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The Scent of Art (continued)

    The history of art is, of course, intertwined with larger histories. As I write this, Ronald Lauder and MoMA are embroiled in a modern art saga that knots troubling strands of 20th-century history. It all began last fall, when the museum mounted a major show of the Viennese Expressionist painter Egon Schiele, bringing over 150 artworks from the Leopold Collection in Vienna. Schiele, who died at 30 in the influenza pandemic of 1918, was an emotionally raw artist, and many of his works are sexually explicit. It was a memorable show, but as it was about to close, it got more so. Two Jewish families sued to keep two paintings in New York -- charging that the works had originally belonged to them but were stolen during the Third Reich. The Manhattan District Attorney seized the two paintings.
    Lauder and Schiele go back a long way, to the beginning of Lauder's career as a collector. "When I was twelve years old," he says, "I absolutely fell in love with the work of Egon Schiele. The thrill I first had looking at his work I still feel today." As he speaks I notice two Schieles on his office walls. Our eyes light up. "When I was 13 or 14, someone told me about a Schiele self-portrait that was for sale for $10,000." He happened to have that amount from bar mitzvah gifts in his bank account. "I still remember the excitement of making that first purchase. I'm sure my relatives and friends would have been shocked to see how I'd used the money they gave me for my bar mitzvah. But, I've never regretted it." It was a prescient purchase: A similar work recently sold at Sotheby's for $1.6 million.
    Lauder, who now owns more than 20 Schieles, funded half the costs of the MoMA show. As former ambassador to Austria, he knows most of the players in the controversy. And he's chairman of a commission to help Jewish families reclaim stolen art. He has so many conflicts of interest, in other words, that they pretty much cancel one another out. Though he sees all the sides, he comes down on MoMA's: The pictures should be returned to Vienna. "If people fear that pictures they lend to a show could be seized, there won't be any more loan exhibitions." No more Matisse and Picasso blockbusters, let alone Schiele shows. The Austrians, he believes, should consent to a public discussion about who owns the paintings "with an impartial jury to determine these types of things." Meanwhile, the two Schieles remain in New York as the case works its way through judicial appeal.
    If MoMA's collection is the brainchild of founding director Alfred Barr, the Whitney's is much more down home, or downtown. In the early part of the century, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1874-1942), an accomplished sculptor and astronomically rich Vanderbilt, began buying the work of artist friends such as William Glackens and John Sloan, members of what came to be called the Ashcan School, for their vivid portrayal of everyday life in the city. By 1929 she'd amassed a major collection of American art, over 700 pieces, and offered the lot to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which refused it as too modern. Undaunted, Gertrude Whitney bought four adjacent townhouses in Greenwich Village and opened the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931. The museum later moved next to MoMA, then in 1966 further uptown into Marcel Breuer's modernist top-heavy fortress.
    Like MoMA, the Whitney has long needed more space. Begun in 1994, its $300,000 expansion was completed this past April and occupies the entire fifth floor, formerly Whitney office space (which has moved to adjacent buildings). The new floor, called the Leonard & Evelyn Lauder Galleries, holds the first permanent galleries in the Whitney's history, while the lower floors are devoted to changing exhibitions. The day I was there to see the new galleries, I fell in love with George Luks's large oil painting of a celebration of the end of World War I, Armistice Night, 1918. The actor Ted Danson was also seeing the galleries for the first time, and we marveled at the Luks. The painting is so filled with merrymakers, we couldn't figure out the location -- City Hall Park? Times Square? When I asked him later, Leonard Lauder had the answer -- midway between: Union Square.
    The Luks hangs in the first gallery, designed to evoke the original Whitney Museum in Greenwich Village. Eleven more galleries take you through the American century in art, with one each devoted to three quintessential Whitney artists: Georgia O'Keeffe, Alexander Calder, and Edward Hopper. Leonard Lauder's favorites in the Lauder Galleries? "Charles Demuth's My Egypt, Charles Scheeler's Ford Plant, Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning, George Bellows' Dempsey vs. Firpo, Georgia O'Keefe's Summer Days and Florine Stettheimer's Liberty." Asked about what he'd like to add to the collection, he says, "You can never have enough great art," and notes that the Whitney needs early-to-mid- career Jasper Johns and Roy Lichtenstein and more abstract expressionist works and late 20th-century photography. "We're in the process of buying the estate of Ad Reinhardt."
    I'm probably not alone in thinking that Calder's Circus -- a hypnotically delightful toy Big Top with wire acrobats, clowns, and animals -- should be moved from the new gallery down to the main lobby, where for decades it set a tone of fun for the rest of the museum. The word fun applies to the Whitney in a way that it can't to MoMA. Though some critics disparage the museum for poor preparation of shows, I don't think it deserves the rap. The Whitney's done many memorable shows -- retrospectives on the surreal Ed Kienholz and 1980s art-star Keith Haring; an exhibition about African-American men, "Black Male"; another on the Beat Generation. And every other year, it mounts a museum-wide show representing the best or most cutting-edge American art of the previous two years. Every Whitney Biennial is controversial, mostly because someone will always disagree about the methods of choosing the art -- but it's always exciting to see hundreds of new works in one place, and there's always gold amid the dross. And only the Whitney does it. A young African American Whitney curator, Thelma Golden, who presented "Black Male," will curate the Biennial in 2000, which should set the museum moving and shaking into the third millennium.
    Leonard was 13 when Estée and Joseph began the family business. Ronald was two. The younger encountered great personal wealth at an earlier age than his brother, and the museums they chair reflect that experience. Leonard has said, in The New York Times, that he loves the Whitney because "it's everybody's whipping boy and I love underdogs. And because they need me. If I were at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, they wouldn't need me because they have a lot of people. Here, I bring not just my checkbook but ideas and access and a sense of destiny." He aims to boost yearly attendance from 300,000 to 400,000. Shows like current and upcoming retrospectives on Andrew Wyeth and Mark Rothko should help.
    Between the two museums, it's a half-hour's walk on Madison or Fifth or a pleasant hour's stroll through Central Park. When you visit them in one day, you feel how complementary they are, telling the stories of modern art, American art, contemporary art. Like their chairmen, they're in the same family -- one more light-hearted, one more serious.
    If you're in New York City this fall or winter, both museums have blockbuster retrospectives that give a sense of the peaks of American art. From September 17 through November 29, the Whitney surveys the great abstract colorist Mark Rothko. Be prepared for transcendental experiences as you meditate on Rothko's masses of light. Another show, running September 25 to January 3, takes us to the next generation to rediscover Bob Thompson (1937-1966), who mixed abstract expressionism, Renaissance painting, and African American motifs.
    At the Museum of Modern Art, immerse yourself in the work of another master colorist, the French painter and printmaker Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) through October 13. Then, from November 1 to February 2, 1999, MoMA mounts an epochal Jackson Pollock show, the first New York City retrospective since 1967 of the painter whose work, more than any other, made New York the capital of the art world. Plus: All the films of Sergei Eisenstein. Nothing like experiencing his final masterpiece, Ivan the Terrible, on MoMA's big screen.

Norman MacAfee, C'65, edited Museums New York magazine from 1994 to 1997. The Death of the Forest, an opera that he wrote using the music of Charles Ives, is being produced by the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts for performances in April and October 2000.
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