That shock galvanized a lifetime commitment to supporting living American artists when they needed it the most.
In “When Modern Was Contemporary: Selections From the Roy R. Neuberger Collection,” the Albuquerque Museum will showcase the results of that passion through more than 50 works by such seminal names as Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Lee Krasner, Richard Diebenkorn and Willem de Kooning beginning Saturday, Sept. 30.
The works capture many of the artists sparking on the precipice of their own genius, as they pushed their limits into a new vocabulary in contemporary art.
Hartley’s “Fishermen’s Last Supper, Nova Scotia” (1940-41) recalls a personal tragedy, depicting two boys and their cousin before they drowned in a boating accident.
Hartley was one of the first Americans to produce avant-garde modernist art on a par with European work. Earlier, he had painted folk figures and northern New Mexico landscapes, as well as heroic portraits of German officers during World War I.
“It’s an individualized theme of the folk figures that Hartley was always interested in championing,” said museum curator Andrew Connors. “He was, like many Easterners, looking for the veracity of American art.
Diebenkorn’s “Girl on a Terrace” (1956) bridges the artist’s transition from pure abstraction to the famous California Ocean Park paintings that brought him worldwide fame. The artist enrolled in the University of New Mexico’s graduate fine arts program in the early 1950s before returning to the Bay Area.
“You get the sense of the blue sky, the green grass, the architectural structures that stayed throughout his career,” Connors said. “It’s abstract, but you can always see how the real world is transformed.”
De Kooning churned out a series of vigorously angry portraits of women, but rarely depicted a specific subject. “Marilyn Monroe” (1954) is the rare exception.
The artist physically deconstructed the star’s form; he reduces her lipstick to red slashes.
“There are many people who can’t stand him because of his misogyny,” Connors said. “He did almost no paintings of specific women.”
The portrait’s scraped and slashed surface is as much about the process as the image. But de Kooning’s Marilyn does not share the exaggerated, leering grin of most of his female figures. This is Marilyn without masochism.
“This is not the Marilyn Monroe of the tragic-about-to-commit-suicide,” Connors said. “This is the Marilyn Monroe in all of her bombshell innocence. This is a very powerful and disturbing painting, to me.”
Ben Shahn’s “Blind Accordion Player” (1945) offers an early glimpse of the artist’s social realism, while Pollock’s “Number 8, 1949,” —— purchased while it was still wet —— proves both Neuberger’s taste and daring.
Critics regularly ridiculed the artist’s “drip paintings” as emblems of chaos. But his web-like improvisations were carefully rendered. Pollock demanded that his viewers become lost in his tangles of pigment.
“People say it just looks like an explosion in a paint factory,” Connors said. “You don’t say, ‘What beautiful brushwork.’ You instead enter into a style of jungles and layers. It’s about the personal experience, a transformative experience the viewer has never seen before.”
Krasner (Pollocks’ wife) titled her painting “Burning Candles” (1955) after she completed it.
“She was absolutely as invested in painting as Jackson Pollock was,” Connors said, and she created an astonishing range of paintings in her career.”
The feathered brushwork in O’Keeffe’s “Lake George by Early Morning’s” (1930) stands in stark contrast to the sharp-edged, reductive paintings she would produce in New Mexico.
Neuberger collected the artists, as well as their paintings, sculptures, prints and mobiles.
“He really knew the people behind these new voices of creativity,” Connors said. “He collected their work, even though many major museums didn’t.”
As a testament of his support, many of the artists contributed cards, notes and original objects for a pair of “birthday books” commemorating Neuberger’s 50th and 75th birthdays. The names include future monoliths such as Milton Avery, Alexander Calder, Hans Hofmann and Adolph Gottlieb.