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December 11th, 2004, 10:33 PM
December 12, 2004

The Masterpiece Around the Corner


ON LONG ISLAND The floor of Jackson Pollock’s studio at the Pollock-Krasner House in East Hampton, N.Y.

Slide Show: Regional Art Masterpieces (http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2004/12/09/travel/20041212_WEAR_SLIDESHOW_1.html)

WAITING to see the 'Mona Lisa' has all the thrill of standing in an airport check-in queue," wrote an English journalist last month about his visit to Leonardo's fabled masterpiece in the Louvre. He is not alone in his cynicism, for long waiting times and crushing, cattle-like crowds often make famous works at major museums all but inaccessible. It spoils what for many is the essence of the museum-going experience: the quiet, solitary contemplation of art.

Mostly immune from such hordes of tourists, the regional art museums in the New York metropolitan area offer a far less crowded, quieter and potentially more fulfilling art-viewing experience. There are also, rarely, lines to get in. And even if these museums do not possess the most world-renowned artworks, many have masterpieces as good as the signature works in the big city museums.

The word masterpiece is often used to designate an artist's best piece - Diego Velazquez's "Meninas" in the Prado in Madrid, for instance, or Michelangelo's "Pieta" in St. Peter's in Rome. But it also refers to artworks of outstanding skill, artistry or craftsmanship. Such works are more common; they are not limited to a single supreme object or image by an artist. For example, van Gogh's "Starry Night" at the Museum of Modern Art is a masterpiece, even if it is not his greatest picture.

Of course, masterpieces are not limited to European paintings in gold frames. Nor are they only by white men with brushes. All cultures, in all moments, have produced creative individuals of exceptional ability who have created exceptional artworks.

The Fang shelf harp from Gabon at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase is a masterpiece of early 20th-century African art, for instance, even if it is not as well known as, say, Renoir's picture of Monet painting in his garden, which hangs at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford.

How did regional museums get hold of these treasures? The works' histories vary; some were acquired in quick cash deals made long ago by savvy museum directors, while others were purchased more recently at auction or were gifts from patrons.

For example, Stephen Carlton Clark, one of the sons of a founder of the Singer sewing-machine fortune, bought van Gogh's "Night Cafe" (1888) in 1933 from a sale of artworks de-accessioned by the Soviets from the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. He bequeathed the work to Yale, his alma mater, in 1961.

What follows is a selective, subjective guide to masterpieces in all media, from all eras, in regional museums. Each is worth a pilgrimage on its own. Not all are always on view, so it is worth calling before visiting.

Notable omissions include the Montclair Art Museum's Native American frock coat, a masterpiece of early 19th-century indigenous decorative art, and in Southampton, the Parrish Art Museum's painting by William Merritt Chase, "The Bayberry Bush" (circa 1895). There are many others, too.

This guide is meant simply to give art lovers in the region alternatives to joining the crowds at the newly opened Modern. And you never have to leave your neighborhood.



Housed in a refurbished factory along the banks of the Hudson River, Dia:Beacon contains dozens of seminal works of minimal and conceptual art. One or two are masterpieces in waiting, including Michael Heizer's deep, steel-clad, vertigo-inducing shafts bored into the museum floor, and a bunch of Richard Serra's "Torqued Ellipses." Mr. Serra's work is my pick.

Three of his "Torqued Ellipses" (1996, 1996, 1997) are installed in a mammoth train shed at the side of the building. They vary in height from 12 feet to 13 feet, each a walkthrough, two-layered, tapering circular configuration made of two-inch-thick weatherproofed steel plates. The sculptures weigh a staggering 40 tons each.

The "Ellipses" are stupefying. Partly it's their eye-popping size and partly their unexpected intimacy, as other critics have noted. Walk inside them, touch and smell the rusting steel, feel the air cool and tune in to how sound echoes. This is a total sensory experience. No other living sculptor has the ability to provoke the senses in this way.


Beyond its major sculpture parks - Storm King Art Center in Mountainville and the Kendall Sculpture Gardens at the PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase - the Hudson Valley region is home to some boutique museums in private homes with astonishing works of art. At the top of the list is Kykuit, the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills, which has a wonderful Chinese Bodhisattva from the first period (618-755 A.D.) of the Tang dynasty.

