Whether by sheer coincidence or deliberate plan, New York City is currently the venue for simultaneous ambitious museums shows featuring works from the collection of one of the two art-collecting sons of late cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder. While both displays (five blocks apart on Fifth Avenue) are well worth a visit, the concept and execution underlying each of them couldn’t be more different.
Perhaps befitting the brothers’ contrasting characters and priorities, one show, at Ronald Lauder‘s Neue Galerie (to Feb. 13), is collector-centric, with everything chosen from Ronald’s diverse holdings, divided into sections that have little in common other than the owner. It consists of “over 500 masterworks, many on view for the first time,” as described in the show’s full-page NY Times ad (p. C13 on Nov. 11).
As stated by Ronald (at 0:27 in this video), “I branched out. I’m in 17 different areas.”
The Neue show’s agglomeration included everything from arms and armor (pictured above), to a mid-second century BCE marble Greek head of a goddess, to Italian gold-ground and old master paintings, to memorabilia from the Bogart/Bergman movie “Casablanca”:
By contrast, the other show—the Metropolitan Museum’s Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition (to Jan. 22)—is more narrowly focused and curatorially cohesive, divided into sections determined by art-historical, stylistic and thematic relationships. Some 14 of its more than 100 offerings came from the collection of Leonard Lauder, but a wide range of lenders was tapped, supplemented by the Met’s own holdings:
The Harnett “Still Life” (above right) features a painted image of the artist’s calling card, which looks as if it could be plucked off the painting:
The disjointed presentation of Ronald Lauder’s show pays homage to the owner’s eclectic taste, financial wherewithal and personal connections—most notably the Neue Galerie’s co-founder, the late dealer Serge Sabarsky, who played a seminal role in assembling Lauder’s trove of German and Austrian expressionism. I used to marvel at Sabarsky’s aggressive bidding at major New York auctions, where he offered whatever it took to acquire paintings for a planned new museum, as he then had told me (without being specific).
Sabarsky gets a name-check at the entrance of the Neue Galerie, thanks to its eponymous cafe (arguably more of a crowd-magnet than the museum):
Under normal circumstances, the Neue is best known for its focus on German and Austrian expressionism, headlined by Klimt‘s celebrated Golden Girl:
The Neue Galerie is essentially Ronald Lauder’s personal fiefdom, so it’s not surprising that scholarly oversight for the current show has been assigned to his personal advisor (and the Neue Galerie’s long-time director), Renée Price.
But I was a bit surprised that the Met allowed its show to be co-organized by Leonard Lauder’s longtime personal curator, Emily Braun (who is also a professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). Teaming with her as co-organizer was Elizabeth Cowling, professor emerita of the University of Edinburgh, whom the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art anointed as a “distinguished scholar” from September to November 2022.
The Lauder Research Center was established at the Met in conjunction with the 2013 announcement of what the museum’s then director, Tom Campbell, described as Lauder’s “truly transformational gift”—a pledge of 78 works, including 33 by Picasso, 17 by Braque, 14 by Gris, 14 by Léger. The more than 100 works in the Met’s “Trompe l’Oeil” (“deceives the eye“) show were culled from a variety of private and institutional lenders, with the biggest share (the aforementioned 14 works) coming from the collection of Leonard Lauder. The above-linked Research Center was to be bankrolled by a $22-million endowment, contributed by Lauder and other Met trustees and patrons.
What distinguishes the Met’s show from other museums’ explorations of this seminal modern movement is its emphasis on making connections between 20th-century “trompe l’oeil” and similar visual trickery from earlier centuries. “There is no better place to do this than at the Metropolitan Museum,” boasted Met director Max Hollein in his opening remarks at the press preview.
You can see images of all the works in the Met’s show here—everything from J.S. Bernard‘s glistening, precariously balanced “Still Life with Violin, Ewer and Bouquet of Flowers,” 1657, with its sinuous lemon peel at the center, dangling down…
…to Picasso’s “Playing Cards, Glasses, Bottle of Rum: ‘Vive la France,'” which (in the words of its label) “parodies illusionistic still lifes that depict rare collectors’ pieces [i.e., the golden ewer and sumptuous carpet in the above painting from FAMSF], highlighting instead the cheap and commonplace [such as the “Vive la France” souvenir glass, at the bottom left, below]:
Here’s a glistening close-up of Bernard’s luscious lemon (accompanied by other, more flavorful, fruit):
As described by curator Emily Braun in her remarks at the press preview, the Met show is billed as “the first time when artists from the 17th through the 19th century are paired with Cubist collages.”
