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A Billion-Dollar Gift Gives the Met a New Perspective (Cubist)

Leonard A. Lauder
Mark Sullivan | WireImage | Getty Images
Leonard A. Lauder

In one of the most significant gifts in the history of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the philanthropist and cosmetics tycoon Leonard A. Lauder has promised the institution his collection of 78 Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures.

The trove of signature works, which includes 33 Picassos, 17 Braques, 14 Légers and 14 works by Gris, is valued at more than $1 billion. It puts Mr. Lauder, who for years has been one of the city's most influential art patrons, in a class with cornerstone contributors to the museum like Michael C. Rockefeller, Walter Annenberg, Henry Osborne Havemeyer and Robert Lehman.

The gift was approved by the Met's board at a meeting Tuesday afternoon.

Scholars say the collection is among the world's greatest, as good as, if not better than, the renowned Cubist paintings, drawings and sculptures in institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pompidou Center in Paris. Together they tell the story of a movement that revolutionized Modern art and fill a glaring gap in the Met's collection, which has been notably weak in early-20th-century art.

"In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the forefront of early-20th-century art," Thomas P. Campbell, the Met's director, said. "It is an unreproducible collection, something museum directors only dream about."

And many did. Discussions between Mr. Lauder and the Met went on for years, first with Philippe de Montebello, its longtime director who retired in 2008, and more recently with Mr. Campbell. While Mr. Lauder declined to say who else courted his collection, officials in the museum world have said the National Gallery of Art in Washington was among them. But as a New Yorker aware that his art could radically transform one of the city's most historic institutions, he saw the Met as a perfect fit.

"Whenever I've given something to a museum, I've wanted it to be transformative," Mr. Lauder explained. "This wasn't a bidding war. I went knocking, and the door opened easily."

In the New York art scene, which is heavily populated with big-time collectors, Mr. Lauder is a singular figure. While many of his peers have made splashy acquisitions, seduced by the latest trends, he has quietly and steadily built a museum-worthy collection with a single focus, on Cubism.

His gift comes without restrictions so it can be displayed as curators see fit. The Met is already beginning to receive the art, according to officials there, for an exhibition scheduled to open in the fall of 2014.

Mr. Lauder, 80, has also spearheaded the creation of a research center for Modern art at the Met, supported by a $22 million endowment that he has helped finance along with museum trustees and supporters.

The collection, which Mr. Lauder began building more than 40 years ago, is a product of taste and timing.

"I liked the aesthetic," he said on a recent afternoon in his Manhattan apartment. He was in the living room, staring at a still life by Picasso richly punctuated with bits of newspaper and sand. "Back then," he said, "a lot was still available, because nobody really wanted it.

It was also relatively inexpensive because the fashion was for Impressionism and post-Impressionism.

Mr. Lauder and his younger brother, Ronald S. Lauder, a founder of the Neue Galerie on the Upper East Side, are among the most influential collectors and supporters of art in New York. But while others buy widely, often in multiple periods and styles, Leonard Lauder stands out for his single-minded focus.

"You can't put together a good collection unless you are focused, disciplined, tenacious and willing to pay more than you can possibly afford," Mr. Lauder said. "Early on I decided this should be formed as a museum collection," and "whenever I considered buying anything, I would step back and ask myself, does this make the cut?"

As a result, much of his art comes from some of the world's most celebrated collections, including those of Gertrude Stein, the Swiss banker Raoul La Roche and the British art historian Douglas Cooper.

The term Cubism first appeared in a review of a 1908 exhibition at Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler's Paris gallery, which featured early Cubist works. What began as a collaboration between Picasso and Braque, Cubism became a pioneering movement that redefined concepts of space and time, high and low. Those artists, along with Fernand Léger and Juan Gris, took shapes that were familiar and turned them upside down, dismantling the traditional perspective.Challenging the romantic view of painting, Cubist artists also began incorporating things like cardboard, sand, sawdust, rope, wood, wallpaper, stencils and bits of newspaper into their paintings, drawings, collages and sculptures. Their work paved the way for abstraction, which dominated Western art for the next 50 years.

Often, Mr. Lauder said, it took him years to find something he wanted to buy. "I've made more trips to Switzerland than I'd like to count," he said with a chuckle. With the help of Emily Braun, an art historian who has worked as Mr. Lauder's curator for 26 years, he was able to pick and choose the finest works that came on the market.

As a result, most of the works in Mr. Lauder's collection have a particular historical significance. Two landscapes are from the groundbreaking 1908 Kahnweiler exhibition: Braque's "Terrace at the Hotel Mistral," from 1907, and his "Trees at L'Estaque," from 1908.

" 'The Trees at L'Estaque' is considered one of the very first Cubist pictures," Ms. Braun said. "It created a new form of pictorial space that Braque arrived at from his close study of Cézanne's landscapes."

Rebecca Rabinow, a curator in the Metropolitan Museum's department of Modern and contemporary art, noted other milestones included in the gift. "There are so many firsts in this collection," she said.

Picasso's "Oil Mill," from 1909, was the first Cubist painting seen in Italy, which influenced the Italian Futurists. Another of his works, "The Fan (L'Independent)," from 1911, is one of the first works in which Picasso experimented with typography, in this case the gothic type masthead from a local French newspaper. Braque's "Fruit Dish and Glass," from 1912, is the first Cubist paper collage ever created.

Some of the paintings and sculptures in Mr. Lauder's collection were particularly radical for their time, like Picasso's "Woman in an Armchair (Eva)," the artist's 1913-14 image of his mistress Eva Gouel, in which he translated the female body into his own Cubist language. Picasso's sculpture "Head of a Woman," from 1909, is thought to be the first Cubist sculpture.

That many of the works look both forward and back is of particular value to the Met's curators. Picasso's embrace of African tribal art, for instance, was crucial to his depiction of nontraditional forms.

"Cubism inspired not just Western artists, but it had a huge global impact," Ms. Rabinow said. "We can tell so many different stories that we could never tell before."

Up to now Cubism has been only sparsely represented at the Met. In fact it only received its first Cubist paintings in 1996. In a 2010 review of an exhibition of the Met's Picasso collection, Holland Cotter noted in The New York Times, "When the Museum of Modern Art was wolfing down audacious helpings of Cubism, the Met was content with a tasting menu of Blue Period, Rose Period and neo-Classical fare."

This isn't the first transformative gift Mr. Lauder has made to a museum. As the longtime chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art (he is now its chairman emeritus), he donated millions in art and money, most recently in 2008 when he gave the museum $131 million to shore up its endowment.

While it is the largest gift in the Whitney's history, it came with strings. Concerned about the future of its landmark Marcel Breuer building, which Mr. Lauder considers the Whitney's spiritual home, he placed a stipulation on his gift that the building could not be sold for the foreseeable future. At the same time, he quietly masterminded plans for the Met to take over the Breuer building for at least eight years, after the Whitney decamps to its new home in the meatpacking district of Manhattan in 2015.

When the Met gets Mr. Lauder's collection, Mr. Campbell said, it will take "pride of place" in the museum's soon to be renovated Modern and contemporary galleries, in its main building. Before then the collection will be exhibited as a whole for the first time at the Met in 2014 in a show organized by Ms. Rabinow and Ms. Braun.

Realizing how his collection could help tell so many different stories when seen in the context of the Met's encyclopedic holdings, Mr. Lauder did not put restrictions on his gift.

And he stressed that his donation doesn't mean the end of his collecting. As recently as last month he bought a collage by Gris, which is part of the gift.

"I'll continue to buy and add to the Met's collection," he said, then paused, smiled and added, "But only if the right things come along."