Selected works from the Neuberger Museum of Art at Purchase College are criss-crossing the country on a tour of small museums and have lately settled in the Esther B. O’Keeffe Gallery, a modest Spanish style building at the Society of the Four Arts. The grounds, set hard by the intracoastal waterway, are lovely. A visiting artist driving a rental through the strip mall tracts and car dealerships of Okeechobee Boulevard crosses the water to the properly named Royal Palm Way, and is apt to see a Rolls Royce parked outside the museum. This is Palm Beach. Perched on a retaining wall behind the gallery is a lizard the size of my arm; this, too, is Palm Beach.
If the art of the Neuberger collection is suitable for this high-rent district, it was amassed in an unprepossessing fashion. Roy R. Neuberger was a young buyer of fabric for a department store who took a shine to art during a trip to Europe. A savvy investor, in 1939 he co-founded his own firm and began purchasing art from New York City galleries. The art he sought didn’t conform to a particular mode–the work in this show covers a number of sensibilities from the 1940s through the 1960s, and includes the preeminent women and African-American artists of an era when there were few of either. His impetus was as much philanthropic as acquisitive; he only bought work by living American artists (a focus that distinguished him from fellow extravagant collectors and museum founders Joseph Hirshhorn and Duncan Phillips, who amassed work by artists living and dead, European as well as American). “I have not collected art as an investor would,” he said. “I collect art because I love it.” Neuberger lent his work for exhibition, endorsed the creation of a National Cultural Center in Washington, and donated his collection to SUNY Purchase, forming the eponymous museum so as to enrich the college’s curriculum.
Neuberger got as much mileage from his resources as could be gotten without benefit of institutional backing. This is a backhanded way of noting that a lot of the works are immediately recognizable as trademark pieces—a de Kooning from the “Woman” series, a small Milton Avery, from whom Neuberger bought over a hundred works, an abstract/precisionist canvas by Charles Sheeler, and a sickly green O’Keeffe Lake George landscape—even though they’re not premier examples. With that proviso, there are historical curiosities and gems. Max Weber’s La Parisienne is both, for it pinpoints the moment the young artist became maybe the first American expatriate to synthesize modernist influences. Matisse’s imprint is strong, and one wants to cite Modigliani in the nude’s flattened forms and stylized contours, but Weber got there a decade earlier. Neuberger purchased an abundance of paintings by Louis Eilshemius, a genuine eccentric and oft-forgotten artist whose The Dream, with its nymphs levitating in a landscape, I persistently mistook for an Arthur Davies. There’s Mark Rothko’s Old Gold Over White, which in 1959 was included in a Moscow exhibition as part of a cultural exchange. When Rothko’s loyalties were subsequently questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the canvas was defended as “hopelessly meaningless,” and therefore politically inoffensive. With such a defense, who needs prosecutors?
For me, the standouts in the show are Richard Diebenkorn’s Girl on a Terrace, she of the title overlooking an abstracted landscape in a beautifully painted blue- and white-striped skirt; Marsden Hartley’s Fishermen’s Last Supper, Nova Scotia, a formalized memorial to two young brothers lost at sea, the rolling pitch of the interior suggestive of a storm-tossed boat; and my favorite, The Banquet, by Jack Levine, a great small satire of political corruption in Boston. Levine was terrifically sharp as a young man, and though he never lost his edge, neither did he surpass the technical proficiency or the bile of the early paintings. In The Banquet a still life of a plated fish is as energetically painted as the ethically challenged figures, and equally sympathetic in character.
On the occasion of his hundredth birthday, Neuberger said, “I liked adventuresome work that I often didn’t understand. For art to be very good it has to be over your head.” Except it doesn’t. Taken at face value, it’s a sentiment as overly simplistic as “I know what I like,” and is the sort of statement that feeds the misconception that art appreciation is essentially elitist. Less literally, it invokes the necessity of openness to the unfamiliar. Neuberger’s collection reflects that openness. Leaving the Four Arts and the art of a near-distant past, one is struck by how quickly what was once novel is now accepted in staid surroundings, though rarely quickly enough for the artists themselves to reap material benefit. I hope that among the Rolls-Royces and estates of Palm Beach there dwells another collector of Neuberger’s ilk, buying work out of affection for art and artists. In these times we could use him.
When Modern was Contemporary: Selections from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection is on display at the Society of the Four Arts until January 29.