A Flawless New Museum And Viennese Coffee

Of the many reasons why everyone-everyone, that is, with a keen interest in art, architecture and design-will want to visit and revisit the Neue Galerie New York, the city’s new museum devoted to early 20th-century German and Austrian art, not the least is the building itself, at 1048 Fifth Avenue (at the corner of 86th Street). This six-story mansion, designed by Carrère and Hastings, the architects of the New York Public Library, dates from 1914; its design is a Beaux Arts version of Louis XIII elegance. The architect responsible for its current restoration and transformation into a public museum is Annabelle Selldorf, and the result instantly establishes the Neue Galerie New York as one of Manhattan’s most beautiful architectural interiors. It would be worth a visit even if there were nothing else in the building to look at.

But there is, of course, a great deal else to look at. The flawlessly installed opening exhibition is called New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940 , a survey of paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, photographs and the decorative arts. All the great names are represented: Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele, among the Austrian painters; Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix, Oskar Schlemmer, George Grosz, Kurt Schwitters and Franz Marc, among the Germans; and Vasily Kandinsky, Laszlo-Moholy-Nagy, Lyonel Feininger and Paul Klee, among the outsiders who participated in the Blaue Reiter movement or the Bauhaus project. The sections of the opening exhibition devoted to “Viennese Decorative Arts Around 1900″ and “Applied Arts and Architecture in Germany, 1890s-1930s” all but constitute a separate exhibition in themselves, and not one that is in any respect aesthetically inferior to or historically less compelling than the rooms devoted to paintings and drawings. I suspect that for many visitors to the Neue Galerie New York, the decorative arts in this initial exhibition may exert an even greater appeal than some of the paintings and drawings-which, frankly, are not as consistently high in quality, and some of which are remarkably lurid in their imagery.

Still, with a masterwork like Beckmann’s Self-Portrait with Horn (1938)-in my judgment, the single greatest work of art in this survey-and such other works as Emil Nolde’s Sunset (1909), Lyonel Feininger’s The Blue Cloud (1925), Kokoschka’s Paul Scheerhart (1910), Grosz’s Portrait of John Flirste, Man with Glass Eye (1926), Otto Dix’s watercolor Self-Portrait (1922) and virtually all the drawings by Schiele and Alfred Kubin and all the works by Kurt Schwitters-to mention only my own favorites in the exhibition-there is no shortage of first-rate examples among the paintings and drawings, either.

In addition, the Neue Galerie New York is providing New Yorkers with their first-ever perfect replica of a fin-de-siècle Viennese coffeehouse, and not just to look at. The Cafe Sabarsky, as it’s called, is a functioning coffeehouse, complete with replicas of Viennese bent-wood furniture and period banquettes as well as Viennese coffees and the high-caloric delicacies that were standard fare in the days when nobody seemed to worry about such things. Were the original coffeehouses of Vienna ever as elegant as this one? Hard to say. The coffeehouses I frequented during my many visits to the city in the 1960’s had gotten to be pretty shabby, and the artists I met in Vienna wouldn’t go near them. They much preferred the horrible little espresso bars, where you sat on plastic stools under grim neon lights. These, they said, made them feel like they were in New York-though in fact they didn’t at all resemble any New York coffee bar I had ever seen. It was all part of the younger generation’s rejection of Viennese bourgeois sentimentality, precisely the vein of sentiment and style that is so painstakingly revived in the Cafe Sabarsky. But this rejection of bourgeois sentimentality was already a powerful under current in fin-de-siècle Viennese art itself, as we can see in the mordant imagery of Schiele, Kokoschka and Kubin.

I would be very much surprised, however, if the Cafe Sabarsky didn’t prove to be a great hit with our own herd of bourgeois sentimentalists. It’s unlikely, in any case, to pose a threat to Starbucks. What the Neue Galerie New York also offers us is a splendid book shop devoted to the art and design of early 20th-century Austria and Germany, and even translations of some of the literature. There is also a design shop, where reproductions of tableware and textiles are likely to bring some brisk business, too.

In this initial exhibition at the museum, the second floor is devoted to Austria while the third floor is devoted to Germany. In spirit and style, they are in some respects radically different. Austrian Expressionism was rather more elegant than its German counterpart, and Austria never produced anything as radical as the applied arts of the Bauhaus. There is thus an interesting dialectic of decorative excess on the one hand, and its categorical denial on the other, to be observed as one moves from the Austrian section of the exhibition to the sometimes brutal simplifications of German art and design.

Are there some disappointments to be observed as well? Inevitably, there are. The two virtuosic figure paintings by Klimt, with their super-saturations of decorative detail, will no doubt delight many people, but I found them unendurable. Klimt’s landscape paintings are splendid, however, and so are the Klimt drawings. Kokoschka’s drawings, on the other hand, are by no means his best work. The Klees are similarly disappointing, but the Kandinskys are marvelous. It is only in the realm of the decorative and applied arts that this initial exhibition is devoid of disappointment.

Like so many of our museums in New York, the Neue Galerie New York is based upon great private collections-in this case, those of the late Serge Sabarsky (1912-1996), who for many years was New York’s principal dealer in modern Austrian and German art, and Ronald S. Lauder, the chairman of Estée Lauder International and also chairman of the board at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Lauder was the U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987. It was the two gentlemen’s original intention to collaborate on the founding of the Neue Galerie New York, but following Sabarsky’s death five years ago, Mr. Lauder undertook to bring this project to completion. In doing so-and on such a grand scale-he has made an important contribution not only to the cultural life of New York, but to the entire nation.

For the significance of the Neue Galerie New York goes beyond the aesthetic delights it brings to the city. This museum is devoted to a particular-and particularly difficult-chapter in the history of the 20th century. Germany had the distinction of being at once one of the most advanced and one of the most barbaric societies in the modern world, and Austria was a close collaborator in both of these disparate endeavors. Germany created some of the very first museums to be devoted to modern art, and it was also the locus of one of the most ambitious plans to exterminate modern art and the people who created it. The life of art in New York in the 20th century has, moreover, been closely linked to the fortunes and misfortunes of German and Austrian cultural life. What our own cultural life in the 20th century might have been without the arrival on our shores of German émigré artists, art scholars and writers, art dealers, art collectors, museum curators and teachers, is beyond imagining. It is in relation to this aspect of our history in the 20th century that the creation of the Neue Galerie New York is especially significant, and I hope there will be opportunities in the future for the museum to focus on some of this history as well. There are allusions to it, to be sure, in the mammoth hardcover catalog that accompanies the opening exhibition-a book running to some 600 glossy pages that weighs a ton. As I am still trawling my way through its endless columns of fine print, I shall defer my discussion of it until a later date.

Meanwhile, it needs to be pointed out that visiting hours at the Neue Galerie New York are somewhat eccentric. It is open to the public four days a week, on Friday, Saturday and Monday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 to 6 p.m. Admission is $10 (student and seniors, $7). Children under 12 will not be admitted, and those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult. There will also be a limit placed on the number of visitors to be admitted at the same time, so be prepared to stand in line, at least to begin with. All the same, it is not to be missed. And fortunately, the opening exhibition remains on view at the museum through Feb. 18.