With certain exhibitions you know you are in for an extraordinary experience the moment you take your first steps into the first room. The high esthetic altitude instantly declares itself. That is certainly what happens when you step into the show called New York Collects: Drawings and Watercolors 1900-1950 at the Morgan Library.
What you first encounter in quick succession is a Self-Portrait (1901) by the young Picasso; two of Bonnard’s late pencil drawings, one of them his wife Marthe in the bathtub- Woman in a Bath (circa 1935)-and classic examples of the late watercolors Cézanne devoted to both figure and landscape subjects- The Bathers (circa 1900) and Bare Trees by a River (circa 1900-1904). Then, if you are not already reeling from this heady introduction to the show, you can see on the far wall Matisse’s Portrait of Sergei I. Shchukin (1912), a marvelous charcoal drawing of the great Russian collector who, between 1906 and 1914, acquired nearly 40 of Matisse’s paintings. And you’ve only taken your first steps into an exhibition numbering 140 works on paper by some 82 artists.
New York Collects is, in other words, an event not to be missed. Its standard of quality is indeed breathtaking. So is the range of styles and talents which the exhibition encompasses. Organized by William M. Griswold, the Morgan Library’s curator of drawings and prints, and Carol Selle, an independent curator and collector, the exhibition is drawn entirely from private collections in the New York area. As a consequence, much of what we see in New York Collects is likely to be unfamiliar even to dedicated museumgoers. Yet all the major artists of the first half of the 20th century-and many of the most significant minor talents-are represented by some of their most inspired accomplishments.
Among much else, New York Collects is thus a salutary reminder that the tradition of connoisseurship is alive and flourishing in these parts despite recent attempts by art-world ideologues to discredit quality as a malign, politically privileged idea whose time has passed. Make no mistake: To assemble an exhibition at this level of quality requires not only expert knowledge-which is, after all, what we mean by connoisseurship-but that special combination of scholarship, sensibility, judgment and diplomatic tact which, owing to the immense changes that have lately overtaken the academic training of our art historians, is becoming even more of a rarity in professional art circles today than it was in earlier times.
New York Collects is also something of a milestone for the Morgan Library. For this is the Library’s first exhibition to be devoted entirely to 20th-century art. The challenge faced by the curators was to come up with a show that would meet the lofty esthetic and scholarly standards that have long been a hallmark of the Morgan Library’s spectacular exhibitions of Old Master drawings. This challenge has been triumphantlymetin both the exhibition itself and in the book-length catalogue that accompanies it. Exhibitions of 20th-century art in any medium don’t get much better than this, and the catalogue is also a model of its kind.
Most of the artists in this show are represented by a single work, the selection of which must itself have been a daunting task. Among those more amply represented, Picasso and Matisse are inevitably the winners, with 10 Picassos and eight Matisses. Among the happy surprises in the show are the five works by Juan Gris, one of which- Mme. Cézanne, After Cézanne (1916)-is an exquisite pencil drawing in which Cézanne’s portrait of his wife (now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) is rendered in a way that transforms the implicit proto-Cubist structure of the original into the more explicit geometry of classical Cubism.
On the other hand, Paul Klee seems to me to be overrepresented in the exhibition. But I hasten to acknowledge that Klee’s status as a major artist no longer strikes me as supportable. With four drawings, however, Max Beckmann is one of the stars of the show, and so is Mondrian with his four drawings, and Miró with three. The same cannot be said for the three drawings by Jackson Pollock. In Pollock’s American generation, Willem de Kooning’s three drawings outclass all the competition.
German modernism is also strongly represented here, not only by Beckmann, who is clearly the greatest German artist of the period, but by superb examples of Otto Dix, Lovis Corinth, Christian Schad, George Grosz and the German Dadaists. There are even some discoveries to be made in this section of the exhibition-Karl Hubbuch, for example, whose drawing Nude in a Bauhaus Chair (circa 1925-30) makes one curious to see more of the artist’s work.
The American section of the exhibition is also finely judged. Artists as different as Marsden Hartley and George Bellows, EdwinDickinsonand Charles Sheeler, Edward Hopper and Franz Kline, are seen at their best here. Hartley’s pastel drawing Seated Male Nude (circa 1923) is a real knockout in itself and interesting as a preview of the paintings the artist devoted to male subjects years later in Maine.
There is also to be observed in this exhibition a mini-history of the early years of abstract art, and that too is finely represented in the work of Kandinsky, Kupka, Rodchenko, Rosanova and, of course, Mondrian. Frantisek Kupka’s watercolor drawing Around a Point (circa 1918) may be the finest work by this artist I have seen, and almost persuades one that he is as important an artist as his partisans have always claimed.
But there are many discoveries and rediscoveries to be made in this wonderful show, which leaves us in no doubt that the first half of this otherwise melancholy century was indeed one of the great periods in the history of Western art. Whether we shall be able to say the same about the second half of the century remains a question, but it will certainly be interesting to see what the Morgan Library makes of it when the time comes to undertake a sequel to the present exhibition.
Meanwhile, New York Collects remains on view at the Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through August 29.