Bring in the Neue: A Godsend Arrives on Museum Mile

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Every population of every major metropolis tends to think of its own dark time as 100 percent unique. New York is no different. As the century slowly advances into double-digit infancy and the millennial fog lifts from collective view, odds are that the next 97 years could, with a triple dose of luck, patience and imagination, become a little clearer. Until then the city’s private citizens might consider a dose of historical example.

"History," according to Thucydides, "is Philosophy teaching by examples." And there are, no doubt, in this day and age, plenty of those to go around. In our era of covert Imperium, Rome comes immediately to mind. For that matter, so does Victorian London, with its ports clogged with silks and teas from Hong Kong and the British Raj. Paris before WWI faced the modern age squarely and, in a period of less than 14 years, managed to capture the look of the century in all modern media. Then there was Vienna, with its air of carefully calibrated decadence and its cauldron of fin-de-siecle artistic, cultural, sociological and political experimentation.

Vienna you ask? Once the capital of a grand European empire, its story was largely forgotten or overlooked until fairly recently. Cut off from the larger artistic narrative penned by Francophile American scholars, the achievements of artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka and architects and designers like Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffman and Dagobert Peche went largely unmentioned for some three decades after World War II.

In New York, the work of a few devoted collectors and dealers salvaged significant riches from one of the most fertile periods in art and design in our modern age. Eventually a few major works of Viennese artists from the period of 1890 to 1934 entered the collections of New York’s museums. After a time, the efforts of these champions of Austrian modernism found expression in the 1986 MOMA exhibition "Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design." Fast-forward 16 years to the present and witness how that underrepresented tradition has recently received a major boost: a wonderful, brilliantly timed gem of a museum devoted almost exclusively to the tale of Vienna’s turn of-the-century arts and culture. The opening of this institution, the Neue Galerie, Museum for German and Austrian Art, has been, in a word, a godsend. Rarely has the arrival of a new museum of art garnered more genuine goodwill and proved, given the current recessive economic and cultural climate, more artistically therapeutic.

The Neue Galerie was the first art museum to open in New York in the 21st century. Though three other museums have opened since (the American Folk Art Museum, the Chelsea Art Museum and the Bohen Foundation), and at least one other has scotched plans to break ground in Manhattan (the Wall Street Guggenheim), this fact carries an extra-special distinction in our volatile times.

Inaugurated on Nov. 16, 2001, only months after the events of Sept. 11, the Neue Galerie has quickly become something of an oasis in a sea of cultural instability. It has presented the public with a passionate if tried-and-true model of museum expansionism in an era that has seen the end of high-flying museum directors, staff layoffs, canceled exhibitions and a general cultural retrenchment. Small and intensely focused, the Neue–like the Frick and the Morgan Library, whose collections were amassed and organized nearly a century ago–turns out to be small as much by design as by philosophy. At this institution with just 4300 square feet of exhibition space and room for about 375 visitors, small is decidedly beautiful.

A welcome antidote to the notion of the museum as a theme-park destination ushered in last decade by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, the Neue is the dream come true of two men, ex-mayoral hopeful, former ambassador and cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder and his friend, the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky. Their common devotion to the church of Austrian and German art brought them together, while their deep pockets enabled them, starting in 1990, to pursue the idea of establishing a museum for their impressive collections. Like industrialists Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan, they bought and paid for the art objects and the museum that would house them out of their own pockets. Unlike the art-loving tycoons of the Gilded Age, Sabarsky and Lauder did so with what can only be described, in light of the rapaciousness of the age of the robber baron and our own 1990s, as elegant discretion.

The Neue Galerie, housed in an impeccably renovated beaux-arts mansion on 5th Ave. and 86th St., presents a museum that is so in tune with the mission of the art it protects as to be eerie. Originally designed in 1914 by Carrère & Hastings, architects of the New York Public Library, the building was converted to its present use by the German architect Annabelle Selldorf, whose sensitivity to art-related projects recommended her to the museum. She refurbished with a view to chiefly promoting the art–her modern touches and period details mesh seamlessly with the interdisciplinary artistic ethos invoked by the Vienna Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte. Purveyors of the ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk–the notion of a unified or total work of art, where even the smallest piece of decoration is made harmonious with the whole–the leading artists of Vienna in the 1900s had, to put it mildly, an obsession for detail. Correspondingly, even the display cases at the Neue look like they belong in display cases.

