A gift of classic modern and contemporary art, reportedly worth in excess of $60 million, has been donated to the Museum of Contemporary Art from the collection of the late Rita and Taft Schreiber. Although consisting of just 18 works, it is in monetary and artistic terms by far the most valuable bequest yet received by the 10-year-old institution, MOCA director Richard Koshalek said Tuesday.
The Schreiber collection, comprising only about 35 works altogether, has been universally admired by art professionals for its solidity and connoisseurship. The MOCA trove encompasses works by Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, and Arshile Gorky, among others, and is regarded as the cream of the ensemble. It adds a significant historical and qualitative dimension to the museum's permanent holdings, Koshalek said.
Its large estimated value derives from the recent hyper-escalation in price for works of art at auction, which has virtually driven museums out of the market.
The MOCA bequest was made by Schreiber's widow, Rita, who died earlier this year. Taft Schreiber, a director and executive at MCA Inc. and a Republican political activist of long standing, died in 1976. He was Ronald Reagan's Hollywood agent and became a friend and member of Reagan's informal "kitchen cabinet" when Reagan was governor.
Rita Schreiber became a frequent visitor to MOCA in recent years. Their daughter, Lenore Greenberg, president of the board of MOCA, said, in a prepared statement, "It was my mother's wish that these works of art remain in Los Angeles where she and my father lived. It is especially gratifying that their collection is now to be given to MOCA for the enjoyment of everyone."
The Schreiber gift, which includes works by 13 artists, covers the years between 1930 and 1960. The most prepossessing single object is Pollock's "Number 1," a classic "drip" painting of 1949. Executed in delicately woven skeins of autumnal color, the painting is considered one of the most lyrical of a group of pictures that represent one of the greatest aesthetic breakthroughs in modern art.
Pollock, who died in an auto crash in 1956, attended Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles before moving to New York. Although psychologically troubled and a chronic alcoholic, he managed to invent a new form of "over-all" painting and is credited with being the first artist to directly release the contents of the subconscious in abstract pictorial form.
Other works in the MOCA gift include Mondrian's "Abstract Painting" (1939); two versions of Alberto Giacometti's 1960 sculpture, "Tall Figure," plus his "Interior Studio With Three Apples"; Gorky's "Betrothal I" (1947); Pierre Alchinsky's "Pres de La Bete" (1960); Alexander Calder's "Portrait" (1964); Jean Dubuffet's "L'Ecoulment De La Ville" (1962); Morris Louis' "Pillar of Delay" (1961); Joan Miro's "Personnages dan La Nuit" (1949); two sculptures by George Rickey; Mark Rothko's "Yellow and Orange/(Red)" (1949); three paintings by Nicholas de Stael, and Mark Tobey's "Lake" (1959).
The works will be exhibited at MOCA from June 3 through Oct. 22.
Another Pollock from the same period as "Number 1," but regarded as a less well-resolved painting, sold for $11.55 million last week at a Sotheby's auction in New York. Auction records for other leading artists in the gift, according to Sotheby's, include $5 million for Mondrian, $2.5 million for Miro, $6.8 million for Giacometti and $572,000 for Gorky.
Koshalek praised the collection as "one assembled with extraordinary sensitivity, passion and clear-sighted discipline." He added that "with these works, we are able to strengthen the foundation of our museum, providing brilliant historical context for much of the work being created today."
Clearly elated with the gift, Koshalek said that even if a museum had the funds to purchase, say, a valuable Pollock these days, they are scarce to the point of unavailability.
The Schreiber group, he said, adds a crucial missing chapter in the museum's permanent collection. An earlier, $11-million purchase of 60 works from the collection of Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo gave the museum strength in Abstract Expressionism and early Pop Art. The 60-work collection of television producer Barry Lowen, bequeathed to MOCA on his death in 1985, lent it representation from the '60s to the present.
The Schreiber gift adds a foundation of strong representation in the 1940s. Koshalek termed the Mondrian "essential to any collection" and called Gorky's 1947 painting, "Betrothal I," "a pivotal work in the transition from Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism." Typical of Gorky's best work, it shows ambiguous, softly colored shapes in a gentle tan atmosphere.
Gorky, who died in 1948, was an Armenian immigrant whose real name was Vosdanig Adoian. He is regarded as the artist who gave sensual reality to the ambiguous amoeba shapes of European biomorphic surrealists like Miro and linked them to the highly physical work of the Abstract Expressionists.
Commenting by phone from Washington, Jack Cowart, head of the department and curator of 20th-Century Art at the National Gallery of Art said, "Bravo for L.A. It's a stellar group with a breath-taking level of achievement by each artist.
"The works are monuments in the evolution of European and American art from the period before the Second World War to the early 1960s, and MOCA and the L.A. Basin are very, very lucky to receive them."
Asked whether the National Gallery would have liked to receive the gift, Cowart said: "I think it is very right that this major portion of the collection should remain right there where it is (in L.A.). So whether the National Gallery or Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta would want it is a moot point.
"The works were amassed by great, passionate and acute collectors who lived with their art and exercised a fabulous process of choice and connoisseurship."
Koshalek pointed out MOCA's longstanding intention to collect "in depth," acquiring several examples of an artist's work rather than just one.
"Three Giacomettis give us depth right off the bat. If you add the Schreiber Rothko to what we already have in the Panza group, we now probably have the best collection in the country."
He said the museum's involvement with the Schreiber collection goes back to 1983 when portions of it were included in the inaugural "The First Show," which presented works from eight private collections.
Commenting on the MOCA gift, County Museum of Art director Earl A. Powell said, "We are pleased that these great works from the Schreiber collection will remain in Los Angeles. It is a very distinguished assemblage, particularly the Jackson Pollock."
The museum was founded in 1979 and opened in a converted warehouse in Little Tokyo in 1983. Permanent MOCA headquarters, designed by architect Arata Isozaki, opened at 250 S. Grand Ave. in December, 1986.
Times staff writer Zan Dubin contributed to this article.