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'Modernism from the National Gallery of Art' opens at the de Young

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While SFMOMA is closed for renovations, those wanting their modern art fix have had to look elsewhere. But for the next couple of months they won't have to look very far. "Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhof Collection," just opened at the de Young Museum.

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The show features important works in the Meyerhof collection, seminal works in the history of modern art. For half a century until her death in 2004, Robert and Jane Meyerhof worked to put together one of the greatest collections of post-war American painting. They donated over three hundred works to the National Gallery, fifty of which will be shown here. All but six have been given to the National Gallery.

The National Gallery of Art is undergoing renovations of its East Wing. Because the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco have such a good relationship with the National, the city has has been the recipient of two shows. The other loan from the National Gallery is "Intimate Impressionism," featuring works by Renoir, Cezanne, Degas and others, at the Legion of Honor (through Aug. 3).

The contrast between the show at the Legion of post-Impressionist art and this one is an art history lesson in two exhibits. Post-Impressionism was still concerned with the figure, with landscape, and with presenting the real world through painterly gesture. Modernism has left the real world behind to create pieces that are based on the theories around the numerous art movements of post war America, from abstract expressionism to minimalism to pop. All of which rejected any connection between the art created and the world of realistic objects and many of which aimed to replace religious feeling by painting seeking that an inner, secular but spiritual ambiance.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Barnett Newman’s black and white "The Stations of the Cross" (1958–66). This series of 15 paintings, widely considered to be the artist’s most important work, has been displayed within a separate gallery. The series is subtitled "Lema sabachthani" - "why have you forsaken me" - the last words spoken by Jesus on the cross, according to the New Testament.

Newman - like many of the 50's artists in the show - was interested in evoking a metaphysical emotion, an art of "pure ideas' by discarding narrative, figures and even painterly surface. Works by Hans Hoffman, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko are hung in the first rooms of the show; all are artists who believed their work to have serious spiritual import and railed against what they saw as the philistine schlock of 1950's culture.

But other works are not so austere. Frank Stella’s "Flin Flon IV" (1969), Jasper Johns’ "Perilous Night" (1982), and Roy Lichtenstein’s "Painting with Statue of Liberty" (1983) are colorful, chaotic and playful with riotous imagery. Lichtenstein's "Fragmented Painting of Lemons and a Melon on a Table" pops with red stripes, yellow circles and the horizontal plane of a white table.

The paintings are not classified by chronology but by categories created by Harry Cooper, curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National. In an important essay in the catalog Cooper identified ten material and visual themes: "Scrape, Concentricity, Line, Gesture, Art on Art, Drip, Stripe to Zip, Figure or Ground, Monochrome and Picture the Frame." (The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection Co-published With The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, 2010).

Cooper tags Rothko's "No 3" as an example of "Stripe to Zip" and Jackson Pollock's "Untitled 1951" is classified as "drip." It looks like Jack the Dripper can't get away from that nickname even within the higher echelon of art criticism.

The de Young is the exclusive venue for this exhibition. "Modernism From the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhof Collection." Runs Saturday through Oct. 12. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. $20 (includes museum admission). (415) 750-3600. www.deyoungmuseum.org.

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