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Leonard Lauder's Bold Vision
Many donations later, Lauder's generosity has ranged from a much more extensive cache of 125,000 postcards, which he has bestowed on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to a stunning 1 million gift to New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, where he is now chairman emeritus. He outdid himself last year, though, when he promised his world-class collection of Cubist art by the likes of Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accumulated over the course of nearly four decades, the 79 paintings, drawings, and sculptures are widely considered the strongest private collection of works from the period. They are currently on view in a new exhibition, "Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection," which opened at the Met in October.
"There are benchmarks of Cubism in the collection," says the museum's Rebecca Rabinow, whose title, the Leonard A. Lauder curator of modern art, is another reflection of Lauder's largesse. "There are works I studied in grad school."
Lauder was already collecting early modern art when he acquired his first Cubist works, by Léger, in 1976, followed by several Picasso paintings, the second of which,The Scallop Shell: "Notre Avenir Est dans l'Air,"he says, "I found so intellectually stimulating that I didn't fully understand it." Soon after, he attended a lecture and was floored to see his painting appear on screen as the eminent curator Kirk Varnedoe described it as a linchpin between early and late Cubism. Lauder was hooked.
Determined to build a collection that would convey Cubism's full narrative arc, he restricted his focus to the movement's key players: Picasso, Léger, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. Working at a time of earth-shattering ideas—the early days of flight, Freud's dream analysis, Einstein's Theory of Relativity—the foursome fearlessly dispensed with art convention, exploding the image into fragments, introducing everyday materials like rope and newspaper, and punning with popular culture. They set the stage for pure abstraction as well as Pop and pretty much every other significant art movement of the 20th and 21st centuries. "Cubism is this huge turn in the road," says Emily Braun, an art history professor who has served as Lauder's personal curator since 1987. "It demolishes all sorts of traditions and brings about the modern age of representation."
For Lauder, 81, the pleasure was not only in possessing such invaluable treasures but also in the hunt. He pursued his prey graciously, writing respectful letters to collectors whose works he coveted, and sometimes waiting more than a decade to secure a piece. Lauder knew how to flirt too: He would coyly refer to "my Picasso" to coax an owner to sell. He almost always paid the asking price—and promptly. "You can't build a world-class collection by bargain hunting," he says. "A real collector is always broke." And he did his best to adhere to the advice proffered by his mother, Estée Lauder: "You only regret what you do not buy."
Lauder, who says he considered the trove's destination for two or three years, makes clear that he did not entertain a bidding war. "I wanted to transform a museum," he says. "In some cases, this would add strength to an already strong collection. I believe it will transform the Met." Evidently the museum agrees: It has established a research center in Lauder's name, and is publishing a catalogue with a whopping 22 scholarly essays about the collection.
After the last of the works made the short trip from his Upper East Side apartment to the museum just after Labor Day, Lauder insisted that he wouldn't suffer from empty-nest syndrome. "I was unhappy when my youngest son went to college," he recalls. "I'd come home and his soccer ball would just be lying on the floor. I said, 'Well, he's gone on to the next part of his life.' This is the same. It's gone on to a place where others can enjoy it."
Besides, it's not as if Lauder will be faced with bare walls in his apartment. Rest assured, there's still a spectacular Klimt or two around, not to mention his extensive stockpile of photography.
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