Baltimore real estate developer Robert Meyerhoff and his wife, Jane, caught the art bug in the 1950s and never looked back. They spent the next five decades amassing holdings of 20th-century paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures.
In 1987, the Meyerhoffs announced they were giving their impressive 300-piece collection to the National Gallery of Art. The promised gift (47 works have been handed over so far) will be the largest single donation to the museum since those made by Andrew Mellon and other founding benefactors.
“The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection,” now on view in the Gallery’s East Building, provides a fresh look at almost half of the couple’s holdings. The exhibit of works by leading American and European artists of abstract expressionism, minimalism and subsequent movements conveys a freedom missing from the museum’s larger 1996 show of the collection. That previous display was organized according to artist and was largely controlled by Jane Meyerhoff, who died in 2004.
In the current version, curator Harry Cooper arranges the 126 pieces to reflect shared themes rather than a chronology of movements and artists. Some of his 10 divisions reflect visual qualities such as color and shape while others refer to the physical act of art-making.
“The only rule in choosing the categories was that each accommodate as many different artists as possible,” Mr. Cooper writes in the exhibit catalog, noting his bias toward the formal rather than the iconographic.
By mixing messy “action” paintings with crisp color fields, the curator encourages us to see modern and contemporary abstraction as a fluid continuum. His organization mirrors the Meyerhoff’s style of collecting in bridging a theoretical divide about post-World War II art that arose in the 1950s and held sway for decades.
On one side of this debate was art critic Clement Greenberg’s influential argument for abstraction as “pure poetry” unsullied by outside references. On the other was critic Harold Rosenberg’s belief in the canvas as a vehicle for the artist’s process and individuality rather than merely for retinal pleasure.
The Meyerhoffs bought works by artists from both camps and by hanging them in close proximity, Mr. Cooper suggests the collectors didn’t care so much for aesthetic theory as visual delight. The couple certainly cultivated their favorite artists, building their holdings around the same six heavyweights: Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.
Collecting in depth rather than discovering new talent seems to have guided their purchases. Mr. Johns’ rambling work appears and reappears in all but two of the 10 categories, indicating both its preponderance within the collection and the artist’s ability to cross boundaries. (On the lower floor, an exhibit of his working proofs reveals his considerable printmaking and drawing skills).
Throughout the show, Mr. Cooper’s strong presence can be felt through the declarative, sometimes subversive ways in which he disperses works by the same 30 artists. Starting the show is the subtractive notion of “scrape,” rather than the additive “drip” or “gesture” of abstract expressionism, the earliest movement represented by the collection.
This grouping may leave some visitors scratching their heads about canvases more accumulative in appearance than reductive, particularly the thickly applied paint on the 1957 Hans Hofmann canvas, which started the Meyerhoffs’ collection.
“Line” similarly turns out to be as much about absence as definitive markings. Blank strips of paper and canvas respectively separate the colors in Mel Bochner’s “First Fulcrum” and Mr. Stella’s “Flin Flon IV” to become palpable shapes.
In “stripe to zip,” vertical lines widen to become blocks of color as in Mark Rothko’s “No. 3.” The centerpiece of this gallery is a rare display of Barnett Newman’s “Cantos,” a series of 18 lithographs tracing a changing color spectrum. Rhythmically repeated on the prints is what Newman called a “zip,” a linear marking used to both separate and connect the images.
Within each section of the exhibit, Mr. Cooper includes a “wild card” to provoke the viewer into thinking about its unobvious relationship to neighboring works on display. In the “drip” section, for example, Baltimore artist Grace Hartigan’s figural portrait of “Josephine” follows the predictable inclusion of Pollock’s ink scrawls.
“Gesture” unexpectedly includes Mr. Kelly’s hard-edged “Blue Violet Curve I,” its rounded outline achieved by the arcing movement of a compass. More relevant to the category are the painterly slashes made by Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, and their literal representation in Lichtenstein’s sculpture “Brushstrokes in Flight.”
One of the meatier sections, “Figure or Ground” explores the ambiguity between the foreground and background of a painting. In a stunning pair of abstractions, artist Ad Reinhardt interlaces his colors to blur the difference between the shapes on the surface of the canvas and those behind them. The bright, interlocking patterns almost vibrate.
“Monochrome,” the dullest grouping, includes Rothko’s seemingly all-black “No. 2.” Study it closely and fields of light-reflective paint emerge to animate the canvas.
From the perceptual and physical, the exhibit shifts into “picture the frame” to examine the various ways artists reinforce and deny the spatial limits of their creations.
In “Bread,” Mr. Johns mounts a slice of a loaf in the middle of the canvas as a frame within a frame. The work just could have easily been part of the section titled “concentricity” where the center is the thing in pictures by Josef Albers, Richard Serra and others.
“Art on art” focuses on paintings referencing past masterpieces. The most playful of these works, Lichtenstein’s “Bedroom at Arles,” reinterprets Vincent Van Gogh’s familiar interior with modern decor. It hangs in the East Building atrium along with 11 other works from the Meyerhoff holdings displayed on the upper level.
Without the benefit of the applied categories, this part of the exhibit loses coherence. The more rewarding part of the show lies in the galleries where Mr. Cooper’s logic keeps the repetitive collection humming along.
WHAT: “The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection: Selected Works”
WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday, through May 2
WEB SITE: www.nga.gov