Regarded as one of the most beautiful surviving examples of the period, the sculpture is a life-size marble figure standing on a lotus blossom. Although missing arms and legs, it is prized for its carved drapery, indicating that the artist may have been influenced by Greek sculpture. The languidly swiveling hips suggest Indian influence.

The sculpture sits by a window in the Alcove Room of the main house, near a portrait of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. She bought the piece in 1926 for the family's New York home. Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller brought it to Kykuit in the early 1960's.

Neuberger Museum

Harp making in Africa dates back thousands of years. The beautiful, rare, early 20th-century shelf harp at the Neuberger comes from the Fang people of Gabon, who see it as an instrument of divine communication between the living and the dead. A string and percussion instrument, the harp is usually played only by male initiates.

Taking human shape, it has an elegantly carved head, a carved and brightly painted resonator box for a torso, thin elongated arms and squat legs for support. It is the only anthropomorphic Fang harp that experts know of in an American museum collection.

Like much of the Neuberger's outstanding African art collection, the harp was donated by the late Lawrence Gussman, a Scarsdale resident and noted African art collector.


Wadsworth Atheneum

The Wadsworth has sent many of its best pictures on tour, anticipating gallery closures for major renovations, later abandoned. Among the paintings on the road is Francisco de Zurbarán's "Saint Serapion" (1628), a personal favorite.

But there are still masterpieces on display in the permanent collection, like Renoir's "Monet Painting in His Argenteuil Garden" (1873), a sentimental favorite of the Impressionist set.

The painting shows a spiffy-looking Monet behind his easel, a palette in one hand, a laden brush in the other. It is not clear if he is painting a froth of flowers or the urban jumble, but either way, this is a sweet-tasting, heart-warming celebration of the Impressionist devotion to plein air painting.

This is also an image made famous on a chocolate box; a detail showing Monet at his easel was used on the cover of a New England confectionary company chocolate box in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Like chocolate, such art can satisfy and comfort us.

Yale Center for British Art

Despite stiff competition from paintings by George Stubbs, John Constable and Joshua Reynolds, the choice here is J. M. W. Turner's "Staffa, Fingal's Cave" (1831-32), a rousing seascape by the master of the misty, wave-frothed moment. When I first saw it, I couldn't take my eyes off its writhing sea and smoky, swirling atmospherics.

Staffa is an uninhabited island in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Turner visited it in 1831, later working up this soulful painting of a paddle-steamer plowing surf off Fingal's Cave, a dramatic rock crevice along the coastline discovered by Sir Joseph Banks in 1772.

The sublime drama of nature is the subject of this picture, the first by the artist to enter the United States. It was bought in 1845 by James Lenox, one of New York's earliest collectors of British art. He found the painting "indistinct" at first, according to his agent, later bequeathing it to the New York Public Library. It was de-accessioned in 1956, and in 1977 was bought by Paul Mellon, the center's benefactor.

Yale University Art Gallery

There are many masterpieces here. Although not all the big guns are on view, with the New Haven museum in the midst of major renovations, always on display are Thomas Eakins's "John Biglin in a Single Scull" (1874), a popular icon of 19th-century American realism, and van Gogh's "Night Cafe."

"Night Cafe" is Connecticut's most famous work of art, and probably its most valuable. The subject is late night in a seedy bar in Arles, where van Gogh was living in 1888. He took his meals there, and stayed up three nights in a row to finish the painting, resting during the day.

The room is peopled with the owner (to the right near the billiard table), a pair of prostitutes and some desperate boozers slouched over their glasses. The gaslights hiss and stir, filling the room with a kind of cosmic glow. This quality, combined with the jaundiced palate, gives the image a manic intensity. Come worship at will.

Long Island:

Pollock-Krasner House

The floor of the barn Jackson Pollock used as a studio, preserved at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in the Springs area of East Hampton, may not rate as a masterpiece, but it is by the master. A patchwork of splotches, drips and smudges, it contains several masterpiece fragments, including run-offs from many celebrated paintings. Let's call it a masterpiece sampler.

Not only do specific colors, marks and gestures match particular paintings, but they also reveal the spontaneity and sheer velocity of Pollock's working process. For instance, some messy blue blobs point up where the artist did not stop at the edge of the canvas for "Blue Poles" (1952), but kept painting because he was so energized.

The studio is open May through October, and occasionally on other days the off-season. The next is Dec. 11. Visitors are given foam slippers so they can walk on the floor.

Heckscher Museum

George Grosz's painting "Eclipse of the Sun" (1926) was recently on view at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, as part of a routine rotation of the permanent collection. It is now in storage. I could not see it, and it is unclear when it will next be displayed.

The painting, an unusual regional treasure worth many millions, is a rousing political satire. It shows a fat businessman whispering into the ear of a general presiding over a cabinet of headless ministers. The piece is widely admired for its sensual beauty and delicacy of the artist's technique, despite the horrific content.

Born in Berlin, Grosz (1893-1959) established a reputation in Germany for his satirical antiwar paintings and illustrations attacking German military, business and political figures as corrupt and decadent. He was prosecuted multiple times for obscenity and blasphemy, and migrated to New York in 1933. He brought "Eclipse of the Sun," unsold, with him.

The painting dates from the period of Grosz's involvement with the New Objectivity movement, a group of German artists committed to social criticism.

"Eclipse of the Sun," purchased for the museum's collection in 1968, is part of what is thought to have been a triptych. Another part hangs in the National Gallery of Berlin and was recently lent to an exhibition at New York's Neue Galerie. The location of a possible third panel is unknown.

New Jersey:

Newark Museum

This museum has a deep, varied collection dotted with masterpieces. In addition to what some experts regard as the most famous piece of Rookwood pottery in the country is Joseph Stella's painting "Voice of the City of New York Interpreted" (1920-22), a swooning five-paneled love poem to the city's spectacle.

Tremendous and stridently eloquent, the panels are a clamor of angular shapes, sounds and faceted light. They are abstract but familiar, even uplifting when taken together. Stella is not so much picturing the city as tapping its energy. Here is New York, he is saying, in all its bluntness and brilliancy.

The paintings, planned as a unit, were featured in a 1923 New York gallery exhibition. Collectors suffered sticker shock, it seems, and the paintings remained unsold for years before the museum bought them from the artist in 1937 for about one tenth of the initial asking price. Nice job.

Princeton Art Museum

Spotting masterworks at Princeton University Art Museum is not hard, but the real jaw-dropper is Monet's "Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge" (1899). In Zurich for an exhibition, it will not be back for months. But it usually hangs in the 19th-century rooms. When on display, it is just about the loveliest painting in New Jersey.

Monet first painted water lilies around 1896-97. In 1899 he began a series of paintings of the lily pond with its Japanese bridge in his famous garden at Giverny. He would paint almost 20 images of this scene from varied vantage points and in different light. This version is among the best.

"Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge" is remarkable for its shimmering, reflective water surface and subtle, near palpable treatment of light. Note the densely layered, dappled foliage at the end of the pool and how Monet uses tiny vertical brushstrokes, ranging from red-brown to light green, to suggest reflections in the water. Swoon away.

In the Neighborhood

Dia:Beacon, 3 Beekman Street, Beacon, (845) 440-0100 or www.diabeacon.org .

Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate, Pocantico Hills, (914) 631-9491 or www.hudsonvalley.org .

Neuberger Museum of Art, Purchase College, State University of New York, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, (914) 251-6100 or www.neuberger.org .

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, 600 Main Street, Hartford, (860) 278-2670 or www.wadsworthatheneum.org .

Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, (203) 432-2800 or www.yale.edu/ycba .

Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel Street, New Haven, (203) 432-0600 or www.yale.edu/artgallery .

Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, 830 Fireplace Road, East Hampton, N.Y., (631) 324-4929 or www.pkhouse.org .

Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Avenue, Huntington, N.Y., (631) 351-3250 or www.heckscher.org .

Newark Museum, 49 Washington Street, (973) 596-6550 or www.newarkmuseum.org .

Princeton University Art Museum, McCormick Hall, Princeton, N.J., (609) 258-3788 or www.princetonartmuseum.org .

