Dynamic Duo

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Midway between the Metropolitan Museum and the Guggenheim, a line has been forming a few days a week at the Beaux Arts mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 86th Street. The Neue Galerie, the first U.S. museum devoted exclusively to German and Austrian modern art, opened in November, but it's still drawing crowds.

And 30 blocks downtown, next to the Museum of Modern Art, another recent arrival is packing them in: the sleek new headquarters of the American Folk Art Museum on 53rd Street.

Both have been welcomed with open arms by New Yorkers and tourists, not to mention appreciative reviewers.

The Neue Galerie--which takes its name from a Vienna gallery that showed avant-garde work in the 1920s--is the dream of not one, but two great collectors: billionaire Ronald Lauder and art dealer Serge Sabarsky. Together they bought and refurbished the five-story landmark on Museum Mile for some $20 million, and stocked it with their vast holdings of German and Austrian paintings, drawings, furniture and decorative arts.

The result, according to a review in the New York Times, "is little short of superb."

Originally designed by Carrere & Hastings (architects of the New York Public Library), the 1914 mansion once belonged to socialite Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. German-born architect Annabelle Selldorf restored its original marble and wood decor and added Viennese-style lamps and signage, maintaining the feel and the size of an elegant in-town home--its maximum occupancy is just 375 people (at least one source of the admission lines).

On the first floor, the paneled parlor facing Fifth Avenue has become Cafe Sabarsky, a homage to the Viennese fin de siecle replete with bentwood chairs and a menu including chestnut soup, schnitzel and pastries. Across the lobby is a bookstore and design shop. Floors two and three house the first exhibition, "New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890-1940" (through Feb. 18), from the Lauder and Sabarsky collections; starting in March, the third floor will be set aside for temporary exhibitions.

Lauder, 57, a former ambassador to Austria, is chairman of Estee Lauder International, the cosmetics empire established by his mother. A prime mover in New York art and philanthropic circles, he is currently chairman of the Museum of Modern Art. His own collecting began in 1957 when he purchased an Egon Schiele drawing with his bar mitzvah money.

His friend and the museum's co-founder, Serge Sabarsky (1912-1996), was an Austrian-born curator and dealer whose Upper East Side gallery Lauder refers to as his "post-graduate course on Austrian and German Expressionism."

U.S. collectors have shied away from German and Austrian work owing to its association with Nazism and the Holocaust, even though many artists were themselves persecuted by the Nazis, who purged "degenerate" Modernism from museums and Jewish collectors were among their greatest patrons. It's not without a certain irony that the Neue Galerie's co-founders are two Jews with ties to Austria: Sabarsky's mother died at Auschwitz, and Lauder got a dose of Austrian anti-Semitism during his ambassadorship, which coincided with the repudiation of President Kurt Waldheim and his Nazi past.

All the while, Lauder has been amassing art. According to the Neue Galerie, he has lent the museum 500 artworks and donated 100 more, including the 1938 Max Beckmann self-portrait acquired for $22.5 million at Sotheby's last May. Another 800 pieces are on loan from Sabarsky's foundation, giving the museum access to some 1,400 works representing all the major figures and movements in 20th century Austrian and German art.

The inaugural installation reveals the depth and quality of these holdings. The second floor is all Austrian, beginning with a spacious gilt-and-marble hall with six major oil portraits and landscapes by Klimt, several canvases by Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl and a group of rare clocks. A oak-paneled salon facing Central Park contains choice furniture and design objects. And a gallery for works on paper permits close study of erotica and portraiture by Schiele and Klimt.

In contrast to the ornamental domestic splendor of the second floor, the third has been stripped down to three spare Bauhaus-style white-walled galleries dedicated to German art. There are Expressionist paintings by Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Franz Marc, unforgiving portraits and self-portraits by such artists as George Grosz and Otto Dix and a selection of now-classic tube-steel chairs, tables, electric fans and wall clocks by Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, Peter Behrens and other architects.

Lauder is proud of his creation but he gives his late mentor his due. "This museum is about Serge's vision, about his love of art," he says, "and about our friendship."

