The Paley Collection Art in BMA show is all modern and very classical


October 31, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Toward the end of the exhibit of the William S. Paley Collection, opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art today, you can sit down facing a wall of three large paintings by major American abstract artists: Josef Albers' "Homage to the Square in Green Frame" (1963), Morris Louis' "Number 4-31" (1962) and Kenneth Noland's "Sounds in the Summer Night" (1962).

These are far from the core of the Paley collection, for its core lies in the earlier modernism of about 1875 to 1925. But the Albers, Louis and Noland paintings echo a theme sounded throughout this exhibit. In their own non-referential way, they express a sense of order, of calm and of restrained but sensuous beauty.

Repeatedly in the show's accompanying recorded tour, the BMA's three narrators mention the word "classicism." Classicism certainly can be identified often in terms of visual references to the art of the classical world: the pose of the boy, one leg slightly in front of the other, in Picasso's "Boy Leading a Horse" (1905-1906); or George Segal's "Girl Leaving Shower" (1974), in which the subject is shown against a vertical slab of tiles that resembles a classical column.

But what the narrators also mean by classicism is the classical ideal of those qualities of order, beauty and restraint that suffuse so much of the Paley collection. "Restraint" may be a peculiar word to apply to a collection that contains Andre Derain's brilliantly colored fauvist canvas "Bridge over the Riou" (1906), but more often than not it is a word that explains what we see on these walls and what we don't.

Surely it's not insignificant that among the Picassos are the poised monumentality of "Boy Leading a Horse" and "Nude with Joined Hands" (1906), together with the cerebral analysis and reordering of the world represented by cubism in Picasso's "The Architect's Table" (1912).

Not among the Picassos are his more expressionist works; one doesn't, in fact, find much expressionism or overt emotion. There are small works by Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Clyfford Still, and two larger ones by Francis Bacon; but there is a certain self-possession in Bacon's triptychs of distorted faces, and by and large composure reigns in these rooms.

One finds a Matisse nude of the Nice period, "Odalisque with a Tambourine" (1926); but rather than a voluptuous nude in a warmly colored interior, we find a resolutely sculptural figure in a setting that recalls Matisse's more abstract work.

Cezanne and Gauguin

And surely it is not insignificant that two of the collection's principal artists are Cezanne and Gauguin. As Brenda Richardson, BMA curator of modern art, says of Gauguin's "Washerwomen" (1888), "the picture is built up of parallel brush strokes which recall Cezanne; at the time both artists were looking beyond impressionism for a kind of permanence that they felt had been lost in French avant-garde painting. That sense of order and timelessness is often called classicism -- a word that comes up again and again when people talk about the Paley collection."

It would be easy to infer that the qualities one finds in this collection reflect the character of Paley himself, the man who built the Columbia Broadcasting System and for many years headed the board of New York's Museum of Modern Art, to which he left this collection when he died in 1990.

But it would be equally easy to infer that he was responding to qualities quite different from those he possessed, or perhaps simply different from what was probably a hectic daily life; that these works, which he lived with, offered him a sense of repose that he found too seldom elsewhere.

In the end, it doesn't matter why Mr. Paley chose his works of art. In the end what matters is that he put together a collection populated with numerous individual works of greatness that together add up to a demonstration -- if any further demonstration were needed -- that the spirit of classicism has been with us all along. Thus the exhibit possesses an overall sense of unity that one wouldn't have expected of a group of works by artists ranging from Edouard Manet to Agnes Martin.

Equally it doesn't matter to us in Baltimore -- or matters only as a side issue -- how well the Paley collection complements the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection (though MOMA curator emeritus William Rubin counts the ways in his graceful and gracious introduction to the catalog).

What matters more to us is how the Paley collection complements our own Cone collection -- and it does, it does. The major period of the Paley collection, the late 19th and early 20th century, parallels that of the Cone collection and fills some gaps. (You can't compare, though, for the Cone has been removed temporarily due to construction of the BMA's New Wing for Modern Art and won't be reinstalled before the Paley leaves.)

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