It’s not every day one can see a Jackson Pollock “drip painting,” let alone an Alexander Calder mobile or Willem de Kooning’s painting of Marilyn Monroe. But that’s what visitors will get to see when visiting the exhibition “When Modern Was Contemporary,” currently on display at The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.
The 48 paintings and four sculptures that comprise the traveling exhibit produced by American Federation of Arts were culled from the collection of onetime Manhattan-based financier Roy R. Neuberger (1903-2010).
Neuberger was a highly regarded stockbroker who co-founded the investment firm Neuberger Berman. Having weathered the financial storms of not only the Great Depression, the stock market crash of 1987 and the 2008 collapse of the housing market, he somehow managed to gather a large and rather important collection of American Modern art, the full impact of which is only now being assessed.
Recognizing the significance of the art of his own time, he acquired works by a remarkable selection of Modern masters, including Calder, de Kooning and Pollock, as well as numerous others.
Even so, Barbara Jones, the Westmoreland’s chief curator, says, “There’s a lot of names here that never rose to the top, but he still bought from them and supported them because he liked their work.
“When you bring all of them together, they really show this whole period of Modernism, from realism to abstraction.”
Neuberger once said of himself, “I have not collected art as an investor would, I collect art because I love it.”
Jones says that, after Neuberger read a biography of Vincent van Gogh, he learned of his penurious life.”
“He had the idea in his mind that if he ever made enough money, he wanted to buy work by contemporary artists to support those he felt had something to say with their art,” Jones says.
As compelling as the works themselves are, so too are the stories behind them.
“Fishermen’s Last Supper, Nova Scotia” (1940) by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) is a somber work that depicts the Mason family who lost two of their sons at sea. A devoted friend to the family, Hartley was particularly fond of two of the Mason boys, Alty and Donny. In September 1936, the two drowned in a boating accident on a stormy night.
Devastated, Hartley left Nova Scotia shortly thereafter and never returned, spending the remainder of his life primarily in Maine. This is one of two paintings Hartley did on this theme, which Neuberger purchased from Downtown Gallery in New York City in October 1943, just a month after Hartley died.
“When I brought it home, I felt that I now had an American masterpiece,” Neuberger recalled.
Neuberger developed a keen eye, having also purchased Ralston Crawford’s “At the Dock” (1940) at the Downtown Gallery just after the artist’s first major exhibit there in January 1944.
The painting was reproduced in color on the November 1944 cover of Fortune magazine — a copy of which is also on display here — to highlight a story about the Merchant Marines. But the painting also was a reflection of Crawford’s own life. He grew up amid shipyards, docks and grain elevators in Ontario and Buffalo, and his father worked as a captain on cargo ships sailing the Great Lakes.
Of local interest, the painting “Gas Tank, Pittsburgh (American Landscape)” (1918) by Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is a real standout piece.
Stella’s artistic relationship with cities, their inhabitants, and their industrial areas began a little over a decade after he emigrated from Italy to the United States in 1896. Living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and studying under William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) at the Art Students League, Stella spent time sketching images of the city, particularly its immigrants.
This work is one of many images of Pittsburgh that he executed over the course of his career.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted “Lake George by Early Moonrise” (1930) while looking through the second-story window of the Lake George farmhouse that belonged to the family of her husband, photographer and modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). It is the last panoramic landscape that O’Keeffe painted in Lake George, N.Y.
Located at the southeastern base of the Adirondack Mountains, Lake George had long been popular with artists. Throughout the 19th century painters such as Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) and John Frederick Kensett (1816-1872) portrayed its rich and varied landscape.
O’Keeffe first visited Lake George in the summer of 1908 with fellow students from the Art Students League of New York. She began visiting routinely with Stieglitz in 1918. Over the years, Lake George inspired O’Keeffe to create a diverse range of sketches in watercolor and finished paintings in oil, including many of the magnified flowers for which she has become best known.
It’s worth noting that Neuberger’s collection numbered well more than 900 works, many of which are now spread over more than 70 institutions in 24 states. Some 300-plus are in the permanent collection of the Neuberger Museum of Art, which opened in 1974 on the Purchase College campus of the State University of New York.
Jones says it was in 1967 that Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York, approached Neuberger and asked him to donate his art collection to a new college, Purchase, that would encourage young artists.
“So since that was one of Neuberger’s reasons for buying art from contemporary artists, he decided to do that,” she says.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic.