Exhibit of a Lifetime Outstanding: Over the past 38 years, Robert and Jane Meyerhoff have created one of the finest private art collections in the world. Most of it goes on display today at the National Gallery of Art.

March 31, 1996|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

A discreet blue sign on a Baltimore County road marks the entry to Fitz-hugh Farm. The asphalt driveway wends through fields still yellowed by winter. It curves through the 300-acre farm, past bay and chestnut thoroughbreds, mustard-hued stables and finally, to a low, gray house.

It is here that Robert and Jane Meyerhoff have created a personal monument, spectacular in size and serenity, to their two greatest passions outside of family: thoroughbred racehorses and art.

Visitors are ushered into an airy living room furnished with sofas and chairs arranged in conversational enclaves and tables laden with art books and magazines. One side of the room is glass -- a window onto the farm. Down the hall are six art galleries -- a private Museum of Modern Art.

One gallery is hung with nothing but paintings by Jasper Johns. There is another for Ellsworth Kelly's works. For Robert Rauschenberg's. For Frank Stella's. For Roy Lichtenstein's. The collection is unparalleled in its number of first-rank works by these five men -- Americans who dramatically influenced the direction of art after the innovations of Abstract Expressionism.

The list continues: There are works by Jean Dubuffet, Josef Albers, Jackson Pollock, Grace Hartigan, Brice Marden, Joel Shapiro, Terry Winters, and so on and so on.

The Meyerhoffs are intensely private. Although selected pieces have been lent to museums, the collection has been viewed in its entirety only by visitors to their home. But beginning today, nearly all of the collection -- 194 works -- will be on display in the exhibition "The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: 1945 to 1995" at Washington's National Gallery of Art.

The Meyerhoffs say they never made a conscious decision to collect. Art piqued their interest, then sucked them in. A challenging, colorful, emotional adventure.

Their first major purchase was in 1958: a Hans Hofmann painting called "Autumn Gold." With its vivid reds, yellows and greens, the picture still speaks to Mrs. Meyerhoff. "It shows so well how much activity there can be on a two-dimensional surface," she says, smiling at the thought. "The paint is still wet on that one."

paintings lose their attraction; not "Autumn Gold." Its creator was an abstract expressionist, part of a movement Mrs. Meyerhoff's father admired.

"The Hofmann was our first purchase by a renowned artist and has stayed with us forever," Mrs. Meyerhoff says. "For me it was like adopting a child. I felt disloyal: I didn't want to buy and sell."

The adventure continues. Thirty-eight years after buying that Hofmann, the Meyerhoffs are still enraptured: Five of the works in the National Gallery exhibit were acquired so recently that they aren't in the exhibition catalog.

Genesis of a collector

A small, handsome woman with a penchant for precision, Mrs. Meyerhoff is the family member most involved with the maintenance of the collection. She reads voraciously, keeps her own records, and installs and reinstalls the galleries.

Love of art may be in her genes. Her father, Harry A. Bernstein, was a devotee and collector, and his second wife, Ruth Kuff, was an artist. In the 1950s, two life-changing events also played roles in advancing Mrs. Meyerhoff's interest in art. Her father died, and the family established a memorial art collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. And in 1955, she became ill with polio -- and took a correspondence course in art while recuperating.

It was an experience, she wrote afterward, that "helped me to see while I was looking."

Four years later, Mrs. Meyerhoff began volunteering in the Baltimore Museum of Art's now-defunct Sales and Rental Gallery.

Members of the socially prestigious volunteer organization made trips to New York in search of fine contemporary art. Their mission? To borrow on consignment the newest and best art they could find in the art galleries. The works would be displayed in the Sales and Rental Gallery.

Museum members could rent or buy paintings by Jackson Pollock, Jean Dubuffet, Jasper Johns, Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg and others. At that time, monthly rental fees ranged from $5 to $20. Buying a work cost no more than $1,000.

"Jane just got totally hooked on the whole thing," says another former sales committee volunteer. "After a couple of years, she got Bob involved, and they soon graduated from the gallery."

The women at the Sales and Rental Gallery learned to curate, to track a painting's provenance, to install exhibitions, to pack artworks for shipping. Most important, they learned to discriminate between the good and the great.

Before the art could be hung in the Sales and Rental Gallery, it had to pass muster with museum administrators: the late Adelyn Breeskin, director, and the late Gertrude Rosenthal, chief curator.

From Rosenthal, a scholar, Mrs. Meyerhoff learned how to study art. From Breeskin, a woman of foresight, she inherited enthusiasm for the art of her time.

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