There's a moment toward the end of the Meyerhoff collectio exhibit at Washington's National Gallery that presents the visitor with an exciting dilemma. You step through an opening between galleries and see ahead of you, three galleries away, Roy Lichtenstein's huge and enticing painting "Bedroom at Arles," strongly beckoning you forward. Yet at the same time you're surrounded by seven glorious paintings by Ellsworth Kelly, and who could desert them?
It's a moment that typifies a visit to the show of "The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: 1945 to 1995," opening today. It offers so many treasures that at any moment one hardly knows whether to linger or rush forward. But the real value of this collection does not lie in numbers of works, though they are staggering enough:
No fewer than 194 works by 40 artists, including 101 by five of the world's leading living artists -- Jasper Johns, Kelly, Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. And important examples of the art of many other leading artists of the postwar period, including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Josef Albers.
The collection, assembled over nearly 40 years by the Meyerhoffs, who live north of Baltimore in Phoenix, has been promised to the National Gallery. Asked how it will fit into the gallery's own collection of works of the last 50 years, the National's curator of 20th-century art, Mark Rosenthal, replied succinctly, "It doesn't fit into it. It defines it."
And so it does, but only secondarily by reason of quantity. It is the quality of this collection that's most important. It attests to the Meyerhoffs' extraordinary "eye" -- and in this case one can say that two people have an eye, since they make decisions together and each work they acquire must please both of them. It attests also to the wisdom and judiciousness of their selection process.
In the gallery with those seven abstract paintings by Kelly, for instance, one can get some sense of the Meyerhoffs' ability not only to select fine individual works, but to build a group of an artist's works that resonate off of one another and make the sum even greater than the parts.
On one wall are the earliest two Kellys: "Blue Yellow Red V" (1954-1987) and "Orange Green" (1966). Each of these rectangular canvases achieves balances of color and proportion that lead to a third balance: a tense stasis among the parts. On two other walls are four more recent canvases of various shapes and areas of color, which, seen together, set up a sense of lively visual movement, back and forth from painting to painting, that enhances the effect of each. Finally, the fourth wall contains the most recent of the Meyerhoffs' Kellys, "Red Curve" (1986-1987). Its abstract birdlike shape -- a wide V surmounted by a long curve -- combines both movement and stasis to bring all these works into an unusual degree of harmony with one another. The effect of this room is quietly exhilarating and deeply satisfying.
Ties with art history
Lichtenstein became a leading pop artist more than 30 years ago with his groundbreaking comic-strip-inspired paintings, but his work has enjoyed a deep and abiding relationship with the history of art. That's evident over and over again in the two galleries devoted to his work, including "White Brushstroke II" (1965) satirizing abstract expressionism, "Cow Triptych (Cow Going Abstract)" (1974) based on an earlier work by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, and the surrealist-inspired "Razzmatazz" (1978). As if to sum up this relationship, the Lichtenstein galleries reach a triumphant crescendo with "Bedroom at Arles" (1992), based on the 1888 painting of the same name by van Gogh.
It is both an homage to van Gogh and a partial summation of what happened in the century between the two paintings. One wall of the bedroom is full of the Benday-like dots used in comic strips, and thus carries on Lichtenstein's extensive use of them in his own painting. But the floor is executed with wavy lines reminiscent of woodcuts, a printmaking medium popular with expressionist artists, who trace their lineage back to van Gogh.
Van Gogh's rush-seated wooden chairs have become canvas-and-metal chairs in the Lichtenstein, his floppy shirts hanging on one wall have become crisp white businessmen's shirts, and his drooping towel hanging on another wall has become a geometric abstraction. But other elements, such as the landscape on the back wall, closely resemble van Gogh's. Art moves forward, this painting says, but it never loses its roots in the past.
Look at the Lichtensteins the Meyerhoffs have assembled, and then look at the one Warhol work in the show, "Small Campbell Soup Can, 1 (1962) and you have a clue not only to why the Meyerhoffs didn't collect Warhol but to why they collected the artists they collected.