"The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, in other cities they are paved with asphalt." So wrote the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus about his city as it underwent one of the most important social, political and cultural transformations in its history. Vienna at the turn of the century was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a vast multinational monarchy whose territory stretched from the Swiss border to the Carpathians. The Chicago of Europe, Vienna was for a time arguably the continent’s most important landlocked metropolis. Bustling with all the energy and industry of a modern immigrant hub, the city was a melting pot for languages and cultures that included German, Czech, Slovak, Slovene, Polish, Italian and Romanian. Wien, a flourishing cultural center of the first rank, became a magnet for luminaries in science, music and letters such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Werfel, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler and, of course, Freud. Leading residents of one of the most cosmopolitan modern urban centers in the world, the city’s artists led the creative charge into a new, roiling, fast-moving century.

But disasters awaited Vienna and these on a massive scale. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the outbreak of World War I and the irrevocable division of the empire changed everything. Anticipation of these events seemed to be in the air, like a gathering nervousness. In the words of MOMA curator Kirk Varnedoe, Vienna around 1900 was a breeding ground for "genius and neuroses" and appeared very much the "modern archetype of a doomed society, in which brilliant achievements glowed in the gathering twilight and music covered distant thunder." It was in such a milieu that artists like Klimt, Schiele, Alfred Kubin and Kokoschka made their mark. Their work at the Neue Galerie–alongside that of the museum’s excellent German holdings from the same period and the decade immediately following WWI, including the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde, Georg Grosz and Max Beckmann, among others–bristles with black tidings, bohemian desuetude and loads of that 20th-century attitudinal tick, alienation.

On the Neue’s second floor, a roomful of Schiele’s drawings, watercolors and paintings subjectively reflect the anxiety of the age and provide some idea as to why the artist was arrested in a rural Austrian village for obscenity and "corrupting the morals of minors." Thin, stylized and aggressively erotic, his nudes and portraits present images that recall a line Kokoschka invented to describe his own work. "Pictures of nerves out of control," they depict models, friends and finally the artist himself contorted in poses of antisocial lassitude and brandishing a look that is the direct precursor of our own heroin chic: real hunger. One self-portrait in particular features the artist with a jagged, skin-crisping halo of white paint. The electricity contained in that one gesture is enough to imprint the image of a rail-thin, handsome Schiele into the memory indelibly.

Of the Klimts on view at the Neue, a handful of drawings and several paintings point up this most important of Viennese artists as a thresher of influences from sources as far-flung as Japanese prints and Byzantine mosaics. In two drawings of a reclining seminude and a copulating couple, the poses of Klimt’s figures appear derived from Japanese erotica; while a number of his gorgeously stippled landscapes and portraits create dazzling effects from brazenly decorative shapes whose precursors are clearly the colored flecks and dots of French impressionism. One painting, The Dancer, should be required study for contemporary artists interested in the liberating, luscious effects of ornament. The figure of a bare-breasted beauty attired in a flowing garment, the painting is as thick with crenellated, organic detail as it is with desirability.

Alongside The Dancer in the Neue’s sumptuously appointed rooms are a painted beechwood table and a bent wood vitrine designed in 1904 by Koloman Moser, the Viennese modernist painter and furniture designer. Executed by the Wiener Werkstätte–that group of artists and designers who finely and obsessively turned out every sort of art object, from paintings to teaspoons, in turn-of-the-century Vienna–they echo one another in sinuous, sensuous lines across the walls and floors of the Neue’s galleries. The same rooms house, among a wealth of other gorgeously presented objects, three clocks by Austrian architects–Adolf Loos, Hans Prutscher and Joseph Urban–plus elegant chairs, cabinets, stemmed glassware, lamps and display cases, each one looking more the soul of refinement. Also inside the Neue’s galleries are drawings by the mysterious Alfred Kubin, an Austrian version of the French symbolist Odilon Redon, except darker, a painting by Richard Gerstl, an enigmatic, early suicide who left expressive, agitated works to remember him by.

Currently, an exhibition by the architect and designer Dagobert Peche graces the third floor of the museum with drawn designs, linocuts, swatches of fabric, coffee services, jewelry cases and vases. Defining the "overcoming of utility" as a necessary condition of artistic expression, Peche provides the perfect coda for a Neue Galerie experience that is edifying in its celebration of objects that, at their very best, prove to be deliciously useless despite their evident design (most of the objects on view, I would wager, provide far more useful looking than service). If, as Oscar Wilde said, we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities, then we should consider, like the Viennese once did, making a strength of that fact. The moral here is simple: Beauty, when achieved, is its own defense against life’s trials and calamities.

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