Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection

Shotgun Review

Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection

By John Zarobell September 25, 2014

The exhibition Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection features late modern and even postmodern art works, and for enthusiasts of American mid-twentieth-century painting, this show is bound to provide satisfaction. There are numerous gems in this exhibition, if one can call an 8-by-6-foot painting a gem; Kelly, Stella, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein are all represented by strong works. By assembling this impressive array, the Meyerhoffs display a keen eye and a distinctive point of view.  Like any collection, it has its ups and downs, but the ups are pretty high.

In the first room, one encounters Rothko’s Untitled (1969): a pair of rectangles set one above the other, a warm dark gray glowering over a silvery expanse. The rectangles are almost equal in size, suggesting a view of a horizon, like looking out to the sea on some overcast night.

Barnett Newman generates further juxtapositions in his Stations of the Cross series (1958–66). The De Young has constructed an enclosure to house this group of fourteen paintings that Newman made over the course of eight years. If one has never seen these works in person, this is the chance; it should not be missed. The installation pairs works across from and adjacent to each other, providing a physical energy in the space that evokes the dichotomy of the spiritual and the material that the artist explored with incredible subtlety and force. All the paintings are black-and-white, hard-edged abstractions on raw canvas, and Newman generated different effects with oils and Magna, an early solvent-based acrylic paint. 

Philip Guston. Courtroom, 1970; Oil on canvas, 67 x 129 in. Collection of Robert and Jane Meyerhoff. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © Estate of Philip Guston.

Departing this chamber, a visitor tumbles from the sublime to the ridiculous upon encountering Philip Guston’s Courtroom (1970). Made the year that Guston had his first exhibition of representational paintings after more than twenty years as an abstract artist, the painting shows the artist comically condemned, a Klansman in a bloodstained frock, smoking a cigar while a disembodied arm points a finger at him. Behind him is a studio with stretcher bars and a figure deposited head down in a trash bin. Guston’s wit has never been so sharp, and the canvas explodes with a painterly energy. Symbols and subject matter did not deter his exploration of the more ineffable aspects of his medium.  

In the worlds of art criticism or art history, Newmans and late Gustons represent opposite poles. Guston was castigated for his change of direction, but the Meyerhoffs seem to appreciate both approaches. As a viewer moves from Guston to David Salle and Eric Fischl, it becomes clear that American painting may have taken some curves between the ’50s and the ’80s, but it did not change vehicles. The exhibition concludes in a large room with works by Agnes Martin and Brice Marden opposite a massive, late painting-collage by Jean Dubuffet. Encountering these works, one can discern the Americans’ sensibility—one part transcendental, one part exquisite—as distinct from the wild and rangy Frenchman. The Meyerhoffs mostly followed the Americans when assembling this collection; how fitting that these works have come to reside in our National Gallery of Art.

Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert & Jane Meyerhoff Collection is on view at de Young Museum, in

San Francisco

, through October 12, 2014.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content