish this.

Not only did it feature Seurat, Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, Kandinsky & Degas; yet more interestingly, Ronald appears to share my passion for Cézanne, as the show had a considerable number of works by that master.

Do we get a whiff of sibling rivalry here?

In 1976 – the year when Ronald became a MoMA trustee, Leonard purchased his first two cubist paintings. And he bought, and he bought, and he bought, over the years. Every dealer in the business must have known what he was looking for, to say nothing of the auction houses.

Here at the Met is Picasso’s curiously proto-surrealist “Woman in a Chemise in an Armchair” (1913-1914), formerly in the collection of Victor & Sally Ganz.

It brought $24.7 million when it was sold after the death first of Victor & then Sally, in the auction for their collection, at Christie’s in 1997 (at the time, nobody knew who had bought it, though according to Carol Vogel in the NYTimes, advance buzz was that the Lauder brothers were thinking of buying it together).

In the massive catalogue that accompanies the Met’s show, we learn that Leonard Lauder was also invited to look at the celebrated collection of Douglas Cooper, the British art historian & intimate of Picasso.

This would have been after Cooper’s death (in 1984) and also after the death (in 1991) of Cooper’ adoptive son, William A. McCarty-Cooper, to whom Cooper had left his collection. The catalog says that Lauder acquired 18 works from the Cooper collection.

Many of the Picassos and Braques in the Met’s show look familiar, at least to those of us who have haunted Picasso and/or cubist exhibitions over the years. Many of their owners (Lauder among others) appear to have been open to lending them.

I first encountered the Ganz picture in the huge Picasso retrospective staged at MoMA in 1980-81. Again, according to the catalogue, Lauder loaned 17 works to “Pioneering Cubism”, Bill Rubin’s unforgettable MoMA exhibition of 1989-90 examining the interrelationship between Picasso and Braque during their most fecund period.

THE BIG PICTURE

In other words, everything about this show is king-sized. Lauder is clearly a prince among collectors, and – unlike so many of them – he knows what really matters. Most (lesser) collectors go for tamer, less revolutionary Picassos—Blue Period, Rose Period, Classical Period, Marie-Thérèse, or even the progressively cruder & more old-fashioned paintings from the years after World War II.

(Sorry, Arne & Marc Glimcher, but I can’t whip up any enthusiasm for the Jacqueline Roque-period Picassos that Pace is peddling this season, though I’m sure they’re moving well.)

As I say, I’m filled with admiration for Leonard Lauder’s awe-inspiring ambition, and the superb taste that it evinces, but it’s no use expecting The New Yorker to be enthusiastic. Picture postcards are more their line.

Given the widespread recidivism of the past several decades, in fact, there may be an awful lot of people who can’t appreciate the esthetic maturity that this collection requires, the slow but steady growth of a willingness to take on a rugged art that is truly difficult but also one that pushed and shoved the vast machinery of Western European art history in an ever more radical direction

I also think there is some recognition of how demanding this exhibition is on the part of its organizers, Emily Braun, curator of the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection, and professor of art history at Hunter & the CUNY graduate center, and Rebecca Rabinow, curator of modern art at the Met and curator in charge of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center.

What makes me think these two are aware of the challenge of this show is the way that they’ve introduced it. The first image you see, even before you enter the exhibition space, is a giant color photograph of a wall of the Lauder living room, with a sofa at its lower center, a coffee table in front of the sofa, and end tables with lamps on them on either side.

Arrayed above the sofa, in this giant photograph, are the images of eight paintings and collages that will appear in reality in the show itself. In the photograph, they are massed together, and they all share the subdued & elegant color schemes of the furniture—beiges, browns, golds, grays and blacks, with the occasional red or blue or green highlight.

The idea is clearly to domesticate these paintings, to demonstrate that they can’t be as radical as all of that if they can fit so easily into an affluent Manhattan home.

I don’t need this photograph, nor do I imagine that most of my readers do, but it wouldn’t surprise me if many & maybe most of the people who come to this show might benefit from it.

I am thinking here of all those average Met museum goers, those who relate more easily to the cornball theatrics of Thomas Hart Benton—and to the even cornier theatrics of the pomonian circus that the Met stages on its roof every summer.

BUT TO THE SHOW ITSELF: THE ASCENT

The show is laid out in eight galleries, in a more or less (though not entirely) chronological order. First comes a series of three powerful early landscapes by Braque.

Two of them, taken together -- “The Terrace at the Hotel Mistral” (autumn 1907) and ”Trees at l’Estaque” (summer 1908) -- demonstrate the remarkable evolution that the artist was undergoing, away from a fauvist-Cézanne-like illusionism to a rugged form of color-reduced semi-abstraction.

Both of these paintings were in Braque’s exhibition at the Paris gallery of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, held in November 1908. It was reviewed by the critic Louis Vauxcelles, who wrote of how Braque was reducing everything to little “cubes.”

For this reason, if no other, this exhibition is considered cubism’s first, though Vauxcelles had picked up on the idea of cubes from Matisse. As chairman of the jury of the Salon d’Automne, Matisse had earlier seen work that Braque had submitted, commented on its resemblance to cubes – and voted with the majority to reject it.

The second gallery at the Met is much larger, and presents Picasso’s work from 1906 to 1909, the period during which he, too, was evolving – in his case, from his Rose Period through his Iberian period and on to proto-cubism.

Two walls here are hung with nine paintings of people, often nude & with apricot-pink flesh; a third wall has three landscapes and two small still lifes. The fourth wall has only doorways leading in and out, plus a blown-up photograph of Picasso’s studio and a pedestal topped by the famous bronze “Head of a Woman (Fernande)” (1908), with her sliced up (cubist) hair & features.