I’m embarrassed to confess that I was a bit “tromped” myself—perplexed for a brief moment by the Met’s own bit of deception in the show’s introductory gallery, which recounts the story of a trompe l’oeil contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, wherein Zeuxis “produced a picture of grapes so successfully that birds flew up to it. Whereupon Parrhasius painted such a realistic representation of a curtain that Zeuxis requested that the curtain should be drawn.”
I wasn’t the only visitor to do a doubletake at the Met’s own convincing optical illusion (in the upper left corner of the above image), representing peeling wallpaper. Here’s a closer look at what is, despite appearances, an entirely flat painted surface:
As with Christopher Knight, the LA Times‘ art critic (in this tweet), the notion of “vanity museum” did cross my mind as I pondered the contrast between the two brothers’ shows. But it’s hard to fault a passionate art-lover like Ronald for wanting to preserve his beloved collection in a dedicated museum (in the manner of Albert Barnes and Eli Broad, to name two), especially in light of what’s happened to the holdings of other proud collectors who transferred their precious possessions to museums that juggle a wide-range of benefactors and diverse priorities and may sometimes dispose of works entrusted to them by donors.
That said, I personally prefer Leonard’s approach—handing over the reigns to the institutional (and art-historical) experts, and giving them the freedom to exercise their deeper, wider scholarship. I’m reluctant to be too hard on either of the Lauders, though, because of our shared personal history: We’re all proud alums (Class of 1950, Class of 1961, Class of 1966) of the Bronx High School of Science—a specialized public school known for its high achievers (who got in by scoring well on an entrance exam).
In Ronald’s accent (which you can hear in this video of his conversation with Houston MFA director Gary Tinterow), I recognized the distinctive inflections of “Noo Yawk’-uz” who came of age in early-to-mid 20th century. That includes me, although I’ve learned to varnish my uncouth Bronx accent with a more cultivated gloss when engaging with artworld colleagues. But in pure Bronx-ese, “water” becomes “waw’-da.”
The Lauder (“Law’-da”?) brothers went on to bigger and better things, but my crowning achievement may have been my designation as valedictorian of our mutual high school, which probably boasts more Nobel Prize winners in science than any public high school (two Physics Nobel laureates in my graduating class alone). I had less high-powered competition in my own specialty—the humanities.
But enough about me (speaking of “vanity”). Back to the “sibling rivalry” theme (my own invention, but a useful spur for comparisons): Although he doesn’t have his own museum to rival the Neue Galerie, Leonard Lauder does have bragging rights with an impressive named exhibition space at the Met:
The painting that you can glimpse at the center, above (and see up close, below) has been cited (by Norman Mailer, no less) as evidence of Picasso’s misogyny (as noted in the 382-page tome that the Met published in 2014 about Lauder’s Cubist collection, edited by Braun and Rebecca Rabinow, the Met’s then curator-in-charge of the Lauder Research Center for Modern Art (and now director of the Menil Collection, Houston).
Leonard’s younger brother also boasts an eponymous exhibition space at the Met—the Ronald Lauder Galleries of Arms and Armor, so named in commemoration of his promised gift to the Met of 91 objects from his collection of that material.
Here’s what you first encounter when you enter that suite of 11 galleries:
Leonard Lauder can also boast a more expansive named gallery space than the one that he scored at the Met: The Whitney Museum, where he is chairman emeritus, named its sweeping new headquarters in NYC’s Meatpacking District for its generous, long-time benefactor, who chipped in some $131 million towards the capital campaign for the Renzo Piano-designed facility (which I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal here, when it opened in May 2015).
But when will the elder Lauder’s pledge to the Met of 78 works be perfected as a gift?
“We don’t comment on the mechanics of the gift. To date, a few pieces of his collection have been accessioned,” a Met spokesperson enigmatically replied in response to my query.
Similarly, below is all that I could extract from Rebecca Rabinow about the terms of Lauder’s promised gift, as I reported in my February 2015 CultureGrrl post on the occasion of the Met’s show of Lauder’s benefactions:
Rebecca 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.”
Happily, such loans have now happened. All of which is to say: If this is sibling rivalry, New Yorkers are making the most of it!
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