Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Modernism: Every picture has a story

A rare opportunity / Modernism comes to the de Young.

Imagine having a rare opportunity to to see one of the most important gifts of modern art ever made to our nation.

On a recent Friday night, my wife and I visited the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park to see Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection. It is showing in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries through October 12.

Ellsworth Kelly / Orange Green (1966).
The de Young is the sole venue for this collection, which encompasses many of the finest works by Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, among many -- one of the most representative collections of American painting from the postwar period. It also includes a rare display of Barnett Newman's 15-painting modern art masterpiece The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani. 

Modernism represents the first time that "a significant portion" of the Meyerhoff Collection has been shown outside of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. And, of course, it only adds to the prestige of impressive shows to come to the de Young and its sister museum, the Legion of Honor, in the past year. They include: Richard Diebenkorn: The Berkeley Years, 1953-1966; David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition; The Art of Bulgari: La Dolce Vita and Beyond, 1950-1990; and Anders Zorn: Sweden's Master Painter. Added up, these special exhibitions have helped draw more than 1 million visitors to these San Francisco museums between July 2013 and January 2014.

Walking through the exhibition galleries at the de Young to see Modernism, I was surprised to see that not only was photography allowed -- often it isn't during special exhibitions -- it seemed to be encouraged. After all, every picture has a story -- and I was only all too glad to be able to photograph many of my favorites.

Roy Lichtenstein / Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983).

According to Fine Arts magazine, "In the late 1950s, the Baltimore-based real estate developer and philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff and his wife, the late Jane Meyerhoff, began collecting art by the then-emergent Abstract Expressionists, acquiring paintings and works on paper by Grace Hartigan, Hans Hofmann, and Clyfford Still. Works by Josef Albers, Joseph Cornell and Ad Reinhardt -- artists who rose to prominence in the wake of World War II -- were also among the couple's earliest acquisitions. The Meyerhoffs then focused on the generation of artists who followed  the Abstract Expressionists -- Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and Stella -- all of whom also became close friends of the pair." By the time of Jane's death, in 2004, the Meyerhoff's collection included more than 300 works in a variety of media by more than 50 artists.

Among the works that are featured in the de Young installation are: Perilous Night (1982) by Jasper Johns; Orange Green (1966) by Ellsworth Kelly; Painting with Statue of Liberty (1983) by Roy Lichtenstein; Picasso's Skull (1989-1990) by Brice Marden; Archive (1963) by Robert Rauschenberg, and Flin Flon IV (1969) by Frank Stella.

Observing / The Stations of the Cross.
Meanwhile, one can't help but notice the centerpiece of Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: Newman's The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani (1958-1966), which was presented within a large, dedicated room, "experienced as the artist intended, as a single work in an intimate, contemplative space."

Writing about Newman's The Stations of the Cross, San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker noted: "Newman saw himself as seeking and finding an abstract pictorial code for ultimate human concerns: the polarities of light and darkness, of wholeness and transience, despair and longing for redemption, living and dying.

"Sighting back from our own grossly materialistic moment, across the watershed of minimalism, we may find it hard to take Newman's aspirations seriously, but the paintings still produce the sort of elevated feeling that people frequently say they seek in art."

Indeed, every picture has a story.

Let the conversation begin!

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.

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