“Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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The Lauder Residence; courtesy Habitually Chic

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Leonard A. Lauder has one nice apartment. This observation should be fairly self-evident. Lauder was, after all, chief executive of Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant for which he is now Chairman Emeritus. His digs are likely to be spectacular—and not worth mentioning, particularly in an exhibition review. Still, the issue will be raised for anyone attending “Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection”: the first items encountered are two huge photographs of the Lauder residence, its elegant environs festooned with myriad blue-chip artworks. Did the Met really need to remind us that the rich lead different lives? This introductory moment of hubris is offset by the exhibition itself and, not least, Lauder’s generosity. Given the supercharged state of the art market, he could have cashed in his collection of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Fernand Léger to the tune of—yes, that’s right—one billion dollars. Instead, the Lauder homestead has been emptied of its treasure trove. The paintings, works-on-paper, and sculptures featured in “Cubism,” eighty-one pieces in total, are a promised gift to the Met and the rest of us as well.

Truth be told, our greatest museum’s collection of twentieth-century art has never been that great. The Met’s relationship with modern and contemporary art has been rife with false starts, misguided decisions, and significant bungles. The collection is renowned as much for glaring omissions as for the scattering of masterworks it can rightfully claim. When the Lila Acheson Wallace Wing—the section of the museum dedicated exclusively to twentieth-century art—opened in 1987, the art critic Hilton Kramer, writing in The New Criterion, bluntly asked: “Who needs it?” The Met, Kramer went on, “does not even have the shadow of a twentieth-century collection of the size and substance which this elephantine facility calls for.” As architecture, the Wallace Wing continues to be a Chinese box of pinched and ungainly galleries. Thomas Campbell, the museum’s current director, has rued its museological unsuitability. Still, the Met’s “shadow” collection has gained substance over the past three decades. The Lauder Collection will bring greater credibility to the Met’s dribs-and-drabs take on Modernism. Lauder’s gift is, in fact, among the most significant in the museum’s history.

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Pablo Picasso, Three Nudes (1906), gouache, ink, watercolor and charcoal on white laid paper, 24-3/8″ x 18-7/8″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Hyperbole? Hardly—if anything, it’s an understatement. Even in a city with no shortage of Cubist masterworks, “Cubism” is a thrilling reminder of the movement’s primacy. It’s exhausting, too. How many great pictures can a body stand? If there are more than a half dozen so-so works in The Lauder Collection, good luck finding them. Lauder came late to Cubism, acquiring the first pieces in 1976. The “shock of the new” had long since dissipated; Cubism was, for those with the cash to spend, an easy sell and increasingly difficult to come by. That didn’t prevent Lauder from amassing a collection that should be the envy of any museum you’d care to name, including the Museum of Modern Art. The consistency of the Lauder Collection is so unremitting that even the most doctrinaire Picassophile may forgive the absence of a seminal work like Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon. Besides, at a historical moment when MOMA’s permanent collection has been reshuffled for the sake of this-or-that trend—not fatally, mind you, but enough to make one worry about its vital signs—who’s to say The Met, with the Lauder gift in tow, won’t become the go-to stop for early Modernism?

The Lauder Collection includes two studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as well as Three Nudes (1906), a diaphanous Rose Period sketch for a never-realized painting that may depict a brothel, and certainly evinces a young Picasso beginning to disrupt the conventions of pictorial space. Elsewhere, we see Picasso and his fellow “mountaineer” in Cubism, George Braque, tussle with the pictorial fracturing put in motion by Cézanne, and subsequently watch them disrupt representation without sacrificing it altogether. The exhibition is divided into didactic sections that are light in touch: the close relationship between Picasso and Braque is informatively glanced upon, as is the use of color by a notoriously monochromatic movement. The introduction of collage is given significant space, and there are hints of the Constructivism that would follow in its wake. Picasso outnumbers Braque two-to-one in terms of the number of pieces on display, but the latter artist holds his own—testimony, at least in part, to their rigorous interdependence during Cubism’s formative years. Turns out, Braque needed Picasso’s flash as much as Picasso gained rigor from Braque’s more tempered approach.

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Juan Gris, Still Life with Checkered Tablecloth (2015), oil and graphite on canvas, 45-7/8″ x 35-1/8″

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If Picasso and Braque were the pioneers of Cubism, Léger and Gris were two of its most accomplished practitioners, codifying stylistic innovation in the service of complete and utterly distinct worldviews. Léger’s machine-based aesthetic is seen at its most elegant within the steely gradations of Three Women (1920), and its most muscular in The Smoker (1914) and Houses Under the Trees (1913), “tubist” masterworks that all but rollick off the wall. The gallery devoted exclusively to Gris is something special, if only because he’s given short shrift in New York museums and, for that matter, the standard telling of art history. A classicist in temperament with a deft hand for pearlescent shifts of tone, Gris brought an exacting intelligence to Cubism that mark him as something more—much more—than a mere follower. Gris’s use of collage carries with it greater wit than Braque ever managed and his palette is not only engagingly discordant, but more structurally sure than anything Léger and, especially, Picasso put into order. Thank Leonard Lauder for not stinting on this sly, sleek, and surprisingly eccentric figure. But thank him mostly for a bit of philanthropy that will continue to provide pleasure (and puzzlement) for generations to come.

© 2014 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the December 2014 edition of The New Criterion.

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