an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Cubist Accumulation: How “Unrestricted” Are Leonard Lauder’s Metropolitan Museum Gifts?

I have nothing but admiration for Leonard Lauder‘s accomplishments as a collector and his beneficence as a museum patron—especially at the Whitney Museum and now at the Metropolitan Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Arts (not to mention our mutual alma mater, the Bronx High School of Science).

But I did wonder about Carol Vogel‘s claim in her April 2013 front-page NY Times report that “Mr. Lauder did not put restrictions on his [promised] gift” to the Metropolitan Museum of 78 Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures by Picasso, Braque, Gris and Léger. In her appropriately glowing NY Times review of the recent Met show of his benefactions, Roberta Smith gave more traction to the appealing notion that Lauder’s art was “given unconditionally.”

Leonard Lauder, speaking about his Cubist collection, Feb. 11 at the Metropolitan Museum Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Leonard Lauder, speaking about his Cubist collection last week at the Metropolitan Museum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Does that mean that the Met will be free to show individual works or to rotate some off view, however it sees fit? Anyone (including devotees of Analytic Cubism’s complexities, like me) who spent considerable time with Lauder’s textbook collection (in the show that closed yesterday) was probably staggered by a sense of Cubist overload from trying to puzzle out so many dense, challenging compositions in one uninterrupted session. Less, at any given time, might be more.

Even veteran critic Peter Schjeldahl found scrutinizing the collection in its entirety a somewhat arduous task. In his Oct. 27 New Yorker review, he wrote:

If you’re not tired after seeing the show, you weren’t trying….You may find that after an hour spent in the avant-garde boot camp of Cubism, looking at almost any other art will seem a breeze.

The Met hasn’t thus far been willing to disclose the details of its agreement with Lauder. But when I heard the cosmetics mogul speak last week at the Met, holding forth about his collecting exploits with the flair of a Borscht Belt comedian (“I describe myself as a lipstick salesman. How else could I afford it?”), I got the sense that some strings might indeed be attached.

His one-hour stand-up to an appreciative Met audience closely tracked Lauder’s conversation, published in the show’s voluminous scholarly catalogue, with his own curator, Emily Braun (art history professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York).

He said at the Met (echoing his published comments) that he expected the works in his Cubist collection to “stay on exhibition fairly permanently” and that he had bought them anticipating an eventual museum gift. His criterion for acquisition was, “Will this make the cut?”

This certainly will:

Picasso, “The Scallop Shell (Notre Avenir est dans l’Air),” 1912 Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Picasso, “The Scallop Shell (Notre Avenir est dans l’Air),” 1912
Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection
Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Lauder was even more explicit in the catalogue about his intentions for his collection:

The question I always ask myself…is…”Is this work good enough to hang on a museum wall—and hang on that wall in perpetuity?” I wanted that pleasure—or that honor.” [emphasis added]

After his talk, I asked the Met’s Rebecca Rabinow, co-curator with Braun for the Lauder show, whether a condition of the gift was that the entire collection must always remain on view. She noted that the works on paper would necessarily have to be rotated, for conservation reasons.

But what about the paintings?

The museum, she said, couldn’t discuss the terms.

To his credit, as reported by Vogel and confirmed to me by Rabinow, Lauder will not follow the practice of other megadonors in carving out special fiefdoms at the Met where all their works must always be hung together, to the exclusion of others. In this he has shown proper deference to the curatorial imperative to orchestrate synergistic juxtapositions of works from different donors.

Rebecca also told me that the three works (here, here and here) that the Met recently acquired with Lauder-donated funds will remain at the museum, but the 78 works in the promised gift will return to him, to be accessioned into the Met’s permanent collection “either at the time of Mr. Lauder’s death or before.” Perhaps tax planning (not to mention this avid collector’s obvious delight in living with his masterpieces) has something to do with the timing.

Until the transfer happens, Rabinow said, “I imagine that from time to time we will borrow and display works from the collection when they are relevant to our displays.”

To further whet you appetite, you can visit the Met’s alluring new microsite for the Lauder Collection, with images and detailed information on all 81 Cubist works with which Leonard will eventually enrich the public. The site was created under the auspices of the Lauder Research Center for Modern Art at the Met, initially supported by a $22-million endowment, funded by Met trustees and supporters (including Lauder), with Rabinow as curator-in-charge.

an ArtsJournal blog