The museum is the pet project of cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, former U.S. Ambassador to Austria and a onetime aspirant to the New York mayoralty. It reflects his passion for Central European art produced during the early years of the 20th century as a revolt against academic art.
Visitors to the Neue Galerie view avant-garde art from the twilight years of the Hohenzollern-Hapsburg empires and the years between the two World Wars in a magnificent French Louis XIII-style brick and limestone mansion with a view of Central Park. It was the home of Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the uncrowned queen of American society, until her death in 1952.
The mansion at the corner of 86th Street was owned by the Yivo Institute for Jewish studies when Lauder and his project partner, the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky, purchased it for $9 million six years ago. It took four years and more than $10 million more to renovate the structure as a museum, restoring the polished marble and paneled interiors with gilt detailing to their original elegance.
The Neue (pronounced NOY-yuh) Galerie, named for an avant-garde gallery in 1920s Vienna, becomes the tenth component of Museum Mile with the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum as its nearest neighbors. It is in the grand tradition of great New York cultural institutions established by a single collector such as the Frick Museum (Henry Clay Frick) and the Morgan Library (J. Pierpont Morgan).
Lauder, an affable man who is chairman of Estee Lauder International, is too modest to think of himself as another Frick or Morgan. He likes to recall that he began collecting at 13 with money he received for his bar mitzvah. His first purchase was a drawing by Egon Schiele, the Austrian Expressionist artist whose brutally candid, often erotic studies of the human figure are one of the new museum's major attractions.
"When I began collecting seriously later on in life, I soon realized that I couldn't afford Matisse or Picasso but could afford works by Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Vasily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee," Lauder told UPI. "There are still great works by these artists to be discovered and there is still much to learn."
Lauder has given some of his collection, including an important Klimt painting, to the New York's Museum of Modern Art of which he is board chairman. Lauder sees no conflict of interest in being president of Neue Galerie and chairman of MOMA, explaining that he hoped the two institutions could work together on some projects in the future.
"If the Museum of Modern Art had the Neue Galerie's permanent collection of more than 1,400 works, it would have room to show only one or two pieces," he said. "It would be lost there. Neue Galerie is a small, specialized institution. We're not trying to be MOMA. We will be presenting only two loan exhibitions a year, the first being a show of portraits by Oskar Kokoschka next March."
The museum's second floor is devoted to Austrian art, particularly the Secessionist movement, and its third floor is given over to German art. Both floors include examples of the decorative arts -- furniture, glass, silver, ceramics, and jewelry -- in styles developed by two great design studio's, Austria's Wiener Werkstatte and Germany's Bauhaus, along with paintings and sculpture. It makes for a rich mix.
The main gallery on the second floor is a virtual tribute to Klimt, whose decorative color-spangled landscapes and figure studies have become so popular with American art lovers in recent years. Outstanding is a 1900 oil, "The Tall Poplar Tree," a bucolic green meadow beneath a blue-flecked sky, and a 1914 full-length portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt wearing oriental fancy dress posed against a background people with tiny Chinese figures.
Klimt shares this gallery with a 1906 a center table by Koloman Moser, who founded the Wiener Werkstatte with Josef Hoffmann, and several fantastic clocks including a mantelpiece clock in thuja wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl by Joseph Urban, the designer-muralist-architect who later decorated several Broadway theaters in New York, and a brass clock with a cut glass case by Adolf Loos.
An adjoining room for drawings displays Alflred Kubin's late 19th century fantasy drawings, Kokoshka watercolors, Klimt drawings in colored pencil, and a selection of Schiele works on paper including a hauntingly confrontational self-portrait and a color study of a sunflower. They are shown alongside silver jewelry wrought in Art Nouveau plant motifs and set with semi precious stones by Moser and Hoffmann.
Other rooms include a large 1914 oil of tangled bodies by Schiele, "Man and Woman," an animated, charismatic Kokoschka portrait of Paul Scheerbat so thinly painted that much canvas shows through, Loos' velvet upholstered club chair with a bolster headrest and knee rest, Hoffman's adjustable chair that he called a "sitz machine," and a walnut, marble-topped buffet sideboard by Otto Wagner inlaid with mother of pearl.
The third floor galleries vibrate with the saturated colors and feverish tension of the German expressionists such as Hermann Max Pechstein and Emil Nolde. Unforgettable because of its Lolita overtones is Erich Heckel's 1910 "Girl With a Doll," with a reclining nude girl holding a fully-clothed doll, and Karl Schmnidt Rottluff's tormented landscape with house and trees.
Ernest Ludwig Kirchner's "Russian Dancer" is a symphony of lively blues and greens, and Franz Marc of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group of painters is well represented by a study of horses, one of them blue. Three important oils by Kandinsky, a Russian-born artist who worked in Germany, document his drift from the figural to the abstract between the years 1908-1913,
Max Beckmann's commanding "Self Portrait with Horn," acquired by Lauder at auction for $22.5 million last May, stands out among unsettling, even disturbing psychological works by Christian Schad, George Grosz, and Otto Dix and interesting vertical compositions by Oskar Schlemmer, including his masterful 1927 "Figures Climbing Stairs."
No exhibit of German 20th century work would be complete without furnishings designed by two well-known architects - Marcel Breuer, represented by tubular steel chairs and tables, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, represented by a "Barcelona" chair and table. They are arranged near displays of Bauhaus-designed objects for the home ranging from a tea infuser to a chess set.
There also is a room of photographs of most of the artists represented in the museum collection and a small display of Bauhaus posters, which revolutionized graphic design.
The first floor of the Neue Galerie is given over to the only bookstore in the United States devoted solely to the 20th century art of Central Europe and a design shop where objects based on the designs of Hoffmann, Loos and others can be purchased. A Viennese-style café operated by Kurt Gutenbrunner, owner and chef of New York's nouvelle Austrian restaurant, Wallse, offers Viennese fare.