Feature

Exhibit of the week: The William S. Paley Collection: A Taste for Modernism

Imagine being a wealthy art collector “with a lot of wall space to fill in your 20-room apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue.”

De Young Museum, San FranciscoThrough Dec. 30

Imagine being a wealthy art collector “with a lot of wall space to fill in your 20-room apartment on New York’s Fifth Avenue,” said Robert Taylor in the San Jose Mercury News. How would you fill it? If you were William S. Paley, the 20th-century broadcasting pioneer who built CBS, you would do it with paintings by the titans of early modernism. The de Young Museum’s new tour through Paley’s collection feels like “a museum within a museum.” It opens with Paul Gauguin’s The Seed of the Areoi (1892), painted by the post-impressionist master during his first trip to Tahiti and depicting his teenage mistress in revolutionary color. “Big, bold works” by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and other luminaries follow, as do some “smaller-scale discoveries.” Visitors inevitably play curator, thinking about both the works and what attracted Paley to each of them. 

“With Gauguin front and center,” the show “starts off with a bang,” said Lauren Gallagher in the San Francisco Examiner. Hunter-green walls “give the exhibit an intimate feel,” almost as if you’ve been invited into Paley’s home, where there are surprises at every turn. After the Gauguin, your eyes fall on a pair of grotesque Francis Bacon triptychs from the 1960s and a great Paul Cézanne still life, Milk Can and Apples, from 1880. In a room full of Matisses and Picassos, Matisse’s warmth startles, “especially compared to the cool, detached Picasso.” Even given the show’s pell-mell turns, “there are some pieces that just do not seem to belong in this assemblage,” said Victoria Dalkey in The Sacramento Bee. Because the early modernists got most of Paley’s attention, several otherwise impressive pieces, including the Bacons and an Edward Hopper landscape, “deviate from the main thrust of the show.” 

But that weakness still leaves room for discovery, said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. André Derain’s dazzling Bridge Over the Riou (1906) feels like a perfect expression of how Gauguin freed other artists’ thinking about color. Yet it hangs opposite The Rehearsal, a clumsy 1933 figurative work that’s surely one of Derain’s worst. “How could the same collector admire both?” Elsewhere, a small Georges Braque outclasses a large Picasso, and an 1888 canvas by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, of all people, turns out to be the show’s best portrait. If you’re inspired to test your eye against Paley’s, the show has succeeded in what appears to be its main aim—“to tweak the competitive impulses of potential future benefactors.”

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