PHIL AND RON
One of the more poignant art happenings around was beamed into my living room recently on the NYC-ARTS program, as Emmy Award-winning retired museoiste Philippe de Montebello sat down at the Neue Gallery to interview Ronald Lauder about the latter's collection, 10 percent of which has been on view at the museum (now replaced by Gustav Klimt). It was rather like watching Haydn and Mozart, as boy prodigies, riff off each other on the clavinet in the same room, with Lauder, who has never suffered fools gladly, surprisingly vulnerable to Philippe's gentle, yet pinpoint questioning.
"I notice, Ronald, that everything you collect has a harshness to it," de Montebello offered (one might say that Lauder's pictorial taste is severe, bordering on neurotic), to which Ron, pointing to Cezanne's portrait of a man with crossed arms, observed "that the face is painted from five different angles, downside, upside, sideways, etc.," anticipating Cubism. This was a bit of a stretch, but a tribute to the incisive obsession of Lauder's gaze.
Portraiture is Lauder's thing, as he pointed out a Halloween-like Max Beckmann self-portrait, a restrained Gustav Klimt of a young girl in a chemise and a couple of dark early works by Pablo Picasso. Ron tried out his signature, "Oh! Oh my! Oh my God!" pictorial response on de Montebello, who brushed it off to get right to Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. "The jewelry she is wearing in the picture," Ronald observed mournfully, "was seized by the Nazis and presented to Hermann Goring as a Christmas gift."
As PBS cameras surveyed the collection from armor to snuff boxes to Roman heads, one had the odd impression that Lauder's lifelong esthetic impulse had been to mimic what one sees at de Montebello's Metropolitan Museum (!), but for Ron it was all about the Museum of Modern Art. "As a boy I would go to the Museum of Modern Art and rigorously look at each picture and ask myself which was the very best by an artist," and then buy over the decades accordingly. Odd, because, in the Neue exhbition there are Klimt portraits of women far superior to Adele, which tends to vary a bit too much on the gold and the grid, forced artifice, for these tired eyes.
It was on to the armor, about which de Montebello didn't ask, but Ronald jumped in, "Everyone thinks that because these are small suits of armor that the knights were small in stature, but, in fact, one had a suit of armor made around the age of 14, which was put away when one became an adult," making Lauder a bit of a fetishist for the child chain-and-mail. "People think that you can't move in a suit of armor, but they were made by the very best craftsmen of the age, were extraordinarily flexible and individually tailored," Ron beamed boyishly before reassuming his normally lugubrious mien.
I, too, had let my armor down for a moment, as these two colossi of the New York museum world, who have probably controlled more of my professional life and leisure time than I would want to accept, matched each other tiddlywink for tiddlywink, rich boys at recess back in another age, comparing toys, long before television, much less the digital monstrosity against our skins these days. Gotta love 'em, if only for a moment.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).