There's a moment toward the end of the Meyerhoff collectio exhibit at Washington's National Gallery that presents the visitor with an exciting dilemma. You step through an opening between galleries and see ahead of you, three galleries away, Roy Lichtenstein's huge and enticing painting "Bedroom at Arles," strongly beckoning you forward. Yet at the same time you're surrounded by seven glorious paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, and who could desert them?
It's a moment that typifies a visit to the show of "The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: 1945 to 1995," opening today. It offers so many treasures that at any moment one hardly knows whether to linger or rush forward. But the real value of this collection does not lie in numbers of works, though they are staggering enough:
No fewer than 194 works by 40 artists, including 101 by five of the world's leading living artists -- Jasper Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. And important examples of the art of many other leading artists of the postwar period, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Josef Albers.
The collection, assembled over nearly 40 years by the Meyerhoffs, who live north of Baltimore in Phoenix, has been promised to the National Gallery. Asked how it will fit into the gallery's own collection of works of the last 50 years, the National's curator of 20th-century art, Mark Rosenthal, replied succinctly, "It doesn't fit into it. It defines it."
And so it does, but only secondarily by reason of quantity. It is the quality of this collection that's most important. It attests to the Meyerhoffs' extraordinary "eye" -- and in this case one can say that two people have an eye, since they make decisions together and each work they acquire must please both of them. It attests also to the wisdom and judiciousness of their selection process.
In the gallery with those seven abstract paintings by Kelly, for instance, one can get some sense of the Meyerhoffs' ability not only to select fine individual works, but to build a group of an artist's works that resonate off of one another and make the sum even greater than the parts.
On one wall are the earliest two Kellys: "Blue Yellow Red V" (1954-1987) and "Orange Green" (1966). Each of these rectangular canvases achieves balances of color and proportion that lead to a third balance: a tense stasis among the parts. On two other walls are four more recent canvases of various shapes and areas of color, which, seen together, set up a sense of lively visual movement, back and forth from painting to painting, that enhances the effect of each. Finally, the fourth wall contains the most recent of the Meyerhoffs' Kellys, "Red Curve" (1986-1987). Its abstract birdlike shape -- a wide V surmounted by a long curve -- combines both movement and stasis to bring all these works into an unusual degree of harmony with one another. The effect of this room is quietly exhilarating and deeply satisfying.
Ties with art history
Lichtenstein became a leading pop artist more than 30 years ago with his groundbreaking comic-strip-inspired paintings, but his work has enjoyed a deep and abiding relationship with the history of art. That's evident over and over again in the two galleries devoted to his work, including "White Brushstroke II" (1965) satirizing abstract expressionism, "Cow Triptych (Cow Going Abstract)" (1974) based on an earlier work by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, and the surrealist-inspired "Razzmatazz" (1978). As if to sum up this relationship, the Lichtenstein galleries reach a triumphant crescendo with "Bedroom at Arles" (1992), based on the 1888 painting of the same name by van Gogh.
It is both an homage to van Gogh and a partial summation of what happened in the century between the two paintings. One wall of the bedroom is full of the Benday-like dots used in comic strips, and thus carries on Lichtenstein's extensive use of them in his own painting. But the floor is executed with wavy lines reminiscent of woodcuts, a printmaking medium popular with expressionist artists, who trace their lineage back to van Gogh.
Van Gogh's rush-seated wooden chairs have become canvas-and-metal chairs in the Lichtenstein, his floppy shirts hanging on one wall have become crisp white businessmen's shirts, and his drooping towel hanging on another wall has become a geometric abstraction. But other elements, such as the landscape on the back wall, closely resemble van Gogh's. Art moves forward, this painting says, but it never loses its roots in the past.
Look at the Lichtensteins the Meyerhoffs have assembled, and then look at the one Warhol work in the show, "Small Campbell Soup Can, 1 (1962) and you have a clue not only to why the Meyerhoffs didn't collect Warhol but to why they collected the artists they collected.
Lichtenstein and Warhol were both pop artists, both broke with the past, both outraged many devotees of High Art. But Lichtenstein's work, at least as collected by the Meyerhoffs, is rich with associations with the past. Warhol, too, made use of the past, of course -- think of his "The Last Supper" at the Baltimore Museum of Art -- and there was something of the expressionist about his increasing preoccupation with death. But, both in his work and in his manner, he often seemed to be defying the canons and traditions of High Art in a particularly flippant way. The Meyerhoffs, one senses, wouldn't like that, for if their collection proves one thing above all, it proves that art doesn't simply leave the past behind but builds upon it.
