New Worlds: German and Austrian Art, 1890–1940
Neue Galerie, 600 pp., $75.00
Two questions come quickly to mind: (A) Does Fifth Avenue’s “Museum Mile”—stretching from the Frick Collection at 70th Street to El Museo del Barrio on 104th—need another museum, and (B) What will the new museum, the Neue Galerie New York, at Fifth and 86th, do for its next show? This inaugural exhibit, like a tell-all first novel, seems to hold little in reserve; the museum, as described in its own press release, “is a museum devoted to German and Austrian art, in particular the art created in…the early part of the twentieth century,” and the cream of its collections—a generous splash, but on Museum Mile a drop in the bucket—has been put on view.
In answer to question A, business was booming the rainy Monday of my December visit; a Viennese-style café on the ground floor, called Café Sabarsky, had lines waiting to get in, and the two floors of exhibition space above felt congested. The renovated rooms of even an opulent town house make cramped quarters for a rainy-day museum crowd, and no circulatory flow was established; our bodies became bumper cars, propelled toward their targets by the latent aggressive tendencies New Yorkers share with German tourists. To heighten the congestion, Monday seemed to be Ladies’ Day; the fair sex was disproportionally represented, and immovable gabfests developed in the vicinity of, but facing away from, the works of art.
This six-story corner building was completed in 1914 for the industrialist William Starr Miller; later occupants were Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. In 1994 it was purchased by Ronald S. Lauder—chairman of Estée Lauder International and Clinique Laboratories Incorporated, chairman of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the Board of the Museum of Modern Art, and a collector of German-Austrian art since the age of thirteen, when he bought an Egon Schiele drawing with money given him for his bar mitzvah—and Serge Sabarsky, a purveyor and promoter of Austrian-German art who operated a Madison Avenue gallery from 1968 on and died in 1996, while he and Lauder were still realizing their dream of a Neue Galerie New York, an institution that would thrust modern art’s Germanic stepchildren into the bosom of the Manhattan museum scene, almost directly across from the Metropolitan, two blocks south of the Guggenheim, and a salubrious northward walk from the Frick and the Whitney.
Older museums have had to find accessory space for their increasingly important dining and shopping facilities; the Neue Galerie leads off with them, on the ground floor. As stated, the café, with windows on Fifth Avenue, was thriving; in my haste to get to the art I missed the bookstore and “design shop.” All these hotbeds of commerce are open six days a week, while the art can be seen during only four, Fridays through Mondays. The second floor, devoted to Austria, is attained by elevator or by climbing the curvaceous grand staircase of white marble and …