Arts & Culture » Visual Art

What Neuberger Knew

Renowned When Modern Was Contemporary exhibition makes its Northwest U.S. debut in Boise



If you had 107 years to live, how would you spend it? Roy R. Neuberger, a New Yorker born in 1903, chose to become a patron of the arts. Seven years after his death in 2010, his collection of masterworks by 52 of America's best known modern artists will make its Northwestern debut at the Boise Art Museum, in an exhibition that runs Saturday, June 10 through Sunday, Aug. 27.

The exhibition, titled When Modern Was Contemporary: Selections from the Roy R. Neuberger Collection, features works by Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, Alexander Calder and Mark Rothko who were under-recognized in Neuberger's day. In hindsight, these artists are seen as key figures in the canon of modern art (1860s-1970s). According to the Museum of Modern Art, "modernism and modern art can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution, a period that lasted from the 18th to the 19th century, in which rapid changes in manufacturing, transportation, and technology profoundly affected the social, economic, and cultural conditions of life in Western Europe and North America. Artists began to explore dreams, symbolism, psychology and personal iconography and work with materials, colors and mediums in new ways to depict their subjective experiences rather than the religious or mythological scenes often commissioned by wealthy patrons prior to the 19th century."

However, when Neuberger began seriously collecting art in 1929 after a trip to Paris, the term "modern art" hadn't yet been coined. Instead of important figures, the artists he patronized were simply the new kids on the block, making European-inspired art that didn't yet have a definition.

"This was a pivotal time in art history and in American history," BAM Executive Director Melanie Fales said. Neuberger captured it in "one of the most prestigious American collections of art," she added.

Fales worked with the American Federation of Arts to bring the 52 works, drawn from the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York, to Boise, ensuring BAM the honor of hosting the collection on its inaugural Northwest U.S. visit.

"Typically these works were collected on the East Coast, they were displayed on the East Coast, and they really did not have widespread viewing throughout the United States," said Fales. "This work really would not be accessible to people in Idaho unless they were to travel to much larger metropolitan areas. So from that standpoint, it was important to us to bring this caliber of work and the level of importance of these 20th century influential artists to our Idaho community."

Although the exhibition doesn't officially open until June 10, art buffs keen to examine the art in advance can attend an opening celebration at BAM on Friday, June 9, starting at 5:30 p.m. A selection of archival materials relating to Neuberger's collection—including original receipts of his art purchases, and the albums presented to him on his 50th and 75th birthdays by the artists he patronized—will be on display alongside the masterworks. Plus, an illustrated catalogue of the exhibition will be for sale in the BAM store.

Fales hopes BAM visitors take a moment to appreciate how art and the way we consider it evolves over time, and how one man's dedication to the work of his contemporaries can help preserve an entire movement.

"You really only get to see these [works] in the art history books these days," Fales said. "So it's pretty exciting to have them here in Boise. I'm thrilled about every single one of them."

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