To see Rauschenberg, especially in his works of the 1950s and 1960s here, combining gestural brush strokes with popular images from newspapers and other sources, is to see pop art not just reacting to abstract expressionism but also evolving out of it.
Both Kelly and Stella (the latter in his earlier works) have been loosely related to minimalism. Both also have roots in the more meditative "field" painters of abstract expressionism such as Rothko and Newman. Stella's work since the 1970s has become not only more baroque in feeling but more reminiscent of the gestural "action" painters of abstract expressionism, such as Pollock and de Kooning. And Kelly's paintings, although abstract and geometric, are the opposite of sterile: They are deeply affecting in the grand humanist tradition.
Thoughts of death
Johns' work is especially rich in associations with the past -- both his own past and the past of art history. In the Meyerhoffs' 1982 painting "Perilous Night," which according to Rosenthal
announces the later, more expressionistic phase of Johns' work, the artist quotes his own earlier crosshatch paintings along with references to the composer John Cage, to Picasso, to the Isenheim Altarpiece of Mathias Grunewald, and to the fool-the-eye style of painting known as trompe l'oeil. The work adds up to a rumination on death.
The series "The Four Seasons" (1986) -- of which the Meyerhoffs own the painting of "Spring" and drawings of all four seasons -- is highly autobiographical. And the Meyerhoffs' most recent Johns, Mirror's Edge 2" (1993), pulls in Johns' own past and quotes from two lithographs by Newman.
This work thus reflects the two largest parts of the Meyerhoffs' collection. For a time after they began collecting in the late 1950s, they concentrated on the abstract expressionists, and artists of that period continue to have a major presence in the collection, including works by Pollock, Rothko, Albers, Newman, de Kooning, Ad Reinhardt, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Grace Hartigan.
Eventually they shifted their primary attention to artists closer to their own age, those of the generation who moved on from abstract expressionism. The Meyerhoffs' major collecting push with their "big five" occurred when the artists were in mid-career, and the couple have primarily focused acquisitions from that point on, rather than collecting large numbers of earlier works.
More recently, they have continued to acquire works of that generation but also have started acquiring those of a younger generation, including Brice Marden, Julian Lethbridge and Joel Shapiro.
The continuity that this show reflects is equally evident in these TTC younger artists. Lethbridge's "Traveling Salesman IV" (1995), one the Meyerhoffs' most recent acquisitions, calls across two galleries to Jean Dubuffet's "Compagnie Fallacieuse" (1963), one the collection's rare non-American artists.
Shapiro's stunning drawing "Untitled" (1987) combines aspects of everything from the suprematist abstraction of the early 20th-century Russian artist Kazimir Malevich through both gestural and geometric abstraction and down to the recent reascendancy of the figure in art. Like so much else here, this work -- well placed in Rosenthal's fine installation -- is also extremely (though not merely) beautiful.
In her brief essay introducing the show's catalog, Mrs. Meyerhoff quotes from an earlier essay in which she stated, "The essence of a private art collection is the assembling of works preferred by a particular sensibility." But she doesn't elaborate on what that sensibility might be. In his -- also brief -- introductory essay, Rosenthal cites as part of that sensibility the couple's response to the work of artists of their own generation.
Perhaps one can make a few other generalizations about that sensibility. If they like artists of their own generation, they like ones whose debt to the past deeply informs their work. They respond to works that are serious and cerebral rather than flashy or impertinent. They choose works in which beauty is present, not superficial but integral to the work's essence.
They reject excess; both Stella and Rauschenberg in their later careers have been guilty at times of works that are overblown and self-indulgent. The Meyerhoffs have not followed either of them into those pitfalls, at least not all the way.
Whatever combination of qualities comes closest to defining the Meyerhoffs' sensibility, it had led them to assemble a collection that makes an extraordinary promised gift to the nation.
An eye for art
What: "The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: 1945 to 1995"
Where: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue Northwest, Washington.
When: 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sundays, through July 21.
$ Call: (202) 842-6690
Pub Date: 03/31/96