Photos Provided by the Mississippi Museum of Art
The primary purpose of art is not to last forever. To create is a rather immediate thing, an organic outgrowth of glaring present. If longevity were the aim, artworks wouldn’t be made with paints and materials that often fade, deteriorate, or turn to dust with time. There is an entire network of collectors and industry professionals and institutions to ensure the protection of this art. And so even when the artist is gone, his and her imprint lives on, a marker of a moment gone by. A multitude of those resonant visual moments come together this spring and summer at the Mississippi Museum of Art, ones created by more than 50 of the 20th century’s most influential modern artists during a time when the art world – and the world at large, was experiencing turbulent change in all sectors of life.
When Modern Was Contemporary: Selections from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection brings together work from the likes of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Lee Krasner and many more. The exhibition, the fifteenth presentation of The Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series, charts the artistic transformation during the period from roughly 1920 - 1970 while also exploring how one man’s quest for daring contemporary work built one of the most important private collections of modern art in the country. On view April 9 – October 30, the exhibition represents a portion of the holdings of the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York, named for the man whose collection helped establish the institution.
Roy R. Neuberger began his collecting in New York City in 1929 after a time spent in Paris, France. While in Paris, he’d discovered the tragic story of Vincent van Gogh (who had taken his own life in 1890 and only posthumously received recognition for his brilliance). In his memoir, Neuberger recounts the lesson he learned. “The contemporary art world is too often uninterested in the contemporary artist,” he writes. “I decided to do what I could to prevent a recurrence of the van Gogh story. I would help support living artists, buying their works and championing their causes.”
In a healthy arts ecology, the old exists along with the new. Art from the past is preserved for posterity just as fresh work is being made in real time. Museums methodically acquire and conserve art with a long-term vision, while collectors and dealers on the ground move more freely and purchase and consign work from rising artists, fertilizing the next generation of creators who will likely one day be celebrated in museums themselves. In New York during postwar modernism, these up-and-coming artists included Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, Milton Avery, and dozens of others; artists who had yet to achieve their art history immortality.
“It happened that most of the paintings were freshly created by artists still in an early stage of their careers,” Neuberger tells us, “the point at which they would need recognition, help and encouragement.”
Roy Neuberger came to know the artists personally. He called Alexander Calder by a nickname, “Sandy,” and was a supporter of Pollock’s early work. It’s said that when Neuberger bought the Pollock painting on view at the Museum in 1950 for $800 – a matter of months after it was painted – he made it possible for the artist to pay his gas bill and keep the heat on in his East Hampton home for the rest of the winter. These artists were not made-men and -women then, but simply working, striving artists.
In addition to the central exhibition, When Modern Was Contemporary, the Museum has also mounted a complementary exhibition of modern art from both its own collection and that of Celia and Paul Mabry (of Oxford, Mississippi) called Reflections: Works by Modern Masters from the Collection (also on view April 9 – October 30). Contained therein are more works by some of the same modern masters as well as remarkable examples of contemporaneous artists not represented in the selections from the Neuberger Collection – like Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol – as well as works by Mississippi’s own modernist painters. Such a public exhibition of work by so many mythic modern artists has never before happened in the state. It is a looking glass into a preserved period of creative revolution made possible by visionary collectors. “I have not collected art as an investor would,” Neuberger said, but “because I love it.” This kind of passionate collecting is what built the great palatial museums of America’s urban centers, and what makes possible a nation of museums that stretch from coast to coast.
“Our Museum, at its core, is built to celebrate and engage human creativity and discovery,” remarked Betsy Bradley, director of the Mississippi Museum of Art. “The obvious manifestations of this are found in the artworks in our galleries and the visitors who enjoy and explore those spaces. But the story of a museum experience also includes those characters like the collectors, curators and conservationists who ensure that the artworks – many of them made long ago – survive to delight and fascinate far beyond the span of any one lifetime. In the process of coming face-to-face with original objects from another time and place lies the magic of museums.”
As the exhibition title suggests, these modern artworks are now historical and revered but were once newly made, by artists who innovated entirely unique aesthetics and challenged the status quo. When Modern Was Contemporary provides a portal to an energetic and inspiring past filled with waves of color and groundbreaking drips and exploratory brushstrokes and twisted metal. It also contextualizes the importance of collecting one’s own contemporary moments – of following one’s own ambitions and, like the modern artists did, daring to differ.