Leonard Lauder’s promised gift to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of his collection of works by the essential Cubist painters begins a new chapter in the museum’s history. As its director, Thomas P. Campbell, said when the gift was announced, “In one fell swoop this puts the Met at the forefront of early 20th-century art.” But almost as noteworthy is the collection’s catalogue, which represents a significant advancement in Cubism scholarship. Published by the Met, the book was edited by Emily Braun, the Hunter College and CUNY Graduate Center art history professor who is also Lauder’s personal curator, and Rebecca Rabinow, who was recently named the Met’s first Leonard A. Lauder Curator of Modern Art. Not only is it a compendium of new essays by leading art historians, it also sheds a rare light on how the collector and curator built the collection. In a long interview between Braun and Lauder in the catalogue, Lauder explains, “I wasn’t just collecting pictures, I was assembling a history of Cubism.”
Over the course of four decades, using a sizable portion of his wealth, Lauder acquired 79 major works by Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger. As a kind of celebratory precursor to their joining the Met’s collection, they are on view at the museum through February. These paintings inspire in scholars and connoisseurs the frenzied enthusiasm usually reserved for tailgates and boy bands.
“I remember very clearly walking in,” Rabinow tells me, describing her visit to Lauder’s Upper East Side apartment for the first time, “and there’s a sofa with eight pictures hanging above it. These are pictures that I was taught in graduate school. Icons of Cubism, grouped together over the sofa! And that was the first room I was in. In the second room I went into, there was a Braque and a Picasso hanging side by side. And I remember at that point basically being unable to see anymore. It’s overwhelming. It wasn’t until my fifth or sixth visit there that I had settled down and could kind of see in a calmer way.”
Lauder himself is not short on enthusiasm. In the interview with Braun, he discusses his 1986 acquisition of the collection of the late Douglas Cooper, his predecessor as the great collector of Cubism, who cemented the distinction between the so-called essential Cubists—the four artists who showed with Galerie Kahnweiler in Paris—and their followers. Of seeing Cooper’s collection, Lauder says, “As a little boy, I had daydreamed that the owner of FAO Schwarz would invite me to take any toy in the store I wanted. Or, indeed, all the toys I wanted. When I entered the secure space where the collection was stored, I felt as though I had stepped into a Cubist wonderland.” Lauder said he borrowed $22 million and bought 18 paintings.
Besides this billionaire’s expression of boyish excitement, my favorite part of the book is an essay coauthored by Braun and Rabinow about the backs of the paintings, a bit of reality to which viewers almost never have access. (Certain paintings are hung in the museum so that visitors can view both front and back.) The labels on the versos offer a history of how and when each painting changed hands. The backs also suggest alternate histories: many Cubists, like Léger and Gris, used them for aborted projects, probably for financial reasons. And as Rabinow and Braun conclude, the backs remind us that “the Cubists acquired their materials from art-supply shops.” There is an almost comical levelheadedness to this remark, which has to be one of the more understated commentaries on Cubism in the last hundred years.
“A lot of art history, particularly around Cubism, is highly theoretical, which is good,” Braun tells me. “We’ve incorporated that theory too. But we wanted people to address these as physical objects and read history into them that way.”
The rest of the scholarship covers topics ranging from gender studies (“Picasso’s Female Anatomies,” by Braun, addressing the “violent treatment of the female body” in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) to neuroscience, in an essay on perception by Nobel Prize–winner Eric Kandel. (Braun describes the latter as “the next step” in the semiotic approach to Cubism.)
This book sets out to forge a new academic standard rather than simply provide supplementary material to the show. In particular, Léger and Gris, the lesser half of the central four, emerge as towering, woefully undervalued figures in the history of modernism.
Equally impressive, however, are the more or less definitive revisions of old arguments. For instance, an essay by Jack Flam about words and letters in the work of the essential Cubists, particularly the use of newspaper text in Picasso’s and Braque’s collages, is one of the most coherent pieces of writing ever produced on the subject. This is a topic that has weighed down critics for the better part of a century. Patricia Leighten famously said that the newspaper stories should be pieced together and read. Rosalind Krauss argued that the words oppose the images, “each taking on a meaning insofar as it is not the other.” Flam’s explanation for the presence of words in Picasso and Braque grounds this mystery in a pleasant certainty: “As the forms they used to represent the world became more arbitrary and seemed to constitute something like a syntax of their own, words and letters became an essential link between their imagery and the outside world, a kind of realistic element.”
If, as the Met believes, Lauder’s collection is the greatest single gathering of works from “the most influential art movement of the 20th century,” Braun and Rabinow have at least ensured that the movement will have a textbook for the foreseeable future. “We wanted people to be able to go to one place and have it all there,” Braun says.
M.H. Miller is senior editor at ARTnews.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 56 under the title “Thoroughly Modern.”