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

February 14th, 2005, 09:30 PM
February 13, 2005

Trading a Masterpiece for a Dream


Plans are under way for an expansion of the Heckscher Museum of Art to triple its size.


BACK in the 1960's, when the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington wanted to acquire an important work by the German-American Expressionist George Grosz, local schoolchildren filled the museum's fountain with pennies, and a rousing member subscription offer called "Operation Rescue" was started. The painting, "Eclipse of the Sun" (1926), was bought in 1968 for $15,000 from a suburban house painter, Thomas Constantine, who, unaware of its value, had kept it rolled up in his garage.

Now the museum wants to sell the painting and says it has a buyer who will pay $19 million. Museum directors want to use the proceeds to finance a collection endowment and, possibly, a building renovation, sparking an outcry from the local arts community, who have raised a laundry list of objections. Last week the museum revised its proposal but still plans to go ahead with the sale.

The painting, a biting satire of Weimar-period German political and business leaders, depicts a businessman talking sotto voce to a general at a table of headless cabinet ministers. The controversy surrounding the sale of the painting seems at least slightly ironic, given that the picture, which shows a dollar sign eclipsing the sun, is a metaphor for the way commerce trumps the better values of mankind.

But the work is also by far the most valuable item in the private, nonprofit museum's collection. The Heckscher Museum is a modest, two-chambered Beaux-Arts building built in 1920 by the industrialist and philanthropist August Heckscher to house his somewhat scattershot private collection. Since then the collection has grown to more than 2,000 works, the majority of which are stored in a cramped, low-ceilinged basement.

Only about 3 percent to 5 percent of the collection is on view each year, and the Grosz painting has been shown only about once every five years since it was acquired. Now the museum's board views the painting as a vehicle by which it can expand its collection and improve its exhibition space. The funds raised by this sale, officials say, are its best chance.

"This is not something that we have done arbitrarily or even willingly," said the museum's director, Beth Levinthal. "The museum board has been seriously trying to raise the necessary funds for almost 15 years now to carry out a much-needed expansion and renovation. This sale is the only way that we feel we can safeguard the future of the collection and the institution."

The collection now includes everything from Egyptian artifacts to Renaissance and modern art, as well as Hudson River School and Long Island landscape paintings. It also has a valuable collection of early Modernist American art, given to the museum in 2001 by Ronald G. Pisano and D. Frederick Baker.

Ms. Levinthal said that the painting, brought to America by Mr. Grosz in 1933 when he was a political refugee from the Nazis, does not happily fit within the museum's current collection management policy.

"The strength of the collection is in American art," she said, "and this is where we want to focus our collecting in the future. Our acquisitions budget is $300,000 now, which isn't much. With the sale of the painting we will have more than $10 million to buy new work for the collection."

The remaining $9 million would be used for the building, she said.

Although the work by Grosz, who lived in Huntington from 1948 to 1959, when he returned to Germany, is exceptional, experts in modern European art say $19 million is $7 million to $9 million above market value for the 6-by-7-foot painting. The museum would not disclose the identity of the buyer, who is a private collector. Part of the sale agreement would give the museum the right to borrow and exhibit the painting whenever it wants, guaranteeing at least some public access to the work for future audiences, museum officials said.

But the move has drawn intense criticism from people who raise doubts about the museum's priorities.

"It is like they are building a mausoleum without the body," said Ted Kaplan, an art lawyer, a former Heckscher museum board member and former general counsel at Sotheby's. "The Grosz painting is the centerpiece of the collection, and the work for which the museum is famous. Without it the museum loses all of its luster."

Other museum directors and arts professionals agreed with Mr. Kaplan but asked not to be named for fear of jeopardizing relationships with the museum. But all said that it was unusual for an art museum to seek to finance any kind of building project through the sale of its artwork.

Moreover, the plan is close to the boundary of permitted use of proceeds outlined by the state body that regulates museums.

The current plans are a considerable retrenchment from the museum's earlier bid to use proceeds from the proposed sale, first reported by Newsday on Feb. 4, to expand and renovate the museum building, as well as to establish a major collection endowment. However, the plan required approval of the state Board of Regents, which charters and regulates the practices of the nonprofit museums, libraries and historical sites in the state and has strict rules on how funds gained from the sale of a collection's artworks can be used.