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The American Folk Art Museum's first permanent home is a $22-million tower designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects (the New York firm that built the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla in 1995). And with signature imagery de rigueur in museum design these days, the Folk Art Museum weighs in with a facade that architecture critics are already calling iconic: a six-story, 85-foot moonscape of cratered cast-metal panels. A slit window down the middle and a triangle folded down at the top like an inverted pediment form a composition that looks a little like the end of a gift-wrapped package ... from Mars.

This is a decidedly unfolksy building, more opulent urban Modernism than homespun country craft. Inside there's a lot of sandblasted concrete, polished metal and glass. The space is dominated by a sky-lit atrium, with catwalks and staircases connected the four levels of galleries. The tight layout caused the New York Observer's Hilton Kramer to call it a cramped "vertical maze."

Still, the compact structure, slotted into a 40-foot-by-100-foot lot, manages to quadruple the 41-year-old museum's rent-free space near Lincoln Center, which it has occupied since 1989 (it has become an annex), bringing to light some 500 works from the underexposed 4,000-piece collection.

What exactly is "folk art"? According to director Gerard C. Wertkin, in the Old World the term applied to peasant household traditional arts, but for the Modernists who carved out the field in the U.S. in the 1920s, the key criterion was not class or ethnicity, but artistic training outside the institutional structures of the art world. Homemade objects created by these "self-taught" or "outsider" artists usually have a lot to do with identity. Whether functional or not, they tend also to be highly decorative, with symbolic elements and a dollop or two of sincerity, naivete or whimsy.

The great strength of the collection is sculpture--from shop signs to weather vanes--as well as American quilts and watercolors. But there are also paintings, pottery, furniture, needlework and more, all made in the U.S. from the 17th century to the present.

For its opening display, the museum is showing 400-plus objects that board chairman Ralph Esmerian has promised to the museum. A fourth-generation dealer in gemstones, Esmerian, 61, has contributed time, art and money to the museum for the last 25 years. "His impact has been enormous," says director Wertkin.

Esmerian has favored Pennsylvania German artworks, including watercolor portraits of couples in domestic settings by Jacob Maentel, and the colorful birth certificates and keepsake documents collectively called "frakturs." But there are highlights of all kinds: a life-size tin man in top hat and tails, made around 1930 for the window of a New York City sheet metal and roofing works; the painting "Girl in a Red Dress With a Cat and a Dog" by Ammi Phillips, for which Esmerian paid $1 million in 1984, setting a record for a work of American folk art--you may have seen it on a U.S. postage stamp--and "The Peaceable Kingdom," by Pennsylvania Quaker Edward Hicks, one of 62 versions of the subject.

A second show focuses on Henry Darger, a Chicago recluse who died in 1973 having worked for 60 years on a 15,000-page epic about battles between an imaginary clan of nude children and their child-enslaving adult nemeses. On display are the typed single-spaced, hand-bound volumes of the manuscript, along with 26 of Darger's own watercolor illustrations--double-sided scrolls, some 9 feet in length, displayed in eye-level Plexiglas cases designed by exhibition consultant Ralph Appelbaum.

The museum squeezes a lot into a building as wide as a private townhouse, including a small cafe and a shop. Wertkin says the "domestic" scale suits the material on view.

"The public has truly embraced the museum," says Wertkin, gratified by burgeoning attendance and the buzz his museum has generated. "It speaks to unalloyed Americanism. So many objects on display are deeply rooted in, and speak to, the country's democratic values--its openness, diversity, the fact that everyone's invited to the table.

"We'll always speak to every community in the body politic," he says. "This is what the museum has always been about."

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The American Folk Art Museum, 45 W. 53rd St., Tue.-Sun., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Adults, $9; students and seniors: $5. Information: www.folkartmuseum.org or (212) 977-7170.

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The Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave., Fri., Sat. and Mon., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Adults, $10; students and seniors, $7. Children under 12 not admitted. Cafe Sabarsky, Wed.-Sat., and Mon., 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Information: www.neuegalerie.org or (212) 628-6200.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday January 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction Artist's name--A caption accompanying an article in Wednesday's Calendar about the American Folk Art Museum in New York misidentified the creator of the artwork "Child-Headed Whiplash-Tail Blengins." It is by Henry Darger.
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