Meyerhoffs’ modern masterpieces come to de Young 

click to enlarge Hans Hoffmann
  • Hans Hoffmann’s bold “Autumn Gold” greets viewers at the front of the de Young Museum exhibition “Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection.”
The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is renovating some of its galleries, which is good news for modern art lovers in San Francisco.

“Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection,” which runs through Oct. 12 at the de Young Museum, includes 46 works on loan by postwar artists such as Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, whose pieces form the core of the Meyerhoff collection.

The Meyerhoffs, who began collecting in the 1950s, had impeccable taste. In 1987, they agreed to eventually donate their collection to the National Gallery. The de Young exhibition includes all of the art given to date plus six promised works from Robert Meyerhoff’s personal galleries.

“As everyone knows, to be buying at the right moment is very important,” says Colin Bailey, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The centerpiece of the show is Barnett Newman’s “The Stations of the Cross: Lema Sabachthani.” The complete series (15 paintings) is included in the de Young exhibition, displayed in a single, dedicated room as the artist wished.

At the entrance, Hans Hoffmann’s “Autumn Gold” — one of the first major works collected by the Meyerhoffs — immediately grabs the viewer with its thick slabs of color. Across the room is Josef Albers’ “Study for Homage to The Square: Light Rising.” In the next room, Rauschenberg’s “Archive” hangs beside Kelly’s “Orange Green.” Like other works in the show, the paintings invite contemplation and discussion.

The exhibition also includes “Saigon, Minnesota” — a large-scale work of four panels joined together. With its lurid yellows and figures in various poses, the painting is unsettling.

“I like yellow, but I have a hard time liking this yellow,” says Harry Cooper, the National Gallery’s curator and head of modern art.

Cooper, who was at the de Young last week for the opening, says artist Eric Fischl wanted the viewer “to have to reconstruct this as if it were a crime scene.”

The painting apparently wasn’t a favorite of Robert Meyerhoff or his wife, Jane, who died in 2004. They didn’t live with it, Cooper says, but they didn’t get rid of it either.

“They recognized it and regarded it as a masterpiece,” he says.


Modernism from the National Gallery of Art: The Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Collection

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, and to 8:45 p.m. most Fridays; closes Oct. 12

Tickets: $11 to $24

Contact: (415) 750-3600,

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Cathy Bowman

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