The Board of Regents prohibits charter organizations from using proceeds derived from the de-accessioning of property for "purposes other than the acquisition, preservation, protection or care of collections." The logic behind this rule is to prevent cash-poor museums from selling off art to pay for deficits, salary or other ancillary expenses.

"It's rather uncommon for the Board of Regents to get these kind of requests, for it's something of a Hippocratic oath for museums to maintain their collections," said Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the Board of Regents.

The Heckscher Museum petitioned the Regents last summer for an exception to the rule to allow it to use a portion (approximately $9 million) of the cash proceeds from the proposed sale to help pay for building renovations and improvements. The other half of the estimated $15 million to $16 million budgeted for construction has already been raised privately and though grants, Ms. Levinthal said. The hope was to begin construction sometime this year.

The Board of Regents was to have decided on the proposal last Tuesday, but canceled its vote after Ms. Levinthal withdrew the petition in the face of growing opposition. At the same time the museum submitted a revised proposal to use the $9 million solely for remodeling and renovation of the existing building, which the museum contends is necessary to preserve the collection and thus falls within the board's rules.

"The executive committee of the museum board was unaware of how much public interest there was in the painting and the proposed sale, and felt that adverse media attention had created a climate in which the museum's proposals would not receive a fair hearing at the Board of Regents meeting," Ms. Levinthal said. "While our plans are not yet definite, we feel we have come up with a new proposal that fits within the Board of Regents rules."

By midweek, the Regents had not yet responded to the museum's revised proposal.

The new proposal details items that, in the museum's view, pertain to "collections and collection care," and thus form a legitimate expense. These items include walls, storage units, storage shelving and bins, doors and locks, security, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, electrical elements, mechanical elements, elevators, acclimatization areas for short-term storage, lighting, fire suppression and alarm systems, protective lighting, roofing to prevent flooding in the galleries, and other elements of the project.

There is no legal sanction for rule violation, although the board, which charters museums as nonprofit educational entities, can revoke a museum's nonprofit status for egregious violations, a spokesman said.

Museum industry bodies like the American Association of Museums and the Association of Art Museum Directors have codes of ethics that also forbid the selling of collection artworks to pay for anything other than new acquisitions, although these codes are merely advisory.

Then there is the matter of who should pay for the renovations. Mr. Kaplan expressed concern that the new proposal appeared to suggest that the museum would have to pay for building renovation that properly was the responsibility of the Town of Huntington, owner of the museum building and the land it sits on in Heckscher Park. John Coraor, director of cultural affairs for the town, confirmed that the town owns the site and is responsible for all maintenance. "Anything beyond routine maintenance is the responsibility of the town, including things like the HVAC system or the roof, which has been fixed by the town in the past," he said.

So is the museum selling a masterpiece to pay for building renovations that the town should be paying for? "That's not the case," Ms. Levinthal said. "We have a very good relation with the town, but the reality is that the museum is vested with the responsibility to expand and to renovate the institution, and that is what we are talking about here, rather than some minor repairs to the structure."

Francis Roberts, a trustee of the museum, said the board was unanimous with one abstention in supporting the sale of the painting. "We acknowledge that this is not commonplace, even unpopular in some quarters, but the board over the period of a year came to the decision that the sale would be, on balance, in the long-term interests of the museum and the greater Long Island art community," he said.

The proposed new building and renovation would triple the museum's current size to 26,000 square feet, adding new collection storage facilities, a conservation area, temperature and humidity control systems, more space for exhibits and cultural events, classrooms for school groups, and a reading and research area for scholars. Restrooms would also be made accessible by wheelchair.

The museum, Mr. Roberts said, is arranging a joint meeting next month with representatives of the American Association of Museums, the state Board of Education, specialists in de-accessioning and art lawyers who have advised the museum along the way to try and iron out any concerns and clear the air. The museum may even hold some open public meetings. "There is a fair amount of misunderstanding of the history and intent of this decision," he said.

Copyright 2005 (http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html) The New York Times Company (http://www.nytco.com/)