One is reminded by all these mostly very pink figure paintings of how committed Picasso was to the figure, to pictures of people – and especially women. There are a couple of studies for “Les Demoiselles d ’Avignon” here, plus the very boldly sketched and very familiar “Head of a Man” (1908), done in ink and charcoal.

Beyond that, I for my part best liked one of the landscapes, one of the still lifes, and “Woman with a Book” (spring 1909). This last is one of the apricot-pink flesh ones--the trickiest and most interesting, with the torso seen from more than one angle, the breasts widely spaced, and the shoulders dislocated.

Roberta Smith, in the NYTimes, was seduced by all this pinkness into declaring Picasso “the star and resident demon” of this exhibition. The front-page illustration for her review on October 17 is a pink, brown & white mask-like face of a woman.

While I can’t deny that Picasso has the largest number of works in this show, for me its real hero is Braque. Besides those powerful early landscapes introducing the whole show, its third gallery—devoted to Analytic Cubism—displays six devastatingly lovely paintings by Braque—but only one Picasso.

THE PEAK

This gallery to me is the apex of the show, small as it is. Braque once described the relationship between himself and Picasso during this period as being like two mountain-climbers, roped together. The simile is apt, and this gallery is the peak of the mountain.

The two galleries that precede it are the ascent. To the extent that the rest of the show deals with Braque and Picasso, it’s the descent, though not to ground-level--to the high plateau of collage and Synthetic Cubism.

The small gallery dealing with Analytic Cubism bears a block of wall text headed, “A Lesson in Difference. “ The text block itself struggles to explain how the styles of Braque and Picasso differ, even during this period.

To me, a more fundamental difference was explained to me several decades ago by Theodore Reff at Columbia. He argued that Picasso was primarily concerned with figures, and Braque, with music. This point of view was further implied in Reff’s presentation to “Picasso & Braque: A Symposium” (1992).

True, the one Picasso in this gallery has a musical instrument in it: it’s entitled “Pedestal Table, Glasses, Cups, Mandolin” (spring 1911). It’s the most abstract picture in this gallery, as well as being a splendid picture (the blacks in it are wondrous).

However, all six of the inimitable Braques in this gallery also have musical themes. One of my absolute favorites is “Mandolin and Fruit Dish” (early 1909). Though still comparatively representational, its soft, rounded forms are themselves almost musical, and its rich, creamy palette is of super-soft pale beiges and grays.

The second Braque in this gallery that stood out for me, even if it is beginning to tilt downwards towards collage and Synthetic Cubism, is “Violin and Sheet Music: ‘Petit Oiseau’” (early 1913, oil and charcoal on canvas).

Two other top Braques here are “Still Life with Clarinet (Bottle and Clarinet)” (summer-autumn 1911) and “Still Life on a Table: ‘Duo pour flute’” (1913-1914).

The instrument in the former painting is really a tenora, a Catalan instrument, while the latter has stippling, a variant on pointillism employed by both Picasso and Braque.

How wise it was for the editors of the catalog to ask Lewis Kachur to contribute an essay on “Braque and Music” to it! This scholar, who took his PhD at Columbia at about the same time that I did, now teaches at Kean University in New Jersey. He did his dissertation on Picasso and music, and discusses Braque’s involvement with music with equal aplomb.

AND, IN CONCLUSION…..

I’m not going to go on about the rest of this great show in such detail. I shall say that the fourth and sixth galleries continue the saga of Braque and Picasso up until World War I, while the fifth is devoted to Gris and the seventh, to Léger.

I daresay most of our resident pomonians (with their genius for selecting second-best) will be delighted by the collages of Braque and Picasso, as well as all the paintings with lettering in them.

For my part, I was more pleasantly surprised by Gris & Léger. Both are worthy artists, and there are some important pieces by them here.

The three pictures by Gris that I found unusually worthy were done in a silvery-gray and black palette that carried on where Analytic Cubism leaves off. They are the two versions of “Houses in Paris, Place Ravignan,” (1911-1912), and “Head of a Woman (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother)” (1912).

However, not all of my readers will necessarily share this preference. When I went through the show more recently with an out-of-town visitor, he was much more taken with the series of large collages of still lifes, done in more widely varied colors (though predominantly a rich cinnamon brown)

As for Léger, I know I should like the smaller and cruder but also more muscular combinations of tubular shapes that he was painting in the period contemporaneous with Analytic Cubism. (Again, my out-of-town companion was particularly drawn to them.)

If truth be told, though, I prefer the slicker but more accomplished style that Léger developed after World War I, and that is seen to best advantage here in the large “Composition (The Typographer)” (1918-1919). An oil on canvas measuring eight feet high and six feet wide, it provides an impressive conclusion to the exhibition.

For the rest, I leave it my dauntless readers to go out for themselves and savor this exciting, moving show. I am sure that everybody will have their own favorites, and get much fodder for discussion out of the various issues that the exhibition raises.

Indeed, I was struck by the number of people earnestly explaining this or that about the pictures in this exhibition to their companions, when I had gone through the show by myself, taking notes. This behavior reminded me of an unsigned column in the NY Times from 1939 that I uncovered while researching “A Memoir of Creativity.”

The column described the baffled response that Picasso was getting during his first retrospective at MoMA, and how younger viewers (with, one gathered, a formalist orientation) were just as earnestly explaining these puzzling pictures to their elders.

Could it now be the other way around, and the youngsters are the ones who need the explanations? Even more importantly, are they grownup enough to come to this show in the first place? One can only hope so.
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